“Okay,” Penny said, scrolling though a mass of charts and spreadsheets that only she could comprehend. “One more time, and I should be good.”
Espeon and Porygon stood by to send her Ortega’s latest readings, but Arven was left a bit stranded. It wasn’t that he didn’t know what got Ortega annoyed. It was more that he had no concept of variety when it came to insults.
He started off strong–first with trash talk about how Team Star was full of delinquents and future crime bosses. When that stopped working, he walked around the lighthouse, picking up random objects and prompting Ortega for their names.
“And what’s this again?” he asked, waving his latest find in his friend’s face.
Ortega sighed. “That would be a charging cable.”
“Excuse me? Did you say it’s a ‘champagne table’?”
Espeon and Porygon looked at each other in confusion. Penny’s charts didn’t so much as flicker, and Ortega remained firmly in the material plain.
“You’ve been pulling the same stunts over and over for twenty minutes,” he sighed as he massaged his temples.
Arven frowned and dropped the cable on his bedside dresser. It plopped next to the menagerie of other items he’d been trying this with–school books, notepads, a curtain rod, a headset, three different colored highlighters, and an empty photo frame. “Okay, fine,” he huffed. “I didn’t want to do this, but you leave me no choice. How old did you say you are again?”
“You know how old I am,” Ortega said flatly. “Because we’re the same age.”
“Really? That can’t be. You look like you’re five at the oldest!”
“I’ll give you six, maybe. No way you’re a day over six.”
Oretega picked up his staff and mimed bonking his friend on the head with it. “Earth to Arven! Did you forget how obsessed with appearances my parents are? I’d have been disowned by now if I lost my cool that easily.”
“Aww. So the widdle baby is cute as a cupcake and cool as a cucumber?”
Orega grimaced. “That’s less infuriating and more just sad.”
“Hmm,” Arven rubbed his chin and looked Ortega up and down. His eyebrows rose with that “new brainstorm” expression. With an impressive burst of speed and dexterity, he snatched a notepad from the dresser and tossed it at Ortega’s wrist. The notepad hit its mark, forcing him to drop the staff, which Arven jumped in to catch. “Bet ruining this would piss you off.”
“Oh, please,” Ortega said with a roll of his eyes. “You couldn’t damage that if you tried.”
“You sure?” Arven asked. “When Mabosstiff is feeling better from the Herba Mystica, I’m sure he’d love a new chew toy.”
Ortega’s calm demeanor cracked. “You wouldn’t.”
“Maybe we could have Koraidon give it a test nibble first.” Arven held the staff straight upwards–out of Ortega’s reach, even if they weren’t concerned that making physical contact would blow up the lighthouse.
Ortega stood anyway. “Atticus made that for me,” he said. “Give it back.”
“Nah, don’t think so,” Arven said. “Bring Koraidon out, would you, Juliana?”
Juliana hesitated, but at a nod from Penny, she did as Arven asked. The scarlet lizard took in its familiar surroundings, but Arven drew its attention in short order with his wave-around-a-shiny-object tactics. “Hey, Brutey! You wanna play?”
“Does Brutey wanna play with this? Yeah? You gotta promise to slobber all over it. I mean, so the smell nevercomes out.”
Koraidon looked confused at the whole ordeal, but it did lick its chops and give the offered new toy a sniff.
“Ugh, it’s drooling!” Ortega said. “Stop!” He made a jump for the staff but came nowhere close and almost lost his balance. “Seriously, you’re taking this too far. Give it back.”
“Sorry, no can do,” Arven chuckled. “Fate of the world and all.” He lowered the staff in front of Koraidon’t snout. The ride Pokémon opened its mouth wide.
“I said stop!” Ortega cried, right as the door to the lighthouse flew open. Beyond the threshold stood the four other bosses of Team Star.
Mela took a short glance over the situation–Arven holding Atticus’s creation out of reach, Arven laughing while Ortega begged him to stop. Her face went about as red as her hair. “Oh, hell no!”
Arven went pale. Mela marched forward with slow deliberate steps. Eri shadowed her, cracking her knuckles the whole time. Even Penny found herself stuttering in the face of those two when they were angry.
“First we get bullied out of school,” Mela said, stepping closer and raising her voice with each word, “Then we form a team to defend ourselves. Then we get bullied by the school. We try to help save it anyway, nearly get arrested for the effort, and now…” She leaned into Arven’s face. “…now you think you can hide away and harass one of our own while we’re gone?”
“U-um…” Penny stammered from her unassuming position on the floor. When that failed to call them to attention, Juliana pulled her off to the side for safety.
Ortega rushed forward and held up his hands. “Guys, it’s okay! He was just trying to–“
“Don’t worry, Ortie,” Eri said, patting him on the head. “We’ll take care of this.”
Ortega pushed her hand away. “Ugh! I don’t need you to take care of anything!” He looked to Giacomo and Atticus but didn’t have much luck there, either.
“There’s nothing wrong with relying on your teammates for backup,” Giacomo said as he narrowed his eyes at Arven. “It’s cowards like this guy who are the problem.”
“Indeed,” Atticus said, pulling out a kunai and holding it poised to throw. “I should gut thee right here, knave, to match thy gutless state!”
Arven backed against the wall. Sweat ran down the side of his face as he struggled not to phase. “Um, that’s not a real blade, is it?”
“An apt question. Shall I test its merit?”
“Will you guys listen to me for once!” Ortega slammed his foot down and through the floor.
Espeon locked its gaze on him, its eyes alight with psychic power. Ortega pulled himself free and stumbled backwards, taking slow breaths to ground himself. The other members of Team Star froze as they watched him. When his body became solid again, Espeon dutifully touched noses with Porygon, who in turn hovered over Penny’s computer, sending her the data it had collected.
“That should do it,” Penny said, her confidence restored. Funny what a couple threats of violence could solve. “Thanks, you two.” She nodded at Arven and Ortega before turning her attention to the rest of the team. “And, guys? Quit babying Ortie all the time. He doesn’t like it.”
Everyone dropped their ready-for-battle stances.
“I-I…” Mela shook her head. “Okay, I am seriously confused.”
“I’ll explain in a minute,” Penny said. “But Arven’s not a bully, all right? I think you owe him an apology.” She lowered her chin to give Mela a pointed stare over the rim of her glasses. “And a delivery?”
Mela crossed her arms. She didn’t make apologies easily, even less so when she didn’t understand how she’d been wrong. Eri, however, took Penny at her word and motioned for Atticus to hand something over. Atticus sighed, sheathed his weapon, and retrieved a fist-sized pouch from his pocket. He walked it over to Arven and held it aloft.
“Salty. Sour. Spicy,” he recited. “Three samples of Herba Mystica, as per thy request.” He released the package.
Arven scrambled to catch it, and when he did, he cradled the herbs to his chest like a newly hatched Pokémon egg. “Th-thank you,” he said.
Mela was still eyeing him with deep suspicion. But her tense stance eased up the longer she watched. Penny was no mind-reader, of course, but she hoped Mela saw the same thing she did: a renewed expression of hope on someone who hadn’t felt hopeful in a long, long time.
With the four new arrivals, Arven did not have ample space inside the lighthouse to set up a picnic spot. Thankfully, the weather was nice enough, and he spread a blanket out beside the stone archway that opened to the lighthouse’s ladder. The wind picked up a bit, and Skwovet came out to help prepare. It gathered several nearby rocks, placing them on the blanket’s edges to weigh it down. Arven thanked the little Pokémon, and it rested on his shoulder while he eagerly set up the ingredients for Mabosstiff’s miracle meal.
“I’ve got a good feeling about this,” he said. “I think we’ll do chorizo for this one. It’ll blend the best with all those strong flavors. Plus, Mabostiff’s a little stronger than before. I think he can chew it okay.”
Skwovet chittered its agreement.
Penny stood by the doorway and noted how far the sun had gotten across the horizon since she last checked. “It’s already getting dark,” she said, hugging herself. Dusk and dawn could certainly be more erratic here than back in Galar, but this was bordering on near insanity. She checked the time since she’d started logging data. The sun had risen and set in the space of twenty minutes. Things were getting bad. She cringed at the thought of what numbers might come in the next time Ortega got one of his creepy, odds-of-saving-Paldea texts from the void.
Not that any of this mattered to Arven. He was in the sandwich-making zone. Not unlike her when she got involved in a good coding puzzle. His hands moved fluidly through each step of the preparation–lining up his precious ingredients, setting out Mabosstiff’s “favorite” plate, slicing cleanly through a fresh roll of bread… As each task ended, he segued flawlessly into the next. If these had been steps in a dance number, Arven could put a Quaquaval to shame.
“We’ll still start with the peanut butter,” he told Skwovet. “But we don’t need to mix wasabi in this time. Not when there’s spicy herba mystica and chorizo involved.”
Skwovet covered its mouth, making clear it would much rather take some sweet herbs and berries.
“No worries, you don’t have to taste-test it,” Arven said. He layered a generous helping of peanut butter onto the bread, wiped the butter knife clean, then went for the sausage. Instead of dropping it right away, he held the first piece aloft, muttering about the crucial factor of its starting position.
Juliana came out and stood beside Penny, followed by the Team Star crew. “Oh, you’re seeing Sandwich Arven,” she whispered.
Ortega nodded. “Yep, the professor’s kid in his natural habitat. Don’t make any sudden movements or you might scare him off.” It might have been said as a tease, but Penny didn’t miss the envy in Ortega’s voice. There was plenty to admire when a skilled artisan set to work.
After much deliberation (either oblivious or unconcerned about his growing audience), Arven brought his hand to the left-most corner of the bread, pressing it up against the archway’s stonework.
“And right…there!” he said. He released the chorizo, and it landed perfectly on the corner of the bread. Well, almost perfectly. It either got shorter in the fall or part of it phased into the stonework.
Arven reached for the next piece. As he lifted it over the bread, the plate, ingredients, and Arven himself also rose about an arm’s length into the air. They hovered there as Arven placed the next piece and reached for a third. Once again, when he brought his arm up, the whole setup got a little bit higher. Penny didn’t want to startle him out of his focus (mostly out of fear that he’d fall and lose the ingredients Team Star had worked so hard for), but the situation wasn’t getting any better, either.
“Um…” Giacomo said, pointing.
Juliana cleared her throat.
Arven put down two more chorizo pieces before he looked around and noticed himself and the picnic floating a good six feet in the air. “Whoa! What the–?”
Skwovet, who had apparently been just as engaged as Arven, chattered in surprise and leapt from his shoulder to a support beam. It did not land on the support beam. But it didn’t fall, either. It simply stood on all fours, the tip of its tail the only thing making contact with the beam at all. Its paws were grounded on nothing but air.
“O-okay, this is new,” Arven said. “Also, I don’t know how I get down.”
Mela walked over and surveyed the scene up close. She could easily walk right under Arven’s whole set up. She even gave the floating plate a test prod with her long, polished, red nails. “Yeah, dude, this ain’t what a ‘light meal’ means,” she said.
The group collectively groaned.
Skwovet chattered with worry as it tentatively lifted a single paw from the invisible plane it had found to stand on. It did not have the nerve to try anything else.
Arven tried to reassure it and reached out his hand to pat it on the head.
The moment he did so, gravity flicked back on. The dishes, utensils, and ingredients all began to plummet to the ground. Skwovet reacted with lightning speed. Using Arven’s shoulder as a launch-point, it jumped forward, caught the bag of Herba Mystica in its mouth, then landed and perched on the mid-point of the ladder in the center of the room.
Arven only had time to bat away the bread-slicing knife before it could also become a hand-slicing knife. He landed on his behind with Mabosstiff’s plate on his lap and a peanut-butter-laden bread slice clinging to his hair.
Mela carefully peeled it off, wincing as clumps of Arven’s hair released their hold on the bread and plopped back down to the side of his face.
“Anyone got a trash bag?” she asked.
Giacomo raised his hand. “I could eat it.”
The group groaned again. Atticus and Ortega both looked ill.
“What? I’m hungry!” Giacomo whined. “We haven’t eaten anything all day.”
With as much dignity as he could muster, Arven stood and tucked the goop of peanut-butter-coated hair behind his ear. “I’ve got plenty of supplies,” he said. “I’ll be happy to make something once I’m done with Mabosstiff’s meal.”
Giacomo and the others agreed this was a much better plan, and Juliana brought out some paper towels and a trash bag from inside the house.
“Why don’t you let us help you this time?” Eri said while Arven wiped his hands and moved the picnic blanket away from any reality-bending building structures.
“Yeah,” Mela agreed. “We might not be sandwich experts like you, but we can at least help clean up.”
“If thou wouldst offer instruction, we can assist in preparation as well,” Atticus added.
“You know the last thing I want is for anything to happen to Mabosstiff,” Ortega said. “You and that mutt are inseparable.”
Arven rolled up his grimy sleeve and rubbed his eyes with the back of his wrist. “Why do any of you want to help?” he asked. “I mean, a little while ago, you guys hated me.”
“What makes you say that?” Giacomo asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.
Arven pointed to Atticus. “You aimed a knife at me, for one.”
“Pure falsehood!” Atticus gasped. “I aimed a kunai at thee.”
“I’m here, too, you know,” Juliana mumbled, the cleaning supplies still in her arms.
Penny held out her hand, offering to take the trash. She wasn’t much for jumping into things vocally, but she did want to help in her own, not-behind-a-screen way.
Mela smiled at Arven. “See? We’re a team here. It’s in our name and everything. Plus, everyone has had Atticus point a weapon at them at some point. It’s pretty much a rite of passage with us.” She patted him on the shoulder. “I don’t know about the others, but I’d call you an honorary member of Team Star.”
She looked to her fellow bosses, who offered a mix of wide eyes and hesitant nods.
“What?” Mela said with a shrug. “We’ve still got new member quotas to fill, and I call dibs.”
Everyone agreed this was a very fair answer. Even when Penny pointed out that it was in no one’s best interest to declare loyalty to Team Star right now, they insisted all the more. Their group would stay together, no matter what threat it faced.
Starting with their newest recruit’s Pokémon.