“The center’s just over this ridge,” Nemona said, pointing ahead. The green meadows surrounding the Fairy Crew’s base were far behind them now–a green line in the distance. Their hike into the snowy mountains had started off pleasantly enough, but the farther they got, the more the temperature sunk.
At least Arven was more or less dressed for the weather–the mix of elements from his winter and fall uniform made the frigid air bearable. Juliana likewise seemed okay in her colorfully accented spring uniform.
Nemona, decked out in her summer uniform and thin black leggings appeared to be keeping warm through sheer grit and enthusiasm. Neither of which Arven had much of right now. He figured traveling in a group of three would still be a pleasant change from doing everything solo like he had been before meeting Juliana.
Then he remembered that the phrase “third wheel” existed for a reason.
“You really know your way around, huh, Nemona?” Juliana asked, keeping pace with her while Arven, with his heavier pack, lagged behind.
“Yep, sure do!” Nemona said. “Sometimes La Primera lets me travel with her on her gym assessments. So I come through this way a lot. Plus, as a bonus, traveling through here makes me more prepared to handle any new students asking for directions to the gyms.”
Juliana’s eyes widened. “Student council presidents do all that?”
“Well, they don’t have to,” Nemona said. “But they should, don’t you think?” She waved her finger like a teacher reminding students they mustn’t be late. “I’m also making it a point to read all the records of important school events from the past five years.”
“Whoa. That is prepared!”
The snow crunched under Arven’s boots. The conversation had been going between Juliana and Nemona like this for a while. They both seemed to genuinely admire each other–Nemona was impressed with how quickly Juliana was growing as a trainer, and Juliana was fascinated with all the extracurricular duties Nemona kept up with in addition to her own training. So their talks just sort of shifted between praising each other.
Until their discussion was cut short by Juliana’s growling stomach. She paused and gave an awkward laugh. “I, uh, don’t suppose you’re also prepared with snacks?”
Nemona rubbed the back of her head. “I think I might have some chips in my bag. I don’t remember when I put them in, though. They might be more like chip dust by now.”
Arven stopped walking and surveyed their surroundings. While the weather wasn’t awful, a few flurries swirled around, and several Bergmite eyed the trio from perches on the mountain. Or…were they part of the mountain? Arven shivered. If they were going to continue this hike, empty stomachs wouldn’t do. He pointed to a small cave opening nearby.
“You guys, um…want to stop for a picnic or something?”
Juliana and Nemona both looked at him with sad, pleading expressions. “Yes, please!”
It was funny how quickly one got used to preparing meals in a cave. Within minutes, Arven had his supplies all laid out on another conveniently table-shaped rock. He rolled his sleeves up and grabbed a bread roll and a knife while Juliana looked over his shoulder.
“Can I practice the wasabi and peanut butter thing?” she said.
“That’s a little more complicated,” he said as he sliced the roll into two perfect halves. “I was just going to do a basic ham and swiss, since you guys seemed to be starving.”
Juliana huffed. “Starving, maybe,” she admitted. “But I need to expand my skill set. I’ve graduated from just putting cheese and lunchmeat on bread.”
“I literally gave you one lesson,” Arven sighed. But since she was the one who’d invested so much in their refill supplies, he couldn’t exactly tell her no. He pulled the bowl over and gave careful mixing instructions. She actually did a decent job. After a few taste tests, Arven only had to intervene once. He still insisted on spreading the mixture onto the bread, but at his suggestion, Juliana added banana slices and strawberries, while Nemona jumped in and set the table. Anyone watching might have thought the group of them looked coordinated. Like a team or something.
When Juliana had finished with toppings, Arven handed her a blue flag pick and told her to stick it in as soon as he added the final touch. Juliana nodded with the full seriousness that completing a sandwich deserved.
Arven carefully held the top bread slice aloft over the toppings, making sure to get it in just the right position. Unlike with a sandwich made of just cheese and cold cuts, the condiments would stick to the bread as soon as he dropped it. Which meant it would be a goopy, uneven mess if he placed it wrong and tried to re-arrange it afterwards. The thought of such a messy and ugly sandwich was too awful to consider. Thus Arven had made a personal rule of never, ever lifting the top piece of bread once it had been laid down and staked with a pick.
He closed one eye, making sure he’d judged the distance correctly, and then, finally satisfied, he released the bread to fall into place.
It bounced off the strawberry halves like they were spring-loaded and flew back up in an arc, poised to land on the cave floor. Instead it vanished into nothingness.
Juliana looked down at the unfinished sandwich, shrugged, and stuck the blue flag pick into it anyway.
Arven cried out in despair. Dealing with a mom who ignored his existence? Fine. Dealing with his body going incorporeal on him? Not fine, though fixable. But a piece of culinary art ruined before his eyes? There truly was no justice in the universe.
“Sorry,” Juliana said. “You want me to take it out?” As if the pick in the sandwich was the problem here.
Arven shook his head.
“You want me to slice another roll?” Nemona offered.
Arven groaned. “Then we’re perpetually stuck with half a roll. Do you enjoy chaos in your meal preparation?”
Nemona gave a thoughtful pause before answering. “Well, I don’t like letting food go to waste, that’s for sure.” And without any further invitation, she picked up the bread knife and proceeded to divide the hideous open-face sandwich into three sections. She lifted each piece carefully from the bottom and set it on a plate before distributing the servings to her friends. Arven got the one with the pick in the center.
“Cheers!” she said, lifted the plate in the air.
“Cheers!” Juliana echoed, doing the same.
“Um…cheers?” Arven tapped his plate together with the girls’, and everyone sat with their food on their lap, looking for the best angle to consume it at.
Nemona decided to tackle hers corner-first. “Oh, my gosh!” she sighed as she took the first bite. Peanut butter was smeared all around her lips, and strawberry juice dripped down her chin. “This is amazing! The bread’s as soft as an Altaria’s wings!”
“And the spice in the peanut butter is so different!” Juliana said, opting to bite down the center. Which meant her face was even messier than Nemona’s. Neither girl complained. In fact, it seemed to Arven that the sandwiches caused them both to redirect their previous stream of compliments all towards his cooking skills.
“The sweetness from the strawberries totally sets off the spice, though!”
“Uh-huh! And the bananas add the perfect texture!”
“I-it’s not that big a deal, really,” he said, certain his face had gone scarlet as Koraidon’s scales. But that was the only objection he offered as his traveling companions brought out their Pokémon, shared the open-face sandwiches with them, and started up the compliments anew. The conversation then shifted to their various journeys across Paldea thus far. At one point during the meal, Juliana developed hiccups and held her breath to get rid of them. She was listening intently to Nemona and still holding her breath when she reached for her plate again. The sandwich smacked against her closed lips twice before she let herself breathe and realized why the food wasn’t entering her mouth.
Arven and Nemona both burst into laugher and handed her a napkin. “Hey, you’re really interesting when you talk!” Juliana said with mock accusation.
Nemona did not apologize. Instead, she took a bow.
About half an hour later, the food had all been eaten, the Pokémon were happy and content inside their Poke Balls again, and Juliana was packing up their supplies. She insisted this was an important part of the learning process, and Arven let her do it, so long as she put everything back where he could actually find it again.
“Oh, yeah…” Juliana said quietly as she closed up the peanut butter jar and returned it to Arven’s bag. “I feel like I should apologize. We were kind of ignoring you on the walk earlier, weren’t we?”
Somehow the fact that she’d noticed made Arven feel lousy for getting upset about it. “Not so much,” he said, hanging his head to hide the heat in his cheeks.
“Oh, gosh, we totally were!” Nemona gasped. “Arven, I’m sorry. I just hadn’t talked to Juliana in a while, and I guess I went overboard.”
“It’s fine, really,” Arven assured them. “You guys are good friends. That’s great.” He failed epically at hiding the bitterness in his voice.
Nemona smiled anyway, neither oblivious nor nosy, and carried on the upbeat tone. “Oh, we’re more than friends. We’re rivals.”
Arven gave her a questioning look.
“It’s like friends who fight but in a good way,” she explained.
He stared down at his plate, which now held only a few crumbs. Not even a drip of peanut butter. He’d gotten so frustrated with Nemona and her Champion-level goals. But when was the last time he even had any goals of his own, besides him and Mabosstiff just getting through another day? If the Herba Mystica worked, maybe he could complete the gym challenge with Juliana and Nemona.
He looked down at his hand, remembering that Mabosstiff’s ailments were only one of his major problems right now. “How can you tell?” he asked quietly. “If someone’s your rival, I mean?”
Nemona giggled. “Oh, that’s easy. You say to them, ‘we’re rivals, aren’t we?’ And then they say yes, and then you’re BRFs.”
“Best Rivals Forever.”
“Uh-huh. And if they say no?”
Nemona looked brokenhearted at the idea that anyone would turn down a rival proposal. But after considering the question a moment, she replied with complete seriousness, “Then you ask them again. And again. And again and again and again until they do say yes.”
A part of Arven wanted to tell her this was the stupidest thing he had ever heard. Another part of him wondered if he and Ortega might still be friends if one of them was just as determined to work things out as Nemona was to cement her rival status with Juliana.
“All set!” Juliana announced, holding her hands out to show off Arven’s neatly-packed bag. She’d even put the measuring cup back in its proper place on the side.
Arven nodded with approval. “Okay, then. Let’s go.”
“Hold on,” Nemona said, standing and holding up her phone. “This was a great bonding moment! We should take a selfie to commemorate–”
“NO!” Arven and Juliana both shouted together.
Nemona, wide-eyed at their reaction, slowly put the phone back in her pocket and did not ask any questions.
The flurries of snow had faded during their picnic, and the sun had come out as well, making the rest of the hike an almost pleasant experience. Arven could see on his phone map the Pokémon Center icon getting closer and closer. Nemona’s familiarity with the area had panned out. And once they checked on her Pokémon, they’d be moving to the gym for some questions and finally onto the next titan.
The thought of it made Arven both excited and anxious to move faster, and he kept his eye out for something to keep his hands busy. A clump of grass sticking out of the snow gave off a soft jingle as he passed. Arven knelt down, and a roaming Gimmighoul burst out from the blades and scurried up his arm. Which surprised him a bit, but it was far from the oddest place he’d spotted the little creatures. Once he’d seen one atop a wall no human had a chance of climbing, let alone a four-inch Pokémon with minuscule limbs.
“Oh. Hey, there,” he said to the one resting on his arm.
The tiny Pokémon proudly held out its coin to show off.
Arven smiled and tapped the coin. “Yes, that is very impressive,” he told it. Then a thought occurred to him. Mostly inspired by Nemona and her aggressively optimistic view of the universe: She always acts like everything will be fine. Even when she’s not sure it will. “Hey, what to see a trick with it?” he asked.
The Gimmighoul gave a tiny chime of delight and nodded eagerly.
If I did the same… Arven focused, letting some of the fear that was pretty much always churning in his stomach these days briefly cross his conscious thought. Predictably, his finger started to phase through the coin. …maybe I’d see my whole situation differently.
The Gimmighoul clapped happily, distracting Arven, and when he looked down, the coin appeared to be stuck on him. He moved his hand, trying to shake it off, but he couldn’t even feel the weight of it. It was more like the coin had decided it was simply going to float along, following his finger’s every movement. Or my situation could get worse.
The footsteps in front of him stopped.
“Arven?” Nemona asked. “What are you doing?”
“Uh, think I’m possessing a Gimmighoul coin?” he said, shaking his hand once more with the same result. Maybe this was the wrong approach. He pointed to the ground, refocused in the same way he had to phase into it before, and the coin fell to the ground. The Gimmighoul huffed at this display of disrespect and jumped off his arm to the ground. It picked up the coin of shuffled off with it, grumbling with its chiming little voice the whole way.
“He was doing what now?” Juliana called out. She’d gone quite a ways before noticing that neither Nemona nor Arven was following her. She hurried to join the group right as Arven was taking out his phone to re-check the map.
“I was just testing out my, uh…” Arven looked down at his hand, not sure what word he should use. Power? Personal disconnect with the physical plane? “Ability?”
“He made a coin float,” Nemona said rather matter-of-factly.
“Wasn’t that one of the reasons we ditched Team Star in the first place?” Juliana asked. “So you didn’t have to risk…whatever might happen if you phase through stuff too much?”
She had a good point, and he should have admitted as much. But something about her tone put him off, like he was being scolded.
“Thought it was because Clive said they’re criminal masterminds, and you believed him.”
Nemona raised her hand. “Sorry, but…what the heck is happening to Arven?”
“Same problem that got that gym worker stuck in a giant olive,” Arven muttered. “It just…seems to happen more regularly with me.” He swallowed hard. Which doesn’t automatically mean anything horrible. Sure, it could mean something horrible. But…not automatically. Right? He tapped the map app and tried to zoom in, but the screen didn’t want to cooperate. He brought the phone closer to his face, trying to see the details that way…
The phone pulled itself closer like a magnet until the bottom the screen smacked his nose and the top pressed against his forehead. Then, like the coin, it stayed suspended in the air, following the movements of Arven’s face but refusing to actually leave.
“Uh, okay, that’s enough, map,” Arven said, trying to sound calm. Then his brain clicked that his face was possessing a phone, and panic took over. “Seriously, no more map!” he yelled, staggering back. “No more map! Get it off me!” The phone, probably more in response to his fear than his words, dutifully released itself and fell down. It sunk into the snow, the lock screen now on and simply displaying the time alongside the Naranja Academy logo. Arven stood over it, not sure if he should pick it up or not.
“See?” Juliana walked up beside him. “Now do you agree it’s a bad idea to mess with this?” She picked the phone up and tried to hand it to him, but Arven instinctively leaned away.
Nemona stepped up. “Does this happen often?”
“More than it should,” Juliana sighed, sticking Arven’s phone in her pocket. “I’ll carry it, then. Will that make you feel better?”
Arven nodded, too embarrassed to say anything more. Whatever bonding moment they’d had in the picnic earlier, it felt like he was undoing all of it. A cold wind blew across the snow, which only made the silence between the three of them more awkward.
Nemona made a show of hugging herself and trying to rub more warmth into her arms. “Brrr! I don’t know about you two, but I’m more than ready to get that center. It should be just over…” She ran forward, where the snowy path crested at a hill. Nemona peered over the edge and pointed. “Oh, right here! We’re there, guys!”
“Really?” Arven said and hurried up himself to see. Sure enough, there was the center, now just a short walk away. He breathed a sigh of relief and walked carefully down the slope. With each step, he buried his boot as deep as he could so as to keep his balance with the heavy pack on his back. Maybe he’d set his sights on the wrong thing. Sure, reliable friends would be great on this journey. But he couldn’t let his desire for friendship distract him from his true goal.
As he reached the base of the slope, his eyes fell to the phone sticking halfway out of Juliana’s pocket.
What would actually happen if I called Ortega and asked for help?
He had no doubt Juliana would keep her promise to help with the titans. Eventually. But how much faster could he acquire the Herba Mystica if Ortega got those Team Star guys to start now? He could direct them to the titans far away from here while his current trio took on the false dragon titan. True, Juliana would be hurt. Probably think he didn’t trust her. But if Mabosstiff would heal faster…
“Actually, Juliana? Can I have my phone back?”
She looked confused but shrugged and returned it to him as requested.
Arven wiped a cold sweat from his forehead. However he decided to take on his problems, at the end of the day, helping Mabosstiff was his top priority. It had to be.
He let the girls walk on ahead, opened his address book, and tapped out a new text to Ortega.