The gates closed behind Arven with a demoralizing clang. He couldn’t believe he’d listened to Ortega’s Team Star buddies, talking him up about the Herba Mystica. And he doubly couldn’t believe he was thinking of taking them up on their offer.
No. Juliana said she would help, and he would stick with that plan. Maybe Ortega was the type to stab people in the back. But his and Juliana’s friendship was stronger than that. It had to be.
“Sorry you had to see such an embarrassing battle,” Juliana said. “But I’m glad you still want to travel with me.”
“Of course,” Arven said, trying his best to give her an optimistic smile. “Who said I didn’t?”
Juliana shuffled her feet. “You took a while to catch up. I thought maybe you were waiting for me to leave so you could go off in another direction or something.”
“N-no, nothing like that,” Arven said. “I’m just slow sometimes, is all. And anyway, we should get going before–what the heck is that?” He pointed towards the horizon, where far in the distance, the oasis of fresh grass met the harsh, snowy ground. And traveling across the grass at full speed was someone on a Cyclizar. The girl was wearing a Naranja Academy uniform, and her dark brown ponytail whipped back and forth in the wind behind her.
The student council president? What’s she doing out–
“Oh, no!” Juliana cried. “She’s going to crash!”
She wasn’t wrong. A large rock sat directly in the president’s path. But her Pokémon made no attempt to swerve around it. As she zoomed closer, Arven also saw Nemona didn’t have her usual confident expression, but a wide-eyed face of fear.
Cyclizar smacked the rock full force. The Pokémon itself appeared fine. Rubbery padding on its wheel-like appendages absorbed the impact with the same ease they would an attack in battle.
Nemona, however, was a different story. She continued to fly forward, still in riding position, her limbs frozen.
Arven flew into a panic, first thinking he should try to catch her, then realizing that because he was panicked, she would fly right through him and crash head-first into the fence at his back.
Thankfully, Juliana had more wits about her and brought out her newly evolved Tinkaton. “Catch Nemona!” she quickly ordered. Tinkaton didn’t hesitate. She flipped her hammer upside down and braced herself against it, two pairs of pink squishy arms ready for impact. The larger arms on her head nabbed Nemona out of the air and pulled her down, while the smaller ones embraced her to absorb the force of her sudden stop.
“Th-thank you,” Nemona said in a shaky voice as Tinkaton helped the girl to her feet. “Man, there’s been some weird stuff lately, but…maybe I’ll just take a flying taxi next time I need to catch up with you.”
She dusted herself, smiled at Juliana, and extended her arms wide. “But hey, you’re here! I’m so glad! I was waiting at the Montenevera Gym forever!” She pulled Juliana into a fierce but quick hug. “I mean, I assumed you’d go there next, after you beat Larry and everything. But then I waited and waited, and you didn’t show, and La Primera hadn’t seen you around, so I got super-worried. I don’t know what I’d do without my best rival!”
“You don’t need to worry about me,” Juliana assured her, but returned the hug all the same. Nemona’s Cyclizar joined them as well, trying to nuzzle itself between the two.
Arven crossed his arms. “Glad you’re all right and all, but Juliana’s not headed for the next gym. We have other plans.”
“Huh?” Nemona recalled Cyclizar and cocked her head at Arven. Not like she was caught off guard by his presense–more like she was surprised he was there and speaking with her. “The treasure hunt isn’t going to last forever,” she said. “If Juliana wants to make Champion Rank before the semester is over, she has to keep moving forward.”
Arven had so many snarky replies for that, he couldn’t decide where to start. But before he could even narrow the list down, another figure appeared on the horizon. Arven squinted. It was that Clive guy, who seemed to have the sense not to ride around on out-of-control Cyclizars, and he was sprinting up to them while holding his hand fiercely on top of his hair.
“Does anyone require medical attention? I saw Miss Nemona rushing up at a dangerous, breakneck speed! I attempted to intercept her, but–” He looked between everyone, cleared his throat, and relaxed his stiff posture into a more casual stance. “Erm, that is…the prez here went zooming past me faster than a quick attack! Looks like she made it safe, though.” He nodded in approval at each of their intact, non-injured appearances. Then he addressed Juliana. “Nemona was worried about you, so I gave her our location info. What happened in there? I don’t know if it was an illusion or something else, but I could have sworn I saw you grow higher than the fence!”
“No, that was real,” Juliana said with a shudder. “Not to mention terrifying. And it was completely the Team Star boss’s fault! Everything happened right as he grabbed me.”
“Well…” Arven wrung his hands a bit. “Technically, it happened when both of us grabbed you.”
“So…you’re saying it was both your faults?” Nemona asked.
Juliana looked at her two friends like they’d suggested a Hoppip use Splash against a Talonflame. “Don’t be ridiculous. We’ve been traveling together this whole time, and Arven’s had no effect on me at all. It was just a coincidence he grabbed me when the boss did.” She turned back to Clive. “Anyway, Team Star is gathering people who’ve been effected by these weird events, just like you said. They were really interested in this phasing thing Arven does. They said they wanted to experiment on him.”
“Study,” Arven corrected. “Study is the word they used.”
Clive glanced briefly at Arven but motioned for Juliana to continue.
“So, even though I was completely freaked out by what happened to me, I knew I couldn’t let them continue their experiments. I challenged the boss to a battle and demanded he dismantle his crew if I won.”
Nemona looked absolutely starry-eyed at this development. “Oh, wow! And?”
“I, uh, lost. Horribly.” Juliana hung her head. “And the worst of it was, the battle was really lucky for me! Sheer cold hit four times in a row.”
“Four times?” Nemona’s eyes went wide. “That is impressive!”
“Indeed,” Clive said. “You know, I’ve heard that if Pokémon have a super-close bond with their trainer, it can have some noticeable effects in battle. They’ll dodge attacks more easily, land hits more often, and sometimes they can even shrug off status effects.”
Juliana perked up at this insight. “So…maybe my Beartic hit so many times because of how close we are?”
“You said you only recently caught it in a raid, and it only just now started listening to you,” Arven reminded her. “Sounds closer to the same weird events you think Team Star is causing than a long-forged bond of affection.”
Juliana shrugged. “Maybe ice types bond to their trainers more quickly?”
“Hmm…you know who knows a lot about ice types?” said Nemona in an almost singsong voice.
Clive smiled, seeming to catch her meaning. “Grusha, the leader of Glaseado Gym. An excellent suggestion!”
“Whoa, hold up!” Arven stepped pointedly into the middle of their happy little gym-touring trio. “Aren’t we forgetting something here? What about the titans?”
Juliana turned to face him, and to her credit, she did look like she felt a bit guilty. But apparently not guilty enough to change her stance. “I can’t take the titans if I’m so weak that a Team Star bully can beat me up. Plus, if Grusha knows a way Beartic can hit with Sheer Cold every time, we’ll defeat the titans much faster.”
“What’s this about titans?” Nemona asked, but Arven ignored her.
“You’re just like the perfect little school council president, aren’t you? It’s all about the Champion title.”
Juliana huffed. “I’d be glad to be more like Nemona. She plans her strategy ahead of time so she doesn’t have to figure things out as she goes. She knows the results before she makes a move.”
Nemona blushed at the compliment. Arven felt alone and betrayed all over again.
Juliana’s expression softened and she patted his shoulder. Arven almost pulled away, but her words won him over: “I get you’re scared for Mabosstiff. But I promised I’d help, and I will. Only, let me handle my Pokémon my way. All right?”
Arven kicked out the ground. Had he read her wrong? Maybe he was so used to people abandoning him, he didn’t know what a reliable friend acted like. “I guess…the false dragon titan isn’t too far from the Glaseado–”
Before he could finish, there was a rustle as something approached from around the side of the Ruchbah Squad’s high, haphazard fence. Arven braced himself for some Team Star grunts to rush into view and make trouble. Nemona’s hand flew to one of her Poké Balls. But instead of an ambush, the giant olive rolled forward.
“H-hello?” Nemona said. “Are you a student? If you’re trying to do the Cortondo gym challenge, you know you don’t have to roll the olive this far, riiii–” Her words dissolved as the olive rotated slightly. It looked much worse for the wear than when it arrived, with large chunks of olive green foam ripped out of it. Team Star had certainly done a number on the Cortondo gym icon.
But, as the olive turned, it soon became clear that their handiwork had also freed the poor gym worker trapped inside.
“I’m sorry. What am I looking at?” Nemona asked.
“Team Star’s doing,” Juliana replied, then eyeballed the gym worker. He looked dazed and disoriented, his hair disheveled. And he still had chucks of foam encircling his limbs like some roughly hewn pool floaties. But he was walking on his own two feet, which was a considerable improvement from before. “At least, I thought it was. Are you okay, mister?”
The gym worker didn’t seem to hear her. He shook his head and pulled a bit of foam from his ear. “It is really weird in there,” he said. “Don’t suppose you folks are headed back towards Cortondo Gym? I’m not sure I’m in the best shape for travel.”
Juliana and Nemona shook their heads, but Clive raised his hand. “I can call us a taxi and make sure you get back safely. And on the way, I’d like to hear about your experience. Everything you can remember.”
The gym nodded and stumbled over to Clive, who let him lean against his shoulder.
“Well, that settles that, I suppose,” Nemona said. “Let’s get hiking.”
“Hiking?” Arven whined. He knew the taxis wouldn’t take them, not when he and Juliana had never travelled that far from the school before. Something about proper clearance and whatnot. But still, he didn’t think they’d have to walk.
“I want to get Cyclizar to a center to make sure it’s okay before riding it again. And I don’t think Juliana’s, um…ride Pokemon can carry all three of us and our stuff.”
It could if it was at full strength, Arven thought. Bet it could even carry four of us then.
Nemona put on a bright, confident smile, which seemed to lift Juliana’s sprits, but not Arven’s. “But no worries, I know the quickest path we can take.” With that, Nemona bolted off across the grass, motioning for the others to follow.
Juliana followed, full of energy in her step.
Arven readjusted his pack and reluctantly took up the rear. Carrying all this heavy stuff into the mountains wasn’t going to be easy. He hoped the center wasn’t too far.
As they crossed from the bare grass into the snow, Arven stole one last glance over his shoulder at the base behind him. The image of Juliana growing huge with those creepy stretched-out eyes wasn’t leaving his brain anytime soon. She’d told him that what happened to her in there couldn’t possibly be his fault. But he also couldn’t help wondering if it still would have happened if Ortega had been the only one to grab her. Nothing happened when the guy interacted with his fellow team star members in the case. If anything, they could have observed the same event and, using Juliana’s logic, blamed the entire thing on Arven instead. So, if it was caused by the two of us, what does that mean? he thought, gritting his teeth. If there’s a connection, I don’t get it.
“You sure you’re okay, Ortega?” Giacomo asked for at least the fifth time. It seemed that creepy Tandemaus photos combined with Juliana’s freakish growth spurt had seriously put the dark-type trainer on edge. Add in Ortega’s foot phasing through the Starmobile, and he was now downright paranoid his friend could vanish any second.
“I already told you, I’m fine!” Ortega snapped. It wasn’t the type of behavior Team Star bosses showed to each other. They were supposed to have higher standards than time.
But Penny knew too well how fear could send standards flying out the window. While Giacomo and Ortega vented through their frustrations, Penny gazed at the gate where Juliana and Arven had just left. She wasn’t looking at anything in particular, but when her thoughts were racing like this, it helped to keep her glaring focus on inanimate objects rather than people. The latter led to some awkward misunderstandings.
“Juliana wasn’t happy about that loss,” she finally said. “She’s going to train hard to make up for it. And she’ll definitely challenge us again.”
“So we need to warn the other bosses to bolster their defenses,” Ortega said. “Eri will probably be okay, but Atticus?” He rubbed his eyes with the cleanest part of his muddy sleeve and inhaled loudly through his teeth. “Ugh, we basically just sent the academy’s most promising new student against him, didn’t we? Maybe Eri can send him some reinforcements?”
He pulled out his phone, and Penny raised her hand. “Hold up. First, we should discuss the proposed adjustment to Team Star’s code with them.”
“Huh?” Ortega paused with his thumb over the screen. His eyes searched Penny’s face in confusion. “What are you talking about? This isn’t a time to debate over the code. He needs as much time to prepare as possible.”
“Just wait a second!” Penny said, then covered her mouth, surprised at her own volume. “I mean, Giacomo worked really hard on this proposal,” she said in a quieter tone. “And it’s perfect for exactly this type of situation.”
“I did what now?” Giacomo asked.
If Penny was the type of person who elbowed people to make them follow along, she might have taken a jab at Giacomo in that moment. Instead she locked eyes with him, mentally begging him to infer her meaning.
“O-oh. Yeah! I did!” Giacomo mockingly slapped himself in the forehead. “I called it the, um…Emergency Situation Addendum. Didn’t I, B.B.?”
Penny nodded. “You did. And I thought it was especially insightful to add that part about how if a crew boss is forced to step down, the crew may remain assembled until they’ve concluded all necessary business.”
“Riiight…and saving Paldea is very necessary,” Giacomo added on.
“Extremely,” Penny agreed. She turned to Ortega. “Of course, nothing Giacomo wrote is part of the actual code until we vote on it. So we need to get the bosses together as soon as possible.”
Ortega rolled his eyes. “Eri and Atticus are never going to buy this. It sounds like we’re a bunch of cowards trying to damage control before we lose.”
“It doesn’t matter what it sounds like. Mela’s lost her status–”
“So have I,” Giacomo pointed out.
“You’re saying you personally battled Juliana and lost?” Penny said.
Giacomo scratched his head. “I mean, I didn’t, no, but–”
“–then you haven’t lost your status, have you?”
Giacomo appeared to debate over this, searching for a loophole. Juliana had certainly devastated his base. Several of his squad members had already joined Mela’s in returning to school. Surely he’d lost by some spirit of the definition. But if Penny could get by on a technicality, she would.
“Right. Then that leaves five of us, including me. As long as we have three votes, the addendum goes into effect.”
“The code says a consensus is preferred,” Giacomo said.
“Preferred, not required,” Penny replied.
Neither Giacomo nor Ortega looked happy at this. Penny feared for a moment that she might have pushed things too far. She needed both of them backing her up. What good was a leader if she couldn’t take decisive action in a crisis? “Listen. We can’t afford to divert resources keeping Juliana at bay. This way if a base goes down, our members won’t feel like they have to leave, and we can still continue our work.”
Giacomo looked thoughtful at this. “What about Arven? If he comes over to our side, maybe he could get Juliana to back down.”
“That’s a big if,” Penny said. “And I’ve had enough uncertainty for the day.” She looked to Ortega.
He seemed hesitant at first, but he finally sighed and pulled up the call list of Team Star leaders. “I’d love for Arven to help us, too, but…” He tapped Eri and Atticus, starting up a three-way call. “…I’d be stupid to stake the future of Paldea on crazy odds like that.”