Arven had been watching Juliana from a distance for the better part of an hour.
And no, he reassured himself, he was not being creepy. She’d said this morning she was taking this road through the Area One West Province, and so of course, he assumed she was doing that to help him take down the Open Sky Titan. What else would she do out here? Fight random trainer battles? Chat it up with the Team Star knuckleheads down the road? No way.
If she was going to be nice enough to help him collect the Herba Mystica, the least he could do was wait here until she arrived. He leaned against the mountainside, his large pack resting on the ground beside him, and perked up when her silhouette appeared in the distance. The girl wasn’t hard to miss. A fluffy yellow hat sat atop her layered black hair. She also sported pink glasses, matching blue gloves and hiking boots, along with neon green leggings. All of which contrasted horribly with the school’s standard orange uniform. It was like the uniform was the only article of clothing she would ever be allowed to wear, and she was determined to make it look as wacky as possible on principle.
The path was long and curved, but easy to follow, and Juliana should have reached him within ten minutes, tops. Instead, she had spent the last–Arven glanced at his watch–forty minutes trying to get Koraidon to jump the river. Koraidon failed over and over again, leaving Juliana to pull herself out of the water and ride the brute to where the water looked narrower. It did not help, and Arven was getting cold and shivery just by watching her.
She knows there’s a bridge here, right? he thought as he stroked Mabosstiff’s Poké Ball. Doubt crept into his mind about his choice of ally. Then again, there was that whole thing about beggars and choosers. No one else at school would give him the time of day. An attitude he was sadly used to, but that didn’t mean he liked it. If Juliana’s antics seemed like they would put Mabosstiff in more danger than help him…
Arven glanced down at his hand, opening and closing it experimentally, etching the sensation in his mind. Juliana’s a kind person. I’ve seen that so far. And I need a back-up plan. Like it or not, she might be Mabosstiff’s only chance. With that thought, he took a deep, slow breath of the crisp morning air and returned Mabosstiff’s ball to his belt.
About five minutes later, Juliana finally decided to cross the bridge, and Arven waved wildly to get her attention. His eyes widened when she got close enough to return the greeting–her clothes and even her long dark hair were completely dry.
Another weird event? he thought. Or is this just a thing she does? Then he realized he still had his hand up in the air and dropped it quickly.
Juliana giggled. “You look like you’re trying to answer one of Professor Tyme’s class questions.”
“I-I…I was just glad to see you,” Arven said, his face growing hot. He pulled the heavy pack up high on his shoulders. “You ready for this next titan? It’s been tossing rocks down the hillside here, so you need to be care–”
“Actually…” Juliana was already looking down the flat path, the one that definitely did not lead to the sky titan. “…I kind of had, um, other plans? See, I promised this Cassiopeia person I would help her take down Team Star…”
“But–this is important!” Arven said. More like shouted.
Which Juliana clearly didn’t appreciate. A scowl replaced her usual friendly smile, and her uncertain tone grew pointed. “I think I get to choose what’s important to me. The world is my Cloyster, remember?”
“I’m sorry,” Arven sputtered, lowering his head in a deep bow. He didn’t have great footing, and with the heavy, kitchenware-stuffed bag, he almost toppled forward. Probably not the best way to apologize. He straightened to regain his balance, letting a loose rock under his feet tumble down to the path.
Juliana, in spite of herself, covered a smirk with her hand.
Arven took a deep breath and made a polite, less dramatic bow this time. “Please. This isn’t just about cooking research. I’m really worried about…” His hand went instinctively to his side. Can I trust her yet? And if so, with how much?
“About…?” Juliana pressed.
Arven lowered his hand and shook his head. “Help me get through this next titan, and I promise, I’ll tell you everything.”
She didn’t agree, but she didn’t turn away, either. Arven watched with building tension as she glanced between him and the road leading to Team Star’s next base. With a sigh, she relented and took a step up the hill. A pushover for a half-told story. Arven grinned and began to lay out his plan. The ground beneath their feet rumbled slightly as the massive Bombardier rolled boulder after boulder from its perch above. For now, the rocks fell harmlessly to the side. Once they got moving up the rocky slope, it would be a different story. Still, Arven was optimistic they’d get through to the next herb without much difficulty. He glanced down at his hand one more time as Juliana began to run up the path ahead of him.
Arven waited until Juliana was almost at the peak of the hill before he started to run up himself. Looking back, it wasn’t his best idea. While she and Koraidon were bumped and jostled and knocked down by one huge rolling rock after another, Arven scaled the whole thing in a fraction of the time. He didn’t think Juliana would pay much attention. After all, she had a Titan Pokémon to deal with. Arven crested the peak of the hill just as Juliana’s Tinkatuff took a wild swing at the titan with its hammer. Shards of ice crystalized on Bombardier’s wingtips, and it struggled to keep itself aloft.
Yep, Juliana’s Tinkatuff knew Ice Hammer. Because of course it did. Arven shivered, thinking of the terror this pink puffball’s evolution would cause, when Juliana snapped him back to reality. Hard.
“Okay, how did you get up here?” she demanded.
“I, uh, ran,” he said, hoping it would satisfy her. It didn’t.
“Tinkatuff, use Ice Hammer again,” she commanded, barely watching the battle. Her eyes were locked on him, and she wasn’t stepping down without an answer. Meanwhile, her pink wrecking machine of a Pokémon squealed with delight and took another swing. The direct hit sent a cool chill across the wind, and Bombardier was forced to flee. It landed not far away, near a cave opening Arven hadn’t seen a moment ago, and began munching on something. A plant that glowed and glimmered with powerful healing light.
Adrenaline pumped through Arven’s veins. Herba Mystica!
He took a step forward, only for Juliana to block his path. “There’s no way you could run up here that quick. You had a giant bag on your shoulders, and up until a minute ago, that stupid bird was throwing boulders left and right,” she said. “What did you do? Run through them?”
If I say ‘yes,’ will you believe me? “I…can’t explain it right now,” he said.
Juliana stomped her foot. It might have looked childish if anyone else had done it, but with Tinkatuff at her side, it was downright intimidating. “You literally just said at the bottom of this mountain you’d tell me everything.”
If Arven had an attack stat, it would have dropped six levels on the spot. “I-I meant everything about the Herba Mystica, not–”
A screech echoed across the rocky ground, and Bombardier flapped its now ice-free wings. Its beady black eyes fixated on the two humans who had been foolish enough to enter its territory. Juliana crossed her arms. “Well?”
“Fine!” Arven groaned. “I’ll tell you. Everything everything. But only after we get in that cave and harvest the Herba Mystica. Agreed?”
She smiled in an oddly similar way to Tinkatuff. Her bright pink glasses only added to the spine-chilling effect. “Agreed.”
Not even ancient magic-imbued herbs could give Bombardier an edge over Juliana. Arven wasn’t quite sure why he brought his Nacli out, but he had to feel like he was contributing something. Once inside the cave, he approached the Herba Mystica with an entranced awe. Then Juliana elbowed him, and he quickly flipped through his notes. This was the bitter-flavored one. Not the best set-up for a tasty meal, but he could make do. He knew the way to prepare it so Mabosstiff would like it. He just had to remember to make extra this time. No doubt that brute of Juliana’s would want more than its fair share again.
Juliana, for her part, didn’t push him for answers immediately and instead began setting up the picnic table. Arven waved her attention.
“Hang on. Toedscool and Scovillain can handle that,” he said. “I need you over here.” He motioned towards his makeshift countertop, which really just amounted to a rock slab with an extra tablecloth thrown over it. He usually grabbed ingredients straight from his pack, knowing by feel how much he needed. But since he was aiming for a demonstration this time–or maybe a lesson was the better word for it–he set all the ingredients out so Juliana could easily see them. The horseradish jar and the jam jar looked oddly similar, and he rotated them so the labels were clear as she approached.
“What’s all this?” Juliana asked. “Thought you were the sandwich expert. Now you need help all of a sudden?”
Arven fought back his first instinct, which was to snap that his sandwich skills would put even Katy’s finest baked goods to shame. Then he remembered he actually did need help. “I just…want to make sure someone else besides me knows how to make these. My Pokémon needs them.” He released Mabosstiff from its Poké Ball and told Juliana the whole story. About the injury no Pokémon Center could heal. He kept it quick and avoided her gaze as much as he could. He hated feeling so weak and vulnerable like this. He’d grown up taking care of himself. It felt like he could do better than relying on a near stranger, but life loved to prove how little it cared about his feelings. At least the atmosphere was nice for his confession. The soft glow of the herbs lit the place, and their sharp aroma overrode any damp or mossy smells the cave otherwise had.
When Arven finished his story, Juliana’s eyes were shimmering with held back tears.
Great, Arven thought. I just told a literal sob story.
Juliana sucked in a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. “All this talk about your Pokémon, but…what’s wrong with you?”
“You said you wanna be sure someone else besides you can make these sandwiches Mabosstiff likes. What makes you think you won’t be able to prep them yourself?”
Arven swallowed hard and looked down at his hand. Probably better to demonstrate this answer than explain it. There was no more stalling, no more excuses. He flexed his fingers, focused, and thrust his hand toward the rock slab. It glided harmlessly through like a ghost’s.
“This,” he said simply before pulling his hand back out again.
Juliana’s eyes went wide, though she didn’t freak out like he’d suspected. Maybe she’d witnessed something like this around school, too? Arven laid his hand on a bread roll, confirming he could touch solid objects again, and laid it sideways. “Now, the trick to slicing the bread is–”
“Don’t change the subject like that!” Juliana snapped at him, her voice probably louder than she meant in the cave’s close quarters. She lowered her head a bit, and her voice followed suit. “So you did get up the mountain by running through the boulders?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It always happens when I get scared, so I figured I might as well use it to my advantage there. But sometimes it happens when I don’t mean for it to at all. And those times have been getting more and more frequent.” He sliced open the bread, not bothering to explain himself and began laying slices of cheese diagonally across the center. His voice cracked a bit as he continued, “Honestly, I’m kind of scared. I don’t know why it’s happening. Unlike Mabosstiff and that brute of yours, the first Herba Mystica didn’t help me.” He moved from the cheese to the proscuitto, folding each slice neatly before placing it. The awkward silence became intolerable, and he forced a pathetic-sounding laugh. “My worst fear is that it’ll go off when I’ve challenged someone to a battle, only I won’t notice, and I’ll look like an idiot who can’t even throw a Poké Ball.”
“Is that why you slap your face before you send out your Pokémon?” Juliana asked. “To make sure you’re not phasing through something again?”
His cheeks grew hot once more. “I thought it looked like I was getting pumped up.”
“No,” she giggled. “You looked kind of ridiculous.”
He should have been insulted, but Juliana’s blunt honesty had shattered the tension. Couldn’t help but be grateful there. He talked her through the rest of the sandwich instructions, taking extra care to make sure she got the balance of horseradish correct. Mabosstiff loved spicy foods, but in its weakened state, it couldn’t handle as much as it used to, so the measurement had to be perfect and the condiment spread evenly. Juliana listened and followed each step with focus and care. Her skills needed work, but there was time for her to learn. (And in the meantime, Koraidon would never refuse an extra goof-up sandwich.)
As Arven had predicted, the Herba Mystica worked its magic, and Mabosstiff’s eyes lit up for the first time in months. Tears rolled down Arven’s cheeks at the sight of it. As long as he existed in this world, he’d never give up hope. The trick for now was to just keep existing.