If there was one thing Clavell prided himself on, it was his sense of subtlety. Unlike the ruffians of Team Star, he knew when a situation required a quieter approach. Take the present moment, for example. He could be marching into the Ruchbah Squad’s base, demanding the full story behind why a wealthy business heir like Ortega would join a group like Team Star to begin with. But instead he’d chosen to follow Juliana from a distance and see what Team Star did when they thought she had one less ally. She’d proven herself quite capable against the Segin Squad. But it would be irresponsible to expect her to handle Ortega the same way. His formidable crew had already managed to demoralize her without so much as cracking open the gate. Clavell knew this because of the way she’d cried out in great alarm only a few moments ago. He could not tell what she’d said from this distance, but she’d been looking at her phone at the time. Had they perhaps sent her some photographic evidence of their sinister plot to destroy Paldea piece by piece? If so, Clavell needed to get hold of that phone as soon as possible. He bent low in the grass, the tall blades encompassing him up to his shoulders and poking him in the neck. He’d been bumped by several Capsakids on the way here and had a Gyarados ready to chase off any more that showed up. Of course, using Gyarados would no doubt give away his position, so he sincerely hoped it didn’t come to that.
Up until recently, he’d thought the same of Team Star that everyone else did: They were troublemakers–hooligans who spent class time customizing their clothing and vehicles with the most flagrant disregard for dress codes and decency. But in the past few weeks, Clavell concluded this was all a cover-up for their truly heinous plot: pulling apart Paldea’s reality at the seams.
A genius-level epiphany, to be sure, though Clavell hadn’t made it in a vacuum. An anonymous source had sent the school a list of incidents shortly after the inception of Operation Starfall. Clavell didn’t want to believe it at first, but the more he began to pay attention, the more he noticed the strange occurrences all around him. It was especially bad in the classrooms. Sometimes his feet were so sluggish, he could barely move in there. Then there was the time he’d been training up his Pokémon in the schoolyard only to have a ghostly image of a student’s face float through the middle of battle. And to think all this time he’d blamed such effects on his questionable choice of morning coffee.
The source didn’t name any culprits, but Clavell knew how to read between the lines. Something bad was happening, ergo an organization that began with “Team” and ended with some jazzy-sounding noun had to be responsible. How fortunate he had Cassiopeia and Juliana to help him bring these criminals to justice. He hoped to speak with her before she entered the base itself. He simply needed to watch and wait for the proper opportunity…
Juliana dried her eyes, feeling more than a little foolish as she scrolled through her account balance. She’d thought the funds from Operation Starfall were her only major income. Surely defeating gym leaders couldn’t pay that much.
In fact, it paid quite well. In retrospect, the gym leaders did tell her what she won after her matches ended, but they always squeezed it in with a bunch of thematic congratulations, explanations about what this or that TM did, and weird photo ops. Juliana would admit, she tended to tune them out. Whatever kind of funding the Pokémon League got, if members could throw this much at challengers, it had to be astronomical. She’d never considered a career in the League before now, but the possibility had moved pretty high up her list.
After she helped keep her friend in a consistent corporeal state, of course.
“You okay there?” Arven asked. He stood awkwardly at her side, unsure what to make of her outburst. Maybe with luck, he’d forget the whole thing ever happened.
“Y-yes,” Juliana answered sheepishly. “I, uh…thought my finances were, um, more of a problem than they actually are.” She scrolled a little further. “Plus, it looks like the store didn’t charge me for the peanut butter shipment, since they didn’t send it out yet. Maybe I can return half for a partial refund?”
“Uh-huh,” said Arven. He turned and surveyed the base in front of them. On the outside, it looked just like the others: a slapped-together fence, an old school bell on the gate, and billowing flags embroidered with the Team Star logo. In theory, the pastel pink on these flags should have made them look softer. But Juliana knew as well as anyone that fairy types were nothing to be trifled with. If anything, the color was more intimidating.
“Excuse me, but…are you two going inside?”
Juliana startled. The quiet voice sounded familiar, but when she turned, she didn’t recognize the speaker at all. The words came from a shortish girl wearing a navy Great Ball sweatshirt, a shiny Eevee backpack, and a helmet that totally hid her face. She reminded Juliana of the shy girl from school. But the backpack and sweatshirt were different, and the shy girl didn’t wear a helmet. So they couldn’t be the same person. Could they?
“We’re about to,” Arven said, straightening his backpack. “And you are…?”
“I came to help with Team Star’s research into the anomalies,” the girl replied. “My name’s…uh, Jenny.”
“Jenny,” Juliana repeated. “I can remember that. Nice to meet you, Jenny.”
Jenny didn’t answer directly, but she did mutter something that sounded like, “Huh. Guess G.L. Allister was right.” She then turned and walked towards the gate with a slow but purposeful stride. The girl really did seem familiar. Just like Clive did when he first showed up.
Juliana started to follow, but as she did so, Arven pulled her back and leaned in close. “Don’t turn around, but there’s a creepy man with purple sunglasses watching us from the grass. Pretty sure he’s been following us since we left the Segin Squad’s base.”
Juliana lowered her hand from its ready position to slap Arven out of her personal bubble. “Oh?” she said, her gut sinking a bit. “Does he have a retro, gravity-defying haircut?”
“Yeah. You know him?”
“Sadly, yes,” Juliana admitted. “You go on ahead. I’ll follow when I can.”
Arven didn’t look thrilled with her answer, though he took her at her word and followed Jenny up to the gate. It opened without either of them needing to ring the bell. Guess that’s how it goes when you call ahead, she thought.
Penny jumped as the gate slammed shut behind them. She couldn’t help it. All her senses were on high alert. The student who might be their key to finding a pattern in all this chaos stood right next to her. It took all her self-control not to corner him and immediately insist he spill his guts. But for now, Team Star still thought she was a helpful hand called in by Cassiopeia. If they suspected she was doing anything to turn Arven away, they’d kick her out. I just need to talk to Ortega and Giacomo, she reminded herself. Drop this whole silly charade, tell them who I am, and then we can all get to work.
“Thanks for coming,” said the grunt who showed them in, speaking more to Arven than Penny. “You’re the guy who does all the phasing jazz, right?”
“Uh…I guess so?” Arven replied.
The grunt pointed ahead. “I’ll take you to our boss. He’s just up this way. And…” The guy crossed his arms as he looked Penny up and down. “…what’s wrong with you, exactly?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” Penny replied, more than a little put off by the rough tone. She could understand the team being under stress. The importance of their mission had to weigh on their minds. But Team Star prided itself on its acceptance. There was no need to be so terse with visitors. “I’m here to help–”
The gates creaked back open behind them. “Excuse me! Coming through!” a female grunt called from outside. “We’ve got another olive victim!” The Team Star members all bunched together, creating a wide path down the center of the camp while the edges got straight-up claustrophobia-inducing.
Another what? Penny thought, straining her neck to see through the crowd. She must have heard wrong. In all the documentation she’d been sent so far, there was no mention of anything that sounded remotely like–
A giant olive rolled down the cleared path. Penny recognized it at once as the surprisingly light and bouncy prop that Katy made challengers push through her strange, web-fenced maze. Far less familiar were the arms sticking out the sides of it, waving frantically. Somewhere from the obscured section of the olive, a voice squeaked out, “I don’t know why this is happening! You’re only supposed to roll the olive! Someone tell me why this is happening!”
“There, there, buddy,” said the grunt pushing the poor victim along. “That’s rough, I know. But you’ll be okay.”
Penny stared slack-jawed as the olive-bound gym assistant rolled past her. Then the tightness of the crowd got to be a bit too much and she pulled away, seeking a quiet corner to process everything. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She almost felt like doing both.
The second the gate had closed on Arven and Jenny, “Clive” came tumbling out of a tall patch of grass, yelling and slapping away half a dozen Capsakids. It was the kind of scene that made Juliana feel embarrassed by proxy. She kicked at a clump of dirt, politely avoiding interaction until he pulled himself together.
“I bet those Team Star ruffians sent them after me,” Clive growled as he loosed his Gyarados to chase them off. “They want to throw us off the trail, eh? Well, we’ll see about that! Operation Starfall all the way! Am I right?”
He grinned at Juliana, who only made eye contact long enough to acknowledge him. “Um, I don’t know if you got the message, but Cassiopeia has cancelled Operation Starfall.”
“She what?” Clive gasped. Juliana winced as a group of Team Star grunts crested a distant hill, rolling what looked like the giant olive from the Cortondo Gym challenge. They seemed pretty involved in their work, but if Clive got that loud again, he’d probably defeat whatever purpose he had for hiding this whole time. The open, grassy space carried sound inconveniently well.
“Um, you probably want to keep your voice down, Direct–”
“It’s Clive!” he snapped, pretty much doing the exact opposite.
Juliana groaned. So it seemed, as with generations of children before her, she had to be the one explaining to an adult how to deal with his problems. She ducked into the tall grass and motioned for him to follow. She wasn’t even sure why they were hiding, other than it seemed important to Clive. She’d follow his lead for now, though her willingness to trust his judgement was wearing pretty thin.
The Team Star grunts did pause at the noise, but then the olive started to tip backwards down the hill, and they ran to steady it.
“Why are you so angry at Team Star, anyway?” Juliana whispered.
Clive put a shaking hand to his brow, seeming for the first time to actually hear her. The man never looked young per se, but as he spoke, his voice carried the clear fatigue of his age. “I’m not angry,” he said. “But I am frightened. Those criminals in there are actively destroying the very fabric of Paldea.”
She blinked a few times. “Figuratively?”
Juliana bit her tongue in an attempt to hold back her laughter. Team Star had been a nuisance, for sure, and she certainly couldn’t say she trusted them. But a criminal organization with the technology to attack Paldea’s existence? How could anyone even begin to take that seriously?
Then Juliana realized she didn’t need to bite her tongue. As hilarious as the situation was, she couldn’t bring herself to so much as smile about it. In fact, she couldn’t bring herself to smile at all.
Her hands flew to her face in what was probably a very good Arven impersonation. Her cheeks didn’t feel numb, and she could speak just fine. But she couldn’t change her expression. Her mouth and eyebrows–the muscles simply wouldn’t budge past a certain point.
“What’s wrong?” Clive asked, suddenly the picture of a calm and concerned teacher.
“I-I don’t know!” Juliana squeaked. “I can’t stop frowning! My expression won’t change at all!”
She expected Clive to shake his head and call her crazy. She felt like she was crazy. But instead he settled cross-legged in the grass and gave a long sigh. “So, it’s happening to you too, then?”
“Close your eyes,” he said in a calm but firm tone. “Take deep breaths. I’ve found if one can relax and reset themselves, as it were, this effect usually passes.”
Skeptical as she was about “relax-and-reset” advice from the guy who’d been yelling a moment ago, Juliana slipped carefully from her kneeled position to a fully seated one. She rested her bag on her lap, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose. Then, at Clive’s prompting, she exhaled slowly through her mouth. She focused her thoughts on the air flowing in and out of her body, on the solidness of the ground beneath her and the grass all around. Then, as some of the tension began to recede from her body, she felt the edges of her mouth turning upwards. She worked her face muscles, which tingled with a pins-and-needles feeling, but to her vast relief, they moved how she pleased. Her heart pounded with adrenaline, but she forced herself to smile again and again just to make sure she could.
“What…what was that?” she asked as she opened her eyes. Clive, oblivious to his hypocrisy, put a finger to his lips in a shushing motion. He nodded towards the Ruchbah Squad’s gate, which had cracked open to allow the olive-pushing grunts through. They had to rotate their baggage to get in, and Juliana saw to her horror that something was sticking out of the olive. Something alive.
She gasped and covered her mouth. “Is that…a person in there?”
“Indeed,” Clive answered. “My observations show Team Star has gathered quite a few affected individuals here, though for what purpose I do not know. I assume from your reaction that they have not sent you any convenient confessions?”
Juliana shook her head. “I thought they were going to help Arven. I just sort of took their word on it. And now I’m worried about Cassiopeia, too.”
She supposed it sounded pretty naive now that she said it aloud.
Clive frowned and pushed his purple glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. “We should put Cassiopeia out of our minds for the time being. If they are willing to speak with you, you should go inside and get whatever information you can. But do not drop your guard. And call for my help the instant you feel you cannot handle the situation alone. Do you understand?”
Juliana nodded absently. What else could she do? Clive–well, Director Clavell–had all the resources of the academy to back up his claim against Team Star. And Arven was still inside the base, thinking these people could help him. And Jenny? Whoever she was, might know as little about Team Star as Arven did. Juliana stood, gripped Tinkatuff’s Poké Ball at her belt, and marched forward. She would go in there, find out the truth, and deal with it. Her emotions would not overpower her again.