Nemona found their plunge down the mountainside absolutely thrilling.
She did not say so to her friends. Or to Penny and whoever the guy in the lavender coat was. Most of them were screaming in fear with their eyes squeezed shut. Arven in particular had gone red in face. He yelled less about the fall and more about his intent to commit murder with blunt objects. Nemona wasn’t too concerned. Probably it was his way of making sure he could still hold onto Cyclizar. If he attempted actual violence once they got to safety, she’d step in and diffuse the situation then. A good student council president never let herself get overwhelmed with too many problems at a time. For now, she relished the rush of wind in her face, the spray of powdery snow around them, and of course, balancing herself on Koraidon as it swayed from side to side. The glow of the gym building grew larger and larger as they jetted towards it.
The avalanche slowed when they passed the gym windows. Nemona grinned and waved at the people inside, but no one waved back. Oh, well. Their loss.“Guys, come on!” she squealed to her friends. “Look at this!”
Her lighthearted tone didn’t work on everyone. But most of them opened their eyes a bit. Juliana even straightened up to take in the view. Cyclizar had pulled ahead of Koraidon, no doubt due to its sleeker, more aerodynamic build. It leaned into a curve, spraying more snow in Koraidon’s direction. Nemona laughed and batted the powder away. Juliana smiled, which was totally a win.
The avalanche lost more momentum as it neared the base of the hill, though the snow continued to pile up. The gym leader Grusha did his best to direct frantic citizens out of the way. No one seemed to be listening, but no one lingered in the snow’s path, either. Grusha threw up his hands in surrender and stood back to watch the strange spectacle instead.
Nemona had seen on a lot on her gym travels. She could only assume that as a gym leader and professional snowboarder, Grusha had seen far bigger and more exciting events than she could dream of.
Then again, maybe an entrance like this was novel to him, too.
The citizens’ panic subsided as the cascade finally slowed to a crawl, piling up at the fence around the gym’s battle area. Koraidon dug its heels into the snow, pulling itself to an early halt while Cyclizar coasted the rest of the way down. Penny clambered off before the Pokémon even got to a full stop, and she nearly face-planted in the process.
Nemona dismounted a bit more gracefully. “Glad to see everyone is okay!” She extended a hand to the stranger who’d fallen behind her–the one whose golden staff was probably responsible for the growing lump on the back of her head. Not that she held grudges or anything. “Don’t think I caught your name. I’m Nemona. Champion-rank trainer and school council president.”
He looked skeptically at her outstretched hand but took it nonetheless. “Ortega,” he said with no elaboration.
“Stop!” Juliana squeaked out the moment their fingers met. “He’s–” She paused. Ortega released Nemona’s hand and shuffled back. Nemona looked down at her palm, but as far as she could tell, the guy hadn’t done her any harm. He didn’t even have a strong grip.
Juliana tilted her head in confusion. “Huh. You didn’t grow giant.”
“Giant?” Nemona asked. Then it clicked. She looked Ortega over again with a whole new level of respect. Not to mention a burning desire to challenge him to a Pokémon battle on the spot. “Wait. You’re the Team Star boss who bested my best rival?”
Instead of a reply, Ortega huffed and walked over to help Penny, who was muttering something along the lines of, “What is wrong with that girl?” With one hand, she clutched something under her jacket. With the other, she dusted herself off and pointed a shaking finger in Nemona’s direction. “She was laughing during that nightmare!”
Nemona held up in hands in a guilty-as-charged gesture. “I couldn’t help it. It was so exciting!”
“A-are you incapable of fear or something?”
Incapable was a bit strong of a word, in Nemona’s opinion. She never did anything careless or stupid. She simply had a fondness for adrenaline rushes that most of her fellow students lacked. “Arven wasn’t afraid, either,” she said as she pointed to him. “He would have phased right through my Cyclizar if he was.”
Everyone in the group turned to Arven. He seemed to have calmed down once they got to safety, but now he went red in the face all over again. “Why does everyone have to share that?”
“Hold on,” Penny said. “You control your phasing ability with…your fear?”
Arven crossed his arms and marched over. He only had a few inches of height advantage, but he used it to stand as tall as possible and narrow his eyes down at her. “I don’t have to answer anything you ask. What are you two doing here, anyway?”
“Don’t take that tone with us,” Ortega said, missing the irony of his own sharp voice. “We were on our way to defeat the false dragon titan like you asked us to!”
“You did what?” Juliana asked, sounding more hurt than annoyed. Nemona didn’t blame her. A promise of battle with something as powerful as the titans, and Arven had asked someone else to do it? Nemona felt pretty hurt herself, and not only because of the lump on her head.
“I told you to handle the other two titans and leave the false dragon to me and my friends,” Arven said. Then he gestured back to Juliana and Nemona, making clear Ortega was not in the “friends” category.
The Team Star boss gritted his teeth. “They’re handled!” he said. “Penny and I could take out a dragon-type with no–” He gasped, cutting off his own words. His staff clattered to the ground, though Nemona didn’t see him let go of it. In fact, it seemed to fall right through his fingers. Then Ortega’s whole body flickered. He winced and clutched his sides, his breathing quick and uneven.
Grusha, who seemed content to watch them from a distance before, hurried towards the group. “Hey! You okay, kid?”
Ortega didn’t answer. Penny reached out to him, but he held up a hand and stopped her.
“I-it’s fine…” he said. “Give me a minute…I’ll be fine.” He closed his eyes, breathing through parted lips. While his breaths came out halted at first, with each inhale, the next exhale sounded more even and calm. After a few cycles, his breathing became normal, and the flickering stopped.
A sigh of relief washed over the group. Behind them, Koraidon let out a whine. Nemona glanced over to find Juliana’s Pokémon fully coated in a blanket of white.
Grusha stood up and faced it. “That was an impressive feat getting down here in one piece,” he said. “But you know, most Pokémon leave the slope when they’re done skiing.”
Koraidon gave a head tilt like this idea had never occurred to it before. It grumbled and shook itself dry, showering everyone around with drips of melted snow. Then it bent its knees, poised for a massive leap. But instead of its whole body lifting off the ground, only its back legs got into the air, its front legs still buried in the snow. It grunted and twisted, but it couldn’t seemed to get itself loose. The poor thing looked like it was stuck in a perpetual falling position.
“What’s going on?” Nemona asked. “Is the snow really thick?”
Penny shook her head. “My guess is it’s another anomaly.”
Koraidon gave another grunt of frustration and slammed its back legs back into the snow. It then yanked out its front legs and made a smaller jump. This time it slid gracefully down the rest of the snow pile, coming to a stop right in front of Grusha. Its movement was rather smooth and elegant, and the gym leader seemed genuinely impressed. Koraidon seemed impressed with Grusha’s fluffy scarf and leaned in to sniff it.
“Um, be careful,” Penny said. “That thing likes to–”
Koraidon gave Grusha a slobbery lick across his face.
Penny winced. “–never mind.”
While Grusha stepped back to clean his face, Ortega picked up his staff again. Something inside Nemona suggested he did not want to talk about what had happened. At all.
So she decided to talk about it for him. “Hold on. That flickering was the same thing Arven does!” She pointed between the two. Maybe if they realized they had something in common, they wouldn’t be so snippy with each other.
“Huh?” Ortega said, exhaustion in his voice.
Of course. Nemona had gotten ahead of herself again. Ortega needed a bit more context, which she was happy to provide as quickly as possible. “Sorry, let me explain. See, after you beat Juliana, she came out really upset. I don’t think she’s ever lost a major battle before. Arven wanted to go after these titan things, but Juliana wanted to get stronger first with her Beartic, so I said we should talk to Paldea’s number one ice-type specialist.” She motioned over to Grusha, who looked confused on top of being wet and annoyed. But once Nemona started an explanation, it became tricky to stop. “Juliana agreed, but while we were traveling, Arven did this floaty trick with a coin and got a phone stuck on his face, and Juliana explained that it happens when he’s scared. Also he might have made me run through some stairs last year…” She paused to debate. Was she getting off track here? Yes, probably time to reign it in. “Anyways, now that we’re here, Juliana can get a badge and figure out why her Beartic can Sheer Cold with perfect accuracy, while you and Arven can talk about titans and this weird flickering thing you both do.” She crossed her arms, pretty satisfied with herself. It was a lot of points to cover, but she felt she’d done well under the circumstances.
No one complimented her on a job well done.
Penny frowned at her. “Y-you talk, like…way too much.”
Nemona took no offense. Perhaps she had gone on a bit longer than needed. But that was part of learning and improving. She could always grow her summarizing skills with hard work, determination, and a worthy abridgment rival. Maybe Juliana would volunteer.
“So…you wanted to talk to me or you’re here for a badge?” Grusha asked.
Juliana rubbed the back of her head. “Uh, both, I suppose. Sorry about the mess we made coming in.”
Grusha shrugged. “It’s a mountain. It happens. Challenge accepted.”
“What?” Nemona gasped. Not because of Grusha’s nonchalance about the avalanche nearly engulfing his gym. There were protocols to be followed, and he was ignoring them! “But-but..but she didn’t take the gym test!”
Grusha pulled up his scarf to cover his mouth and chin. “You mean the Pokémon skiing demonstration?” He motioned to the hill the group had dramatically descended to make their way to him. “You rode in here on an avalanche. I’ll call it a pass. Though the arena might be a bit…” He glanced back to where snow had cascaded over the low fence and lay in a pile on the battlefield, surrounded by confused observers.
“…occupied,” Grusha finally finished. He crossed his arms and closed his eyes. Either he was in debate about how to handle the situation or he was about to move the snow with his as-yet-unrevealed telekinetic superpowers. Nemona didn’t know what to expect of anyone at this point. “…she has been bugging me to give it a try,” he muttered. “Guess I kind of have to accept her offer now.”
“Sorry, whose offer are we talking about?” Juliana asked.
Instead of answering directly, Grusha turned and motioned for them to follow. “This way. It’s not a long walk, and it’ll be easier to explain when we get there.” He stepped over a large chunk of condensed snow and started down the road leading through Glaseado towards Montenevera. No one followed immediately, so Nemona took it on herself to show some initiative. She jogged after Grusha, calling to the others to catch up. After some hushed whispers with Penny, Ortega did so first. Then came Juliana, followed by Arven, and Nemona could only assume Penny took up the rear. The streets were quiet, the citizens all gathered around the scene of the avalanche. Most of the sound came from the crunch of snow under their shoes.
Juliana slowed her pace until she and Arven walked side-by-side. As much as Nemona wanted to drill Ortega on battle strategies–after all, if he had beaten her rival, he had to be skilled–she kept herself quiet so she could overhear their conversation.
“Why did you ask Team Star to help with the titans?” Juliana asked. “Do you not trust me anymore or something?”
“No, it’s not that,” Arven said. “You had so many things on your plate…I guess I wanted some assurance it would get done before–” He swallowed, unable to finish his sentence.
“Before it was too late? Geez, Arven, why do you think I came out here?” Juliana said, a crack in her voice on the last word. “Nemona’s right, you know. I’ve almost never lost a Pokémon battle. I was scared we’d get in front of a titan, and I’d fail right when Mabosstiff needed us.”
The group had left Glaseado proper now and were making their way down the wintery path around the mountain. There was a long pause–and a lot of snow-under-shoe crunches–before Arven replied. “So, it wasn’t about the badge?”
“No, you knucklehead!” she snapped. Which gave Nemona the perfect excuse to glance behind her.
Arven’s face had gone downright scarlet. “I know you said you wanted to handle your Pokémon your way,” he admitted. “I just felt like Team Star could help me faster. That’s all.”
Nemona couldn’t hold herself back anymore. “Maybe don’t be too hard on him,” she said over her shoulder. “He’s scared for his Pokémon the same way you’ve been scared for your missing Sprigatito.”
“Your what?” That was Penny’s voice. She’d gotten so far behind the group, Nemona was starting to wonder if she’d gotten lost in the pile of snow in front of the gym.
Juliana froze. Nemona called the rest of the group to a halt. Grusha didn’t look pleased with being ordered around, but seeing him from a distance with his thick hat and scarf pulled up, it was hard to say he displayed any emotion in particular.
Penny walked up to Juliana and unzipped her jacket. Something mewed from inside. “Is this the Sprigatito you lost, by any chance?”
Tears flooded Juliana’s eyes. “Buddy, it’s you!” She grasped Sprigatito and lifted it up so quickly, Penny staggered back to keep her balance. Juliana held Sprigatito close, whispering reassurances as the feline Pokémon licked her damp cheeks.
Nemona couldn’t help getting a bit misty-eyed herself. Ortega smiled beside her, but Arven looked uncomfortable. Almost like he was happy and hurt at the same time. It was an awkward situation, Nemona supposed. Here was Juliana’s Pokémon safe and sound while his was still in danger.
If Grusha was moved by the reunion, he didn’t show it. Instead he announced that he was done waiting, and anyone who didn’t want to get left behind should pick up the pace.
Juliana did her best to quickly dry her eyes. “Well, you heard the gym leader, Buddy,” she said as the group moved forward once again.
Buddy nestled itself into a comfy spot on her shoulder, where its swinging tail flapped against Juliana’s fuzzy yellow hat. Grusha, to his credit, gave everyone a few moments to catch up with him before he continued onward. The snowy path worked its way out of the barren wilderness and past a Pokémon Center. Beside the center, a man with an Abomasnow called out about some special hyper training he could do in exchange for rare and exotic bottle caps. Nemona made a mental note to check the drinks on their next picnic for some.
They had entered Montenevera proper now, with all its cozy shops and houses accented in a blanket of white. Chill winds gusted through the group, and Buddy gave an uncomfortable mew. Nemona looked back to see it shivering.
“Oh, here,” said Juliana. “You don’t have to ride outside if you don’t want to.” She held up a Poké Ball, but instead of getting inside, Buddy batted it like it was a toy.
Penny noticed the situation and closed the gap between them. “Um, an error with my phone might be causing the Pokémon inventory system to misclassify me as Sprig–erm, Buddy’s trainer,” she explained. “I can probably hack it to fix things…” She glanced at Grusha, who met her gaze with narrowed eyes. “…which would be very illegal, so of course, I will not do that.”
“So how do we fix it?” Juliana asked. “Legally, I mean.”
Penny adjusted her glasses. “If you have a low-level Pokémon you don’t plan to train, a trade would be the easiest workaround.”
“Hmm…” Juliana crossed her arms and tapped her foot in a perfect imitation of a thoughtful Arven. “I do have a Porygon with me…”
At the word “Porygon,” Penny’s eyes sparkled. Her face resembled a Skwovet who’d found a massive berry stash.
“Would that be an okay trade?” Juliana asked.
Penny nodded adamantly. It was kind of sweet to watch. Even if Nemona didn’t know the girl that well, she could tell when someone found their happy place. For Nemona, that place came from a battle where she could well and truly go all out. For others, it could be as simple as getting a Pokémon that reminded them of home.
“Congratulations,” Ortega said, startling her. She’d sort of forgotten they were walking together. “I think you broke my boss.”
“Your boss?” Nemona asked. “So you’re saying she’s a better battler than you?”
“No question,” Ortega said.
Nemona nodded. She’d thought a battle with Ortega would be exciting, but now she wanted to have a match with Penny even more. While she debated how to approach the girl without being too intimidating, Ortega slowed his pace. “Hey, Arven?” he said.
Up ahead, Grusha had now ascended the wooden steps leading to the Montenevera Gym. Nemona followed but kept her ear on the conversation behind her.
“Yeah?” Arven said.
Ortega cleared his throat. “I’d like…I mean, when your friends finish whatever this thing is, I want to talk with you. About what happened six years ago.”
Six years ago? Nemona thought. Several pairs of footsteps followed behind her up the steps, making it tricky to catch Arven’s reply.
“…doesn’t matt–” Arven began.
Grusha held up his mittened hand, bringing the group to an abrupt halt. Everyone gathered together, and Nemona gasped when she realized where they were. Grusha had walked them to the stage where the MC of RIP herself stood ready for one of her epic Pokémon gym battles. She grinned and waved at her fellow gym leader, who acknowledged her with a nod.
“You put on quite the show coming in,” Grusha said to Juliana. “Epic, really. I sent a video feed to Ryme when it started happening. And since she didn’t have any gym challengers around to warm up the stage for her, she let the feed play while MC Sledge did some beat thing and worked up the crowd.” He held up his hands to show how little sense the whole thing made to him. “Audience said it was the best warm-up they’ve ever seen. You’re clear to battle for the Ghost badge whenever you like.”
Ryme brought her signature mic to her lips. “If you chatter much longer, you’re gonna kill the vibe I’ve worked up here. On the stage, Ice Man!”
“I am not Ice Man,” Grusha said, though he ascended the steps anyway. Ryme was not the type to be argued with. The group of friends (well, mostly friends, at least) remained at the bottom, watching the two gym leaders in confusion.
“So you want Juliana to beat you then go right into a battle with Ryme?” Nemona asked.
“Of course not!” Ryme laughed and turned to Grusha. “You walked these poor kids all the way here and didn’t tell ’em?”
Grusha adjusted his scarf again. “Seems more your thing than mine,” he said.
“All right, you got a point,” Ryme said. She gave a wink to the crowd and tossed her microphone into the air, where it spun like a baton. She caught it behind her back. A touch of feedback passed through the speakers as she motioned everyone onto the stage. Each of them climbed cautiously up. “See, my gym’s all about double battles. Which are bigger n’ better when you got two trainers on each side. You see where I’m headin’ with this?”
The crowd clearly caught her meaning, and they cheered wildly.
Nemona watched Ryme and Grusha walk to the edge of the marked battle area, where each of them pulled out a single Poké Ball.
The crowd might have been excited, but they had nothing on Nemona when she realized what Ryme and Grusha were proposing. No way. No way. No way, she thought, bouncing up and down to keep from happy-exploding.
“Pick your partners, challengers!” Ryme called out. “You both beat us, you both get the Ghost and the Ice badges!”
Wait. I’ve already got all the ba– Nemona went from wanting to scream with glee to wanting to burst into tears. If this was a battle for badges, she’d disqualified herself months ago.
Why did gym leaders have to add all the fun twists for her rival? Life was so unfair!
“Wha-what?” Arven exclaimed.
Juliana looked from one person to another. Her eyes fell to Nemona first, but the champion held up her hands and shook her head.
“I’m afraid I’ve already done the gym challenge,” she said. “I can’t compete for the badges again. And helping you would be cheating.” Arven could have sworn he heard her sniffle when she stepped back down off the stage.
“The girl’s right,” Grusha called. “Pick someone else.”
Juliana froze with indecision. Her eyes met Arven’s, her next most obvious choice. But he could tell she had some lingering mistrust after he’d gone behind her back. She might have understood why he did it, but moving forward was tricky. Then again, her only other options were the Team Star leaders.
“Ugh, this crowd ain’t waitin’ all night,” Ryme said. “If you won’t pick, I will.” She pointed to Juliana and Penny. “You ladies can try first.” Then she pointed to Arven and Ortega. “And you two Slowpokes can try second. Now who’s ready for some epic double battles?”
The crowd roared their approval, and Arven moved back towards the steps. “I’m not competing for–” he began, only for Nemona to tug on his bag. He knelt down and she cupped her hands to whisper in his ear.
“Sorry to bring this up, but aren’t you way behind in your schoolwork?”
Arven flushed but nodded. She wasn’t wrong.
“Well, two gym badges would go a long way in earning you some leeway with the teachers.”
“It would?” He looked back at the stage. Juliana had to more or less much drag Penny to the challenger’s end of the battle court. From what Arven could make out, she added some heavy guilt trips over how Penny could have tried just a tad harder to look for Sprigatito’s trainer. Penny at last relented and stood beside Juliana without objection.
“She’s actually doing this?” Ortega said. Given his annoyed expression, Arven didn’t need to guess if he’d overheard the conversation with Nemona. “And you want my help with your battle, I take it?” he sighed.
Arven huffed. “You’re behind on your schoolwork, too. Probably way worse than me, with how many classes you’ve missed.”
“Yeah, but unlike you, I don’t really care. What happened to the titan battles?”
“I…” Arven looked back at Juliana. “…I feel like I owe Juliana here. I should have leveled with her.” He took a slow and deliberate breath. “Besides, if things really do get better, I’d like to stay in school. It’s nice to at least act like I’ve got a future.”
Ortega shook his head. “Well, I can see you haven’t been skipping drama class, at least.” There was a cautious tone to his words–a testing of the waters. When they were friends, Ortega fell back on snark whenever he didn’t know what to say. It was often the closest he got to an apology.
And Arven had no clue how to reply. The anger sure hadn’t left, but there was something about surviving an avalanche together that made him want to give Ortega a second chance. “Hmph. Says the guy who’s got the same problems I do.”
“That’s the way you ask for help? I’m afraid you need to up your persuasion game, Arven.”
“Ortega!” Penny called from the far end of the stage, startling them both. “I know I’m not technically allowed to pull rank, but I swear if I’m the only Team Star member who has to battle up here, I will make you sorry!”
Ortega blanched. “So…” He turned to Arven. “…which Pokémon should we send out first?”