Content warning for this chapter: shit gets pretty dark. I know that's rich coming from me with the other things I've written in this story, but I mean it this time. You all strapped in? Good. Let us proceed.


Flame woke up feeling like a block of ice had bodyslammed him into a bed of coals. His brain drummed against the inside of his skull and his stomach did somersaults. He attempted to push himself to his feet but this action sparked an outcry from his internal organs so he laid back down. Straw shifted under his back.

I'm...home…

Last night came back to him as he lay there, squinting his eyes against the too-intense light spilling into his room through the window. That's right, he showed up at the guild and then the next thing he knew, he was being paraded around town to raucous cheers and applause. Then night crashed down on them and there was music and dancing and torches lit all throughout Treasure Town and then mysterious drinks were passed around and everyone imbibed like it was the end of the world and everything after that was a meaningless blur.

Flame groaned and covered his eyes with his paws. What was in those beverages? If he ever found out who made them, he'd throttle them.

Finally, after lying there miserably for who-knows-how-long, Flame sat up and forced his eyes open just a crack. "'Morning, Julia…"

The other side of the bed was empty. Of course, Flame should have expected that. Julia was probably much more sensible about drinking a free handout, and she had no doubt already woken up and headed out ahead of him. That was nice of her, letting Flame sleep in.

Using the wall as a support, Flame shoved himself to his feet, then grabbed his bag and sluggishly made his way into the crew room. Only Sunflora was present here, standing guard by the sentry hole with a leafy hand on her hip. When she spotted Flame she perked up and ran over to him.

"Oh my gosh, good morning!" She hugged him unexpectedly and the only response Flame's damaged brain could think of was standing limp against her and letting it happen. "How did you sleep, Flame? I bet it was great, being back in your own bed!"

Flame winced and pulled back, rubbing his temples. Her shrill voice was doing numbers on his cranium. "Y-yeah," he mumbled, "I just feel kinda...out-of-it."

"Oh!" Sunflora lowered her voice. "I'm sure you do, you poor thing! I almost can't believe it, the whole town must have gotten blackout drunk from how much booze they went through!"

"Booze?" Flame echoed, feeling his stomach turn again.

Sunflora nodded. "Loudred especially was horrible about it! Remember how he was taking bets about how many cups he could drink? Eek! He made such a mess everywhere!"

Flame was glad he didn't remember.

"He's sleeping in, too, in case you're wondering." She huffed. "I've already tried to wake him, but he made such a fuss that I let him be. So now I have to take his job."

It might have been the hangover clouding Flame's perception, but he got the sense that Sunflora wasn't being entirely genuine. "Are you...alright?" he asked.

Sunflora's pout melted into a small frown. "Well, I'm fine, but I worry about that silly Loudred. You know he's been so down since we all got back from Brine Cave? He likes to act like he's his normal old self, but I know him better than that." She sighed, cupping her face in a hand. "I really think he overdid it last night."

"Pokémon detected! Pokémon detected!" Diglett yelled from the sentry hole. Sunflora snapped to attention and leaned towards the hole.

"Whose footprint? Whose footprint?" she called back in a singsong tone.

"The pokémon is Corphish!"

Sunflora jumped as if she'd been burned. "Eek! R-really?!"

"No, not really, because the world is a cruel and miserable place that's constantly out for your blood and nothing good can ever happen. The footprint actually belongs to Camerupt."

"Oh, you asshole!" Sunflora shouted down the hole, then stormed away towards the ladder. Flame, holding his ringing ears, watched her scurry away and sighed in relief. He liked Sunflora just fine, but she wasn't doing his headache any favours. With nothing better to do, Flame walked over to his usual spot in front of the door to Wigglytuff's office to await the morning address. Since Julia had gone on ahead, he could only presume that meant she had already picked up some job requests and was currently out buying supplies from town. They'd need them, too—they'd used up almost their entire stock of items in the Hidden Land and anyone with a lick of good sense could tell you it was a terrible idea to head out to a mystery dungeon if you weren't well-prepared.

It was quiet today; judging by the sun coming through the crew room's windows, Flame could guess it was around mid-morning, a bit after the time the guild would usually do its morning address. Chatot and Wigglytuff sure were late this morning. How much alcohol had they gotten into? Chatot was probably a total lightweight.

Flame was still waiting when Sunflora stomped back down the ladder. Her anger dissipated when she laid eyes on him.

"Oh," she said and then went quiet like she didn't know what else to say. Flame blinked at her, uncomprehending.

"Oh, Flame," she tried again, "we don't—we haven't really been doing those anymore."

"You mean the morning address?"

"Wigglytuff's been a little…" She waved a hand around. "Y'know."

"I think I get it," Flame said. "He wants to let everyone relax after all this crazy stuff?"

Sunflora looked back and forth across the room as if looking for someone else to come help her explain, but the two were alone. "Well, er… How much do you remember about Brine Cave, before you left?"

Flame strained to think back. It felt now like it happened an eternity ago. He and Julia had been put into a group with Chatot, who was his bossy old self the whole way through, and then they'd come across Team Skull, and after that had been Kabutops and the Omastar brothers, but the whole guild had come together to fight them together so it had all been okay. Nothing bad had happened.

"Pretty much everything," Flame replied. "Why?"

Sunflora chewed her lip. "Well, Chatot, he...he didn't make it out. Those horrid brutes, they really did him in. Ever since then, the Guildmaster's been so distraught he's hardly been able to function." She leaned in and added in a whisper, "If you ask me, with the way he's been, I think he and Chatot were more than just friends. Gosh, it's just about enough to break my heart!"

Flame nodded vacantly. "So...we're not doing the address until Chatot gets better?"

Sunflora was silent a moment, mouth drawn tight in a thin line. "Flame, he's...he's not going to get better. Chatot isn't with us anymore. He's not...alive."

"That's okay, then," Flame said, smiling lightly, "I'll just wait for him to come back." Abandoning his spot, he jogged over to the stairs and waved back at Sunflora. "I'm gonna head into town and see if Julia's done shopping yet."

Sunflora brought her leaf-hands over her mouth and mumbled an "Oh my gosh", but Flame was already on his way out. It struck him as odd how horrified she sounded. With how much Sunflora loved shopping, he would have almost expected her to ask to tag along. Maybe she was also upset about Chatot going on vacation.

There were fewer pokémon on the guild's main floor than usual—only Team Flame, looking over the outlaw notice board, and Team Slackers, lying in the middle of the floor and apparently taking a nap. Camerupt was grumbling something about a lack of new requests on the board and Ponyta was making haughty threats about suing the guild while Bellsprout tried in vain to placate them. Flame would have liked to go in and talk them out of their desires for legal action, but he figured that sort of mediation was more Dugtrio's speed. If anyone could out-threaten a disgruntled team, it was him. Or Diglett, but he probably had his unseen paws full with gatekeeping duties. Flame continued climbing.

The sun shone bright in Flame's eyes when he emerged from the mouth of the wigglytuff tent. Somehow, the light was aggravating his headache even more and he needed to take a moment to sit in the shade and wait until he stopped feeling faint. Once he felt a little better, he picked himself back up and made his way down the stairs. He hoped the kecleon brothers had apples in stock; though he was still queasy, his stomach felt conspicuously empty, and in his condition he didn't know if he'd be able to make the trip to Apple Woods without passing out from hunger halfway there.

It was his luck that Treasure Town was quiet today. About half the normal amount of townspeople roamed the streets, and even they looked sluggish. Probably partied out from last night, Flame figured. The sound of idle chatter still hurt his head, but it was nowhere near as bad as it could have been. Still, Flame hurried to the kecleons' stall, keeping an eye out for Julia.

"Good morning, Flame!" the green kecleon greeted when Flame slowed to a stop in front of their booth. "How's the hangover treating you?"

Flame groaned quietly and both kecleons gave light chuckles in response.

"Us, too, if we're going to be honest," the purple kecleon said, looking sympathetic. "Hoo-ee, was that ever a wild night! I'd suggest taking it easy today, or as long as it takes for you to feel ship-shape."

Flame nodded, rubbing the side of his head. "Do you have any apples in stock? Or any berries, really."

"I'm sure we do," the green kecleon said and headed into the tent to look. A moment later he emerged holding two oran berries in his arms and a large apple gripped in his tail. "These what you're lookin' for? We also have a gummi, but it's meant for fighting-types…" He winced.

"I'll take it, too," Flame said, ignoring Kecleon's odd trailing-off. "Maybe I can give it to Lucky when I see him."

The green kecleon pursed his lips and exchanged a glance with his brother. The other kecleon shrugged uncomfortably.

"We heard you telling your story last night," the green kecleon began, setting the oran berries on the counter to tap his claw-tips together. "About how you and Julia and Lucky and Perry went to the Hidden Land and all that, and what happened when you were fighting the god of time… That was all true, wasn't it?"

Flame wasn't sure why he was being quizzed again, but he saw no reason not to answer. "Of course it was true. You believe me, don't you?"

The green kecleon flinched and the purple one stepped in for him. "Yes, we believe you just fine! But you know how parties can be—in all that craziness, it's easy to misinterpret people, you know? What we're wondering is, that part about Lucky and Perry—did they really die?"

The pounding in Flame's head momentarily flared up and he gripped his skull with both paws, squeezing his eyes tight. When the feeling subsided, he raised his head again and forced a grin.

"What, those two? They're fine! Ha, I don't think they'd be able to die even if they tried!"

Far from looking convinced, both kecleons appeared concerned. "Flame, are you feeling quite alright?"

"Just the headache, heh."

"But you're crying."

Flame brought a paw to his cheek and found it came away damp. "Oh, this—this isn't crying. I'm just tearing up from the sunlight. Maybe I should buy some sunglasses from you guys while I'm at it!"

The green kecleon softly said, "We don't have any in stock. I'm so sorry."

"Don't be! I'll just buy the berries, and the apple and gummi. How much does that come to?"

While Flame counted out the Poké on the counter, the brothers watched quietly. The way they were staring at him unnerved Flame somewhat. Did they really think he was crying? But what would he have to be sad about? They won. They fought Dialga and restored time and they all got to go home. They should be celebrating.

Flame pushed the money towards the kecleons and began putting his items in his bag when the green kecleon lightly placed a paw over his.

"Hey, Flame…" His smile was tentative, gentle. "You don't have to process all this right away. If you need to take some more time—"

"I'm not a child!" Flame snapped and yanked his paw away. Then his voice went back to a normal level and he added, "I'm fine, really. Have a nice day."

The green kecleon opened his mouth as if to protest but his brother set a paw on his arm and shook his head.

Brothers…

Flame felt his gut twist and he hurried away. No, he told himself, I am okay. Nothing's wrong. No need to get all worked up over nothing.

He found himself on the outskirts of town on Sharpedo Bluff. In front of Flame was the lone bush that marked the entrance to his little hideout. Perhaps Julia had decided to come here, to relax away from the noise of the outside world. Inhaling a deep breath of still, salty air, Flame parted the leaves and headed down the stairs.

In the back of his mind he'd expected the place to be empty, but it still came as a disappointment when he found nobody there. There were the two beds, one double the size of the other—that one was the bed Flame and Julia had shared—and the ashen remains in the fire pit, but everything else remained as it always had been, and when Flame placed a paw against each of the straw beds he found them cold. Nobody had been here since he and Julia had stayed here with Grovyle. That was a bit of a relief—Flame wasn't too keen on anyone else finding his base and desecrating it—but it was also frustrating. If Julia wasn't at the guild, in town, or here, where could she have gone?

That's it! Flame decided, bringing down a closed fist into his other open paw. She must have already gone on a mission with Lucky and Perry! That explains it!

Feeling proud about figuring it out, Flame exited the hideout and returned back through town to the crossroads. If those three were productive enough to go out on a job, Flame couldn't start slacking off. He'd just have to ask Bidoof to come along with him, or maybe one of his other guildmates if Bidoof wasn't up yet. At this point, it would probably be better to wake up anyone who was still sleeping or they'd miss out on the rest of the day.

Team Flame was absent from the guild's main floor, though Slakoth and Slowpoke remained, still snoozing. Chimecho was sorting through the notices on the job board while Swellow and Wurmple of Team Tasty stood patiently behind her. Not wanting to disturb them, Flame instead went to the outlaw notice board and began looking for a good job. To his surprise, the board was barren, only bearing a handful of requests that were dated back a week. He took one down and frowned at it. Presumably, if it was still up it meant nobody had caught the criminal yet, but if the crime had happened so long ago, who was to say whether the suspect would still be hiding in the same mystery dungeon, let alone the same advertised floor?

"Sorry, Flame," Chimecho called, "I'll get to it in just a moment here."

Flame stepped back and munched on his apple while he waited on her to finish tacking up papers on the other board. He had almost eaten the entire thing when Chimecho floated over, looking a little haggard.

"Sorry about that." She sighed. "Honestly, I expected Dugtrio to be back by now. A few days is excusable, but this is just ridiculous."

"What do you mean?"

Chimecho hummed thoughtfully. "That's right, you wouldn't have known. A little while after you left for the Hidden Land, Dugtrio went missing."

The fur on the back of Flame's neck prickled and he suddenly felt sick. "Missing?"

"He's done it before, of course. Remember when you came back from the future?"

Flame didn't remember it all too well but he nodded anyways.

"Of course, that was only one day." Chimecho flicked her tail about nervously, making it chime repeatedly almost like a bird chirping. It sounded ghastly to Flame's ears. "Now he's been gone so long the requests are really starting to get stale. As if it wasn't bad enough the pelippers haven't been doing their jobs."

Why was this conversation still taking place? Flame wanted it to end, and yet he asked in spite of himself, "So you mean, you're not getting new job requests in? Doesn't that just mean there are fewer people who need help?"

"You'd think. But no, we've gotten confirmation from Officer Magnezone that the mail-carriers have been quitting one after another. Apparently, they all saw something that upset them quite badly and now they're putting themselves before the mail." She huffed, folding her stubby arms. "In all my years working here, I've never seen anything like it! No integrity, I tell you! Anyways, I ought to throw out those old wanted posters and get the new batch from Officer Magnezone. I might be a while, though, so I'd suggest going for the regular job requests."

Flame nodded wordlessly and let her fly off. Maybe it was the effects of the hangover, but he felt too ill to finish the rest of his apple. He walked over to the window and tossed it out.

He needed to get out and do a job to clear his head. He went over to the job board as Team Tasty exited and looked through the requests. Nothing too difficult, he decided, just one or two simple jobs in a nearby dungeon. He ended up grabbing a Serenity River fetch quest and stuffed it in his bag before heading downstairs to look for a suitable teammate. Loudred was up by now, but he sat slumped over next to the sentry hole where Sunflora was fussing over him, scolding him for drinking too much while he groaned and rubbed his head. Figuring he was probably out of commission for the day, Flame walked past them down the hallway to see if anyone else was up. The girls' room was empty, of course, but so was the boys' room. No Bidoof, Croagunk, or Corphish. And, unsurprisingly, Flame's own room was also vacant. Baffled, Flame returned to the crew room and joined his guildmates by the hole.

"Hey guys," he whispered, interrupting Sunflora's spiel about the dangers of the overconsumption of alcohol.

Loudred raised one hand in greeting, eyes squinted. Sunflora smiled nervously.

"Has everyone else already left the guild? I was hoping to get someone to pair up with, but it looks like everyone's gone."

"No kiddin' everyone's gone," Loudred replied, and Flame would have been in awe of how stupendously unpainful Loudred's volume was if not for the unease creeping up his back.

"One moment," Sunflora said to Loudred, touching his back with a leaf, then steered Flame by the shoulder down the hallway and back into the boys' room. Flame let it happen but not without a sense of growing dread.

"Sit down, please," Sunflora directed, and Flame did so, selecting a bed at random to settle down in. Sunflora retrieved a piece of paper from the log desk on the other side of the room then handed it to Flame. She looked pale and grim-faced, giving Flame the sense that she didn't want to have to be here. Swallowing, he lowered his gaze and began to read.

To all my friends at the guild —

You all may think that just because we've gotten the report back that time's been restored at all former time gear locations that the nightmare is over, but I know better, hey hey! We've been so busy thinking about how to stop the planet from becoming paralyzed that we haven't thought about whether we SHOULD! There's something else going on here, I know it! And I'm going to learn the truth, hey hey hey!

Don't come searching for me. Where I'm going will be too dangerous for anyone to follow, and I might not ever return. And when Flame, Lucky, and Perry return (and Julia, if I'm wrong), tell them thanks from me for doing their best!

Signed, Corphish

The letter began to crumple in Flame's paws and he forced himself to relax his grip on the paper. He looked up at Sunflora, searching her face for an answer.

"He left a day after we received word that time was restored," she said, gaze lowered. "We think he was really serious, too—Duskull says he withdrew all his money from the bank and Kangaskhan says he took most of the items he had in storage. We've tried sending a search party after him, but nobody could find him."

"So, then…" Flame looked back at the paper. "...he's really gone for good?"

"We don't know if it's 'for good'," Sunflora hastily added. "But...I think I need to talk to you about that, too."

"...What?"

Sunflora sat down heavily on the bed across from his and clasped her leaves together. "I know you're going through a lot and you're having a hard time making sense of things and I'm worried about overloading you, but oh my gosh, I can't bear to see you going on this way. Flame?"

Flame lowered the paper and stared at her.

She took a deep breath, then said, "Chatot isn't alive anymore. He's not on vacation. It's the same for Lucky and Perry."

Ice shot down Flame's spine and he stood rapidly. "You're wrong. I'm leaving."

But before he could get to the doorway, vines shot out of the ground and wound around his body, holding him fast. He struggled, shouting, but the vines nevertheless placed him back on the bed and didn't recede. Sunflora remained where she was, looking miserable.

"Flame, please, I need you to listen—"

"Shut up!" Flame writhed against the sturdy plant matter. "Just shut up!"

Sunflora did shut up until Flame stopped struggling, and then she began again, "Alright, I'm sorry. That was the wrong thing to start with."

Flame said nothing, trembling.

"I heard down the grapevine that you told the kecleon brothers that Lucky and Perry were still alive," she admitted. "We might not get as many people in the guild nowadays, but word still travels fast. Believe me, I don't want to have to do this, but this kind of thinking will only hurt you in the future."

"What if I lied last night?" Flame asked, struggling to keep his voice steady. "What if that was a cruel joke?"

Sunflora's brows drew together. "That would be cruel. But I know you're not that kind of pokémon. When you told your story to the whole town last night, you said it would be hard to believe but that you still needed us to trust you. And we all did."

"So am I cruel now? For saying I was wrong?"

"Yes. But only to yourself."

Tears bubbled up under Flame's eyelids and he shut them harder, trying to force them back. "They're not dead. None of them are. Not Chatot or Lucky or Perry or Julia! So stop trying to tell me they are!"

"And Croagunk?"

Flame opened his eyes. Sunflora didn't look angry at him, just sad.

"Croagunk?" Flame echoed dumbly. He remembered Croagunk's creepy smile, then imagined him gone. No reaction. "He...yeah, he—he hung himself, right?"

Sunflora sighed, though it didn't sound relieved. "Okay, you can accept that. Eek, poor guy. You remember why he did it?"

"Nobody ever told me."

"I don't know if you knew this, but Croagunk really liked Bidoof. Whether that was as a friend or romantically is a line of gossip I never went down, and I'm glad I didn't! That's a little too weird, even for me."

Flame had never recalled Croagunk talking about Bidoof in any way that would imply there were feelings there, though there was that one time he caught Croagunk on his way to Bidoof's grave with a bouquet of flowers in his arms.

Bidoof's grave. Oh. Right.

"Bidoof's dead, too," Flame said, and it dawned on him what Sunflora was trying to do. Through association, one by one, he was going to have to admit everyone he cared about had died.

"Right, and then—"

"Please stop."

Sunflora went quiet again but continued looking at him patiently. Flame shook his head at her.

"I know you mean well," Flame said, "but please, I can't take this right now. Everything's happening all at once, and I only just got back from the worst expedition of my life and I—I can't handle hearing about how many people I need to get over!"

Sparks burst from Flame's back and the vines quickly retreated into the ground as Flame stood. "I know they're gone! I know I'll never feel happy again! Just please, just please let me pretend for a day or two! Nobody's left to tell me I can't, right? Is that too much to ask for?!"

Tears dribbled down Flame's cheeks as he faced Sunflora, fists balled. He was ready for her to argue against him, insisting he needed to accept the truth, but she only came forth and hugged him, arms wrapping around his head to avoid his fiery back. Flame hugged her back and suddenly realized how desperate he'd been for physical contact. He dug his claws in, held tight as if she too might disappear in an instant, and buried his face in her neck as he tried to suppress his tears.

"I know, Flame," he heard in his ear, soft and understanding. "I know."

Flame pulled away before too long to prevent himself from smothering her for the next hour. Sunflora dried his face with her leaves and kissed his forehead, then echoed the kecleon brothers' advice of taking it easy for the next while before she left the room to return to sentry duty. Flame stayed in that room for a while, breathing in the faded scents of the pokémon who once occupied this space, then left for his own room, leaving Corphish's note behind.

In the end, he never did go out to Serenity River. He lay in his bed, watching the clouds move on the other side of the window as the sky gradually changed from blue to pink. The dinner bell rang and he walked to the dining hall alone, sitting at his usual spot near the end where Chimecho had placed his plate. Guild members filed in—Loudred first, stomping and complaining of hunger, clearly recovered from his ailments; then Diglett and Sunflora, chatting about how boring sentry duty had been that day; and finally Chimecho and Wigglytuff. In spite of what Sunflora had said earlier that day, Wigglytuff looked just as chipper as always, dancing around with the perfect apple Chimecho had given him.

"Well, THAT'S a first," Loudred said, nudging Flame's arm. "Looks like YOU brought the Guildmaster out of his CAVE."

Flame smiled, pretending to be comforted.

"Friendly friends!" Wigglytuff said brightly, smiling at them all. "We partied alllll night last night, but let's give another cheer for everyone who saved the future! Hip hip…"

On cue, everyone but Flame cheered, "Hooray!"

Wigglytuff pouted, putting his apple on his head and his paws on his hips. "Not loud enough! I want to hear everyone cheer! Hip hip..."

Flame thought it was a little self-aggrandizing to cheer for himself, but he put his feelings aside and cheered, "Hooray!" along with everyone else. Wigglytuff, however, was not placated.

"Why is everyone so quiet today? Come on, let's hear your full power!"

Loudred took in a huge breath and Flame braced himself.

"Hip hip…"

Flame didn't even hear his own voice over the deafening shout of "HOORAY!" from Loudred's mouth and he came to the conclusion that Loudred was, in fact, louder than Dialga after all.

"Ow, FUCK," Loudred said, gripping his head, "I think I REACTIVATED my headache."

Sunflora, who sat across the table from him, huffed and folded her arms. "Oh my gosh, of course you did! I think I'm going to be half-deaf forever now!"

"Why…?"

All heads turned to Wigglytuff, whose smile had vanished. The perfect apple fell to the ground.

"Why didn't I hear everyone?" he asked, confused. "I thought I said I wanted to hear everyone's voices. So why…?"

The uncomfortable silence was broken by Chimecho. "This is everyone, Guildmaster."

Wigglytuff stared at her, then his despairing gaze searched the table. "But what about my other friends? Where's Corphish? And Julia? And Perry and Lucky and Croagunk and Bidoof and Dugtrio?"

"Oh, that's easy," Diglett piped up. "My dad probably decided he was in love with the ocean and decided to go swimming even though he can't swim because we can't leave the holes we dig or else we brand ourselves as the next biannual Torture Palooza Fest special sacrifice. The name sounds pretty bad but it's actually a really fun event. They give out popcorn and cheri soda that they always say are made from fresh eyeball juice but really it's barely even five percent guts, which is really disappointing when you think about how much healthier it'd be if they just—"

"Yooooom…"

Wigglytuff was pulling down on his ears, curled half into a fetal position. The ground trembled lightly, shaking the chair Flame sat on. He gripped the table to keep steady and sweat trickled down his back. Diglett, appearing to notice the incoming Hyper Voice, quickly backpedalled.

"Okay actually forget about Torture Palooza Fest, even though I definitely endorse it. Dad's probably having a great time swimming in the ocean and not drowning because why would he ever drown and die? Nope, not dad, he's totally fine. Just using the power of his awesomely powerful undisclosed limbs to not choke on the unbelievable pressure of the deep ocean where unimaginable horrors lurk."

"YOOOOOOOOOOM…"

The shaking grew more violent and the plates of food began to slide around.

"I don't know if I've EVER said this," Loudred said, yelling to he heard over the combined volume of the earthquake and Wigglytuff's yooming, "but I've ALWAYS really FUCKING HATED you, Diglett."

"You've told me," Diglett replied casually. "I just like our playful will-they won't-they rivalry we've got going on."

Loudred stared at him, bewildered. "What are you FUCKING talking about?"

"You know, I've always loved—"

Then the shaking stopped. Flame risked a glance up from where he'd been fearfully cowering just beneath the table. Wigglytuff stood limply, as if just his head was being held up by a mere string, and his green eyes were glassy with tears. But instead of delivering that final eardrum-annihilating 'tah', he just sniffled, lower lip quivering.

"I want Chatot," he whimpered, choking on a sob. "Where's Chatot? My best friend, my partner, my—my—"

Nobody spoke.

"Chatot," Wigglytuff sobbed, then covered his face with his paws and wept softly. Flame couldn't watch. This was much worse than any of his outbursts. If he had shouted and hit them all with his Hyper Voice and sent the whole room flying, it would've been okay. At least that was kind of silly and hard to take too seriously. But this? This was the horrible sort of crying that ate away at Flame's insides, dissolving him until he felt weak with grief. What was it like to be Wigglytuff, watching each precious member of his guild disappear or die one after another?

I don't want this, Flame thought, staring down at his plate. I just want everyone back. I want...to see them all again…

He looked up again and the room was suddenly filled with chatter and laughter. Each chair was occupied, each place set. Corphish was in a heated debate with Loudred over some theory about the Luminous Spring while Bidoof, caught in the middle, attempted to calm them down. Lucky was asking Sunflora whether she was edible to which she could only reply with alarmed eeks and horrified giggles. Perry, having long given up on dissuading his brother, simply pecked at his meal. There was some commotion at the other end of the table, where Chatot was doing his best to prevent Wigglytuff from trying to pull Diglett out of the ground to see what was underneath, and Croagunk was chuckling at what he seemed to think were nonsense incantations that Dugtrio was mumbling under his breath.

Flame glanced to the side and caught Julia's amused eyeroll even as she kept to herself and ate quietly. Her soft yellow fur, warmed by the light of the ceiling lanterns, brushed up lightly against Flame's side, and he breathed in her scent. Then the scene changed, and his nostrils were instead filled with the noxious odour of Team Skull as they faded in to take Lucky and Perry's spots on the end. Zubat and Koffing were scarfing down their food like they hadn't eaten in half a decade, but Skuntank ate slower, more deliberately. She noticed Flame watching her and shot him a sneer, which he returned. The other guild members didn't seem to care about the smell, too excited about the upcoming Foggy Forest expedition to talk about anything else.

"It's a serious mission," he heard Chatot squawking sternly. "We're going out on this expedition for the primary purpose of intercepting the time gear thief! Won't anyone pay attention?"

But the only one who didn't ignore him was Wigglytuff, who didn't appear to have heard a word he said and instead began dancing around gleefully with him, holding him by the wings. A few pokémon laughed, and Sunflora nudged Croagunk's arm and whispered something to him while both shot glances at the guildmaster and his second-in-command. Even those Team Skull jerks couldn't bring down their spirits.

"Are you all done here?" Chimecho asked, hovering by Flame's shoulder. Flame looked down at his food and noticed he hadn't touched it. When he turned his face back to her to answer, his voice caught in his throat. The room had grown quiet again, the lanternlight dimmed, and the enthusiasm was gone. It was just him and his four remaining guildmates and nine empty seats. Wigglytuff had already left, leaving his perfect apple behind uneaten.

"Flame?"

"Yeah," said Flame, voice barely above a whisper. "I'm done here."

Then he stood up, brushed past Chimecho, and, ignoring the concerned stares from the others, dragged himself out of the dining hall and went to his room.


The first warm day of the year began to draw to a close as Flame came to a stop at the crossroads to take a much-deserved drink from the watering hole. His last job request had taken him all the way to Midnight Forest to the far south of the continent and the combined journey there and back had taken almost four days. As he'd half-expected, his client was nowhere to be found, but the mission hadn't been a total bust. He'd gotten to journey a short ways with a lonely ampharos who had gotten lost, and as a reward for showing her back to Amp Plains, he received an intricate scarf. It was at least somewhat heartening to know there were still kind pokémon around.

Once Flame had drunk his fill, he headed up the guild staircase, careful to avoid the steps that had broken down after that early-spring landslide. Someone really ought to fix those; but then again, someone really ought to fix a lot of things in the guild. Namely, that stupid tent.

Flame paused in front of it, frowning. It really was atrocious. At some point during winter, the old wigglytuff tent finally buckled under the weight of the snow piled atop it and the whole left side caved in. Nobody touched it for ages until rumour spread that Team Charm would be visiting town, at which point Guild Advisor Quagsire rallied the guild together to make a new tent. The sloppy-patchwork quagsire-styled tent fabric creased awkwardly when it was thrown over both the previous wigglytuff fabric that nobody had bothered to remove first and the Frankensteined remains of the old frame and the clunky new repairs on the left side. And with the gate mechanism no longer working properly, the metal bars were simply shoved half away, leaving the entrance permanently exposed to anyone skinny enough to fit through.

Everyone agreed that it was for the better that Team Charm never did show up.

Flame sidestepped the disused grate and entered the cold shade of the tent. The ladder creaked as he descended to the main floor, which was unsurprisingly empty. It was a habit of his to always check the job boards on the way in, to see if any new requests had shown up, but both remained bare. Ah, well, better luck next time. Wearing a tight-lipped smile, Flame headed down the other ladder into the crew room.

Down here, he could hear the muffled voices of Quagsire and Wigglytuff from within the office. Loudred sat in the opposite corner, holding a bottle of some pink liquid and looking completely out of it. He didn't even acknowledge Flame when he waved to him, and Flame detected the sharp scent of alcohol wafting off him. Drunk again. Typical Loudred.

Flame crept in close to the closed office door and pressed his head against it, listening. Quagsire spoke in his usual calm drawl, starkly opposed by Wigglytuff's irrational yelling. From what Flame could pick up on from the muted snippets, the argument was about the Guild's drying well of money and the resignation of Chimecho. Flame thought he heard Wigglytuff shout something about Chatot.

"You shouldn't listen in, you know."

That was Sunflora, emerging from the dining hall with a tamato berry held in one leaf-hand. She must have been preparing something special for dinner if she was cooking with rare ingredients like that.

"Welcome back," she added, offering Flame a smile.

"It didn't go well," he said as he came away from the door and walked over to her. "Poochyena was nowhere to be found. Guess I was just too slow to rescue him."

"Oh my gosh, don't be like that. You tried your best, and that's what counts."

Flame laughed mirthlessly. "If that was my best, I should just quit my job now."

"Come on, enough of this self-deprecation!" Sunflora insisted, putting her free leaf on his shoulder. "Who's that going to help, hmm?"

"Nobody, I guess. Sorry."

Sunflora frowned, and the dark creases under her eyes seemed to become more pronounced. "You don't need to apologize, Flame. None of us can be held at fault for not fulfilling who-knows-how-old requests on time. Still." She huffed, putting her leaf on her hip. "I might have to ask the Guild Advisor to switch our mail carriers. I don't know how reliable these swannas really are."

Their conversation was interrupted by the office doors being blown wide-open by the tail end of a "yoom-tah" and Quagsire tumbling out, just stopping short of the opposite wall. Wigglytuff appeared between the doors, angry eyes red with tears, then slammed them both shut. Sunflora gave a little shriek and dashed over to help Quagsire up; Flame followed more slowly, wary of getting too close to the ground- and water-type.

"Oh my gosh! Are you alright, Guild Advisor?"

Quagsire accepted her leaf-hand and picked himself up off the floor, then dusted himself off languidly. "Thank you for your, mmm, concern," he said in a slow voice that made his words almost slur together. "The Guildmaster and I merely had a little disagreement, hmm? I'm sure he'll come around, mmm, to my way of thinking soon enough."

"I should hope so!" Sunflora agreed sternly. "Why wouldn't he follow your advice if both he and Office Magnezone agreed on hiring you?"

Quagsire chuckled, visibly unbothered. "Just because we were, mmm, childhood friends, doesn't mean we still see eye-to-eye. Wigglytuff can be a, hmm, obstinate pokémon at times."

"You're not kidding!" Sunflora beamed up at Quagsire and took both his paws. "But I'm so glad you joined the team! If not for you, this guild would have fallen apart ages ago!"

Over their linked hands, Flame spotted Loudred watching the two, his glazed eyes moving from one to the other. After a long moment, he took another swig from the bottle.

The sound alerted Sunflora and she looked to him sharply. "And you! Aren't you ever going to get off your lazy ass and do something productive around here? How about that hole in your room, hmm? When's that going to get fixed?"

Loudred raised his middle finger at her, but the gesture was halfhearted and he looked away again, lost in his mind.

Flame took that moment to excuse himself with a quiet "Sorry" and head towards his room to unpack his bag. He used to take his excess items to Kangaskhan Storage, but last month her facility had been raided in the night and she lost so much that she packed up shop in shame, going the way of most of the other shopkeepers who had been hit in similar ways over the past while. Now Flame just kept his things in his room, well aware that the guild was no more protected against criminals than any other place.

On the way, he poked his head into the boys' room. Diglett was by the window, watching the sky begin to darken, and he gave no indication of noticing when Flame walked over.

"Hey, Diglett."

There was a long pause before Diglett replied with, "Hi."

Flame joined him by the window and watched a small flock of birds flying in the distance, dark against the rouge skies. Once, before Loudred's drinking problem had really reared its head, he and Diglett had offered to let Flame join them in sharing their room. For reasons Flame couldn't put his finger on, the prospect of sleeping in this room rubbed his fur the wrong way. Maybe it was that his own room, as lonely and empty as it was, didn't specifically label what gender it allowed in, or maybe it was that he had been hoping Sunflora would someday offer to let Flame into her room instead. Whatever the cause for Flame's hesitation, he was glad he never accepted the offer. His relationship with Loudred and Diglett hadn't exactly gotten less tense than it had been back then.

"Um…" Flame began, lowering his head. "I logged three new mystery dungeons along the western coastline, and I met an ampharos who told me the whole road to Amp Plains is one huge mystery dungeon, too."

Diglett didn't look at him. "They're starting to show up closer to Treasure Town, aren't they?"

Flame chewed his lip and glanced at the side wall, where a big map of the continent had been tacked up. Runny Xs in brownish-red ink covered the map, each indicating the site of a new mystery dungeon. It was Diglett's little project, but it didn't look like it had been updated in quite a while. There were a lot of blank spaces that required an X.

"We don't know if they'll actually reach us," Flame reasoned. "And besides, I think they're starting to slow down."

There was a short silence.

"You know it's probably all your fault, right?" said Diglett. Flame jumped and felt sweat at his temples.

"Wh—"

"If you put all five time gears in Temporal Tower like you were supposed to, everything would've gone back to normal instead of getting worse. If you actually did the job right, none of this would be happening."

Flame's heart battered his ribcage and he couldn't make any noise come out of his throat. It felt like his body was trying to evert itself just to escape, but his feet remained rooted to the spot, leaving him vulnerable to Diglett's killing blow.

"...Never mind. Forget I said anything. I didn't really mean it."

The assurance came as no relief. Flame focussed on his breathing, afraid he'd forget how.

"O-okay."

The two stood in uneasy silence for a while longer. Eventually, Flame felt like he was able to relax somewhat, but the words stuck with him, feeding the voice of doubt in his head that had been gradually amassing power over the months. It spoke to him only at a whisper for now, reminding him that nobody he knew liked him anymore and that he had never made a meaningful difference in his entire life, yet he got the feeling it was waiting for the right time to unleash a devastating attack on him that would strip him of the last remaining shreds of his will.

After a while, Flame said, "I think I'm gonna head out for a bit. Um, if you ever want me to show you where the new dungeons are, let me know."

Diglett made a noncommittal sound, continuing to stare out the window.

"Heh, y'know…" Flame started, attempting a half-smile, "...I kinda miss when you'd say all those scary things. Like, about sacrifices and murder and other stuff like that."

Diglett flinched and his eyes closed halfway. "You want to hear something scary? I miss my dad."

"You…?"

"We always talked about all the fun things we'd get to do when I grew up, all the cult ceremonies, and when he disappeared, I don't think I realized how important he really was to me. Forget the gore, even." Diglett shut his eyes, shaking. "I liked him as a father. I liked feeling like he was protecting me from the outside world and all the awful things that could happen to me, but he was always nearby so it was okay and I was safe. That's scary, knowing how much I didn't want him dead."

Flame couldn't find the words to comfort him. He'd never thought Diglett of all people would have succumbed to the despair, but here he was, despondent as anyone else. Heart wrenching, Flame reached out to lay a comforting paw on his head.

"Don't touch me!" Diglett snarled and wrenched himself away from the paw.

"Sorry," Flame said quickly, drawing away. With Diglett's glare on his back, Flame hurried out of the room and scurried to the safety of the crew room. Only Loudred remained there, loosely holding his now-empty bottle, but Flame could hear Wigglytuff's sobs on the other side of the double-doors, intercut with the low hum of Quagsire's attempts to soothe him. Sunflora had probably returned to the dining hall to work on dinner. Unnoticed by anyone, least of all the barely-conscious Loudred, Flame fled up the stairs out of the guild.

Evening was in full swing now, but Flame couldn't stop to appreciate the soft layers of colour that painted the sky. He needed to leave, escape from the oppressive atmosphere that pervaded the guild, and he moved on instinct through the crossroads, down the familiar path through the trees towards the salty air of the sea.

Dirt melted into sand beneath Flame's paws and he slowed down, sighing deeply. The weight on his chest dissipated, leaving him feeling light once more. The beach, his beach, awaited him with open arms like an old friend and he fell into it, leaning against the warm embrace of the wind. His feet carried him to the water's edge and he tipped his toes in, shivering against the icy waves.

I should be coming here more often, he thought as he sat down on the sand and closed his eyes, smiling freely for no one. This really is the most pleasant place in the world.

Then something wet landed on the tip of his nose and he heard a soft pop. He opened his eyes and watched, amazed, as a prismatic bubble drifted by on the breeze. He'd almost forgotten the bubbles the shoreline krabbies liked to blow in the evenings, and it was a more beautiful show than he'd remembered. Maybe it was the simplicity of this moment, against the backdrop of the misery his life was descending into, that magnified the relief it filled him with. For just a moment, he could believe it was summer again before he'd joined the guild and grown up faster than he'd wanted to.

Flame sat back, trying to remember the exact day. It had been more than just the day he'd joined the guild, it had also been when he'd first met the pokémon who would eventually become his best friend.

Julia…

He stood and walked along the shore until he was sure he'd found the exact spot where he'd first laid eyes on the sleeping pikachu. Here she'd been, fur clumped and matted with sand, and when he'd shaken her awake, one of the first things she'd said to him was…

"I'm not a pikachu, I'm a human!"

It almost made him laugh, now. He'd believed her right off the bat like it was the most ordinary thing for someone to say, but she really hadn't known a thing about fighting in her new form, so it wasn't too much of a hard sell. Despite all that, they'd defeated Zubat and Koffing, saving Flame's relic fragment, and then immediately signed up as trainees of the guild.

And then wasn't it the very next day that they first met Lucky and Perry? Back then, even a short little dungeon like Drenched Bluff had posed a challenge to Flame and Julia, but soon enough Grovyle would begin stealing time gears and the grander plot would be set in motion, sending them to even more challenging and distant mystery dungeons across space and time. Despite the looming danger, those had been some of the best days of Flame's life.

But if that was true, why was Flame starting to cry?

Julia, he thought, and then the name repeated in his head. Julia, Julia, Julia. It was fine to think about her; Flame had already made his peace with her disappearance. She had been erased from the timeline for the good of the future, to prevent that horrible future of darkness where everyone was cruel and depressed. She'd fulfilled her purpose and left the world better for it.

And yet Flame could no longer focus on the here and now as memories continued to pour into his mind unbidden. The two leaping into the mouth of Blackfire Crater, paw in paw, trusting one another wholly; Flame, out of breath, emerging from Steam Cave just in time to save Julia from Groudon; facing Mesprit together in the underground lake beneath Northern Desert; running from Dusknoir's henchmen in the future; standing together in front of Dialga at Temporal Tower's pinnacle. The thoughts came faster, swirling together chaotically, only permitting brief glimpses. The touch of her paw, the embarrassment of the guild catching them sleeping together, the joy when she agreed to someday live with Flame at Sharpedo Bluff. A smile, a whisper, a knowing glint of the eye, the warmth of her body against his.

Stop! Flame tried to cry, collapsing to the sand and holding his paws over his head. I can't take it anymore! Please, just stop!

A goodnight, a goodbye, and then the goodbye, feeling the paw in his paws losing form, slipping away.

Stop it! Let me forget! Oh, Arceus, make it stop!

She'd started slowing down, like the weight of her betrayal had been dragging behind her. "I guess...I can't hold back telling you any longer."

Flame banged his fist into the sand, angry that the ground merely gave way beneath his paw, letting him beat against it. Like the beach was telling him it could handle his emotions. Go on, it soothed him, let it all out. I'm here for you.

"I'll keep on loving you, even when I'm gone."

No, you won't! You can't love me when you're gone because you're GONE! There's none of you LEFT to love me!

"Go on living, knowing our lives ensured a brighter future for the whole world."

It was a lie, Julia! They lied to us! None of this is better! You died for nothing!

Flame's sobs were heaving, ragged. He wanted to throw up, to scream, to curl up and die. He wanted his body to burst into ribbons, exploding from sheer grief. The waves washed steady on the beach, gentle. No wonder Dugtrio had drowned himself. The sea must have made for a perfect lover.

"When we meet again, in another life, we'll be together. I promise."

How can you say that to me when you know I have to go on living without you? You don't have to wait the rest of your life for another life to come!

"JULIA!"

The weight of existence caved in on Flame and it was more than he could take. His mate, his friend, his Julia was gone, and he could no longer ignore it. A black hole had opened up in his chest to consume the wall of empty reassurances he'd built up around his heart and now there was nothing left to protect him.

Someone, anyone! Help me!

But no one was coming for him. Nobody who still lived needed him. No one's life would be changed for the worse if he was swallowed up by his solitude. For the first time in his life, Flame truly understood what it was to be alone.

Bubbles landed on the sand around him, holding their perfect domed forms. A bright yellow light reflected off their surface, like the glint of the setting sun, blinding Flame temporarily. He gasped for breath, choking on air, and forced his head up. A familiar scene was taking place on the beach in front of him. Tiny specks of golden light flitted down from the air, forming together as if Julia's disappearance were playing in reverse.

Flame rose slowly, shakily, to his feet. It couldn't be. There had to be some kind of mistake. But the sparks continued rewinding faster and faster until the shape solidified into a pikachu, mouth open in surprise. When it laid eyes on Flame it froze, astonished.

"Flame?"

"Julia."

They rushed forward to meet in a hug, arms wrapped around each other. It wasn't tight enough, they weren't close enough, but Julia's fur was soft and light against Flame's body and he could just barely feel her heart beating fast against his.

"Oh, Arceus," Flame sobbed, trembling, "oh, I've missed you so much, Julia."

"Me too," her voice whispered in response, strained and full of emotion. "I thought—I thought I'd never see you again—"

"Don't talk," Flame begged. "I want—I want to make this last."

So neither spoke, faces buried in each other as tears streaked down Flame's face. The waves lapped against the shore and somewhere over the waters a seabird crowed. Flame finally pulled away after a long while and stared into Julia's face. It was exactly how he remembered it—every last proportion as it should be, not a strand of fur out of place.

"You have no idea how much I needed you right now." Flame was quiet, too choked to speak any louder. "Things—things have been awful."

"What do you mean?" she asked, brows knitting together. "How long was I gone?"

"Too long." Flame kept his gaze on her, fearful that she'd disappear the moment he looked away. "Oh, Julia, we were supposed to make things better, but I think we fucked things up."

"What? But hasn't time been restored?"

"It has! And I think that's the problem! We've been getting more and more mystery dungeons everywhere—" He waved a paw around to illustrate the 'everywhere'. "—and even more pokémon are being corrupted! It's like the whole town's either hopeless or—or feral! I don't know what I'm supposed to do anymore."

Julia's ears drooped. "That sounds awful. I...I don't know what to say. But...what about you? Are you okay?"

There was a long pause where Flame tried to come up with an honest answer that didn't sound completely depressing, but in the end he just shook his head and said, "I'm not. I'm really not. None of this is okay. I'm sorry you had to come back here."

"Hey."

Julia reached out a paw and touched the side of Flame's face. He leaned into her paw, more tears threatening to spill over. He'd forgotten how much he missed her.

"Flame, I'd never regret being here with you. You're everything to me." She offered a faint, optimistic smile. "And now that we're together again, we can help change things! Whatever's causing all the mystery dungeons and the bad stuff, we'll search it out together and find a way to put a stop to it, just like we did before!"

"Yeah," Flame murmured. His vision blurred, distorting Julia's face in front of him.

"Then, once all this is over, we can put everything behind us and live together, like we said we would. Won't that be nice?"

Flame let out a breath in a soft laugh. "That would be nice...if only it were possible."

Julia blinked. "Huh?"

"There's so much I wanted to do with you. If you really did come back, I know we would have been able to make a better life."

"But...I am back." Julia sounded confused, maybe even a little sad. Flame took her paws, memorizing how they felt in his.

"Thank you," Flame said. "I really needed this."

Julia looked down at the sand, then turned her dismayed face up at Flame. "Do you feel a little less down, at least?"

Flame's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Not really. It was nice, though."

Then he blinked and Julia was gone. He was alone on the beach, as he always had been, and he held nothing in his paws but a few grains of sand. If he imagined hard enough, he could almost feel her phantom breath on his cheeks, see the vague memory of her image trying to rematerialize in front of him.

No, he said to himself. Once was enough. That was all I needed.

With the last of the sun dipping below the waves, Flame walked away from the beach for the last time. He turned left at the crossroads, not even shooting the briefest glance towards the guild. There was nothing left there for him.

Flame went unacknowledged as he plodded through what remained of Treasure Town. Duskull was closing up his bank for the day as his trio of hired haunter watchmen hovered nearvy, keeping their shifty eyes roving the street for any sign of potential crooks coming to steal his fortune. Broken and abandoned tents lined the side of the road, many bearing damage left behind by past robberies, and those shops that remained were all boarded up.

You're a failure, the not-so-little voice in Flame's mind reminded him.

I know, he replied.

They all blame you for the state of the world.

I know.

You'll never feel true happiness again because you'll never love yourself.

It appeared Spinda still had a couple of customers at his bar—a murkrow and a togetic sat on opposite ends of the counter, nursing their drinks with an air of mutual distrust. Flame never could get into alcohol, himself. Sometimes, he'd wished he could have made himself grow used to the taste and used it to drown his troubles like so many other people did; but then he'd reconsider whenever he laid eyes on Loudred, lost in the sauce. Flame would have wrung Spinda's neck for what he'd brought upon him, if only he had the energy to.

Look at you. You're too pathetic to even go feral like the others.

I guess so.

You could have gone out with a bang and killed someone for real.

He drew to a stop by the rotting framework and scraps of green fabric that used to be the kecleon brothers' shop. The torn-up remains of the rug still bore that terrible vast stain, black in the dying light of evening.

That could have been you.

What, the stain or the brother who made it?

Which would you prefer?

Flame ignored the question and resumed walking.

Sharpedo Bluff loomed ahead of him, cutting a big triangle out of the burning sky. Soundlessly, Flame parted the branches of his familiar bush and descended into the cave. Wind and the seasons had swept up the straw beds, and the gutted barrels remained as a reminder of the time burglars had found the hideout and pillaged it. This place was no longer Flame's, a secret dishonoured, and being in here again after so long brought him no comfort. He was far beyond the point of comfort.

You should do it, you miserable wretch.

That's why I'm here.

Pathetic. You can't even come up with a retort anymore. You're a coward, Flame.

I am a coward. I've always been a coward.

You'd be breaking Julia's heart if she knew. She never wanted this for us.

The dead don't have wants.

Flame peered over the edge of the cave's mouth, watching the inky water swirling around the ragged rocks far below. From this height, dropping onto one of those pointed stones would tear him apart instantly. It would be a quick death—unless he aimed poorly.

I don't deserve a quick death. I should be forced to bleed out slowly, in excruciating pain.

He waited for the inevitable response, for his bullying inner voice to show up and deliver that final, cataclysmic blow. The sea breeze stroked his face.

Come on. Kill me with your words. I've been waiting for this. I've been wanting this.

Yet all was quiet. Slowly, the bleak truth began to dawn on him and he laughed mirthlessly.

There is no 'other' inner voice. It's always just been me this whole time. Fuck, don't I feel stupid now?

It was a joke, just like the idea of becoming a great explorer and saving the world was a joke. Flame's life had been one comedic routine after another, except none of it was funny. And standing here, facing his inevitable end, it occurred to Flame that he'd never deserved Julia in the first place. She'd appeared on the beach, like a present delivered right to him, and he'd repaid her in repeated denial and betrayals. How many times had he gotten angry at her over nothing? How many times had he ignored her pleas to believe that yes, she still loved him and not Grovyle, and couldn't he just understand that she was just as confused about her past as he was? He'd been the most wretched mate—no, partner—that she ever could have asked for.

And now that she was gone, he had betrayed her again. His last action on this planet would be the ultimate betrayal to his beloved friend, and no inner voice or imaginary Julia could hold him back.

"When we meet again, in another life, we'll be together," she'd said. It was a dreadfully romantic thought, of flinging himself over this edge with the hard-held belief in her final words, a conviction that second chances existed, and the even more optimistic idea that things would somehow be better the next time around. But Flame had always tried to be an optimist, and look where it had gotten him.

Sorry, Sunflora, Flame thought, stepping up between the teeth of Sharpedo Bluff's mouth, I guess you'll have to throw out my portion of dinner.

Then the waves rose up to meet him and he plunged into the blackness.