Mela stood as close to the tent entrance as she could without slipping right back out again.
“I’m sorry,” she began. No greeting, just an apology. She fidgeted with her fingers and kicked at the dirt, not typical behavior at all. When Mela made a mistake, she was more likely to double down on being right than apologize. Of course, this time, she seemed to genuinely feel guilty. “I know I should have left Team Star when I lost, but I…I just couldn’t. Most of my members went back to school, but…a few of stayed. I’ve been hanging out with Eri’s squad for the most part.”
“Why are you apologizing?” Giacomo asked. “We’re still glad to see you, Team Star boss or not.”
Mela raised her head, and Penny saw just a spark of her old fiery personality returning.
“She might not have an official vote,” Eri said. “But Atticus and I both agree we should hear her out.”
Atticus nodded. “Her opinion shall factor heavily into mine own decision.”
Mela met the gaze of each person in the group. It was so strange, being in this place together. It should have been a happy time, but it felt like their group was one stray ember attack from a total meltdown.
“I want to hear what the boss has to say first,” Mela announced.
In half a second, all the attention focused on Mela turned to Penny. She hadn’t even been properly introduced to Eri, Atticus, or Mela yet. So much for Ortega’s high and mighty talk about making sure she was comfortable first.
You could have said if you weren’t before they got here, she reminded herself and took a slow, meditative breath before speaking.
“Atticus called this my proposal,” she began. “And I’ll fess up that yes, it is. I’ll also…” She looked to Giacomo, who watched her the most intently. When he found out that she’d betrayed them, he’d been heartbroken. But their friendship had held fast, and he’d trusted she meant well. Now he was waiting to see if that trust was well-placed. “I’ll also confess to the fact that…that it’s my fault Juliana is going after Team Star to begin with.”
There were no shocking gasps at this revelation. Simply quiet nods and motions for her continue. So she did. She laid out everything. How she’d started as Cassiopeia, meeting them through their devices, how she’d always meant to show her face but never got the nerve…and how she’d used that same persona to try to force them back to school using Team Star’s code against them.
“I felt like such a massive idiot,” she said. “I knew how messed up the academy and the teachers were…if even one of them had been paying attention while you were being bullied, they’d have known you had every right to stand up for yourselves.” She removed her glasses and rubbed her burning eyes. “I knew it, and I urged all of you to face your bullies anyway, hoping the plan would miraculously work out.”
She put her glasses back on, managing to only sniffle a bit before continuing. She was the one who had wronged them. She had to own up to it, not start making them all feel bad for her. “I felt like we got carried away, and it was my fault for encouraging it. That all of you were going to get expelled because I didn’t have the sense to think through the obvious consequences.”
“You did tell us we should call it quits once the bullies left,” said Giacomo.
“We were the ones who ignored your advice,” Eri added on.
“Of course we did!” said Mela. “Because we love this group and what it does!”
Atticus nodded. “Our fiery ally speaks the truth.”
“I know that now,” Penny said, forcing herself to look at each of them. If they asked her to leave so someone else could be in charge, someone who saw the value of Team Star from the beginning, she would be okay with that. But in case it did turn out that way, she wanted to see each of them face-to-face. So many unique personalities, and a single place they had all managed to come together. “At first, I tried to cancel Operation Starfall because Paldea needed us. It still does. But I’ve also come to realize that I need Team Star, too. Maybe it’s shortsighted again, but…but…” She bit her lip, breathed in, and declared as boldly as she could, “But when all this is over, I want Team Star to stay together, no matter what sort of fuss the school makes about it.”
“Including you as the leader?” Mela asked. “Because that’s the only way I’d vote for this thing.”
Penny startled. “I-I…don’t think I’ve earned that position at all! I betrayed you!”
“If not for you, Team Star wouldn’t exist,” Eri said.
“We probably would have been the ones leaving school, not the bullies harassing us,” Giacomo said.
“Seriously,” Ortega added on. “I remember thinking I couldn’t take one more day of this…then Team Star came along.”
“‘Twas thine fear for us which drove Operation Starfall,” Atticus added on. “Should Team Star continue through its current plight, I, too, would support thee at the helm.”
Penny could not stop her eyes from watering up this time. Especially as Giacomo called a vote for the addendum. “Now, since this is officially my addition, I’m voting yes. All others in favor of totally ignoring the code if we lose, say ‘Star’.”
“Star!” said Eri, raising her hand. She elbowed Mela, who tried to object.
It was difficult to ignore an elbowing from Eri, though, and Mela soon raised her hand as well. “If it counts from me, then, yes. Star.”
“Ugh, this is so cheesy,” Ortega said, raising his staff. “But, whatever. Star.”
Everyone had their eyes on Atticus. If there was anyone who would hold to the code’s original wording no matter what, it was him.
“I guess you could argue our previous code was made under false pretenses?” Ortega offered.
Atticus crossed his arms and closed his eyes in contemplation. Penny really wished she could see his expression while he debated. Then again, considering how many conversations she’d had with him behind the phone, he probably saw this as poetic justice. He wouldn’t be wrong.
“In such circumstances, an addendum could rectify past misdeeds…” he began. The group leaned in towards him. When they were all pressed in, holding their breaths, Atticus shot his hand up so fast, it moved in a blur. “…verily, this addendum receives a ‘Star’ from me.”
“Geez, you almost smacked me in the face!” Mela complained as the group leaned back. The group chuckled. Of course, the motion had more than passed by now. But there was something to be said for making it official.
“Then, if you’re all in favor, so am I,” Penny said with a smile. She put her hand in to join theirs. “Star.”
“The motion passes unanimously,” Giacomo said. “You can all put your hands down now.”
Everyone sighed with relief. Well, most everyone. Eri cracked her knuckles. “Now let’s to work already!” she said. “What have we got to do?”
Atticus bowed to Penny. “Doth the group have need of stealth operations?”
“Would it help if I set anything on fire?” Mela asked. “Anything at all?”
Penny held up her hands. It was all a little overwhelming, and they’d been in this stuffy tent for a while. The place felt way less spacious with six people gathered inside. “Let’s go outside to talk,” she suggested. No one objected.
As they walked across the base with their heads held high, the grunts of Team Star all watched them eagerly. A few asked what they had discussed, to which Eri simply replied that it was “nothing worrying, just long term plans for Team Star.” The phrase “long term” lit up the grunt’s face, and she quickly spread the word among the group.
“If you climb up on the scaffolding here,” Ortega said, pointing to a space near the gate. “You get an amazing view of the mountains. Always helps me think.”
Eri only took two wide steps to get up the ladder, but Mela needed some help getting up in her immovable boots. Atticus decided that ladders were for mere mortal non-ninjas and took a graceful, silent leap onto the scaffolding instead. He then held Ortega’s staff as he, Penny, and Giacomo took the normal way up.
Ortega had just taken his staff back when his phone chimed with a new message. Penny winced, expecting another of those creepy phones with an even lower probability of success this time. what a way to kill the optimistic mood. Instead, when Ortega tapped his phone, he grinned at what he saw.
“You guys are gonna love this,” he said, then rotated the phone so everyone got a good look at the screen.
Arven had sent a text: “OK I’ll bite.”
Even though it was only three words, Penny read it twice to make sure she wasn’t mistaken. Then she read it a third time while she tried to settle the Butterfrees in her stomach. Arven’s going to help us. The plan actually worked!
“Sweet,” said Giacomo.
“I’m sorry–who’s this Arven person?” Eri asked.
Penny adjusted her glasses in her best leader-like way. “Someone who will give our research a turbo boost.” She nodded at Ortega. “Go ahead and answer him.”
Ortega dutifully tapped out a reply and showed it to Penny for approval before sending. It was probably the most un-Ortega like thing she’d ever seen him write: “We’re at your disposal. What do you need?”
Laying it on a little thick there, she thought, but then again, Ortega knew Arven better than anyone. If the guy was susceptible to flattery, this should work like a charm.
The seconds ticked by until Ortega’s phone chimed with a reply: “Juliana & I have taken Herba Mystica from the Stony Cliff & Open Sky Titans. We’re close 2 the false Dragon but that still leaves 2 more.”
The message window had a blinking icon to indicate Arven was composing a follow-up, but Ortega jumped in with a quick “How close? Where are you?”
The icon went still only a second before it started blinking again in full-force. “Near the Glaseado Gym,” Arven answered, followed quickly by, “You make the Lurking Steel & Quaking Earth titans into Team Star’s TOP and ONLY priority & we’ll talk about this study you wanna do. Deal?”
Ortega glanced at Penny for a half a second, but his expression said he already knew what to say. “Deal,” he answered before Arven could change his mind.
Penny could barely contain her excitement. Finally, they’d get their best lead back. The plan would be on track again. Her friends who had missed the invasion of the Fairy Crew’s base, however, didn’t share her enthusiasm.
“So this brat wants us to forget about saving Paldea so we can go on a fetch quest for him?” Mela asked.
“It’s…more complicated than that,” Ortega said.
Atticus crossed his arms. “I shall trust thine judgment. But where, pray tell, are these titans our ‘turbo boost’ speaks of?”
As if in response to Atticus’s question, Ortega’s phone chimed once again. This time, Arven had sent an attachment. A file of map data. Ortega forwarded the info to Penny’s phone first, then to each of his allies’ phones as well. “Bring the Herba Mystica to the Poco Path Lighthouse,” Arven had written. “I’ll meet you there.”
Penny swiped her screen for the map app and zoomed out. She already had their current location highlighted in pink, and now the five titans’ homes appeared as well– two in a bight yellow hue, one in a dull red, and the final two were grayed out. The red marker was centered on a tiny island in the middle of Casseroya Lake. The false dragon titan. Probably marked red so Team Star knew not to go there. Arven had a pretty liberal definition of the word “close,” though. Leaving from the Ruchbah Squad, he was getting farther and farther away from his goal. And if Juliana was taking the gym challenge first, it would add even more time before he was successful.
Right as Mela raised her hand and asked what the hell Herba Mystica was, Ortega’s phone chimed once more, showing a photo of their prize. Penny looked it over and noted the details. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too difficult to find a glowing, sparkly plant in a dark cave.
“The ‘turbo boost’ hath uncanny timing in his communications,” noted Atticus.
The group nodded their agreement. But they were left in debate about how to divide their resources between the titans. No one really wanted to empty a full base out and leave it unprotected. Yet Arven’s information suggested Juliana still posed no urgent threat. At last they agreed that if they each took roughly half a crew with them and worked quickly, Penny could bring the Herba Mystica to the lighthouse herself. Then everyone could get back to work with minimal interruption.
All that remained was which crew and boss would tackle each titan.
“I fear mine Pokemon would be rendered helpless against a steel-type,” Atticus mused. “Whereas Dragalge and Toxapex, with paltry adjustments to their movesets, could prove themselves formidable foes against a ground-type. Many of my crew members have similar partners.”
“I can back ya up, too,” Giacomo said. “Especially if I round up some of my Dark Crew pals from school. Plus, I got a Cacnea and a Murkrow I’ve been training who could use some ground-pummeling practice.”
“I’ll take the steel one,” Eri said.
“Me too!” Mela said, raising her hand. Not that she needed to, but with the other options being her fire team’s two biggest weaknesses, Penny understood her enthusiasm.
“You two certainly don’t need any help for that,” she chuckled. Then she looked to Ortega. “Where do you want to go?”
“I’m useless against steel, too,” he muttered. “I guess Azumarril could help with the ground-type, but geez, why did Arven leave the dragon-type out? I could crush it!”
Penny looked back at the map. It was true that Mela and Eri wouldn’t need her or Ortega, but that left four of them ganging up on the ground titan. It didn’t feel like the best use of resources, especially when she and Ortega were two of the strongest trainers Team Star had.
“The false dragon is the most difficult by far,” Penny said, rubbing her chin as she often did to help herself think. The data said the false dragon was a water and dragon type. Though not as strong as the rest of her team, she had been training a Glaceon to learn Freeze Dry. With her and Ortega together, they should be able to overwhelm it easily.
“You think we should go after the dragon, too?” Ortega asked eagerly. “You want me to help you take it on?”
“Well, I’m obviously not ordering you to,” Penny said. “But the quicker Arven can help us, the better. I say we go for it.”
“Done!” Ortega grinned and bumped fists with Giacomo, who reassured the group that he and Atticus could handle themselves. In the event anything went wrong, they’d call for backup straight away.
“I’ll get the Cyclyzar ready,” Eri said. She took a jump off the scaffolding and landed on the ground, hands at her sides, her knees barely bent. “The Starmobiles can take us most of the way, but the terrain might be rough at spots.”
“And I’ll have to switch up my team before we go,” Penny said, checking her Poke Balls. From inside her bag, Sprigatito mewed. She pulled it out and patted its head. The grass-type gave her a pleading, big-eyed stare in return. “I guess you have to come, too,” Penny sighed. “Since I don’t actually have Poke Ball for you.”
Sprigatito’s face lit up and it snuggled in the softness of Penny’s sweatshirt before climbing back in her Eevee bag to snooze once again.
While the others went to gather supplies, Penny stayed atop the scaffolding to soak in the scenery a moment longer. Ortega wasn’t wrong. The view was gorgeous up here. A rose-orange sky spread over the lavender-tinged mountains like something out of a watercolor painting. Penny breathed deeply, the chill air burning her nose but feeling so fresh on her tongue. It almost tasted like snow was about to fall.
The sunset had come earlier than expected, which meant the days were probably speeding up. Another anomaly they had to study. She glanced down, where the boards of the fencing cast odd shadows, some flickering like they weren’t sure where to fall. Also not normal and potentially worrisome. Finally, however, she looked farther out into the grass, where Flabébé floated and danced while Gogoat grazed unperturbed. Among the Gogoat, a single Azurill bounced happily. An unusual Pokémon for this area, but the Gogoat all bleated with glee as it bounced around to chat with each of them. At one point, it bounced a little too high and accidentally flipped itself upside down. The helpless creature cried and kicked its minuscule feet in the air. An older-looking Gogoat nudged its tail until Azurill righted itself and bounced carefree once again. Penny smiled at the sight of it. A group of Pokémon so different, and yet the Azurill had been adopted into their family. And just like Team Star, they would weather anything together.
The danger might have been increasing, but in a strange way, Penny’s hope was, too.