1: Paradise

"Well, this didn't go like I hoped."

"You think?"

I touched the energy barrier again to annoy Soleil and it sizzled, sending a jolt of hot numbness up my forearm.

"Quit it!" she barked.

I smiled, shaking out my hand and clamping the other one over the star of nerve pain in my elbow. I reflected that I had perhaps not actually gained anything by that little stunt.

The same could be said about our entire attempt to infiltrate Aether Paradise.

They'd put us in the same cell, though, which was their first mistake.

We were a pair: me, tall and pale and rawboned, with a regrettable silver dye job that was starting to look gray, and travel-size Soleil, round and bronze-skinned with a crown of spiky gold hair and an actual sense of style.

Alola had been more fun than Kanto, at least. Better weather.

"Can you get through to Raichu?" I asked.

"I might be able to if you would stop. Talking."

Soleil exhaled and returned to her meditative pose on the cot, her back straight and hands relaxed on her crossed legs. I did my best to think quietly.

Rhythmic thudding sounded at the end of the corridor.

"Luna—"

"Not me."

Gladion appeared in front of the energy barrier with Hau in tow. He flipped his dumb fringe of hair.

"Alola," said Hau, grinning.

"Looks like you two are in a bit of a jam," Gladion drawled.

"It's a sticky situation," I said.

Gladion's face crumpled. "Did you just—"

"How did you two get in? Listen, there is weird shit going down, I don't think this place is for pokémon conservation—"

"I know," Gladion said. "That's why I left. My mother has been experimenting on pokémon."

"She what?"

"Your who—"

"We've got your pokémon!" Hau said, pulling two trainer belts out of his backpack. "Gladion says we're gonna battle our way to the top to save Lillie."

I grinned. "That part I understand."

"Count me in," Soleil said. "If Aether wants to act like a Team they can fall like a Team, namely by getting their asses beat by high schoolers."

"Amen," I said.

Gladion pulled out a key card and swiped it off to the side, deactivating the energy barrier. I hopped over the lintel and grabbed my gray trainer's belt from Hau—all of them had that pressure, that sense of life from an occupied pokéball, and I breathed easier.

"We were overwhelmed by numbers trying to get in here," Soleil explained. "What's your plan?"

"Behead the serpent, the body dies," Gladion said, portentous. It was a black metal song lyric. "Follow me."

Gladion's key card revealed a network of paths and tunnels behind the polished white surfaces of Aether Paradise. He led us up and up along stairs and catwalks that seemed to broadcast our echoing steps, but no one came to stop us.

"No one comes back here," he explained, looking like he was reminiscing. "It's dirty—bad for white uniforms."

Gladion opened another hatch and stepped out into the corridor without looking, and we ran right into a scientist: average height, balding, with bug-green lenses covering his eyes.

He screeched. "Gladion! What on earth are you doing here?"

"Where's Lillie?"

"Young man, we are on a very strict timetable here this afternoon—a tearful reunion will have to wait, I'm sorry to say—"

Gladion threw down a pokéball, and that weird, Frankensteinian pokémon popped out. It growled, and the scientist guy leapt back.

"The Null! Gladion, are you—are you threatening me?" He shoved his hands into his lab coat pockets, digging around.

"Faba. Where's Lillie?"

"Outrageous—can't believe this—" Faba pulled out a pokédex, which flew out of his hand over my head.

I glanced behind me to see Soleil's Alolan raichu holding it. "Careful with that, Rai."

Faba's second choice was a hypno, a big one with a fluffy ruff and an agate charm hanging suspended from its hand.

"If this is what it takes you make you see reason—"

"X-scissor, Null."

Type: Null squawked and darted forward, slowed briefly by a psychic-type attack from the hypno. It slashed twice, its reptilian forelegs glowing with the bug-type attack. Red lines opened on the hypno's crossed arms and it honked sadly.

"Remember this, Null?" Faba said. He was holding something in one hand, aimed with it.

"Is that a gun?" I yelled, regretting all of today's exciting resemblance to action films. I threw down Blastoise's pokéball hoping she was awake, the old coot.

Type: Null had screeched and darted away, behind Gladion. It cowered at the crackling noise from the taser. It hadn't even fired yet.

"Null!" Gladion said brokenly. "It's okay! He can't hurt you with that anymore—"

The hypno lined up another psychic attack and bowled over Gladion and Null with a pink and purple wave of light, sending them skidding down the white hallway.

Hau yelled. "Aue! You crazy, you nevah attack a trainer—"

"We're gonna do like that, huh?" Soleil growled. "Thunder wave him, Raichu."

"Hydro pump, Blastoise!"

"Now see here—"

Raichu fired off a yellow pulse of energy and Faba jolted, dropping the taser with a short cry. He hit the ground hard, limbs twitching.

Blastoise sized up the hypno and used bubblebeam instead, finishing it off as the bubbles cracked against its yellow hide.

Gladion picked himself up, recalling Null, and he slapped away Hau's offer to help him up.

"Your Alolan pokémon won't grow if you keep using your old ones," Gladion said to me sharply.

"That bruise on your ass will heal," I replied, and then felt bad. "How is Null? Do you need a potion?"

"We're fine."

I shrugged, and stepped over the twitching Faba and his battered hypno. "Where to next?"

Gladion searched the scientist's pockets briefly and turned up a set of key cards that he stopped and stared at. "No…" he said. "I don't know…"

"What's your deal, here, Gladion? Your mom is—"

"The president," he said shortly. "None of this is for pokémon conservation. It's all about ultra beasts. They engineered Null to fight them."

"There was a little bit of recent history and a movie about why genetically engineering pokémon isn't a great idea, not sure if you've seen it—"

"Where are they?" Gladion hissed, ignoring me. "Where's his pokédex?" He snatched it from Raichu, who frowned and did a quick flip on her surfboard tail before gliding back to Soleil. "Come on."

We walked along, casting glances into doors, but the level seemed to be empty. At the elevators, Gladion strode in and began trying card keys.

Soleil hung back. "What happened to the secret passages, there have got to be cameras—"

"No," Gladion said, swiping the pokédex's touchscreen furiously. "Everyone's eyes are on something else right now."

Up another level, and the ambient noise grew louder. Gladion whipped out another card at a set of doors that swished open—

Black tracksuit, gray mop of hair, dumb asymmetric moon sunglasses.

"Boo," Guzma said.

This again. "Incineroar!" I said, tossing down her pokéball.

Incineroar straightened, her flame belt flaring. She growled something at Guzma's golisopod, pale lavender under its heavy gray plating, who hissed back. Memories of Po Town.

"Why is Team Skull here?" Soleil asked as Raichu shot in front of her. "Stealing pokémon?"

"That is by way of what you might call a side job," Guzma replied. "This is the main event, kids."

Team Skull was blocking access to another set of doors, and we could hear activity and a greater sense of presence and energy behind them. That was where Nebby and Lillie had to be.

"I've got him," Gladion said, moving forward with Type: Null, who'd been healed. "Take care of the grunts!"

I couldn't tell if they were the same ones from Po Town, but they didn't seem pleased to see me and Soleil again, or even Hau, and I let Incineroar run wild on their poor raticates and golbats with Hau's decidueye and Soleil's primarina. I watched Guzma and Gladion instead.

Guzma's golisopod shot forward with its first impression technique, evading Type: Null's guard and hitting powerfully with its armored shoulder. Null staggered, retaliating with a crush claw that crunched the golisopod's plates.

"Not bad, li'l Gladie—"

"Stop! Calling!—"

"—looks like I need to take you seriously," Guzma drawled, raising his Z-ring, which had a yellow-green crystal in it.

"Null, aerial ace!"

Type: Null's form blurred, and it seemed to teleport in close to the golisopod to slash powerfully, the flying-type energy slicing through its armor. The golisopod was already glowing as Guzma performed the hand signs—which I still find ridiculous, by the way—

Type: Null yelped as white filaments appeared out of nothing, wrapping around it gently and then faster and faster, and the entranced golisopod took hold of them, spinning them around its claws into a rope. Null fought, slashing, and then screeched as the golisopod whipped it into the air like a flail, bringing it down hard until finally hurling it away, airborne.

"Null!" I yelled. "Incineroar—"

Incineroar was already bounding over, fast on all fours and the flames at her waist streaming behind her, and she caught Type: Null with athletic grace. She set it down and it fell to its belly, unsteady. It shook its head, its metal helmet rattling, and warked at her miserably.

"Null…" Gladion said, pained.

"You ain't shit, kid, and you ain't never gonna be shit," Guzma said, lighting a cigarette. The smoke streamed away onto the sea. "Ya boy Guzma will always be second-best. You'll breathe easier knowin' your place."

"Get ready to get bumped down a few places," I shouted.

"Think you can beat me, haole?" Guzma said, laughing. He produced a bottle of potion from somewhere and repaired Golisopod's armor with practiced ease.

"I eat pompadoured punks like you every day and twice on Thursdays, ya banchou wannabe. Vikavolt!"

Vikavolt appeared in a flash of yellow from the ultra ball, and electricity sparked along its rigid mandibles as it buzzed to and fro. It charged up with agility, the hum from its wings increasing in pitch.

"Thunderbolt!"

The golisopod dropped its shoulder and teleported in close, delivering a raking slap to Vikavolt that spun it away, hard.

"Sucker punch," Rotomdex chirped helpfully.

Vikavolt recovered and hit the golisopod with an arc of electricity, blue-white and sizzling. It groaned, eyes pinching shut, and dropped to all fours before recalling itself to its pokéball.

Guzma shrugged. "Eh, she just battled li'l Gladie—"

"Stop! Calling!—"

"—try Pinsir next! Rock tomb!"

"Agility, Vika!"

The stag beetle pokémon clacked its huge pincers and crouched, charging, as it summoned rock-type energy to conjure boulders out of nothing. It managed several fair-sized rocks; Vikavolt buzzed faster and faster, dodging, but one connected with a crack and slowed it, and two more followed. I recalled it.

"Incineroar! You ready?" I called.

She bounded over to face Pinsir, leaving Null and Gladion to their own devices.

"Flame charge!"

"Storm throw."

"Wait fuck I fucked up," I muttered. Pinsir learned a bevy of fighting-type attacks, I now recalled, not great for part-dark Incineroar.

Incineroar's belt flared, fire covering her entire body, and she rushed in to strike Pinsir. It readied its pincers but hissed as the flame charge struck it, unwilling to make contact.

"Keep the flame on, Incineroar!"

"Rock tomb!"

Incineroar kept up the attack, her broad paws lashing the pinsir with fire and disrupting its attempts to summon boulders. Frustrated, it finally hit back with a burst of red-brown fighting-type energy that sent Incineroar staggering backward.

"Revenge," supplied Rotomdex.

Pinsir wasn't in good shape, covered in scalds and wheezing hard, and Guzma recalled it.

"Need a potion?" Soleil asked, bobbing up beside me.

"Didn't see you there, you're below eye level," I said, grinning, and she punched my arm.

Guzma selected another pokéball but Soleil's appearance made him scan the battlefield, his grunts blown up by Soleil and Hau and slinking off. He eyed the three of us—four, Gladion helping up the healed Type: Null—and finally shook his head.

"Alright, alright," Guzma said. "I know how it goes. Madam Prez is gonna be pissed." He tossed his key card at our feet and slumped off with the other Team Skull members to heal up their pokémon.

Trainer's honor was a tenuous thing. I waved the others forward, and we headed for the last door.

It opened to reveal a large room, with a central dais and familiar figures.

"Lillie!" Hau shouted.

Lillie spun around to see us, her blonde hair whipping. She looked thin and drawn, incomplete—she was missing Nebby's bag, the gray pokéball duffel.

"Luna and Soleil," Lusamine said grandly. "Sweet Hau. You're just in time."

The Aether President was resplendent in an iridescent white dress, with a prismatic inlay in her blonde cape of hair that left her scintillating under the strong light. Aether Foundation employees were gathered around the dais at a respectable distance, and white-uniformed security officers started to peel off, pokéballs in hand.

"Shit, here we go again," Soleil muttered.

"Stand down," Lusamine called out, halting the security guards. "Let them see what we are about to accomplish."

"We're here for Lillie and Cosmog," I shouted back, and I was instantly dismayed at the thinness of my voice in that huge space without the benefit of a mic.

Lusamine made a moue of distaste. "For Lillie? And here I thought you had good taste, Luna."

"Mother, please! Cosmog will die!" Lillie was shouting.

"I don't have any children," Lusamine said dreamily, and she pressed a button on her handheld.

With a judder, the dais started to sink into the floor. I rushed forward, Aether employees diving out of the way at Incineroar's growl, and landed on the platform. There were thumps as Soleil, Hau, and Gladion followed me.

Just in time—after that initial slow descent, the platform dropped swiftly to another room below. It was bare concrete, strung with wiring and energy nodes for shielding. All around were screens and monitoring equipment, facing outward: whatever was supposed to happen here on the dais.

"Cosmog has an extra-dimensional origin," Lusamine said, switching to her teacher's voice. "It only knows defensive attacks, but by stressing it, energy is unleashed that can be used to create portals. It uses this ability to hop between worlds, escaping danger."

"By 'stressing', you mean—"

"It's torture!" Lillie said. "Cosmog could barely move after using its power. She's talking about killing it!" Lillie was paler than usual, as tense as a bowstring, but exhausted—she'd been cajoling, shouting, begging Lusamine for hours.

Gladion stepped forward. "Mother! I'm sick of this stupid obsession! Stop this—stop hurting pokémon! You can't collect living things!"

"Gladion?"

Lusamine glided off the dais and seemed to shed a little of her gracefulness in her haste to get to him. For an instant something crossed his face, some sense of longing, but it was gone again; he closed his eyes as she gripped his face savagely.

"Where is my Type: Null?"

Gladion was silent, and Lusamine pushed him to the side.

"Always this disrespect," she said sadly. "It's more than anyone should be expected to bear."

Behind Lusamine two pokémon containment vessels were perched on pedestals, dark teal and black, hooked over with wires and sensors, and in each was a cosmog.

Soleil squinted through the pulsing energy shielding at the pokémon inside. "Is that… another Nebby?"

"With but a tiny amount of gas from a cosmog's body, I can open an ultra wormhole," Lusamine declared. "Imagine what can be done with two?"

"Don't do this! This isn't necessary!" Lillie begged.

"Why on earth should something be necessary to be done? Anything that brings me closer to perfection should be done. It should be done at once," Lusamine said, and triggered the mechanism.

My skin prickled as a buzzing, screeching sound filled the room.

"No!" Lillie screamed.

"Incineroar, let's get Nebby!"

Lusamine tutted and threw down a pokéball, revealing a snakelike Hoennian pokémon, a milotic, who fired off ring-shaped water pulse attacks at Incineroar. She growled and dodged before the milotic found its range and caught her square in the chest, the attack bursting with a deafening sound.

"Raichu, help Incineroar! Thunderbolt!" Soleil called.

"Dishonorable girls—you'll find I am proficient at double battles as well."

Lusamine tossed a dusk ball that revealed a mismagius, a purple ghost-type. Raichu squeaked in dismay, dodging a shadow ball attack while the mismagius avoided her responding thunder wave.

Blue gas was pouring out of the containment fields, and the space at the back of the room was… changing. It wavered like heat lines, and the air glittered, a floating and dimensionless mirage. The air was full of sparks that grew larger and larger until the room was filled with mirror-surfaced spheres. Some of them flew together; others winked out, and others gently repulsed one another. Suddenly they picked up speed, flying into the walls and disappearing with no mark of passage.

The largest sphere seemed to roll over, opening, and inside was the jellyfish ultra beast from before—a big one, shimmering with a liquid light. I could see Lusamine's face from where I was standing, her eyes misty as if she beheld some sublime treasure or work of art. The pokémon had all backed off, battle forgotten in the face of this interloper.

"Rotom, what the hell am I looking at?"

"Answer's still the same, boss," Rotomdex chirped. "Cryptidex mode activated. Aura analysis: Rock- and poison-type, 33% certainty; poison- and psychic-type, 33% certainty; rock- and psychic-type, 33% certainty. Totem aura detected. Possible match: unknown."

"Come on, didn't you record our first battle?"

"Negatory, that data is still being analyzed by Professor—"

"Academics," I said significantly.

Lusamine recalled her pokémon and strode forward, putting out her hands to touch the ultra beast.

"Mother! It's not safe! You don't know—" Lillie yelled.

Lusamine's face twisted and she turned to face Lillie and Gladion.

"In this moment of my triumph you tell me no, you little pig?" Lusamine's green eyes glowed as the ultra beast gently pressed the tips of its arms to her temples. "At last I am perfect. At last I leave this filthy, imperfect world behind… with Nihilego. Guzma!"

The Team Skull boss bounded out from somewhere, joining Lusamine on the dais.

"All of Alola will know what we've accomplished here. The beasts are abroad even now. And now—we join them."

"At your side, Madam Prez," Guzma replied, nodding.

"You have serious guts, Guzma," I said, "or you're a complete idiot."

"Por que no los dos," Soleil murmured.

"Where are you even going? Can people survive there?" I yelled.

"Let us go home at last, my sweet beast," Lusamine said.

The ultra beast's tentacles fluttered over the two of them, as light as a breath. Guzma and Lusamine seemed to grow and stretch, although their triumphant grins never wavered. Their bodies flashed, indistinct like a book rapidly flipped through. The wormhole pulsed, here a reflective bubble, then a cylinder, a crack, a point.

I looked too long, and I thought I saw… I don't know. I still don't. Alien hands and mouths, away into infinity, pulling them in, pulling them apart, pulling them into exploded bloodless models of the human body as the wormhole wheeled and kinked faster and faster into nothing.

Gladion made a choking sound, and Lillie just sat down, as limp as a doll.

"Well," I said. "That was fucked up."

x.x.x.x.x

2: The Upside-Down

Gladion flipped open a panel on the dais steps and pulled out handfuls of wireless plugs and sensors. Alarms tripped, screeching, before the equipment finally powered down, and the containment mesh fell. He peeled it away, exposing the cells that had held the two cosmog.

Lillie gasped when she saw them.

"Are they… dead?" Hau asked. His eyes were welling with tears.

Nebby had been cloudlike, a beach ball with eyes, but what was left in the blocks seemed to be hard glass encompassed by heavy gold, lifeless. It looked like the night sky.

"Rotom?" I asked.

"Psychic-type aura detected," it said, after a frightening pause. "Life signs detected. These pokémon need to visit a pokémon center at once."

Soleil and I put the two Nebbys in pokéballs to transport them. There was no resistance to us leaving Aether Paradise; the facility was strangely empty, with one or two white-suited workers peering at us as we sped out of the compound. The Team Skull grunts swimming in the fountain and splashing each other or smoking on the sidelines didn't pay us any attention.

Back on Ula'ula we saw the Nebbys go not into the usual healing machine tray, but a terrifying titanium enclosure that almost looked as bad as the Aether containment units they'd been in earlier. They were bathed in a far kinder light, however, and none of the harsh sound or sensation accompanied it. The pokécenter chansey and audino murmured to each other. I wasn't sure how bad it was.

Lillie looked thinner than ever, staring into the ICU, and Soleil finally persuaded her to come back to the cafeteria and have a bite of something. She was shivering in the air conditioning.

I turned back to pick up my pokémon from the regular healing service, and Gladion was there waiting.

"Thank you," he choked out. "For helping Null."

"You're welcome," I said, trying to be sincere. "Pokémon trainers have to help pokémon. Right?"

His dumb fringe bobbed as he nodded. "I… working together, it… I wasn't actually part of Team Skull, not really. It's always just been me and Null. You and Soleil and Hau…"

"We work better as a team. It's good to have someone in your corner." I smiled ruefully. "For once. I know what that's like."

"You don't know me," Gladion said, automatically, but he looked thoughtful.

In the caf I had dessert first, a couple of frankly inferior malasadas, but I was starving and it didn't matter. I started in on loco moco, smothered in brown gravy, and Hau had nearly finished his. Soleil and Lillie had a salad and yogurt each. Lillie was picking at hers while Soleil spoke to her gently about nothing. One of the nurses had given Lillie a blanket, and she was clutching it around her shoulders.

"She dressed me," Lillie said suddenly, interrupting Soleil. Her eyes were huge. "To look like… Nihilego."

The jellyfish ultra beast that Lusamine had attracted first, and the big one that had come for her, later. I thought of Lillie's white hat and diaphanous white skirt. Yikes. What the hell had Lillie lived with? Experimentation and obsession barely covered it.

"Oh yah, heh heh, your hat," Hau said, grinning and putting his hand on the back of his head.

"Hau! Read the room!" Soleil hissed.

"It was never me," Lillie said quietly. "I was always just a… doll. Toddled around, left in my dollhouse. Helpless."

"Well, what's next?" Soleil said, after a silence. "Lusamine is gone. Team Skull is leaderless."

"There were other ultra wormholes," I said. "What should we do about them?"

"The kahunas will make it fine," Hau said. "No worries. Kids don't have to think about that stuff."

"Come on, Hau! Don't you want to be more than that? Doesn't your grandpa want you to be more than a kid? That's the responsibility of a pokémon trainer." I punched his arm playfully.

Hau grinned. "Whatevah, tita. You Kanto sistahs need to lighten up." He looked down, thinking, and then tapped his trainer belt. "I should probably get going with Acerola's trial."

"What do you want to do, Lillie?" I asked.

She pulled the blanket around herself. "I want to find my mother."

x.x.x.x.x

"The full video and energy sensor readings from President Lusamine's experiment yesterday were leaked to us from a source within Aether," Prof. Burnet said over video phone. She was tanned with bleached white hair and hawk-yellow eyes. "I've been speaking with other professors specializing in dimensional research and pooling our knowledge. We'll find them."

"Can we help?" Soleil asked.

"Don't put yourselves in danger," Prof. Burnet said sternly. "I'm sorry, Lillie, but the fact is that we don't know anything about the kind of environment the ultra beasts come from. It could be incredibly dangerous. We would have sent a dozen robots through the portal first if it was our experiment."

"Understood."

I winced. Guzma was a shithead and Lusamine was worse, but neither of them deserved to pop like balloons in hard vacuum or die gasping on some toxic world.

We sat around looking defeated for a while.

"The legendary pokémon of Alola travel between worlds," Hau said slowly. "It's in all the old stories."

I looked at him. "Are they even real?"

"The way this year has been going, I'm going to be surprised if any legend or cryptopokémon isn't real," Soleil said darkly.

"Even slendamantis?"

"I can't friggin' wait."

"There's only one way to find out," Hau said. "You can call them to the altar on top of Poni Island, they say."

"How?" I asked. "Text message?"

"With this," Gladion said.

I jumped. "Where did you come from!?"

He was holding out a slender, antique wooden case, and inside was a pale blue instrument that shimmered like mother of pearl under the pokécenter's fluorescent lights.

"It's called the Moon Flute."

"That's it!" Hau said. "You play the Sun Flute and the Moon Flute, and the legendaries come. If you're a hero in a story, at least." He laughed.

I stared at it. "Where did you get this?"

"It was being held in one of Aether's labs. Our mother always liked… collecting things. Art. Pokémon. People. One boy, one girl. Seemed like she wanted to collect those legendary pokémon one day, too. Here." He handed me the flute case. "Soleil and Luna… help Lillie." He started to walk away.

"Hey! Where are you going?"

"I wanted to leave Alola, actually, but it turns out you need money for that." The corners of his mouth turned up, rueful, the first time I'd seen him smile. "Ms. Wicke offered me a job instead, cleaning up Aether. I can do that for a while, I guess." He was silent a moment. "Help our mother… please."

We watched him leave.

"Wait," Hau said. "So, where's the other flute?"

x.x.x.x.x

From the ferry we saw primarina sunning themselves and singing on the rocks, and staryu and starmie jetting along bottom in the clear water. Poni Island was home to yet more endemic pokémon species, and normally I would be eager to explore and try out some additions to the team, but I was uncharacteristically troubled. We all were, thinking of Lusamine and how she'd hurt Nebby, and yet still required our help. It was tough being a good guy sometimes.

Before we disembarked, Lillie went to the ferry washroom and returned in a new outfit. She looked incredibly beautiful.

"Cute," I managed to say, like an idiot.

She'd ditched the nihilego cosplay, putting on more typical trainer garb: shirt, skirt, tennis shoes, backpack. She'd stuck with plain white, and put her pale yellow hair in a ponytail.

"I bought this outfit in Malie, but I didn't feel brave enough to wear it," she said shyly. "I'd always… I'd never picked out my own clothes before."

"Looks great," Soleil said. "Come to me if you want suggestions—don't ask Luna, she's a fashion disaster."

"Um, that helmet was for safety, Soleil."

"There is nothing safe about bright pink and red."

Lillie looked out at the ocean. "I want to be… more independent. I want to be able to walk without needing protection."

"Everyone needs protection in the wild," Soleil said gently. "Even in some cities, you need a pokémon. Stick with us. It's good to travel in a group."

"Well, I've got a lot of repels…"

"Do you know what repels are made of, Lillie?" Soleil asked with a straight face.

"No?"

"It's pee," I said. "It's always pee."

"What!?"

x.x.x.x.x

The rumor was that the Sun Flute was somewhere on Poni Island, but the settlements there had never been well-populated, and they were ghost towns now. The biggest town on the island was the southern dock, where the itinerant seafolk traders congregated.

We were directed toward the chief of the seafolk, who had a catamaran with the prow painted in stark black, a geometric pattern that I slowly recognized as the staring eyes and dopey grin of a wailord. We met with her in a cramped cabin—actually fairly generous at sea, I'm told. She was intensely brown and weathered, and wearing comfortable cotton clothes and a fishing vest; I mentally slapped myself for expecting her to turn up in a feathered headdress or such.

She listened to our story in silence, and she didn't say anything afterward for a long time.

"For decades we have kept the Sun Flute safe," the chief said quietly. "When I was young there came visitors from across the sea who knew many secrets, even those of the steel- and dragon-cults, and had strange and powerful pokémon besides. We resolved to keep some power to ourselves. These past few years I have heard of high offers, dizzying offers, rewards for the location of the Sun Flute and I have not budged. There has always been hunger for this power, even among my own people. The gods will seek out those deserving of their presence, as they always have."

"Then why make the flutes? There is a time and place for their use, and I say it is now," Soleil said. She stood so that the light from the setting sun shone over her dark skin and lit up her spiky, gold hair like a halo. She'd always been a hit at contests.

"…I will ask the Tapu," was all the chief said.

x.x.x.x.x

We went to go have dinner elsewhere on the docks. There was a pelipper-decorated boat with an awning and tables set up, and we ordered a platter of fresh seafood. The sun went down as we ate and the servers lit torches spaced around the tables. Five stars on journeys dot com for sure, and it would have been a perfect night if not for the whole extradimensional travel and megalomaniacal obsession thing, with a soupcon of global existential threat for flavor.

We listened to the live band cover a few Kantoan and Johtoan pop songs, and listened to the waves in between sets. Lillie had been quiet for most of the meal, although I wasn't sure if that was because of her ongoing troubles or my abysmal table manners.

She turned to me and said, "Luna… how did you get started? As a trainer?"

"Turned ten, passed the test, got a junior license, got a rescue nidoran from the pokémon center," I said, counting off the steps on my fingers.

"Weren't you afraid? Isn't it too much responsibility for a child?"

"It was the done thing in Kanto," Soleil said. "You get a pokémon and go to gym or pokéschool meetings after regular school. It's good to find out if you can bond to a pokémon or a certain type early."

"The group leader would check up on all the kids. They were rescue pokémon, they'd just run away if they didn't like you or you didn't bond, and go back to the wild or a new trainer." I shrugged. "It happens. Not a perfect fit."

"My mother told me about everything that could go wrong, every way a pokémon could get hurt or hurt me or someone else," Lillie said, pulling apart the paper napkin. "Or how a pokémon would run away or get old and die, and break my heart. I was so scared. I hate battles. But…"

"I mean, they get hurt, we get hurt, journeying," I said, after Lillie trailed off. "It's a risk. But there are rewards. It's okay to make mistakes. You live through them."

"Most of them."

Lillie managed to smile. "I feel like… when I see you two, you could go anywhere, do anything. Trainers make their own futures."

"You can be one too," I said, too fast. "There's nothing stopping you. I can catch you a pokémon right now. You could go back to Hala and get a starter."

I saw the hesitation and stopped pressing, and Soleil changed the subject, talking about how foresters and farmers used their partner pokémon, and the differences between battle and contest techniques.

It was a lot to take in, after years of being told no, no, no, to finally have that cage door swing open. I didn't want her to shut the door on herself.

x.x.x.x.x

The seafolk chief met us at the floating pokémon center with a couple of assistants. She watched us sternly as we approached. I tried to keep my face neutral and respectful.

After a moment, she smiled. "The Tapu was very clear. Good luck."

One of her assistants stepped forward with a hard case of familiar size and dimensions, and Soleil took it carefully.

"In exchange I ask that when you return the Sun Flute… give me the Moon Flute as well."

"Please bring these flutes back to us or to a kahuna," the assistant said. "They are unbelievably precious and unique cultural artifacts for Alolans."

"Understood," Soleil said. "I can guess how galling it is to hand over a treasure to foreigners, especially irreverent ones—"

"Slow your roll there, Soleil," I muttered.

"—and I will do my best to see them returned to Alolans."

The seafolk chief nodded. "Well said. You should consider politics, Trainer Soleil."

"Do you want to come with us to the altar?"

"One legendary pokémon was enough for me, at my age. I have always felt that one is rolling the dice with such creatures. Good night."

x.x.x.x.x

At the very top of Poni Island was the Celestial Altar. The path up was dry and rocky, with powerful pokémon and dragon-types in the deep caves. In the old days, the ruling dynasty would bond with the kingly kommo-o—dragon-types were often a rare and powerful test of skill, even now—although their power was held in balance by the fairy-type island guardians and their devotees.

We rode up on Hapu's mudsdale, and I tried to enjoy the ride and the changing scenery. Finally we came to the foot of a huge staircase and turned the three mudsdale loose to return to the kahuna.

"Always with the stairs," Soleil muttered, adjusting her pack.

"Keep those short legs moving!" I teased her, and started up.

By the top of the climb, I was howling—I'd like to find the guy who invented stairs and push him down these stairs—and she'd passed me with a smirk.

"Short legs, eh?"

"You win," I groaned.

Lillie didn't even have the decency to get sweaty; instead, a pleasant flush had come into her pale cheeks, and she was panting a little but didn't stop during the ascent. She looked like she belonged on a magazine cover, standing on top of a mountain and swigging water while looking out at the ocean.

The Celestial Altar was worn by wind and rain, but the carven symbols still stood out clearly on the stone. There was a sequence of images detailing battle between a six-pointed and a crescent-shaped legendary, or both against strange and alien forms, oddly proportioned or radially symmetric, and a few that I was sure I'd seen blurry photos of on cryptopokémon websites.

Standing out from the main platform were three points: one had the moon glyph, one the sun glyph, and the third was blank, hidden behind the towering central altar. It might've been for symmetry. Anyway, it seemed clear that we needed to play the flutes at the respective altars, but I was ready for some convoluted puzzle bullshit if required.

"Who wants to play which one?" I asked, as Soleil carefully took the flute cases out of her backpack.

"Us two," Soleil grunted. "Let's not pretend we don't have a theme going. Lillie, do you want to hold the two Nebbys and stand at the center?"

Lillie nodded gravely, accepting the two pokéballs. "How should I…?"

"Here's your first test as a trainer—throw those pokéballs. Underhand," I warned, "not the fastball special they do in the movies."

Lillie giggled. "They do such a windup to throw the ball a few meters!"

"Foam props. No weight."

The two cosmog—or whatever they were now—appeared in red light. They were still that heavy gold form, and seemed to be sleeping, although with the benefit of that intense pokécenter healing they at least were floating now, silently.

Soleil held the Moon Flute out to me and I took it.

I frowned, suddenly unsure. "Wait, are we really going to try to play these?"

"Come on, you played the clarinet in middle school."

"Sure, but my embouchure is totally wrong for a flute, it has zero back pressure—"

"It's a magic flute, dude. Like the lady says, put your lips together and blow."

"Gross, Soleil."

She walked off for the opposite altar, waving, and I sighed. When she got there I raised the flute.

Luckily it was magic, because after a sad, breathy moment, something took over and played for me.

The Moon Flute played a subtle melody, like moonlight on crystal leaves, like the moon's reflection on water, that long path of light on the waves that traced a route to where the moon touched the sea… and beyond it, behind it…

The light of the moon streamed out, and I followed its path, turning agonizingly slowly as the flute's magic held me. On the dais moonlight bathed one of the Nebbys, and a glorious, searing beam of sunlight washed over the other. They glowed, the light zigzagging off the gold cage of their bodies, tracing out new forms.

As they came together, gold and white and gold and night-colored, the music left us and I nearly fell, dropped out of the powerful and terrible certainty of the flutes. And I realized that we'd left Lillie alone on the dais with two huge legendary pokémon.

I'd grown up with tales of what the Birds did to the unworthy. It took one and a half seconds for a healthy pokémon to reform from pokéball containment; it took one to five seconds for a trained pokémon to fully assess a battlefield situation. It wouldn't be fast enough.

Lillie put her hand out, slowly, slowly, and Nebby dipped its huge, leonine head to rub its cheek on her fingers.

I exhaled. Gods protect us fools and children.

Rotomdex buzzed quietly. "Probable match: Solgaleo, the sunne pokémon; psychic- and steel-type aura detected. Probable match: Lunala, the moone pokémon; psychic- and ghost-type aura detected."

Lunala was hanging back, balancing on the stone on the edges of its golden claws. There was a tension in its stance, like it wanted to leave. It seemed to be in shadow despite the morning sun bathing the entire mountain in orange light.

Lillie didn't say anything as we walked up, but she'd been crying, and she pulled out a handkerchief to dab at her face.

"I'm so glad Nebby is okay," she said eventually.

"Me too," I agreed. "How are you feeling, Nebby?"

The solgaleo made a contented sound deep in its throat. Lunala clicked and hissed, and Nebby turned to it briefly.

Lillie looked up at it. "Nebby, we… can you take us to the ultra beasts' world? We need to… we need to find my mother."

Lunala spat, and it might just be a guess, but I felt like there was incredulity in it. Nebby growled too, doubtfully.

"I know," Lillie said. "But I have to. She's my mom."

Lunala squawked, shaking its crescent-horned head, and its claws tinked on the stone as it moved off to fly away. Nebby rumbled, and it squawked back, impatient, but it waited.

Nebby chattered something to Lillie. She shook her head. "I'm sorry Nebby, I don't understand…"

"You hate Lusamine?" Soleil asked.

Lunala whistled. Yes, but.

"There's another problem?" Soleil asked. A grunt from Nebby. "What is it?"

Nebby looked at me, and I threw down Incineroar's pokéball. She started when she saw the solgaleo, backing off a few steps. Nebby rumbled at her, and then chattered something.

"Charades, please, Incineroar," I said.

She was good at it. She listened to Nebby for a while, and then she looked at me and slumped over, her arms dragging and her tongue lolling. She mimed heaving, as if from a hairball or getting a clot of sludge on your mouth in a battle.

"It's poison," I said, watching this. "The ultra beasts' world is poison."

A groan from Nebby, and a satisfied click from Lunala.

"How poisonous?" Lillie asked. She raised her head and redid the tie on her ponytail. "How long could we look around?"

Incineroar listened, and then held up her thumb and forefinger claws close together. A short time.

"Nebby," Lillie said, looking up at the solgaleo's blue eyes and the fathomless galaxy between them, "please take me there."

Nebby rumbled, and Lunala gave an exasperated whistle, but it clawed its way over, and the two legendaries arranged themselves at either side of the foot of the tall altar tower. Together, they roared, singing out, a discordant note that went right to the center of the earth and bounced back, a song that seemed to shake the stars, and the world cracked.

There was a line of darkness in the air, floating, a line of the blackest black, and Lunala looked back at the three of us. It cocked its head, as if saying Come and see, and it went—somewhere. It seemed to sidestep and disappeared.

Nebby chattered softly and the crack widened. It looked like the spherical ultra beast portals, but somehow more inviting, less devastatingly foreign.

I lowered my sunglasses. "This looks timey-wimey as shit," I said. I recalled Incineroar.

Soleil exhaled. "Hold on to ya butts."

She stepped through, and I followed.

There was a sense of falling, and I tensed, but there was no wind, and I couldn't hear anything—and in fact there was a feeling of just slipping through a fence, of turning a page, of dodging the turnstile at the Saffron Underground—

I fell out of nothing into dimness. Soleil was waiting, crouched, with her shirt over her nose and mouth. It didn't look like it was helping.

It hurt to breathe; there was a weird unlight in the air, thrown off glittering spires, iridescent and covered in alien curlicues, that stretched high above us into darkness.

And all around were the shimmering jellyfish beasts, wafting through the air like airships or clouds. Lunala glided overhead, glowing in the unlight, and the nihilego vanished when it got close.

"Beep… outside of ambit warning… connection with global pokédex database lost… connection with pokéball monitoring system lost… return to receptive area as soon as possible… beep…"

"We will, Rotom," I promised, "and you don't say 'beep', you play a ringtone or something."

"Don't tell me how to be."

Lillie and Nebby appeared behind me. Lillie coughed, stumbling, while the solgaleo looked at her in concern.

"I'm fine," Lillie said to us. "It just—I don't feel good, my throat is scratchy—"

"We need to find your mom and get out of here ASAP," I said. "It smells like the devil's basement."

We didn't have long to wait.

"How dare you come here…"

Lusamine stepped out of the empty air, stepped out of nothing, her cape of blonde hair wafting and fluttering like the ultra beast's tentacles. There was a cold blueness at her mouth and fingertips, but her eyes were wide and liquid, and furious.

"Mother! Please! This place—it's not for us! I feel sick already. Please come with me. Come home."

"You have always been weak, Lillie. How dare you sully this place with your imperfection. There is nothing here but the ultra beasts. There is nothing here but their love for me." She reached out and twined her hand with the hovering jellyfish's tentacles. "They are perfect. I will live here, surrounded by perfection."

"You'll die here," I said. "Can't you smell that? The atmosphere is poison—"

"Ugly, mannish girl," Lusamine said to me. Yikes. "You are doubly unworthy of this place. Go home. I have all the things I value here."

"I'm not some thing you can discard!" Lillie said, furious. "And—pokémon—these ultra beasts—they're not your playthings either!"

"Aren't they?" Lusamine glided forward. "What do you do with weak pokémon, Luna? Soleil? You send them away. What do you do when your team changes? What do you do in a new region? Replaced. Discarded." She waved a hand. "I do not judge. We all do it."

I sputtered. "We do not—"

"Pokémon battle in the wild," Soleil said sharply. "If I catch a weak one it can be trained, or it can go to the pokémon center and join up with someone to be a pet. There's a place for everyone."

"A place for every pidgey? A place in an arbok's enclosure, perhaps." Lusamine shook her head. "It's the way of things. Some are born to rule, and others… The sooner you realize it—"

"I wonder if Nihilego knows how you treated Nebby?" I said expansively. Did ultra beasts understand humans like pokémon?

"Cosmog is alive," Lillie said quietly. "I'm alive. And we're here to stop you."

Lusamine's expression grew colder and darker, if that were possible. "I can't believe this. How dare you invade my new world and treat me with this kind of disrespect? When you were a little girl you obeyed me. Now look at you! Ugly! Dirty! With uglier, dirtier friends. You disgust me."

"Speaking to your own kid like that!" Soleil said angrily. "There's only one disgusting person here."

"And you," Lusamine said, turning to me. "You did this. You put her up to this. I will show you exactly. How. Wrong. You were. To come here."

I sneered and tossed Incineroar's pokéball down. "Come at me, Ragyou."

Lusamine threw an iridescent blue pokéball, and it landed with a puff of glittering spores. Out of it came the largest nihilego yet, and she reached out for it, and it—

—changed.

A bubble enclosed Lusamine, and attached to the bubble were squid's arms that waved fluidly, grasping. They were covered in Z-crystals. There was dark fluid inside, and Lusamine's hair rippled like it was underwater. It lurched, rising, and just the glow of her green eyes was visible in the shadows.

Lillie stared.

"We've got you," I said. I looked at Soleil; I looked at Incineroar, who nodded. "Let's kick her ass."

Lusamine's arms produced pokéballs, throwing down multiple pokémon: clefable, milotic, mismagius, liligant, bewear, froslass. There was a dagger-shaped black mark on all six pokémon's foreheads, like the tips of Lusamine's tentacles, and their eyes were unfocused and glassy. Guzma staggered out of the shadows, with the same black mark, and he looked like shit. I gave him a minute before he'd pass out.

"Warning," Rotomdex piped up, "the health and battle statistics of these pokémon are far outside of normal parameters. Totem auras detected."

"Boss battle," I said eagerly. "Are you ready for this, jelly?" I threw down my own pokéballs, and Incineroar was joined by my other pokémon, Toxapex, Tsareena, Mudsdale, Vikavolt, and Blastoise, the big guns.

I'd had no idea Alola would be this fun.

"Luna! We're on a time limit!" Soleil reminded me. God dammit.

I thought of Gladion. Behead the serpent, the body dies.

"Lillie! We need to defeat Lusamine! Ask Nebby and Lunala to help us!"

"Luna, I—!"

"This is your trial, Lillie! Time to be a trainer! Sink or swim!"

x.x.x.x.x

Lillie watched Luna and Soleil call out attacks and direct their pokémon, but the battle was soon a free-for-all, with beams and elemental attacks missing and roaring overhead or connecting explosively. Nebby moved to protect her, shielding her with its body, while Lunala perched overhead, bored and preening its shadowy wings.

"Thanks, Nebby."

Lillie didn't know how Luna did it, breathing this choking air and dodging fire and ice, and still continuing on. Lillie was terrified. She'd always hated pokémon battles! Who wanted to see pokémon get hurt? And yet she couldn't deny their fierce joy: Soleil's primarina, using his voice as a weapon; Luna's incineroar, hurt and blasted by fairy-type attacks and diving in for more; and Nebby, once-helpless, yearned to join the fray. She could tell.

And she heard Luna's voice falter, coughing, and Soleil's bronze skin looked more and more gray. Guzma slumped to the ground. Mother—Lusamine—her nihilego flexed its arms, Z-crystals glowing, and she started to pick off her opponents' pokémon one by one, the devastating attacks shaking the ground, even toppling one of the spires.

They were losing.

"Nebby…"

It looked at her with those blue eyes, the eyes of a thing born minutes ago and a thing who had been old when the Alolan islands had first breached the waves.

"Nebby, please… please end the battle. Please help Mother."

x.x.x.x.x

The solgaleo roared, and Lunala trilled sarcastically, shaking out its wings. They dove in, scattering Lusamine's pokémon, and Nebby glowed, barrelling in and hitting her nihilego suit with its whole body and a flash of light. Lunala hovered above; it flexed its wings, turning white, and a devastating blue beam shot down, striking her and throwing out eerie ripples in the thick air.

"False gods…" Lusamine's voice growled, garbled, distorted, from somewhere inside the nihilego. "Ever disloyal…"

Nebby clamped its jaws on the nihilego's crown, and it twisted. The ultra beast screamed; I couldn't hear it, but I felt it in my teeth. It withdrew, changing its form and dumping Lusamine unceremoniously to the ground, and it winked out of sight.

"We need—we need to go—" Soleil gasped out between coughs.

Solgaleo and Lunala roared—

—we were falling—

—I looked up and out—

—there was so much

I woke up to the velvet-soft touch of a mudsdale's snout and, to be quite honest, a bit of a flatulent, grassy odor.

"Luna! You're okay!"

I blinked to clear my vision; Lillie and Hapu were leaning over me, looking concerned. Something orange streaked overhead, and I tried to sit up, managing it on the second try.

"Are we out?" I said, stupidly. There was a blue sky above us and the air didn't feel like trying to breathe sharpened pencils; we were out.

"I admire your courage, but I called in some backup," Hapu said in her usual frank manner.

Nebby and Lunala were standing over us protectively, and I realized they were looking past us at a charizard. Prof. Burnet hopped off its back; another charizard landed and Prof. Kukui joined her. Other flying pokémon were landing, with orange-coated pokémon rangers alighting.

Uh-oh.

For now, they just wanted to give us oxygen and heal our pokémon, but they had that we'll talk about this later look I knew all too well.

Worth it.

x.x.x.x.x

Kukui and Burnet were beside themselves, scanning Nebby and Lunala over and over with intense-looking equipment and gabbling about auras and base statistics. I'd expected Lunala to fly away as soon as we were out of the ultra beasts' world; unlike Nebby, it had no reason I could think of to think well of humans after its treatment in Aether Paradise, but it was preening under the extra attention.

A pokémon ranger had us breathe cool, medicinal air from canisters, and shortly I was feeling nearly normal. It hadn't been a good time, let me tell you. The pokémon, even Lusamine's, seemed to be made of tougher stuff, and only needed a normal healing course from the portable tray healer. Guzma had been there as long as Lusamine, but he was responding to remedies better.

With the poison out of my system I demolished several juice boxes and a sandwich, and Soleil and Lillie worked on their own pokémon ranger rations.

"Luna, Soleil…" Lillie said suddenly. "I'm so sorry she said those things! They're not true! You're not ugly!"

"Huh?" I said. "Oh, don't worry about that. My self-esteem is unassailable. I'm a legend. How are you feeling?"

Lillie looked over at the white tent that the pokémon rangers and EMTs had set up. Lusamine… bottled oxygen hadn't been enough. She'd been in the other world much longer than us, and she'd—bonded? fused?—with Nihilego. They were getting ready to take her to the hospital on Akala.

"I'm not sure," she said, finally.

Prof. Kukui approached us, though he seemed like he didn't want to tear himself away from the lunala, and kept casting admiring looks in its direction.

"Luna, Soleil…" He sighed. "You some kind of crazy."

"The best kind."

"That means a lot, coming from Professor Lab Safety," Soleil said dryly. She slammed her fist on her empty juice box, sending the straw and juice droplets flying.

Kukui collected the plastic. "Try mo' respect for Alolan sacred sites, yeah?"

Soleil looked contrite. "My bad, professor."

"I'm just glad you all are all right. Please listen to Burnet next time, yeah? It could've been worse than sniffles."

"The pokémon thought we might survive for a little while," I said lightly, but I thought of how constricted my throat had felt at the end, and privately, I would definitely let a robot go first next time.

Later, Kukui and Burnet started to wind down their analyses, and I got up to peer at their equipment but didn't follow most of the explanations. Lillie hung back, shy, even as Nebby kept casting her curious and hopeful glances.

Eventually she turned to me. "Luna, I want to travel with you and Soleil and Hau. I want to be a trainer. Can I come with you?"

"You're one of us, kid," I said.

Lillie closed her eyes as if her prayers had been answered, and my heart hurt all anew. She deserved so much better than to feel like we were just doing her favors.

"Nebby—Solgaleo. When I snuck you out of Aether Paradise, I… I just wanted to help you get home. And instead you've helped me, again and again." She bowed formally. "Thank you, Solgaleo."

The solgaleo sat back on its haunches and dragged its paw on the stone, beckoning Lillie over. She drew close and it put its tree trunk-sized foreleg around her, and she threw her arms around it and buried her face in its white mane.

"Thank you, Nebby," she said.

Nebby looked at me and Soleil, and we bowed too.

We looked at Lunala; it chirped and nodded, and finally it rose, levitating into the air. It flapped its wings as it went higher, and cloaked itself in cloud and shadow as it winged off behind the mountain.

Lillie watched it go, and then she smiled up at Nebby. "Do you want to keep traveling with us?"

The solgaleo chattered happily.

"Well, you know how it is," she said, and she proffered the ragged gray pokéball duffel bag.

x.x.x.x.x

3: Lillie Saves Her D*rn Self

"Are you sure?"

Lillie smiled. She looked at Luna and Soleil, and Hau—all her friends. Her friends. She had friends after all, even after all her mother had said: she was too delicate, too precious, how the other kids would be cruel to her, how it was better to stay home and stay out of the sun.

They looked at her with concern. Why?

"Of course! She's still my mother. I have to take care of her. I have to make sure she gets better."

Emotions passed over Soleil's dark, round face and Luna's pale, angular one, and Hau smiled awkwardly.

"You can write or call or text or anything, anytime, Lillie, okay?"

"Anytime of day or night," Soleil added.

Lillie smiled. "I'll come back to visit. I'll take a holiday. I'll see you soon."

x.x.x.x.x

She didn't see them for a long time.

There were endless sessions at the hospital: nano-regeneration and antidotes for exotic poisons; scientists and pokémon professors that studied fusion and possession; pokémon mystics that glowed as they passed their hands through the air above Lusamine's body; therapeutic ghost-types that promised to only steal foreign, harmful energies.

The blueness left Lusamine's skin, but she was still fatigued, and there were times when she seemed to… see things. As for the cold light in her eyes, Lillie wasn't sure she could remember a time when she'd lacked it, or if she'd merely dreamed it once.

And, perversely, Lillie wanted her to be sicker again. It was an ugly, evil thought that needed to be written in darkness at Darkrai's shrine and burned, but she wanted it. Lillie needed to hear it again, dreamy, through the haze of painkillers and sleep aids: "There's my girl. Love you."

She was evil; she was sick for thinking it, but she couldn't make herself confess in group discussion. The doctors made her go talk it out with the other kids, but their problems were all so vague and minor and frustrating. There wasn't a session for kids traumatized by dimensional travel and legendary pokémon, it seemed.

Lillie always sat quietly while the other kids were talking.

"She never lets up. There's always something. If I got ninety percent, why wasn't it ninety-five. If I joined a team, why wasn't it two teams, or this team that her friend's daughter is on. I can't win. It's never enough."

"He traded away my houndoom without my permission, and he said he'd get me a better pokémon. I'd had Rexy since I was born."

"I'm not in control," said one girl. "She makes all my meals. She would kill me if she found out I ate fast food or something from a vending machine." She was wearing a turtleneck with long sleeves. In Kanto. It had to be 40 Celsius with the humidity.

Lillie shook her head when it was her turn. She had no idea what to say. My mom punched a hole between dimensions by torturing a pokémon, and then she turned into a pokémon and my friends had to save me from her. It was stupid. It didn't feel real. Had there ever been a movie as crazy as that? The dragon-clan heroes didn't need to be saved, they did the saving. The camera cut away from the victims; no one ever asked them how they felt about Mecha-Tyranitar.

She'd never liked those movies. Mother had forbidden them from watching them, but Gladion had figured out how to get past the blocks on the TV. Ages ago. She didn't like the pokémon battle sequences, she'd hide behind the couch when they played. But she liked when the heroes flew.

The sessions went on. Other times she'd rage. Who the, the, the flip cared that your mom called you fat? She cooks for you, she hugs you all the same, she sees you every night. Boo-flipping-hoo. Cry me a river and drown all of Hoenn. Didn't everyone's parents keep up that stream of diet advice and admonition? So what if you didn't see them for a few days, parents had very important jobs. Lillie couldn't understand the dramatics.

But she thought of the girl with the traded-away houndoom and thought of Nebby, and her eyes prickled. She'd had to leave Nebby behind. Lusamine had forbidden her to have pokémon. It would have just upset her, and Nebby was—Nebby was a legendary, as hard as that was to believe. She thought of how it had leapt into battle like an arrow from a bow. She'd held it back with her weak and useless presence. It wanted to be with Luna and Soleil and fight in the league and win, not slump around Saffron City, waiting and waiting.

x.x.x.x.x

Luna came back to Kanto to visit her old professor and trained pokémon team, and she popped by for a visit.

"I have to, Luna," Lillie said. "She's my mom."

"Do you?" Luna asked.

Lillie stirred her drink angrily, the ice inside clinking against the glass, trapped. "Yes, Luna, of course I do—"

"Why is it you? Why isn't it Gladion? Why don't you switch out? Where is your dad?" Luna was leaning over the table, eyes shining, in the grip of a passion like when she argued with Soleil or fought a pokémon battle. "Mohn is off running a stupid theme park while your mom was breaking the world, and Gladion said 'smell ya later' and is off on a mountain somewhere trying to punch God or whatever. Why is it you?"

Lillie stood up, furious; she was red in the face, she could feel it on her cheeks like a sunburn; Unseemly, Lillian, her mother said in her mind, echoed down the years.

"Someone has to! I owe—"

"There's no owing! There's no transaction! Parents parent their kids, not the other way around!"

"You don't understand! What do you know about us, your family is—nice!"

"What do you know about my family?"

They parted, angry.

x.x.x.x.x

Lillie I'm sorry I shouldn't have been so rude to you and gotten angry, Luna texted her later. I'm really sorry. I'm here for you no matter what okay call me

x.x.x.x.x

"I raised you. Why are you so disrespectful?" were all the words Lusamine had for her. Everything was disrespect. She'd come to Kanto, she was waiting on Lusamine at the hospital, but it wasn't enough. When she wasn't there, Lusamine harassed the nurses and technicians; when she was there, Lusamine demanded to see Gladion; when Gladion answered the video phone, it was nothing but criticism of him until he hung up on her and Wicke politely refused further connections.

Lillie tiptoed around her and did everything she asked, smoothed it over with the nurses, apologized to Gladion. It wasn't enough. And like a laser, her mother's attention focused on her: soon it was change your clothes, change your hair, you're getting fat—and she was still the demanded thinness, never satisfied—and what if she was? Soleil was beautiful and it shone out of her face, that joy, and Luna was "that mannish girl"—so? So? Luna was lovely and strong and sometimes unexpectedly kind—

Lillie paced the halls again, unable to speak to her mother, unable to leave. Her phone buzzed.

Pokémon Transfer System notice, it said. Pending transfer for Trainer Lillie.

Nebby misses you, Soleil's email said. It asks where you are every day.

Attached was a photo of the four of them—Luna and Soleil, Hau and Lillie, and a few of the pokémon crowded into the frame.

Trainers can go anywhere with their pokémon, Luna had added, in gray text. The future is open to them.

Lillie's hand trembled.

She looked back at the door to her mother's room. Saffron General bustled around her; an audino chattered to a nurse in blue scrubs and he smiled at it; a tech pushed a cart piled high with supplies in plastic bins. Trainers were battling down on the street, fire and lightning sparking above the asphalt. Saffron Gym was visible in the distance, the broad dome rising above manicured trees. Route 5 led away north, and the magnet train was arriving.

I'm alive, she thought. Nebby is alive. When do I get to live?

She typed starter distribution Kanto into her phone.

Lillie walked out into the sunshine.