Fi didn’t talk to Grimsley much the rest of the day. She said it was to help him rest, but he had a feeling it was more so she could build Pierce’s fragile ego back up. The two of them went on several excursions, bringing armloads of building supplies each time. Whatever project they were up to, it was involved.
When they got back that night, Pierce fell asleep almost immediately. Fi at least had the decency to help Grimsley get back into the ocean first. He expected her to go back inside afterwards, but instead, she sat on the shore chatting with him a good long while. (Their dark-typing seemed to be a recipe for insomnia.) Grimsley got all the details about her goal to take over as the leader of Team Skull. He couldn’t say he was thrilled with Team anything at the moment, but perhaps with her at the helm…?
Curious, Grimsley asked what Team Skull’s general objectives were before her involvement. Activate a bunch of volcanos to expand land mass? Liberate Pokémon from their trainers? Prove the imperfection of the human spirit?
Apparently it was none of those things. They were just a bunch of outcasts who didn’t fit the standard Alolan trial path. And they stuck together. Yeah, Grimsley could see why Fi wanted to make a place for herself here. Maybe, with that philosophy, he could find a place here, too. At least for a little while.
The next day, Grimsley swam along the shoreline, following Fi and Pierce to Team Skull’s base of operations. The weather was overcast, and from the way everyone was energetically walked back and forth, one would think this was their equivalent of a perfect bright and sunny day. Grimsley never got too close, but he could see Fi chatting up her new crewmates and pointing him out from a distance. Why was it so hard to get closer and talk to them? They were hanging out with Fi, and she had claws on her hands, for pity’s sake. Of course, everyone was very busy with their repair work–carrying rocks, moving dirt, putting rocks where the dirt had been… It would be rude to interrupt when he couldn’t really do much to help out.
He had almost convinced himself this was a perfect excuse to stay isolated. Then a woman with long pink ponytails–the mom-to-be Fi was taking over for–waved at him from the shoreline. There it was, a perfect opportunity to stop being all sulky and stalky and go introduce himself.
Grimsley dove underwater and stayed there the rest of the afternoon. It was infuriating; this new part of himself that suddenly cared what others thought. Then again, maybe he always cared. Perhaps the new sensation was his shattered confidence.
When he resurfaced late that evening, the activity had all moved indoors. The shoreline was vacant. Grimsley swam as close as he could get, and when the water got too shallow, he swam along the island’s rockier edge, where the water was deep enough to move through. That was when he realized there was someone outside tonight, after all. She walked surprisingly close before he spotted her, taking each step in utter silence. She had a ghostly, stark-white figure, thin, green arms, and bright green hair. Grimsley ducked behind two large rocks, peering through the crack between them.
Wait…is that just a Gardevoir? It must have been, he thought, until she looked up at him with a human face.
A human merged with a Gardevoir. If there was much humanity left in her. Fi had mentioned her in passing–this must have been the former psychic gym leader from Kanto. Sabrina. But Fi also said she almost never left the house. Since Grimsley couldn’t go in the house, he expected they would never cross paths.
Clearly had guessed wrong. Well, on the upside, he couldn’t worry about her thinking he looked weird. He swam a little closer; not right up to her, but at least he wasn’t hiding behind a rock anymore.
She kept her gaze locked on him but said nothing. Guess it was on him to start the conversation, then.
“Um…hello,” he said awkwardly. “You’re out here late.”
She nodded, slow and deliberate. “Just hoping to clear my thoughts,” she replied. Her lips did not move, but her voice echoed in his mind. It sent a shiver down his spine.
“Um, no offense, but do you have to talk that way?” he asked.
She raised an eyebrow, and this time, she spoke aloud. It only came out as a series of “Gardevoir”-ish syllables, but Grimsley got their meaning perfectly fine: “Is this method preferable?”
He was hearing Pokémon language. And understanding it. Few things could shatter his illusion of still being human quicker. “Nope, that’s more creepy,” he answered quickly. “You can do the head voice thing again.”
She shrugged. “Very well. I’m sensing some…unease about your current form.”
“You’re sensing correct,” he answered, arms crossed.
“I’m also sensing you have no desire to talk about it.”
“Correct again. You’re as brilliant as the rumors say.”
“And you likewise match your reputation for sarcasm.”
He didn’t have a snarky comeback for that one. Could precogs sense which quips a person would fail to counter? He hoped not.
She gave the smallest of smiles. “I’m not one for discussing my problems, either, so you’re in good company.” The smile faded and she looked out over the building waves, far in the distance. Grimsley following her line of sight, even though she didn’t seem to be looking at anything in particular. From this angle, the ocean looked so vast and intimidating. Ironic how it felt so restrictive whenever he slipped underwater.
Suddenly, Sabrina let out of a gasp and doubled over, clutching the sides of her head. “Vo…ar…” she moaned.
“No…not again,” Grimsley’s brain interpreted against his will. Was she having some sort of panic attack? Did Pokémon even do that? She began to rock back and forth, muttering to herself, though Grimsley could only catch glimpses of the words: “Don’t. Leave it closed. Stop!”
She leaned forward, right on the precipice of the largest rock. Was she going to fall into the water? Grimsley tried to position himself so he could catch her. Then, as quickly as she had fallen into distress, she took a step back from the edge of the rock, her balance unswayed.
Grimsley sighed with relief. “You okay?” he asked. “Bad dream or something?”
“Bad…vision,” she replied, her breaths uneven. “I’ve been…having several of them. Always the same. Of the Ultra Wormholes coming back to Alola…”
Grimsley didn’t get the chance to ask what an Ultra Wormhole was. He wanted to, but another figure was quickly approaching, both arms waving her attention. He had a mop of spiky white hair, though his face said mid-twenties, and a pair of asymmetrical sunglasses rested on his head. The guy had dark circles under his eyes like he rarely got a full night’s sleep and a fierce expression that said he didn’t care.
This couldn’t be just another grunt. Besides the dead giveaway of sporting a gold Team Skull necklace instead of the standard silver one, he had an air of authority about him. So he was the co-leader with that pink-haired woman Grimsley had seen earlier. The dad-to-be.
“Yo,” he said to Sabrina. Apparently that was Team Skull speak for, I see you are walking beside the ocean and wish to speak with you. Grimsley really had to remember these leaders’ names. Guzmania and Plume, wasn’t it? That sounded right enough.
“Fi’s egg is hatching?” Sabrina asked.
Plume-or-maybe-Guzmania nodded. “Yeah. Some poison type from Galar, so of course Plum is psyched.” His hard expression softened. “You should come in and check it out.”
Sabrina took a slow, steadying breath. “Yes. I think that would be a good idea. Thank you.” She stepped–well, more like floated–down from the rock she was perched on. Guzmania–or was it just Guzma?–offered her a hand, but she ignored it. The two of them turned to go inside, but before they left, probably-Guzma glanced back at Grimsley. “Hold up. You’re Fi’s friend, ain’t ya?”
“I, uh…guess you could say that,” Grimsley replied.
Another grunt. Apparently he did that a lot. “You don’t have to be this far out, you know. If you go around the back of the Shady House, you’ll be much closer to the crew. We don’t judge nobody out here.”
“Oh, uh, thanks,” Grimsley replied without thinking. Did he really look that terrified of being judged? And he used to be some good at hiding his emotions. “I’m, um…think about it.”
Guzma nodded, and he and Sabrina walked away from the water, towards the Shady House.
Grimsley debated several minutes before he swam around as Guzma suggested. His eyes widened when the saw the back of the house. He’d gone underwater before he’d really gotten a chance to see what sort of work Fi and the team had been doing on this place. He’d assumed most of it was indoors with minimal landscaping. But instead, the entire backyard had a series of trenches dug into it, leading right up to the rocky edge by the water. The metal roof extended longer over the back of the house than the front, with an open spout to funnel the (likely frequent) rainwater through. From there, it would spill into a waiting stream bed, which fed into a pond through a series of half-built waterfalls and other water features. The pond came right up to the rocks, with a small trench at its surface for overflowing water to spill directly into the ocean. It was all rather crude for the moment, but once everything was finished and the rain came in earnest, Grimsley could see a clear, purposeful path. He would be able to hoist himself over the rocks and into the pond, swimming right up to the house if he pleased.
A warmth filled his chest. Fi wanted him to make this a home, too. He didn’t know if he was ready for that, but…the unspoken invitation was there. The decision to accept or not could come later.
For now, though, he had a good view through the Shady House window. And he could see from here that Fi was inside. She leaned protectively over the hatching Pokémon egg and–perhaps for the first time in Grimsley’s memory–her face glowed with a wide, genuine smile.
The hatchling had impeccable timing. Piece had just finished installing the new intercom/baby monitor system in Guzma and Plum’s room. (After rigging up the big-screen, the surround sound, several computers, a dozen appliances, setting up the internet, and childproofing every outlet in the house, he’d been ready for a real challenge). He’d just put his tools away and given the intercom a preliminary “testing, 1,2,3” when a slew of grunts yelled back at him from different rooms: “It’s hatching! Your egg’s hatching! C’mon, it’s hatching!”
Pierce made his way downstairs and found a sizable crowd had already gathered in the kitchen. The grunts quickly parted to let him through and soon he joined Fi at the tidy kitchen table. It still impressed him how nicely the Shady House had cleaned up now that the grunts no longer treated it like their own personal junkyard. There were no more death banisters or fall-apart furniture. No more lingering mold and rot smell. Instead, island flowers and aromatic cleaners scented the air, along with a lingering touch of fresh paint. (The ugly yellow color in his and Fi’s room was also gone, finally. He’d wanted gray, Fi wanted blue, so they’d settled on a nice steely slate blue). But even more amazing than the house’s transformation was how intently Fi had taken to her role as “Teacher.” When she’d felt the egg shake in earnest (her half-eaten egg and tamato berry sandwich was still stuck to the kitchen ceiling from the force of her startled fling) she’d summoned everyone who wanted to watch and learn. There was Guzma and Plum, the grunts, Sabrina, even her old pal Grimsley, who for some reason was staring through the window like one of those way-too nosy international police detectives. Or a lost Lilipup. Pierce couldn’t decide which.
He didn’t dwell on the guy long, though. Many of the Team Skull crew had never seen a Pokémon hatch before, and their excitement was contagious. Plus Fi had grabbed his hand in a vice grip. He could feel her anxious energy. The quiver in her muscles. Anticipation, mostly. But fear, too. The little one’s egg was damaged when they found it…
“Look!” Rapp gasped, “It’s happening!” All the grunts leaned in closer around the table, then startled back simultaneously when a large crack split down the purple shell.
Tupp pumped his fists. “Come on! You can do it!” Others joined him. “Just a little more! You got this!” Voices rose. Encouragement blended into an excited chant. “Do it! Do it!”
Fi smiled. “You heard them, little one. Just one more push!”
A second crack splinted the shell, exposing rays of glowing blue light that soon enveloped the entire egg. Pierce shielded his eyes and blinked back spots.
The Pokémon had hatched upside down. Soon, though, gravity took over and it somersaulted forward. Disoriented, it made little squeaky-grunty noises as it pawed at its large, sleep-crusted eyes, trying to clear them.
Plum smiled. She loved her poison types, after all. Rapp’s face lit up with sheer delight. “It’s so cuuuute!” she squealed. Pierce could practically see the little hearts dancing around her. It was cute, even he had to admit. With its chunky little body, dotted cheeks, and little energy bolt head crest, the reptilian Pokémon was downright adorable.
“But more importantly, he is healthy.” Pierce found himself instinctively glancing aside towards Sabrina as he spoke. He was relieved to see her affirming nod.
“What is it?” Tupp asked, leaning in for a closer look.
“It’s a Toxel,” Fi answered. Her voice was breathy now. Like all the tension had left her in one huge rush. Seeing the baby safe despite its rough start. Pierce could understand why. The moment the baby Toxel heard Fi’s voice, he scooted around to face her. His huge eyes were bright and adoring.
“He knows his mother,” Pierce observed. And he felt his chest warm at the look Fi gave him in return. Her eyes were soft. Her smile sweet and sincere. It was a look she almost never shared with anyone except her Pokémon. The one that showed she felt safe and loved.
Baby Toxel gave a pleading whimper and raised its little arms to her, asking to be held. Fi made soft cooing noises as she scooped it into her arms.
“There now,” she murmured, rubbing its back. “I’ve got you, little guy.” Toxel nuzzled his face into her neck, gripping her shirt as fierce as a baby could. When he noticed Pierce standing there beside them, he stretched out an eager little hand.
“He knows his poppa too,” Fi said.
Pierce felt himself smile. He couldn’t help it. He offered his finger to grab and his heart give a squeeze along with the baby’s fingers.
The audience of grunts “awwed.” It was absurdly sappy. But for once Pierce didn’t mind. He wanted this moment, this feeling of him and Fi together as a family, to go on as long as possible.
Fi, however, stiffened in an instant. Her eyes darted up to the grunts, almost startled, like she’d forgotten they had an audience. Then in a blink she was back to being the authority figure. The teacher whom the grunts respected. Who Guzma and Plum had come to trust. Who could definitely not be seen being vulnerable in any way.
“Okay then, I think the show’s over. Baby needs to be fed and you lot,” she indicated the circle of grunts with a clawed finger, “need to watch that battle special I recorded.”
“Awww” whined the group, again in unison. They were remarkably coordinated when they wanted to be.
Fi rolled her eyes. “You won’t be ‘aww-ing’ when I stick you with diaper duty. Now march,” she ordered. The grunts went, dragging their feet and muttering as they did. Fi called over her shoulder, “And take notes! I’m quizzing you later!”
Guzma harumphed as soon as the last grunt left his earshot. “Right. Good luck with that. This crew ain’t so good with schoolin’. How do ya think they ended up here in the first place?”
Elegantly spoken, as always. Pierce had a hunch that Guzma’s strong dislike of schooling was mostly to blame for his crew’s lack of education. Not that he’d ever tell the man to his face.
Fi shifted the baby in her arms, cradling him. He cooed up at her. Then shoved a little foot into his mouth. Fi headed to the fridge and started yanking out bunches of berries one-handed and set them on a cutting board.
“How they got here? How any of us got here isn’t important. What matters is those kids want to win battles.”
Guzma’s face went sour. He stalked up to Fi as she spread her claws. “You think I haven’t tried showin’ them how to battle out there? They’ve already been beat down. And every time one of those Alolans wins without even blinkin’, they feel like they’re nothin’ all over again.” Guzma leaned against the counter, his arms crossed.
Fi split several berries with a restrained slash. “Is that so?” Her eyes narrowed. “Well, now I know what their final exam is going to be.” She sliced another berry, a bit too roughly. Tangy juice splattered back at her dotting her shirt and Baby Toxel’s face with blue droplets.
The baby squirmed in annoyance and pawed his face.
“Oopsie. Sorry, little one.”
Baby Toxel’s nose twitched, and his little face scrunched up. Fi knew what was coming. She shifted him quickly to face away from her. But Pierce didn’t have her reflexes. By the time he realized he should really move, it was too late. The baby let out a tremendous sneeze, and Pierce found himself covered in a web of purple snot from head to toe.
“Eahg…” was all he managed to blurt out.
“Eww, gross!” Guzma danced away from the mess, brushing traces of boogers off the corner of his sleeve.
“Oh, my! That was a big one, wasn’t it?” Fi made a show of bouncing the baby and momma-voicing. Probably to keep herself from laughing hysterically. Plum smirked as she walked over with an armload of dish towels.
“Better get used to it,” she teased Guzma as she shoved the towels in his direction. Guzma gawked and went a few shades paler.
Fi couldn’t hold it in any more and burst out laughing. Pierce felt his cheeks burn. Fi had her reputation as Teacher to uphold. But…well, maybe he had his own self-image he wanted to defend, too. Over the past two months he’d become the Team Skull’s resident “smart guy.” The one who always had a clever answer or a practical solution to any problem. And standing there dumbfounded, in front of the team leaders while his partner in crime laughed at him was not making him seem very smart at all.
“It’s not funny…” he muttered, trying to wipe his face and salvage at least some of his dignity (no easy feat when his face was already burning hot and his entire coat was covered in Toxel boogers).
Fi finally stopped laughing just long enough to slap him playfully in the shoulder. “Don’t be such a wuss.” She brushed sticky hair out of his face then ran the side of her hand down his cheek, scraping off a particularly large blob before wiping the purple goop on her jeans. Guzma looked like he wanted to laugh, but was still too queasy to actually do so.
Plum just shook her head. “First time raising a poison type?” she asked. She sounded amused, though not at him. Fi noticed it, too.
“Yeah,” Fi admitted before cocking her head. “Why?”
Pierce shifted in place, curious for her reply. All the while his face was still hot. Maybe even a bit more so than normal. And not just his face. His ears too. And his scalp. And… his hands? He glanced down and gasped. On the backs of his hands all the places were there were still traces of slime were starting to go red. Worse, the thicker stuff had started eating holes in his coat.
“Oh…burning. Burning. Burning!” He grabbed at the fabric, trying to yank it off. But it was stuck fast. And the acid was still eating away. Past the outer layer to his shirt. “Fi! Help! It’s burning!”
He saw the color drain from Fi’s face. “Oh, crap!” She started towards him, stopped, turned back. “Here,” she said, plucking the clinging baby Toxel from her shirt and handing him to Guzma. “Watch him a minute.”
“Wha?” Guzma blurted. “Why me?”
Pierce tripped and staggered as Fi pulled him towards the back door. Behind them he heard Guzma pleading with Plum: “Babe, c’mon! Help me out!”
Plumeria didn’t miss a beat. “Baby’s hungry. Gotta make some food. You’ll be fine.”
“But–” Guzma’s voice heightened in one last desperate (and unanswered) plea. “But–he’s crying!”