Gladion pressed himself into the corner of a small corridor, watching a pair of uniformed women pass by. They chatted each other up about New Year’s plans and the airport’s lousy coffee, but neither of them looked his direction. He slowly released the breath he’d been holding, to the detriment of his senses. The corner wall smelled like rotten chili dogs.
Even so, Gladion waited another minute before stepping out and walking down the hallway in the opposite direction the two women had gone. The flight he’d planned to catch out of Alola had way more security guards hanging around checking passengers than usual. And while Gladion couldn’t prove that they were Team Rocket agents, he’d be happier when they all left.
He felt Umbreon and Silvally’s Ultra Balls on his belt, safe and secure. Up until a few hours ago, there had been a Master Ball there, too. Despite his rich and well-connected family, Gladion had never held a Master Ball until his cousin Sabrina had given him one. Not to use as he wanted, of course, but to throw at the exact time and place she’d specified. At her. In her own gym. After she’d undergone the insane process of making herself 90% Gardevoir and only 10% human. And for what? More power? Gladion didn’t get it. His mother had gone after power, and she was still having regular check-ins at the hospital. How did such a thing become more valuable than one’s health or humanity?
Gladion removed Umbreon’s ball from his belt, moving it rhythmically between his hands in an attempt to ease his nerves. It wasn’t his business to judge Sabrina’s choices. He could have refused to help her. But then what would have happened? She needed Giovanni’s tech to perform the DNA merger in the first place, and she knew with 100% certainty that the second she became more Pokémon than human, the leader of Team Rocket would attempt to capture her.
The Master Ball–making Gladion her de facto trainer before Giovanni got the chance–had been the only way to get the power she wanted and still keep her freedom. Sabrina’s existing psychic powers, combined with those of the powerful psychic-fairy type…Gladion shuddered to think what she was capable of now.
And I left her with the leaders of Team Skull, he reminded himself. But there had been no other choice. Giovanni had set up cameras everywhere during Sabrina’s merger process. Eventually, someone was going to figure out who had broken in and captured his prize. Gladion needed to be empty-handed when that happened. And Sabrina needed to be somewhere Giovanni would never think to look.
I just want– A clacking sound, not unlike the guards’ heeled boots, interrupted Gladion’s thoughts as it approached from behind him. Instinctively, he moved to the side, looking for the nearest hallway, corner, or restroom he could conveniently sneak into. His heart pounded as the footsteps picked up speed. He couldn’t walk any faster with drawing attention to himself. But if the guard had spotted him… if she knew who he was…
The clacking sound passed him. It was a preschooler with a Tsareena in tow–its dainty feet tap-tap-tapping with each step on the tiled floor. Gladion slowed his pace until he was barely walking at all. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry and how jumpy he’d gotten. Instead, he simply returned Umbreon’s Ultra Ball to his side and moved on.
I just want to know that I did the right thing, he thought. That’s all.
Meanwhile, at the Shady House…
“I’m not drinking that,” Plumeria said firmly, glaring at the bottle in Guzma’s hands like it had beaten her in battle or something.
Guzma narrowed his eyes. He hadn’t gone for the cheap stuff. This was a bottle of decent-end Roseli wine. Did she think those things just grew on trees?
Okay, technically, the berries grew on trees, but that was beside the point. “I didn’t steal it,” he blurted out.
“Not saying you did,” Plumeria replied, hands on her hips. “Only said I’m not drinking tonight.”
That made absolutely no sense to Guzma, but before he had the chance to question her, a sharp knock caught his attention. He hurried out of the mansion’s broken down kitchen (nearly slipping on a loose floor tile), and reached for the front door. Plumeria came up behind him, much more slowly and carefully than she usually did.
Through the broken front window, Guzma got a clear view of the outside, even before he actually opened the door. The mansion’s front lawn was as battered and sad-looking as it always was, but seeing the entirety of Team Skull lined up on it cheered the place like nothing else could. Guzma had hardly turned the door’s handle when air was filled with the off-key chorus of several dozen grunts bursting into song at once:
“We wish you a merry day, yo!”
“We wish you a merry day, yo!”
“We wish you a merry day, yo!”
“And a happy Popplio!”
They all looked very pleased with themselves, though one of the pink-haired grunts crossed her arms and gave a small huff. “I still don’t like that last line. What if the trainers we’re singing to didn’t pick Popplio, huh? What if they picked Rowlet?”
“No one picks Rowlet!” the girl beside her snapped.
“I picked Rowlet!” yelled a random guy in the back. Someone booed him. Someone else booed that guy, and were it not for Guzma’s quick thinking and frantic hand-waving to call them back to attention, there very well might have been a brawl right in the front yard.
“All right, you sorry lot, listen up!” he snapped, taking a step forward into the chilly evening air. “Team Skull is famous throughout Alola for our catchy rhymes and perfect footwork! Your task is to make sure there ain’t a trainer standing who hasn’t heard this tune by tomorrow night! You all get me?”
The grunts stood at attention and gave the Team Skull pose in an oddly synchronized fashion. “Yes, Master Guzma!”
Guzma nodded his approval. No doubt about it. This team could carol. They could carol and carol and never let up. Even though he had ceased all Team Skull’s illegal activities (well, most of them, anyhow), they were still a crew. No, more than that–a family. You didn’t disband a family. It was just that instead of beating down trainers with Pokémon attacks, they blew people’s minds with their awesome dance moves. Alola would be the most boring place on the planet if Team Skull ever truly broke apart. That was just a fact. Plus, New Year’s Day was a perfect time to crank up their volume to eleven. Apparently, during the holiday season, people actually expected you to go door-to-door sharing your musical talents (or lack thereof). Go figure.
At Guzma’s signal, the group turned and started to hike down the road leading out of Po Town. Then, in the front row, a blue-haired grunt gave a mighty sneeze, prompting a loud, “Bless you!” from one of his peers in the back. Guzma shuddered. It was more than chilly out here. It was unseasonably cool, and his gang still stood out there in their white shorts and Skull tanks, their bony arms and legs fully exposed to the cold. All enthusiasm and no common sense. Yeah, that was Team Skull, all right.
“Hey, carry some blankets with you or something,” he said. “You’re gonna freeze out there.”
The grunt with the head cold looked horrified. “And cover up our Team Skull gear? We’d never do that, Master Guzma!” His teammates muttered their agreement as they walked on behind him.
Guzma rolled his eyes. “Drop the ‘Master Guzma’ stuff already. You’re my team, not my Pokémon trainees.”
“You absolutely said that, Master Guzma, and we will totally listen to it someday, Master Guzma,” the grunt said. He gave one final pose and followed the others out, his feet moving rhythmically with the tone he still hummed to himself.
Guzma closed the door, sealing the warm air inside once again, for as much as the drafty mansion could seal in anything. He tried not to smile (it was a nasty habit that made him look way too soft), but he couldn’t help it. His crew’s festive spirit was infectious. He walked past Plumeria and back to the kitchen, thinking he’d help himself to a generous glass of that wine now.
Then he remembered Plumeria was still being a stick in the mud for some dumb reason.
He paused in the kitchen’s entrance. Sabrina was somewhere around. She’d been doing nothing but practice her tele-kinesthetics or whatever she called it lately. Thankfully, kitchen appliances were too easy for her and she mostly kept her magic floaty antics focused on large pieces of rubble outside.
Guzma stood beside the three-legged coffee table where he’d placed the wine. The bottle still sat there unopened. He eyed it thoughtfully, trying to decide how much Plumeria would harass him for drinking straight out of it. Then you should have had some, he’d tell her. Yeah, that would go over well.
He stepped forward and picked up the bottle, mentally debating if it was worth picking a fight over when she came up and gently put a hand on his wrist.
Plumeria never did anything gently, and the sensation unnerved him. “Uh… you feeling okay, there?” he asked.
She gave him a knowing smirk–a look that could have had a kahuna bowing in apology and not having a clue why. Dang, he loved this woman.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s watch the crew leave.” She motioned him back towards the front window. He shrugged and followed. The lower right pane was the busted one, and when Guzma leaned down enough, he could see his foggy breath escaping around the spikes of glass. Then the sky changed. The thing with living in Po Town was that you could almost always count on it raining outside. Or at least, looking like it was about to rain. How the place wasn’t flooded half the time was beyond him. But then there were nights like tonight… nights when the temperature dipped down. And then, even though every other town in Alola had the deceptively-warm-looking moon hanging over it in full, Po Town got the luxury of snow. Guzma watched the flurries drift down in calm silence, even as his crew’s songs echoed down the streets.
“Sorry for turning down the wine,” Plumeria said. “I’ll take a glass in nine months.”
Guzma nodded absently, about to lie and say she’d never really hurt his feelings or anything stupid like that. Then he stared at her, playing her words over in his head.
“You’ll take… in wha– Plum, are you–?”
She leaned forward and kissed him, cutting off his words. “Happy New Year, Guzma,” she said. “Now fixed that blasted window.”
To say Guzma was stunned would imply that he had to capacity to fully process and comprehend what Plumeria had just shared with him. He did not. Words like “father” and “baby” and “family” clunked around in his mind, but every time his brain tried to hold onto their meaning, it sputtered out. The concepts were so life-changingly explosive, it was like he was afraid to touch them.
Then a voice spoke. “Oh, well, now. Isn’t this just adorable?”
Guzma whirled around. A powerful-looking woman with strange black and white hair stood in the shadows between their kitchen and dining room. The kitchen window was open (Guzma hadn’t remembered doing that), and he hadn’t heard a sound, either. None of the bug Pokémon in the house had alerted him to her presence. She had snuck in like the darkness itself.
Guzma was never a fan of sneaking. Or darkness, for that matter. If you were going to cause someone pain, you did it up close and in their face. Like a gentleman. Or something.
Guzma’s hand flew to his hip. “Don’t know who you think you are, but you’re gonna regret busting in here. Golisopod, First Impression!”
“Salazzle, Toxic!” called Plumeria’s voice from behind him.
The intruder didn’t look at all concerned by this development. If anything, she smirked like their attempts to cause harm amused her. As acid fired across the room and Golisopod’s signature move lit up like a firecracker, Guzma watched the already worn kitchen countertop more or less disintegrate. When the dust cleared, the intruder was gone.
“Dang, that bug is fast,” her voice cooed from behind Guzma. “I had to really put some effort into that last dodge. Well done.”
Guzma gritted his teeth and whirled around. Now that she stood fully in the light, he quickly realized this woman wasn’t human. Not fully, at any rate. Her eyes shimmered with a red glow, and when she held up her hand, her fingers were clawed.
“Y-you’re half Pokémon?” Plumeria asked as Salazzle slithered around and stood protectively in front of her.
The woman cocked her head to the side. “Interesting. You don’t seem as shocked as I’d expect.”
At that moment, a gust of wind blew through the room. Again, without Guzma being able to tell how or when she had entered, a woman suddenly stood in their kitchen, eyes glowing red with power. But at least this time, he knew the intruder was on his side.
“Careful,” Sabrina warned, putting a twig-thin, green arm protectively in front of both him and Plumeria. “She’s powerful. Merged with Absol.”
The black-and-white haired lady narrowed her eyes. “Sabrina,” she spat, “So this is where you ran off to. Giovanni’s been looking everywhere.”
Sabrina didn’t throw her backwards. Guzma wondered if she could, Absol being a dark type and all. But Absol Lady didn’t look eager to experiment, either. Instead, she put up her hands in surrender. “If you’re worried about me squealing, don’t. You did me a huge favor once, helping me learn my powers and all. Besides, I’m off Team Rocket now. Giovanni’s way more interested in training his precious son than listening to me.” There was a bitter venom in her last words. Guzma instinctively took a few steps back. He eyed the window, debating if shoving Plum through it and scrambling after her was a valid exit strategy.
“His son?” Sabrina cocked her head. “You mean Silver?”
Absol Lady barked out a forced laugh. “I wish. No, some pest named Ash. Boss didn’t even know he existed until–” She tightened her clawed hands into fists and shook her head, cutting off her own explanation. Then her fiery gaze darted past Sabrina and landed on Guzma. Sabrina didn’t interject. Her eyes had widened at the name “Ash,” and she now seemed transfixed, staring at nothing and muttering to herself.
“You,” Absol Lady said, pointing at Guzma. “Let’s cut to the chase. My name is Fiora Bloodstone Sycamore. You’ve got something I want, and I’ll bargain to get it.”
Guzma stiffened. He couldn’t let this woman scare him. And if she did, his body just had to act like she didn’t. He had someone to protect now. Someone to help Plum protect. A father… no, that word still felt too weird to him… a man didn’t run scared when his family was in danger.
“What kind of a bargain?” Plumeria demanded.
Fiora Bloodbone…whatever her name was…shrugged. “Nothing complicated. See, I was pretty high in Team Rocket before we parted over our… creative differences. Bottom line, I need some new subordinates. You two lovebirds are all ready to start a family anyhow, right? So just retire from this gig. Pass Team Skull onto me. I’ll set you up with a nice little place and you two can get on with your lives like a normal couple.”
Guzma stared at her. Two bits of hard-to-process news in one day. “You asking me to just sell Team Skull to you? That it?” he snarled.
“Pretty much, yeah.”
Sabrina seemed to snap out of her trance and again moved between Fiora and Guzma. “It’s an interesting offer,” she allowed. “You will give us time to consider it.” Her words were a command, not a suggestion. Her voice dropped low as she added on, “Ash Ketchum… is Giovanni’s son?”
“Yeah. You know him?” Fiora said. From the sound of it, “knowing” this kid was a personal insult she felt free to knock some teeth out for.
Sabrina kept her tone calm and even. “He helped me… once. Not unlike the way I helped you.”
Fiora scoffed. “He’s an idiot,” she said. “But if you care about him for some nutso reason, you’ll warn him to stay out of my way.” She nodded at Guzma. “We’ll talk when you’re ready, then.” With a graceful leap, she jumped past Sabrina and up onto the windowsill like some freakish human-shaped Torracat. “Congrats, by the way,” she said as she vanished into the night. “And a Happy New Year.”