In the confusion of the giant olive fiasco, Penny had lost track of both Arven and the grunt showing him in. Nothing to be concerned about, she assured herself. The nice thing about being in charge of Team Star was that every crew boss had sent her layouts of their respective bases for approval before building them. She liked to imagine herself touring each place, even if she never got the nerve to do it in person until now. Which meant she could easily find Ortega’s tent with zero assistance. Or rather, find his “office,” as he liked to refer to it. Every Team Star boss had their quirks. Atticus had a centuries-old vernacular, Mela enjoyed wearing boots she could barely walk in, and Ortega refused to acknowledge the difference between a professional work room and a tent in the middle of nowhere.
Then there’s me, their leader, who refuses to speak to her closest friends face-to-face. Penny sighed and walked across the damp grass, taking a longer path behind the scaffolding to avoid the clusters of socializing Team Star members. She wouldn’t be this nervous when she spoke to Ortega and Giacomo, she assured herself. After all, she knew them quite well. It was just all these strangers she didn’t feel comfortable with. Strangers who had found a home here. Maybe it didn’t matter too much if she struggled getting to know them. The important thing was Team Star doing exactly what she intended. Students had a place to come when school made them feel inadequate.
Penny smiled inside the helmet. Then she realized Ortega’s tent–trimmed with gold and pink ribbons at the edges–stood only a few yards in front of her. As she approached the entrance, Ortega’s authoritative tone stood out first, even if his words weren’t quite clear yet. He wasn’t happy. A muttering voice followed, but with the sound-muffling headgear, Penny could barely hear it at all.
The guard outside the tent stood unfazed by the conversation inside. In fact, he seemed downright distracted. The lanky teenager kept shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he craned his neck to search over his shoulder.
When he finally turned to look straight in front of him, he startled and pointed at Penny like she was the olive’s second victim. “Wait…did you just appear here? Or did you walk up?”
“Walked,” Penny assured him. “You were staring the other way.”
“Right,” he said, rubbing the back of his head. “Sorry. See, I’m trying to find this researcher person. I was supposed to bring her to the boss, and–”
Penny timidly raised her hand. “Um, that’d be me.”
Relief poured over the guy’s face. “Really? Oh, that’s awesome! Go in, go in!” He motioned her forward and Penny took a deep breath. The conversation inside had gone quiet for a moment, but when she pulled back the tent flap, the volume escalated.
“…and anyway, no one told me you were the one I was coming to see!” Arven was saying.
Penny moved inside and stood off to the corner. Ortega really did have the tent done up like a personal office–an outdoor carpet spread across the ground, a mahogany desk with a banker’s lamp, and shelving with an array of medals from all the activities his parents shoved him into. He picked up a silver medal for Rapidash dressage and swung it back and forth. “Oh, really?” he said to Arven. “You got all the way out here and no one mentioned my name even once?”
“No, they didn’t. I got a lot of yammering about your Radish Squad, but past that–”
Ortega slammed the medal onto the desk, shaking the lamp. “It’s the Ruchbah Squad! I swear, is everything about cooking with you?”
“Oh, sorry,” Arven crossed his arms and rolled his eyes. “Is cooking too pedestrian a topic for your sensitive, rich-boy ears?”
“Spare me the insults. Those are pedestrian.” Ortega’s gaze shot over to Penny. “You’re the researcher?”
She nodded, unsure what else to do. Ortega had a short fuse, sure, but he generally kept it under control around strangers. The better he knew someone, the more likely he was to blow his top. So far this conversation suggested he and Arven knew each other quite well.
“Well, you might as well go back outside and wait,” Ortega sighed, waving Penny towards the exit. “Our lead here might be too stuck-up to actually help us.”
“I’m stuck up?” Arven repeated. “I’m stuck up?”
“Yes, you are. Good to know you listened to at least one thing I said.”
Arven groaned with frustration and stomped outside the tent. The cooking utensils dangling off his pack clanged and clattered together with every step. They didn’t get much quieter when the tent flap closed.
Ortega remained seated at his desk and made no attempt to follow. “Well, at least we’ll hear if he leaves the base,” he muttered. He returned the medal to its place on the shelf and leaned over forward, burying his face in his hands. “They just told me there were two students coming. I didn’t get their names. Of all the stubborn, annoying…” He shook his head. “I know I should try to get along with him, but–”
“It’s okay if you don’t,” Penny said. The words spilled out without thinking. She lifted her hand to cover her mouth, only to remember she still had the helmet on. Ortega watched her expectantly. Even hopefully. Like she might have some actual good advice.
Well, she at least owed him her best shot. “I-I mean, you can’t get along with everyone,” she continued. “Friendships don’t last forever. Some don’t last long at all. I think it’s better to spend your time finding a good one than trying to hold onto a bad one, you know?”
Ortega smiled just a bit. “Funny. You sound just like someone else I know.”
“Uh…I do?” The inside of the helmet suddenly felt stuffy. Sweat dripped down the back of Penny’s neck. She’d been so focused on making sure no one recognized her face, she didn’t really think about her voice. Or her words.
“If you are who I think,” Ortega went on. “Then I’d like to say how glad I am to meet you in person. And how grateful I am for Team Star. It gives me a place where…people just accept me as me.”
Penny’s first instinct was to deny everything. But then a quieter part of her mind insisted it didn’t matter if Ortega had figured her out or not. He needed to talk, and as his friend, she should be here to listen.
“My family…well, most people expect me to act a certain way, coming from that, you know?” he said, watching the tent flap sway in the breeze. “Arven and I were so close when we were little, but then…some stuff happened, and he took it the worst possible way. I feel like if I’d just been a regular kid, he would have listened. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking.” He stood and opened the top drawer on the desk. Inside sat several pastel-colored boxes, tied up with golden ribbon. The top box had the ribbon undone, and Ortega lifted it out and tipped open the lid in a single motion.
“Want a rare candy?” he said, offering the box to Penny. “I have, like, dozens of them.”
Penny’s eyes went wide. Rows of colorful sweets sat nestled in silvery wrappers before her. She picked one up and turned it side-to-side. There was no mistaking the candy’s signature rainbow pattern with its glistening sugary shell. This was the genuine article. She stared dumbfounded at the box full of at least two dozen of them. Not that Ortega saw what her eyes were doing under the helmet. “How…?”
Ortega picked out a candy for himself, closed the box, and dropped it haphazardly back into the drawer. “My dad’s using one of the anomalies to replicate these like crazy. Apparently if you let one of his special Cyclizars hold one, then get on to ride, then throw a Quick Ball at the nearest wild Pokemon, then get off and on again a bunch of times, the Cyclizar will clone whatever it was holding. At least, I think that’s how it works.”
Penny nodded and gingerly tucked the candy into her pocket. At another time, she probably would have pressured Ortega to tell his father how dangerous playing with the anomalies could be. But for now, she kept her worries to herself. Her friend had enough on his mind. Navigating relationships always felt like this confusing web of code in a language no one would teach her. It felt good to be around people who gave her the time and space to learn. And it felt even better to return the favor, giving them the time and space to unwind their own troubles. As friends did.