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Shining Star

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1.

Guzma had thought that beating the tar out of the brats would be enough to wipe the smug off Kukui’s face, but it isn’t.

“Stella,” he says, an insufferable smirk on his face, “Why don’t you give it a shot, yeah?”

He had assumed that the chick in the oversized sunglasses was another of Kukui’s assistants, some student from another region doing an internship. He hadn’t paid much attention to her; she had been standing behind the brats and she hadn’t spoken.

Now she heaves a sigh as she turns to look down at Moon, and though Guzma keeps a straight face there’s a little burn of guilt in his throat when he sees the kid. Sure, she had taken down a couple of his grunts and he couldn't let that stand, but the grunts had failed to mention that she doesn’t fucking talk. He had been thrown for a loop when he realized that she was directing her team through what appeared to be sign language.

Of course Hau talks enough for both of them, and Guzma doesn’t feel the least bit bad about beating him; the kid had actually managed to make him nervous for a minute, and that in and of itself was enough to preclude any qualms Guzma might have left in his black little heart about battling children.

The chick in the sunglasses crouches down beside Moon. Guzma watches, wary.

“Hold my shades, kid,” she says, pulling off the oversized mirrored lenses and pushing them onto Moon’s face. “Don’t break ‘em.”

Moon smiles broadly and shakes her head.

“Good. Here,” the girl adds, fishing in her back pocket for a moment before pulling out handful of cash. “You and Hau and Lillie head to the PMC, then go get a malasada or twelve, okay?”

“Are you sure, Stella?” Hau asks. He cuts his eyes at Guzma for a moment before looking back at the two of them, clearly torn.

“Totally,” she answers. “Go on, get out of here. Even if I lose the worst he can do is take my money, right?”

“Or your Pokémon,” Lillie answers, her voice trembling as she clutches her bag.

Guzma opens his mouth to answer - Little princess is smart, yo, might wanna pay attention - but the girl speaks first.

“He won’t steal ‘em in broad daylight in front of gods know how many witnesses,” she answers. “Not unless he’s an idiot, anyway. Now go on.”

Guzma grinds his teeth.

I’ll show her who’s an idiot.

The brats hurry away and the older girl smiles after them; when she stands up and turns toward him, however, the smile is gone, and Guzma can finally see her clearly.

Ya don’t know what you’re gettin’ into, girlie.

He grins as he rakes his eyes over her body just short of leering - a creep move, sure, and if he ever caught someone doing it to one of his grunts he’d rearrange their fuckin’ face, but he knows nothing about this chick. If they’re gonna battle, he wants her good and nervous.

He doesn’t get what he wants.

She arches an eyebrow at him and settles a hand on her cocked hip, watching him watch her.

“You done?” she asks after a moment. “Or do you want me to turn around?”

Kukui snorts laughter, burying his face into the crook of his arm to muffle the snickering, and Guzma’s grin turns nasty.

“Yo, Kukui, where’d ya find this piece?” he asks. “Didn’t think ya were the type for side chicks.”

She answers him before Kukui can so much as open his mouth.

“I’m no one’s side chick,” she says evenly. “Particularly not his. Professors aren’t my type.”

“That so? And what is your type, girlie? ‘Cause ya look like ya belong on my side of the bridge, ya know what I’m sayin’?”

It’s true. The girl Hau had called Stella is hardly clean-cut. Her hair is black, hacked off into a messy, ragged bob; her eye makeup is smudged and thick, as if she has slept in it for a couple nights running. She wears high-top white sneakers and underneath her frayed denim cutoffs are ragged black tights. A striped black halter top shows the pink straps of her bra, and despite the fact that her hat is on backwards Guzma is almost positive that it’s the Pyukumuku one most of the female grunts have been obsessed with lately.

She looks like she belongs in a skull tank and white shorts, standing behind him with her arms crossed. The mental image is a little more pleasing than it ought to be, considering the situation; Guzma is so preoccupied by it that for a moment he doesn’t understand her answer.

“Dark,” she says, her black eyes narrowed. “My type is Dark.”

When he realizes that she’s talking about Pokémon, he laughs out loud.

“Oh, girlie, it just sucks to be you, then!”

He twists Golisopod’s Pokéball to its full size as he speaks. “Ya saw me wreck the brats, yo, so I know ya know what I got  -”

“Oh, I know what you’ve got, all right,” Stella answers, sliding her feet shoulder-width apart as she grabs one of the Pokéballs clipped to the back belt loops of her shorts. “But just because Dark is my type doesn’t mean that’s all I’ve got!”

“Bring it on, girlie,” he sneers. “Get’m, Golisopod!”

“You got this, Raiju! Let’s go!”

Later, Guzma’s only point of consolation is that it’s a close battle - incredibly close. His team had done him proud; the fault is his, as usual. If he hadn’t been cocky and fought her right on the heels of the two brats, or if he hadn’t left half his team at the Shady House, he might have beaten her.

Golisopod gets lucky and makes short work of her Jolteon despite its type advantage, and even shorter work of her Rockruff. Her Alolan Vulpix weakens it enough that it retreats back to him, however, and Guzma throws out Ariados; its poison is eventually enough to take the little fluffball out after a few turns. Her Torracat is too fast for Ariados, though, and when it falls he throws out Pinsir, who takes down the poisoned Fire type with a lucky critical hit. It does the same with her Misdreavus, and Guzma makes a mental note to let Pinsir have all the damn Beans it wants back at the Shady House no matter what happens, because that’s two type matchups in a row that it should not have won.

Then she throws out a Skarmory and Guzma knows that short of a miracle, he’s fucked. Pinsir can’t ruffle steel feathers, and neither can Golisopod. Pain shoots through his jaw as he tucks the Pokéball back into his pocket; he’s been grinding his teeth again.

“I see,” he mumbles, handing one of the grunts the cash and jerking his head at the girl. “Great work, I guess.”

He starts to run a hand through his hair, but finds himself clutching it instead. His teeth screech against each other.

“Guzma what is wrong with you?!” he snarls, then bites his tongue. Literally.

Nope. Not doing that here. Not now. No.

He swallows the blood and his anger both with some difficulty, shaking with the effort of containing himself. He stalks toward the girl, invades her space, stands inches away from her and looks down his nose at her, and though she takes the smallest of steps back from him she still meets his eyes, never once looking away.

Her eyes - they’re the same as Moon’s. Big, dark...but not nearly so innocent.

“It was Stella, right?” he says softly, and he can sense the grunts shrinking from him as he speaks. “I’ll remember you...as someone I’ll be happy to beat down any time.”

He pushes down the path past her, hands curling into tight fists.

“Don’t mess with the boss, yo,” he hears one of the grunts say, his voice wavering slightly. “You don’t want him to get serious.”

Part of him hates that wavering, hates that the grunts are frightened of him, but he shoves it down. He doesn’t have the patience for that introspective shit. Particularly not after a loss.

[You’d have won if you’d just brought your whole team with you, boy.]

“Shut up, old man,” he mumbles, turning the corner out of the park with the grunts’ racing footsteps behind him.


2.

Kukui tracks him down before he can leave Malie. He always does, always seems to think he can say something, do something.

Guzma tells him to give it up every time.

He doesn’t know what he’ll do when Kukui finally does.

This time Kukui asks him to have a drink at Sushi High Roller. Guzma agrees, mostly to find out more about the chick that managed to beat him.

“She’s doing her trials, yeah,” Kukui says, twirling the little paper umbrella from whatever fruity liqueur shit he’s drinking this time. “Not too late, cousin.”

“Hell it ain’t,” Guzma mumbles, swirling his wine and watching the legs run down the inside of the glass. “And the hell she is.”

“I’m serious,” Kukui continues. “Stella’s only a few years younger than you are.”

“Hell’s a 20-something doing takin’ the Island Challenge?” he asks.

“Moved here from Kanto,” Kukui answers. “Moon is her little sister, yeah, and I think she’s been taking care of her for awhile - long enough that she never did the Gym challenge back home. Tapu Koko...well, it took a liking to Moon, put it that way, yeah? But Stella didn't seem so sure about it. So when Moon and Hau went to choose their Pokémon, I suggested Stella do it too, so she could keep an eye on her sister.”

Guzma rolls his eyes. “Of course ya did, yo, that’s a whole other Pokémon ya get to gather move data on. How many times ya let that Torracat spit fire at ya, huh?”

“Not the point!” Kukui grins at him over his drink, straw in his teeth.

Guzma ignores him. “So why don’t the little one talk?”

Kukui shrugs. “Stella says she can, she just doesn’t want to. Didn’t seem like something she wanted to elaborate on, yeah, so I left it alone. Her Pokémon understand her just fine, anyway.”

“I noticed,” Guzma mutters. “Can’t believe ya made me fight kids, yo.”

“I didn’t make you do anything,” Kukui answers. “You know that. And honestly, cousin, I thought Hau had you beat.”

“Yeah, right.” Guzma snorts laughter. “Not a chance.”

“He made you nervous, yeah,” Kukui says. “I know what you look like when you’re nervous. But back to my point -”

“And what is your point?”

“My point is if Stella can do it,” Kukui says, “There’s no reason why you can’t, yeah?”

Guzma drains the wine. It’s a dry, heavy red, made from some kind of Berry he doesn’t recognize by taste - probably from another region. Kalos, maybe?

He gives Kukui credit for that, at least. Dude still knows what he likes.

“I got plenty of reasons why I can’t,” he answers, pushing back from his seat. “And ya know it, yo. Give it up, Kukui.”

He stands up, shrugging back into his jacket and tossing the hood up.

“I know it,” Kukui sighs, most of the laughter gone from his voice. “And your reasons are bullshit, Guzma. You know that, or you wouldn’t keep talking to me every time I ask. I’m not giving up.”

“Ya will.”

Guzma walks out of the shop, pocketing the Heart Scale with an uncharacteristic nod of thanks.

Talking to Kukui always leaves him feeling too heavy to act hard.

Chapter Text

He meets her again by accident.

Well. Mostly by accident.

Not long after Stella defeats him in Malie, one of the lookout grunts reports that she passed near Po Town less than an hour ago, though she hadn’t actually tried to get inside.

“She didn’t have none of the brats with her, said she was just catchin’ Pokémon.” The grunt shrugs. “Gate guards let her go. You want I should go after her, boss?”

“Nah,” Guzma mutters, mouth curling into a sneer. “Let ya boy handle this.”

He leaves Po Town, warning the gate grunts not to let anyone in or out until he returns and double-checking his pockets for his whole team. He doesn’t believe for a fuckin’ second that Stella is just out catching Pokémon - not this close to his turf. He hasn’t seen or heard a damn thing about her since Malie, but the brats have remained a pain in the ass...and from what Kukui had told him, wherever the brats are, Stella usually isn’t far behind.

He throws the hood of his jacket up against the misty rain, irritation mounting. He resents like hell having to handle the situation personally, but none of the grunts stand a chance against Stella in battle. Plumeria might, but she’s off supervising a job.

The only solution is to chase her down himself, but shit, he wishes he didn’t have to do it in such gross weather; it’s been grey and stormy since he got back from Malie, and there’s a slight chill in the air as well despite it being the middle of summer.

Least I’ll finally get rematch.

He pushes into the field northeast of the gates and the grass closes in around him. The Cleanse Tag in his pocket keeps any wild Pokémon from interfering in his search.

Guzma has spent long hours training in the brush around Po Town. He knows the area like he knows his own tattoos, and the deeper he moves into the field, the more his skin begins to crawl.

Somethin’ ain’t right.

He emerges into a clearing that shouldn’t exist. By the looks of it, it really hasn’t existed for more than an hour, two at most.

The tall grass is in disarray, flattened and bent as if it had been blown down by a particularly powerful gust of wind; in several places it has been shorn right down to the ground. It’s an unusual amount of damage for a wild encounter...an unusual type of damage as well, given the local wild population, and Guzma clenches his fists as he surveys the area.

If those dumbass grunts let some other trainer get this damn close without tellin’ me...

“Mrrrrrrrrrrrow!”

Guzma freezes, listening.

“Mrrow! Miau!”

“Loki, hush!”

Slowly, Guzma turns toward the voices.

Stella.

It must be her; she is the only person he knows with a Pokémon by that nickname.

He waits, hoping her Torracat disobeys so he can follow the sound. He doesn’t have to wait for long. Torracat continues its frantic mrrrrrrrrrowwwing, so loudly that Guzma wonders why he didn't hear it earlier. Stella’s replies, however, are much harder to hear.

“Mrrrrrow! Mrrow! Miii!”

“Loki, please, y-you can't…”

Guzma pushes forward through the grass, listening closely.

Maybe she’ll let slip what the hell she’s doin' here...

“Miau!”

“Yeah, I know, I sh-shouldn’t have p-passed up on the Ride Pager, I know, but Loki you've got to be quiet, please -”

They are in another clearing up ahead, the one that actually should be there, right at the edge of the island. There’s a Berry tree there, but otherwise the clearing is a dead end. Unless Stella jumps off the cliff into the ocean, there's nowhere for her to go.

“Loki, come h-here, okay?

Her voice has grown tight, almost panicked, and Guzma tries to ease closer, hoping to catch sight of her before the Torracat picks up on his presence.

The hell’s got her so antsy, anyway?

“LOKI, NO!”

Stella’s cry is the only reason Guzma manages to avoid the little ball of flame that comes flying out of the clearing. He dances out of its way just in time. Luckily it hits the muddy, churned-up ground behind him instead of somewhere higher in the grass, and the fireball fizzles out in the mud...but if it hadn't...if the weather hadn’t been so bad...

“Yo, get that hellcat under control, girlie!” Guzma snarls, sweeping the grass out of his way with one arm as he stalks into the clearing. “Ya wanna set the whole damn island on fire?!”

For a moment he seems to be talking to no one; he doesn't see Stella until he looks down. She is sitting under the Berry tree, leaning back on her hands with one knee drawn up to her chest and the opposite leg stretched out flat in front of her as if caught in the process of trying to scramble away. Torracat stands between the two of them, its back arched and its fur standing on end, the ball of flame beneath its chin flaring.

Stella stares up at him with wide eyes and parted lips, as if he is the last thing she expected to come at her out of the tall grass. She doesn’t move.

“Yo, there a reason why you’re sittin’ on your ass in the mud, girlie?” he asks at length, glaring down his nose at her. “Not that I ain’t partial to lookin’ down on ya, but I’d rather put ya there myself, get me?”

“D-Depends,” she mumbles, her surprise giving way to caution. “There a r-reason why you’re h-here? ‘Cause if it involves a r-rematch, you’re shit outta l-luck.”

“Am I now?” Guzma arches an eyebrow. “And why’s that?”

“My whole team is t-too...too weak to fight right now, except for Loki.” Her gaze shifts as she speaks, as if she is searching for something in the grass beyond him. “I love Loki, but I w-wouldn’t let it face you and your b-bug squad on its own.”

“Smart move, girlie,” Guzma says. “And since ya asked, you’re the reason I’m out here. Ya talked to a couple of my grunts, but I ain’t so sure I buy the wholejust catchin’ Pokémon story. I came to make sure ya ain’t up to some shit.”

“Oh, you l-live around here?” Stella gives an exaggerated gasp. “I c-couldn’t tell from the massive gated community c-covered in skull graffiti.”

His lip curls into a sneer, but something about her voice keeps his tongue in check.

Is she shiverin’? It ain’t that cold out here...

Then again, she is sitting in the dirt, mud streaked up her long, bare legs, mist beading into droplets on her bare arms -

Guzma looks away, brushing his thumb against his nose before shoving his hands back into the pockets of his hoodie.

“Yeah, the grunts ain’t real subtle,” he admits. “But since ya obviously ain’t even up to gettin’ up, I guess ya ain’t much of a threat, girlie. I’ll just leave your smart ass here, how's that?”

He turns around, as if to head back into the grass; he’s barely taken a step before she speaks, voice full of resigned disgust.

“Guzma. Wait.”

He fights off a grin and arranges his expression into something appropriately indifferent before turning to face her again.

“I’m waitin’,” he says, gazing down his nose at her where she sits sprawled in the mud.

Stella drops her eyes, turning faintly pink. “I t-tripped. Twisted my ankle pretty b-badly.”

“Tch. Failin’ to see how that's my problem, yo.” Guzma turns his back on her yet again, this time going so far as to reach out and push the grass back.

“I’ll g-give you back the money I took from y-you in Malie, okay?!”

Guzma turns around, not bothering to wipe the shit-eating grin off his face as he looks down on her.

“Now ya got my attention.”

“I’m n-not an idiot,” she mumbles, rubbing her bare arms as she glares at him. “I know I only...I only b-beat you ‘cause you didn’t bring a whole t-team. J-Just...just get me back to the r-road? My phone at least g-gets cell service th-there. I can call Kukui to h-help me.”

Her Torracat hisses again before Guzma can speak.

“Don’t look like your Loki is all too keen on me bein’ of assistance,” he says after a particularly long and vehement round of spitting. “Ya put the hellcat back in its ball, we’ll talk.”

Loki spits again. Stella looks as if she would be happy to do the same.

“Fine,” she mumbles. “Loki, c-come here.”

The Torracat turns and hops into her lap, purring softly as it butts its head under her chin and rubs against her jaw. “Mrrrrrow? Miau! Miiiiiiiii!”

“Oh, kitty, I know.” Stella smiles, nuzzling her nose against her Pokémon’s, and Guzma finds that he has to tug his hood closer around his face and look down at his sneakers just to hide a tiny smile.

Guess the little demon cat is kinda cute.

And on the heels of that, unbidden:

So is she.

He freezes, staring down at the ground with his hands tensing into fists in his pockets.

Shit. What?

He glances up through his lashes to see Stella plant a kiss on Loki’s fuzzy head. His throat grows tight.

Get your shit together. She ain’t fuckin’ cute. Just 'cause you’d fuck her don’t make her cute.

Loki makes a distressed sort of purring chirp sound; Stella mimics it back in a more reassuring tone, and Guzma has to close his eyes for a moment.

Ah, shit .

“I’ll b-be fine, Loki,” Stella says. “He’s n-not gonna hurt me - are y-you, Guzma?”

The arch in her voice and the intensity of her eyes take him off guard. On some level he recognizes that she has just given him a perfect opportunity to finally instill the fear that hadn’t quite taken back in Malie...and later, he will be able to think of a hundred perfect responses, each one more sinister than the last.

At the moment, however, there is only the heat rising into his face and the unfamiliar, creeping nervousness in his spine.

“Tch.” He looks away. “Only ‘cause ya beat me to it.

Stella sighs, sounding exhausted. “Close enough for m-me. C’mon, Loki, b-back in the ball. You d-don’t…”

Stella trails off for a moment and Loki makes that same distressed chirp; several seconds pass until Guzma hears her mimic it back in the comforting tone from before.

“Y-you don’t need to be out in the r-rain any more than I do," she finishes weakly.

“Miau!”

Guzma glances back at the two of them just in time to receive one last hiss from Loki. If the hellcat could talk, he’s pretty sure it would have said Fuck you. 

“Th-there,” she says, “Loki’s out of -”

She is cut short by a brilliant flash of lightning, followed moments later by a resonant clap of thunder. Stella jumps and shrinks back against the bark of the Berry tree in surprise.

Or in fear?

Guzma pushes the thought out of his mind. It’s no business of his why someone her age is frightened of a little thunder; he himself is accustomed to the unpredictable weather around Po Town. Her reaction gives him back a sense of control, and he lets out a short, bemused bark of laughter.

“Ain’t that cute?” he sneers. “Scared of a little bad weather, girlie?”

“No,” she hisses. “Not unless you l-leave me out in it like some kind of jerk -”

“Yo, I am a jerk,” he retorts, offended. “I am, in fact, the jerk; ya miss the whole ‘Team Skull Boss’ bit back in Malie or what?”

“You can b-be a criminal without being a j-jerk, you know,” she snaps. “Now are you g-gonna help me or not?”

The hell does she know about bein’ a criminal?

For some reason her comment irritates him. He considers leaving her there, if only to prove a point...he just isn’t sure what point he’d be proving, exactly.

Besides...might not be so bad havin’ her owe me like that...

“Yeah, all right,” he sighs, moving to crouch down next to her. “Which ankle is it?”

Stella wiggles her right leg, the one stretched out in front of her.

“And uh, just how’d ya manage this in the first place? ”

“Does it matter?”

Guzma smirks. “Ya want my help, ya best be answerin’ my questions, girlie.”

Stella cuts her eyes at him, but he only cocks an eyebrow, waiting.

“Ugh. Fine.” She hugs herself a little tighter and looks away. “I was running from a wild Pokémon, okay?”

“Uh huh. Why run if ya were out here to catch Pokémon?”

“I already had one. A F-Fearow.” She shivers, wet skin breaking out into gooseflesh. Guzma’s smirk widens.

“So a wild Fearow took out your whole team, that what you’re sayin’?”

Stella refuses to meet his eyes. “It’s...been a long day.”

“Uh huh. How about ya give it up, girlie?” He laughs. “What really happened to your team?”

He expects more blushing, perhaps even a confession to fighting through the lookout grunts scattered along the route to Po Town, on her way to spy on Team Skull or challenge him or both.

What he does not expect is for her to turn and face him again with eyes like chips of black ice.

“None of your fucking business.”

Ohhhh, he admires her attitude. He really does. The way she spits the word fucking at him has his skin prickling for an entirely different reason than it had earlier, and he almost laughs.

Almost.

Instead a slow, nasty grin begins to spread across his face and sharp pain lances into his jaw. He won’t be able to open his mouth enough to accommodate the rage swelling up in his throat.

He swallows it instead and it leaks into his voice like a toxin.

“Fair enough,” he says softly, and she leans away from him, cold eyes melting, more shaken by him in that moment than she had ever been by all his posturing in Malie.

“Never mind that there ain't any Fearow around here for miles,” he continues. “Fuck me, right?”

Her gaze is wary, suspicious, and there is something twisted in Guzma’s mind, there must be, because he has wanted her afraid of him since the moment he laid eyes on her...

“I’m gonna help ya, girlie,” he says, and the words come out like a threat. “Even if ya are a filthy fuckin’ liar - and even if ya are stupid enough t'think I’m stupid.”

...and this time she does flinch, and Guzma takes a perverse sort of pleasure in it, in the accomplishment of it…

“F-Fine,” she murmurs, “Fine, just...what is it you w-want from me?”

...and it is an accomplishment, isn’t it, because she had beaten him, beaten him in front of Kukui and and his own grunts and then dared to show up on his turf without even coming to him for a rematch first...

“Ya catch on quick, yo. I like that.” He is still smiling even though it is beginning to feel more like a grimace. “But I don't want shit from ya. At least...not right now. Get me?”

...so what is this nagging guilt in his chest, why is he beginning to feel sick just as soon as he's gotten what he wants?

The pink banded across her nose deepens to red. “Fine. I’ll j-just have to...I’ll have to owe y-you.”

Guzma pauses, intent on leering at her again, on intimidating her no matter how sick it makes him, because as long as she is afraid he is in control.

That isn’t what happens.

He is close enough now to see that she actually is shivering, and badly. Her bare arms and legs have a bony look to them that had not been present back in Malie, and her skin is slick with rain, covered in gooseflesh. Her white v-neck clings to her like a second skin, but this time he is too shaken by her jutting collarbones to be distracted by neon pink bra straps. Her legs are covered in scratches and bruises, splattered in mud; her denim shorts have been darkened to black by the weather.

It is familiar, painfully familiar, blood, bruises, and bones all.

He can't stop staring at her legs. The angle of the scratches…

- running running keep running gotta hide sprinting through the grass it whips past his legs thorns tearing through his shorts drawing blood but he’s already bleeding -

Guzma bites down hard on the inside of his cheek, just shy of breaking the skin.

“Are you d-done staring?” Stella snaps, jarring him out of his own head. “Or you w-want me to roll over?”

“Ya got a fuckin’ mouth on ya, ya know it?” Guzma scowls, unzipping his hoodie and shrugging out of it. “I dunno why the hell you’re lyin’ but you’re fuckin’ lyin’ all right. Catchin’ Pokémon and runnin’ from Fearow my ass. You been the one runnin’ and tryin’ not to get caught.”

He throws his hoodie around her shoulders. She grows tense, glancing up at him in surprise and blatant distrust. He scowls again.

“Yo, ya can stop lookin’ at me like that, aight?” He says sharply. “I don't give a fuck who or what is after your dumb ass, and I ain’t the one been wanderin’ around the brush for fuck knows how long without makin’ a pit stop by civilization.”

She stares at him for a fraction of a second, long enough for him to see her eyes widen in surprise; then she looks down, sliding her arms into the sleeves and pulling up the zipper with pale, shaking hands. She doesn’t respond.

Guzma slips one arm behind her back and the other beneath her knees; he barely notices the cold mud for the feverish heat of her body.

“Fuck, girlie, ya really are stupid,” he mumbles, shocked. “You’re on fire -”

He rises to his feet and she sucks in a sharp breath, flinging one arm around his neck as if she expects him to dump her right back in the mud.

“If I...if I agree with y-you will you...promise to warn me next t-time you do that?” she asks.

She is so pale, her voice breathless and weak, and Guzma’s mild concern suddenly jumps to genuine alarm.

“Yo, if you’re about to puke I will drop your ass,” he says. “And the hell ya mean next time? Ya best be hopin’ there ain’t a ‘next time’ I catch ya on my turf, girlie.”

His voice bleeds irritation and Guzma doesn’t know how to stop it. He doesn’t handle shit like this well, never has, and her body is radiant with fever.

“Whatever,” she mumbles, closing her eyes. “I’m not g-gonna be sick, I’m just - that made me...made me really...dizzy for some reason.”

Lightning flashes again, followed almost immediately by another deafening crack of thunder. Stella sucks in her breath and hides her face against his chest, her fingers clutching deep into his t-shirt.

This time he can think of no way to mock her.

“Ya really are scared,” he mumbles. “Ain’t ya?”

“Just get me...get me back to the road,” she replies through clenched teeth. “All right? I promise you can...you can drop me right back in the mud and we can...we can both f-forget this ever happened.”

“Tch.” Guzma heads back into the grass. “Ya better hope Kukui is answering his phone.”

She doesn’t reply, and Guzma falls silent. The sky is growing darker by the minute, and after her story about twisting her ankle he’s careful to watch where he’s putting his feet.

The mist soon gives way to a steady, cold rain, but even through that she burns against Guzma's chest. He shakes her slightly, hoping that she’s still conscious, but she doesn’t move.

“Stella,” he says sharply. “Yo, Stella!

Her eyes flutter open and her fingers twitch, still curled into his shirt, but she says nothing. A moment later she’s out again, and this time she doesn’t respond to his voice.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

He emerges from the grass just as the wind begins to pick up. Between that and being soaked to the skin he ought to be freezing, but Stella is like a little furnace in his arms. He picks up his pace, half-jogging back to the gates of Po Town.

He snarls the password so viciously that the gate lookouts don’t even begin to ask what he’s doing.

And thank fuck for that, ‘cause don’t even know what I’m doin’.

“What’d you do to her, boss?”

Guzma pauses to look down at the grunt that has just dragged one of the main street barriers out of his way; the kid barely looks fifteen, and the terror in his wide blue eyes strikes a sour chord.

Guzma glares at him. “Kid, do I really look like the kinda guy that’d knock a chick out cold and carry her back to my house like some kinda prize?”

The grunt doesn’t answer; if anything he looks even more frightened than before, and Guzma doesn’t have time to think about that, isn’t sure he wants to think about it at all.

“Yeah, don’t answer that,” he mumbles. “But I didn’t do shit. She did it to herself. Run and find Inara.”

“Yeah, boss!” The grunt sprints ahead; the lookouts clear a path through the rest of the main street obstacles as Guzma approaches.

Inara meets him when he walks in the door, tying her lavender hair out of her face with a Team Skull bandanna. To his surprise, Plumeria stands behind her, arms crossed over her chest.

“You can put her in my room,” she says. “I’m headed out soon.”

“Thought ya were already out,” Guzma mutters, heading up the stairs with the two girls following behind him. “Ain’t ya got a job to be doin'?”

“Yes. And it would be much easier to do if those little kids would stop interfering.” Plumeria steps in front of him to open the door of her bedroom. “I only stopped by to heal up before I go take care of them, since you’ll be busy taking care of -”

“Yeah, yeah, I get ya, Plumes,” Guzma mutters, cutting her off. “You take care of them, I’ll take care of...of her.”

He walks past her into the room, wishing he could shrug off the feeling of her eyes on his back.

“I feel the need to ask which her you’re talking about, boss,” she says at length. “Considering that girl in your arms is the brats’ big sister.”

Guzma’s teeth grind together as he lays Stella across Plumeria’s neatly made bed. “I know what I’m doin’,” he mutters. “Yo, Inara, see what ya can do for her, will ya? Stupid girl’s been sleepin’ rough for a week, maybe more.”

“In this weather?” Inara makes a face. “Damn. She is stupid.”

“Just make sure she don’t die before Kukui can take her off our hands,” Guzma says. He makes it a point to walk out of the room without looking back, but Plumeria’s steady gaze doesn’t waver; she follows him to the door of his bedroom, and Guzma really ought to just walk in and slam the door on her because he knows he can’t win, but -

“Fuck was I supposed to do, Plumes?” he asks irritably, turning around to face her. “Leave her out there to die of pneumonia just 'cause she’s a dumbass?”

Plumeria shrugs. “Could have left her at the gates. Called Kukui to come get her. Or even Nanu.”

His jaw clenches. “Yo, did ya miss the fuckin’ thunderstorm brewin’ out there? Nanu ain’t about to go out in this shit. Kukui’d have to take a Charizard if he’s in Iki Town and this ain’t exactly Charizard weather.”

“Sorry, boss,” Plumeria says. “Looks like you thought this through more than I realized.”

He glares at her, the implication crawling under his skin - the implication that he thinks about Stella that much, that he thinks about her at all - just because she beat him -

She don't mean it like that and ya know it.

Sure, but knowing it doesn’t help his temper one bit and it never has.

“I didn’t fuckin’ think of shit,” he snarls, “It’s just common sense, get me? Now fuck off and take care of those brats so ya can get back to doin’ what I fuckin’ pay ya for.”

Plumeria sighs. She rarely flinches from him when he gets nasty. He used to hate her for it, used to take it as a challenge, but now she is one of only a few people who can level him out before he actually loses his temper.

“Sorry, boss,” she says again. “Should have phrased that a little better. You want me to call Kukui for you before I head out?”

And every time she does…

You’re just like him. Just fuckin’ like him.

Guzma scrubs a hand down his face with a heavy sigh.

“Nah, I got it covered,” he says, his voice a little steadier. “I just…”

Plumeria waves her hand, sparing him from stumbling over the excuses that are as close as he can get to an apology.

“What do you wanna do about her Pokémon?” she asks.

Guzma smirks a little. “She keeps those, yo, at least until I get a chance to beat her ass in a rematch.”

Plumeria nods. “Everything else in her bag?”

“Let her keep it,” he answers. “I like the idea of her owin’ us.”

“Fine. I’ll get the grunts in line before I leave.” Plumeria points to his door. “You better go change before you catch whatever she’s got.”

“What she’s got is one hell of a fever.”

Inara emerges from from Plumeria’s bedroom, crossing toward the two of them with an apprehensive look on her brown face. “You’re right, boss, she’s been sleeping rough for way too long. This is pretty bad. Like, close to pneumonia or something. And it doesn’t make sense? I mean, like, Malie isn’t that far away, and there’s a PMC on Route 16, so I don’t get it. Couldn’t she just page a Ride Pokémon?”

“I heard her say she didn’t take a Ride Pager,” Guzma says. “Don’t think they do things like that in Kanto, maybe she don’t trust it.”

“Well that’s weird,” Inara says. “But I think I can handle it, so long as she doesn’t get worse and Kukui shows up pretty quick. Plumeria?”

“Yeah?”

“Could you tell somebody to send up some stuff?” Inara asks. “Clear liquids, pain meds. Soup, maybe, if we’ve got some.”

“Sure thing, babe. Anything else?”

“Yeah, uh…” Inara glances at Guzma, nodding toward his wet, mud-streaked t-shirt. “She’s soaked and muddy too, but she doesn’t have any clothes in her bag. You mind if I put her in some of yours? Or do you want me to ask the girls? I’d put her in mine, but they’d be too big.”

Plumeria shrugs. “If mine will fit, go ahead.”

“Cool. Oh - uh, boss?” Inara turns toward him. “Do you, uh...you want me to keep you updated? Or should I just leave you alone?”

Guzma pretends as if he can’t feel Plumeria’s eyes on him. “If she gets worse, yeah, let me know so I can light a fire under Kukui’s ass,” he mumbles, opening the door to his room. “Otherwise I don’t give a fuck.”

“Noted,” Inara replies, and heads back down the hall to Plumeria’s room.

He half expects Plumeria to say something else, but she does no such thing. She reminds him again to change out of his wet clothes, then heads off down the stairs without another word.

Guzma shuts the door to his bedroom behind himself and only barely resists the urge to fling himself down across the bed, muddy wet clothes and all. He’s exhausted, and the idea of actually having a verbal conversation with Kukui is suddenly so daunting that he wishes he had let Plumeria take care of it.

He fishes his phone out of his pocket with a mumbled curse. Kukui’s number is saved under Don’t Answer K.

Fuck. He really, really doesn’t want to hear Kukui’s voice. He doesn’t want to answer his questions, either, mostly because he doesn’t know how.

“Oh, yeah, hey Kukui, it’s Guzma,” he mumbles sarcastically to himself. “Ya remember the chick that spanked my ass in a Pokémon battle back in Malie, yeah, I just so happened to find her half dead of exposure outside my town, what are the odds, ha-fuckin’-ha…”

He can’t talk to him.

Guzma taps the little speech bubble instead.

got your girl stella here in po town & she ain’t doing so hot. come get her. -G.

guzma? why do you have stella? is this supposed to be some kind of ransom text? -K.

no, dumbass. found her out in the fields around town. looks like she ain’t seen a city in weeks. she’s sick af and i want her outta here before she gets my whole crew sick too. -G.

well im really glad you found her bc i haven’t heard from her in weeks. none of us have, moon was starting to get really worried actually. she and hau have been here with me and lillie for the past few days trying to figure out where she could be. did she say what she’s been up to? -K.

did you miss where i said she’s sick af? she ain’t said shit for the past hour, that's how bad the fever is. i got one of my girls tendin to her so it should come down some soon but i want her outta here. -G.

shit. all right, i’ll be there as soon as i can after the storm passes thru. -K.

Guzma doesn’t answer. He sets his phone down on his bedside table and peels off his wet clothes, tossing them in the general direction of a laundry basket.

He has just pulled on a clean pair of black sweats when the screen of his phone lights up; it vibrates again before he’s even typed in the passcode.

There are two new messages from Kukui...or at least they’re from Kukui’s number.

u better not have done anything to stella!! bc if u did u def won’t beat me this time!! -H.

please don’t hurt stella! don’t take her pokémon! she loves them so much and it would break her heart so please please don’t! -L.

Guzma’s jaw clenches painfully tight. He stares down at the little chat bubbles.

The fuck they think I’m gonna do to her, anyway?! I ain’t a fuckin’ monster -

His grip on his phone tightens.

Am I?

He shakes his head, trying to relax; the tension in his muscles is almost painful.

They’re kids. That’s all. They’re just kids worried about their cool big sister-friend.

He’s shaking. He closes his eyes.

Kids so worried about Stella bein' near me that they probably stole Kukui’s phone soon as he turned his back -

“Ten,” he mumbles through clenched teeth. “Nine...eight…seven…”

They’re kids and they’re scared enough to try and threaten me scared enough to plead with me -

Acid rises up in his throat before he even makes it to four and he pulls his arm back, inhaling through his teeth as he readies himself to hurl the phone against the wall.

It vibrates again.

He almost throws it anyway.

Instead he finds himself grinding his teeth, swiping his thumb across the screen so hard that it leaves a faint bruiselike pressure mark.

thank you for finding my sister and taking care of her. -M.

Guzma stares at his phone.

He keeps staring even after the display finally times out.

Chapter Text

1.

Guzma paces the second-story hallway, barefoot and shirtless, sweats low on his hips, holding his phone against his ear with one hand and finger-combing through his white hair with the other.

“Been three days already,” he mutters, coming to a halt in front of the one unbroken bay window. Rain and wind batter the glass. “At this rate Kukui’s gonna need a damn Lapras to get here instead of a Charizard.”

“Is she any better?” Plumeria asks from an island away.

“Inara says not by much,” he replies. “Thinks she’s stressed out or somethin’. Says she ain’t sleepin’ great.”

“Well, she is stuck in a gang house,” Plumeria says. “Presumably against her will. She might be scared. Have you talked to her?”

Guzma snorts. “That girl ain’t scared of shit except a thunderstorm, from what I’ve seen. And fuck, no. Inara already told her we ain’t holdin’ her hostage or nothin’, so I dunno what the hell her deal is. I just want her gone.”

“So...is she getting pissed?”

He knows that Plumeria is no longer talking about Stella. “Kinda.” He swallows hard, his throat suddenly dry as beach sand.

“No wonder you want her out.” Plumeria sighs. “Storm can’t last much longer, boss. I should be back tomorrow.”

Lightning flashes. For a single bright moment all of Po Town sprawls before him in stark detail, then disappears into darkness once more. Guzma manages to count to two before the thunderclap comes, resonating like a single sinister drumbeat as it rattles the windowpanes.

“Yeah,” he mutters. “Yeah, sure. Stay safe, Plumes.”

“Get some sleep, boss.”

Guzma does not reply. He taps end and drops his phone into the pocket of his black sweatpants, crossing his tattooed arms over his chest and gazing out into the storm without really seeing it.

It is two AM and he has no business being awake. Lusamine wants to talk to him tomorrow...today, really, and she invariably calls at some ungodly hour like 8:00AM. If he sounds the least bit tired, the least bit distracted…

(( Should I be worried about you, Guzma? ))

He squeezes his eyes shut.

She needs me. She said she needs me.

The idea carries a sense of purpose...and fills his chest with an amorphous, ambiguous unease.

Another clap of thunder echoes over the island at the same time that a scream echoes through the Shady House. The sound shatters through Guzma’s black thoughts like the lightning outside and he jumps, whirling around in surprise.

A cacophony ensues. The air fills with unearthly howls and shrill yips, a horrid metallic screech and an inhuman wail; the lights begin to flicker in and out, far too quickly for it to be caused by the storm, and then there is a surge of brightness from beneath Plumeria’s bedroom door followed by a sharp pop! On the heels of that comes a sound that Guzma recognizes all too well: a high, undulating yowl, a declaration of distress and fury that has the hair on his arms prickling.

Loki.

FWOOSH!

Smoke begins to curl from beneath Plumeria’s door.

Shit.

Guzma drops his hand to his pocket out of reflex; there is nothing there but his phone and his switchblade. His team is in his bedroom.

“Shit,” he mutters, “Shit, fuck -”

He has barely taken two steps toward his room when the door next to Plumeria’s opens. Inara appears, pulling her bandanna up around her nose and mouth as she closes the door behind herself. Her Mareanie ambles along beside her as she hurries toward Plumeria’s bedroom.

“Inara!” Guzma barks, stalking down the hall toward her. “The fuck is goin’ on?!”

She and Mareanie both turn at the sound of his voice. They relax somewhat, as if relieved to see him there.

“Boss! Damn, am I glad you’re awake,” Inara sighs, turning and reaching for the doorknob. “I think I know what’s going on, but I dunno if me and Mareanie can handle it by ourselves this time...um, maybe stand back a bit?”

Guzma cocks an eyebrow but takes a step to the side nonetheless. Inara darts to the side as well as soon as the door is open, and Guzma can see why; a fireball comes flying out of the room almost before the door has even ceased to move. Mareanie counters it easily with a jet of water before turning its attention to the small inferno that has sprung up in Plumeria’s carpet, but it has no more gotten that under control than another fireball sends it skidding down the hall. It rights itself easily, for the most part unhurt, then glances up at Inara, waiting for further instruction. Inara, in turn, glances up at Guzma.

“Boss?” Inara shakes her hands as if trying to dry them off, a nervous, anxious gesture that Guzma has seen her make hundreds of times. “Boss, I really do not want to fight her team with her asleep, or unconscious, or whatever the hell has them so riled up, they’re so loud!”

“Tch.” Guzma steps forward, putting himself between her and the open door. “Like I’d even let ya do that in the first place. Back up, I got this shit.”

He squints into the darkened room and prepares himself to dodge another fireball, but Loki seems to have forgotten that he and Inara and Mareanie even exist; is too busy kneading frantically at Stella’s stomach as she thrashes beneath the sheet. She cries out in her sleep, a short, fitful little scream that upsets her Pokémon.

They mill about her bed, whining and growling and chirping and screeching so loudly that Guzma flinches away with his hands over his ears. He forces one eye open, watching as Misdreavus swoops in above her and Loki with a bansheelike wail that his hands cannot altogether block. It hovers there, just above her body, absorbing something ethereal and noxious purple from her nose and mouth.

“Nightmares,” Guzma mumbles, cautiously releasing his ears and stepping further into the room. “It’s eatin’ her nightmares.”

Stella cries out again and Misdreavus cries out with her, its unearthly, weeping lament sending shivers down Guzma’s spine. It flinches away from Stella as if her nightmares cause it pain and the demonic sheen of its eyes fades somewhat as it sinks low, barely hovering above the floor.

“They’re making it sick,” Inara says softly, standing close at Guzma’s back as she peeks up over his shoulder. “Holy shit.”

“No!”

Stella flails so violently that Loki nearly tumbles off the bed. It digs its claws into the mattress and holds its ground, leaping onto her chest and meowing frantically as it pushes its head beneath her chin, trying to wake her.

The rest of her Pokémon grow even more agitated to the point that Guzma can scarcely think straight for the racket. Misdreavus continues to sob, an eerie eldritch keening like something from a horror movie; Rockruff and Vulpix raise their voices in tandem with long, mournful howls and earsplitting alarm barks; Skarmory’s steel feathers screech like nails across a chalkboard as it fluffs itself up in distress, and the lights in the hallway surge and fade to the rhythm of Jolteon’s high-pitched whining.

There is the faint creak of a door opening from behind them followed by the nervous babbling of grunts. Guzma grits his teeth.

That ain’t gonna help shit.

“Boss?” Inara is right behind him, all but shouting as she tries to make herself heard over the noise. “Boss, what should we do, have we gotta fight ‘em without her anyway?”

“I ain’t doin’ that!” Guzma snaps back, keeping his eyes on Loki; it turns at the sound of their voices, the fire beneath its chin flaring bright. “Get outta here, Inara. Get the grunts back in bed and let ya boy handle this.”

“But what if - !”

“Believe me, I get set on fire, you’ll know,” he barks, turning his head to glare at her. “Go on, fuck off.”

Inara nods, though it is plain to see she does not approve of the plan in the slightest. She backs out of Plumeria’s room without another word and pulls the door closed behind herself.

The uproar subsides somewhat once Inara and the rest of the grunts are closed off; Guzma had thought it might, but Stella’s Pokémon remain ill at ease, pacing and crying out frequently if not quite so loudly.

Loki, however, only seems to grow more agitated. It turns and hops to the edge of the bed, standing between Guzma and Stella with its ears tilted back and its tail held high and stiff, fluffed out like a brush. It hisses at him.

Stella tosses her head from side to side. Her breathing is shallow and erratic and Loki cuts its yellow eyes away from Guzma, once again making that pitiful purr-chirp sound it had made when Guzma found them outside Po Town...only this time Stella can’t mimic it back.

“Take it easy,” Guzma mutters, taking a tentative step toward Stella. “How about ya let me -”

Loki whips around. It hisses, spits, then leaps off the bed and swipes at him, slashing into the leg of his sweats. The razor sharp claws just barely nick his skin, but the sight of blood trickling down over the top of his foot is more than enough to put the first cracks in Guzma’s temper.

“Look,” he says, struggling to keep his voice even as he meets Loki’s hateful glare, “I can wake her up if you’ll just fuckin’ let me, yo. I dealt with this shit, I know what I’m doin’.”

Loki lets out a long, high growl. It is fluffed up to almost twice its normal size now, its back arched high, ears so flat against its skull that they seems not to exist. The little ball of fire beneath its chin drips embers that fizzle and smoke as they hit the carpet. Behind its back Stella continues to struggle against some invisible enemy, caught in the throes of what Guzma recognizes as a night terror.

The rest of her Pokémon cry out again, setting his teeth on edge; painful tension creeps into his jaw, radiating upward and into his head where it pounds in heavy hammer strokes against the inside of his skull.

I gotta get this over with.

“Look, ya stupid fuckin’ cat,” he hisses, pointing at the Pokémon the way one might point at a badly misbehaved child, “If ya keep tryin’ to wake her up by makin’ biscuits on her and havin’ Misdreavus eat up her nightmares all that’s gonna fucking happen is Misdreavus is gonna get even more sick and you’re gonna set the whole goddamn room on fire, aight? She ain’t havin’ a fuckin’ nightmare she’s havin’ night terrors and if ya wake her up wrong she’s liable to hurt ya, or herself, or both, get me?!”

Loki cowers, sinking low until its belly brushes the floor. Under normal circumstances Guzma would feel worse over a Pokémon shrinking from him that he would over any human doing the same, but Loki even cowersbegrudgingly. There is not a single ounce of actual fear in its yellow eyes, only fierce resentment and baleful resignation. It slinks away from the bed, moving to sit in front of its teammates and leaving a clear path to Stella.

Guzma hesitates. One by one all six Pokémon fall silent, fixing him with wary eyes. His skin begins to crawl; he has the disturbing sense that they are judging his every move, but Stella’s breathing is only becoming more and more shallow and he does not hesitate for long.

“Whatever,” he mutters, shrugging off the many pairs of eyes as best he can and moving for the bed.

He kneels at the edge of it and peers down at Stella, trying to get a better sense of just how bad off she really is. He knows what he is like when this happens to him: dangerous, volatile, likely to lash out at anyone who comes close enough to attempt waking him, but he also tends to wake at the slightest provocation. If Loki had been pawing at his chest while he was in the middle of a night terror...

Guzma shoves the thought from his mind. Loki infuriates him, yes, but he can’t stomach the idea of hurting the Pokémon himself. He focuses on Stella instead, hoping that she doesn’t wake up swinging the way he is prone to do.

“Yo, Stella,” he says, careful to keep his voice even. “Stella. Hey. C’mon, girlie, wake up.”

She frowns in her sleep. Guzma braces himself to fend her off, but she doesn’t wake. Instead her fists curl tightly into the fitted sheet and she begins to snap her head from side to side with such violence that Guzma reaches out before he can stop himself, cradling her face between his hands to keep her from hurting herself.

“Stella!” He raises his voice slightly. “Stella, hey. C’mon, girlie, wake up before ya break your fuckin’ neck!”

Lightning flashes; thunder booms, rattling the panes in the window next to Plumeria’s bed, and Stella sucks in air like a drowning woman. She sits bolt upright so suddenly that Guzma is hard pressed to lean away in time to keep their foreheads from cracking together. She grabs him by the shoulders and her fingers dig so deep that he actually flinches, holding his hands up as if in surrender.

“Fuckin’ hell, girlie, you’re all right!” He says. “Let go!”

She only stares at him - stares through him, really. When her hazy eyes finally begin to focus it is her team that she notices first, and her face seems to crumple in on itself, collapsing into purest anguish. She shoves Guzma away before she even seems to have registered his presence and crawls past him toward the foot of the bed. She kneels there, wracked with chills and - to Guzma’s horror - rocking herself a little.

He expects her to speak even if only to address her team but she says nothing. With tears streaming down her face she lifts her hands and her fingers begin to fly in a series of signs that mean nothing whatsoever to Guzma but apparently mean everything to the Pokémon in front of her. When she finishes she stretches out a shaking hand. Jolteon picks up her bag in its teeth and rises to its hind legs to give it to her. Stella takes it and reaches down inside for their Pokéballs.

One by one they come to her, butting their heads against her palms, letting her pet them; one by one she recalls them, until only Loki remains. Rather than nuzzling against her outstretched hand it launches itself into her arms, rubbing beneath her chin and purring loudly enough to wake the dead.

Another flash of lightning, another rolling clap of thunder; Stella hugs Loki tightly, clings to it as another tremor races through her body. She buries her face into its neck as it begins to purr.

After a moment or two the shaking passes. Stella kisses Loki’s nose, accepts a brief lick on her own, and sets it back on the floor as she reaches for its Pokéball.

Loki turns to face Guzma, fixing him with its lamplike yellow eyes and giving him a final, pointed hiss before it is recalled; when Stella turns her head to see what upset it, she finally seems to realize that she has had an audience all the while.

She stares at him, motionless save for the shivers, her lips parted in surprise. Her black eyes are unreadable shadows.

Guzma gazes back at her. His mind is blank; he has no idea what he has just witnessed and no idea what to say, cannot even summon even the crudest of responses.

At length her expression begins to harden. She crawls back toward the head of the bed and sits, her legs crossed beneath her and her head in her hands. She is so silent that Guzma wonders if she is even breathing.

Leave her alone, damn.

He finds himself looking at her legs instead. Even in the dim light he can make out the myriad scratches and bruises marking her skin, and the purple-black discoloration banded around her ankle is the worst of them.

“Uncross your legs,” he hears himself mumbling. “You’re puttin’ too much pressure on your ankle.”

Stella lifts her head just enough to glower at him. She does as she’s told with the belligerence of a two year old.

“There.” She drops her gaze as she speaks, her voice low and rough as if it hurts her to talk. “Now leave.”

Guzma considers it; calling this an awkward situation is one hell of an understatement, but he knows that attitude, knows the bitterness and the anger that comes with realizing someone has seen you fall apart.

It’s just a recipe for more nightmares.

Instead of answering her he looks her over, trying to judge just how likely she is to lose her shit a second time if she falls asleep again without anyone there to wake her.

Her hair is a wild cloud of shadow around her head; Inara had braided it down Kalos-style into two short pigtails after coaxing her into a bath, but most of it seems to have come loose in her thrashing. Her face is naked, clear of any makeup, but the shadows beneath her eyes are so dark and heavy that she still seems to be wearing too much smudged eyeliner. Every minute or so she shivers so violently that her teeth chatter; she flinches with every clap of thunder.

Her team would be breakin’ out and panickin’ again within thirty fuckin’ minutes.

“If you’re w-waiting on me to roll over you can go fuck yourself,” Stella snaps, looking up at him again with eyes hard as obsidian. “Leave.”

“Tch.” Guzma shoves his hair back from his forehead with a scowl. “Fuck no. You’re a goddamn mess. I leave, I fuckin’ guarantee all this bullshit happens again.”

Stella straightens her back and crosses her arms over her chest, glaring at him as if she would love nothing more than to be able to spit fire like Loki.

“And why d-do you give a shit?” she asks.

“I don’t,” he retorts. “I just don’t feel like dealin’ with ya scarin’ the piss outta everyone in the goddamn house twice in one fuckin’ night ‘cause your team don’t know how to handle ya havin’ night terrors.”

“They handle it fine when I’m not surrounded by strangers,” she hisses.

Guzma cocks an eyebrow. His smile is unkind. “So this is a regular thing, huh?”

Yet again he has the sense that if she could, Stella would cheerfully set him on fire. She stares at him with just as much contempt as Loki, but the longer she looks at him the more Guzma realizes that there is something strange about her gaze. Her eyes seem hazy; it reminds him of the way air warps above asphalt in the height of summer.

Guzma reaches out, unthinking. He pushes her bangs away from her face and presses the back of his hand to her forehead.

She is still burning up.

“Fuckin’ hell, girlie, when did ya last take your meds?” he asks. “I know good and damn well Inara gave ya somethin’.”

Stella glances over at the clock, then back at Guzma. Her lip curls in disgust and she shoves his hand away, reaching for the bedside table and yanking open the top drawer. She fishes around inside and emerges with a blister pack of flu medication.

She stares at him pointedly as she tears the little packet open and shakes the two blue pills into her palm. She tosses them into the back of her throat and dry swallows them both, then crosses her arms again.

“There,” she snaps. “Now will you leave?”

“Ain’t happenin’,” he answers. “Not til I’m sure ya ain’t gonna lose your shit again.”

Stella buries her face in her hands with a long, drawn out groan of frustration, then shoves her flyaway hair back from her forehead and looks up at him

“Are you seriously gonna be sittin' here and watchin' me until I fall asleep?!” Her voice cracks as she speaks and she flinches, rubbing her throat. “‘Cause that ain't helpin' me calm down, like, at all.”

“Tough shit,” Guzma sneers, standing up. “Just lay down, girlie, damn. Ain’t like I wanna fuckin’ talk to your ass.”

He stalks away from the bed without another word. There is a loveseat in Plumeria’s room, but he knows from experience that he is far too broad-shouldered and long-legged for that to be a comfortable option; besides, at the moment it’s covered in what looks like half her wardrobe.

He settles for dropping down into the desk chair near the foot of the bed. He switches on Plumeria’s desk lamp and grabs something at random off her bookshelf, then leans back, opens the book, and does his best to pretend as if Stella does not exist.

She does not make it easy.

After a minute or two of silence she says, “You’re an ass.”

Guzma rolls his eyes. He doesn’t bother to look up. “Go to sleep, girlie.”

“I don't trust you.”

“Smart. Shut up and go to sleep.”

Several more minutes pass before Stella speaks again; when she does the edge in her voice has softened somewhat.

“Why'd you bring me here?” she asks.

“‘Cause you’re an idiot,” Guzma replies, unwilling to think of a more truthful answer. “Shut up already.”

“Ass.”

“So ya said, girlie.” He turns the page. “Fuckin’ go to sleep, damn.”

Stella falls silent. She is quiet for so long that Guzma begins to think she actually has gone to sleep; he even manages to get semi-engrossed in Plumeria’s book despite it being one of those weird historical romance novels he always makes fun of her for reading.

So when Stella does speak again, her voice slow and somewhat slurred, it takes him a moment to remember what she is talking about.

“I take that back,” she mumbles.

“Hn?”

“Said I take it back.”

“Take what back?”

“You're not an ass,” Stella says.

Guzma glances up over the top of the book, cocking an eyebrow.

“Oh really?”

Stella nods. She is leaning back against the headboard with the sheet pulled up over her battered legs. Her chin rests on the pillow clutched in her arms and her eyes are half-lidded and sleepy. “Think you jus’ act like one. Like. A lot. A lot a lot.”

Guzma cuts his eyes at her. “Difference bein’…?”

“If you were really an ass you really woulda left me. But you didn't. So you're not an ass. Jus’ actin’ like one so you don't hafta feel like you did somethin’ nice.”

Guzma refuses to think about that.

“Just go to sleep, girlie,” he mutters, “Ya ain’t makin’ sense.”

Stella giggles. It is a soft, almost devilish sound, and Guzma is alarmed to find that it takes a not inconsiderable amount of effort to keep himself from looking up at her and smiling.

She ain’t cute, he reminds himself. She ain’t fuckin’ cute, just ‘cause you’d fuck her don’t make her cute.

“Noooope!” Stella giggles again. “I’m makin’ plenty of sense an’ you jus’ haaaate it!”

Guzma grits his teeth. Why the hell does he want to smile?!

“What I hate is the sound of your voice,” he growls, refusing to look up. “Go the fuck to sleep.”

“You go the fuck to sleep!”

This time Stella laughs aloud; it soon devolves into more of that definitely-not-cute giggling and Guzma sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose.

She took the fuckin’ nighttime dose, it’s no wonder she’s actin’ ridiculous.

“Go to sleep, girlie,” he mutters, eyeing her over the top of the book. “Before ya embarrass yourself.”

Stella yawns, then flashes him a wicked grin. “Fine,” she answers softly, then bites her lip for a moment before adding, “Whatever you say...boss.”

Guzma’s mind short-circuits.

Stella sinks down into the bed with another little giggle and all the blood in his body begins to rush in two directions at once...one decidedly more uncomfortable than the other. He shifts his legs to hide what’s happening between them and hides his burning face behind the book, staring at the pages without really comprehending the words and trying to work out why the way Stella said boss had struck his spine like a lightning rod. He has had Team Skull calling him that for nearly two years now and he has never once had this kind of reaction, but something about her voice, the sarcasm -

Nope! Not thinkin’ about it! Abort!

He distracts himself by diving back into the ridiculous romance between a Kalosian duchess and the daughter of a lowly Pokémon breeder. He doesn’t answer her and is thankful that she says nothing else.

After awhile he begins to doze off himself, leaning back in the desk chair with his arms crossed, book held open in one hand and his long legs kicked up on the foot of the bed. The first few times the book tips over onto his chest he jerks awake, but it soon tips over and stays there.

 

 

 


 

 

 

 2.

He wakes to blood pounding in his ears and the distant sound of his own snarling, hunched forward in the desk chair close to where Stella kneels at the foot of the bed. Their faces are inches apart.

“Now who’s the one with the night terrors?” she whispers.

For a moment Guzma cannot answer. He is still panting like a hunted thing as the adrenaline washes out of his system and until his hands start to shake he does not even realize that he has Stella’s narrow wrist trapped in his grip.

He drops her arm and his fingers leave behind faint red marks.

[Already, boy?]

Guzma swallows back a wave of nausea. It is no worse than what happens when Plumeria sleeps with a hair tie around her wrist and Stella herself does not even seem to notice, but he averts his eyes anyway, running his hands through his white hair.

“The hell’d ya wake me up for?” he asks.

“’Cause you were kickin’ me,” Stella answers. “Go on back to your room. I’m still so loopy from that cold medicine I doubt my brain could form a coherent nightmare.”

Guzma grumbles under his breath and pulls his legs off the bed. “Don't feel like movin’.”

It is the truth, too. His bed is infinitely more comfortable than Plumeria’s desk chair, but if he moves now he’ll be up for the rest of the night.

“Then try punchin’ your demons next time,” Stella mutters, “‘Cause if you kick my bad ankle I’m gonna kick you in the dick.”

She tumbles back into bed without another word.

“Whatever.” Guzma closes his eyes.

A split second later a blanket hits him in the face.

By the time he pulls it off to glare at her she has already pulled the sheet back up over her head. Guzma eyes her for a moment, then pulls the blanket up over his bare torso, stretches his legs back over the foot of the bed, and goes back to sleep.


3.

That is how Inara and Plumeria find them the next morning: Stella curled up in a ball with the sheets wrapped around herself like a cloak, and Guzma sprawled half in the desk chair and half on the bed, arms crossed tight across his broad chest with the fleece blanket trapped beneath them.

Plumeria takes a picture.

She pockets her phone and nods to Inara, who grabs the edge of Guzma’s blanket and snatches it off. He is awake in an instant, fists clenching, shoulders hunching, eyes wild; the movement startles Stella awake and she sits bolt upright, flinging the sheet away and glaring around the room as if she expects to find some sort of monster lurking in the shadows.

Plumeria cocks an eyebrow at them both. “Kukui’s at the gate,” she says mildly. “Met him as I was coming back in. He said you two weren't answering your phones.”

Guzma rubs his aching neck, glaring at them both. “Mine probably died.”

“Mine’s in do not disturb mode,” Stella mutters. “Hey, are those my clothes?”

“Yep.” Inara tosses her clean clothes on the bed beside her, neon pink underwear and bra included.

Plumeria smirks as Guzma tears his eyes away. He busies himself with stretching his arms above his head, spine popping, utterly oblivious to Stella’s eyes roving over his tattooed back.

“I'll be back in a minute,” he mumbles, rubbing his messy white hair. “Might as well carry ya down there, be faster than havin’ to hop along with one of the grunts.”

Stella does not answer; she only nods, yawning wide, as Inara and Plumeria follow him out.

“Rough night?” Plumeria asks. She cannot resist.

Guzma flicks her off over his shoulder and shuffles into his bedroom, slamming the door behind himself.  

“Looks like neither of them are morning people,” Inara says.

Plumeria lets out a harsh laugh. “Are you kidding? He’s the worst. I would literally have to drag him out of bed when he’d sleep over. Did he really stay in there all night?”

“Not all night. Probably half of it,” Inara answers. “I mean, in his defense, she did cause a hell of a ruckus. She was having nightmares and her Pokémon panicked.”

“Ah,” Plumeria nods. “Was it like the ones he gets?”

“Sort of,” Inara says. “Maybe worse, even. She screams, and she don’t wake up easy. Either way, after he went in there everything calmed down. Guess he stayed in case it happened again.”

“Yeah.” Plumeria grins. “Sure he did.”

Guzma’s door bangs open, bouncing off the opposite wall hard enough that she and Inara both jump...but despite his little temper tantrum, neither of them wipe the smirks off their faces and Guzma seems to understand that he will not win, at least not this early in the morning.

“Plumes, make sure she’s decent,” he mumbles, scrubbing his hands down his face. “Let’s get this shit over with.”

“Sure thing.”

Plumeria knocks on her own door, though it is more of a warning than anything else; she steps inside without waiting for a reply.

Stella stands on her good leg, opposite knee propped on the bed for balance. The bed itself is made and the borrowed shorts and Team Skull tank top are neatly laid out on top of the bedspread. Stella herself is not wearing anything except her underwear, but the sound of the door opening does not faze her in the slightest.

“What, you decide I can't even change clothes without supervision?” she sneers as she hooks her bra behind her back.

“You can keep the tank top,” Plumeria says. “I've got like seven more just like it.”

Stella whirls around in surprise, teetering a little as she struggles to keep her weight off her bad ankle.

“I - shit, I thought you were Guzma,” she mumbles, shrugging into the shoulder straps of her bra.

“I sort of figured,” Plumeria says. “Seriously, though. Keep the tank top.”

“Thanks,” Stella says at length, relaxing a little as she tucks the shirt into her bag. “They are kinda cute.”

“Right?” Plumeria smirks. “Nice tattoos, by the way. Dark type, right?”

“Huh? Oh!” Stella peers down at herself, running her fingers over the black and purple symbols just above her hip bones. “Um, yeah. Thanks. Sorry, they’re...they’re kinda new.”

“Sometimes I still forget I have mine,” Plumeria says. “So how are you feeling?”

“Weird,” Stella answers, pulling her white v-neck over her head. “Half-drunk off cold medicine. Or maybe hungover, I don’t even know. I don’t take that stuff often. Maybe that’s why I’m so goddamn confused.”

“What’s so confusing?”

Stella pinches the bridge of her nose as if her head aches.

“Just. This.” She waves her hand. “Him. You. All of you. It's not...not what I expected.”

“And what were you expecting?” Plumeria cocks her head.

“I don't know.” Stella sits, slipping into her shorts. “I hear Pokémon thieves, I think...”

She sighs as she buttons her shorts, then leans forward with her elbows on her knees, staring down at the carpet between her feet. “I think Team Rocket, I guess,” she mumbles.

Plumeria laughs. “You are from Kanto, so I guess that makes sense. But Team Rocket we are not. I’m not saying we don’t steal them, but we don’t abuse them. I mean, Guzma loves his Golisopod more than he does any human I know. Me included.”

Stella blinks, then looks up at Plumeria and raises an eyebrow. “Are you…?”

Plumeria stares at her for a moment, bewildered; when the implication clicks she cringes.

“Oh dear God no.” Plumeria shakes her head. “Guzma is my cousin.”

Stella frowns. “Like... cousin cousin, or Alola-cousin…?”

“Literal cousin,” Plumeria says. “Our mothers were sisters.”

Stella nods, then opens her mouth as if to ask something else. She closes it just as quickly.

“What was that?” Plumeria asks.

Stella sighs, looking up at her awkwardly. “Inara…?”

Plumeria bursts into laughter.

“No, no,” she manages to say, grinning broadly, “Inara, um...she has a girlfriend.”

“I don’t know why I’m asking,” Stella mumbles.

She stands up, still listing to one side to keep from putting pressure on her ankle. As she pushes her hands into her pockets to smooth out the front of her shorts something like horror begins to trickle into her expression; she sits down hard on the edge of the bed and buries her face in her hands.

“It’s probably useless to ask you not to mention that, right?” she mutters, shoving her fingers into her hair and staring down at the floor. “Please don’t mention that. I took cold meds, I'm sick, I’m not thinking straight.”

“Don’t worry,” Plumeria replies, cocking an eyebrow. “I try to avoid catering to his ego.”

“Thank God.” Stella sighs, still staring down at the floor. “Um. Sorry about your carpet, by the way.”

“It’s had worse.” Plumeria shrugs. “Are you ready to get out of here? I’ll help you, if you really don’t want Guzma carrying you again.”

Stella’s black eyes harden and shakes her head. “No way I’m giving him the satisfaction. Thanks, though.”

“Suit yourself. I’ll let him know you’re ready.”


4.

Guzma is anything but ready, which is becoming an alarming pattern where Stella is concerned.

As soon as he steps in the room he wishes that he had put on an actual shirt instead of throwing his hoodie on over his bare torso. Stella is back in that damn white t-shirt with that goddamn pink bra, and suddenly Guzma is wide awake and hyper-aware of his entire body.

He slings her bag over his shoulder and sweeps her up without a word, glaring at Plumeria and Inara both as he walks out. Thankfully they have sense enough not to speak.

Guzma remains silent. All he wants is for Stella to be gone...

“So are you trying to compete with Kukui by going shirtless, or are you just that lazy?”

...and yet here he is, struggling not to crack a smile.

“Just that lazy,” he answers. “I quit tryin’ to compete with Kukui a long time ago.”

“I dunno,” Stella says, “I think you could give him a run for his money.”

“Yeah, well,” he mutters, “You’re also fucked up off cold medicine, so I ain't exactly inclined to take that as a compliment.”

“Fine,” Stella answers. “But I already told you. Professors aren't my type.”

“So what is?” Guzma asks, before he can bite back the words.

Stella glances up at the brilliant blue sky, squinting into the sunlight. “Good question.”

Guzma holds his tongue. He wants to ask what she means by that...he wants to ask her a lot of things, actually, and that is exactly why what he wants most of all is to get rid of her.

She ain’t fuckin’ cute.

It isn’t long until a couple of grunts are swinging the gates wide. Guzma grows tense, steeling himself for Kukui...but what he does not prepare himself for is Moon. As soon as Stella sees her little sister she is fighting her way out of Guzma’s arms so fiercely that he is hard pressed not to drop her on her ass.

“Jeeze, fine, okay, here!” He sets her down, somewhat taken aback; she balances herself against his chest for a moment before she kneels down onto the wet grass, just in time to catch Moon as she launches herself into Stella’s arms.

When Moon finally pulls away her expression is dark...scolding, almost. Her fingers fly through a series of signs as she glares at her sister, and Guzma risks a glance at Kukui, wondering if he knows what is going on.

Kukui, however, only shrugs. He steps around the two sisters toward Guzma.

“She any better?” he mumbles, as he and Guzma watch Stella’s hands move through their response.

“Fever’s under control,” Guzma says. “That’s all I know. Ya know what they’re sayin’?”

“Not a damn clue.”

Moon stands in front of Stella with her hands on her hips, clearly still upset. She raises her eyebrows expectantly and gestures toward Guzma.

Stella blows her bangs out of her face with a sigh. “Fine.”

She rises awkwardly, keeping her weight balanced on her good leg, and inclines her upper body in a clumsy bow.

“Thanks for saving my ass, Guzma,” she mutters. “I owe you one.”

Moon nods her head in approval while Kukui snickers beside him, and Guzma suddenly wants to sink into the ground.

“Tch.” He rubs his hair under his hood, glaring down at the grass. “Just get outta here.”

“We do need to get you to a clinic, yeah?” Kukui kneels down in front of Stella, letting her climb onto his back. He tucks his hands beneath her knees as he stands and glances at her over his shoulder. “All good, cousin? Won’t be long, I didn’t land the Charizard too far away.”

“I’m fine,” Stella answers. “Tired of being carried around, but fine.”

“Then we’re off! Alola, cousin - and you know you can text me for something besides lost chicks, yeah?” Kukui adds, setting off down the path with Moon at his side.

“Whatever.” Guzma scowls. “Get out.”

He starts to head back toward the Shady House, waving a hand to the gate guards, but he does not make it far before a tug on the hem of his hoodie brings him up short.

He turns around, wondering what the hell he could have gotten it caught on, and is nearly knocked off balance by Moon; she throws her arms around his waist in a fierce hug, as if he is her own family instead of a towering, tattooed gang boss.

Guzma stares down at the top of her silly red hat, unmoving, his eyes wide.

What...the hell…?

 

thank you for finding my sister and taking care of her. -M.

With stiff, almost mechanical movements, Guzma wraps an arm around Moon’s narrow shoulders.

“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbles, “No problem, kid, now get outta here, aight?”

Moon turns her head and beams at him, then runs back down the path toward Kukui and her sister.

Guzma shoves his hands in the pockets of his hoodie and watches her go. She even turns around to wave at him, her bright smile still in place.

Kukui joins in, laughing; only Stella seems to share Guzma’s quiet shock, and it is Stella that his gaze shifts toward.

She stares at him, her upper body turned away from Kukui’s back, her black eyes unreadable at the distance. After a moment, she lifts her arm in farewell.

Guzma’s mouth quirks into something halfway between a sneer and a smirk. He turns his back on Stella, on Kukui and Moon...but can't stop himself from ticking his fingers up in a lazy wave as he walks away.

Chapter Text

1.

He doesn't know why he does it.

Or perhaps he just doesn’t want to think about why he does it.

Lusamine is not saved in his contacts list. They have no ongoing messages.

Those kinds of things are too dangerous, too close, too risky, but he knows her phone number by heart all the same. 

(( Don’t call me, I’ll call you, okay? ))
Blinding white smile like a scythe -
(( I need you so much you’ll get sick of me calling! ))
Laugh, soft and girlish on top and razorblades underneath -

Right now it takes up his entire Missed Calls list, at the rate of two and three a day in the week since Stella has been gone.

(( And if you don’t answer, you know, I’ll be so worried. ))
Pale green eyes like pits of acid -

It appears again now, his phone vibrating in his hand, flashing those numbers that are seared into his mind, demanding to be acknowledged.

(( Don’t make me worry about you, Guzma. ))
Hand on his cheek, scrape of perfect nails on his skin -

Guzma scrubs a hand over his face and clicks the lock button. He drops his phone onto his bed, thinking in only the most incremental steps, as if the pit of his stomach isn’t filled with leaden guilt.

Golisopod. He tucks the Pokéball into his pocket.

All the babies. He picks up five Net Balls sitting next to his laptop and tucks them into his pockets as well, two with Golisopod and three in the other. On the bed behind him his phone begins to vibrate again.

Hoodie. Put it on. He shrugs into it and pulls up the hood.

Sunglasses. He pushes them onto his face with shaking hands, not caring that he is still inside.

Leave. He opens the door to his bedroom, but as soon as he steps out into the hall he stops short, closing his eyes and cursing under his breath.

Maybe tell Plumeria where I’m goin’.  Guzma sighs and rubs a hand over his hair. He wants to leave, wants to disappear into the fields and trees around Po Town and lose himself in working with his little B-Team because nothing else distracts him like his Pokémon do and if he doesn’t get away soon, if he doesn’t get out, out of the house, out of his own head, he’s going to -

He snaps one of the black and white silicone bands around his wrist, pulling it back far enough that the rebound leaves a red mark.

If I fuck off without an explanation again I’m never gonna hear the end of it.

Guzma steps back into his room and picks up his phone. His fingers move almost on muscle memory; he doesn’t really look at the screen as he clears the missed calls and brings up his and Plumeria’s conversation. Just as he types the first letter his phone begins to vibrate again. It startles him so badly that he almost drops it on the floor, but he catches it just in time, checking the display and praying he hasn’t accidentally answered Lusamine’s call in all his fumbling.

But it isn’t Lusamine. It’s Kukui, and Guzma’s thumb hovers over the red Ignore button.

At the last second, he taps the green Answer button instead. “Yo,” he mumbles, already regretting the impulse.

“All right, cousin,” Kukui says, “What have you done this time?”

Guzma cocks an eyebrow, genuinely confused. “Uh, nothin’ worse than usual?”

It’s the truth - they have yet to run a job this week because Guzma has been dodging Lusamine’s phone calls.

“Well, I got somethin’ to tell you,” Kukui continues, “But I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to tell you over the phone, yeah?”

“The hell are ya talkin’ about?” Guzma asks. His skin crawls and the hair at the back of his neck prickles up. He rubs his hand over it, trying to get a handle on his nerves.

“Just trust me, cousin,” Kukui says, and there is an odd pleading note in his voice that Guzma has not heard in a very long time. “I’m not going to lecture you, yeah? I know we don’t really talk any more -”

“Tch. We don’t when I can help it.”

Kukui laughs softly. “But you still answered your phone, yeah? And I’m glad, ‘cause I’m worried, cousin.”

Guzma sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Get to the point, Kukui.”

“Like I said, my point is that I don’t think it’s such a great idea to tell you about this over the phone, yeah?” Kukui’s voice drops an octave or two in its urgency. “I don’t know much about the kind of people you’ve gotten involved with over the years, cousin, so call me paranoid, but I’d rather talk to you in person.”

“Last I heard ya were more worried about people gettin’ involved with me,” Guzma mutters, “You ain’t settin’ me up, are ya, Kukui?”

Kukui swears violently in Alolan and Guzma stands up a little straighter, narrowing his eyes. Kukui rarely drops anything more intense than the occasional Well, shit. It is unlike him to be so foul-mouthed, in Alolan or otherwise; whatever is going on must be serious.

“That’s low, yeah, even for you,” Kukui says, practically spitting the words. “If I was going to set you up I would have done it already. Now are you going to listen to me or not?”

“Aight,” Guzma says, careful to keep his voice as neutral as possible. “I’m listenin’.”

“Do you trust me, cousin?”

“Much as I trust anybody,” Guzma replies, his lips twitching into a smirk.

“Which is to say not at all,” Kukui sighs. “Fine. Listen, I’m in Malie right now, yeah, so if you’ll come to the gardens tomorrow afternoon we can talk there. Around three, maybe?”

“Depends. Are the brats with ya?” Guzma asks.

“The kids are in town, yeah, but I’ll make sure they’re stuffing their faces with malasada or something,” Kukui answers.

“What about -”

Guzma bites his tongue, but it’s too late.

“Stella’s around,” Kukui says, bemused. “But she’ll probably stick with the kids.”

“Wasn’t askin’,” Guzma grumbles. “Fine. I’ll be there.”

“Thanks, cousin,” Kukui says, sighing in obvious relief. “You know I wouldn’t bother calling, yeah, if I wasn’t seriously freaked out.”

“I know,” Guzma says, and taps END before Kukui can say another word.

He drops his phone onto his bed then sits down beside it, elbows propped on his knees, rubbing his throbbing temples.

“Luka! Kau’i!”

His bedroom door swings open. The two blue-haired grunts that always stand guard for him step inside, pulling their bandannas down from around their faces.

“What’s up, boss?” Kau’i asks, crossing his tattooed arms over his chest.

“I gotta head into Malie tomorrow,” Guzma says, “You two are comin’ with me. Doubt I’ll need ya, but better safe than sorry.”

“Gotcha, boss.” Luka says. “Want me to find Plumeria and let her know?”

“Yeah, do that,” Guzma mumbles, “And tell her I’m goin’ out while you’re at it. Trainin’. I’ll be back late.”

“Will do, boss.” Luka heads out the door without another word; Kau’i follows him, taking up his post.

“Shouldn’t you take your phone, boss?” he asks as Guzma walks past him.

Guzma stops in his tracks, jaw clenched painfully tight. He does not turn to look at Kau’i.

“Do me a favor, kid,” he says, speaking through his teeth, “Don’t ask stupid fuckin’ questions.”

“S-sorry, boss,” Kau’i stutters. “I just thought - if you’re gonna be alone out there all night -”

“Ain't your job to think for me,” Guzma growls, but his headache is too intense for his anger to last very long.

“When Luka gets back the two of ya best go get some sleep,” he mutters, “Ain’t no sense in standin’ guard over an empty room. I’ll wake ya when I get back.”

“Got it, boss,” Kau’i says, and Guzma pretends he can’t hear the relief in his voice.

He stalks down the stairs and vaults over the crashed chandelier with one hand on the banister, forcing Lusamine and Kukui both out of his mind.

He’s getting very good at that.


2.

The following afternoon, Guzma leaves Luka and Kau’i near the entrance of the Gardens and heads to the left, skirting past a group of kids hanging out on the main bridge under the supervision of a Veteran trainer. He spots Kukui and crosses one of the smaller bridges towards him.

Kukui is standing at the edge of the water, glasses sitting on the bill of his cap, his ragged lab coat flaring out in the breeze. He is tossing crumbs from a malasada wrapper to the Goldeen and Magikarp. Guzma stands next to him, looking down at their rippling reflections rather than at Kukui himself.

“Aight, so what’s got ya so freaked out?” he mutters.

“Is INTERPOL after you?” Kukui asks, without hesitation. His voice is low, his eyes fixed on the water.

“INTER...what?” Guzma turns and cuts his eyes at Kukui in disbelief. “Fuck no, the goddamn International Police are not after my ass. The hell gave ya that idea?”

“This dude in a slick three-piece suit has been around the lab a couple times, yeah, askin’ me about you,” Kukui says. “I ask for ID, he says there’s no need, it’s just business. Knowing what kinda business you’re in, I was kinda hoping you were gonna tell me you were in it with INTERPOL. ‘Cause otherwise, this is shady as hell, cousin.”

“Askin’ what, exactly?” Guzma’s skin is crawling again.

“Where ya lived. How often we talked. Stuff that seems normal, yeah, but really isn’t.” Kukui dusts the malasada crumbs off his hands above the school of Magikarp and Goldeen, watching them jostle with one another to get at the bits of food. He tucks the empty wrapper itself into a pocket of his lab coat.

“I told him we don’t talk any more, yeah, so I didn’t know where you were or what you were up to,” he continues, tucking his hands into his pockets as he looks back down at their reflections. “I don’t think he bought it.”

“What, so ya think INTERPOL is after me or somethin’?”

Kukui sighs. “I don’t know who is after you, cousin, and that’s what has me worried. This guy has shown up at the lab three times already, once when Lillie was by herself. I don’t know what kinda sketchy stuff you’ve gotten yourself into this time -”

[Already accusing you, boy.]

“Tch. I ain’t gotten myself into shit,” Guzma sneers, cutting Kukui off. “Especially nothin’ that would have the goddamn International Police sniffin’ around. So ya can shove your lecture up your ass, Professor.”

He turns on his heel to leave, already wishing that he had never even picked up the phone.

“Guzma, wait.”

Kukui’s hand closes around Guzma’s arm while his back is turned. He whirls around out of reflex, his eyes wide and furious; there is a split second where their eyes meet, and suddenly it is a decade ago and Kukui is grabbing his arm and telling him to wait and they both know what happens next, how that story ends, and Guzma is tempted to play his part again if only to finally push Kukui away for good.

Then Kukui drops Guzma’s arm and holds up his open hands, and the temptation passes. Guzma rolls his shoulders and unclenches his fists.

“My bad, cousin,” Kukui murmurs, tucking his hands into his pockets. “I know better than that, yeah, I’m sorry.”

“Just say what ya wanted to say, Kukui,” Guzma sighs, suddenly exhausted by the entire conversation. “Get it over with.”

“I believe you,” Kukui says. “That you’re not into anything that would make you INTERPOL’s business, yeah, but if this guy isn’t INTERPOL he’s something else, cousin, something that’s maybe bad news.”

“I think I can take care of myself,” Guzma says, his voice thick with sarcasm. “I’ve only been doin’ it for the past ten years.”

Kukui doesn’t rise to the bait - Guzma had not expected him to - but he does sigh, adjusting his cap before looking back up at Guzma.

“Just be on the lookout, cousin, yeah? Red-haired guy, blue eyes, wearing a suit,” he says. “Please?”

“Yeah, yeah,” Guzma mutters. “Dumbass wearin’ a three-piece in the middle of Alolan summer. Ain’t hard to miss.”

“Right?” Kukui smiles a little, but before he can say anything else his gaze is drawn across the Gardens, toward the main bridge at the entrance.

“The hell ya lookin’ at?” Guzma asks, turning his head. “It’s just a Vet with a buncha...buncha kids...shit, is that Stella?”

“I think so, yeah,” he answers, “And I have no idea what she’s doing.”

From this distance Guzma can’t hear much of what is being said, but he can see well enough to know that at least in Stella’s case it is far from polite. She is on her tiptoes, railing at the Veteran trainer. The kids he had been in charge of all huddle together on the other side of the bridge, glancing nervously between Luka and Kau’i to Stella and back again, as if they aren’t sure which might be the bigger threat.

“I’ve never seen her like this, cousin,” Kukui mutters, “What the hell happened?”

“Beats the shit outta me,” Guzma answers, “But I’m gettin’ outta here. I ain’t in the mood for...oh, shit.”

“What?” Kukui squints into the distance; Guzma sighs, then pulls Kukui’s glasses off the bill of his cap and shoves them haphazardly onto his face.

“One of her Pokeballs is movin’,” he says, “And I’ll bet ya fuckin’ anything it’s that goddamn hellcat of hers.”

“Hellcat...you mean her Incineroar?”

“Her Inciner...” Guzma trails off into a nervous ha! of laughter and rubs a hand over his hair. “Oh. Great. It evolved. Don’t that just make my whole goddamn day.”

“Loki can’t be that bad, yeah?” Kukui says. “I mean I know Incineroar have a reputation -”

“That thing wanted me dead when it was a Torracat,” Guzma hisses, “And that was for tryin’ to help her. If it pops out and sees her screamin’ at this guy -”

A familiar blue flash cuts him off. He and Kukui both swear under their breath at the same time, staring in dread at the Pokémon that has appeared behind Stella.

“It’s fuckin’ huge,” Guzma mutters. “I thought the median for those things was like, six feet even?”

“I don't think Loki got the memo,” Kukui replies. “‘Cause it is definitely on the bigger end of the curve, yeah?”

With a roar of fury that makes even Kukui cringe, Loki leans over Stella’s back. Its mouth is full of razor-sharp teeth; its huge claws seem even sharper than that as they glint in the sun.

“You beat me!” The Veteran shouts, incredulous. “What more do you want from me?!”

Loki snarls. Saliva drips in thick runners from the fine points of its fangs. It glares down at the now-terrified Veteran trainer with hateful swampfire eyes, and the Vet - caught beneath its shadow - begins to cower, staring back into its eyes as if he is being forced to do so against his will.

Stella makes no move to call off her Pokémon. She does not even seem to realize that Loki has broken free in the first place.

Guzma glances up at the sun and then back down at Loki and Stella. He turns to look at Kukui at the same time Kukui turns to look at him.

“The sun’s in -” Guzma begins.

“- the wrong position, yeah,” Kukui replies. “And Incineroar is -”

“- Fire and Dark.” Guzma’s skin crawls. He has run with enough rough crowds to know how dangerous Dark types can be when they turn their energy on humans. “Shit, Kukui, go! Ya gotta grab her -”

“Me?!”

“Yeah, you, dumbass!” Guzma shoves him forward. “Now! You’re faster than me and Loki would eat your little Rockruff alive! Go!”

Kukui sets his jaw and nods. “You better have my back on this one, cousin!” He calls over his shoulder as he  vaults over the railing of the gazebo and onto dry land. “I wasn’t plannin’ any research with an Incineroar today!”

“Shut up and run!” Guzma calls after him, reaching into his pocket for Golisopod’s Pokéball. “I got this!”

Kukui is fast; that hasn’t changed. Guzma has barely finished speaking when Kukui makes it to the bridge. He slips between Stella and Loki, hooks her arms back, and drags her, kicking and screaming, away from the paralyzed Vet trainer and toward the center of the Gardens...but he has no more than laid his hands on her when Loki’s gleaming eyes swivel from the Veteran to him, and the shadow that isn’t a shadow swivels with them.

Loki turns on Kukui, claws raised, and as the creeping shadow of Dark energy reaches him Kukui freezes in place with Stella locked in his grip. He stares up at Loki’s claws with glassy terror in his eyes.

Guzma’s rough, booming voice echoes across the Gardens: “Golisopod! Keep that fuckin’ hellcat in check!”

Loki’s claws come down and glance off Golisopod’s armored forearm. Sparks fly. The shadow recedes as Loki turns toward its new opponent, distracted and taken off guard; Golisopod barrels forward and drives Loki away from Kukui, away from Stella and the Vet and the terrified, crying children.

Kukui breathes a shaky sigh of relief as Guzma runs up beside him.

“Thanks, cousin,” he mumbles, “Guess I haven’t done enough work with - hey!”

Stella jackknifes out of Kukui’s arms. She shoves him backward before he can get his hands on her again and takes off toward the Veteran once more, her black eyes like brimstone, radiating almost as much danger as her Pokémon.

“Get out,” she hisses, “Get outta my sight, you sonofabitch, you hearin’ me?! Are you?!

Loki roars again as Golisopod blocks it from moving toward Stella. Its belt of fire showers sparks into the grass and water, creating a thick fog of smoke and steam that slowly begins to envelop both Pokémon, growing thicker each time they clash and drifting slowly toward Stella.

It’s her, Guzma realizes. If she don’t stop that hellcat ain’t gonna stop either. Shit, I knew this was a shitty idea, should have fuckin’ stayed home...

He opens his mouth to tell Kukui to grab her again, then thinks better of it; he might not be able to hold her. Instead he sprints for Stella himself, snatching her up just before she and the fog at her back reach the terrified Vet. He wastes no time trying to be gentle, either. He grabs her in a reverse bear hug, trapping her arms at her sides and lifting her clean off her feet. She fights him like a feral Meowth, but Guzma only holds her more tightly.

“I dunno what the hell ya did to piss her off,” he mutters, turning his head toward the Veteran, “But ya best do like she says and fuck off.”

The Veteran stares up at Guzma, his eyes widening. “You,” he breathes, “Team Skull, y-you’re the - the -”

“Man, shut up,” Guzma snaps, his irritation mounting as Stella struggles in his arms, spitting every curse she knows and then some. “Look, get those kids, get out, keep your fuckin’ mouth shut, and my guys ain’t gonna mess with ya, get me? Now...do...like...I...say...goddamn it girlie fuckin’ hold still!”

Kukui appears out of the fog, glancing back over his shoulder toward the sounds of Golisopod and Loki battling one another.

“Do like the man says, yeah.” Kukui points toward the entrance of the Gardens, still keeping one eye toward the fighting. “Don’t worry, we got this under control.”

The Veteran nods slowly, looking back and forth between the two of them in a mix of fear, bewilderment, and gratitude. He hurries over to the bridge without another word and points the frightened kids toward the entrance of the Gardens. Luka and Kau’i both step to the side as the group rushes past them.

Stella snarls in frustration. Her elbow digs painfully into Guzma’s rib and he only barely manages to resist the urge to throw her into the water.

“Seriously, girlie, ya best fuckin’ chill,” he says sharply. “Fuck has gotten into ya?”

“Fuck you,” Stella hisses, wrenching her shoulders back and forth. “It ain’t funny, it ain’t a goddamn joke, that bastard, fuckin’ lemme go!”

“Ain’t a damn soul here laughin’ about shit, girlie,” Guzma retorts, “Now call off your damn hellcat before it hurts somebody!”

“Call off your fuckin’ Golisopod first,” Stella spits, and kicks him hard in the thigh.

Anger pounds in his head.

“My fuckin’ Golisopod,” he begins, growling through his teeth, “Is well-fuckin’-trained enough not to attack fuckin’ people!”  Stella keeps writhing and he tightens his arms around her chest. “Since I can’t say the same for your fuckin’ hellcat, I’m gonna ask ya one more fuckin’ time, nicely: Call. Off. Loki.

Kukui steps in front of Guzma almost before he finishes speaking, both his hands held up as if in surrender, Golisopod and Loki forgotten. His brown eyes are wide and nervous.

“Guzma let her go,” he says, and the fearful, rushed tone of his voice is like ice down Guzma’s spine.

[Gonna crush her ribs, boy.]

Guzma scarcely had time to register the nausea rising into his throat when the back of Stella’s head connects with his face.

He does not drop her but the sharp pain of his lower lip splitting against his teeth does surprise him into loosening his grip. Stella finally wrenches her way out of his arms as blood trickles into his mouth and down his chin.

Guzma’s shoulders tighten to stone. He brings up one shaking hand to touch his lip and his fingertips come away bright with blood.

Bright, not dark.

No worse’n a two-iron, he thinks, and chokes down the bizarre urge to laugh. When he starts laughing time starts skipping...but he is grinning, his bottom lip stings as he stretches his mouth around his teeth and he is sure that there is blood in his teeth, sure that he looks mad, mad in both senses, mad as in dangerous and mad as in deranged -

He looks up and his pale grey eyes lock on Stella’s black ones. He expects her to shrink from him but to his amazement she starts toward him, all her earlier irritation forgotten, her eyes wide with shock and concern as if she had not expected to find him bleeding.

“Guzma? Shit, I didn’t mean -”

Kukui cuts her off when he moves between them. He settles one hand on Guzma’s chest, eyeing him as if he half expects him to start snarling and roaring like Loki, and part of him wants to...and it’s not because Stella drew blood.

[Your friend don’t think much of you, does he?]

Part of him is in a blind, feral rage, and it is a big enough part that Guzma is shaking with the effort of keeping his mouth shut and his arms at his sides. It is a big enough part that he cannot blame Kukui for putting himself in front of Stella, even if it is that and not Stella herself that has him so close to seeing red. It makes him sick to know Kukui believes him capable of unleashing on someone like her, on a girl over a foot smaller and a hundred pounds lighter than he is, but...

Better safe than sorry around me and I know it.

Guzma closes his eyes. He breathes in through his nose and exhales through his mouth, then cracks his neck and rolls his stiff shoulders.

When he opens his eyes again Stella is pushing past Kukui. There is an irritable little curl in her upper lip. 

“Stella -”  Kukui’s fingers leave Guzma’s chest and grope for Stella’s shoulder. She shrugs him off, all but ignoring him. The little sneer melts away as she turns her head up to look at Guzma.

“I’m sorry,” she says, and holds up her hands...though coming from her it seems less like a gesture of surrender than one of good faith - See, look, no more surprises.

She doesn't seem to be afraid of him. 

She doesn’t even look nervous.

Guzma stares down at her, too-long bangs feathering into eyes ringed with smudged black makeup. She is not balanced on the balls of her feet, not readying herself to react to any move he might make...unlike Kukui, who is poised to snatch Stella back if Guzma should prove hostile -

Like I'm dangerous, he thinks as the old familiar fury fills his head. Like I'm some mean fuckin' Pokémon that might bite -

“I’m so sorry,” Stella continues, pulling him out of his head again. She reaches into her front pocket. She does this slowly, but not intentionally slow; her movements all seem more instinctive than intentional, and Guzma finds himself wondering where she came from...and just how it is that she seems to have sole custody of her eleven year old sister.

She pulls out a neatly folded black bandanna. “Can I see...?”

The prospect of her touch makes him nervous. He scowls, knuckling blood from his mouth with one hand and pulling his sunglasses down with the other.

“No,” he says, deadpan. “Now call off the goddamn Incineroar.”

"Then take this, at least. Sorry about your shirt.”

She holds out the bandanna. Guzma surprises himself by taking it; as soon as he does she turns away, moving past a dumbfounded Kukui and whistling through her teeth. “Loki! Heel!”

As Guzma presses Stella’s bandanna to his lip (pointedly avoiding Kukui’s gaze) Loki comes bounding out of the fog on all fours, rising to its hind feet only once it nears Stella. It moves to stand in front of her with its forearms crossed. There is a low rumbling in its chest and Guzma isn’t sure if it is growling or purring.

“Down, Loki,” Stella sighs, and the rumbling ceases.

Growlin’. Shoulda known.

“You’re not s’posed  to come out of your ball unless I say so, see?” Stella says sternly. “You know that.”

Guzma watches through the black mirrored lenses of his sunglasses, grateful that they give him an excuse to ignore Kukui entirely. Stella is not a tall woman; next to Kukui’s even six feet she had barely seemed older than the eleven year old brat pack. Guzma himself towers over her at nearly 6′4...but Loki dwarfs her. In terms of size for its species it is one hell of an outlier, to the point that it makes Guzma a little nervous.

Yet there Stella stands, small and fearless with her hands on her hips and a frown on her face, scolding it.

Loki huffs, looking defensive. Smoke curls from its nostrils.

“We need to be workin’ on what makes up me bein’ in actual danger and what you think makes up me bein’ in danger,” Stella says sternly, unhooking the empty Pokéball from her hip. “In.”

Loki huffs again and lays its ears back on its head. The tip of its tail twitches madly. Stella sighs again, dropping her arms.

“I know you just wanna keep me safe,” she says softly, reaching up to stroke Loki’s fanged snout. “But you can’t be doin’ that by puttin’ other people at risk, see?”

Loki rumbles again, the sound rising up into low roar. It lashes its tail, huffing smoke and crossing its great arms over its chest.

“Ah. Okay, yeah. I get it.” Stella rubs her temples.

Guzma can’t help it. He pulls his sunglasses up a little and turns to look at Kukui, wondering if he understands, only to find that Kukui is doing the same to him. They both shrug. Guzma drops his sunglasses back into place.

“I had you confused, didn’t I?” Stella asks, reaching up to pet Loki once more. “You were thinkin’ he’d hurt me, when he was really just...bein’ ignorant.”

Loki nods and huffs again.

“I’m sorry.” Stella stretches up onto her very tiptoes to scratch behind Loki’s ears and it still has to duck its head. “We’ll work on it, okay?”

Loki nuzzles against her hand. Guzma recognizes the sound it makes as the same little purr-chirp it made as a Torracat, although at this point it has become more of a gravelly rumble-roar.

Stella mimics it back and that, at least, sounds the same. Guzma does not even realize that he is smiling until the pain in his bottom lip intensifies. He curses under his breath, wiping another rivulet of blood from his chin with Stella’s bandanna. From the corner of his eye he can see Kukui, looking at him with that obnoxious, know-it-all smirk on his face.

Guzma scowls. He turns his head and spits blood into the grass.

“Yo! Golisopod! Ya good?” he calls out, squinting into the remnants of the fog just so he will not have to look at Stella or Kukui.

He is answered with a round of splashing and cheerful, rapid clicking sounds; a moment later a soft breeze carries away the worst of the fog and Guzma can see Golisopod sitting in one of the little streams, splashing with its armored forearms and clicking happily. The water does not even come up to its waist.

Guzma covers his face with his hand and tries not to laugh, even as Kukui bursts into a fit of giggling.

“Awe!” Stella says, “Loki, you didn’t...hurt...it…?”

Guzma turns his head as Stella’s voice trails off.

Loki is waving to Golisopod; when he glances back toward his Pokémon, Golisopod is waving back.  Loki roars a little. Golisopod replies with a series of happy-clicks.

Kukui stops giggling and starts laughing in earnest. “Looks like your Pokémon get along better than you two, yeah?” he says. “At least somebody had fun!”

Guzma, dumbfounded, clicks his tongue at Golisopod. It splashes a couple more times before standing up and returning to his side.

“Li'l weirdo,” he mutters, though Golisopod hasn’t exactly been little for nearly a decade. “C’mon, get back in.” He rubs its head between its antennae before tossing its Pokéball into the air. Golisopod waves at Loki once more before disappearing inside.

“You too,” Stella murmurs, giving Loki one more scratch under the chin before recalling it into its Pokéball. She sighs as she hooks it back onto her belt loop, then looks up at them both, shoving her hair back from her forehead with both hands.

“I was, uh...well, no, I am sorry about Loki,” she says. “It's always been protective, see, but when it evolved it got to bein’ way fuckin’ worse and I -” 

Stella stops short, as if she has just remembered some disturbing piece of information...then she flushes scarlet and looks down at the ground, closing her eyes. 

Guzma pulls his sunglasses up once more as he and Kukui exchange another glance-and-shrug. 

By the time Stella lifts her head Guzma is hiding behind his sunglasses again. It seems to him that Stella has hidden behind something as well. He just can’t put his finger on what.

She drops her hands and folds them neatly in front of herself as she turns toward Kukui.

“I apologize for making a scene and getting you involved,” she says, and her voice is...different. Guzma frowns, trying to pinpoint what has changed about it; she still has the Kantoan accent, but...

“It will not happen again,” Stella finishes, inclining her upper body in a slight bow.

But it’s different, Guzma thinks, bewildered. How is it fuckin’ different?

Kukui - unused to such formality - rubs the back of his neck. “Stella, I just want to know if you’re okay, yeah? I’ve never seen you that angry before.”

“I’m fine. I don’t intend for you to see it again.”

She turns toward Guzma, but he cuts her off before she has so much as opened her mouth. “Save your Kanto-bowing shit,” he mumbles, wiping more blood from his lower lip with her bandanna. “I ain’t interested.” He turns away, intending to leave them both, but when Stella calls his name he stops and looks back over his shoulder.

“You did the right thing,” she says, mildly. “I would have clawed his eyes out.”

A strange chill runs down Guzma’s spine.

She’s serious, he thinks, She’s dead fuckin’ serious.

He moves away again, but only makes it a few steps before Stella hurries next to him. Guzma turns his head, irritated, and finds that she has one hand outstretched as if to touch his arm...but she doesn’t, not until he meets her eyes. Even then it is nothing more than a touch; no gripping fingers, not even the press of her palm, only her fingertips, resting lightly near his elbow as she asks him to look at her.

“I am lookin’ at ya. What d'ya want, girlie, damn?” he sighs. “I got shit to do.”

“Sunglasses don’t count,” she says. Her mouth curves into a little half-smile as she speaks, as if she knows all about hiding behind sunglasses...and Guzma wonders again how a twenty-something ends up with custody of their eleven year old sister.

“Tch.” He arranges his expression into something he hopes is suitably indifferent, then shoves his sunglasses up on top of his head. “Fine. Now what d’ya want?”

Her black eyes catch his. “You weren’t hurting me.”

Guzma’s stomach drops. His heartbeat pounds in his ears.

“Fuck are ya talkin’ about?” he mutters, shoving his hands - and Stella’s bloodied black bandanna - into the pockets of his sweats. He wants to look away, but Stella’s eyes demand his with all the pull of miniature black holes.

“I mean it,” she says, and Guzma realizes that her voice is low...so low it is almost intimate. “You weren’t hurting me at all, I don’t know why Kukui acted like that. Just don’t beat yourself up about it, okay?”

[Just trying to make you feel better, boy.]

Guzma cocks an eyebrow. His tongue ring clicks against his teeth and Stella’s eyes drop slightly, watching in something like fascination as he licks a bead of blood from his bottom lip.

“Didn't hurt ya, huh? That why ya decided to headbutt the shit outta me?” he asks at length, sneering a little.

Stella blinks a couple times as if pulling herself out of a trance, but when she looks up at him again her eyes draw him in just as much as before. “I didn’t do it because you were hurting me, no. I did it because I had to make you let me go...and I really didn’t mean to do it so hard.”

“Yeah, well, ya got a hard fuckin’ head, girlie,” he mutters, “And I woulda let ya go if ya woulda called off the goddamn hellcat. Like I fuckin’ told ya to.”

She smiles at him again, that almost-snarky little half-smile.

“Guzma, there was no way in hell I’d be able to call off Loki with you grabbing me like that,” she says, bemused. “If I’d tried it would have taken that to mean you were the threat...and it would have started fighting to get to you. And then we’d probably have Pokémon that hated each other instead of Pokémon that are friends.”

She breaks out into a full grin at the same time Guzma breaks out into a cold sweat, contemplating the terrifying implications of Stella’s words.

“I am sorry about splitting your lip open,” she adds, still in that intimately low voice, her eyes glinting and devilish. “I was gonna kiss it better...but you said no.”

She winks, then turns away and walks out of the Gardens, leaving Guzma staring speechless after her. As she passes by Luka and Kau’i she gives them a polite nod; they glance at one another, shrug, and nod back...and then she is gone.

Kukui walks up beside Guzma, hands laced behind his head.

“The hell was all that about, I wonder?” he says. “I've seen you snap like that, yeah, but I’ve never even heard her raise her voice.”

The fuck was that about? That and everything that came before it?

He thumbs blood away from his lip without really feeling it.

The fuck is she about, period? And the fuck was up with her voice?

“Dunno,” Guzma mutters at length, speaking to himself more than to Kukui. “But I’m gonna find out.”

Kukui snickers a little and Guzma turns toward him, cutting his eyes.

“‘Cause she’s a pain in the ass,” he clarifies, “That I don’t wanna fuckin’ deal with any more if I can help it.”

“Uh huh,” Kukui says.

Guzma ignores him. “Luka! Kau’i!”

The two grunts look up at him, heads cocked to the side, waiting.

“Find that Vet trainer,” Guzma orders. “I did say we wouldn’t fuck with him, so don’t scare him if ya can help it, but I wanna know what the hell he did to make Stella lose her shit.”

“We gotcha covered, boss,” Luka says. “C’mon, Kau’i.”

As the two of them exit the gardens, Kukui asks, “How old are they?”

“Luka and Kau’i?” Guzma spits blood and shrugs. As preoccupied as he is, he forgets that he and Kukui don’t talk anymore...or that they shouldn’t. “Nineteen, I think. Used to follow me around when they were younger. Aged outta foster care with nowhere to go.”

“And they’re your...what?” Kukui asks. “Bodyguards...?”

Guzma’s shoulders tense. He cuts his eyes at Kukui again, suspicious. “Said ya weren’t gonna lecture, Professor.”

“I’m not, cousin, I swear,” Kukui replies quietly. “They just...they trust you, yeah? A lot. You must have done something to earn that.”

Guzma pulls his sunglasses down again, moving toward the Gardens entrance. “Later, Kukui.”

"Guzma.”

He ought to ignore him. Another day, he might have. Instead he stops and looks back, lifting his sunglasses with one hand and arching an eyebrow.

“I’m sorry,” Kukui says. “For thinking you’d hurt her.”

Guzma says nothing. He pulls his sunglasses down, throws his hood up, and stuffs his hands into his pockets, turning to follow the two grunts out of Malie Gardens...then pauses at the last second, running his tongue over the wound in his lower lip. This time he doesn’t look back.

“Thanks for the heads up about suit guy,” he says, and walks away.

Chapter Text

1.

He is reluctant to wake.

He clings to sleep and oblivion and darkness the way a frightened child clings to a blanket, but the incessant pounding in his head has no sympathy. It shoves him closer and closer to consciousness with every beat of his heart.

Awareness comes in stages. The headache is first and foremost, a ring of tension constricting his skull that radiates outward from a point behind his left eye. The pain in his jaw is a close second, as if his body does not remember how to unclench his teeth.

The inside of his mouth is dry and foul; the image of a litter box drifts across his mind and the next thing he knows he is choking on his own vomit. He tries to roll to his side but his limbs seem to be made of heavy sandbags. Acid trickles up into his sinuses.

[Pathetic.]

The anger is dull, but it provides him with just enough energy and motivation to throw himself toward the side of the bed. He leans over, head swimming from the sudden movement, and proceeds to throw up what feels like a gallon of liquid. Even after his body has rejected everything in his stomach the smell alone is enough to give him the dry heaves.

Rotten coconuts, he thinks, Rotten coconuts and rubbin’ alcohol -

His throat constricts and pain lances through his chest, but nothing more will come up.

For awhile he lies there in limbo, sprawled sideways on his bed with his head and one arm dangling over the edge, too exhausted to even shift himself away from the sour reek of regurgitated coconut rum.

He isn’t sure how long it takes him to try to sit up, but he knows he shouldn’t be moving as soon as he pushes himself up from the bed. His vision swims and his headache trebles; the acid bubbling in his throat is both nauseating and excruciating.

Guzma grits his teeth, sneers at the misery of his body, and forces it into a sitting position.

Very little light escapes the heavy blackout curtains over his windows and he has to squint through the shadows in order to take stock of the damage.

His phone is on the floor across the room, surrounded by shards of glass and other debris. It is most likely plaster. He does tend to throw things at the wall when he has been drinking.

Hope I broke the fuckin’ thing.

The mirror above his dresser is cracked in a new place. Many more nights like this, and he’ll need to replace it again. His Pokéballs are untouched as usual, but everything else on his dresser has been raked off onto the floor: Pokémon toys and treats, several sticks of half-used tattoo sunscreen, and a slew of white hair ties; his Team Skull chain and a dozen others, two pairs of broken sunglasses, and the one asymmetrical pair he has managed to keep whole; empty plastic water bottles and a rainbow of empty energy drink cans. His switchblade and his wallet are likely buried in the pile as well...at least he hopes they are. He doesn’t exactly remember what he did with them.

He glances down at his bedside table, just in case. There is no switchblade and no wallet, but there is a lamp with no shade and a missing bulb, a half-empty handle of dark coconut rum, and a large bottle of over-the-counter painkillers.

A prickle of apprehension creeps up his spine. He reaches for the painkillers and twists off the lid, taking little notice of his shaking, aching hands.

He heaves a sigh of relief at the sight of the unbroken safety film, then immediately shoves his thumb through it and shakes two pills into his palm. He starts to replace the lid, hesitates, and adds a third. He tosses the them into the back of his throat, dry-swallowing them past his remaining nausea as he sets the bottle back on his nightstand. He takes a deep breath and counts to ten.

Standing up is not quite so difficult as sitting up had been, but Guzma still has to hold his arms out for balance until his vision clears and the room stops spinning. Once he has regained a little of his equilibrium he heads for the pile of dirty laundry in the far corner, bracing one hand against the wall when he leans over to paw through it.

He finds a towel and throws it down over where he had vomited on the carpet, stifling the awful rotten coconut smell somewhat. The carpet itself  is already covered in so many stains that one more does not particularly concern him. What concerns him right now is the fact that he feels disgusting, and it isn’t just the headache, the acid reflux, the sour aftertaste of his own sickness. It’s his entire body, his entire being.

He is not about to turn on the lights; he doesn’t have to see himself to know that he needs a shower.

Why bother?

He grits his teeth against his own mind and heads for the door of his bathroom.

Your hands ain’t ever gonna be fuckin’ clean, so why?

“Fuck my hands,” he mutters, and slams the door behind himself hard enough to make the pain in his head lance white-bright. “Ain’t worried about my goddamn hands.”

He shuffles toward the sink, squinting irritably as his eyes adjust to the brighter light. His bedroom is is like a cave, but in here the sunlight streaming through the high windows seems as bright as an LED flashlight in his face.

He fumbles for the knobs and turns them both. Water pours from the faucet with enough pressure to ricochet off the porcelain and splash against his stomach, but Guzma does not bother turning it down. He sticks his hands under the water, intending to splash his face -

“Shit!”

He snatches his hands back, bringing them up to his face for a closer look as if he does not already know what he will find.

His knuckles are bruised and raw. A few of them are swollen. The skin is split open and bleeding anew where the water pressure has broken the scabs and the backs of his hands are mottled in shades of yellow and purple.

“Shit,” he breathes, closing his eyes. “Shit.”

He assumes the worst because it is a safe assumption, but it fills him with such intense loathing that he cannot even bear to raise his eyes to the mirror. He turns off the water and heads toward the shower, stepping into the tub and sliding the door closed without even bothering to take off his boxers. His back hits the cold tile and he slides down, gooseflesh crawling over his skin. He pulls up the diverter and turns on the cold water.

The spray is like ice. It shatters through him, destroying any remaining drowsiness and shocking him so deeply that he gasps aloud. Within seconds he is shivering, teeth chattering, but he makes no effort to move.

Blood on your hands.

He closes his eyes beneath a curtain of soaking wet white hair and slams his head back against the tile wall. The sick ache settles deeper.

She’s the one that’s sick.

For the first time there is no part of him that tries to make excuses.

Guzma had prepared himself for her anger. He had known exactly how it would manifest and he had promised himself that he would not let it get to him, that this time he would not allow himself to forget the truth, and he had not forgotten but it had not been enough.

Lusamine’s disappointment was a facade but the hurt in her voice stuck with him nonetheless, stuck in his throat like a piece of overripe fruit, a thick, cloying sweetness just starting to go to rot.

Like her.

The thought still seems like betrayal. For so long the very idea of betraying Lusamine has been unthinkable, unfathomable.

She understood him.

Guzma laughs, loud and rough. It echoes off the tile. He bashes his head back again.

Lyin’ to yourself. Like she’s been lyin’ to you.

He clenches his shaking hands into fists and opens his eyes, watching blood swirl off his skin and down toward the drain.

[You’re pathetic, boy.]

“Don’t I fuckin’ know it,” he mutters.

[You knew she was feeding you bullshit and what did you do?]

Guzma bashes his head against the tile again.

[You ate it up and asked for more. Fucking pathetic.]

He had known. He had known, ever since he accepted the little gilt-and-white invitation for a private tour of Aether Paradise he had known. He had known and preened under her flattery regardless, because she was paying attention to him and attention was enough.

[How desperate can you be, boy?]

- Aether Paradise gleams white and pure around him, gleams like her smile as she stands on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek, gleams like her eyes and Guzma pretends not to see it, pretends not to notice the cruelty there as she thanks him for coming because no one has been so pleased to see him in so long -

For awhile it had been an addiction. Never mind that she lied through her teeth with every word she spoke; it felt so good to hear her lies, to be comforted by them.

Guzma buries his aching hands into his hair.

- She takes his hands in hers under the shade of one of the conservatory trees and the sunlight filtering through the green canopy above them turns her into something beautiful and terrible, ethereal and not quite human and Guzma does not know if he is infatuated or terrified or both but her voice is so soft and so kind and so unlike anything he has heard in years, and she praises him, praises him for not completing the Island Challenge and assures him that the captains and kahunas do nothing but exploit Pokémon for their own selfish gains and Guzma has proven himself better, so much better by refusing to be a part of it, and he sees her eyes and the warmth of the sun does not touch them but she looks up at him through her lashes and her platinum hair and her voice trembles a little as she confesses how very much she admires his refusal to participate in such a system -

Guzma digs his nails into his scalp until they prick through his skin, until the water running down from his white hair flows faintly pink.

[Guzma, what is wrong with you?]

Last night he had finally answered his phone after nearly a week of ignoring her. He remembers talking to her in the backyard...

(( Don’t let that pretty little Kantoan girl distract you, Guzma. I would hate for you to be found out because you put your trust in someone you shouldn't. ))

...remembers her soft, teasing laughter, like the tinkling of a bell...or a death knell...

(( Besides, you know I’m mighty jealous. I need you too much! I’m counting on you to rescue Cosmog from Lillie, but you must make sure that that Kantoan girl and her sister stay out of our business. The kahuna’s grandson, too. You just get me Cosmog and keep them away from Po Town however you have to. ))

...and he remembers the hurt in her voice…

(( Just do as I say and I won't have to worry about you...and you won’t have to worry about that Kantoan girl. So please don’t make me worry any more, Guzma. I do hate it when you make me worry. ))

...and he does not remember very much after that. The veiled threat toward Stella, the faux hurt and jealousy had crawled so deeply under his skin that he had tried to drown it. It is the sort of thing that a loving, long-suffering girlfriend might say to her callous, cruel boyfriend, except Lusamine is not loving, and he is not her boyfriend.

He’s her pet.

He has done everything she has asked of him. Everything, anything.

[And for what, boy? To hear the pretty lady say nice things about you?]

Guzma peels the scab off his split lip with his teeth. He spits and lets the water carry it away, then digs his teeth into the wound.

He is her pet and she has him on a short leash. She could rein him in at any moment and no one would notice that he was actually being strangled to death.

[Make the world a better place.]

Lusamine’s praise is poison and all her pretty words terrify him. Anyone hearing her speak the night before would have believed her to be deeply wounded, but Guzma knows the truth, has always known it, and now he is no longer able to ignore it.

[You’re weak.]

The Aether Foundation’s reputation is flawless, its power extensive. One word from Lusamine and Guzma will be behind bars, Alola's lax police force be damned.

It wouldn’t even have to be a true word.

And this time he is too old for juvenile detention.

[Weak and selfish.]

He has turned himself and his crew into Pokémon thieves for Lusamine.

[So desperate for attention you forget what you deserve.]

He hates himself more for letting her get to him than he does for any Pokémon he has ever stolen.

[Good for nothing lowlife. What is wrong with you?]

He grits his teeth.

They just go live in the conservatory anyway. Cosmog will too.

Guzma shivers. It has nothing to do with the cold water.

So Lusamine says.

Faint threads of pink continue to swirl down the drain. He watches, mesmerized.

No escape. Not any more.

He takes a deep breath and exhales for a count of ten.

Guzma gets to his feet slowly, balancing himself against the tile wall until the world stops spinning. He pushes his boxers down his hips and kicks them toward the back of the tub, then grabs the bottle of combination shampoo-and-body-wash that Plumeria throws at him every few weeks and starts washing away the smell of sweat and coconut rum.


2.

“What d’ya mean I didn’t fuckin’ hit nobody?”

Plumeria rolls her eyes. “I mean exactly that. Why are you so surprised? You haven’t actually hit anybody in months. Hell, you haven't even hit anybody who matters in over a year.”

Guzma sits hunched forward on his throne with his elbows propped on his knees as he studies his battered hands. When Plumeria reaches for one he snatches them away, leaning back and crossing his arms instead.

Plumeria holds up her palms and steps back as she shakes her head.

“Have you even put anything on them?” she sighs. Her nose wrinkles and she turns to cough into the crook of her arm. “And why the hell does it smell like straight up bleach in here?”

Guzma’s eyes dart toward the pile of pink-splotched towels covering the carpet next to his bed. "No reason,” he mumbles, “And nah, I showered this mornin’.”

Plumeria leans against his throne, frowning down at him. “That doesn’t count and you know it. If you’d just let Inara -”

“I’m fine.” Guzma shifts away from her yet again, propping an elbow on the opposite arm of his throne. “Just wanna know what the fuck I hit, since apparently it ain’t a person.”

“I’m sure there’s a new hole in the plaster somewhere around here,” she mutters. “Is this what I should expect every time you talk to Lusamine from now on?”

“Fuck off,” Guzma grumbles. “Ain’t it supposed to be Luka and Kau’i watchin’ my door?”

“Luka and Kau’i were out all night tracking down that Vet trainer,” Plumeria replies. She crosses toward his dresser, giving up on his hands in favor of straightening out the pile of junk he had unceremoniously dumped back on top of it earlier. “They ended up having to get Gladion to handle it, because the guy wouldn’t talk to them. All three of them got back late. They needed sleep, and since nobody knew what kinda mood you were gonna be in, I volunteered for guard duty. Why do you care what got into Stella, anyway?”

Guzma ignores her. “The kid okay?”

Plumeria shrugs. “Still rude and broody, but I got lots of practice with that, thanks to you. I let him sleep on the loveseat in my room. Far as I know he’s still knocked out. I think he’s had run-ins with Stella’s brat pack before. Which brings us back to the real question: why’d you send grunts to find out why Stella had a temper tantrum in Malie?”

Guzma snorts, rising from his throne and coming up behind Plumeria’s back. “I want Luka and Kau’i back,” he says, reaching over her to grab Golisopod’s Pokéball and the five Net Balls. “They don’t ask questions.”

“I ask ‘cause you used to talk to me,” Plumeria snaps, her voice uncharacteristically high. She picks up one of the necklaces, a Sharpedo tooth on a worn leather cord, and scrapes her thumb over the point.

“If I just keep trying maybe you will again,” she finishes quietly.

“Tch.” Guzma tucks the Pokéballs into the pockets of his cutoff sweats and turns away, pulling his asymmetrical sunglasses down over his eyes almost before Plumeria has finished speaking. “Dunno what you’re talkin’ about.”

He grabs something ragged and black from the pile of mostly-clean clothes next to his dresser. The hoodie lacks sleeves - he hacked them off with his switchblade ages ago - and it no longer zips, but it has a hood and it has pockets, which is all Guzma cares about at the moment. He shrugs into it as he moves toward his bed, then grabs his phone, pulls it off the charger and tucks it into one of the hoodie pockets.

Plumeria swears under her breath. Guzma turns to look at her in time to see the Sharpedo tooth clatter onto his dresser as she turns toward him, standing with her shoulders hunched and her fists clenched tightly at her sides, the way she would as a kid when she would yell at him for pulling her pigtails or getting her dress dirty.

Guzma shoves the memory out of his mind. He leaves his sunglasses on, hoping she won’t notice that he can’t meet the flickering yellow flame of her eyes.

“You know what? There’s no point in trying to act hard around me, cousin,” she says with a scowl. “I know you.”

“That so?” Guzma twists his mouth into an ugly smirk. “That why ya gotta ask so many questions?”

“Yes!” Her eyes are wide, as if this should be obvious. “Because I know you’re not okay, but for some reason you think that nobody gives a shit about you -”

Guzma laughs; it is short, rough, and unkind. “And for some reason ya seem to think I give a shit ‘bout who gives a shit.”

“Guzma, I know you do,” she says, and both her voice and her eyes soften somewhat as she steps toward him. “I grew up with you, you jackass -”

His heartbeat speeds up and Guzma crosses his arms, closing her out. “For ‘bout twelve years,” he replies, and his voice is cruel in its mildness. “‘Til ya fucked off to Kalos. Maybe you oughta head back to finishin’ school, cousin. This ain’t how a lady should behave.”

He hates himself as soon as the words are out of his mouth. They have the intended effect; Plumeria stops short, but Guzma does not look away in time to avoid the brief, stricken expression on her face, and the sight hits him like a punch to the gut.

“That is not fair. And you know it.” Plumeria’s voice is unsteady but fierce. “I would never have left you alone, Guzma, but I was a child. I had no say.”

Guzma closes his eyes behind the dark lenses of his sunglasses. “Guess what?” he hisses. “Neither did I.”

He keeps his eyes closed and his teeth clenched. He wants her to leave, wants to be left alone before he has to push any more than he already has.

“I know that.” She sighs as if she is exhausted, then takes a deep breath.

“And it’s shitty of you to blame me for it,” she continues, her voice like stone. “Even If I know you don’t mean it.”

Guzma doesn’t breathe until he hears his door close.

As soon as it does he tears his sunglasses off his face and tosses them onto his bed, raking both hands back and forth through his white hair until is staticky and wild.

“Fuckin’ shit,” he mutters, beginning to pace as he tries to fight off the tension creeping up his spine and into his shoulders. “Just leave me the fuck alone, why the fuck can nobody fuckin’ leave me alone?!”

His voice rises until he finds himself bellowing the last few words, shoulders hunched and tight, hands curled into painful fists. He lets out a snarl of frustration and before he realizes what he is doing he lashes out, driving his battered knuckles into the wall near the door.

The plaster buckles beneath his hand. Cracks radiate outward in nearly-concentric circles. Guzma stares at his hand, stares at the damage he has caused; it takes him several moments to realize that it is his phone that is ringing, not his head.

He pulls his fist back, leaving the bloody outline of his knuckles printed against the crumbling white plaster. He pulls his phone from his pocket. He is so certain that it is Lusamine that he does not even bother to look at the number before picking up.

“Yo.” He closes his eyes and rubs his temples with his thumb and middle finger.

“Guzma? Honey? Is everything all right?”

He nearly drops his phone. He has not heard his mother’s voice in well over a year, possibly closer to two. The last he knew she and his father were thinking of moving to Unova, the region where his father had grown up.

“Guzma, please, are you in trouble? Guzma?”

She is afraid. He can tell right away - even after all this time - that she is afraid, and he cannot find it in himself to be an ass when she is afraid. He leans his forehead against his bedroom wall and inhales, trying to steady his voice.

“No more than usual, ma,” he mumbles. “What is it?”

“A man in a suit came by the house this morning, asking about you, and your father…”

Guzma’s free hand clenches into a fist. It has nothing to do with the man in the suit.

“...your father, well, he ran him off, but it was so unusual and I was so worried…”

A bubble of fear forms in his chest. He is so tense that it hurts to talk, but he cuts her off before she can get much further. “Mom. Mom. Does he know you’re talkin’ to me?”

“No, honey,” his mother says. “No, he’s out right now.”

Guzma sighs. Thank the Tapu.

“Well delete the call history when ya hang up,” he says. “And don’t call back, aight? I don’t know about any guy in a suit and I ain’t got nothin’ to say to y’all anyway.”

“I…” She pauses and clears her throat. “Okay, honey. I understand.”

Guzma clenches his teeth and squeezes his eyes closed. “Delete. Your. Call. History.”

“I will, Guzma,” she says. “I lo -”

Guzma taps END.

He drops his phone on the floor. He wants to get away, intends to walk out of Shady House and Po Town and into the woods where he can finally be alone, but when he opens his bedroom door he finds Plumeria, her fist raised to knock.

She blinks in surprise, then lowers her arm, arranging her face into a mask of neutrality. “It’s Stella,” she says flatly. “She’s at the gates and wants to speak to you.”

Guzma grits his teeth. “Tell her to fuck off.”

“Tell her yourself.” Plumeria’s voice and expression both remain indifferent as she steps to the side to let him pass.

I deserve that.

His headache is creeping in again, tugging at the nerves behind his left eye.

“Fine,” he mutters, looking down at beaten-up hands. “Might as well make it clear.”

He throws up his hood, shoves his hands into his pockets, and heads to the gates.


3.

Guzma fully intends for the first words out of his mouth to be Fuck off.

Really, he does. It’s on the tip of his tongue.

He keeps his eyes on Stella as he approaches, trying to desensitize himself to her appearance; that's what keeps distracting him, after all.

It has to be.

Right?

She ain’t fuckin’ cute. Just 'cause you'd fuck her don't make her cute.

Stella leans against the inside wall of Po Town, next to the open gates. She is looking down at her phone; every few seconds her too-long bangs feather down into her eyes and he tucks them away with an absent little frown.

Guzma shifts his gaze away from her face.

As usual she looks like she belongs in Po Town, spray-painting skulls in the bottom of swimming pools and wrecking abandoned houses in Pokémon battles. He’s seen the black floral t-shirt she is wearing in the Malie boutique, but Stella has cut off the sleeves and half the length besides. The rest is tied up into a crop top. She wears neon pink crew socks and impeccable white and pink sneakers, as well as those same frayed black denim shorts -

Is that…?

Guzma squints against the light. The needling pain behind his eye intensifies, but he isn’t seeing things. On Stella’s hips, just above the waistband of her shorts, are the stark black edges of tattoos.

He puts his curiosity into a stranglehold before it can get much further.

Don’t fuckin’ matter. Get rid of her. Like Lusa -

Stella looks up from her phone and her face lights up with a grin, as if she could not be happier to see him. Her black eyes are softer when she smiles and Guzma's train of thought derails entirely just as he stops in front of her.

She don't look so much like the kid 'til she smiles, he thinks, remembering how Moon had beamed up at him after throwing her arms around his waist. 

“I’m glad you came,” Stella says as she tucks her phone into her back pocket. “I wasn’t sure you would.”

Guzma finds his tongue and opens his mouth to tell her to fuck off.

What comes out is:

“Fuck wouldn’t I?”

Stella's smile shifts into a smirk. Guzma closes his eyes, pinching the crooked bridge of his nose.

Shit.

“Ain’t like I had much choice, I mean,” he clarifies, shoving his hand back into his pocket and tossing his messy hair out of his eyes. “The fuck ya want, girlie.”

“I wanted to ask your permission to train around Po Town.”

Guzma blinks. He isn't sure what he was expecting, but that was...not it.

“My permission?”

Stella raises her eyebrows and nods slowly, as if this should be obvious. “You do control this area,” she says. “So, yeah, I’m asking your permission.”

Guzma arches an eyebrow. She's not wrong, but no one has ever asked to enter the area around Po Town. They just show up, and eventually either the grunts run them off or Nanu's cryptic warnings scare them off. It's not an area that most people are itching to enter, even if it's only to train.

“Why here?” he asks, suspicious. “Ain’t ya got brats to babysit?”

Stella rolls her eyes with a sigh, blowing her bangs out of her face. “The kids are getting ready for Acerola’s trial,” she explains. “Well, Moon and Hau are, anyway. They’ll be staying close to Tapu Village for a couple weeks. Kukui is gonna be there too, doing stuff with the contractors building the League, and Lillie is with him doing...assistant stuff, I guess. Whatever, my point is they don’t need me right now, and I need to train. I’d like to do it here, if that’s all right with you.”

“Uh huh.” Guzma crosses his arms. “Thought ya were doin’ the trials too. Shouldn’t ya be stayin’ around there yaself?”

Stella shakes her head with an incredulous little laugh. "Okay, honestly, what is it with you Alolans and the Island Challenge? That's all anyone talks about, all they ever ask the kids about!”

Guzma narrows his eyes, offended almost on instinct despite how much he himself hates hearing about the trials. "It's tradition. Watch it, girlie."

Stella sighs again, pushing her short hair straight back from her forehead before looking up at him once more.

"I apologize," she says. "I know how important the trials are culturally. And I...I really do appreciate that Kukui gave Moon the chance to participate in something like this, considering...well, just...considering."

Stella looks off to the side and crosses her arms.

"I, uh. I'm from...Kanto," she says, and though Guzma quirks an eyebrow at the hesitation he says nothing.

"I'm from Kanto but I never collected gym badges," she continues. "Back there most kids who want to be trainers, like, League-challenging trainers, they're expected to challenge the gyms, yeah. But if that's not what they want to do, or if they decide halfway through that it's not what they want to do, or even if they just give up because it's hard and not fun any more, no one, like...looks down on them for it. Because they're kids. So I guess I'm just...weirded out, because around here it seems like there's all this stigma attached to people who don't finish the trials."

Guzma grits his teeth as he struggles to keep his face impassive. “What, little sister havin’ second thoughts?”

“What? Oh, no. No, Moon, she's...she’s having a blast.” Stella smiles again; this one seems shy, almost private somehow, as if she does not quite realize she’s doing it. “I’m so happy for her. But that's because she's happy, she's having fun. So I'm glad she's doing it but I also don’t ever want her to feel like it’s something she has to do, you know?”

“No," Guzma murmurs. “I don’t.”

"I mean..." Stella chews her lip for a moment, then continues, "I mean if it stops being fun for her, or she needs to take a break, or she just doesn't want to do it any more, I don't want her to feel bad about that. I don't want anyone to make her feel bad about that. 'Cause she shouldn't. She's still just a kid, she shouldn’t feel like her life’s worth is determined by the outcome of these trials.”

Guzma looks away.

“What should be don’t mean shit,” he says flatly.

“Yes, it does,"  Stella replies, and her voice is suddenly so tight that Guzma glances back at her in surprise.

Her crossed arms are tense and her eyes once more look like cold chips of black stone. "No one is going to make my sister feel guilty for something that isn't her goddamn fault. Not as long as I'm breathing." She swallows hard and pushes her bangs out of her eyes again, as if she realizes how strange her intensity is.

"Anyway. My point is, no, I'm not doing the trials. The trial guides are only legally allowed to hold back minors, so I'm free to go wherever I want. I usually choose to stay with the kids 'cause I like knowing that Moon is all right, but since they'll be close to the village I'm not so worried."

Guzma eyes her from beneath the shadow of his hood. He has rarely heard anyone talk that way about the trials; either she is lying, trying to ingratiate herself to him somehow, or she really...

Don't matter. It can't fuckin' matter.  

“Whatever. The kid’s in Tapu Village, fine. Ya wanna train, fine. But ya damn sure didn’t ask permission the last time I caught ya out here.” Guzma narrows his eyes. “So why so polite all the sudden, girlie?”

“Because I didn’t ask last time,” Stella answers, a hint of annoyance creeping into her voice. “Look, it’s obvious to everyone on the damn islands that you are in charge of this area, not any captain or kahuna or whatever, Nanu be damned. I figured I should show some respect and ask before I started training up my team on your turf. If you don’t want me around, fine, but for fuck sake I’m not trying to trick you or spy on you or some shit, okay?"

If Guzma still had it in him to tell her to fuck off...but he doesn’t. Not now. His chest is tight, filled with a deep, dull ache that he can't connect to anything physical, and listening to Stella only makes it worse.

Instead, he fucks up.

He doesn’t mean to fuck up, but Lusamine made his job clear.

(( Do as I say and I won't have to worry about you...and you won't have to worry about that Kantoan girl. ))

He has to get away from her and he has to get her out of here.

“Tch.” He swipes his thumb beneath his nose, unable to meet her eyes. “You’d do better to keep followin’ those brats around, yo. Make sure they stay outta Team Skull’s business, ‘fore they get hurt.”

The words have scarcely left his mouth when he realizes that he has spoken badly.

Stella’s teeth click together. Her stark brows furrow down above her nose and her eyes begin to narrow as she clenches her jaw. She curls her hands into fists and the muscles in her upper arms grow tense. Guzma takes a step backward despite himself; Stella may be small, but right now she radiates more danger than any wild Pokémon he has ever encountered.

“If you or any of your grunts lay a fuckin’ finger on my sister," she snarls through her teeth, "Then even the fuckin’ Tapu ain’t gonna be able to save your ass, see?”

There it is again.

Guzma cuts his eyes at her, thrown off by the shift in her voice. A familiar accent clings to the words she spits at him...familiar, but not Kantoan.

Not standard Kantoan, at any rate.

Don’t matter! It don't fuckin' matter! Get your shit together!

Her accent doesn't change her words; Guzma has no doubt that Stella is telling the truth, but she has no idea what kind of danger Moon and the other two brats could get into if they keep sticking their noses into Team Skull’s business.

‘Cause Team Skull’s business is the Aether Foundation’s business.

He clenches his teeth; pain echoes in his head, deepening the agony behind his eye.

I gotta get her outta here so she don't wanna come back.

“Tch.” He curls his lip in a sneer. “That's some pretty heavy shit talkin’, girlie.”

“Call it what ya want.” Accent or not, Stella’s voice is as flat and final as the last nail in the lid of a coffin. “Hurt her and I make your life hell.”

He doesn't doubt it, but she still doesn't get it. He grinds his teeth in a last ditch effort to keep from lashing out, but a bolt of pain lances from his jaw up into his skull and his temper begins to fray.

“Ya doin’ a good job of that already, girlie,” he snarls. “If you’re that goddamn protective of the brat then the fuck are ya doin’ here? Go be a fuckin’ pain in her ass instead’a mine.”

“You fuckin’ threatened -”

Guzma clenches his hands into fists inside his hoodie, so tight that his nails bite into his skin and his battered knuckles sting. He cuts her off before she can finish, all but shouting at her.

“I ain't threatened shit!” He steps toward her, trying to make her back down, but Stella does not move; they end up inches apart, eyes locked in a mutual glare so intense that Guzma could not look away even if he wanted to. Her eyes are arresting, haunting, twin black voids that hint at a kind of horror that hits a little too close to home, and suddenly Guzma hates her.

He hates her with the intense, irrational petulance of a child, because she thinks he is sick enough to hurt kids, to let his grunts hurt kids, not just beat them in a Pokémon battle but hurt them...

[You could, boy. You would.]

...and yet he knows that he has never given her any reason to think otherwise.

“We’re a goddamn gang and she’s a kid," he growls, managing to temper the volume of his voice if not the tone. “She ain't got no business bein’ near us. My crew ain't gonna be beatin’ up on any fuckin’ little girl, but her Pokémon are a whole different story.”

Guzma leans over Stella, forcing her to tilt her head back to keep her eyes on his.

“Ya wanna make sure she’s safe?” He asks, walking forward, forcing her out of the gates, wrangling his anger into something sharp and condescending. “Make sure she can keep her goddamn team conscious. That’ll do her more good than you standin’ around talkin’ shit ever will.”

Stella’s eyes grow wide. At last she falters, breaking the tension between them; she blinks and looks down at the ground, bewildered.

A thick, blunt drill bit of pain is boring into his brain from his left eye; a jagged rainbow aura blooms at the periphery of his vision and Guzma has to fight to keep his eyes open. He has won, but there is no pleasure in it and that, more than anything else, is why he needs to get away from her, from those black-as-sin eyes, from her mysterious accent and her tattoos and all the things she says that make sense, from whatever the hell it is about her that has her stuck in his head like splinters in his knuckles.

“Get out there and train all ya fuckin’ want. Or don't. I don't give a shit,” he mutters, turning his back on her and heading back inside the gates. “Watch out for the fuckin’ Fearow.”

He waves a hand and the grunts swing the gates closed behind him. Guzma stalks back toward Shady House without a word, half-blind from the emerging migraine, a whirlwind of emotions wreaking havoc in his chest.

[Girl’s weak. Just like you.]

The muscles in his neck and shoulders are tight as a coiled spring. Every single grunt that sees him hurries to look away and their fear settles like a lead weight in his stomach.


 4.

Luka and Kau’i have returned to their posts. They, at least, do not look away from him, though they do regard him with nervous unease.

"Want us to keep everybody out, boss?" Luka asks. "The kid's been wanting to see you, but he can catch you up later...?"

"Later on that, yeah." Guzma scrubs his hands over his face. The pain in his head is becoming nauseating, but there is still more work to do. "Kau'i, I need ya to round up some grunts for me."

"Ten-four, boss," he says with a nod. "Who ya need?"

"You two, Inara, Plumes..."

If she'll fuckin' speak to me.

"...and, uh...those twins, she's got the grass team that kicked your ass so bad -"

Kau'i huffs. "Leia."

"Yeah, her. And her brother Koa -"

"Who beat the shit outta me," Luka mutters darkly.

"Whatever. I ain't askin' y'all to battle for my fuckin' entertainment. Just get the both of 'em," Guzma snaps, pushing past them into his bedroom. "The kid too, if he's still around. Don't fuckin' bother me 'til they're all here."

He shuts the door behind himself before either of them can reply, then crosses toward his dresser, picking up his phone as he goes. He turns it off without checking it and drops it into the mess atop his dresser before leaning heavily against it and raising his eyes to the cracked mirror.

He is in so much pain that if he had looked up to find his left eye dangling from the socket he wouldn't have even been surprised; as it is the only testament to the visceral agony in his skull is a greyish pallor and bloodshot eyes.

A fishhook snatches sharply on the nerves behind his left eye. The pain is sickening. Guzma sucks in his breath, then gags as he tries to exhale.

[Weak.]

“Fuck it,” he mumbles, struggling to get control of himself. “Fuck it, fuck it.”

He yanks open the smallest top drawer with shaking hands. Squinting to see past the gleaming auras, he begins to sift through a slew of pill bottles. The drawer is full of them, prescriptions that he has been given and rarely taken, and somewhere in there is the one for the migraines.

[If you're going to be pathetic...]

Guzma freezes. In his mind he sees himself opening all the pill bottles, one by one, swallowing the contents by the handful.

[Go ahead and make the world a better place.]

The vision is so clear and vivid that he has to do a double take at his palm to make sure there is only one pill in it; even so, he drops the bottle and the pill both back into the drawer and slams it shut.

He trudges up the platform and throws himself into his throne, then closes his eyes and waits for the grunts to arrive.

Chapter Text

1.

Guzma checks out of consciousness the second he is alone, leaving Plumeria to decide what to do with Gladion.

What she decides to do is feed him. The kid is always too skinny and always ravenous, though wild Rapidash couldn’t drag it out of him to say so.

He’s like Guzma. Never says what he wants or needs even when it’s so obvious it’s painful.

She stares down at the grilled cheese sizzling away in the skillet. It’s the third one she’s made for the kid and really the only thing she’s any good at cooking...and Guzma had taught her how to make it in the first place.

She flips the sandwich over without really seeing it.

Brown hair tied in pigtail braids, Kalos-style, perfectly manicured child-sized fingers wrapped around the ends, tugging nervously because Guzma wants to break the rules.

“Ya mean ya don’t know how t’cook nothin’?”

She crosses her arms and the lacy ruffles of her pink pajama top are itchy against her skin and she sticks out her tongue so he won’t see she’s scared.

“‘Course I don’t! Why should I? Mama’s got the cook for that!”

“But if he cooks somethin’ ya don’t like Aunt Heli don’t let ya eat nothin’ else, right?” he asks and one hand is still on the door and he’s going to get them in so much trouble but her stomach is growling and she grabs for one of her braids, chews on it and doesn’t answer.

“S’what I thought,” he says, “I know how it is, my dad....”

He knows how it is and she knows how his dad is, knows his dad makes her mom look like a saint and Plumeria wants to burst into tears but she doesn’t want Guzma to call her a baby so instead she looks away and she talks like her mother.

“I shoulda just eaten if I didn’t wanna be hungry,” she says, but Guzma rolls his eyes and yanks one of her pigtails.

“Kids ain’t s’posed to be hungry,” he says, “Now are ya comin’ with me or not? I’ll go by myself and make ya a grilled cheese but if I show ya how, I ain’t gotta worry about ya not eatin'.”

He grins at her and he’s missing one of his front teeth and his left eye is bruised black. He’s seven and she’s five and she loves him, loves him like her own brother, thinks of him as her brother -

Scalding hot butter pops onto her arm and Plumeria flinches backward as she flips the sandwich. She had been cooking by reflex.

She glances toward Gladion, shoving the unbidden memory away and watching him devour the last of the second grilled cheese from the corner of her eye. He’s a strange kid. He is sitting on a battered barstool at a paint-splattered kitchen counter, eating off a paper plate shaped like a Spoink’s face (the pack had also included Skitty, Lillipup, and Hoothoot). Yet his back is perfectly straight and the paper towel in his lap is neatly folded, as if he is more accustomed to dining rooms and tablecloths and linen napkins.

Like I was.

Plumeria sighs, more annoyed with Guzma than ever for provoking this unwanted trip down memory lane. Despite all his manners Gladion always eats like he’s half starved, and that had been Guzma’s problem too, hadn’t it? Eating like he didn’t know when he’d get a real meal again every time he was over at her house, even eating the weird fancy stuff that Plumeria wouldn’t -

Stop it before you start feeling guilty for shit that isn’t your fault.

Gladion’s appetite may be as bottomless as ever, but the more she looks at him the more she realizes that he looks just a little less bony than usual.

“Someone else been feeding you, or is your appetite finally catching up to your growth spurt? You’re not as scrawny as I’m used to.” She takes care not to turn and look at him as she speaks; the kid gets snippy under scrutiny.

Take a wild guess who that reminds me of.

Even without looking at him Plumeria can tell from the irritable huffing sound he makes that his mouth is probably curled into a sneer.

“Sort of,” he mutters, shifting in his seat. “You know Moon, the girl that follows Hau around?”

Plumeria nods. “Guzma might have mentioned them a time or twelve.”

“Her sister.” There is no mistaking the sneer now; Gladion says sister the way Guzma says shit when he’s angry. “Miss Stella. I think she figured out the hotel where I stay and left a bunch of snacks and stuff in my room while I was gone.”

Plumeria flips the sandwich onto Gladion’s paper plate and turns the stove off. “Stella did that?”

“I think so.” Gladion nods, tearing the sandwich in half as he waits for it to cool off enough to eat. He wipes greasy fingers on the paper towel.

“How’d you meet her?” Plumeria asks. Even when she’s angry with Guzma she can’t help but look out for him; if Stella’s going to adopt Gladion like she has apparently adopted Hau and the nervous little blonde girl, Guzma will want to know. Lusamine already thinks the kids are getting too close for comfort, clashing with the grunts so often...and bringing their big sister into the fray with them.

Or she’s just a jealous bitch, she thinks, but says nothing.

“Battling against Moon and Hau,” Gladion replies. “She was with them. She wouldn't battle me. All she did was ask about my clothes.”

“So, what,” Plumeria says, “You think she tracked you down?”

Gladion shrugs. He tears into the sandwich, chews, swallows, wipes his fingers.

“Maybe.” He frowns, plucking at the ragged edge of a rip in his hoodie - one of many rips in his hoodie. “I don’t understand how she got in my room. The manager didn’t see anyone.”

“How do you know it was her?”

Gladion makes that face again, so eerily similar to the way Guzma looks when someone does him a favor he didn’t ask for.

“There was a new hoodie on my bed,” he mumbles, a faint blush rising along his cheekbones. “I won’t wear it. Null will just tear it up too.”

Plumeria says nothing. She lets him eat, tosses the few dishes into the dishwasher and slaps a Garbodor magnet off the counter onto the front.

“Thank you,” Gladion says at length. “I don’t think I’ve eaten anything somebody cooked since...” He stops talking abruptly, as if he’s embarrassed himself somehow.

“Since the last time I cooked for you?” Plumeria smirks. “Don't worry about it.”

“I should go.” He tosses his plate and napkin into the trash and moves his stool back to its place in the corner. “I know Mr. Guzma doesn’t like me to hang around.”

“Guzma will get over it,” Plumeria says, a little more vehemently than she intends; Gladion cocks his head at her, confused.

“You’ve got stuff to tell him anyway, right?” Plumeria asks. “Then you can stay until morning. You can go chill in my room if you want, the grunts won’t rag on you in there.”

“I can deal with them,” Gladion protests, but Plumeria rolls her eyes.

“I know that. I also know they’re annoying even if they don’t mean anything by it,” she says. “Go on. Read a book or something. Watch tv. Maybe nap, even, you look exhausted. Guzma will be less of a dick tomorrow, you can talk to him then.”

Gladion nods his head. His fingers drift back to one of the rips in his hoodie and he picks at the threads, opening his mouth as if he wants to say something before closing it again.

“Spit it out, kid,” Plumeria says.

“Does...does Mr. Guzma do stuff for other people?” Gladion asks, glancing up at Plumeria with those unnerving apple-green eyes. “I mean, if someone...wanted him to steal a specific Pokémon, for example. Would he?”

She can sense steel beneath the question. If Gladion were any older he might have been intimidating enough for Plumeria to stumble over her reply, but he is still only a kid. She keeps a straight face despite the warning bells chiming in her head.

“Guzma?” She scoffs. “He doesn't make a habit of doing people favors, no.”

“So what happens to the Pokémon Team Skull steals?”

This time Plumeria is surprised into hesitation.

He’s going to be intimidating, all right. Maybe even worse than Guzma.

“We...we sell ‘em, usually,” she answers, turning her back and making a show of tidying up the counter. “Guzma’s picky about it, though, so it’s not like they end up going to bad trainers.”

“Right.”

From the corner of her eye Plumeria can see Gladion nod. She can also see that he’s not buying it. He thanks her again, then turns and heads up the stairs. A few grunts pick on him a little, but he either says nothing or says it so quietly that she can’t hear.

He suspects something.

It’s an unnerving thought. When she and Inara head up to her room to go to bed hours later she half expects him to be waiting for her with accusations, or at the very least more questions.

Instead they find him sprawled on her couch, deeply asleep and looking very young. Type: Null lifts its strange head and sniffs at them, then nuzzles one of Gladion’s hands before lying back down. The TV across from the couch is on, showing an episode of Rescue Rangers on pause behind an Are you still watching? popup.

“See, Plumes?” Inara says, wrapping her arms around Plumeria’s waist from behind. “He’s harmless.”

Plumeria rests her arms on top of Inara’s. “Yeah. Guess I’m paranoid.”

She wishes that felt like the truth.

2.

“He said she flew off the handle after he asked her to join Team Rocket.”

Guzma arches one stark brow. “After he what now?”

Gladion sighs and crosses his arms, half-hiding his already half-hidden face with one hand as if trying to minimize the risk of making eye contact as much as possible. A dull ache wraps around Guzma’s heart like a fist. For all Gladion’s brooding and glowering, Guzma can see straight through him: He is always too tense, his slight shoulders too tight, and his eyes shift just a little too often, as if he expects to be accosted at any moment.

“I ran away from home,”  he had said, “My mother…”

He hadn’t said anything else. Hadn’t needed to.

Whoever his mother is, Gladion is better off alone. Guzma can tell that just from watching him move; he doesn’t so much walk as he does slink, like he’s trying to hide, trying to be unobtrusive, trying not to draw attention to himself.

It had taken Guzma years to stop moving like that. He still has a hard time remembering not to slouch, remembering that he doesn’t need to make himself smaller.

In his head his own voice echoes back to him:

We’re a goddamn gang and she's a kid.

He looks at the kid in front of him and wonders how long he can keep pretending that he isn’t a fucking hypocrite.

“The Vet was from Kanto. He battled with the kids, they got excited and asked him about Team Rocket,” Gladion explains. “Apparently one of the ways Team Rocket used to recruit was by making kids battle gauntlet-style across a bridge, offering them a prize if they beat it, and asking them to join after they took the prize.”

Bits of old news reports drift through Guzma’s mind. Hadn't he heard about that as kid?

“Got that part, keep goin’,” he says, waving a hand.

“The Vet recreated the bridge gauntlet to help the kids get some training in,” Gladion continues. “Miss Stella took them on. From what the Vet says she was really cool about it to start with. Didn’t take any money from the kids or anything like that. When she got to him he recognized her accent. He said he figured she’d get the joke if he asked her to join Team Rocket after she beat him.”

“And?”

“I guess she didn’t get the joke.” Gladion shrugs. “Or maybe she just didn’t think it was funny. The next thing he knew Miss Stella was screaming at him and shoving him backward. She scared the kids.”

Guzma frowns, absently rubbing the stubble along his jawline. “That’s weird as sh - that’s...that’s weird.”

Gladion rolls his eyes. “I know swear words, Mr. Guzma.”

“Are all people from Kanto that touchy about Team Rocket?”

Guzma glances up at the sound of Luka’s voice. He had forgotten that he and Kau’i were standing in the back, flanking the door from the inside. He’d sent them after the information originally, but when the Vet wouldn’t talk to them they’d hunted down Gladion.

“It does seem dumb,” Gladion says.

“They’ve been disbanded since, like, forever, right?” Kau’i lifts his cap and rubs a hand over his hair, shorter and darker blue than Luka’s. “Never hear about them except in movies.”

“And cartoons,” Gladion says.

“Cartoons?” Guzma echoes, incredulous.

“Well, not by name,” Gladion says. “But you can just...tell. Like the bad guys on Rescue Rangers.”

Luka snickers. “Ain’t that cute? Still watchin’ Rescue Rangers.”

Gladion turns faintly pink; Guzma cuts his eyes across the room and points at Luka.

“Shut ya mouth,” he snaps. “Rescue Rangers is freakin’ awesome.”

He looks back down and points at Gladion without waiting for Luka’s reaction. “You, keep talkin’.”

“If you’ve seen it you know,” Gladion mumbles. “The bad guys have that accent sometimes.”

The hair at the back of Guzma’s neck prickles. “What accent?” He asks, more sharply than he intends to.

“You know,” Gladion insists. “It’s like the Kantoan accent, but it’s different. It's not...they don't talk properly. And they talk too fast. Certain words are kind of exaggerated and they phrase stuff in weird ways…”

Gladion keeps talking but Guzma isn't quite listening.

{{ If you or any of your grunts lay a fuckin’ finger on my sister then even the fuckin’ Tapu ain’t gonna be able to save your ass, see? }}

“The mob,” he mutters absently. “It’s the frickin’ mob accent.”

“Is that what it's called?” Gladion frowns. “I guess that makes sense.”

“It’s the same accent they give the bad guys in a lot of movies,” Kau’i says. “Guys are usually all dressed up in black and red, real slick three piece suits and shit. And stuff, I mean.”

Gladion rolls his eyes at this last.

“Anyway, they’re just stories now,” he says. “So I don’t really get why Miss Stella freaked out.”

“You’d think the old Vet woulda been the one to be touchy,” Luka says. “Since he’s probably old enough to actually, like, remember shit. Stuff.”

Gladion stops hiding behind his hovering palm in favor of covering his face with it.

Guzma scrubs a hand down his own face as well, not sure whether he should laugh or be disgusted. Gladion’s just a kid; even Luka and Kau’i are only nineteen, so he can’t fault them too much, but still...

“They only disbanded for good like, fifteen years ago, ya know that, right?” he says. “It ain’t like it’s ancient history. Hell, they never even made it to Alola and I still remember more’n I’d like to.”

“I don’t see why anybody would be touchy about it,” Kau’i remarks. “I mean, like...they got shut down by a kid, didn’t they? And it ain’t like they were doing anything we’re not doing right now, right?”

Guzma cuts his eyes at Kau'i, fixing him with a stare so intense that all three of them flinch.

“Watch ya mouth,” Guzma sneers softly. “And don’t ever let me hear ya comparin’ us to fuckin’ Team Rocket ever again. Get me?”

Gladion’s eyes widen, as if he can’t quite believe Guzma didn’t censor himself; Kau’i nods frantically, too nervous to speak, but Luka steps in front of Kau’i as if to defend him.

“Yo, I ain’t meaning to piss you off, boss, I swear,” he says, “But what was so much worse about Team Rocket? We can’t watch our mouths if we don’t know no better, and when it comes to Team Rocket we don’t know nothing.”

“That’s for damn sure,” Guzma growls. It’s on the tip of his tongue to tell them to get out, but Luka pulls his bandana down from around his mouth and looks up at Guzma, swallowing hard.

“Boss, all we got is corny villains wearin’ black and red, talkin’ in that exaggerated Kantoan accent, and they never get away with shit, usually ‘cause they’re dumb and clumsy,” he explains. “Sure, it’s like a caricature or whatever, we get that, but it’s still all we got. So like, what that chick did to that Vet trainer, the way you reacted just now...it ain’t that we’re trying to make you mad, boss, it just really don’t make sense.”

Guzma leans forward with his elbows on his knees and his hands in his hair, wondering how something that had been such a terrifying cultural force less than 20 years ago has been reduced to this: an ineffectual stock villain trope, a cheesy bad-guy accent.

It worries him.

Team Skull and Team Rocket both steal Pokémon; Guzma doesn't deny that, but he is adamant about ensuring that the similarities end there. The grunts know he would wreak havoc if he caught any of them actively mistreating a Pokémon. The ones they steal end up in the Aether Foundation’s conservatory -

So Lusamine says.

Guzma squeezes his eyes closed and buries this unhelpful little thought.

He wants to let it go. The last thing he feels like doing the morning after such a shitkicking migraine is recounting things that gave him nightmares as a kid (well, some of the things that gave him nightmares) but he can’t let Luka and Kau’i go on believing that Team Skull is anything like Team Rocket was - can’t let Gladion believe it.

He especially can’t let them go on thinking that maybe Team Rocket wasn’t so bad after all.

Goddamn kids and their cartoons.

He scowls and slouches down in his throne, scrubbing his hands over his face.

“Fine. Ya wanna know what I remember?” he asks irritably. “I’ll tell ya.

“I was twelve when Team Rocket disbanded for good, after all the crap that happened in Johto. And every night up ‘til then I’d watch the extraregional news with my parents, even when I was too young to have any business watchin’ it. And every night they had this segment coverin’ Team Rocket, ‘cause back then they were up to somethin’ every day. And every night I’d have friggin’ nightmares about what I heard.”

Gladion, Luka, and Kau’i’s eyes widen, as if they can't fathom Guzma ever having nightmares, even as a kid.

And ain't that fuckin’ hilarious.

“Ya gotta understand that Team Rocket didn’t give a shit - crap - about Pokémon, aight?” He continues. “They stole ‘em, but they also abused ‘em, corrupted ‘em, killed ‘em.”

“Corrupted?” Gladion sounds as if he’s not certain he actually wants clarification.

“Experimentin' on 'em. Forcin’ ‘em to do unnatural crap. Like torturin’ humans.”

Gladion pales. Guzma looks away.

“Too much of that kinda stuff and Pokémon get dangerous,” he says, “Like, kill humans on sight dangerous. Team Rocket liked to leave those behind for INTERPOL teams when they moved safehouses. And speakin’ of safehouses, whenever INTERPOL took an abandoned one, it’d turn out that the basements and cellars had been fitted with massive incinerator systems. Give ya one guess what those were for.”

Gladion is trembling; Luka and Kau’i both look more than a little sick, but Guzma pushes on, needing to make them understand, needing to make them see.

“If they didn’t throw ‘em in the fire,” Guzma continues, “They just left ‘em in the Pokéballs. Left ‘em there until INTERPOL had no way of tellin’ what they’d even contained except by runnin’ the balls through post-corruption data analysis. They’d find crates of ‘em like that left behind.”

The three of them reach absently for their Pokéballs, as if the devices are suddenly something not quite to be trusted.

“Besides that, they only gave, like, half a shit more about people than Pokémon,” Guzma goes on; he is so set on making them understand that he forgets to watch his mouth. “So sometimes in the middle of hearin’ about all the horrible shit they did to Pokémon, I got to hear about some horrible shit they did to a couple humans. They didn’t tolerate anyone leavin’, so ya never heard about ex-Team Rocket, ‘cause nobody left without leavin’ this world pretty quick after. INTERPOL witnesses would disappear. INTERPOL agents would disappear. Sometimes they’d find ‘em dead, sometimes they’d find ‘em so screwed up in the head from Psychic and Dark type exposure that they’d have to be institutionalized. And sometimes they just didn’t fuckin’ find ‘em at all.

“And yeah, they say a kid took ‘em down, just waltzed into Silph and wrecked their shit neat as ya please, but after the kid who supposedly did it became Champion, he just...disappeared. Ain’t nobody heard shit about him in over a decade, so maybe that ain’t even really how it happened, who knows? Red’s a fuckin’ cryptid.

“All I know is after they disbanded for good it created, like, a vacuum - that’s where all the fuckin’ loonies in the other regions came from, tryin’ to fill a void. Alola got lucky ‘cause Team Rocket never showed up here in the first place, so no assholes with delusions of grandeur ever showed up to take their place. It’s just us,” he finishes, “And we ain’t nothin’ like Team Rocket.”

[Six of one, half a dozen of the other, boy.]

Gladion, Luka, and Kau’i are staring at him, but Guzma doesn’t meet their eyes.

“Well,” Luka says at length, “Stella going after that Vet like she did makes a whole lot more sense now, I guess.”

“Can I go now?” Gladion asks suddenly. He looks sick, but he looks angry as well; not that Guzma blames him. Thinking about Team Rocket makes him a little angry, too.

[What was that about being a hypocrite, boy?]

Guzma grits his teeth. Shut the fuck up, old man.

“Yeah, get outta here,” Guzma gestures toward the door. “I’ll call ya if we need ya.”

Gladion gives a curt nod. He turns and walks out past Luka and Kau’i, giving them both a wide berth, though neither of them seem to notice.

“Boss?” Kau’i says. “Are you gonna go out trainin’ soon?”

“Probably. Why ya askin’?”

“I kinda want to let my team out,” he mumbles. “And just, like...sit there. With them.”

“Same,” Luka agrees, pushing shaggy electric-blue hair back from his forehead.

Guzma waves a hand at them both. “Go ahead, I don’t give a shit. Just make sure ya both do it outside," he adds, raising his voice as they hurry out the door. “A Mudsdale and a Kangaskhan are too fuckin’ big to be in the damn house, ya hear me?!”

3.

A week passes. Messages from Kukui pile up, one after the other, day after day, and they all go unanswered.

our friend in the fancy suit went to see hala.

saw your mom. she said you’re not answering her voicemails. not that i blame you. but she also said a weird redheaded guy in a suit had come by more than once asking about you.

suit guy went to see mo. scared soph half to death. guzma, what the hell’s going on? why aren’t you answering?

hala again.

told him not to come back. think i scared lillie.

he went to see my WIFE, guzma. if that happens again i’m going to the cops. period. and i might as well stop updating you anyway, you either don’t give a shit or aren’t checking your messages.

sorry, cousin. i was worried about burnet. but i’m worried about you too. what’s going on? do you know who this guy is or not?

He doesn’t, though it isn’t for lack of trying. The grunts have been told to keep an eye out and Guzma has even instructed Gladion to try and track the guy down - but only to track him down.

“Don’t tangle with the guy, aight?” he had said, “Keep your distance but keep an eye on him.”

Gladion had nodded, but Gladion is also too much like him. If he’s confronted, he’ll fight...but thus far he hasn't seen the man, and Guzma doesn't see the point in replying to Kukui when he has nothing to say.

And fine, maybe he’s feeling guilty. Just a little. Koa and Leia have been watching Kukui over in Tapu Village, because that's where Lillie is, and Lillie has what Lusamine wants…

...and when Guzma doesn't give her what she wants she starts to worry.

She starts to worry a lot.

He spends too much time out in the fields and woods around Po Town that week, working hard with his little b-team, trying to keep his mind occupied. Every second without a distraction threatens to unhinge him.

Spyin’ on your best friend, good fuckin’ deal.

“He ain’t been my friend for years now,” Guzma mutters to himself, “So who gives a shit?”

He does - he knows he does, but he shoves his guilty conscience down, drowning it beneath thoughts of Lusamine. He tries to drown any thoughts of Stella as well, but he has less success with those...in fact, the harder he tries to drown them, the more frequently they come back.

{{  She’s just a kid. She shouldn’t feel like her life’s worth is determined by the outcome of these trials. }}

If I’d had a brother or sister like her…

{{ Hurt her and I make your life hell. }}

But he hadn’t. He was an only child, an only son...

[What is wrong with you, boy?]

...and he had been alone.

{{ I don’t ever want her to feel like it’s something she has to do, you know? }}

No. I don’t.

He is still alone, so he spends too much time training, and if he drinks too much at night, well, that’s nobody’s business but his.

4.

Toward the end of the week Guzma wakes up with a headache to Golisopod nudging him, dragging him out of some bizarre, nebulous dream: Stella with Loki at her back, its swampfire eyes gleaming, its sinister shadow engulfing her, reaching out ahead of her, crawling and crawling toward something Guzma can’t see. There is a deranged smile on her face and when she speaks her voice is terrifying in its gentleness but he cannot understand what she says, and then Golisopod’s chitinous clicking breaks in and the dream dissipates like smoke.

It isn’t the first dream he’s had about her, but as Guzma swims up to confused consciousness the dream isn’t what concerns him; what concerns him is being woken up by Golisopod. Like most Pokémon, Golisopod only breaks free of its Pokéball if it believes him to be in trouble.

“What’s’a matter, buddy?” Guzma yawns, reaching up to rub Golisopod’s head between its antennae. He clicks his tongue. “Was I dreamin’ bad?”

Golisopod clicks at him - scolding him, Guzma realizes, but for what?

“What’d I do?” he asks, sitting up in bed. “Did I sleep past breakfast or somethin’, are ya hungry?”

Golisopod clicks at him again, narrowing its alien eyes. It taps Guzma’s phone with one of its claws.

“Six AM?” Guzma rubs his hands over his hair, scowling. “What the hell, G? I just went to sleep three hours ago!”

He had meant to go to sleep earlier - honestly he had - but there was a new Journal of Pokémon Biology out, and he'd been drinking, and he just...lost track of time.

He starts to explain this, but Golisopod does not appear to care, nor does it look ashamed of itself in the slightest for waking him so early. It looks angry, and Guzma can’t really figure out why until it reaches over to the nightstand with one armored forearm and sweeps a slew of empty wine bottles to the floor. They shatter against one another, scattering shards of glass behind the table.

Guzma glares up at Golisopod. “I ain’t cleanin’ that up, yo.”

Golisopod stares him down without blinking, which really shouldn’t be as intimidating as it is, since Guzma knows good and well Golisopod doesn’t need to blink in the first place.

He finally looks away, burying his face in his hands. It is covered in two days of stubble and is rough as sandpaper against his palms. He pushes his hair back from his forehead and sighs before looking up at Golisopod again. It would never have broken free if it wasn't worried for him, frightened for him, and as Guzma turns to look down at the mess of broken bottles his heart seems to expand and clench all at once.

“I know,” he mumbles. “I know, buddy, okay? But what d’ya want from me? It’s either than or I don’t fuckin’ sleep at all. Ya know how I get, when I can’t…”

He stops, worrying at his lower lip with his teeth. Golisopod headbutts him in the shoulder and Guzma begins rubbing its head again, almost absently, trying to figure out how to articulate himself...and Golisopod waits, patient and quiet, a solid touchstone.

“I can’t fuckin’ do anything,” Guzma says at length. “About Lusamine. About whoever the fuck this asshole in a suit is. About anything. I’m trapped and I can’t...I can't fuckin’ think about it, okay? If I have to lie here wide awake every night, waitin’ to sleep, I’ll...I don't…”

Guzma gropes for the words. Golisopod clicks softly, but it doesn't try to hurry him and it doesn't ask any questions.

“It wouldn't be pretty,” he finishes, and while that’s true it’s also not enough, doesn't come close to touching the visceral dread it inspires in him, the idea of lying awake for hours on end, alone with nothing but his mind and his sobriety. “So what d’ya want me to do?”

Golisopod makes a gentle chittering sound; Guzma recognizes it as its version of a whisper. It headbutts him again in a reassuring sort of way, then skitters across the room toward the chair of mostly-clean clothes.

“What’re ya doin’?” Guzma asks, baffled.

Golisopod doesn't reply. It keeps rifling through the pile; Guzma has almost dozed off again when his swim trunks hit him in the face.

“What the - ? Oh, no,” he says immediately, looking up at Golisopod as it begins to happy-click. “Golisopod, no, it is too goddamn early and I am too fuckin’ hungover, okay?”

Golisopod clicks rapidly, laughing at him.

The next thing Guzma knows Golisopod has picked him up, all six of its arms wrapped around him like a straightjacket, his bare feet an inch or three above the ground. It curls in on itself a little and curls Guzma with it, almost into a ball.

It clicks laughter again and turns toward Guzma’s bedroom window.

“No! Hey, stop, I’ll go, aight?!” Guzma bellows, as Golisopod takes a few hurried steps forward and readies itself to leap out the window to the ground below. “Put me down, fuckin’ hell, ya ain’t gotta do me like that, yo!”

Golisopod drops hims safely to the floor, clicking cheerfully as Guzma snatches up his swim trunks and shuffles into the bathroom to change.

5.

It may be the middle of summer, but it is overcast and early and the breeze off the ocean sends chill bumps crawling across Guzma’ skin as he pulls his tank top over his head and toes out of his sneakers and socks. His head pounds with every move he makes and even the short walk down the cliff path has tied his stomach in uneasy knots.

Leaning back against the grey-brown rock that cordons off this particular strip of sand and surf, Guzma closes his eyes, wishing he hadn’t given in to Golisopod’s insistence. He’s not sure he can manage a wrestling match, particularly when all he can think about is walking out into the ocean until the water closes over his head, until the undertow drags him deep, until he drowns.

Least it’d all be over.

Golisopod clicks at him and nuzzles its massive head up beneath Guzma’s arm, and despite himself he begins to smile as much as his hangover will allow.

"Yeah, yeah," Guzma sighs, and clicks his tongue back at his Pokémon. “Ain't gonna laugh at me if I throw up, right?” He stretches his arms above his head as he trudges toward the surf.

Golisopod shakes its head, waiting patiently for Guzma to stretch. It has been months since he was out here.

“Aight, buddy,” Guzma begins, rolling his shoulders and turning to face Golisopod, “Go easy on m - hey!”

Golisopod shoves him over in the water before he finishes speaking, rapid-clicking and excited, but Guzma barely hears it. He’s busy regaining his white-around-the edges vision and trying to decide if his stomach is going to pull off the incredible series of acrobatic stunts it has suddenly begun to perform. He is still for so long that Golisopod clicks softly in concern. When he makes no reply it clicks louder, reaching forward to nudge him with one massive claw.

Guzma - having already won the battle with his stomach a few seconds prior - slides his bare feet underneath himself and stands up. He is nowhere near as quick as he was even two months ago, but he’s quick enough, and he dives for Golisopod’s torso with a laugh.

Golisopod clicks in surprise, but it blocks him with its armored forearms and throws him back. Guzma doesn’t lose his balance this time and after one or two uneasy flips his stomach resigns itself to the exertion.

They wrestle one another in the surf for awhile, and Guzma can tell that Golisopod really is taking it easy on him. He probably needs to take it easier on himself, but he doesn’t feel nauseated any more and his headache, while annoying, can’t touch the debilitating agony of his migraines.

Eventually Golisopod manages to knock Guzma’s legs out from beneath him with its head. It lifts him up and flips him over its back, tossing him a fair distance into the ocean. The water closes over his head but the thought of not coming up again barely crosses Guzma’s mind. He kicks up and breaks the surface, shoving his wet white hair straight back from his forehead and laughing aloud.

“Nice try, buddy!” he calls out, as Golisopod glides toward him in the water. “But ya gotta do better than that!”

He takes a breath and dives under. Golisopod does too.

Guzma can tell right away that he’s more than a little out of practice with this part. He can’t hold his breath as long and it’s harder to exert his strength. It’s still fun, though, and Golisopod shoves him to the surface often enough that he doesn’t need to worry about not being able to hold his breath for long anyway.

Even if I did try to drown myself it wouldn’t let me.

The thought is more than comforting; it actually cheers him up almost as much as the wrestling match.

When Golisopod decides that Guzma has had enough it dives beneath him, flattening its body and rising up to the surface until Guzma lies stretched out across its carapace like a surfboard, chest heaving, laughing.

“Aight, fine,” he says after he’s caught his breath. “Fine, I do feel better, ya happy?”

Golisopod clicks cheerfully.

He dozes off on its back, lulled by the waves and the knowledge that Golisopod would never let anything happen to him. By the time it manages to wake him (by chittering and ducking him partway underwater) Guzma can’t be sure what time it is. It appears to be around 8AM, but the sun is still hidden behind a thick screen of clouds and he left his phone and watch on the shore with his towel, clothes, and sunglasses.

“What’s up, buddy?” he asks, reaching up over his head to rub between Golisopod’s antennae. “Ya think it’s gonna storm or somethin’?”

Golisopod seems to shrug. A moment later it begins clicking loudly, its armored body shaking slightly as if it is excited. Guzma rolls over onto his stomach.

“What’s got ya so...so…”

Golisopod lifts one spindly forearm and points toward the shore, but Guzma is way ahead of it. A chill runs down his spine and there is a warm flutter in his stomach that has nothing to do with a hangover.

It should really bother him that he can recognize Stella even from this distance.

The wide, idiotic grin on his face should probably bother him more.

What should bother him most is the fact that Lusamine and her threats don’t even cross his mind until he has watched Stella throw at least four Pyukumuku back into the water.

“Okay, G,” he says, rubbing Golisopod’s head between its antennae, “Let’s just -”

Loki comes bounding down from somewhere in the cliffs surrounding the beach. Golisopod happy-clicks loud enough that Guzma flinches, and the next thing he knows he’s clinging to its carapace for dear life as it flies through the water, so overcome by excitement at the sight of its friend that it seems to forget that Guzma is human. Golisopod aren’t exactly known for their speed, but they’re still much faster than humans...particularly in the open ocean. Guzma is just beginning to wonder if he’s going to end up puking from motion sickness instead of a hangover when Golisopod’s feet brush the seafloor. He lets go just before Golisopod slows down, sliding off its carapace instead of flying straight forward over its head and breaking his neck in the shallows.

“Excitable little shit,” he mutters, trudging out of the surf and shoving his hair back from his forehead as the two Pokémon tackle one another and proceed to roll around in the sand. Golisopod clicks madly and Loki...well. Guzma wouldn’t say it meows , but nor does it exactly roar, and either way Guzma keeps his distance...and if he edges a bit closer to Stella, well, who would blame him? Better safe than sorry when you’re on an Incineroar’s bad side.

Stella, for her part, appears surprised into speechlessness. She stands frozen, her lips parted in a little o-shape as she watches Loki and Golisopod wrestle one another. There is a Pyukumuku in her hands, but she makes no move to toss it back into the water. She wears a black bandeau bikini top and cutoffs and her short black hair is a cloud of shadow from the humidity and salt air; a wisp of it clings to her cheekbone and Guzma has to cross his arms over his chest to keep from reaching out and brushing it away.

That inclination to touch her - the desire to touch her - sends another chill down his spine...that chill that isn’t really a chill, because this isn’t fear even though it should be.

She needs to get outta here, I didn’t think she’d come back, I gotta get her -

Stella turns and looks up at him - still with that open-mouthed look of surprise on her face - and Guzma’s train of thought crashes spectacularly. He can think of nothing to say. He knows he ought to say something: make a smart assed comment, ask her what the hell she’s doing here, tell her to go. He ought to say any number of things, but…

But she’s so fuckin’ -

He bites down on the thought, giving her an awkward nod and trying to tell himself that the heat in his cheeks is probably just sunburn. “Mornin’,” he mumbles.

“Um. Morning?” Stella answers, still holding the wriggling Pyukumuku. Her hands are covered in the mucous from its little body, but she either does not notice or does not care. “I, uh...I like your…” She gestures to her throat and chest with one slimy hand, as if she can’t think of the right word.

“Tattoos!” She speaks abruptly,  like someone snapping out of a trance. “Yeah. That. Those. Tattoos. They’re, uh. Neat.”

“Thanks?” Guzma answers, eyeing her warily as she pushes past him and into the waves to lob the Pyukumuku back.

When she bends over to rinse her hands in the water Guzma tears his eyes away as if he might turn into a pillar of salt for looking at her.

She ain’t cute.

Some deeper part of him heaves a great and exhausted sigh.

Sure, fine. She ain’t cute. She ain’t cute and she ain’t hot as hell and ya ain’t been fuckin’ dreamin’ about her and ya ain’t been dwellin’ on everything she said about the trials and ya ain’t been thinkin’ about how much she loves that sister of hers and ya ain’t been wonderin’ what woulda been different if ya had a sibling like that and ya ain’t been fuckin’ thinkin’ about her nonstop no matter what Lusamine says. Ain’t none a’that happened, nope, not at all, except that it has, it has and I’m just about done lettin’ ya lie to yourself.

Guzma tries not to think about the idiocy of telling himself to fuck off.

When Stella turns around to face him again she seems to have collected herself somewhat. There’s a sort of guarded look in her eye again, bordering on suspicion, which...well, Guzma also tries not to think about why that should feel more normal than anything else.

“Aren’t you gonna run me off?” she asks.

“I ought to,” he says, looking away and focusing on their Pokémon instead of her face. “But I guess ya caught me in a decent mood. And the more Golisopod wrestles with that hellcat the less it’ll wanna wrestle me. I can’t keep up with it."

“You’ve got that problem too, huh?”

Guzma glances back at her sharply, one eyebrow arched in disbelief. “Yo, ya don’t actually wrestle with that demon, do ya?”

“Sometimes.” Stella answers, moving up the beach a little toward another Pyukumuku. “It’s not like it’s gonna hurt me, it won’t burn anything it doesn’t want to.”

“There ain’t enough money in the world,” he mutters, looking back at Loki and Golisopod as they tumble through the sand.

Stella shrugs and crouches down to scoop up the Pykumuku. “Hello!” She holds it up close to her face, grinning at it as it wriggles in her hands. “I know, I know, I got you, little guy. Yeah, I got you, just hang on, okay?”

Guzma watches, bemused. Stella steps out into the surf with the Pyukumuku in her hands, still talking to it in that cheerful little high-pitched voice that reminds him of the way Plumeria sometimes talks to very cute Pokémon and very small children.

“Ready?” Stella asks it. “I promise I won’t throw too hard, okay? One...two...three!”

She lobs the Pyukumuku gently out into the water, then bends down to rinse off her hands. Guzma finds some very interesting grains of sand between his bare feet and begins to study them closely.

“I can’t believe you’re touchin’ ‘em,” he says, once he judges it safe to look up again.

“Why wouldn’t I?” she asks, turning back toward him and drying her hands on the back of her shorts.

“Most people that ain’t from Alola don’t even wanna look at ‘em,” Guzma explains, “Let alone touch ‘em.”

“I think they’re cute...oh! And so are you!”

For a split second Guzma is terrified that she is talking to him. His heart leaps into his throat until he is certain he will choke on it...and then he realizes that her eyes rest a little too high for his face. He turns around, unsure whether he is relieved or disappointed.

“What, ya get tired already, big guy?” he asks. “Don’t tell me that big mean kittycat wore ya out.”

The big mean kittycat in question stalks past Guzma as he speaks, rumbling a low warning in its chest before stepping behind Stella. Guzma keeps one eye on it as it sinks back to four legs and kneads its paws into the sand before curling up into a massive kitty loaf.

“Can I pet it?”

Guzma blinks, shaking his head. “Wait. What?”

“Golisopod,” Stella answers. “I wanna pet it but I don't...exactly know where? I don't wanna make it uncomfortable.”

Guzma opens his mouth to speak, brows cocked in confusion, but he can think of absolutely nothing to say. After a moment or two he gives up. He raises a hand and rubs Golisopod’s head between its antennae once more.

“Uh, like this.” He smiles slightly as Golisopod begins to make happy clicking noises and clicks his tongue back out of habit.

“So tall,” Stella murmurs, moving closer. Guzma takes a step back, but as soon as he does Golisopod stops clicking. It peers down at Stella, so quiet and still that it makes him nervous. It might be best buds with the loaf of evil currently snoozing behind her, but if it sees her as a threat…

“Aight, girlie, maybe you oughta -”

Guzma has barely started speaking when Golisopod suddenly reaches out and grabs Stella with all six of its arms. He starts forward, alarmed. “Watch it, G!”

Golisopod ignores him. It picks her up and holds her in front of its liquid black eyes, studying her closely and making soft, curious clicking noises.

Guzma expects Stella to scream...at which point he expects Loki to wake up, at which point he will probably be clawed to shreds. At the very least he expects her to demand that he make Golisopod put her down, but she does neither.

She laughs, and Loki continues to snooze unperturbed.

“Seriously?” Guzma mumbles to himself.

She grins down at Golisopod. “May I pet you, please?” she asks.

“Seriously?” Guzma repeats.

Golisopod clicks another couple times before nodding its great head. Stella reaches out and rubs between its antennae. Golisopod closes its eyes and happy-clicks. After a moment or two it happy-chirps, and Guzma’s eyes widen in surprise. Golisopod rarely even makes that sound around him.

“You’re very handsome,” Stella says, “Yes you are!”

Golisopod chirps again and Guzma gives up. “It's a damn sight friendlier than that hellcat of yours,” he says.

Loki’s ear twitches and Guzma winces. Stella laughs again.

“Loki’s not so bad,” she says, still petting Golisopod. “I think it’s still got a little bit of growing to do, though...still doesn't seem used to the whole bipedal thing.”

Guzma - distracted by Stella and Golisopod, as well as the potential threat posed by the purring monster behind him - speaks without really thinking.

“Wouldn’t worry about it, I think they’re like, facultative bipeds or somethin’,” he mutters offhandedly. It isn't until Stella glances down at him with a bewildered expression that he realizes what he has said.

“Facu - what now?” she asks, brows furrowed in confusion.

Guzma freezes for a moment, then scowls. He shoves his hands into the pockets of his trunks and looks away. “Never mind.”

“Oh no you -” She stops abruptly. Guzma looks up at her from the corner of his eye to find that she is looking at Golisopod again.

“Would you set me down now, please?” she asks, reaching out to give it another pat or two.

Golisopod happy-clicks and lowers her down. Once Stella is on her feet she grins up at Golisopod, spreading imaginary skirts and sketching off a silly little curtsy.

Guzma’s heart suddenly seems too big for his chest.

Oh my god why does she have to be so goddamn -

He scrubs a hand over his face and chokes off the thought. When Golisopod happy-clicks and bows back Guzma shoots it a withering glare. “Traitor,” he grumbles.

Golisopod lets out a series of rapid click-laughter, and Guzma’s affection for his Pokémon wins out over his irritation with himself.

“Yeah, yeah, laugh all ya want big guy,” Guzma answers. “Go for a swim or somethin’ before ya get spoiled rotten.”

Golisopod happy-clicks. It leans down and headbutts Guzma a little before it dives into the ocean again, disappearing silently beneath the waves.

“Okay but seriously,” Stella says, “What was that you said about Loki?”

Guzma sighs, realizing that he isn't going to get out of this one.

“I think Incineroar are facultative bipeds - or facultative quadrupeds, fuck if I remember which is which,” he replies, stalking away from her toward his clothes and beach towel. “Whatever. Basically means they can move around on two legs or four, dependin’ on what they're doin’.”

Stella follows after him. “Wow. That sounds more professor-y than anything Kukui has ever said.”

Guzma snorts. “It ain't like that. I just...read it on the internet somewhere.”

“Uh huh.” Stella’s voice is thick with sarcasm. “Sure.”

“Ain’t ya supposed to be trainin’ your sister or somethin’?” he grumbles. He reaches down to grab his phone, looking for an excuse to ignore her.

“My sister’s fine,” Stella answers easily. “She kicked my ass three out of five, and considering I beat you -”

Guzma bristles at that. “Considerin’ ya got fuckin’ lucky.”

“What, you wanna go?” Stella asks, and there is such a cocky arch in her voice that Guzma is tempted to take her on...would take her on, if he hadn’t gotten out of bed and worked off some of his temper this morning.

As it is he looks up at her and snorts laughter. “Fuck no. All I got with me is Golisopod, I ain’t takin’ ya on that half assed.”

“Coming from you I’ll take that as a compliment.” She smiles at him and for the first time Guzma notices the gap in her front teeth. His heart does that disconcerting little flutter-thing again and he looks down at his phone, desperate for the distraction...and immediately freezes in place, cold dread trickling down his spine.

Lusamine is calling.

Stella is taking, but Guzma isn't paying attention. Time slows to a weird crawl and he holds up one hand to silence her without even realizing that it is shaking.

She closes her mouth. Her lips quirk in confusion and she tilts her head, curious, but Guzma turns away. He can’t look at her.

He shouldn’t do this here.

He shouldn’t, but -

He taps answer and holds his phone to his ear, anxiety churning in his stomach. His mind is racing, full of paranoia and panic, and he is half convinced that Lusamine knows, that she knows where he is and who he is with, that he hadn't chased Stella off, that he had been happy to see her -

Lusamine’s sweet voice fills his ears, sweet and beautiful, sweet and dangerous, like biting into some decadent, well-crafted dessert and finding it filled with razor blades.

“Guzma! Don’t say a word, just listen to me, all right? Something very exciting has happened and I just had to tell you about it. You see, I had some unexpected company last night. He is a very powerful trainer, very charming. Redheaded. He wore the most gorgeous suit, and do you know what he did?”

Guzma’s heart pinches in fear. She asks with cheerful excitement, but all he can think of is his father and he can't figure out why that should be.

“He asked me about you!”

Guzma stops breathing.

“And you know, Guzma, I hardly ever get the chance to brag on you. I know I'm not supposed to, but I just couldn't resist! I told him all about you, I’m afraid.”

His hand tightens on his phone as a bolt of fear lances into his chest. She what?!

“Apparently you've got no one else willing to gush about you,” she goes on, and it is manipulative and cruel and he knows that and it hurts anyway. “Such a pity, I just had to make up for that...and after hearing everything I had to say he decided he just had to meet you for himself! So I told him where he could find you!”

Guzma exhales abruptly, as if he has been kicked in the stomach.

“Of course after he left I realized what a very terrible mistake I had made, telling him all those things about you...I was so excited, you see, I’m afraid I didn't even mention myself, or us, not once!”

Of course not, fuckin’ of course not -

“I’ve put you in such a tight spot, haven’t I? I’m just worried sick! That’s why I had to call, to let you know that he should be in Po Town soon. Do give him what he wants. That should get rid of him. You will get rid of him for me, won't you, Guzma?”

Give him what he wants...?

“Otherwise I'll have to get rid of you.”

The dial tone echoes in his mind for what seems like an eternity before Guzma registers Stella’s voice.

He looks down, pocketing his phone without regard for his wet swim trunks. Stella stands in front of him. She holds out her hands as if she wants to take hold of his arms and is only waiting for his acknowledgement, his permission to do so, and it sticks in his heart; Stella doesn’t know him, doesn’t know the first thing about him aside from the fact that he’s the Team Skull boss, yet she seems to know on instinct what even Kukui had forgotten.

She don’t touch me when I ain’t lookin’, not until I say it’s okay -

“Guzma, hey,” she says, “Are you all right? Did something happen?”

He stares at her, her wide black eyes and the genuine concern in her face, her open hands still waiting for him to nod. He wants to nod.

“Guzma,” Stella says again, “What’s going on? What do you need?”

The question both startles him and succeeds in jump-starting his stalled mind. He takes a step back from her and shakes his head. He only means to get his wits about him, but Stella backs out of his space immediately, tucking her hands into her back pockets.

Lusamine, he thinks, Lusamine said…

(( Just do as I say and I won’t have to worry about you...and you won’t have to worry about that Kantoan girl. ))

“I need ya to fuckin’ get out,” he says, and he means for it to come out sharp, even cruel, but instead it comes out like a plea.

Stella frowns. Tension creeps into her shoulders. “Get out...you mean out of Po Town?”

“Yeah, exactly,” he answers, forcing anger that he doesn’t actually feel into his voice. “I fuckin’ told ya not to come back, didn’t I?”

“Oh, did you?” Stella crosses her arms, cocking an eyebrow at him. “Is that what you meant when you told me you didn’t give a shit what I did?”

“Whatever,” Guzma mutters, pushing past her to lean against the cliffside. He pulls his socks on, shoves his feet into his sneakers. “I’m tellin’ ya now, get the fuck outta Po Town, aight? Get out and stay out and keep your fuckin’ brats out too. Get me?”

“It's not very convincing when you're faking it,” Stella says mildly, leaning on her shoulder next to him. “Being angry, I mean.”

Guzma turns on the spot, effectively pinning her to the rock behind her with nothing but his bulk and towering height.

“Trust me, girlie, ya don't wanna see the real thing,” he sneers, glaring down at her. “Ya say I run this place? Ya wanna fuckin’ respect that? Then do what I say and get the fuck outta my town.”

Stella blinks up at him, unperturbed. “Technically we’re not in the town.”

Guzma’s frustration mounts. “I ain’t in the mood for your shit, smartass,” he snaps, “Get out or get thrown out, I don’t give a fuck.”

“You don’t have the Pokémon to throw me out,” she retorts.

Eyebrow twitching, Guzma growls, “I ain’t gotta have my team with me to pick your tiny ass up and kick it t'the curb, now do I?”

Stella grins at him, wide and brilliant and furious. He can see the pink of her tongue through the little gap in her teeth.

“You kinda do, see?” She nods her head in Loki’s direction. “If I so much as pretend like I’m scared you might hurt me, Loki’s gonna be tearin’ you a new asshole. You know that. I don’t wanna make it do that, see, mostly ‘cause you ain’t gonna be layin’ a damn finger on me unless I’m wantin’ you to, and we both know that.”

Guzma ignores the threat. He grins at her savagely. “Nice accent. Ya know it changes when ya get pissed, right?”

Stella’s irises are not always discernible from her pupils, but at such close range Guzma can see them perfectly and he watches them expand in response to his words.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she answers coldly, speaking more slowly than before. “Stop trying to change the subject.”

“Ain’t a subject to change,” Guzma answers, turning away from her. “Get out, girlie. I’ll come back and hunt ya down with the rest of my team if I’ve got to, but I don’t wanna have to. I got more important shit to do.”

“Don’t bother,” Stella says over her shoulder as she stalks toward Loki. “I’m leaving. I won’t make the mistake of coming back.”

Guzma swallows the sick sense of disappointment that rises in his throat and says nothing. He whistles for Golisopod and does his best to push Stella out of his mind, to steel himself for whatever it is he is going to find back at the Shady House.

She's safer if she hates me, he thinks, and wonders with some alarm just when Stella's safety had become so important to him.

Chapter Text

1.

When Guzma reaches the gates of Po Town, he finds them standing open. Each door shows one half of a massive circular indentation, surrounded in cracks.

Headbutt. From somethin’ fuckin’ huge.

His skin prickles. He settles a hand over Golisopod’s Pokéball and slips through the gates, half expecting to be ambushed...but what he finds is almost worse.

The two grunts that were on guard when he left that morning lie in the shadows of the open gates. They are both so still that for one horrible moment Guzma believes they might not be breathing. Their Pokéballs lie in the grass a short distance from their open hands.

“Shit.” His voice cracks. He kneels down next to the girl - he can’t remember her name but he remembers that she stays with Leia and Koa in one of the houses in town, remembers that she’s all of sixteen and a foster care runaway from another island, remembers that she’d come here so painfully thin that Plumeria had cried, and his hands are shaking as he feels along her throat for her pulse.

After a few seconds pass he sighs in relief. She’s alive. Her heart is beating slowly but steadily.

He shakes her shoulders a little. “Hey, wake up, sis. C’mon.”

The girl doesn’t so much as twitch. He tries a couple more times, even checks her head for any signs of an injury, but when she doesn’t respond it only confirms his first thought.

“Pokémon,” he mumbles, tucking her Pokéball back into her hand. “Some son of a bitch made their Pokémon do this.”

He checks the boy’s pulse too, just in case, and finds him to be in the same condition. As soon as he is certain that they’ll both be all right - eventually, at least - he pushes the button to swing the gates closed again.

Anger is beginning to undercut his fear. He pulls out his phone and attempts to call Plumeria, but after several rings it goes straight to voicemail. Same for Inara, Luka, Kau’i, Leia, and Koa.

He stands at the gates, torn between wanting to check the rest of town to see if the other grunts are safe and wanting to go on into Shady House to try and catch the asshole responsible. At length he proceeds up the path, vaulting over the barricades with ease and trying to trust that the grunts around town are in the same condition as the two at the gate.

The unusual, ominous silence of Shady House fills him with a terrible sense of wrongness. He is so used to a house full of rowdy troublemakers that he can hardly bear the quiet. A few grunts lie slouched in the foyer, their Pokéballs nearby. Guzma crouches down next to them, trying to get a sense of what kind of attack had put them under so deeply.

Gotta be Hypnosis, he thinks, Hypnosis or some other fuckin’ Psychic move. I think Psychic and Grass are the only sleep moves that work this well on humans and it ain’t Grass ‘cause I ain’t gettin’ sleepy from any leftover dust in the air.

He eases the grunts flat on their backs and sets their Pokéballs near at hand before continuing up the stairs. He pokes his head into Plumeria’s bedroom. She isn’t there, but he does find her in the younger girls’ bedroom with several more grunts, some of the younger boys included. She lies on her side with Salazzle draped over one hip; the younger grunts are all behind her, as if the bastard had caught her trying to protect them.

Guzma’s hands begin to clench and unclench into restless, shaking fists, but he does his best to keep his fury on a choking leash. He heads toward the open window and ducks through, emerging onto the balcony and picking his way toward the sloped overhang of roof above the first floor windows.

As soon as he steps onto the roof his heart leaps into his throat. Inara lies at the very edge, head and one arm dangling over the eaves.

He pulls her back and slides his arms beneath her shoulders and knees, picking her up carefully; he doesn’t want to lose his balance and send them both tumbling into the unkempt bushes below. At one story the fall wouldn’t be enough to kill them, but it would damn sure be enough to break something.

He carries her through the window and into the hallway leading toward his bedroom and leaves her lying along the wall. Despite knowing that she is alive - that they are all alive - the lifeless, limp movements of her body as he sets her down make his throat painfully tight.

Guzma turns and approaches his door. Luka and Kau’i are slumped on either side of it with their Pokéballs still clutched in their hands.

Didn’t even give 'em a chance. Didn’t give none of ‘em a chance.

He pulls Luka and Kau’i flat on their backs just as he had done for the grunts in the foyer, then stands up, staring at his bedroom door with his dark brows furrowed above his nose and his mouth set in a grim, hateful line. His fists are clenched so tightly that his nails bite into his palms and his forearms ache.

Barging into Shady House is one thing. Doing it with a Pokémon free? Using that Pokémon to drop every single person inside the house, without giving them a chance to put up a fight? No one does that. It’s the kind of shit people lose their Pokémon for, the kind of shit people go to jail for...sometimes for life, if the attack results in someone’s death.

Whoever it is behind his door is bad news. Guzma knew that already - the conversation with Lusamine had convinced him even before he had seen his entire crew sleeping like the dead - but he wonders how in the hell Lusamine could praise someone so willing to misuse their Pokémon like this.

Then he thinks about Lusamine’s slow, scythelike smile, and he stops wondering.

“Aight, ya sonofabitch,” he mutters. “Let’s see what the fuck ya want.”

He opens his door.

2.

Guzma hates the man on sight.

He is tall, perhaps only an inch or two shorter than Guzma himself. He stands with his hands folded behind his back. His features are sharp, his mouth cruel, thin-lipped but nevertheless broad and expressive. Thick hair the color of rust is carefully smoothed back into a ponytail and the eyes that gaze up at Guzma are an unfeeling shade of ice blue.

Bastard could be wearin’ a monocle and not look outta place.

The man’s suit is solid black and impeccably tailored; the only color to be seen is his narrow, screaming red tie, and something about the outfit makes Guzma’s skin crawl.

“Ah, there you are.” The voice is smooth, cultured. Almost posh. But…

“I apologize for barging in. I told your...subordinates...that I only wished to talk, but they didn’t seem to believe me. I am afraid I had to be rather insistent. They are very loyal to you, you know.”

...but but he speaks with the same measured cadence as Stella.

Guzma narrows his eyes. His shaking hands clench into white-knuckled fists.

Subordinates? Who the fuck does this guy think he is?

“Here I am, yeah,” he sneers, “And ya got ten seconds to tell me who the fuck ya think ya are, comin’ into my turf and knockin’ out all my grunts without even lettin’ em defend themselves.”

“Or?” the man asks, unruffled. “Please don’t say or else, it would be a little too cliche.”

“Or I ain’t listenin’ to a fuckin’ word ya say.” Guzma flashes a nasty grin. “I know ya want somethin’ from me, but you’ve put me in a pretty fuckin’ bad mood. Ain’t a smart way to start off.”

The man’s impassive expression falters the slightest bit, as if he had never considered that Guzma might be so concerned about his crew.

“Very well. Then by all means, let us begin.” The man takes a step back, gesturing toward Guzma’s makeshift throne. “Please, sit.”

Guzma’s temper flares at the idea of being asked to sit down by an intruder in his own goddamn bedroom, but he sits nonetheless; the thought of Lusamine is enough to keep his fury leashed.

Barely.

“I understand that your...gang...is in the business of Pokémon theft. Is that correct?”

“They're in the business of whatever I tell ‘em to be,” Guzma answers carefully. “Might be stealin’, might not. What's it to ya?”

“If you were to be in such a business,” the man continues, “It might be that I have a proposition for you. One that could prove quite lucrative...even more so than your work for the Aether Foundation.”

Guzma’s teeth click together so abruptly that they clip his tongue.

She said she didn’t mention none of that.

He runs it behind his teeth, tasting blood, focusing on the sting as he fights to keep a neutral expression despite the dread coiling in the pit of his stomach.

“We ain't exactly on Aether’s friend list,” he says, and to his surprise his voice is steady, almost bored. “Ya got an offer, spill it. Otherwise I’m gonna throw ya out on your ass.”

“I believe that your organization could benefit from a...partnership of sorts with my own,” the man says. “Your team will be absorbed eventually - I will be up front about that - but in the meantime you will benefit from the association so much that I doubt you will mind.”

“I'm hearin’ lots of promises and like, fuckin’ zero details,” Guzma retorts. “Ya best start makin’ yourself clear.”

There is a beat of silence that seems to last an eternity. When the man looks up his eyes gleam like cold steel under the light.

“Mr. Guzma, I represent Team Rocket.”

Guzma’s heart does a strange and nauseating flutter in his chest.

“If you’re makin’ a joke, yo, I ain’t laughin’,” he answers, fighting to keep his tone even. “Team Rocket never made it to Alola and they disbanded when I was a kid, but it ain’t exactly a name ya throw around lightly.”

“Of course it isn’t,” the man replies, his thin-lipped mouth spreading into a smile that shows too many teeth. “We are far more effective in the shadows.”

Guzma swallows past the lump of nerves in his throat.

“That’s real intimidatin’ and all,” he says, barely managing to keep his voice from wavering, “But I still ain’t buyin’ it.”

The man in the suit sighs, an adult exasperated by a stubborn but much-loved child.

“Your name is Guzma - and nothing else, because you eschew your father’s name as the zealot does the blasphemous,” the man says softly, studying his fingernails. “As a juvenile you were convicted of assault and sentenced to a year in HeaHea City’s youth detention center, but served only six months before you were moved to a psychological treatment center in Hau’oli City, where you remained for three months as an inpatient and three months as an outpatient. I believe the diagnosis was complex post-traumatic stress disorder -”

Guzma’s teeth screech against one another, sending a blinding bolt of agony into his brain.

“Shut. The fuck -”

The man continues as if Guzma’s simmering rage concerns him not at all. “Officially, the exact cause of your trauma is unknown because you denied your own words when Alolan Protective Services became involved. Unofficially, on the other hand...well. I believe the colloquialism is daddy issues.

Guzma’s mind clouds with red fog and he digs his fingernails into the wooden arms of his throne until they split down to the quick.

“Fuck you,” he hisses, “I’ll -”

“You will do nothing,” the man says curtly, folding his hands behind his back once more. “My point is made. Whether you believe I am who I say I am is immateria, because I know who you are and what’s more, I know what you do for the Aether Foundation. I know what you are to Lusamine. I know that you have kept your involvement with the Aether Foundation a secret from all your subordinates save your cousin Plumeria and five others that you mistrust the least, two of whom lie outside this very door. I know that, despite Alola’s pathetic excuse for law enforcement, Lusamine could easily put you in prison for the rest of your life if she so chose.”

Nausea churns in Guzma’s stomach like a whirlpool in bitter waters. He has fallen into blind rages before, has hurt people before, but he has never felt such a black and stark violence. The desire to tear the man apart with his bare hands is just shy of overwhelming.

As it is, he grits his teeth, swallows the acid in his throat, and steels himself.

“See, all that says to me is ya like stickin’ your nose in other people’s business,” he sneers. “I ain’t a big fan of people who don’t know how to mind their own business, ya feel me?”

The man in the suit sighs again. He pinches the bridge of his nose, then reaches into his pocket and pulls out five Net Balls.

Guzma’s breath locks in his chest.

“Do you know how much something like the  Vikavolt or Araquanid lines would be worth outside this region?” the man asks, speaking through that toothy, thin-lipped smile. “Especially ones as well trained as yours? Honestly, just those two alone would fetch a small fortune back in Kanto. Johto and Hoenn too, frankly. Alola is just full of interesting Pokémon, but as you know, the ones that have already been trained are worth so much more.”

“Get...your hands...off them.”

“What’s this?” The man in the suit affects a gasp of surprise. “Is the big bad Team Skull boss upset over having his Pokémon stolen?”

“They’re mine,” Guzma snarls, and suddenly he is on his feet, clinging to his self-control by the skin of his teeth.

“Wouldn’t all the trainers you’ve robbed say the same?” the man asks, bemused.

“I don’t give a shit what they say,” Guzma answers, “Those are my Pokémon ya got your filthy hands on, and if ya don’t drop ‘em and get the fuck out this house in the next ten fuckin’ seconds -”

There is a brilliant flash of light; Guzma flinches away from it.

“Mr. Guzma, do keep your voice down. You are really not in a position to bargain right now,” the man in the suit sighs.

Guzma opens his eyes. Hovering to one side of the man in the suit is a Noivern; at his other side, its massive skull just shy of brushing the ceiling, is a Tyrantrum.

Now I know what knocked the gates in, Guzma thinks, staring up and into Tyrantrum’s baleful yellow eyes.

“Now, Mr. Guzma,” the man in the suit says, tossing one of the Net Balls up and catching it as it comes down, “Do you believe me? Or shall I toss these down Tyrantrum’s throat one by one until we understand each other?”

Guzma narrows his eyes. Inside his mouth his teeth dig into the edge of his tongue as he struggles to keep the pervasive, blinding anger at bay. Blood flows into his mouth and at length he manages to swallow it without flinching.

Keep your shit together keep your shit together keep your fucking shit together!

He sits down, leans back in his throne and takes a deep, steadying breath. Losing his temper now will only get his babies killed...but how can he appease this bastard? How can he make sure…?

Acting on instinct, Guzma slouches down, steepling his fingers in front of his chest. He glances at the man and flashes his nastiest grin, furrowing his dark brows down above his nose.

“Well, that’s a little more like it,” he says, doing his best to sound pleasantly surprised instead of deeply furious. “You’ll have to forgive me for bein’ skeptical, aight? Ain’t nobody heard a peep from Team Rocket in over a decade. Can’t blame me for needin’ proof that you’re the real deal.”

And I can’t think of nobody but a fuckin’ Rocket who would threaten somethin’ as sick as that, ya bastard,  he thinks but does not say.

“Naturally, of course.” The man in the suit tosses Guzma one of the Net Balls; he catches it in one hand and tucks it into his pocket, resisting the urge to mumble something reassuring under his breath.

“So - I believe ya, sure,” Guzma says. “But what’s in it for me, yo? I ain’t itchin’ to have the International Police crawlin’ my ass. Team Skull ain’t exactly big-time, particularly compared to present company, but bein’ overlooked and underestimated has its perks.”

Acid flows up and into his throat. He swallows it back, hating himself for resorting to flattery, hoping that it works.

“Undoubtedly,” the man agrees, and tosses him another Net Ball. “And that will be allowed to continue for awhile yet. Our alliance can be kept quite discreet.”

Guzma tucks the second Net Ball into his pocket. “So, uh, hypothetically speakin’, what am I lookin’ at here? I was told to give ya what ya want, so what do ya want with me?”

“We’d set you and your organization a certain quota of Pokémon to be...acquired...every three months or so. Quarterly, if you will,” the man in the suit says, tossing Guzma another Net Ball. “Regional variants not seen elsewhere would take precedence. In return, you would be granted funding to expand your operation and, um…”

The man gives a pointed glance around the room as Guzma tucks the Net Ball into his pocket.

“Improve your headquarters,” the man continues. “The amount of funding would be dependent upon how well the quotas are fulfilled.”

“So that's it, huh?” Guzma says. “I ain’t meanin’ to be, uh, ungrateful for the opportunity, but that sounds just a little too good to be true, ya feel me? There’s gotta be a catch.”

“I assure you that there is no catch,” the man says, tossing Guzma the fourth Net Ball. “All we want are Pokémon...oh. And one more thing.”

Guzma arches an eyebrow.

“It's a small matter, really,” the man says, tossing the last Net Ball up and catching it almost idly. “But we want the girl.”

For a moment Guzma sincerely does not know who the man is referring to.

“Yo, I got like twenty of those around here,” he says, cocking an eyebrow. “Ya got a problem with specificity, man.”

“I am not referring to any of your subordinates, never fear,” the man replies, still tossing up the Net Ball and catching it. “I speak only of the Kantoan girl you held here for several days. We have observed you from a distance long enough to determine that she means little to you - that she may, in fact, be somewhat of a nuisance. We will be happy to take her off your hands. Money is no object, of course.”

Guzma’s skin crawls and he bites down on his tongue again as he struggles to maintain his conspiratory expression.

This stuck up son of a bitch has been watching him. He has been watching him long enough to know that Stella had been stuck in Po Town, watching him closely enough to know that Stella drives him up the wall…

But not like he thinks. Shoulda watched a little bit closer, ya slimy bastard.

Guzma scarcely even realizes the implications of his own thoughts; all he knows is that the very idea of turning Stella over to this pompous little fuck makes his head pound in fury.

But there ain’t nothin’ I can do about that. He might not know about Stella, but he’s still got one of my babies and he still knows too fuckin’ much. I can’t lose my shit with this guy. Not now. Not yet.

He pitches his voice low in an effort to keep it steady. “Oh, really? What’s she to ya?”

“No one of import,” the man replies - a little too quickly, in Guzma’s opinion. “Merely an example to be made. I don't suppose you know the whereabouts of the little one?”

Guzma’s shoulders tense to stone.

Sick fuck. Ya did not just ask me about Moon. About a fuckin’ kid.

“Not a clue,” he says through his teeth.

“Ah, well. Do not concern yourself with the little one, then,” the man replies. “We will track her down soon enough. So tell me, Mr. Guzma, do we have a deal?”

“Yeah,” Guzma replies, his mind spinning like mad. “Yeah, sure. Gimme a week to get her here.”

“Very well. An associate of mine will meet you in one week, at exactly…” He pushes up the sleeve of his suit and taps his watch. “At exactly 3:30PM, at the gates of Po Town. Do try not to keep them waiting.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Guzma mutters.

“Now...I suppose you would prefer to escort me from the premises?” The man in the suit asks, tossing Guzma the last Net Ball.

“Nah. I work for ya now, don’t I?” Guzma answers, hoping his voice sounds as slimy as the bastard in front of him. He catches the last Net Ball and drops it into his pocket with the others. “I wouldn’t mind knowin’ how long my grunts are gonna be out, though. They got work to do.”

The man in the suit smirks. “Hypnosis effects typically wear off in a little over an hour with humans,” he says, recalling the two Dragon Pokémon into a pair of Dusk Balls. “You won’t have long to wait, I assure you.”

“Good,” Guzma says. “Am I gonna see ya again, or am I gonna be dealin’ with your, ah…”

“You’ll be dealing primarily with my representatives,” the man replies. “More information will be provided to you next week. With any luck, you will never have to see me again. Good day, Mr. Guzma.”

The man in the suit turns and walks out the door. After it clicks shut behind him, Guzma leans over, elbows on his knees and hands in his hair, and starts to count.

He tries to make it to 100. He tries to give the bastard enough time to at least get out of the house if not Po Town itself, but he only makes it to thirty before the fury and panic in his blood takes over.

He is on his feet before he realizes it and that is when he begins to lose himself, when time begins to slip forward in quick little flashes, as if he is no longer entirely aware of who he is or what he is doing.

The table next to his throne hits the floor, along with his laptop and an empty wine bottle that shatters on impact -

- wrenching his dresser drawers out one by one, pawing through them, flinging the contents haphazardly around the room as he searches -

- flings a chair into the wall after finding nothing underneath it, nothing stuck to it anywhere -

- fist hits the mirror inside his closet door, hits it again just in case, and the pain is distant and fuzzy -

- not under his bed or his mattress or on the frame, not in the closet or dresser or his bedside table, nothing on the walls or in the corners -

- flips his throne over and finds it, a tiny black box with a thin wire leading out to an impossibly tiny microphone, finds it and tears it off and throws it down and crushes it under his heel before shoving the throne off the platform entirely -

3.

Plumeria finds him.

She is kneeling in front of him with Salazzle sitting groggily at her side. She says his name and when he lifts his head to look at her she flinches away as if she is afraid he might lash out.

It hurts, but when he sees the wreckage of his bedroom behind her, he can’t blame her.

“Guzma,” she says softly, “Guzma, what happened? Who was that man?”

“Later.” He flexes his hands and winces at the pain in his knuckles. “Are the grunts awake?”

“Most of them,” Plumeria answers. “Guzma, please, what -”

“I fuckin’ said later, aight?” Guzma snaps. “Get the grunts that are awake. Y’all start goin’ through the house til it looks like my room, ya hear me?”

“Guzma, why -”

“You’re lookin’ for a little black box with a little microphone attached to it. Smaller than the fuckin’ palm of my hand. Dunno how many there are, if there’s even any at all. Found one under my throne.”

“Guzma -”

“Do what I fuckin’ say, Plumes!” He snarls, so viciously that Salazzle narrows her eyes at him and hisses.

“Down, girl, it’s okay,” Plumeria says. “All right, Guzma. All right. I’ll let you know if we find anything, but you’re bleeding. You need to get something on that pretty soon, okay?”

“Fine,” he mutters. “Just go, aight? Get out.”

“Let them out first.”

Guzma sighs. He reaches into his pocket with his bleeding hand and retrieves the five Net Balls, plus Golisopod; the rest of his main team sits on the Pokéball stand on his dresser, the only undisturbed thing in his entire bedroom, but the space is too small for his entire main team to be out at the same time.

One by one he releases them: Golisopod first, who comes out clicking in panic as it lays down beside him; then Vikavolt, the only one of the babies that has fully evolved, so distressed that the lights begin to flicker; Dewpider, who hides beneath one of his arms; Larvesta, fuzzy and warm and shaking; Heracross, chittering in nervous anger; and finally tiny, trembling Cutiefly, who immediately hides herself in Guzma’s white hair.

Plumeria nods her head, then turns and walks out of the room. Guzma hears her directing the grunts, brushing off their questions, getting them organized, and then everything falls quiet.

Alone and exhausted, Guzma wraps his arms around Larvesta and buries his face in its warm, downy fluff. It squeaks and nuzzles him back.

“I’m sorry,” he mumbles, “I know y’all were terrified and it’s all my fault, I’m sorry, I’m s-so sorry…”

His Pokémon crowd closer, clicking and chirping and squeaking, and while Guzma is grateful for their comfort there is a dark, leaden weight in his chest that their love for him can’t touch.

This is how they feel, the Pokémon we stole, the people we stole ‘em from, this is how they feel, what’s wrong with me, what the fuck is wrong with me -

The pieces begin to fall into place, one by one, and the picture they reveal is disturbing.

On one side is Lusamine and her love - her greed - for beautiful Pokémon, her obsession with the Ultra Beasts.

On the other, Team Rocket and their greed for valuable Pokémon, their obsession with power and profit.

In the middle is Team Skull, a gang made up mostly of kids barely over 18...and he himself is at the head of Team Skull, he and his need for attention, his obsession with being good enough for someone, anyone.

There is one piece, however, that does not seem to fit in anywhere, one piece that keeps the picture from being complete.

Stella.

What the hell does Team Rocket want with Stella?

4.

By the time Plumeria checks in again a couple hours later, Guzma has managed to pull himself together a little. Golisopod and the babies are helping him put his bedroom back to rights when she walks in.

“We found four more,” she says. “One in my bedroom, one in the cellar, and two on the first floor. Luka smashed them.”

“Good.” Guzma shakes his right hand absently; he still has yet to get around to picking out the shards of his mirror. “What time is it?”

“Close to noon. Inara’s gonna handle lunch. Personally, I don’t have much of an appetite.”

“Yeah, me neither.”

“Guzma…”

He holds up his hand. “I swear I’m gonna explain, aight? Just not yet. After the grunts get some food in ‘em I want y’all to sweep the rest of town. Just in case.”

Plumeria arches an eyebrow. “That’s pretty paranoid, cousin. Even for you.”

“You’re probably right,” he mutters, shoving clothes into one of his dresser drawers. “But this motherfucker walked in and used his Pokémon to attack fuckin’ dozens of people without even givin’ ‘em the chance to fight back, so I ain’t puttin’ shit past him.”

“Who was he?” she asks. “Can you tell me that much?”

“Didn’t get his name. Don’t think he woulda given me the right one, in any case,” Guzma answers. “Don’t matter. All that matters is Lusamine sent him.”

“Lusa…” Plumeria’s golden eyes widen in disbelief. “Fuck. I knew she was a bitch, but...is she gonna give us up, do you think?”

“I dunno what I think.” He scrubs his hands over his face. “Try me again this evenin’.”

“You’re the boss,” Plumeria sighs. “I’ll go help Inara. And Guzma?”

“Hn?”

“Put something on your fucking hands.”

5.

At three o’clock that afternoon, with his bedroom returned to some semblance of order, Guzma throws himself face-down on his bare mattress. What he wants, more than anything, is sleep.

Sleep doesn’t come. He hadn’t really expected it to come.

His mind is reeling. His head aches but he cannot seem to stop grinding his teeth. His knuckles are still full of glass from an outburst of anger and panic that he can’t remember except in brief, ugly flashes. There is even a fierce, stinging pain in a few of his fingertips, from his nails splitting apart as he dug them into the wooden arms of his throne.

He lifts his head a little, just long enough to check on his Pokémon. After being hit with the terrifying thought that the man in the suit could have stolen them and replaced them with empty Pokéballs he had panicked again and released them all, just to be sure. All were present and accounted for, thankfully, but at least for now Guzma wants them in his sight.

Most of his bedroom floor is now taken up in a big pile of Bugs. Scolipede lies along one wall, an eight foot long pillow for Pinsir, Heracross, and Scizor. Golisopod lies at their feet, curled up into its carapace with Ariados and Vikavolt asleep on its back. Venomoth, Larvesta, and Cutiefly have fallen asleep together in a fluffy, dusty little ball near Scolipede’s neck, and Dewpider is perched on its head.

Guzma buries his face into his arms again, wondering how he is ever going to be able to stand leaving five of them behind at a time after what happened.

And what exactly did happen? What the fuck is goin’ on?

Stella.

Team Rocket - or some gang ballsy enough to claim to be Team Rocket - wants Stella, for some unfathomable reason.  They want her badly enough that they came to Alola for her, and Guzma has no doubt that the man’s offer of working with Team Rocket was a thin excuse to gain access to Stella.

But they coulda asked fuckin’ anybody about her. Kukui. Hala.

Sure, they could have. They probably did, but despite the years-long rift between them Guzma knows better than to believe Kukui or Hala would give a stranger any information on Stella. Hell, no one would. Folks in Alola are friendly, all right, but they’re not that friendly...particularly not to pompous assholes who wear three-piece suits in tropical summer.

So they tracked her on their own. They tracked her to me.

And...what? Why not just come to him directly?

Guzma snorts laughter at himself. Stupid question. He never would have agreed to talk to anyone like that - never would have given them the time of day. They had to track him down through people he no longer associated with, had to dig so deep that they found not only his fucking rap sheet and psych evals, but Lusamine...and even then they had to corner him where he lived and incapacitate dozens of trainers just to get to him, all in the hopes of getting to Stella.

As for Lusamine...

Guzma has no doubt that she struck some kind of deal with the man in the suit. It may have been as simple as I’ll tell you where he lives so long as you keep quiet about what you know. Or, if the son of a bitch was telling the truth, it could be as terrible as agreeing to work with Team Rocket to further her own goals.

The idea makes him sick to his stomach.

Would she?

She would. Maybe not a year ago. Maybe not even six months ago. Now, however...now, she is so far gone in her obsession with the Ultra Beasts and Ultra Space that she ordered him to kidnap a harmless little girl just to get her hands on one Pokémon.

Aside from that...well. A stranger waltzing in asking where to find Guzma after all the pains she had taken to conceal their...whatever it was? Not only that, but a stranger asking where to find him specifically because they needed to find a certain Kantoan girl? A certain Kantoan girl that Lusamine had told him, in no uncertain terms, never to associate with?

Guzma swallows hard and tries not to think about it.

Aight. Fine. But why not just fuckin’ take Stella? Why jump through so many fuckin’ hoops?

He isn’t sure, unless they were worried about being caught...but Alola’s police force can’t even pin Team Skull down. Hell, Nanu is the island kahuna, and the last time Guzma battled him he had won easily -

Wait. Nanu.

Nanu used to be a regular beat cop. He had brought Guzma in a time or two as a teenager, but then he had taken a job at INTERPOL...and came back ten years later looking twenty years older. Whatever he had seen during his stint in INTERPOL had jaded him. Technically, he is now Ula’Ula’s chief of police...but he rarely acts the part, has no one under him, and had been more irritated than honored when Tapu Bulu chose him as kahuna.

But he’s still ex-INTERPOL.

If the man in the suit is telling the truth, if he and and his scummy underlings know about Nanu, they likely wouldn’t want to risk taking Stella openly. They’d need a scapegoat, a cover story…

Guzma sits up and throws himself out of bed, pacing the small strip of empty carpet with his hands curled into shaking fists and fury rising anew in his blood.

Sure. It makes sense. Team Skull brings Stella to Po Town. Stella disappears.

Who gets the blame? Team Skull.

And who the fuck will believe Team Skull if they try to blame Team Rocket?  No one, that’s who. No one except Lusamine.

Except what use does Lusamine have for Team Skull if she’s allied herself with the most notorious team of Pokémon thieves on the planet?

A team that, as far as anyone else knows, no longer even exists?

Guzma’s headache intensifies as his teeth screech against one another.

Used.

Again.

“Over my dead fuckin’ body,” he mutters fiercely.

[ That’s exactly what it will be, boy. ]

Chapter Text

1.

Guzma rarely plans ahead.

Planning ahead means thinking about the future. It means expectations, putting faith in others to behave the way he expects them to behave. Worst of all, it means hope - hoping that things turn out the way he wants them to, hoping for the best.

In his experience hope and high expectations cause nothing but suffering.

Instead, he takes things one step a time...and step one is easier than he expects it to be.

He will not let Team Rocket scapegoat all of Team Skull. The majority of them don’t have any idea about Lusamine or the Aether Foundation - hell, most of them aren’t involved in any real theft at all. The younger ones, the ones that are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, will sometimes fuck with kids around the islands, playing keep-away with their Pokéballs and shit like that. They’ll tear down Totem Stickers and harass Captains, backtalk the Kahunas and spray-paint skulls in alleyways. Guzma lets them. He did the same things, for the most part, and besides, it makes Team Skull seem like nothing but a group of troublemakers: annoying, disrespectful, but hardly dangerous.

Certainly not dangerous enough to be involved with Team Rocket.

Once Guzma has made up his mind on this first point - that he isn’t going to let Team Skull take the fall for Team Rocket - he forces everything else out of his mind. This is the first step, and the only way he will move beyond it is to break it down into many, many smaller ones...and the first of those small ones is to find Stella.

He doesn’t let himself think of his last words to her, doesn’t let himself entertain the thought that she won’t come.  She will, even if he has to drag her here himself.

He sets most of the younger grunts to the job, given that Leia and Koa are still on Princess-Watch and Plumeria and Inara are off relieving various shops of their healing items. Guzma had never developed the knack for petty theft; that had always been Plumeria’s niche, a talent she picked up in Kalos after dropping out of boarding school. It is a little ironic, given all that her mother had left her when she died, but Guzma can’t blame her for not wanting to touch that money unless she has no choice. He might despise his father, but at least the old man had paid attention to him.

Still, he isn’t as adept at organizing as Plumeria. It takes him a little longer to get the other grunts on task. Once he finally does, Guzma moves Luka and Kau’i to the gates. Neither of them are happy about it. They have both been ready to fight since they came to, more offended on Guzma’s behalf than he had ever expected, but they do as he says.

Once these things are taken care of, all that Guzma can do is wait.

He does not wait well - that, like coordinating the grunts, is Plumeria’s forte.


 

2.

“We’re stocked up,” Plumeria mumbles around the hair ties in her teeth, standing in front of Guzma’s cracked dresser mirror and snatching a brush through her pink and yellow hair. She pulls it back further still, until it is gathered so tightly in her fist that Guzma is surprised her eyebrows haven’t been yanked up to her hairline.

“Did Inara get the machine workin’ in the PMC again?” Guzma asks absently. He’s pacing up and down the length of his room.

“She did, yeah,” Plumeria answers. She pulls her hair through the hair tie and starts on the other side. “After, y’know, the initial anxiety attack. You know you can’t drop shit on her like that, cousin.”

Guzma scrubs a hand over his mouth and sighs. “It needed to get done,” he mutters. “I knew she’d be able to handle it.”

“She handled it just fine. What gets to her is you. You’re on the damn warpath, Guzma, and it’s scary.”

“Dunno what you’re talkin’ about,” he replies absently. “Ya heard anything about Stella?”

Plumeria sighs, wrapping the hair tie around her second pigtail. “Grunts were tailing after Moon and Hau near Tapu Village, last I heard. Stella’s around, just not with the kids.”

Guzma nods, then falls silent, still moving restlessly about his bedroom. Plumeria sighs again and crosses her arms, waiting.

“I just wish I knew what the fuck they want with her!”

“There it is,” Plumeria mutters under her breath. She leans against the wall, watching Guzma pace with a sort of bemused annoyance. “She probably saw something she wasn’t meant to see back in Kanto.”

Guzma rubs his hands through his hair until it sticks up wildly in every direction. “That don’t make sense, Plumes. Ya didn’t see this guy. I did. Ain’t a way in hell this guy fucked up so bad that some random chick and her little sister discovered the whole organization.”

“Didn’t they fuck up bad enough that an eleven year old kid took them down?” Plumeria asks, arching one perfect brow.

“Yeah. Like fifteen years ago,” Guzma mutters. “I’d say they’ve had plenty of time to reorganize since then. This red headed son of a bitch ain’t stupid, Plumes. Not by a long shot. He knew his shit, he knew what he was doin’.”

It galls him to admit it, but it’s true. The man in the suit had almost played him perfectly. It was nothing short of a miracle that he had been able to cling to his temper well enough to fool him, and even now he isn’t certain just how much of his act the man had bought...if any of it.

Before Plumeria can open her mouth to reply Kau’i pokes his head through the open door. “Hey, boss...you, uh...you said you wanted Stella here soon as possible...right?”

Guzma pauses in front of his throne with his arms crossed over his chest, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” he says carefully. “But I ain’t so sure I like the sound of your voice right now, Kau’i. What’s goin’ on?”

“Stella’s, uh...she’s on her way,” Kau’i answers, “But you, uh...she might not be too happy when she gets here.”

“I figured that,” Guzma says sharply. “What I wanna know is why you’re lookin’ at me like you’re waitin’ on me to start breakin’ shit.”

“Don’t be mad,” Kau’i says, stepping nervously into the room as Plumeria cradles her forehead in one hand.

Guzma narrows his eyes and speaks through his teeth. “I ain’t in the mood, Kau’i. Spit it out or get out.”

“Okay! Okay, okay,” Kau’i says quickly. “I’m just the messenger, boss, that’s all.”

“Oh really? Whose message are ya deliverin’ then?” Guzma asks. “And why?

Kau’i shifts on his feet as his gaze drifts somewhere over Guzma’s shoulder. “‘Cause, uh…’cause it’s one of the younger grunts. He’s like, fifteen, and he’s scared, boss. He knows he fucked up and he knows you’re gonna be pissed.”

Guzma’s gut instinct is to lash out. The words themselves are on the tip of his tongue -  

He fuckin’ better be scared he oughtta know better than to hide from me!

- doubling over his father’s voice in his memory - 

[You better be scared, boy, you know better than to try and run from me!]

- and Guzma clenches his jaw until his teeth scream with pain. The words stay in his mouth and they taste like bitter fruit.

[Apples and trees, boy.]

Shut up, old man.

Guzma closes his eyes and breathes in through his nose and tries to curb his temper.

“Just tell me what the fuck he did and I’ll decide if I’m gonna be pissed or not,” he says through his teeth.

Kau’i nods as some of the tension goes out of his shoulders. “It’s, uh...Stella ain't been around the kids as much, I guess since they’ve been sticking around Tapu Village? He said no one had seen her but a handful of times, always in town. So he figured maybe what they ought to do is find a way to make the brats kinda do the work, to get her outta town where they might be able to corner her, or whatever.”

Guzma nods. “Sounds like a decent plan, but I’m guessin’ that ain’t the way it went.”

“Oh no, uh, it was...that was almost exactly the way it went,” Kau’i says. “It’s just, uh...he didn’t exactly know what the hell he could do that would convince Stella she had to come here. You told ‘em to try and avoid battling her, but he figured if he harassed the kids too much that’s exactly what would end up happenin’, so he uh...he may have snatched a Yungoose. From a toddler. In front of the brats. And Nanu’s niece.”

Guzma closes his eyes. “He. What. In. Front. Of. Who.”

Kau’i flinches. “He beat Hau and Moon, but Lillie was crying and the kids were crying and Acerola was running out of the house to see what had happened and Stella was coming down over the hill from Tapu Village with that giant fuckin’ Incineroar behind her, and before Koa or Leia could help him out the kid just panicked - scooped up the Yungoose and took off. It bit him,” he adds, as if that particular punishment might appease Guzma somewhat. “He hid with it long enough to listen, and well...Stella promised the kid she’d go after it, so…she should be here. Like, soon.”

For a moment Guzma doesn’t reply. He scrubs a hand over his face, looking at the ground. He can sense Plumeria watching him, can tell that Kau’i is bracing himself for a tirade. He doesn’t blame them, not really. The kid had fucked up, potentially very badly, but there is one point that Guzma can’t manage to get past.

He pushes his hair back from his forehead and laughs. Plumeria’s eyes widen and Kau’i takes a step back, alarmed.

“Ya said this kid beat Hau and Moon?” Guzma asks. “Seriously?”

Kau’i nods, still staring at Guzma as if he doesn’t quite trust that he’s actually Guzma.

“That’s fuckin’ awesome.” He can’t wipe the grin off his face. “The hell did he manage that?”

“I...I think they were, uh...working with different teams…?” Kau’i says. “They’ve been preparing for Acerola’s trial and sticking close to town, so they only had about three with ‘em, and two of those I didn’t even recognize. He took on both of ‘em at once to match his full team.”

“That’s still impressive as hell,” Guzma says. “Like, I ain’t even mad, those kids are somethin' else. Tell him we’ll deal with the Yungoose bullshit after Stella gets here, aight? I’ll handle it. I gotta talk to Nanu anyway.”

Kau’i nods again, still wide-eyed and wary as he backs out of the room.

“Guzma…?”

He turns at the sound of Plumeria’s voice, still grinning. “Yeah, what’s up?”

She tilts her head a little. After a moment a strange little smile spreads over her bewildered face and she shakes her head. “Never mind. I’ll go get the grunts in line. You want them to let her through, or make her fight for it?”

“Let her through,” he says absently. “I’ll be the one to make her fight for it.”

And I better hope I beat her this time, otherwise I got no clue how the hell I’m gonna keep her here.


 

3.

Koa and Leia arrive about ten minutes before Stella, both out of breath. Guzma is glad to see them not only because they confirm that Stella is heading right where he wants her, but also because thanks to the grunt Tapu Village probably isn’t the best place for Team Skull to be seen at the moment.

When Stella walks up the path toward Shady House Guzma meets her out front. Given what Kau’i had said and what Leia and Koa had reported, there is no way she’ll back down without a fight...and Guzma has already destroyed his bedroom once this week.

Stella stands with her arms crossed over her chest. Her Pyukumuku cap is backward - the better to glare at him, he assumes - and one neon pink strap of her bra has slipped off her shoulder beneath her black tank top. Mug clings to her heavy black boots, her pink socks and ragged tights are flecked in blades of wet grass, and her black eyes are fixed on him with such an intense mix of disgust and disappointment that Guzma has to swallow back the acid burn of guilt in his throat just to answer her when she finally speaks.

“I guess you are an idiot,” she says darkly. “Snatching Pokémon in broad goddamn daylight in front of gods know how many witnesses.”

“Ain’t a real nice thing to say, girlie,” he says mildly. “Especially when you’re on my turf.”

And surrounded, he thinks but doesn’t say.

“Cut the shit and give me the Pokémon,” Stella sneers. “You can’t be much of a tough guy if you steal from toddlers.”

Guzma smirks. “Hear that, kid?”

The grunt who took the Yungoose stands off to the side. He nods sheepishly, holding the sleeping Pokémon in his arms; Guzma had gotten Venomoth to sedate it before it could chew up anyone else.

“Ya didn’t think I told him to snatch some toddler’s pet, did ya?” Guzma scoffs, laughing a little. “I got better shit to do with my time, girlie. The kid fucked up on his own.”

“Then you won’t mind me taking it back,” Stella retorts.

“Oh, I didn’t say that.” He flashes his nastiest grin. “I think I’ll make ya work for it.”

It is the second time that he has battled Stella, but this time he has his full team behind him...and still he only manages to beat her by the skin of his teeth.

And even when she concedes defeat, her Incineroar has other ideas.

Loki is down on one knee and panting, soaking wet from Golisopod’s Hydro Pump, but when Stella tells it to back down it isn’t even looking at Golisopod. It is looking at Guzma, and there is a dark, ominous shadow gathering around it like an aura. When Stella tosses its Pokéball to recall it Incineroar bats it away with its tail without a second glance.

Guzma freezes. He knows Dark energy when he feels it, and he feels it now - like little shadowy hands grabbing at his consciousness, trying to drag him down into the hell of his own mind -

Golisopod trots up to Loki and clicks, leaning down and gently butting their heads together. Loki is distracted. The shadows recede from the edges of Guzma’s mind as Loki huffs, smoke curling from its nostrils. It returns the headbutt with a begrudging sound somewhere between a purr and a growl before turning back to Stella, who recalls it before it can change its mind.

“That hellcat’s gonna hurt somebody, girlie,” Guzma says, hoping he doesn’t sound quite as relieved as he feels. “Kid, get outta here, take that thing back to its trainer before it wakes up and bites ya again.”

The kid nods and hurries away. Stella stares after him, then turns back toward Guzma, dumbfounded. After a moment or two she grins.

“You know, I can give you my number,” she says, bemused. “There’s no need to go through all this trouble just to get a battle out of me.”

Guzma - unable to resist himself - saunters forward until he looms over her. He grins, then sticks out his tongue and clicks his piercing against his teeth. “And if a battle ain’t all I want?”

Stella doesn’t shrink away and doesn’t miss a beat.

“Buy me dinner first,” she replies, smirking at him briefly before turning away. “I’ve got to go tell my sister you’re really not so bad after all. She was pretty upset.”

“Oh, girlie, you ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

Stella stops in her tracks. She turns to face him again, balanced on the balls of her feet, eyes narrowed to slits, and Guzma flinches inwardly. Maybe he should have chosen better words.

“Are you threatening me?” Stella asks, as if she can hardly believe it.

“Wouldn’t say that,” Guzma answers. “Just tellin’ ya how it’s is gonna be. Don’t make this hard, girlie.”

On second thought, those words aren’t much better. Stella glares at him, shifting her weight to the balls of her feet as if she is preparing to run.

“If you’re gonna be tryin’ to keep me here against my will I’m gonna be makin’ it real hard,” she sneers.

Much to Guzma’s chagrin, she is true to her word.


 

4.

Ten minutes later Guzma slams the first floor bedroom door shut and braces his back against it, chest heaving. It shudders as Stella drives her shoulder against it with a shocking amount of force for such a small woman.

“Where the fuck,” he breathes, “Did she learn to fight like that?”

Koa shakes his head, hands on his hips, still trying to catch his breath. Stella’s bag is slung over one shoulder. “I don’t think she learned anywhere. I think that was just instinct. Still, she’s a lot stronger than she looks.”

“Lemme out, you son of a bitch!” The door shudders again. “I’ll break your fuckin’ neck, are you hearin’ me?!”

“We’re lucky there’s no windows in there.” Koa winces as Stella throws herself against the door yet again. “Boss, she’s kinda scary.”

“Don’t I fuckin’ know it,” Guzma grumbles in response. “We’re gonna have to keep somebody outside the door.”

“I’m guessing you mean me?”

“Who the fuck else can deal with her?” Guzma replies. “You’re the one with the Fighting type symbol tattooed across your damn chest and ya saw what she did to Luka and Kau’i. I got shit to do.”

Koa sighs, rubbing his hands over the pink buzzed hair on either side of his mohawk. “I got it covered,” he answers, rolling his shoulders as he hands over Stella’s bag and moves to take Guzma’s place. “Though I’m not particularly looking forward to the commentary. Does she always talk like a cartoon bad guy?”

“Fuck you!” The door rattles. “You ain’t knowin’ shit!”

Guzma scrubs a hand over one stubbled cheek. “Nah. She don’t.”

Koa arches an eyebrow, but Guzma says nothing else. He turns and heads back up the stairs with Stella’s bag over his shoulder, then walks toward the bathroom at the end of the hall. Plumeria meets him, arms crossed over her chest.

“She can’t do it,” she says quietly. “She’s shaking too bad. I think she’s afraid she’s just gonna make it worse.”

“Fuck sake, it ain’t brain surgery,” Guzma mutters. “It’s a fuckin’ broken nose.”

“Guzma. Please.”

He sighs, resisting the urge to run his fingers across the crooked bridge of his own nose. “Fuck, aight, fine, I’ll do it.”

Plumeria sighs in relief, tension flowing out of her shoulders. “Thank you. Seriously. I know you don’t like to -”

“Shut up. Throw that on my bed.” He shoves Stella’s bag into Plumeria’s arms, then pushes past her into the bathroom. “Move, Inara, I got it.”

“Sorry,” Inara mumbles, backing away from Luka. She shakes her hands for a moment as if trying to dry them off, but as soon as she stops Guzma can tell that she’s still trembling.

“Go downstairs and get ice,” he mutters, just to get her out of the room. “Kau’i, back up.”

Kau’i nods and steps back as Inara slips out past him. He’s shirtless, and a dark purplish discoloration has begun to bloom along his breastbone, a souvenir from Stella.

Luka sits on the counter with his head bowed, breathing through his mouth. Blood flecks the toes of his white sneakers and the pink tile beneath them, and there’s a bloodstained pink towel in the sink behind him.

“Ya sure ya don’t want us to take ya to a clinic or somethin’?” Guzma asks. “‘Cause this is gonna hurt like hell.”

“Don’t wanna deal with the questions,” Luka mutters. His voice is thick, choked with blood. “Don’t wanna risk the last foster fam figuring out where I’m at, either. Buncha bastards. Just do it, boss, I can handle it.”

“If ya say so. Look up.”

Luka lifts his head. Stella’s elbow had hit home with a fairly sickening sound, and now Luka’s nose is swollen and off center. The lower half of his face is smeared with blood.

Guzma takes Luka’s head in his hands and settles his thumbs gently along the bridge of Luka’s nose, feeling for the shifted bone and cartilage, trying not to remember being twelve years old, sitting on the kitchen counter at three in the morning as his mother did the same thing because she was afraid to take him to a clinic so soon after the concussion -

Guzma grits his teeth and shoves the thought out of his mind. “One...two…”

He shoves before ever saying three, but Luka’s only response to the pain is a particularly violent bout of swearing. After a moment or two he tentatively tries to breathe through his nose. A little trickle of blood runs down his lip, but otherwise, Luka is fine.

“Thanks, boss,” he mumbles, knuckling the blood away from his mouth. “Had no idea that chick knew how to fight.”

“Yeah, me neither,” Guzma says. His voice is far away and his mind is following. “Get ice on that. I’ll be in my room.”


 

 

5.

He gets in the shower and stands under a spray of water that is nearly hot enough to hurt. His mind is caught in a loop, assigning varieties of golf clubs to various injuries like some sort of fucked-up Richter scale. He can hear the shrink in his head even now, years after he’d last seen her, explaining unhealthy coping mechanisms and intrusive thoughts and all manner of other shit that had never quite managed to stop his brain from becoming a morbid merry-go-round.

Stella had broken Luka’s nose with her elbow in the struggle, but it wasn’t a very bad break. Five-iron, maybe, if the way she’d split Guzma’s lip was no worse than a two-iron. The bruise on Kau’i’s chest had come from Stella’s boots and a piston-like kick launched while Koa had her arms locked, a bruise he associates with woods and hybrids instead of the irons.

In the end even Koa hadn’t been able to hold her well enough to move her. Guzma had had to wrestle her into a bear hug yet again, except this time he had made sure to trap her arms behind her back and keep his face clear of her head. His shins are bruised from her kicking, but it’s nothing bad - doesn’t even warrant a golf club, really. Maybe a fist.

He leans his head against the tile and sighs.

“Guzma, what is wrong with you?” he mumbles.


 

6.

He tells himself he does it because he knows Stella won’t talk.

It works. A little.

Guzma sits cross-legged on his bed, wearing cutoff grey sweatpants and a black tank top. He pushes his wet white hair back from his forehead as he stares down at the contents of Stella’s bag with a bewildered frown on his face.

Most of it consists of the basic, unexciting tools any trainer has in their bag: six Pokéballs, a few extra, and a PC link; potions and health items; Pokebeans, grooming kit, toys; a Cleanse Tag. She also has a couple Power Anklets, which explains the uncanny agility of her team.

Besides that, there are two changes of clothes (Guzma shoves her underwear back into the bag with all the blushing awkwardness of a kid half his age) and a rain jacket; a toothbrush and toothpaste; a sleeping bag; three novels, a cell phone, a butterfly knife, and her wallet.

All boring. All normal (mostly; Guzma does a double take at the sight of the butterfly knife, and he’s fairly certain that one of the novels is some kind of paranormal erotica).

What he can’t figure out is the bundle he finds at the bottom of her bag. It is a grey button-up shirt, tied in a knot around a black pencil skirt, a pair of ripped black tights, and a gold ring with a brilliant red stone, too ostentatious to be anything but real.

The clothes have no tags. The shirt is missing a few buttons, torn at the elbows and stained with dirt. The black pencil skirt is split almost all the way up the side seam, and the tights are full of runs and holes. They don’t look like anything Stella would wear at all.

And they’re too small, he thinks, holding up the skirt and frowning at the size. Stella ain’t that big but she’s thick. Hell, this could fit her sister.

He ties up the bundle again and puts it back in her bag. So far he’s gotten no answers, but he decides that if he’s invading her privacy already he might as well do a thorough job. He opens her wallet, which is just about as uneventful as the rest of her bag. Cash, ID, passport...and then the pictures fall out. Four of them.

Two of the pictures are of Moon. In the first she is tiny, maybe five years old, with long black hair braided into pigtails and tied with red ribbons, wearing a lacy white dress. In the next she is less tiny, probably eight or nine, still with the long dark hair but braided down her back and held away from her face with a red bow. She wears a white and red outfit that resembles a school uniform, and behind her, a little to the side, is a nervous-looking Riolu clutching the hem of her skirt.

The next two pictures show Pokémon. One is of  a foreign Raticate sitting on a chewed-up blanket, not the slightest bit ashamed of itself. The other is a picture of a Houndoom with a Crobat balanced on its head, both of them staring at one another with goofy looks on their faces. An Umbreon sits off to the side, gazing at the Houndoom and Crobat with judgy red eyes.

Stella owns none of these Pokémon, and the background of the pictures are so generic and nondescript that the location could be anywhere.

Guzma repacks Stella’s bag and sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face.

That’s what I get for bein’ nosy. More questions than I started with.

After a moment or two, he stands up, slings Stella’s bag over his shoulder, and heads downstairs to get some answers, one way or another.


 

7.

“Why is some fuckass claimin’ to be from Team Rocket askin’ me about you? And why did he go around askin’ people about me, just to ask me about you?”

Stella sneers, standing inches away with her arms crossed over her chest. “I’m from Kanto, you moron. I know good and damn well Team Rocket doesn’t exist any more. I’ve got no idea why some wannabe Rocket asked about me, but I can see why they’d wanna talk to you.”

She spits the word you as if it tastes bad in her mouth. Guzma grits his teeth.

“Oh really?” he asks. “And why’s that?”

“Birds of a feather and all that bullshit,” she hisses. “Team Rocket, Team Skull, what’s the fuckin’ difference?”

Guzma’s teeth screech against one another. His shoulders tense to stone and he keeps his arms crossed over his broad chest with a great effort of will, knowing that if he loosens up even slightly his fist is liable to wind up in the wall.

Team Rocket is infamous for two things: theft and abuse. Guzma knows good and well that he is guilty of the first, even if only indirectly. He isn’t ignorant of what he is: he knows that he’s a thief, a liar, a criminal; he knows that he’s violent and volatile, knows that he’s hurt people both accidentally and on purpose; he knows that he’s weak, knows that there is something wrong with him...but he has never in his life abused a Pokémon. The implication that he would raise a hand against any of his team, that he would abandon them, fills his stomach with lead and his head with fuzzy red fury.

He studies Stella’s face, her curled lip and furrowed brows and glaring brimstone eyes, and he wants to hurt her, wants to hurt her in the way a petulant, bratty child wants to hurt someone in revenge for some minor slight.

He starts to smile. A distant part of his mind knows that smile, knows that it turns his face into a mask of cruelty, and the smile widens into a grin.

“Ya know, it ain’t just you he was askin’ about, girlie,” Guzma says softly. “He was real keen on knowin’ more about that little sister of yours, too.”

The effect is instantaneous. Stella’s eyes widen and her face drains to a bloodless white. She sits down hard on the edge of the bare mattress behind her as if her knees will no longer support her weight.

“All right.” Her voice trembles. “All right, y-you...you win. It was our parents. They...they were in Team Rocket.”

Guzma stares at her, at a loss for words.

Stella swallows hard and drops her eyes to the floor as if she can’t bear his gaze, shaking a little as she hugs herself. “I...I got away from all that with Moon as soon as I could, and spent a long time getting my shit together so that we could get away from the...the stigma. Our parents died...Team Rocket must think we know something, but we don’t! We don’t know anything, other than the fact that they still exist.”

For a moment Guzma remains silent. That would explain a lot: the accent that she does her best to hide, the pictures of Pokémon that aren't hers, perhaps even the strange clothes and the ring. When he finally finds his tongue to speak, all he can manage is a soft, “Holy shit.”

Stella looks up at him with shining black eyes. “I know you’ve already told them you’d hand me over, otherwise you wouldn’t be keeping me here,” she says softly. “But please tell me you didn’t promise them Moon, too. Do whatever you want with me, I don’t care, but leave her out of it. Please, Guzma.”

A heavy weight settles in Guzma’s chest as he realizes that Stella is on the verge of tears. She is begging, all but on her knees, and it gives him no pleasure.

I did that to her on purpose, he thinks, disgusted with himself.

“I didn’t say shit about the kid,” he mutters. He crosses his arms and averts his eyes. “And yeah, I may have promised ‘em I’d hand ya over, but in case ya hadn’t noticed I ain’t a promise-keepin’ kinda guy. I want ‘em off my ass, that’s all, and I think I know how to do it.”

Stella tilts her head. “You do?”

She never takes her eyes off him as he explains his plan. She even nods along in agreement, at least until he gets to the end.

“All ya gotta do is be there,” he finishes, and Stella’s lips twitch into a nervous little smile.

“Be bait, you mean,” she mutters.

Guzma doesn’t let himself flinch. “Yeah. Be bait.”

Stella nods. She swallows hard and drops her gaze back to the ground, hands shaking as she picks at the chipped black polish on her fingernails.

“You’re sure Nanu is ex-INTERPOL?” she asks. “Emphasis on the ex?”

“I’m sure,” Guzma answers. “He ain’t a big fan. He’ll still talk to his old partner, I think, but Looker ain’t been around in awhile.”

The click of Stella picking at her nails stops abruptly. She pins her hands under thighs instead. “I’m not going to talk to INTERPOL.”

“Ain’t gonna have to,” Guzma says, arching an eyebrow. “I just said that, didn’t I? Nanu will hang on to the guy and transfer him to INTERPOL custody afterward. He don’t like too much fuss and he don’t ask questions.”

“Just making it clear,” Stella answers. She closes her eyes and takes a deep, trembling breath. “Fuck. I don’t wanna do this,” she adds. Her voice is very small. “What if they retaliate? I doubt Team Rocket is just one guy and a few lackeys.”

“Then I’ll deal with that when I gotta deal with it,” he answers. “I’m hopin’ they’ll fuck off once they know that Nanu’s onto ‘em.”

And I’m hopin’ that I can pull off lyin’ to Lusamine.

The thought fills him with nauseating dread. He pushes it out of his mind and falls silent, focusing on Stella. He has never seen her like this; she is so clearly shaken that it’s on the tip of his tongue to tell her to forget about it, that he’ll figure something else out, but before he can speak Stella lifts her head and looks up at him again. Her eyes are steadier, harder, and her mouth is set in that familiar, stubborn little line.

“I want them off my ass as much as you want them off yours,” she says. “So fine. I’ll help you. But this makes us even, all right?”


 

8.

She stares up at Guzma as the words leave her mouth, wondering if he’ll make her regret this. He has certainly made her regret every other attempt at civility, but this is different. This is too close to home, and she has to make sure Moon is safe.

Still. It would be much easier to be convincing if Guzma’s presence wasn’t quite so intense. She can’t recall ever seeing anyone quite like him before.

He easily clears 6’ even in a slouch, and his baggy sweats, loose tank tops, and oversized hoodies can’t quite hide the width of his shoulders or the powerful build of his body. His ears are pierced in more places than her own, not to mention the piercings in his eyebrows, his septum, even his tongue. That one is particularly distracting.

His tattoos are distracting as well, and he is covered in them from neck to elbow. Even now she can’t help but be fascinated by them. They all seem to be depictions of Bug types, but the work is intricate, almost macabre. She has wanted a better look at them since she first saw the Ariados sprawled across his back, its legs reaching up over his shoulders and wrapping around under his ribs…

Stella rubs a hand along the back of her neck and stops thinking about his tattoos.

She gets to her feet and extends a hand, meeting his eyes almost defiantly. They are the exact opposite of hers, a shade of grey so fair that the irises barely stand out from the whites. Set against a face as stormy as the grey-brown cliffs surrounding Po Town, the effect is arresting...and somewhat unnerving, at least right now.

“That’s fair. Pleasure doin’ business with ya,” he says, taking her hand with a smirk.

Stella is hard pressed to hold eye contact, but she doesn’t let herself look away. Instead she arranges her face into the appropriate mask of anxious amusement and says, “Same to you.”

Only liars look away.


 

9.

Stella spends most of the next day among the grunts. By the time the sun goes down she has his entire crew half in love with her, particularly the younger ones. After watching her interact with them for awhile Guzma can see why. She’s good with kids - that much is obvious, given how much she loves her sister and how fiercely devoted both Hau and Lillie are to her - but she’s good with teenagers, too.

With a little sweet talking and lots of Poké Beans she manages to coerce Loki into being petted by several of the younger grunts. It is soon sprawled out in a patch of sun with two girls scratching behind its ears, cooing about the big sweet kitty cat. It even consents to pose for Snapchat pictures. (Guzma, who doesn’t trust Loki any further than he could throw it, makes sure that Golisopod is nearby at all times.)

Stella exclaims over various Pokémon, over tattoos and piercings and outfits. She engages in a dozen 1v1 battles and answers question after question about Kanto. She is perfectly willing to talk about clothes and shoes and makeup and hair dye as much as any of the grunts could want, and offers advice to the few who train Dark types.

She makes it a point to apologize to Luka and Kau’i, both of whom take their injuries in stride, then spends the next hour playing video games with them.

At one point Guzma walks outside while trying to find Plumeria, only to see Stella balanced on a skateboard with Leia’s hands on her hips and Koa’s on her shoulders, both twins mumbling instructions on how to do a kickflip. He has to turn around and go back inside until the irrational wave of jealousy subsides.

By the time he finds Plumeria, Stella is already helping her and Inara round up the grunts for dinner. She even helps load the dishwasher afterward, all three of them talking back and forth about some series of trashy romance novels.

Guzma gives up. There is no reason why he should be so irritable about Stella’s presence, let alone about the way she fits in so easily with the bizarre family that is Team Skull, but he is irritated nonetheless. As soon as night falls he slips out onto the balcony and pulls himself up onto the roof. It’s quieter up there, and he can be alone without feeling trapped in his own room.

He doesn’t stay alone for long.

“There you are.”

Guzma sits up on his elbows and glances down toward the balcony. Stella climbs onto the roof, making her way up at a sort of crawl before kneeling next to him. She opens her mouth to speak, but before she can say anything her gaze shifts upward. She stares at the vast sky above them, her face drenched in moonlight. A hint of a smile plays upon her lips.

“It's so clear,” she murmurs. “I’ve never seen this many stars.”

“Yeah. Beautiful,” Guzma mumbles absently, not looking at the stars.

Stella glances at him, smirking a little, and Guzma turns away in a hurry.

“So…” She gives him a bit more than a hint of her smile. “Is this where you take all the girls you use as bait, or am I special?”

Guzma scrubs a hand down his flushing face, hiding the idiotic smile that Stella alone seems capable of eliciting.

“Yo, you’re the one agreed to it, girlie,” he mutters, averting his eyes to the sky. “And I didn’t take ya anywhere, ya followed me.”

Stella turns her face up to the sky once more, smiling into the moonlight.

“True,” she says. “Worth it, too.”

For awhile they sit in silence, though Guzma is certain his heartbeat can be heard across the islands. He lies flat on his back, his hands pillowed behind his head. Stella sits near him, knees folded beneath her, close enough that he could easily reach out and -

I ain't a goddamn kid, for fuck sake, he thinks, and then a burst of light catches his eye - and Stella’s too.

She rises up suddenly, her face brightening in wonder for the space of a heartbeat before panic flashes across it as she loses her balance on the slope.

Guzma moves without thinking. He sits up and reaches out, grabbing her around the waist and snatching her back until she sits down hard next to him.

Stella laughs, high and nervous. She eyes the slope of the roof and leans in closer to him. Guzma is about to push her away when she speaks.

“Okay!” She laughs again, her pulse racing against his forearm. “Okay, maybe….maybe just, uh...I’m just gonna stick kinda close to you, all right?”

Guzma’s heart flutters in his chest. He moves his arm, putting his hand down behind her as he leans back.

“Tch.” He glances up at the sky, if only to have somewhere to look. “Yeah, yeah, I got ya, girlie.”

“What was that?” Stella asks, searching the sky for the light.

“A group of Volbeat,” Guzma answers. “Lookin’ for an Illumise. It'll get brighter as the night goes on and more of ‘em join up.”

“I've never seen those.” Stella turns her head, glancing up at his face. “Tell me about them?”

“What makes ya think I know about ‘em?”

“Well they're Bug types, aren't they? And you just told me Volbeat form groups.” Stella shifts a little, edging even closer to him as if the slope makes her nervous. Guzma is torn between wanting to put his arm around her and wanting to throw her off the roof.

“I don't know everything about every Bug type, damn,” he mutters, averting his eyes again. “Ain’t ya got a Pokedex or somethin’?”

“Not a real one,” Stella answers. “Moon’s got the Rotom Dex. I just use the app on my phone, and I left it inside. I’d rather listen to you, anyway.”

Guzma grunts in disbelief. “What for?”

“Because you love them.” Stella shrugs. “I wanna listen to you talk about something that makes you happy, for once.”

“I ain't exactly a happy lovin’ kinda guy.”

“S’okay. You don't have to be.” Stella tilts her head back, watching the sky. “Can you at least tell me if it’s pretty? When they do the thing?”

“Dunno. Guess you'd probably think so,” Guzma answers. He is quiet for a moment, then adds, “Volbeat can't do much on their own. They’ll flicker around, lightin’ up at random and all, but they only get serious once they find an Illumise.”

“Illumise don't light up?”

“Don't need to. It's the Illumise that guides a group of Volbeat. Ya can tell when there's an Illumise ‘cause the Volbeat start gettin’ their shit together. They’ll start makin’ shapes, little ones to start with, boxes and triangles and shit. As the night goes on they get more complicated with it, til the sky’s full of these crazy geometric patterns, all lit up…”

Guzma shuts his mouth. He can hear himself getting carried away, but Stella nudges him with her shoulder, gazing up at him with obvious interest.

“Where did they come from?” she asks. “I mean, are they native to Alola? I’ve heard of them, but I’ve never seen any until now.”

“They ain't native, nah,” he answers. “They ain't really invasive, either, though. They seem to be blendin’ in to the ecosystem pretty well. I see most of ‘em around here at night. Seen a few on MeleMele. Far as I know they show up in most other regions pretty regular.”

“What do they look like? Oh!”

Stella sits up, careful to stay close to Guzma’s side as she points into the sky. A series of triangles flicker to light and Guzma grins.

“Found the Illumise,” he mumbles. “Illumise are blue and yellow. Volbeat are usually red and black, kinda like a Ledyba but not really.”

“Do the Volbeat pick the Illumise? Or is it the other way around?”

“Sorta the other way around,” Guzma answers. “Illumise tend to pick the Volbeat, but the Volbeat ain’t gonna let just any Illumise conduct ‘em, either.”

“Do they split up again when they're done?”

Guzma shakes his head. “Not all of ‘em. It’s almost a mating dance kinda thing.”

“How so?”

“Ya ask a lot of questions, girlie,” Guzma mutters. He is still self-conscious about how much he’s talking, but Stella nudges him again, grinning up at him with bright black eyes.

“Come on,” she pleads. “I’m asking ‘cause I wanna know!”

Guzma sighs. “Fine. It’s like this. So, like, Volbeat start lightin’ up on their own to attract Illumise. Nobody really knows if Illumise are attracted to the light or to the patterns, but close to dawn Illumise usually end up pickin’ one of the Volbeat from the group as a mate. Mated pairs tend to stick together. Groups of Volbeat are all unmated, but they’re more likely to want a mated Illumise to conduct ‘em if it’ll have ‘em, since mated Illumise have got experience and they can help the Volbeat make bigger and more impressive patterns...which are also brighter. So whether it’s the brighter lights or bigger patterns, either way they end up attractin’ more unmated Illumise. That make sense?”

Stella nods. “I think so. Like, it’s good for unmated groups of Volbeat to join with a mated Volbeat and its Illumise, because then they can make brighter, more complex patterns and lure more unmated Illumise into the area, which increases their chances of finding a mate for themselves. Right?”

Guzma can’t stop himself from smiling a little. “Yeah, ya got it.”

Stella smiles back. She is staring up into the sky, watching the Volbeat shift their lights into design after design, like a kaleidoscope of diamonds.

“So it’s like she just wants to help him - them - be...better?” She asks at length, tilting her head back to look up at him. “Like she - Illumise, I mean - can see his - well, their - potential, or something?”

Guzma swallows hard, suddenly very aware of how close Stella really is. It would be nothing for him to lean down and -

I ain’t a fuckin’ kid and she’d throw me off the goddamn roof anyway.

“Yeah,” he mumbles. “Gotta wonder why she picks the ones she does. Illumise. Why she picks the Volbeat.”

“Why she picks her mate?” Stella asks. “Maybe she thinks his light shines the brightest.”

“Make more sense for her to pick one that knows what the fuck he’s doin’,” Guzma mutters. “Don’t matter how bright he shines if he can’t do shit right.”

“Maybe that’s what she’s there for,” Stella says. “Oh, Guzma, look!”

Stella points like an excited child.

“Yeah,” he says. “Looks like they found a good one.”

The group of Volbeat has grown into a swarm. They dance high in the sky, creating a giant, glittering geometric vortex that puts the stars to shame. It is easily the most impressive design Guzma has ever seen...but it is Stella’s face that draws his eye.

Whatever happens tomorrow when Team Rocket comes for what they think is theirs, whatever happens when he finally has to deal with Lusamine and lie to her terrible, beautiful face...in that moment it all seems worth it, just to see this side of Stella, to see her gazing up at the sky in pure joy, captivated by the light show. Guzma may not be a kid anymore but that doesn’t stop the warmth in his chest or the smile on his face, and he leans back on his hands out of Stella’s line of sight so that she won’t know he’s looking at her instead of the sky.

Chapter Text

1.

Guzma stands just outside the gates of Po Town, one big hand wrapped around Stella's upper arm.  Plumeria, Luka, Kau'i, and the rest of the grunts are inside the gates. They aren't supposed to interfere unless Guzma gives the signal, but then again, no one in Team Skull got there by following the rules.

Stella herself is tense. Her muscles are like stone beneath his touch and he isn't sure that she is even breathing. Not that he blames her; his heart is pounding and he can scarcely hear for the blood churning in his ears.

A black car with tinted windows pulls up nearby. Guzma doesn't know much about cars - few people use them on the islands - but it seems nice without being too nice, as if it had been chosen to be both classy and unobtrusive.

Forget about the fuckin' car.

Guzma breathes in, doing his best to steady his nerves. Nanu can't be far behind, and yet…

"Are you sure he'll come?"

Stella speaks under her breath, lips barely moving. Her wide eyes are fixed on the car.

"I'm sure." He tightens his grip on her arm. "Here goes. Gonna try not to hurt ya."

Stella gives a minute nod as the Rocket emerges from the car.

Guzma does his best to size the guy up as he approaches, but there isn't much to tell about him. His skin tone resembles Stella's (although hers has darkened somewhat from the tropical sun) - Kantoan or Johtoan, then. He is older than they are, but whether by five years or fifteen Guzma can't be sure. His hair is inky black and slicked straight back from his forehead, and he wears a tailored dark grey suit with a red tie.

Besides that, he is utterly unremarkable...until he speaks.

"Mr. Guzma." He inclines his upper body in a stiff bow, the way Stella had done after the incident in Mailie Gardens. "You're gonna be makin' a great first impression with this, believe me."

He smiles and a gold tooth flashes in the sunlight. Guzma chokes down the bizarre urge to laugh.

This guy's a joke. Like the dumbass cartoons Gladion was talkin' about.

"'Course I am," he says, struggling not to grin. "I'm an impressive kinda guy."

The sound of a car engine rises in the distance, but before the Exec can mark it Stella tries to jerk out of Guzma's grip as if she is planning to run. Distracted, the Exec reaches out and grabs her by the arm. He snatches her away from Guzma and twists both her arms up and behind her back until she is forced up to her tiptoes, hissing in pain.

Guzma no longer feels like laughing.

He curls his hands into fists until his nails bite into his palms. Tension creeps up his spine and spreads into his shoulders, winding him tight as a spring.

Stella swears under her breath and blinks away tears, but when she looks up at Guzma she gives a minute shake of her head.

Don't.

Guzma swallows down the rage in his throat and tries to focus. The sound of Nanu's cruiser is getting closer and Stella begins to struggle again, doing her best to both escape the Exec's clutches and keep his attention on her.

"Ya best stop fightin', Akari," the Exec mutters. "The boss don't want ya hurt, but I ain't opposed to givin' ya a little Psychic therapy, see?"

Guzma frowns. Akari?

There is no time to question the name. The cruiser is getting closer now, and as Stella writhes around Guzma glimpses three Pokéballs hooked inside the Exec's coat.

"Which boss are ya referrin' to?" Guzma asks, crossing his arms over his chest and staring down his nose at the Exec. "The boss or the redheaded guy that hired me?"

"The only boss you're gonna be concernin' yourself is the redheaded guy," the Exec replies. "And the sooner I'm gettin' this little bitch back to him, the better. Somebody'll be in touch soon."

"Ya best be watchin' your fuckin' mouth," Stella snarls, wrenching around  in the Exec's grip despite the pain. "And I ain't gonna be goin' nowhere, see?!"

She keeps this up in a similar vein, her accent getting thicker by the second, fighting him as best she can with every word as she works to distract him from the approaching cruiser. She starts kicking her legs and catches the Exec hard in the thigh; she throws her head backward and he barely dodges in time to avoid having his nose crushed into his face.

"Need some help?" Guzma can't keep the mockery out of his voice.

The Exec snorts, so absorbed in keeping control of Stella that he doesn't notice the old police cruiser in the distance behind him, nor the grey-haired officer that emerges from it.

"Hardly," the Exec sneers, and there is nothing cartoonish about the cruelty in his eyes as he brings up one hand to grab Stella by the throat, oblivious to the Persian that stalks him.

"Ya know what, better just let me handle it," Guzma growls. He reaches out and knocks the Exec's hand away with more force than strictly necessary, then grabs Stella around the waist and pulls her toward him just as Persian leaps.

The Exec hits the dirt face-first with Persian's paws planted firmly on his upper back. When he tries to flip over to grab his Pokéballs Persian unsheathes its claws and pricks them through the fabric of his suit coat. Blood blooms in a faint ring around a few of the holes and the Exec stops moving.

Guzma realizes that he is clutching Stella against his chest almost as tightly as the Exec had been holding her arms. He releases her with an odd pang, looking away and running his fingers through his hair as he tries to get a grip on both his emotions and his adrenaline. He sees Sableye phase through the passenger door of the black car, checking for accomplices, and then Nanu is there.

He nudges Persian away without so much as a nod toward Guzma, then kneels down into the middle of the Exec's back. He snatches the Exec's wrists around, securing them in a thick black zip-tie as he recites the Exec's rights in his usual dull monotone as Sableye drifts over and stares at the Exec with its gemstone eyes gleaming.

"How ya like that, ya s-sleazy son of a bitch?" Stella hisses.

Accent or none, her voice trembles a little as she speaks and Guzma turns toward her, intending to ask her if she's all right.

Before he can open his mouth to speak Looker appears behind her, and the Rocket Exec on the ground begins to laugh.

 

2.

Guzma can't breathe. He stands frozen, watching the scene before him unfold in dumb, distant shock.

While Nanu pushes the cackling Executive into the cruiser, Looker takes both Stella’s wrists in one hand. She is struggling again, spitting every curse word she knows and then some, but Looker speaks over her protests.

“Hoshi Akari, you are under arrest on suspicion of willful participation in the criminal activities of Team Rocket.” He draws a black zip-tie tight around her wrists. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say…”

Guzma’s veins are full of ice water. He cannot process what he is hearing. That isn’t even Stella’s name , and she’s screaming, snarling, drowning out Looker entirely.

It takes him several seconds to realize that she is screaming at him.

“Liar!” She wrenches her shoulders out of Looker’s hands, glaring at Guzma with eyes like brimstone. “Ya been lyin’ this whole time, this whole fuckin’ time, ya rat bastard!”

Her accent is thicker than he has ever heard it, so thick that it seems to be almost a caricature -

Guzma sucks in a sharp breath. He glances at the man sitting in the cruiser, in his grey three-piece suit and his slick black hair, lips curled in a sneer...the cartoon villain who turned out not to be a cartoon at all.

That.

That is what is in Stella’s voice right now, that Kantoan mob drawl that every kid’s show villain had been given in the post-Rocket years, and Guzma does not understand what is happening.

Stella snarls in fury, thrusting an elbow into Looker’s stomach as she fights to get at Guzma. “Goddamn motherfuckin’ liar I trusted you! Moon trusted you!”

Guzma's chest tightens until it hurts to breathe. He can only watch as Looker tries to drag Stella toward the cruiser.

“This ain’t…” He swallows hard, finally finding his tongue. “Stella, this ain’t what was supposed to happen!”

Hell flashes in Stella’s eyes. Looker grabs her and turns her around, trying to make her face the cruiser, but before he can make another move Stella throws her head forward, connecting solidly with his nose. There is a brittle snap! and Looker stumbles back, grabbing his face and cursing as blood runs through his fingers.

Stella does not seem to notice or care. She rounds on Guzma like a rabid Houndoom, wriggling her wrists inside the zip-tie until the plastic saws into her skin.

“This shoulda been you!” she snarls, flinging her bangs out of her face. “Motherfucker this shoulda been you and ya know it shoulda been you!”

Guzma flinches away before he can stop himself.

[She's right, boy.]

Before Stella can get much closer Nanu catches her around the waist, hefting her up against his hip the way he would a wayward Meowth. His expression does not change even as Stella jackknifes against him, trying to escape.

“Get her in the car,” Looker mumbles, his voice thick with blood.

Guzma takes a step toward her. “Stella - Stella, I -”

She flings her hair back once more, glaring up at him with raw hatred. She spits at his feet as Nanu carries her away.

“Hope the immunity is worth it, ya dirty fuckin’ snitch,” she sneers, and then Nanu pushes her head down into the cruiser and slams the door.

The finality of the sound - of the door slamming shut - stirs up a fury in Guzma almost equal to Stella’s. He goes for Nanu without thinking, seizing him by the collar -

Nanu puts him on the ground without even seeming to move.

“Looker came to visit this morning," he says mildly. "We’ll be dropping the Executive off with another INTERPOL agent in Malie, then taking Stella to my station for questioning. She’s still in my jurisdiction. Not quite convinced she's who Looker thinks she is. No, don’t get up.”

Nanu throws him down again with lazy, catlike ease. Guzma hates him, hates him with a furious burning intensity that he hasn’t felt in years -

“She ought to be in my station in about thirty minutes,” Nanu says, sounding almost bored. “If she won’t talk we’ll give her some alone time to think. Sure hope the draft from that open window doesn’t make her cold. Might be a spare coat in one of those lockers.”

Nanu turns around and walks away without another word, climbing into the driver's seat of the cruiser alongside Looker.

Guzma’s hatred evaporates.

Mostly.

“Nanu, you bastard,” he murmurs.

3.

Guzma slinks around the back of the police station, between the brick wall of the building and the rocky hill behind it. The window is high up, but it's open.

Guzma climbs up the hill to a plateau near the top, then jumps for the window. He catches the ledge and pushes himself up, leans forward until he is far enough inside to sit up, then slings his long legs over the sill. He drops.

He lands in an off-balance crouch and comes close to rolling one of his ankles, but he catches himself against the lockers before that can happen. Despite the fact that it has been over a decade since he's been inside the station he remembers the layout well enough. The room he is in right now had once been an interrogation and meeting area, but now it appears as if Nanu is using it as more of a storeroom than anything.

The heavy interrogation table with its steel handcuff slot remains clear of clutter save for a small stack of INTERPOL folders. The actual cells (all two of them) are through a side door, while Nanu's office and computer are through the door across the room. There's another couple rooms off that one that Nanu has converted into living space, but Guzma has never seen that part of the station.

He checks his watch and eyes the folders on the table. Could that explain…?

Before he can take so much as a step toward the table, he finds himself interrupted by two Meowth kittens that leap at his legs and latch on to his sweats, climbing him like a tree, their little bodies vibrating as they purr.

"Oh for fuck sake." Guzma peels the kittens off and tosses them gently to the floor. Three more appear to take their place and a muscle above his left eye begins to twitch.

"Okay, no," he says quietly. "Bad kitties, okay? Bad! Off!"

One makes it to the pocket of his sweats and burrows down inside of it. The two he had removed begin their ascent all over again.

Guzma gives up. He's going to have to contain them somehow, but…

A sixth kitten sprints toward him and latches on to his leg, but this time Guzma sees where it comes from. There is a kennel hidden in the far corner, underneath an unused desk. It's full of soft blankets and tiny toys, as well as a kitten-sized covered litter box.

Guzma plucks the kittens off and pops them back into the kennel one by one, closing the door between each to keep them from escaping all over again. They mewl and cry in protest and the sound is so pitiful that Guzma almost feels guilty as he finally shuts the door and bolts it.

"Hey, chill, y'all are gonna be fine," he mutters. "Nanu's probably gonna feed y'all as soon as this is over, aight? So be cool."

One of the kittens reaches through the bars and swats at his hand. Guzma rolls his eyes and checks his watch again, wondering if he still has time to peek at the -

A car door slams.

"Shit!"

He jumps up and opens the first locker he sees. He manages to wedge his broad shoulders inside of it and shut the door just before Looker escorts Stella into the room. Nanu follows, carrying Stella's bag and a plastic bin labeled EVIDENCE. He sets them both on a table near the door.

Looker’s face is clean, but his white shirt and the lapels of his trench coat are spotted in blood and his nose is already turning a faint shade of purple. He steers Stella out of sight, presumably to sit her down at the interrogation table.

"Shut the kittens up, would you, Nanu?"

Guzma cringes. He should have thought of that.

"Did it before we left," Nanu says, and somehow his flat, inflectionless voice leaves no room for doubt.

There is the sound of a zip tie pulling shut. Looker moves back into Guzma's line of vision and takes a seat across from Stella.

"All right, Miss Akari -"

"That's not my name."

The limited view from the locker keeps him from actually seeing Stella, but her voice tells him two things: one, she has gotten ahold of herself enough to control her accent, and two -

"So you deny that you are Hoshi Akari?"

"My name is Stella."

- she is still furious.

Looker gazes across the table for a moment, then opens one of the folders in front of him and scribbles something down.

"That's not an answer, Miss Akari." He closes his folder and points at her with his pen. "I'll ask again - do you deny that you are Hoshi Akari?"

Stella says nothing. Looker sifts through the folder again and lays out several pieces of paper in front of her. Guzma can't tell for sure, but some of them look like photographs.

There is nearly a minute of uncomfortable silence. Looker pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs.

“Miss Akari, this will be much easier for you if you answer our questions.”

Stella remains silent.

"Give her a few minutes, Looker," Nanu says from somewhere near the door. "A Team Rocket Executive was about to choke her to death."

Looker stares across the table, eyes narrowed. "I doubt that," he mumbles, then seems to shake himself somewhat as he turns and glances at Nanu. "And hey, I thought I was the good cop here."

"I've mellowed out." Nanu opens the door. "Let her breathe. We'll try again in ten."

Looker stands up from the table, then hesitates. "Is the room secure?"

"She's five foot two and the nearest window is over seven feet up. You've got her in industrial zip-ties and you've zip-tied her to the table," Nanu replies, the faintest trace of irritation in his voice. "What do you think?"

Looker sighs again and nods his head, returning the papers to the folder and closing it again. "All right, all right, I understand. We'll return in ten minutes, Miss Akari," he adds, before turning to follow Nanu out of the room.

The door clicks shut.

Guzma waits for a moment, trying to make sure that coast is really clear. He shifts around inside the locker until he can just barely see Stella.

She sits at the interrogation table, her hands bound at the wrists and secured to the handcuff slot in front of her. Her head is bowed and her too-long bangs shadow most of her face. She takes a deep breath, then another. Her shoulders tremble but she isn't crying, at least not that Guzma can hear. She shifts her wrists around inside the zip-tie, then shifts in her seat...then abruptly begins jerking her wrists around inside the heavy black plastic until bites even deeper into her skin, trying to escape with the mad, mindless desperation of a creature caught in a claw trap.

Blood trickles down her arm. Guzma is out of the locker and by her side almost before he’s even aware he is moving, hissing at her under his breath.

“Yo, stop that, you're gonna rub your fuckin’ skin off -”

“Guzmmmmph!”

He claps his hand over her mouth before she can finish.

“Quiet, girlie,” he mumbles, his voice only a step above silent. “We ain't got much time.”

He moves his hand away from her mouth and is immediately shoved back as Stella accosts him with one sneakered foot.

“You rat bastard! Shoulda fuckin’ bit you! Hey, no, fuck you!” She is hard pressed to keep her voice to a whisper. “You don’t touch me ‘til I know why you’re here an’ what you heard, see?!”

Guzma holds his hands up as if in surrender, sneering down at her. Somehow he manages to keep his own voice down despite his irritation. “I’m here to get ya out and I heard everything, which ain’t sayin’ much since ya ain’t opened ya damn mouth since ya got in here! I didn't know this was gonna happen, aight? When I talked to Nanu he didn’t fuckin’ tell me Looker was in town or I never woulda set it up!”

“You set me up, all right,” she murmurs. “How’d you know they’d bring me back here?”

“We ain't got time for -”

“How. Did. You. Know?”  She demands.

“For fuck sake, fine,”  he sighs. “Nanu, aight? You're still in Nanu’s jurisdiction and if ya disappear before ya officially become INTERPOL business, ya stay in his jurisdiction, so if he decides it ain’t worth lookin' for ya there ain’t shit Looker can do about it, get me?”

It isn't entirely true. Looker could override Nanu's authority, but it would take awhile and Nanu isn't known for being cooperative. If they're going to get out of here any time soon, however, he needs Stella to stop talking and start moving.

She cuts her eyes at him. “How do I know you’re tellin’ me the truth?”

“Listen, ya ain’t exactly in a position to be arguin’ here, Miss Hoshi Akari,” Guzma sneers, flinging mysterious name at her like a dart.

“Don't call me that!"

Guzma only gives her an ugly grin. “I’ll call ya whatever I want. Now are ya gonna cooperate or not?”

“Why should I?!”

“Listen, that bastard thinks you're involved in Team Rocket, and he and Nanu go way back. Right now Nanu don't wanna deal with it 'cause he thinks Looker made a mistake, but if Looker gets him convinced, you're fucked, girlie. If you're suspected of bein' affiliated with Team Rocket he can detain ya as long as he wants," Guzma hisses.

This isn't quite true, either - Guzma knows good and well that Nanu won't be convinced one way or the other because Nanu doesn't care, but his patience is wearing thin.

"Ya wanna rot in detainment for the rest of your life and leave your mute little sister in the goddamn Alolan foster system, fine, I’ll crawl my happy ass out the window right now, but if ya wanna get the hell outta here ya best shut up and trust me, girlie.”

Stella fixes him with that cold, black-ice gaze that he hates. For a moment she says nothing, and Guzma is convinced that she is actually going to choose indefinite detainment over him. Finally she scowls and relaxes with a begrudging huff.

“Your accent is terrible,” she mutters, as Guzma pulls out his switchblade and cuts the zip-tie holding her to the table. “Never speak Kantoan again.”

“Why? ‘Cause all ya understand is fuckin’ mobspeak?” he retorts, setting his knife to the side. “Ya got more than a few questions to answer soon as we get to Po Town, girlie."

“So do you,” she spits back at him.

“Tch. We'll see 'bout that.” Guzma frowns, taking her hands in his as he examines her bound wrists. “Fuck, you're bleedin’ more’n I thought...”

Stella nods. “Stupid thing just keeps getting tighter, but I wasn’t about to ask either of them for any favors.”

Guzma grabs his switchblade off the table. “Ain’t been in a zip-tie before, have ya?”

“No. I’ve never even been in handcuffs,” she adds bitterly, eyeing the knife.

“Tch. Handcuffs are better, trust me. Now hold still, aight? Ya got the damn thing cinched so tight I’m gonna have to cut down on it. Don’t wanna slip and cut a vein instead, shit hurts.”

He is so focused on the task at hand that he doesn't notice what he has said, nor the odd look that Stella gives him. She does as she's told and keeps still as he saws the knife across the plastic. When the zip-tie pops off her wrists Guzma tucks his knife in his teeth and takes her hands once more, running his thumbs gently along the stripes of raw, bleeding skin at the tops and sides of her wrists.

“Fuckin’ hell, girlie, ya ain't supposed to struggle like that in zip ties,” he mumbles through the knife. “This is probably gonna scar.”

“Is that what yours are from?” she asks, and Guzma starts a little.

“Mine?” He takes the knife out of his mouth and snaps it closed, dropping it into his pocket. He glances briefly at the scars striping his own wrists and arms; they are so much a part of him now that most of the time he doesn't notice them.

“Yeah,” he answers, because it is easier than having to explain what they really are. “Zip-ties. Get your shit, girlie, clock’s tickin’.”

“Would they have taken anything out of my bag?” Stella whispers.

“Nah, not this soon.” Guzma checks his watch. “Move your ass, cmon.”

Stella nods. She slips across the room and grabs her bag, then opens the drawstring. She empties the evidence bin into it item by item, silent as a Ghost, then hooks her Pokéballs to her belt loops, crosses back to Guzma and picks up the dossier of INTERPOL folders.

Her eyes flick toward Guzma, then back to the folders in her hand. She turns away from him amd blocks his view with her body; when she turns around the folders are in the same position as before, albeit entirely empty.

Stella pulls the drawstring to close her bag, then slings the strap across her chest. “Right, so you said you came in the window?”

Guzma nods. In the back of his mind he can't help wondering just what had been inside those folders, but he does his best not to think about it. Neither of them can afford to be distracted right now.

“It's always open,” he says as they move toward the far wall. “The grunts use it to play with the Meowth when Nanu ain't home. C'mon, we gotta do this quick.”

He laces his fingers together into a step. Stella blinks at him, but her hesitation does not last long. She nods and slips one sneakered foot into his hands.

He lifts her with ease, holding her almost like a cheerleader. When he glances up to tell her about the drop outside, he finds himself staring directly at her ass.

He considers being polite and looking away, given the emotional wringer Stella has been through, but his own nerves are on edge and his mouth gets the better of him.

“Damn, girlie. Now I see why you’re always offerin’ to turn around,” he mumbles.

As soon as the words are out of his mouth he half-expects to be kicked in the face, but Stella only flips him off over her shoulder.

“I can feel you staring.”

“Sooner ya get out the window, sooner I lose the view.”

“Oh, you can look all you want,” she says as she pushes the window up. “Just keep your hands to yourself for now, I’m not really in the mood.”

“Yes’m,” Guzma teases, then -

“Wait, for now?!”

Stella swings one leg over the windowsill and peers down at him, clearly pretending not to have heard.

“How are you gonna get out?” she whispers. “I know you're tall, but this is pretty high -”

He blinks up at her, then scrubs a hand down his face and tries to snap out of it.

She is fuckin’ with my head and I’m thinkin’ with my dick and we need to go.

“Just jump, girlie,” he mumbles, glancing back at the door. “Careful, it’s a far drop, but I'm right behind ya.”

She follows his gaze to the door and drops without another word.

Guzma backs up. He takes the wall at a run and then jumps at it, using his momentum and the wall both to propel himself high enough to grab the windowsill.

He hefts himself up and throws his long legs through the window, one after the other. He considers just dropping down, then remembers Stella's teasing comment and decides he might as well see if he can get back at her.

He reaches up and grabs the ledge of brick above the window, then slips off the outer sill, holding himself up in a sort of one-handed pull-up position. He reaches behind himself with his other hand and pulls the window down back to where it had been before.

In the back of his mind he can hear Plumeria calling him a showoff, but he doesn't care.

He drops to the ground, landing in front of Stella with a smirk on his face, far more pleased with her wide eyes and the pink blush under her freckles than he probably should be.

“What?” He asks, arching an eyebrow. “C’mon, we gotta move.”

She blinks, then shakes her head and looks away. She busies herself with brushing off her knees; both are covered in dirt and grass, as if she had lost her balance after dropping down. “Sorry. Yeah. I'm...I'm right behind you.”

They set off toward Po Town, sticking close to the edge of the rocky hills as they go. They hurry along in silence for awhile, until Stella finally speaks.

“How are we gonna stop them from coming in here and taking me again?”

“Nanu ain't real keen on this whole deal,” Guzma mutters, listening for any sign of Nanu's cruiser. “He never woulda told me how to get ya out otherwise. Looker’s the one who ain’t got much of a choice here. If he has ya he can technically override Nanu's jurisdiction, but it'd take awhile. That'd make ya INTERPOL business ‘stead of Nanu’s business. But if he don't have ya...well, ya stay Nanu’s business. And Nanu ain't gonna want the headache. He can barely stand bein' the damn Kahuna. Even if he knows where to find ya, he ain't gonna bother lookin' for ya.”

“Wait,” Stella says, reaching out and grabbing Guzma’s hoodie. “Hold up!”

Guzma turns toward her, irritated. They aren’t far from the gates, but they need to be inside as soon as possible.

“Am I gonna have to stay in Po Town?” Stella asks, incredulous. “Like, live there?”

Guzma laughs.

“Don't sound so miserable about it,” he says. “It's the safest place for ya til all this shit blows over, believe it or not. Ya noticed how we’re still here even though every Captain and Kahuna thinks we’re scum? They say they’re leaving it up to the police, but that’s a joke. No cop but Nanu will come near this place, and Nanu just wants to be left alone. They don’t come here ‘cause they’re scared, and with Nanu so close ya can bet any Rocket is gonna think twice too, 'specially after what happened to that last happy asshole.”

“No, I don't doubt that,” Stella says, waving her hand. “It's just...what about Moon?”

Guzma shrugs. “Didn't ya say she was fine? She beat you, girlie. And old Hala's grandkid ain't no joke himself. Ain't like she's defenseless."

“She is fine, usually,” Stella answers, “But that guy you handed over to Nanu and Looker, that...that was an Executive, right? They’re pretty high up. What if they send another one after Moon? Since they missed out on me?”

“Ya think they’d do that? She’s just a kid, what can she know?”

“You said the man in the suit asked about her,” Stella reminds him. “Or were you just trying to intimidate me so I’d talk?”

“Does it matter?

“If he threatened Moon she’s being followed. There's no doubt in my mind about that,” Stella answers. “So for once, I’m really hoping you were just being a jerk.”

Guzma snorts. “The guy that I talked to, he asked if I knew where the ‘little one’ was. Almost socked him in the teeth just for askin’. I said I had no clue. He said they’d track her down eventually, but he didn't seem all that fussed about it, honestly. He only mentioned it like an afterthought. She’s probably fine.”

Stella freezes a few steps from the gates. “Wait. Y-you said...this man in the suit, he…you said he was redheaded?”

Guzma cocks an eyebrow, bewildered. "Yeah?"

"And he called her...what did he call her?"

"He called her the 'little one.’ Why, does that mean somethin’?”

“Shit.” Stella’s eyes widen. “Shit, I - I have to find her!”

If he had been a step further away Guzma never would have caught her. As it is he only just manages to loop his arm around her waist before she can sprint away.

“Stella!" He lifts her off her feet, holding her against his hip the way Nanu had done earlier. "Stella, hey, what the hell?!”

“Let me go!" She shoves at his arm, but to Guzma's surprise she doesn't try to kick him or hit him the way she had the Exec; she only writhes and wrenches around, struggling to push his arm away. "Let me go, I have to - I need to find her! Let me go!”

“And end up breakin’ you outta police custody again? Hell no!” He slams his fist against the gate and calls out the password almost absently, irritated all over again by Stella's insistence on being the biggest pain in the ass possible. “Stop fightin’,  girlie, damn! We’ll figure it out, aight?!”

“You don’t understand, they’ll - she - just let me go!”

The gates swing inward.

“Not happenin’,” Guzma snaps, carrying her through the gates and into Po Town. "You're comin' with me, girlie, whether ya like it or not."

4.

Guzma had fully intended to carry Stella all the way to Shady House if he had to, no matter how much she tried to fight her way out of his arms, but he barely makes it a hundred feet into town before the eyes of the grunts start making his skin crawl. Not one of them stops him to ask what's going on or what he thinks he's doing; they only watch in uneasy silence.

Guzma swears under his breath. He sets Stella on her feet and grabs her by the hand, dragging her into the overgrown yard of one of Po Town's abandoned houses. The hedges are high enough that once he pulls her into a shadowed corner of the yard they are finally out of the sight of most of the grunts.

"Let me go, Guzma, please, you have to let me -"

He grabs her by the shoulders. "Stella! Yo, look at me, girlie!"

It disturbs him a little, how quickly Stella can shift between moods. Not that long ago she had been screaming like a madwoman in the most notorious criminal accent in all the regions; shortly after that she was flirting with him; now she seems utterly out of her mind, so overcome by panic that she is willing to risk being captured by Team Rocket or INTERPOL over a danger that she can't be sure is immediate.

She fixes him with wild, panicked black eyes that slide away from his face almost as soon as they come to rest. She tries again to rush past him and he pushes her back, holding her in place and trying to block her with his body.

"Stella, look at me, for fuck sake!"

His voice is far sharper than he intends it to be, but it seems to get her attention. She sucks in her breath and blinks up at him.

"Just tell me where she is, aight?" Guzma says. "If it'll make ya chill out I'll get Koa and Leia to keep an eye on her, but I gotta know which island she's on first."

Stella nods. She pushes her hair back from her forehead and sighs.

"She's still here," she replies. "She and Hau have beaten Acerola, they're busy training for Nanu."

"Aight then. I'll handle it." Guzma eases his grip a little. "Now are ya gonna calm down or what? I don't wanna drag ya through the whole damn town while you're shriekin' like a Mismagius."

Stella shrugs his hands away with a scowl. "I'm fine. Go on, I'll follow you."

"Oh no." Guzma steps away and jerks his chin toward the main path. "I'm keepin' an eye on ya, girlie. I still got questions, I ain't gonna have ya cut and run before I get answers."

Stella glares at him. "What am I, your prisoner?" She snaps, crossing her arms over her chest as she moves toward the path.

"If that's the way ya feel about it, fine," Guzma retorts, "But ya got INTERPOL and Team Rocket both after your ass, girlie, so whose prisoner would ya rather be?"

Stella doesn't answer. She follows Guzma's directions in obstinate silence, though she does make a soft sound of disgust when he points her toward the bedroom where she had so recently been locked up.

Guzma follows her inside. He shuts the door behind himself and leans his back against it, arms crossed.

"Aight, girlie," he says, "Let's see if you're actually gonna be a prisoner or not."

Stella sits down on the bare mattress, arms still folded in front of her chest, eyes averted toward the wall. "You're really about to do this now, aren't' you?"

"I ain't real good at bein' patient," he answers. "Now why did Looker arrest ya?"

"I don't know."

"Who is Hoshi Akari?"

"I don't know."

Guzma clenches his teeth.

"You're lyin' to me, girlie," he growls. "Don't make me snatch that bag off your back and find out for myself."

Stella glances at him, sulky and belligerent, then looks away. "Keep your hands off my stuff. None of this is any of your goddamn business anyway."

"The hell it ain't!" Guzma brings his fist down against the door hard enough to make it rattle on its hinges. If it had been a straightforward blow he might have put a hole in it. Stella jumps at the sound, but as soon as she realizes how it was made her nose wrinkles in disgust.

Guzma pushes off the door, fists clenched, hating himself for the outburst only a little less than he hates the expression on her face. He holds himself back, refusing to move toward her despite everything in him wanting to invade her space, intimidate her, frighten her.

"Team fuckin' Rocket came to me, lookin' for you," he reminds her, speaking through his teeth. "I coulda handed ya over and didn't. I coulda let ya rot in custody and I didn't. Have ya got any idea what kinda shit I could get myself in 'cause of that?"

Stella snorts. "If you're waiting for a cookie for being a decent human being, you're going to be waiting awhile."

"Tch." Guzma's lip curls in a sneer. "I ain't anywhere close to decent and ya know it."

"So I'm a pawn, then?" She huffs, then turns away. "Figures."

Guzma's chest tightens like a fist closing around his heart. He is surprised to find himself hurt by Stella's words, that she would mistake his desire to keep her safe as a desire to use her later -

[It's your own fault for caring, boy.]

The anger floods him, drowning the hurt, eroding his self-control. He stalks toward her, shoulders hunched.

"Ya wanna keep that little sister of yours safe, ya best be answerin' my questions, girlie," he snarls softly.

Stella's body grows tense as stone. She turns her head to look at him and her eyes are black fire.

"Oh, you son of a bitch," she murmurs.

"Ya ain't tellin' me nothin' I don't already know, girlie." He stops in front of her, crossing his arms again in an effort to contain himself somehow. "Now are ya gonna answer my questions, or are ya gonna keep bein' a smartass?"

Stella sighs. At length, she begins to speak.

"I was eight when Team Rocket originally disbanded. My parents and I left for Johto to avoid INTERPOL." Her voice is thick with resentment and she avoids his gaze. "I spent the first eight years of my life in a Team Rocket safehouse in Kanto. Hoshi Akari was my...my given name. I can only guess that Looker knew about me from my parents' records or something and that he thinks the same thing as Team Rocket, that I know something and I'm hiding it."

"Why would INTERPOL or Team Rocket give a shit if you haven't known anything about them for almost twenty years?"

Stella's nose scrunches a little and she rolls her eyes as if she can't believe she is being forced to cooperate with someone like him. "I don't know about INTERPOL and I don't care. As for Team Rocket, I think they had something to do with the deaths of my parents. If they'd been...allowed to get close enough, I'm sure they would have done something about me, too."

"Allowed?" Guzma frowns. "What, did ya end up in foster care or somethin'?"

Stella looks away. Guzma takes that as a yes.

"Aight, then how’d ya end up with custody of Moon?" he asks.

Stella sighs. "I was blood family and I wanted to take her. Kids like her don't do well in foster systems."

"Because of the mute thing?"

Stella rubs her temple and nods, still refusing to look at him. "I took her, we were fine for awhile, and then they started coming after us. I worked my ass off to keep her safe and to get us both away. I did and apparently they followed me."

Guzma narrows his eyes. "They followed ya from Kanto to fuckin' Alola , 'cause of shit ya might remember from bein' an eight year old. And you're what - 25?"

"I don't need your bullshit skepticism right now." Stella finally meets his gaze, glaring. "How the hell am I supposed to know how Team Rocket thinks? The point is that they're after me and that I won't put it past them to try and use my sister against me, and I have got to keep her safe, all right?!"

"I get that," Guzma says, "What I don't get is everything else. Like why the hell ya assumed I ratted ya out when there ain't really nothin' to rat. If you're tellin' me the truth, that is."

Stella throws her hands up, exasperated. "For fuck sake, you met with a head executive who told you he wanted me! I thought you sold me out just to cover your ass both ways. Look, I am not having this conversation any more -"

"I ain't done with -"

Stella jumps up from the bare mattress, fists clenched. "I don't give a shit if you're done or not, because I am. This is a waste of time and if you're not going to help me keep Moon safe then I'll go out there and do it my damn self!"

"Like hell!" Guzma takes a step toward her, knowing already that she won't back down. "There is somethin' about all this that ya ain't tellin' me -"

"I don't have to tell you shit and you can't keep me here!"

"Wanna bet, girlie?!"

Stella's hand drops to her belt, right above Loki's Pokéball.

"Don't make me," she hisses. "I appreciate that you helped me get away from Looker, I really do, but you cannot keep me from protecting my sister, Guzma. Moon is my life, and if you really aren't going to help me -"

"Keep that goddamn hellcat in its ball," Guzma sneers. "Fuck, girlie, how stupid can ya be? Best thing ya can do to keep your sister safe right now is stay away from her!"

Stella recoils. "What are you saying?!"

"Far as Team Rocket knows right now, you're in custody," he says. "And if ya were, there wouldn't be a way for ya to react to them usin' Moon against ya in the first place. The hell would they bother Moon for if they know they ain't gonna be able to use her?"

"It's Team Rocket," Stella answers fiercely, pulling Loki's Pokéball off her belt. "Guzma, please. If you won't help me then let me go to her. Don't make me fight my way out of here."

Guzma stares down at her, furious and incredulous. She pulls her arm back as if to toss the Pokéball up and he sighs, taking a step back. As angry as he is, his head is beginning to pound; he doesn't have the focus to battle.

Fuck, I need a drink.

"Fine." He scrubs a hand down his face. "Fine, whatever. I can't have ya runnin' off and gettin' caught, anyway, or Team Rocket'll find out I double crossed 'em."

"So you'll help me?"

"Tch. Let's get one thing straight, aight?" he mutters. "I ain't helpin' you, I'm coverin' my ass. That's it."

"If covering your ass involves keeping my sister safe, then I'm not complaining," Stella answers.

"Good. I'll get Koa and Leia to keep an eye on her, maybe tell Gladion to make friends and stick with her. That enough to shut ya up?"

"For now, yes." Stella sinks down onto the bed and runs her fingers through her hair. "Now do you mind telling me where exactly I'm meant to stay?"

Guzma shrugs and turns toward the door. "In here's fine. I'll get Plumes to help ya get settled and all that bullshit."

"Guzma?"

He pauses and glances over his shoulder.

"Thanks." Stella looks up at him. "I mean it. Even if you did it out of pure selfishness, I mean it."

"Tch. Whatever."

He shuts the door behind himself and turns to the kitchen, rubbing above his left brow as the fishhook-sharp pain of another migraine tugs at the back of his eye socket. As he descends into the dim cellar he considers staying down there, but his bedroom door at least has a lock on it.

He grabs a bottle of red wine off the rack, knowing good and well that he'll be trading one type of headache for another when he wakes up and unable to bring himself to care.

He heads up to his room with the wine under one arm and his phone in one hand, typing a wall of text at Plumeria: reassign Koa and Leia, get ahold of Gladion, check on Stella. She's going to be more than a little annoyed with him for dumping so much on her at once, but Guzma can't think about that right now. There are far too many other things on his mind.

According to most of the grunts who have had run-ins with the brats, Moon and Lillie might as well be attached at the hip. Pulling Leia and Koa off Princess Watch and putting them on Moon Watch will at least keep Lusamine believing that he's still working on getting Lillie and Cosmog for her.

Guzma freezes with his back to his bedroom door.

Lusamine.

He has done his best to avoid thinking about her since he discovered her new choice of allies, but with the betrayal behind him the full weight of what he has done begins to settle in the pit of his stomach like lead.

He sinks to the floor. A spike of pain lances into his left eye and he cringes, stomach churning, beginning to think he might vomit from panic before he ever starts drinking.

((Do give him what he wants. That should get rid of him... Otherwise I'll have to get rid of you.))

The man in the suit had wanted Stella; instead he had lost an Executive.

And I've got Stella in the downstairs bedroom.

He tangles his hands in his hair as his heartbeat kicks into high gear. If either of them - Team Rocket or Lusamine - find out about Stella, that he had not only refused to hand her over but had broken her out of police custody as well…

[And after all that, she's still lying to you, boy.]

Guzma grits his teeth despite the agony that bursts behind his eye. "Guzma, what the fuck is wrong with you?!"

He's backed himself into a corner, trapped himself...because of Stella.

For Stella.

Whoever she is.

And she's fuckin' lyin' to me.

He isn't sure which is worse - knowing that he's trapped, or knowing that Stella is lying to him.

Then it hits him, and he pulls out his switchblade and uncorks the wine in record time.

The worst part isn't being backed into a corner. The worst part isn't that Stella is lying.

The worst part is -

I've gotta lie to Lusamine.

5. (Two Days Later)

“What happened?”

Lusamine’s voice is as cold and remote as her eyes. Perched on the edge of her desk, she gazes down her nose at him as she waits for his explanation.

Guzma shifts the gum in his mouth to the side with his tongue. He'd bummed it from Plumeria before he left, stuffing it in the pocket of his hoodie alongside an airplane bottle of vodka that had been full when he stepped on the ferry and very much empty when he stepped off.

He doesn’t allow himself to think. If he thinks he’ll panic, and if he panics he’s caught.

“I was ready to hand Stella over like I was told when Nanu comes outta nowhere. I had no clue he was even on the island - wasn’t s’posed to be, anyway. I checked. And I damn sure didn’t know Looker was in town,” he says, grateful that that, at least, is not a lie. “If I had I woulda rescheduled. As for Stella, last I knew she was bein’ dragged off same as that Exec. Guess she’s still in custody.”

Lusamine nods, her expression unreadable. “I realize that Nanu's Sableye corrupted the wire worn by the Executive meant to take that Kantoan girl away, but why did you destroy the wires that my associate planted in Po Town?”

“Thought I was supposed to.” He shrugs, hoping it seems sincere. “Ya told me no one could know about us, and I’m your man first, right? I had no clue why that guy in the suit planted those wires and I didn’t know whether ya knew about it. So I smashed ‘em.”

Lusamine smiles at him. It is a slow smile, a beautiful smile, and it terrifies him only a little more than it thrills him.

She reaches for him; he flinches but she pays no attention. Her hand cradles his chin and she tilts his head up until he has no choice but to meet her pale green gaze.

Guzma’s heart leaps into his throat and stays there. Few people touch him. He isn’t accustomed to gentility, let alone affection, but Lusamine has always put her hands on him and it has always been terrible and wonderful all at once, has always made his heart race and his skin crawl...and yet for the first time since he has been working for her all he feels is the urge to recoil. He steels himself against it, terrified that she will be able to see through him and tell that he is lying.

“Oh, Guzma, I’m so proud of you.”

She brushes a thumb across his lips as she speaks. Guzma swallows around the knot in his throat and tries to ignore what those words do to his heart.

She drops her hand and turns her back to him, busying herself with putting her desk into some semblance of order, and Guzma breathes a silent, shaky sigh of relief. She talks, but he is only barely listening. The urge to scratch his skin off is building like a wave, but despite struggling to focus he still gathers the gist of it: Lusamine will explain the matter to the man in the suit; she is only working with Team Rocket because they have information on the Ultra Beasts and believe one has appeared in Kanto before; once they have fulfilled their purpose she will turn them in.

Guzma swallows with an effort. Somehow I doubt it.

“We’re much closer than we have ever been,” Lusamine continues, and the mad light in her eyes is almost as unnerving as the way she touches him. “And so it is more important than ever that we get our hands on Cosmog as soon as possible. We need the girl too, of course,” she adds, as if it is little more than an afterthought. “I doubt the creature will cooperate if she isn’t present...but don’t you worry too much about that, all right?”

Guzma blinks up at her, taken off guard. “Ma’am…?”

“Team Rocket has a few of their people on the lookout for Lillie and Cosmog as well,” Lusamine explains. “There’s no need to worry if you don’t catch up to her first...so long as you’re still willing to do what I ask, of course.

She smiles down at him again, touching his face briefly. “Just because I have Team Rocket at my disposal doesn’t mean that I’m going to abandon you.”

Guzma shivers and hopes she takes it as pleasure. “Good to know. ‘Specially after all the, uh...confusion with INTERPOL.”

“Of course.” She pushes his hair back from his forehead a little, tracing her thumb over the pale scars there before sliding up onto the edge of her desk and crossing her legs at the knee. “No need to worry, Guzma, I’m not angry. If the girl is in custody she won’t last the week, and if she escaped custody she’s likely been taken care of already.”

Taken care of…?

Guzma bites the inside of his lip to control a sneer, but he can’t stop his traitor mouth entirely.  “And what about Moon? Her little sister? Ain’t Team Rocket worried about her?”

Lusamine starts as if she hadn’t considered this, then smiles one of those blade-thin smiles. “Now that you mention it, yes. I’d forgotten. I’ll take care of that. She’s a lovely little girl, it would be a shame...well, perhaps I’ll adopt her, hm?”

Lusamine laughs and Guzma’s blood runs cold. With sudden, startling clarity, he realizes that he wouldn’t wish a mother like Lusamine on anyone, any more than he would a father like his own.

“In any case, there is no need for you to concern yourself with her,” Lusamine says. She slips off her desk and steps between his knees. Guzma stops breathing.

“I’ll take care of it, Guzma. And I’ll take care of you too, just as I always have,” she murmurs, taking his chin in her hand once more. “So long as you are still prepared to do whatever I ask.”

She smiles mirthlessly and her grip grows painfully tight. “You are, aren’t you?”

Guzma finds himself saying Yes ma’am in the same trembling voice in which he had once said Yes sir, and hates himself for it.

6.

It is well past dusk and the late evening shadows have lengthened into true darkness. Guzma tosses his hood up as soon as he steps off the ferry, but he isn’t quick enough.

At the other end of the dock, hidden in the deep blackness near where the concrete wall joins the wooden planks, Gladion clenches his fists as his pale green eyes narrow to slits.

“I knew it,” he whispers. “C’mon, Null. We’ve gotta find Lillie.”

Chapter Text

1.

"How did the meeting go?"

Guzma pushes his hood back as he walks in the door, somewhat surprised to find that Plumeria bothered to wait up. She's leaning in the doorway of the kitchen, her face clear of makeup, wet hair piled into a bun on top of her head. As he walks in she hands him a cup of Tapu Cocoa. From the smell, she's added a generous splash of kahlúa.

"What, ya enablin' me all the sudden?" he asks as he sinks into one of the mismatched chairs around the kitchen table.

Plumeria rolls her eyes, taking a sip of her own cocoa. "We enable each other, cousin. We always have."

"Fair. I ain't complainin', not after...after that." He shakes his head and leans back in his seat, long legs stretched out in front of him. He takes a sip and falls silent.

Plumeria takes a seat next to him, and for awhile they simply drink their cocoa in companionable silence.

"I think it went okay." Guzma swirls the last of his cocoa in the bottom of his mug then tosses it back; it tastes like a chocolate bar dissolved in straight kahlúa, and it's delicious. "Pretty sure she don't suspect nothin'. Probably because she's so goddamn obsessed with those Ultra Beasts."

Plumeria nods. "Let's hope it stays that way."

"Did ya talk to…?"

"I did. Two days ago. When you asked." Plumeria drains her cup, then takes Guzma's from him and sets them both in the sink. She leans against the counter and crosses her arms.

Guzma says nothing. He has been holed up in his bedroom - in his bed - for the past two days. The first day was because of a hangover. The second day was because he couldn't find a reason to get out of bed.

"Koa and Leia will keep an eye on Moon. I couldn't get ahold of Gladion, but I'll try again tomorrow. Stella's settled," she adds, tilting her head toward the other side of the house where the small downstairs bedroom is located. "She doesn't have much to wear, though. We'll probably need to send some grunts by her house to grab her some clothes, but they can't be seen."

"I'll deal with it." Guzma pushes his unruly hair back from his forehead. "She ain't freaked out again, has she?"

Plumeria shakes her head. "We found her some sheets. The girls tie-dyed them, just for fun. There's all kinds of blankets around the house so she's all right on that front. The girls donated some of their clothes so she could shower and have something to change into. She's been sleeping almost as much as you. She did come out to ask about food, though. Offered to give us money."

Guzma snorts laughter. "Lika ya need that."

Plumeria wrinkles her nose in disgust.

"Look at it this way," Guzma says, "Aunt Heli's rollin' in her grave knowin' you're usin' her money to buy bulk packs of Ramen for a buncha delinquents and thugs."

A faint grin spreads across her face. "I think the Ramen would offend her more than the grunts."

"Considerin' she let my ragged ass sit in her fancy dinin' room and eat snails, I think you're right."

Plumeria can't help but laugh at that. "I still can't believe you like escargot."

"I can't pronounce it to save my life, but it's delicious. Especially with a yellow wine, ya know? Like Pinap or Aspear."

"You know I don't." Plumeria smiles down at him, shaking her head. "Honestly, Mom should have just adopted you. You'd have been way less of a disappointment than I was."

Guzma snorts, palm rasping over his five o'clock shadow. "If she was disappointed in ya that was her problem, Plumes."

"I know." She sits down next to him, propping her chin in her hands. "The same goes for you, though. You know that."

"Tch." Guzma shakes his head, unable to meet Plumeria's eyes. To his relief, she doesn't push the subject.

"I stayed up 'cause I wanted to ask you something," she sighs. "I get the feeling you're not gonna want to talk about it, so if you don't that's fine, but we have to at some point."

Guzma cocks an eyebrow, waiting.

"Why are you trying so hard to protect Stella?" Plumeria asks. There is no accusation in her voice, only simple curiosity, but Guzma bristles nonetheless.

"Who says I'm tryin' to protect her?"

Plumeria gives him a look - lips quirked, one perfect eyebrow raised, head tilted. Guzma scowls.

"Listen, I'm not complaining," she adds at length, once it becomes clear that no explanation is forthcoming. "I like Stella. I like her a lot, actually, and the grunts are already in love with her. But you've risked a lot - everything, really - by bringing her here, and the first thing the two of you did was spend fifteen minutes screaming at each other. So what gives, cousin?"

Guzma sighs, threading his fingers through his hair as he tries to think of a plausible lie. He doesn't have the energy to try and untangle the truth.

"Insurance," he mumbles. "If I got somethin' Team Rocket wants, I might be able to use that later on. They could wipe us out, but Stella could expose 'em, and from what I understand that's what they've been workin' so hard to avoid for the past twenty years."

"And that's enough for you to risk Lusamine finding out about her?" Plumeria asks. "She can ruin you, Guzma, just as much as Team Rocket."

Guzma shrugs, doing his best to look anywhere but at Plumeria. "Comes down to who I think is more dangerous. Team Rocket wins every time. Lusamine can ruin me, sure, but Team Rocket wouldn't bother. They'd find a way to kill the whole crew and make it seem like an accident."

From the corner of his eye Guzma sees Plumeria nod. He knows good and well that she can see straight through him, but she says nothing.

Sometimes it's more infuriating when she does that.

Guzma gets to his feet with a scowl. "If you're done with the third degree, I'm goin' to bed."

Plumeria sighs and shakes her head, but all she says is, "Night, cousin."

2.

Guzma kicks off his sneakers, shrugs out of his tank top and hoodie, and throws himself into bed.

Sleep doesn't come. His skin crawls with the memory of Lusamine's touch, crawls even as it flushes with the heat of shame.

He rolls over onto his back, tucking his hands behind his head and staring up into the dark. Had he really been so thrilled by it to start with? The way she would lay her hand on his arm when they walked, or grab his hand in hers...the way she would reach up and touch his face or kiss his cheek as she praised him…

Yeah. I was.

In retrospect it is obvious. He had been thrilled by it because he had been starved for it, for that kind of attention and support, so starved for it that he had ignored the fact that Lusamine had no regard for whether or not he flinched away, had convinced himself he was imagining the way he felt after leaving her - like a thing, a pet.

Just something else she owned.

Guzma sneers at himself in the darkness. Pathetic.

She had made him feel wanted, needed, and he had taken that and run with it, lying to himself that those things must mean she cared. Why else would she touch him that way, say those things to him?

'Cause she wanted to use me. 'Cause she needed a scapegoat.

She had never cared, never seen him , not really. She had never asked him about himself, not even about the scars on his forearms that he had stopped bothering to cover up years ago - and people always ask about those sooner or later.

Like Stella had.

Guzma scrubs his hands across his cheeks, stubble rasping against his palms, then holds his arms above his face as if he could really see the scars through the shadows.

Zip-ties, he had said.

Sure.

He shoves his hands behind his head again.

He doesn't know whether or not she bought it and doesn't really care. He's never told anyone the truth, anyway. It's too easy to guess.

{{ Is that what yours are from? }}

Stella had asked.

She had gone from being manhandled by a Team Rocket Executive to being arrested for helping them, had been half-convinced that he sold her out, had been shaking, bleeding, and in pain...and she had still asked.

Guzma presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. "Don't," he mumbles, talking to himself, his mind, maybe his heart. "Fuckin' don't, aight?"

It's no use.

Stella.

Plumeria's question echoes in his mind, reminding him that while he can lie to everyone else, he can't lie to himself. Not forever.

|| Why are you trying so hard to protect Stella? ||

He rolls onto his stomach and buries his face in the pillow to stifle a groan of frustration, wishing he could get Stella out of his head and sleep. He doesn't know enough about her to warrant how much she's on his mind. Hell, what he does know he isn't even sure he can trust.

So what do I know? For sure?

She favors Dark types, but doesn't train them exclusively. Decently balanced team type-wise, better than his main team by far, but he's working on that. Loki and her Lycanroc are brutal physical attackers while her Jolteon and Mismagius take advantage of their speed to deliver debilitating special attacks. Her Skarmory is her defensive wall while Mismagius doubles as a special defense wall alongside Ninetales, and she's drilled speed into all of them to the point that her Jolteon and Ninetales are a constant blur; even the slowest ones like Loki and her Skarmory are sometimes difficult to hit, and she's taught both speed-boosting moves to even things out.

About her, dumbass.

Guzma huffs, gathering his pillow up in his arms and propping his chin on top of it.

Fine.

She's Kantoan, she has a little sister, and at some point she managed to piss off Team Rocket.

That's it.

And if Looker was right I can't even be sure her name is really Stella.

He isn't being fair and he knows it, but he doesn't want to be fair, because the other thing he knows about Stella makes his heart curiously light, as if it could rise from his chest like a helium balloon if it wasn’t caged by his ribs...but after being with Lusamine, he can't ignore it.

Stella is the exact opposite of Lusamine in that she almost never touches him until he is looking at her, until he can see her make contact with his body, and he can count the people who do that on one hand.

For Plumeria, it is second nature. She understands why, but given a choice she usually elects not to touch him at all. She doesn't want to screw up.

Kukui has known the longest, but even when they were young he would often forget if he was preoccupied or excited...and judging from what happened in Mailie Gardens, that hasn’t changed.

Hala had always stopped himself short even when Guzma was looking right at him, as if he had to think twice before ruffling his hair or laying a hand on his shoulder, and the memory of it, of that hesitation, twists Guzma’s stomach in knots even now.

Plumeria tries to help by not trying. Kukui hadn't tried hard enough and Hala had always tried too hard.

They have all end up making things worse.

It's like being singled out, like having a neon sign above his head that beams ABUSE VICTIM in letters three feet high, and that...that elicits a storm of emotions so complex that it terrifies him, a storm that always defaults to anger sooner or later. He understands anger; it's easy, familiar.

But Stella...Stella just...does it.

She knows exactly nothing about why he needs to see people touching him, why he can't stand to be surprised by someone else's hands on him. There is no way she could know and no one willing to tell her, or at least no one willing to risk his ire enough to tell her.

She never lays a hand on him first until they have at least made eye contact, but she never seems to think about it. It never seems forced, like something she has to remember to do or not do, and as a result it never reminds him of why he needs it in the first place, never makes him self conscious.

Besides that, the one time he had shaken his head at her outstretched hands, she had backed off without question.

Guzma flings himself over onto his back yet again, covering his face with his hands.

Lusamine touches him as if he has no say one way or the other -

And I don't.

- but Stella gives him the choice.

Stop it. Fuckin' stop it. He pushes his fingers into his hair, shoving that thought far into the back of his mind. He shouldn't be focusing on how she makes him feel. This isn't about him, can't be about him, because it doesn't matter how he feels and never has.

What matters is that whatever Stella is keeping from him, whatever she may be lying about, she loves her little sister to distraction. After seeing the way Moon had launched herself into Stella's arms after he brought her out of Shady House when she'd been sick, it’s obvious that Moon feels the same way. Their parents might be dead or they might not, but it is clear that Stella and Moon are one another's only family.

It's also clear that there is no way Moon knows anything about Team Rocket. She's just too damn young.

He can't say for certain how old Stella is, but she can't be much younger than he is. Maybe 25. That alone puts her over ten years older than Moon, who can't be more than twelve...and if Team Rocket disbanded when Stella was eight, there's no way in hell Moon could have any recollection of them.

If Team Rocket believes Stella to be in custody, there's no goddamn reason why they would risk targeting a literal child who knows nothing, who is accompanied almost everywhere she goes by the grandson of an Alolan kahuna, in Alola, where the chief of police is ex-INTERPOL.

From a criminal standpoint, it's ridiculous...and yet Stella had been out of her mind, willing to risk being caught all over again just to lay eyes on her sister and make sure that she was safe.

Guzma frowns up at the ceiling. He can't understand Stella's near hysteria where her sister is concerned. The kid is a good trainer, she travels in a group, and Alola is full of trial guides.

Then again, he can't figure out why Team Rocket would expend so much time and energy to tie up a loose end that hasn't had any knowledge of the organization since the age of eight, either.

There's somethin' she ain't tellin' me.

Guzma rolls onto his side, tucks a hand beneath his pillow and sighs into the darkness, trying to convince himself that it doesn't matter. Even if every other word out of her mouth has been a lie, he believes one thing without a doubt: Moon is Stella’s life.

{{ She's still just a kid, she shouldn’t feel like her life’s worth is determined by the outcome of these trials. }}

Stella loves her sister. She’s raising her alone and has been for who knows how long, but she is hellbent on doing right by her.

He won’t let Team Rocket or INTERPOL fuck that up.

He won’t let Lusamine fuck that up.

3.

Gladion glances down at his phone, ignoring yet another call from Plumeria before shoving it into his back pocket and turning toward the Mailie City Pokémon Center. Hau, Moon, and Lillie had gone inside a few minutes earlier, but it is only Hau and Moon that leave, talking with their hands. Gladion has been watching them closely enough to pick up on much of Moon’s sign language, and from what he can understand Lillie is still inside, trying to decide between two kinds of treats for Cosmog.

He can’t be sure how long it will take her to choose, but he should have enough time. At least he hopes he still knows her well enough to make that assumption.

He slips out of the shadows of the alley across the street and catches Hau’s eye, beckoning them over with a jerk of his chin. Hau and Moon glance at one another and shrug, then cross the cobbled street and duck into the alleyway with him.

"Hey, what's with the sneaking, Gladion?" Hau asks, cocking his head to one side. "We don't mind if you talk to us in front of people, you know."

Gladion rolls his eyes. "That's the exact opposite of what I'm worried about. Just listen, all right? I don't have much time."

He glances up at the door of the Pokémon Center, then begins to speak under his breath, doing his best to follow along with what sign language he has picked up - he knows Moon can hear, but he wants them to know he can understand them if they try to talk to one another.

"I know that Lillie has Cosmog," he says, "And so does Team Skull. They're after them both, but they can't get to them, do you understand? I know I'm working for Team Skull right now, so you might not trust me or care, but I'm going to tell you this just once: You have to protect Lillie and Cosmog, no matter what!"

"We would do that anyway," Hau says, lacing his fingers together behind his head. "But I guess that explains those two with the pink hair that have been following us around. Don't worry, Gladion. I know that last grunt caught us while we were training up our weaker Pokémon, but still, we've both beaten Team Skull a bunch of times, right Moon…? Moon?! What's wrong?!"

Gladion had been on the verge of snapping at Hau - it’s clear he doesn’t understand the urgency of the situation - but one look at Moon makes him bite his tongue. She is tense as stone, her narrow shoulders hunched as she fixes him with a fierce, black glare.

My sister is in Po Town right now! She says, her hands moving emphatically. And if what you're saying is true, then she would never stay there! Never!

Gladion’s eyes widen. The news apparently comes as a surprise to Hau as well, because they both speak in unison. “What is she doing there?!"

Moon sighs and tilts Stella’s Pyukumuku cap back from her face, then begins moving her hands. When that Skull grunt stole that Yungoose from that little kid, she went to get it back. The grunt ended up bringing it back himself and apologizing, but Stella didn't come back. She texted me and said she was fine, but she's staying in Po Town to train 'cause Mr. Guzma is good practice.

"Why didn't you mention that before?" Hau asks, following his words with his hands.

Moon shrugs. She's been there for a few days, but it didn't seem important until now.

"If that's the case, then she either doesn't know what Team Skull is doing, or isn't staying there because she wants to," Gladion replies, frowning.

To his horror, Moon's big dark eyes begin to well with tears.

Hau steps in between them, glaring at Gladion. "Don't just say stuff like that!"

Before Gladion can reply Moon pushes past Hau. Her black brows are furrowed above her nose and her cheeks shine with tears. Her shaking hands move too quickly for Gladion to follow.

"Hey, slow down!"

Moon stops mid-sign and huffs, wiping her face on the shoulder of her t-shirt before beginning to sign again a little more slowly.

I don't want to believe you. Mr. Guzma helped my sister before and I think that at the end of the day he's a good person. But I don't want Lillie to be hurt and if they're really after her then Stella might be in trouble. I'm going to go find out what's going on for myself.

"No!"

Gladion claps his hand over his mouth, glancing around to make sure no one on the street overheard his outburst. He begins to speak in a hiss, signing along with his words as best he can.

"Moon, Lillie follows you everywhere," he says, "She doesn't need to be anywhere near Po Town. Neither do you and Hau. It's dangerous. I know you can handle most of the grunts, but there are others that will give you a hard time, like Plumeria and the purple-haired girl, or the twins with pink hair that have been following you, or the two guys that are with Guzma wherever he goes. Just stay away, all right? I'll go and figure it out myself and let you know. Just keep an eye on Lillie!"

Moon’s dark eyes are fierce. Not good enough. I’ve got to know if my sister is okay, and I will go to Po Town, no matter what you say.

"And I'll be with her," Hau adds.

Gladion opens his mouth to protest further, but before he can speak a flash of white-blonde hair and pale blue lace catches his eye. A leaden weight settles in his chest as he lifts his head to look at his sister.

For what seems like an eternity they only stare at one another in silence. Gladion is distantly aware that Moon is signing to Hau, but it seems irrelevant, unimportant. He braces himself for accusations, for Lillie to echo his own thoughts: You left me, you left me, you left me alone with HER!

Lillie says nothing of the sort. She clutches the strap of her duffel bag and squares her slight shoulders, then gives him a wavering little smile.

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to eavesdrop or sneak up on you, but...well, let's not argue," she says. "I'll go with you all as far as Tapu Village, okay? I'll be safe there, because Professor Kukui is always around. That way you three can go make sure Miss Stella is all right without worrying about me."

Gladion's hands shake. He curls them into fists. "Lillie...I…"

"It's okay." Lillie smiles again, a little more brightly. "Let's get going, Moon is worried."

She holds out a hand to Moon as she speaks and Moon takes it, some of the tension fading from her shoulders. She turns faintly pink as she smiles up at Lillie.

Hau glances back and forth between Gladion and Lillie for a moment, then shrugs.

“Well that was weird,” he says, then turns and grins at Gladion. “Guess we’re following you, then!”

Gladion blinks and glances down at Hau; it takes him a few seconds to process the words, but he finally shakes his head and turns away.

“Fine. Just keep up,” he mumbles, tucking his hands into the pocket of his ragged hoodie. “And if Professor Kukui isn’t in Tapu Village, I’m going alone.”

4.

Guzma comes downstairs around noon, wearing ancient black high tops, basketball shorts, and a ragged sleeveless hoodie over his bare torso. The five Net Balls containing the babies are in one pocket; his phone and Golisopod’s Pokéball are in the other.

He had planned on avoiding everyone and disappearing into the hills around Po Town to train, but to his chagrin he finds Stella and Plumeria sitting together on the downstairs couch, eating cup ramen and giggling like mad. The TV, tuned to a news station, drones behind the sound of their laughter.

Guzma drops his sunglasses over his eyes and throws his hood up over his messy bed-hair, hoping that Plumeria will get the hint. He doesn't feel like talking and the giggling sets his teeth on edge. He can't help but be irritated by the fact that Plumeria obviously does like Stella. She’d told him as much last night, of course, but seeing it is different somehow.

He ducks into the kitchen and grabs a random energy drink from the refrigerator, then cracks it open as quietly as possible. He is about to slink past them and out the door, but Plumeria isn't too preoccupied to call him out.

"Tauros Rojo doesn't count as food, Guzma," she says, "Here, eat the rest of my ramen, I've already had like two cups."

Grumbling to himself, Guzma shuffles over and takes the cup. He picks up the chopsticks without thinking, handling them with ease, then makes a face as he stuffs the first bite into his mouth.

"Yeah, I know, shrimp flavored," Plumeria says. "Eat it anyway."

Guzma does as he's told. It's easier than arguing. He had learned that a long time ago.

"See, it's not that hard," Stella says, nodding at Guzma as she holds up her own chopsticks. "He's doing it exactly right, you just kinda…"

Guzma slurps up a noodle and snorts laughter. "Forget it. She had fancy formal lessons on chopsticks and still couldn't figure it out."

Plumeria sticks out her tongue, not in the least offended. "I'll just keep drinking it out of the cup like a heathen, thanks," she says, picking up the remote to mute the TV as a commercial for the Aether Foundation comes on.

Guzma catches her eye and gives a brief nod of thanks as he shoves more noodles into his mouth. He is so unprepared for what Stella says next that he nearly chokes.

"She creeps me out," she mumbles, nodding toward the TV where a silent Lusamine smiles at the camera. "I met her not that long ago and I'm pretty sure I don't trust her any further than I could throw her."

Guzma coughs into his noodles. Plumeria's eyes flick toward him, but she covers for him easily enough.

"Shrimp flavor isn’t that bad, Guzma, chill," she says, then turns back toward Stella. “How’d you manage to meet Lusamine?”

"Moon stopped one of your grunts from harassing a Pokémon. So the Aether Foundation said, anyway,” Stella adds with a shrug. “Moon said it was less like harassment and more like they didn't know how the hell to deal with a Slowpoke. Either way, she invited Moon and Hau to tour Aether Paradise as a thank you, and I went with them.”

“What’s it like?” Plumeria asks, so casually that Guzma can't help but be impressed.

“The place is way too clinical and Lusamine is way too fake.” Stella’s nose wrinkles into a faint sneer. “Besides, she said something bitchy about my clothes."

Plumeria laughs, but Guzma is too familiar with Lusamine’s particular brand of bitchiness to be amused.

“She, uh...yeah, she kinda looks like that kind of person, doesn't she?" Plumeria replies.

“I feel like calling her a person is being generous,” Stella says, her lip still curled in disgust. “The whole time she was talking to us she had this creepy smile on her face, like there’s something evil in there that’s just using her for a suit. She was even smiling when she offered to take me shopping for more respectable clothes.”

Guzma swallows a mouthful of noodles without really tasting it, wondering if Stella has any idea how accurate that is, how Lusamine’s obsession is taking her over from the inside out.

Plumeria on the other hand begins to giggle again. “Holy shit, she didn't! What did you even say to that?”

Stella shrugs. “Something about what made her think I respected her opinion to begin with, I dunno. I didn’t bother being fake polite about it. Hau was horrified. It might have gotten uglier, but that was around when one of those Ultra Beasts that Burnet is researching appeared."

Guzma chokes again, and this time Plumeria is too taken aback to cover for him. He coughs into the crook of his arm before setting the empty styrofoam cup back on the coffee table.

"An Ultra Beast? Ya serious?" he asks, far more sharply than he intends.

Stella blinks up at him. "Well, yeah. At least I think so. It was huge, sort of looked like a male Jellicent except...more alien?”

“What’d she do about it?”

“Not anything useful, that’s for damn sure.” Stella scowls. “Moon battled it because it was aggressive as hell and she was the first one to get a Pokémon out, but it disappeared before she could do much damage. The whole time Lusamine was staring at it like it was some kind of idol she worshipped. It was weird and creepy and I got Hau and Moon out of there as fast as I could. Honestly, I'm not surprised her kids ran away from her."

Guzma freezes. "Kids?"

Stella frowns, eyeing him as if he might be an idiot. “Well, yeah. I mean, you know what Lusamine looks like.”

“No shit,” he mumbles, uneasy.

“And you’ve seen Lillie? Moon’s friend that works for Kukui?”

Guzma averts his eyes, rubbing a hand over his hair. “Well when ya put it that way, sure. But that’s just the one, ya said kids .”

Stella stares at him. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Either tell me or don’t, girlie.” He sneers. “I got shit to do, aight?”

“Guzma, her son works for you,” she says. “Have you looked at Gladion lately? I knew it as soon as I saw him. He might as well be Lillie’s twin. Same eyes, same hair, same skin tone. Honestly, I wonder how much money Lusamine's spent keeping it under wraps that her runaway son works for a gang of Pokémon thieves...”

Guzma hears nothing beyond that first sentence. His shoulders tense and his hands curl into fists, nails biting into his palms. Stella is still talking, but Guzma is no longer listening - he's in his own head, well over a year earlier, before he'd ever known Stella, before he'd been able to see how Lusamine was using him.

 

The kid stands in front of Guzma's throne, arms crossed over his chest, looking away at the wall. No one else is in the room. He's been working for Team Skull for a couple weeks now, and despite the fact that he's a skinny, sulky kid, his skill with his Pokémon is on par with Koa and Leia, maybe even Plumeria. He's good, and he's useful, but there's no doubt he's a runaway.

Guzma is used to runaways. He doesn't often ask about parents, guardians, whatever; it's better that way. Still, the runaways he gets are usually at least sixteen, and the older they are when they run away, the less anyone tries to find them.

He's never had a kid show up as young as Gladion, and that could mean trouble.

“Your parents,” Guzma says, “Where are they?”

“My dad is gone. Disappeared.” Gladion shrugs, but his throat works - it bothers him.

“And your mom?”

“Alive.”

“She gonna come lookin for ya?”

Gladion snorts. “I doubt it.”

“Ya gotta do better than that, kid,” Guzma mutters. “If your face shows up on some kinda missing poster, that makes problems for me.”

“The only person who would bother looking for me knows where I am. She won’t make trouble. My mother won’t let her. She’d rather keep up appearances.”

Guzma cocks an eyebrow. Gladion shifts uneasily.

“My mother, she…”

Guzma notices. He notices everything, every shift in body language. The way Gladion folds his arms more tightly, hunches his shoulders, the way he keeps his face tense so the hurt won’t show.

“She doesn’t care,” Gladion continues. "If she even notices that I’m gone at all she’ll probably just be relieved. I'm...sort of an inconvenience. She won’t come looking for me, so you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Guzma keeps his face impassive. “Good. And this lady that does know where ya are - ya mean the hotel, right?”

Gladion nods.

“Ya paid ‘em for what, a year?”

“Two.”

“Stay there, then,” Guzma says. “Keeps her from catchin’ on. Shady House ain’t really a place for a kid anyway.”

Gladion shrugs again. “Fine. I prefer being alone.”

He turns and walks out the door without another word.

"Ya say that," Guzma mumbles, watching him go.

 

“Guzma? Hey, are you all right?”

Guzma blinks and shakes his head. Stella is sitting on her knees on the couch, turned toward him with her brows furrowed over her nose in concern; Plumeria, however, is watching him with the same quiet intensity she gets when she's convinced he's about to lose his shit.

"Fuckin' fantastic," he mutters. "Plumes, can I talk to ya in the kitchen? Now?"

Plumeria sighs. She gets to her feet, stretching her arms over her head, and nods toward the TV. "Switch it over to Netflix, I wanna catch up on Contest All-Stars. Be right back."

Stella nods, sliding down in her seat and picking up the remote, but Guzma catches her glancing over her shoulder as he and Plumeria walk away.

He turns on her as soon as they are out of Stella’s sight, struggling to keep his voice down to a hiss.

"Did. You. Know."

Plumeria looks up at him. The pity in her eyes makes him sick to his stomach.

"Answer me!" He snaps.

"Guzma, I thought you knew," she says, her voice soft. "I thought that was why you took him, as a way to...I don't know. Get back at her."

"Get back at…?" Guzma stares at her, incredulous, almost hurt. "Fuckin' get back at...ya thought I was usin' him?! A kid?! "

"I don't know what I thought." Plumeria crosses her arms over her chest. "I asked you why you were taking him. I asked you what Lusamine would think if she found out. I tried to talk to you about it and you told me to shut up and stop asking questions. So I did."

Guzma scowls and turns away, swearing under his breath. He scrubs a hand over his mouth.

"I thought you knew, Guzma," Plumeria murmurs. "On my life, I thought you knew. How could you not know?"

He doesn't answer. He clenches his jaw until his teeth grind together and the sound pierces into his brain like a needle. How he makes himself walk away, he has no idea, but he does.

He stalks past Stella without a word and leaves through the front door, slamming it so hard behind himself that the window panes rattle.

5.

Guzma only makes it as far as the gates.

"The fuck are they doin' out there?!" he asks, and the girl sitting on top of the wall flinches from the edge in his voice.

"Dunno, boss, but Gladion is with 'em," she says. "We were just about to let 'em in. Should we not?"

Guzma swears under his breath and scrubs his hands over his face. This is not how he wanted to spend his afternoon.

"Open the fuckin' thing, why not?" He sneers a little, crossing his arms over his chest as if to contain the anxiety brewing there. "Apparently I'm runnin' a goddamn daycare center. Let 'em in."

Another grunt - the younger one with the brilliant blue eyes whose name Guzma can never remember - drops down from the wall opposite the girl and onto the roof of a small building that had once been a sort of guardhouse. He swings in over the front counter (the glass is long since gone), tosses up a Pokéball, and releases a Shinx that apparently knows the drill all too well. It pounces on the button that controls the gates, sparks flying, and the heavy doors begin to swing open with a high, grinding creak.

"Whoa! That's, like, the biggest dent I've ever seen! What coulda done that?!"

Guzma sighs. Old Hala's grandkid. Fan-fuckin'-tastic.

Sure enough, Hau begins to wander inside even before the gates are fully open, his wide brown eyes sliding away from the dent to settle on Guzma.

"Hey Mr. Guzma, did somebody try to like, break in?!" he asks. "Who would wanna get in here that bad?"

A vein above Guzma's left eye begins to twitch and he decides that it is probably best to ignore Hau for the time being. It's just as well; Hau is distracted by the sight of the Shinx and is already asking the grunt about it.

Guzma turns his attention toward Gladion, intending to ask him what the hell he thinks he's doing there, but before he can so much as open his mouth Moon pushes to the forefront between the two boys, giving Guzma an oddly fierce look. She signs something at him, her fingers stabbing and slashing through the air, but he can't read it.

"Any chance ya know Alolan sign?" he asks, hoping his hands are making the right movements; it's been a few years since he's done this.

Moon sighs and shakes her head.

"Kalosian?" He's even worse with this - all he can do is finger-spell, but it doesn't matter. Moon doesn't know it; she elbows Hau and begins to sign at Guzma again.

"Oh! Sorry!" Hau watches Moon's hands and looks up at Guzma. "She wants to know where you're keeping her sister."

Guzma cocks an eyebrow. "Yo, I ain't keepin' her nowhere," he answers. "She ain't a prisoner, if that's what you're implyin'."

Moon turns to look at Gladion and signs something else, a short, sharp gesture near her eyes.

Gladion grits his teeth. "Look, that doesn't mean I'm wrong about -"

Moon isn't listening. She has already taken off toward the house before Gladion makes it past the first syllable.

"Hey, wait!" Hau tears his eyes away from a wall of purple graffiti he had been studying and sprints after Moon, vaulting over a stolen island barricade. "We're supposed to stick together! Moon!"

Guzma opens his mouth to yell after them, then shuts it again, teeth clicking together painfully. He pinches the bridge of his nose and turns toward Gladion again, but even Gladion pushes past him, jogging after Hau and Moon without so much as a backward glance.

Guzma swears again, violently enough that the grunt's little Shinx lets out a startled burst of electricity and dives underneath the guardhouse counter to hide.

A pang of guilt settles in Guzma's chest. Most of the time he can deal with people being nervous around him, but he hates to scare Pokémon, especially little ones.

"Close the gate back when she calms down, aight?" he mumbles "And don't let nobody in or out without me knowin'."

"Got it, boss." The grunt kneels down out of sight, presumably to coax his Shinx out again, and Guzma takes off toward the house.

He catches up to Gladion easily enough. The two of them come to a stop in the front yard at the same time Stella throws open the front door to catch her sister up in a tight hug; she even manages to pull the kid off her feet despite the fact that Moon is nearly as tall as Stella herself.

"What are you doing here?!" Stella asks. She clutches Moon's shoulders as she speaks and it might be his imagination, but to Guzma her voice is too high, too strained. Moon's hands begin to move to answer and still Stella continues to fuss over her, as if she needs to touch her to be sure she's there, that she's safe.

An odd tightness settles in Guzma's throat as he watches the two of them. Stella tucks Moon's short black hair behind her ears, adjusts the backward Pyukumuku cap, straightens her challenge amulet, even licks her thumb and wipes some smudge of dirt off Moon's freckled cheek, and it isn't until this last indignity that Moon huffs, rolling her eyes like the teenager she is soon to be.

Stella only laughs. When she speaks again it is with her hands; she has eyes for no one but Moon.

Plumeria moves toward him. "What are they saying? That's not Alolan sign. Or Kalosian."

Guzma shrugs. "No clue. Hau and Gladion know it, though."

Gladion is obstinately silent; as usual, Hau is the opposite.

"Oh, it's not any kind of like, official sign language," he says. He is waving to Inara, who stands alone on the balcony; she waves back reluctantly. "It's kinda just theirs, I think. I know a little bit 'cause Moon taught me but I can't even follow them when they start going that fast."

Plumeria and Guzma glance at one another, bewildered, then turn back to Stella and Moon. Whatever they are saying, they are both just as engrossed in the conversation as they would be a verbal one. Neither of them seem to notice that there are still other people around.

"Guess Moon was right about you guys," Hau says, turning his beaming smile from Inara up toward Plumeria. "Gladion, you had us all worried for nothin'!"

Guzma's shoulders tense. He gives Gladion a sharp look only to find that Gladion is staring back at him, pale green eyes intense and accusing.

"Stella might not know," he murmurs, his voice low. He never takes his eyes off Guzma.

This statement seems to give Hau pause, but Plumeria - what the hell would he do without Plumeria? - manages to distract him.

“Hey, kid, you look hungry.” She nods toward the House. “I make a pretty mean grilled cheese if you’re interested.”

“Oh, that sounds amazing!” Hau follows after Plumeria, his hands laced together behind his head. “Do you, like, feed everybody here? By yourself? That seems like a whole lot of cooking…”

The two of them disappear into the house. As soon as they are safely out of earshot Guzma risks another glance at Gladion, who is glaring at him as if he he is trying to set him on fire with his mind.

Guzma jerks his head to the side. Gladion follows with a begrudging huff.

"The heck are ya thinkin', bringin' 'em here?!" Guzma hisses. "I told ya to keep an eye on Lillie, or did ya not answer any of Plumes' messages?"

"I know what you want," Gladion says, his voice dark and far too loud. "And I know exactly why you want me to keep an eye on her, you liar."

Guzma tenses, but Stella and Moon don’t seem to notice Gladion’s outburst. They follow after Plumeria and Hau, still signing to one another.

"The hell has gotten into ya?" Guzma asks, as the door closes behind them.

"I know what you're doing," Gladion snaps. "I know who you work for and I know why you want my sister!"

Guzma freezes. His breath locks in his chest, his teeth clench, and a dizzying red hazes washes over his vision, a furious knee-jerk response to the cold fear that Gladion's words instill in his heart.

He sees himself moving all too clearly, sees his big hand flashing out and seizing the neck of Gladion's ragged hoodie, hears his own voice like thunder in his ears: Who told ya?! Who the fuck told ya?!

Then he blinks, and all the air rushes out of him in a long, exhausted sigh.

He's a kid. Just a kid. Get your shit together.

"Aight." He rolls his shoulders, trying to rid himself of the awful tension. "Tell me what ya think ya know, then."

"I don't think I know anything," Gladion hisses. "I saw you. Leaving the ferry. I saw you!"

Gladion spits these last words like they are some kind of betrayal. Guzma supposes they are.

"So what are ya plannin' on doin' about it?" Guzma asks.

Gladion doesn't give him a straight answer.

"Does Miss Stella know?" he asks instead. "She must not know, that you're planning on kidnapping her little sister's best friend, stealing her Pokémon, otherwise she wouldn't stay here with you!"

"Stella don't know nothin' 'cause there ain't nothin' to know," Guzma says, as evenly as possible. "You're a little behind on your info, kid."

"Stop lying." Gladion tosses his white-blonde hair out of his eyes. "Do any of them know, then? Or did you keep them all in the dark like you did me?!"

Guzma chews the inside of his cheek. Aight, time to try somethin' else.

"Good question," he says. "Did ya tell those kids, then? All about what a lyin' scumbag I am? Who I'm workin' for?"

Gladion's fierce glare wavers a little and he takes a step back. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Tch." Guzma smirks. "That's what I thought. Ya ain't told 'em nothin, 'cause ya woulda had to tell 'em about her, right? And we both know ya don't like to talk about her. Not that I blame ya, now that I know the truth."

"Shut up!" Gladion clenches his fists. "You knew! You knew the whole time!"

"Believe it or not, I didn't." Guzma crosses his arms, gazing down at Gladion. "Listen, just tell me what you're plannin', kid. It'll be easier that way. Maybe ya ain't gotta tell 'em about her after all. At least not yet."

“Just because you’re not holding Stella here against her will doesn’t mean anything,” Gladion snaps, and to Guzma's shock his hand drops to the Pokéball at his belt. “I’ll tell them whatever I have to if it means keeping Lillie safe, you hear me?!”

"Okay, kid. Okay." Guzma holds up his open palms, keeping his voice as calm as he can under the circumstances. "I'm listenin' and I hear ya, but I need ya to do the same for me, aight?"

“Why should I?” Gladion mutters, easing away from Type:Null's Pokéball as if he half expects Guzma to try and get the drop on him.

Guzma doesn't move. "I dunno. Why should ya?"

Gladion glances back toward the house, then looks up at Guzma. At length he gives a single, furious nod, almost as if he's disgusted with himself.

“Aight.” Guzma scrubs a hand down his face, disguising a sigh of relief. “Aight, follow me, then.”

6.

Gladion glares as Guzma shuts his bedroom door behind them with a sigh of frustration.

"Listen, kid…"

"You can't stop me from telling them the truth," Gladion hisses, cutting him off. "Just because I agreed to listen to you doesn't mean - "

“Bullshit I can't," Guzma sneers, his patience finally beginning to wear thin. "Yeah, okay, I was workin’ for the Aether Foundation, aight? That all ya got? 'Cause I ain't gonna have some kid runnin' around tellin’ everybody my damn business when he don't know it himself!”

“I never would have agreed to work for you if I’d known,” Gladion says. His glare is hateful and his fists are so tightly clenched that he shakes. “I’m not gonna help you any more! Not if all you’re doing is helping her!”

Gladion’s voice rises an octave or two until it breaks, and Guzma’s stomach twists as the first tears start to well up in Gladion’s eyes. He has never seen the kid cry and the sight is a painful reminder that Gladion is, in fact, still just a kid.

“Listen, I ain’t…”

“This whole time I’ve been working for you and you...you’ve been working for my….for her.” Gladion grabs his right wrist in his left hand almost absently, staring down at his open palm as if it might hold some sort of truth. “I never wanted any part of what she...what Aether was doing, but I’ve...I’ve been doing it anyway, haven’t I? Because of you!”

Guzma’s skin prickles with apprehension. Gladion’s fingers dig into his arm as he fixes Guzma with furious glare, angry tears beginning to course down his cheeks.

“Gladion, hey,” Guzma mutters, “C’mon kid, breathe, aight?”

“Do you even know what you’ve helped her do?!” Gladion ignores him entirely. “She doesn’t care! She and her scientists created Null and they...they were just going to let it exist, trapped in a ball forever, like it...like it was a failed experiment instead of a living creature!”

Guzma flinches before he can stop himself. He hadn’t known that.

More and more like Team Rocket.

“She doesn’t care about anything except her s-stupid beasts!” Gladion’s voice tapers off toward something like a sob, but he chokes it back. “Not even me and Lillie! We had to be perfect, she only wanted us around at certain times, otherwise she’d just grab us by the arm and snatch us out of her office, tell Wicke to deal with us…”

He grabs his wrist even tighter as he speaks and Guzma swallows hard around the knot in his throat. He can’t let him keep going like this for much longer.

“Kid, ease up, aight?” Guzma tries to keep his voice even, steady, but looking at Gladion is like looking into a mirror of his own past; so much pain, so much confusion and anger. “You’re gonna leave bruises.”

Gladion isn’t listening. He barely seems to remember that he is talking to anyone other than himself.

“I ran away,” he says through clenched teeth, gaze fixed on his trembling, open palm. “And she didn’t even notice, not until she realized I’d taken Null! She noticed her damn experiment missing before her own son!”

Gladion looks up with a quick jerk of his head, glaring at Guzma without really seeing him. He laughs. It's a desperate, miserable sound, a sound that wants to be a sob and doesn't know how. His pale fingers tighten deeper into his wrist and Guzma can’t bear it any longer.

“I get it,” he mumbles, holding up his hands. “I know how ya feel, kid, believe me, and ya got every right to feel like that, aight?”

Gladion cuts his wild, apple-green eyes at Guzma and sneers. “How would you know?!”

“You ain’t got a monopoly on shitty parents, kid,” Guzma says. “I know, leave it at that.”

Gladion stares at him for another moment or two, then glances back down at his open palm. He seems to deflate somewhat, though his grip remains painfully tight.

“You don’t get it. I ran away and I took Null, but I...I left her. Lillie.” His voice cracks and he doesn’t seem to notice. “I left Lillie. I left her. I left her with our mother. Alone. W-What kind of awful big brother am I?”

Guzma reaches out and takes Gladion’s narrow wrist, working his fingers beneath Gladion’s own where they bite cruelly into his skin.

“I think the little princess is stronger than you’re givin’ her credit for, kid,” he murmurs, gently prying Gladion’s hand away. “We both know what she’s got hidden in that duffel bag of hers and we both know who she took it from.”

Gladion starts to nod, then shakes his head. His expression hardens and he jerks away from Guzma, shoving his shaking hands into the pocket of his hoodie.

“What do you care?" he says, his voice full of disdain. "You work for her.”

“I did.” Guzma sits back on his heels, lip curled in disgust. “She don’t know it yet, but I’m done.”

Gladion squints at him, suspicious. "Why…?"

“I got reasons, aight? I’m just addin’ ‘lousy excuse for a parent’ to the list.”

Gladion’s expression shifts through a gauntlet of emotion, from a brief flash of offense to painful realization to guilty embarrassment.

“She wasn’t always,” he mutters, then bites his lip as if it hurts him to defend her.

Guzma closes his eyes and tries to swallow his heart.

And sometimes my dad just rubbed my hair instead of punchin’ me in the head. I still flinched either way.

“Don’t matter.” He opens his eyes and gets to his feet. "I ain't workin' with her any more, period. Wouldn't have worked with her at all if I'd known…"

He trails off, unsure of how to say what he wants to say, but Gladion seems to understand regardless.

"You...you really didn't know?" he asks, and the hesitant hope in his voice twists painfully into Guzma's heart.

"I ain't exactly a genius, kid, and I got a tendency to be up my own...well, I mean, I can be kinda...kinda selfish," he mumbles, hastily correcting himself before he can swear again - he's done enough swearing in front of children for one night. "No, I didn't know Lusamine was your mom."

Gladion nods, his throat working. At length he manages to get ahold of himself.

“As long as you’re not helping her now,” he says, "Then I guess I'll keep my mouth shut...but…"

Guzma arches an eyebrow. "But what?"

"Just...it kinda seems like Miss Stella is staying here under...false pretenses, or something." Gladion frowns. "Unless you've told her…?"

Guzma shifts uneasily. “Uh...nah, I ain't told her nothin'.”

"I think you should," Gladion says. "I mean, I don't know why she's here or anything, but if you and her are...y'know...it seems like…"

"Okay! We're done here!" Guzma takes Gladion by the shoulders and gently orients him toward the door. "I ain't takin' datin' advice from a thirteen year old. Get out."

Gladion ducks under Guzma's arm. "But I don't think that's something you should keep from -"

"I said we're done!" Guzma opens the door and nudges Gladion out into the hall. "Go on, get outta here. I want ya keepin' an eye on Moon, get me? Lillie too. Stop skulkin' around here and play with kids your own age for once."

Gladion rolls his eyes. "Fine. Even though you're still gonna have grunts tailing us, aren't you?"

"Got that right." Guzma turns and walks away, intending to throw himself down on his bed. "Go on, already, shut the door on ya way out."

Gladion goes, then pauses in the doorway and turns his head.

"I'm glad you're not working for her any more," he mumbles, then hurries into the hall and shuts the door behind himself.

Before Guzma has time to be touched, Gladion pokes his head back into the door and says, "But you still need to tell Miss Stella the truth.”

He disappears again and Guzma’s pillow bounces harmlessly off the closed door.

7.

Stella closes the door of her new bedroom behind Moon, then locks it.

"They know where we are," she says quietly, moving her hands along with the words. “They got him involved. Guzma knows about our parents now, but I think we’ve thrown them off. As far as they know, I was arrested."

Moon doesn't reply; she only tilts her head, her brows slightly furrowed above her nose.

"I know I should have told you, and I'm sorry." Stella sighs and sinks onto the edge of her bed. She falls silent, but continues to talk with her hands.

I didn't want to risk texting it to you or being overheard, but now that you're here…

Her hands begin to shake. She hesitates, fingers still making the sign for here. After a moment she seems to steel herself and goes on.

Now that you're here I can tell you the truth. He knew where we were.

The sign for he is slow, exaggerated.

Somehow he tracked me down through Guzma. Guzma was supposed to turn me over to them, but he helped me instead. The Executive they sent after me was arrested, but so I was I. Guzma broke me out.

Moon's dark eyes widen in shock. Won't INTERPOL come after you?

Guzma says that since I was never officially transferred into INTERPOL custody, they won't. Still, as far as they know, I've been arrested. That means I can't leave Po Town for the next…

Stella stops and shakes her head, then shrugs. "Who knows how long. I don't want you to let this hold you back, though, all right? As long as you stay close to the others and keep your team healthy, I think you'll be safe. They would only be more suspicious if you disappeared too."

Moon worries her bottom lip with her teeth, but before she can begin to sign Stella's hands cut her off.

You know them, she says, her movements emphatic. You know what you can handle and what you can’t. Just promise me that you will never, ever go anywhere alone. If you see the two pink-haired Team Skull Grunts around, they’re just looking out for you.

Moon sits down next to Stella, hands flying. That's just it! Gladion says that Team Skull is after Lillie. That they're after Nebby! And that means…

Moon trails off; she has no signs for what she wants to say, but when Stella mimes sweeping her bangs over one eye Moon's face lights up and she nods.

Yes! After what Lillie told us about her...they're after the same thing, so I was afraid…

Stella's gaze is hard as obsidian. I don't want to believe it, but I'll find out. Don't worry. If it's true, Loki and I will burn this place to the ground.

Moon gives a short, silent laugh. I don't think it's true. I really don't, but I don't want to risk anything happening to Lillie.

I won't let anything happen to her, I promise, Stella replies. Not to any of you.

Moon leans against Stella's shoulder for a moment, nodding to show that she believes her. At length she glances up toward the bedroom door, then back up at Stella.

Have you told him? She asks with her hands. You said he knows about our parents, but does he know…?

Stella shakes her head. Not yet.

Moon frowns. Don't you think you should tell him? When they find out you're not actually in custody...

Stella sighs. It isn’t exactly something I’m dying to admit, Moon. Have you told anyone? Hau or Lillie?

Moon rolls her eyes. No. You told me not to and I haven't, even though I want to. I hate lying, especially to Lillie. She told us about her mother, I feel awful that I'm not telling her the truth in return.

Stella nods. She rubs her temples with hands that shake. "I know. I know, and I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for all of th-this…"

Moon grabs Stella's hands in hers, holding them tight until Stella finally manages to blink back the tears and look at her. As soon as she does Moon gives a quick, definitive shake of her head, then squeezes her hands once more before releasing them.

Don't. It's not your fault. I know that. I've always known that.

Stella says nothing. She pulls Moon in against her chest and holds her, struggling with a fresh tide of tears. At length she pulls away, blinking just a little too often as she adjusts the Pyukumuku cap and smooths Moon's silky black hair.

“Are you afraid?” She asks softly.

Moon nods, then begins to move her hands. I am, but not like I was. Not like when Riolu…

Her signs falter. Stella lays one hand at the side of Moon's throat and strokes a thumb over her Adam’s apple, but Moon reaches up, takes her wrist, and gently but firmly pushes her hand away.

I’m not that kind of afraid anymore, she continues. I have friends now. I have my own team now. There’s more grownups I can trust.

“More, yes,” Stella says. “Not all of them.”

Moon tilts her head. I can trust Professor Kukui, can’t I? And Kahuna Hala?

Stella nods. Yes. But no one from the Aether Foundation. All right?

Moon’s face hardens; with her brows furrowed and her dark eyes tensed, the resemblance to Stella is far more pronounced. After what Lillie told me, you don’t have to worry about that. I want her to tell Hau, but...

Stella smirks a little. Don’t worry. I think Gladion will tell Hau soon enough.

Moon giggles silently, then glances over her shoulder at the door to Stella's room. And Mr. Guzma? Team Skull? Can we trust them?

Stella looks up at her bedroom door, a faint sneer curling her lip. I don't know, but like I said...I’m going to find out. One way or the other.

Moon huffs and nudges her sister's arm. Don't be mean to him, Stella. Not until you know for sure.

"I'll be nice if he will," Stella mutters. "C'mon, let's see about getting you some food, hm?"

8.

Plumeria and Inara handle feeding the kids, leaving the grunts to fend for themselves for the night. Most of them head into town for pizza or takeout, with Koa and Leia going along to supervise. The rest raid the pantry for junk food and retreat upstairs to watch movies after being banished from the first floor by Guzma.

Inara is a slightly better cook than Plumeria. She’s good at improving on simple meals, in any case, and that night she makes stove top ramen, adding in all sorts of things to make it both more substantial and at least marginally more healthy...as well as plenty of seasoning liable to set one’s mouth on fire, but the kids are unfazed. Hau eats four bowls; Gladion manages three, and Moon has two.

Not long afterward the three of them fall asleep on the downstairs couch while watching Rescue Rangers on Netflix, with Type: Null, Primarina, and Decidueye in a cuddle pile on the floor in front of them.

Guzma has no appetite. After making sure that the grunts know to leave the kids well enough alone he disappears into his bedroom, as much to be alone as to spare everyone else his temper.

His brain won’t shut up, won't stop torturing him for his failure to recognize the resemblance between Lusamine and Gladion. It's a glaring example of his own selfishness, and the more he tries to distract himself, to put it out of his mind, the more it intrudes.

He reads. He plays video games. He tries to sleep, and when that fails he gives up, yanking his phone out of his shorts pocket to check the time.

10PM.

He drops it back into his pocket and heads downstairs. If he has to drink his head into submission, so be it.

He vaults over the crashed chandelier and descends into the living room, then hesitates at the foot of the stairs when he sees Stella standing beside the small couch. She clutches two blankets to her chest as she stares down at the kids, and the glow of the TV illuminates the tear tracks down her cheeks.

Guzma alters his course without even realizing that he has decided to do so.

The TV shows the familiar Are you still watching? popup across a paused episode of Rescue Rangers. As Guzma moves toward them, Type: Null lifts its strange head to sniff the air and the shadow that plays across the kids on the couch is huge and strange. It lets out a soft growl and Guzma pauses, remembering what Gladion had said about his Pokémon, but Decidueye and Primarina both open their eyes and make soft, scolding noises until Null huffs and lies back down.

Guzma slips up behind Stella, crossing his arms over his chest as he glances down at the couch. For a moment he's afraid that he might start tearing up as well, though he can’t for the life of him figure out why that should be.

Gladion is asleep at one end of the couch, clutching a throw pillow shaped like a Ditto in his arms. The sleeves of his ragged hoodie are just a little too short to hide the faint fingerprint bruises on his wrist. His head is tilted to one side, propped against Hau's, which rests against Gladion's shoulder. Moon is curled up on the rest of the couch, her head on a purple tie dye throw pillow tucked against Hau's hip; one of Hau's arms is draped over her shoulders.

Stella finally seems to realize that he’s there. She pushes her bangs back and blinks a few times, then busies herself with tucking a blanket around Moon before gently lifting her sister’s head to tuck another around Hau and Gladion. Moon's eyes open a little and she gives Stella a brief smile, but she's asleep again within moments.

Stella's lip trembles as she pushes Moon's black hair out of her face, but she seems to catch herself, remembering that she has an audience; she straightens up and turns away from the kids and Guzma both.

“Can I talk to you?” she whispers. “Alone?”

The hair on the back of Guzma's neck prickles.

"Yeah," he mutters, concentrating on his voice, doing his best to remain aloof. "Sure."

He follows her into the small downstairs bedroom, past the left-hand staircase at the end of the hall. Prior to her arrival it had been little more than a makeshift storage room, containing an unused double bed and a few random pieces of furniture in varying states of disrepair, but he is surprised by how much it has changed in just a few days.

The bare mattress is covered in a mismatched set of tie-dyed sheets, and a big, fuzzy black fleece blanket with a pattern of purple Dark type symbols is folded at the foot of the bed. A squat purple armchair that had been thrown in there after a grunt's Liepard used it as a scratching post sits in one corner, patched with scraps of black fabric. A scarred, paint-splattered end table sits next to it, one uneven leg propped up with two paperbacks. A hideous faux antique lamp with a cracked red globe sits on top of it, next to a pile of more paperbacks that Guzma recognizes from Plumeria's trashy romance novel collection. There is a dresser against one wall, even more paint-splattered than the end table, with a Team Skull symbol painted across the cracked mirror. There is a black file cabinet covered in stolen Totem Stickers next to the bed that Stella appears to be using as an end table; on it is a shadeless lamp, yet more romance paperbacks, and a Pokéball stand for the Luxury Balls she keeps her team in. Her bag is on her bed, still cinched tight, and there are random clothes hanging in the closet that appear to have once belonged to some of the girls; those must be the ones they've let her borrow until someone can retrieve hers.

He is still looking around the room when Stella asks the dreaded question.

“What do you know about the Aether Foundation?”

It takes him off guard, but he manages to get control of himself before his surprise registers on his face.

"Buncha conservationists runnin’ around in dorky white uniforms," he says with a shrug. "Why?”

“They’ve been trying to get their hands on Lillie for awhile, and not only because she’s Lusamine’s daughter.” Stella shuts the door behind herself and crosses her arms, gazing at him with black-diamond eyes. “Gladion warned Moon and Hau that you were after the same thing.”

Guzma resists the urge to scrub a hand over his mouth. Gladion would have warned them; he should have known Moon would relay that to Stella.

“I was asked to get ahold of Lillie and Cosmog, yeah," he answers, feigning nonchalance. "But I draw the line at kidnappin’.”

“Who asked?”

Stella's voice is flat, direct, and her eyes are relentless. Everything in him wants to look away, just to escape the weight of those eyes, but he grits his teeth and summons his most condescending sneer.

"Girlie, the kinda people who pay for Pokémon to be stolen ain't the kinda people ya talk to face to face, get me?"

Unfazed, Stella asks, “And the kind of people who ask you to steal Pokémon and kidnap children?”

"Those are the kind ya don't even talk to personally," he answers, remembering Lusamine's sick-sweet voice as she told him in no uncertain terms to bring in Cosmog and Lillie both. "The kind that have people talkin' for 'em.".

“Could it have been someone from Aether?”

“Maybe.” He fights the urge to shrug again, to shift and fidget. “Like I said, the kidnappin’ bit was a deal breaker.”

"So you haven’t been working for the Aether Foundation?"

There it is.

Guzma's chest tightens to the point that it seems his heart might burst. He doesn't want to lie to her and he finds that he can't lie to her, not like this, face to face with her eyes fixed on his...but neither can he bring himself to tell the truth.

Instead he hears himself say, "Would the Aether Foundation risk bein' associated with a fuckin' gang?"

Stella stares at him for longer than he would like, long enough that the truth begins to rise like acid in his throat.

Finally she sighs and looks away. "You're right. I just don't understand why else Gladion would accuse you of something like that, unless he was afraid you'd hand Lillie back to their mother."

"Kid likes to skulk around,” Guzma mutters. “Probably overheard one thing and then didn’t stick around to hear the rest."

“I guess so.” Stella tosses her bangs out of her eyes and heaves another sigh, then glances up at him from beneath her lashes. “Well, since you’re in here...could you, uh...maybe do me a favor?”

Guzma arches an eyebrow, taken aback. “Depends.”

"I think one of the slats under the bed has come loose," she explains, frowning a little as she nudges the bedframe with the toe of her sneaker. "It sort of dips down really far toward the bottom. I tried to crawl under there myself earlier and see if I could put it back, but, uh...well…"

"Well?"

Stella laughs nervously, crossing her arms beneath the swell of her chest. "It's, uh, kinda hard for me to slide under there with these in the way."

Guzma's gaze drops to her breasts for an eighth of a second before he turns his back on her, so thrown off guard that he begins to do what she asked without uttering a single rude complaint. Heat floods his face as he kneels down, hiking his shorts up his thighs a little as he slips one long arm beneath the bed frame to feel for the slipped slat of wood.

Stella leans down over his shoulder, so close that he can feel the heat of her body.

"I think it's...yeah, down a little bit more," she says softly, and Stella near-whispering so close to his ear is far more than he can stand.

"I feel it," he snaps. "Move."

Stella steps back without commenting on his rudeness and Guzma shifts down onto his back, grateful that he's wearing one of his tighter pairs of boxer-briefs. As he slides into the space beneath the bed he begins to understand why Stella had a hard time; it isn't an easy fit for him either.

He shoves the slat back into place and slides out. Stella thanks him, smiling, and suddenly Guzma can't seem to breathe properly.

She ain't fuckin' cute, she ain't fuckin' cute, she ain't…

He walks out the door without another word, slamming it behind himself just a little too hard. His heart is racing in his chest and he resumes his initial mission, heading straight for the cellar and grabbing a fifth of rum at random before fleeing back to the safety of his room.

He doesn’t notice that his phone is missing until he’s drunk, and by that point he doesn’t care.