“Cheers,” Arven said as he served up his own plate last. “To Team Star merely being questioned about a disappearing lake instead of arrested for it. May the group of us all live to see Paldea in one piece next week.”
Each person around the table held up a plastic cup filled with lime soda and tapped their rim against a neighbor’s. Because that’s what Team Star did when they went fancy. A collective “cheers” went around the table with a mix of determination, enthusiasm, and a general wish that Arven’s toasts would get on par with his cooking skills.
Penny swallowed, the bubbles tickling her throat as she looked at her plate. The steam fogged her glasses, and her stomach growled for something besides fizzed sugar water.
But she had to get this off her chest first. “Actually, on that note…”
Chairs squeaked against the linoleum as every person at the table turned to stare at her. Well, good to know she had their attention, at any rate. “I-I….the thing is, I’m pretty sure I know how to save Paldea. And hopefully Arven, Ortie, and I in the process. But it’s a bit risky.” She locked eyes with Arven. “I’m guessing you saw…someone while you were zoned out near the Rock…erm, the Groundblight Shrine, right?”
Arven frowned but nodded. “Yeah. She was this kinda-see-through little girl. Seemed pretty frightened of me. Said she was looking for her father.”
Her father? Penny took a moment to clean her lenses. Could their two ghosts be related, then? It was an interesting theory and one she wanted to discuss with Arven later. But for now, it wasn’t relevant to her point.
She returned her glasses to their place and continued, “I saw someone, too. Though they were older. Let’s be frank. The people we saw haven’t been alive for centuries. Professor Raifort thinks the ruinous Pokémon were formed from the ghosts of humans living under the tyrannous Paldean king.” She paused to let that sink into everyone’s heads. “And I agree.”
Her revelation got quite a few murmurs going around the table but nothing as dramatic as Juliana’s reaction back in Raifort’s classroom.
Giacomo looked downright annoyed. “So what’s this got to do with saving Paldea?”
Penny rested her chin on her folded hands. “Everything. My first thought was that after we rescued Ortie and our home, I could come back and help free the ghost inside Wo-Chien’s mind. He made it pretty clear if he gets out, Wo-Chien will try to hold my spirit in his place.”
She paused at the obvious discomfort from the group–squirming in their seats, putting their silverware down despite the plethora of delicious food left on their plates.
“I obviously thought that’d be something to avoid,” Penny said as she cleared her throat. “Even if I could help the ghost I met, who knows how long before I’d get out myself? But we know for a fact that our bond with the ruinous Pokémon is what’s causing them to attack Paldea in our defense. And now I think…no. I’m positive if I go back in there, I can stop Wo-Chien’s power.”
Everyone gasped. Mela leapt up, knocking half her meal from her plate to the table. “Whoa, whoa. We saw you standing there hypnotized for hours! You didn’t help anyone. You nearly died! How the hell is this new plan any different?”
Okay. Here’s where I need to sell it. Penny locked eyes with Mela and said in her firmest, most authoritative voice, “Because this time, I’ll be the conductor. And I’m locking it away so even its powers can’t work anymore.”
Juliana, along with anyone else who expected Penny to follow up with some grand explanation, soon found themselves disappointed. All she would say was that despite being in its current prison, Wo-Chien was clearly still causing damage to Paldea. But Penny felt confident that if she could reconnect with the ruinous Pokémon and release the ghost that had satiated its hunger for so long, Wo-Chien would be weakened enough that she could knock it out, re-imprison it somewhere stronger, and then escape herself.
When pressed for details on what this “stronger prison” would look like and how long she thought it would take to get herself free, Penny would get conveniently distracted and not hear the question.
The meal ended, and Penny volunteered to stay behind with Arven to help clean up the dishes.
“I can help, too,” Juliana offered, and the others all murmured a collective agreement. In retrospect, perhaps they should have sprung for disposable plates and cutlery along with the cups.
“The sink’s too small for all of us crowding around it,” Penny said. “Go get some sleep, all of you. That’s a strongly worded suggestion straight from your big boss.”
Giacomo, Eri, and Atticus frowned at this non-order but followed it anyway.
Mela defiantly stood her ground, Nemona at her side glancing nervously between Penny and the trio that had already left.
“She’s feeding us some Tauros crap, I’ll tell you that much.” Mela said to Nemona. “I dunno where the stink is yet, but it’s there.” She turned on her heel and marched out the door. Nemona took this as a cue to follow and help emphasize Mela’s point, leaving only Juliana still in the room.
Arven frowned at her. “Like Penny said, get some sleep,” he said. “We’ll take care of this.”
With that, Juliana relented and walked out of the room as well. She even closed the door behind her. What she did not do was walk away from it. Since Arven and Penny had attended so little class lately, she hoped they would forget how bad the doors were at soundproofing when you stood close to them.
At first all Juliana heard was running water and the wheeze of a near-empty soap dispenser. Maybe she being paranoid. Maybe this was just an older student thing–doing chores in total silence to relax the mind? But just as Juliana was set to walk away, the water cut off and Arven called out,
“Geez, have you ever washed dishes before?”
“Huh?” Clusters of silverware clanged together. It sounded like Penny was scrambling not to drop the entire collection on the floor. “I…do a lot of take-out,” she said as the cutlery plopped safely into a sink full of soapy water. “And instant stuff.”
“My condolences to your stomach. Here, grab the towel. I’ll wash, and you dry.”
There was a bit of shifting around while Penny presumably nabbed the towel and switched spots at the sink with Arven. The water sloshed around quickly in his confident hands. Juliana took the opportunity to slide down against the wall, getting into a seated position as silently as she could.
“Mela was right, wasn’t she?” Arven said after a moment. “You did lie to everyone.”
“You said your plan would ‘hopefully’ help us and Ortie, too.”
Penny’s footsteps shuffled across the linoleum. “Um, where do you want the…uh…”
“Molcajete? Put it on the counter over there. I’ll wash it last.”
Despite its small size, the little bowl made a heavy-sounding thunk on the wooden countertop.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Arven continued. “I obviously want to save our home. If this works, I’m all in. But it doesn’t fix whatever weird reality displacement the time machine gave us. Like you said, the ruinous Pokémon are trying to keep us from disappearing. Just…in a really stupid way.”
Juliana hugged her knees tight to her chest. That’s what felt so off, she realized. Like Mela, she’d been so sure Penny was hiding something, but she couldn’t find any holes in her proposal, either. Penny was prioritizing Paldea’s safety over her own and didn’t want anyone to know that.
“Yes, but once we get the threat against Paldea neutralized,” Penny said. “Ai and Turo will have every reason to help us.”
Arven slammed a dish down. “That is a load of Tauros crap! You can feed it to your friends if you want, but don’t you dare try feeding it to me. Not about my own useless parents!”
“I-I’m sorry,” Penny stuttered. “You’re right, okay? But this is the only solution that keeps the time machine online. And if subduing the ruinous Pokémon doesn’t fix us–”
“–because there is zero reason to think it will–”
Penny exhaled sharply. “Will you let me finish, you big lunk? If it doesn’t, the time machine is the only chance we have. I don’t know how we can get it to reverse the damage it did to us, but we can’t get near it to even try when Paldea’s still in danger. And hand me that plate already. You’ve been washing it for five minutes.”
There was a clink, but Arven still didn’t speak.
Penny continued, “Everyone thinks I’m the genius who can come up a magic solution that fixes all our problems at once. But have you seen what Ortie can do with machines? He’s every bit a genius, too. And what you learned to do with food? All on your own? Juliana told me you made bitter and salty herba mystica taste good. Who does that? And don’t even get me started at what Nemona can do when you put her in a Pokémon arena.”
Silence stretched between them. Whether Arven softened under the flattery or straight-up ignored her, Juliana had no clue.
Penny was the next person who spoke, and her voice sounded raspy, like her vocal chords weren’t prepped for these sorts of lectures. “Just because logic and programming are my thing doesn’t mean I’ve got some superpower, and I wish everyone would stop acting like I do.”
More water sloshed around, followed by the steady clink of dishes being passed between them. Once they got into a pattern, the sound became rather rhythmic and soothing to Juliana’s ears. The hallway had gone dim for the night, leaving a sharp contrast between the shaft of light from under the door and the dark silence that hung over the rest of school.
Penny cleared her throat. “You said the ghost you saw was a little girl looking for her father?”
“Yeah. We sort of scared each other, but I guess that makes sense.” Water trickled into the sink as Arven wrung out his sponge. Or dish rag. Juliana couldn’t recall which one she’d seen on the countertop before she left.
“The ghost I saw was a father looking for his daughter,” Penny said. “It’s possible…well, I’d say very likely….that they’ve been seeking each other all this time.”
“Seriously? Man.” Arven dropped the maybe sponge/maybe dish rag into the sink with a loud plop. “For thousands of years? I knew plenty of families were more dedicated than mine, but that’s hardcore.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it that,” Penny said. “It more seemed like the guy was mentally trapped in time. She could be the same.”
“I suppose.” The sink gurgled as Arven drained the water out of it. “So are you gonna tell me about this new, ‘stronger’ prison of yours? Because I’m guessing you plan for me to use it, too?”
“I expect yours will be different from mine,” Penny said. There were at least five dish-clanks and the swing of a creaky cabinet door before she added on, “Ting-Lu’s item is a stone bowl, correct?”
“The records call it a vessel, but yeah.”
Footsteps crossed the little kitchen. Then stone scraped against wood. “You forget to wash something?” Penny asked.
“Oh,” Arven answered after a long pause. “I see.”
The water turned back on again, but despite sitting and listening for a while longer, Juliana got no more out of Arven and Penny’s conversation. She finally gave up and moved away from the door before she punched it out of sheer frustration. If she didn’t know any better, she would have sworn Penny knew she was here.
The next morning, Juliana went with Nemona to their History Class midterm. Penny insisted on tagging along, too. Arven and the Team Star bosses agreed to meet them out in the lobby afterwards. Once they had their talk with Raifort, it would be off to the Grasswither Shrine for whatever Penny had in mind. Juliana hoped the girl knew what she was doing.
The trio showed up early to class, before anyone else had entered the room.
Raifort sat at her desk with an eerily flawless stack of test packets beside her. While she did raise an eyebrow at their entrance, it felt more like an acknowledgment than a genuine display of surprise.
“I would tell you I don’t allow anyone to start tests early,” she said as she folded her hands in front of her. “But I suspect you’re not here for the mid-term.”
Juliana bit her lip, as those were about to be her exact words, and she didn’t have a backup option. This woman still unnerved her, and she preferred to have her lines rehearsed.
Thankfully. Nemona stepped up. “We actually wanted to tell you we won’t be coming to class anymore. Or meeting outside class. We’re done researching the ruinous treasures for you.”
“Oh?” Raifort’s tone barely rose at all. She sounded curious, maybe, but not upset. “And may I ask why?”
“I-I–” Nemona said, also put off the calm demeanor. “Well, they’re ruinous, for one.”
Juliana held her breath, waiting for a scolding about their incompetence or a lecture about today’s youth giving up too easily. Or something. Instead, Raifort took a mid-term off the top of the stack and began writing on it.
“I suspected as much,” she finally said. “Though of course, I had hoped my instinct was wrong. You were my best leads in quite a while. Perhaps I’ll never achieve my dream.”
“What dream?” Juliana demanded, glad to have found her voice again. “You’re saying all this time, you only wanted was to capture one of these Pokémon?”
“Capture?” Raifort paused her writing huffed at the suggestion. “What a small-minded thought. No, Miss Juliana. I wanted to become one of them.” Despite calling Juliana by name, Raifort kept her gaze hyperfocused on Penny. And Penny did the same in return. Neither one blinked, and Juliana’s eyes burned just watching them.
It was Raifort who broke the silence with a simple observation: “You aren’t surprised.”
“I don’t surprise easily anymore,” Penny said.
Raifort smirked. “After what you encountered at the Grasswither Shrine? I expect not.” She scribbled a few more things on the paper and then passed it over to Juliana. The questions remained blank, but Juliana’s name was written neatly at the top with her score: 5/5. 100%.
“Um…” Juliana said.
“You and your friends understand Paldean history better than anyone else in this school, save for me. I grade honestly. Your final shall reflect the same.”
Juliana decided not to argue the point, folded the test, and shoved it into her pocket.
“Perhaps the physical treasures of the ruinous Pokémon are nothing special,” Raifort said. “Or perhaps the ghosts who feed them with their emotions are nothing special. Interchangeable, even.”
Penny tensed up at Raifort’s words. The woman made no reaction, but then, Juliana couldn’t imagine she didn’t notice.
“I’ve always believed the second to be true,” she continued. “That if I could somehow bond with the ruinous Treasures, I would be able to merge my mind with one of theirs. All that ancient power at my disposal…” She let out a deep, longing sigh. “Sadly, there has always been one insurmountable hurdle for me.”
“And what’s that?” Juliana said.
Penny glared at her for taking the bait. Like she wouldn’t do the same if Juliana hadn’t.
Raifort certainly enjoyed the indulgement. “The emotions that created the Treasures…all of them started from worthy desires.” Her gaze trailed to the hallway. She of course had no way of knowing that Arven and the others waited in the lobby for them. It was still creepy. “Safety for their home, for example. Or…” She shifted towards Penny. “Justice for their friends…” She closed her eyes, but as she spoke, Juliana couldn’t help but picture the Pokémon Ortega and Turo had bonded with and the feelings of the people who had brought those Pokémon to life:
“Provision for their family…Success for their careers…”
Raifort shook her head. “You’ll notice the king himself never created any of these. Because all he ever brought to the table was his own greed. A powerful catalyst but never a source of power. And sadly, I can offer no more than him.”
She glanced at the clock hung above the doorframe and finally addressed Juliana. “My other students will be here soon, so I would appreciate it if you left before they arrive.”
“No problem,” Juliana said in complete honesty. She hurried towards the doorway, and Nemona followed suit. But Penny still stood at Raifort’s desk. Apparently the woman had one more piece of advice for their supposed student medium.
“If your goal is the same as mine, I believe you will succeed, and I wish you all the best. However–” She adjusted her glasses. “–if you had in mind something more foolish, like trying to subdue one of the ruinous Treasures through your sheer force of will, I imagine it could only end in disaster for you.”
“Appreciate the vote of confidence,” Penny muttered. Then she followed Juliana and Nemona out the door.
When Penny reported back on Raifort’s words, the group seemed pretty dejected. They headed out of the library and down the path towards the Grasswither Shrine as planned, but it was hardly a cheerful hike. Nemona’s attempts at small talk were met with minimal replies. Really, if it weren’t for the urgency of the situation, Penny half-expected the team to be dragging their feet, too.
To them, Raifort had been a complete dead end. Little to contribute beyond what they already knew and unwilling to help them find out more. But Raifort had just confirmed for Penny that this crazy stupid idea of hers might actually work.
When they finally reached the shrine, Penny took a deep breath. She expected she’d be a nervous wreck, and yet she’d never felt so calm. Her hands went to the six Poké Balls at her belt, and she pulled them free.
“I need you guys to hold onto these,” she said, handing one to each of her friends. Except, of course, that there were seven of them in the group, and she only had six Poké Balls.
Arven stood empty-handed at the end beside the others and gave an awkward laugh. “I’d say I’m hurt if I actually knew what this is all about.”
“I wanna know the same,” Mela said, her voice low and dangerous. She dropped the Poké Ball Penny had given her into Nemona’s free hand. Nemona, not expecting this, almost lost her grip on it. Then, looking between the two, she handed the Poké Ball Penny had given her over to Arven.
“What the hell are you doin’ giving us your Pokémon?” Mela snapped.
Penny didn’t answer. Instead she pulled up her tablet and made a several taps. “My student ID is on my desk, if you need to access my other teammates.”
Mela grabbed her wrist. Almost instinctively, Penny flashed back to the moment of leaving Ortie behind with Ai and Turo. A lot of horrible thoughts bubbled to her mental surface, but they did let her pull herself free by phasing right through Mela’s grip.
Mela staggered backwards, breathing heavily. “That’s how it is, then? You’re pullin’ the same stunt on us again!”
The accusation took Penny by surprise. “What stunt?”
Now it was Giacomo who stepped forward. “‘I’ll fix this mess on my end. Just leave it to me.’ Sound familiar?”
Before Penny could answer, Eri added onto the memory: “‘I dragged you all into this. So I’ll take responsibility for everything.'”
“‘Even though we never met in person, you were all so kind to me…'” Atticus continued.
How do they remember everything I said so well? Penny thought. But that answer was obvious. Because for a year and a half, it was the last conversation they’d had with each other. Penny remembered their words just as well. Asking her to explain herself, why it sounded like they’d never speak again…
…and here she was, all set and ready to repeat those words once more.
Penny rubbed her eyes while Mela delivered the finishing blow. Her last farewell before she ghosted the team: “‘I need to go take care of some things. Bye-bye, guys. Thanks for everything.’ Did that about cover it for ya?” She spat on the ground at Penny’s feet. “You think we were pissed because you started Operation Starfall? I don’t know about these guys, but I couldn’t care less about that. Thought it was pretty gutsy of you, actually. But don’t you dare pull this mysterious self-sacrifice crap on us again. You wanna take the fall for the group? You freakin’ tell us!”
A million excuses filled Penny’s mind. But none of them held up against her team’s words. Because they were right. She acted like she had to be this protector for the group. Like they couldn’t handle themselves. Or make tough decisions when it came to setting things right.
Eri’s eyes were already filled with tears, smearing her face make-up, but now Mela’s mascara ran in lines down her cheeks, too. “We got you were doin’ somethin’ dangerous here. We know it ain’t safe. But you talked at dinner like you were sure you’d come back.”
“I plan to come back,” Penny insisted. Mela rolled her eyes, and everyone else held up the Poké Balls she had distributed among them. “Okay, I concede I didn’t communicate that well.” She wrung her hands as she stared at the ground. There had to be some way to at least explain the rationale behind her actions, flawed as it was. “I want to think I can do this, but if the ghost inside there wasn’t able to leave on his own after all those years…? I dunno. Maybe I’m too full of myself.”
“Dude!” Mela threw her hands into the air. “You hacked the Pokémon League!” Her fellow bosses nodded their agreement.
“Thy guidance crafted our discombobulated acquaintanceship into a true team,” said Atticus.
“You fixed the bullying at school when the actual people with authority couldn’t handle it,” Eri added.
“Your Eevee team is adorable!” said Nemona. She got a few questioning looks for this but assured everyone this was every bit the massive personal accomplishment as theirs were.
Giacomo smiled and laid his hand on Penny’s shoulder. “You have reasons to come back, B.B.”
A reason to come back. His words filled her with a warmth she’d almost forgotten. She closed her eyes to focus on it. If she could remember this feeling her friends gave her, there was no way whatever monster slept in that prison could hold her. She just wished she could pass that feeling onto the ghost who’d been trapped in there so long. If only…
Wait. Maybe I can. “Arven,” she said, whirling towards him. “Hear me out here, but I think we should travel farther north. Halfway between the Grasswither Shrine and the Rocks-Fall-Everyone–ugh, I mean the Groundblight Shrine!”
“Oo…kay,” Arven said.
Penny began to pace through the grass. “If we really want to starve the ruinous Pokémon, our best bet would be to do more than just release the ghosts. What if we could help them move past those emotions altogether?”
“You mean…?” Arven said.
Penny nodded, with no regard for the fact that Arven seemed to be the only one following her line of thought at all. “We shouldn’t do this separately. Let’s get to a halfway point and do it together.” She started down the path only to turn at the last second as if she’d just noticed everyone else there. “Sorry. Just follow us, guys. You’re about to see a long overdue family reunion.”