Ortega finished his story, his hands folded tightly on his lap. He was squeezing them together so hard his fingers ached. Arven hadn’t said anything the whole time. When Ortega stole a glance up, Arven’s eyes were wide, and his skin was clammy, like he’d been at the receiving end of a Dream Eater attack.
“Do you…remember any of that happening?” Juliana asked quietly.
Arven ran an unsteady hand through his hair. “N-not really, no. That day was such a blur afterwards.” He glanced at Ortega. “I remembered you came over, but after that, I couldn’t remember what parts were real. Mom never took me anywhere near the crater again. When I asked about it, she just said, ‘don’t be ridiculous, Arven. That’s no place for a child.'”
Ortega laughed weakly. “Not a bad impression of her.”
“Heh. Thanks for the non-compliment.” He gripped the edge of the mattress and shook his head. “When I did remember parts of it, I thought it must have been part of a nightmare or something. Back then, I had all kinds of bad dreams about Mom’s experiments. In some dreams, I lost her. In some, I lost Mabosstiff. Pretty sure my brain threw in a few apocalypses for good measure. No wonder you never wanted to come near her again. Or me.”
“I still should have said why,” Ortega said. “I’m sorry.” He swallowed hard and waited for a reply. The seconds ticked by between them at a painfully slow speed. And no, Ortega didn’t care that seconds didn’t work that way.
“I mean, I’d pat you on the back and tell you all is forgiven, but…” Arven’s voice trailed off. Ortega expected him to finish with some reason for why ghosting his friend after such an incident could never be fully forgiven, but then–
“…only if I had some assurance back-patting wouldn’t make the lighthouse explode.” Arven rubbed the back of his head. “Seriously. I get why you did it. Still not happy about it, but…we were both kids, y’know? I probably would have done the same in your shoes.”
Ortega didn’t even know what to say or do next. The chair felt stiff and uncomfortable, but holding onto hit also made him feel a bit more grounded. All that time holding those terrifying memories in his own head, and they were finally out to people who believed him. His parents hadn’t wanted to hear a word of it back then. They had invested too much in Professor Sada’s work. He shouldn’t have been playing with sensitive, dangerous equipment. The glowing had faded before they arrived to get him, so maybe it was all in his imagination? And anyway, their family doctor said he was fine, so he must have been fine. No, he didn’t have to see Arven again if he didn’t want to. But Sada’s project, without question, would remain on track.
“So, is no one going to point out what happened at the gym?” Juliana asked.
“With what?” Arven asked. “The weird sky flickers?”
Penny’s eyes widened. “Oh! She means the way you two glowed afterwards.” She pointed to each of them. “A violet glow, and a scarlet glow, you said?”
Penny’s hands went back to the keyboard, her fingers moving in a blur once again. “I’m finished with your analysis for now, Arven, but I need more data to compare it to. Can you, I dunno, get Ortie mad real quick?” She flashed her friend a brief look of sympathy but did not apologize.
A mischievous grin lit up Arven’s face. He stood up from the bed and cracked his knuckles. “You’re asking me to piss Ortie off? Oh, I bet I can manage.”
Director Clavell sat at his high mahogany desk, his hands folded, watching Nemona with the full weight of a judge and jury wrapped into one. Which more or less summarized what school directors did when she thought about it. “I’m sorry,”Clavell said, in a confused-but-not-apologetic tone. “Repeat why you called this ’emergency meeting’ with me, again?”
Rather than act intimidated, Nemona sat up straight and crossed her arms–a loose grip, one with authority, not aggression.”Because I’m going to explain to you why Team Star is innocent,” she declared. “And then you’re going to help clear their name with the police.”
Clavell lifted his eyebrows. No doubt the students rarely spoke to him this way. But Nemona didn’t get her position by asking people if they would pretty please do stuff. She just told them they were doing it. Her parents might have been hands-off, but they made sure that lesson got through.
“Am I now?” The director shuffled through some papers on his desk. If he’d prepared like she’d hoped, all the evidence he had against Team Star had been copied for their discussion. “I’m not sure what you’re going to say to convince me,” he went on. “I’m not even sure how you know the police are involved.”
Nemona held up her hand like she was answering a question in class. “Can we speed past the part where you try to hide info from me because of confidentiality or whatever? I know everything you know: The time these anomalies started, the identity of Team Star’s boss…”
Clavell huffed at this. Nemona could sympathize. It sucked to think you’d discovered some big spoiler only to find out everybody else already knew it.
“…what they’re accused of, all of it. And I’m really sure I can help dispel some of the–“
Her hand came down to her belt, smacking one of her Poké Balls. Nemona was first to admit, she could gesture a lot when she spoke. Her Sliggoo came out and stood in the middle of the room. It tilted its head at the director, then stuck its face through the desk, much in the same way Arven did with stuff. Nemona tried not to panic. Penny had assured her that as long as a Pokémon didn’t phase through things regularly, they were fine.
So…do I call it back? Nemona wondered. Or will it phase through its ball if I try?
When peeking through desks did not intrigue Sliggoo much, it came around to the director’s chair. After seeing it could also move through Clavell himself, Sliggoo puffed out its slimy antenna and let them fall to its sides of its face. It then mimed out its rendition of a Tinkaton swinging her hammer down on the director’s foot. The Pokémon gave a sloppy giggle at its own cleverness.
Clavell carried on the conversation with barely an acknowledgment. “Please continue,” he said. “The effect is temporary, but playful Pokémon will naturally experiment with it. And, truth be told, it’s not even the oddest thing that’s happened in here.”
“It’s not?” Nemona asked.
Sliggoo took another pretend swing, and this time instead of going through the director, it landed a blob of slime on his shoes. The Pokémon frowned and slumped down, disappointed its little game had ended.
Relieved, Nemona recalled Sliggoo and returned the ball to her belt. Curiosity ate away at her. “Pardon me for asking, but what was the oddest thing that’s happened in here, Director?”
Before Clavell could answer, a student’s face appeared in the window. Not behind the window and visible through the glass. Rather the face floated, disembodied, right through the windowpane and hung suspended by Clavell’s desk. It looked rather like a creepy, all-too-realistic face mask–with vacant eye holes and a hint of shadows cast by invisible locks of hair.
Nemona screamed at the sight of it and pushed her back against the chair, nearly knocking herself over.
“Director?” said the face with an upbeat tone. “Kids are battling out in front of the school again. I’m watching it right now.”
Clavell massaged his forehead. “Probably that,” he told Nemona, then turned to the face and replied, “Tell them to disperse immediately or everyone will receive detentions.”
“Gotcha,” the face said and pulled itself back through the window, fading from view.
Nemona couldn’t stop shaking. No amount of pleasant chatter or roll-with-it attitude could make that image okay. She would be having nightmares for months.
“Our school staircase seems to have developed a peculiar weak spot,” Clavell explained. “A mere stroll through the area appears to cause no harm, but Pokémon attacks make it unstable. We had to ban battles in front of the school for that reason.” He cleared his throat. “Now, back to the point at hand…”
“You’re just going to ignore that?” Nemona asked, pointing a shaky finger at the window.
The director’s expression darkened. “Not at all, Miss Nemona. It is incidents like the ones you’ve witnessed that are the cause of my concern. They are also why I cannot allow Team Star to continue on its reckless path.” He sighed and shook his head, his voice full of genuine regret. “I didn’t want to believe our students were capable of such villainy either, but the facts speak for themselves.” He leafed through a few papers on his neatly organized desk and handed one of them over. It was a bulleted list of Team Star’s supposed crimes. Half of them Nemona could explain. The other half, she didn’t even know where to begin.
“Police have confiscated equipment from two of their bases,” Clavell said, pulling out what Nemona could only assume was an identical printout. He cleared his throat as he read it over. “Among other things, they have records of all the strange phenomenon around Paldea–at a level of unprecedented detail. There are plans for all manner of untested and unauthorized vehicle modification. High-ranking members were witnessed running from the scene of both the Montenevera Gym and the Lake Casseroya incidents. Plus, the leader herself has engaged in multiple cyber crimes, including wire fraud, data theft, and remote invasion of students’ personal devices.”
Clavell rested the paper on his desk. “All information you already have, as you say. And wasn’t your friend Juliana also injured by them when she went out to inspect one of the bases?”
“That’s what I’m trying to explain!” Nemona said. “Juliana thought Team Star did something to her, but the squad leader is the one having the most issues. Juliana just stepped into the middle of an incident by mistake.” She took a deep breath, regaining some of her signature confidence. “And of course they have lots of details on all these weird events. They’re the ones who have been tracking them and trying to stop them.”
Clavell lifted an eyebrow. “And these efforts compelled Miss Penny to commit bank fraud?”
“I…” Nemona held her finger in the air and bit her lip. “Okay, that one I don’t think I can explain. Maybe she had to pay someone important a lot of money really quickly, and that was the only way to do it?”
For the first time, Clavell’s confident expression cracked. His eyes darted to the corner of the desk. Not as if he saw something there. More like he was lost in his own memories, and the desk happened to be where his eyeballs landed.
Does he have an idea who she might have been paying? Nemona thought. She had to assume as much and keep going. “I’m not saying Penny did the right thing, but surely the circumstances make a difference,” she pressed.
Clavell blinked and took up his unfazed, all-knowing posture again. “They would indeed. But it still does not explain the other offenses. Accessing students’ phones without their permission? Wiping school records from our systems…”
“How do you know she attacked your systems?”
“Well, the documents we had about the confrontation between Team Star and another group of students–all of whom dropped out of school eighteen months ago–are all blank or missing. Nothing else was touched. One need not be a genius to put the pieces together.”
So that’s why I couldn’t remember any details from those records, Nemona realized. The details weren’t there to begin with.
“Director, I promise you Penny didn’t touch your systems. When I looked up Team Star and couldn’t find anything, she was as confused as the rest of us.”
Again, Clavell broke eye contact. He was reconsidering. She could tell. Next she needed him to admit it. But once more, he pulled himself back to his stern, uncompromising expression. “Even if all you say is accurate, I’m afraid the situation is quite out of my hands at this point. With law enforcement involved, there are steps that must be followed…”
“I can’t believe you!” Nemona slammed her hands down on the desk. Director Clavell startled backwards. It wasn’t very student council worthy, but she’d had it with acting how he expected. If being the council president didn’t catch his attention, maybe being a rowdy delinquent would. “Two of your students’ lives are on the line! Maybe all of our lives if this keeps up! And the only thing you care about is whether or not we all stick to protocol?”
Clavell put up his hands. “Miss Nemona, what’s come over you? I understand how frightening these events are, but that’s why we are using every available resource to quell them. I assure you, we would never put students’ lives at risk.”
“You are literally doing that the longer you go after Team Star!” Nemona had never in her life felt so angry or upset at a teacher. She couldn’t remember feeling this upset before, period. Penny had been pretty tight-lipped about Team Star’s origins, only mentioning that she’d started the group to counter some bullying at school. If Penny and her friends had felt this way when they were being bullied, if no one believed them or paid attention…it was sort of impressive Team Star didn’t become a nefarious gang bent on the academy’s destruction.
“I-I do not understand,” Director Clavell stammered. His stance and expression had changed. He leaned forward to hear her. Fear and worry creased his face. “Please explain, Miss Nemona. Who specifically do you feel is in danger here?”
Nemona released her breath slowly through her teeth. She could be angry that he wasn’t listening before or be relieved he would listen now. She chose option two.
“Ortega, the Team Star boss you thought hurt Juliana, for one,” she said.
Clavell jotted some notes on his paper. “And the other?”
“Professor Sada’s son, Arven,” Nemona finished. “The two of them have been disappearing more and more often. And whenever they touch each other…or touch the same thing, you get stuff like what happened to Juliana. And the Montenevera Gym.”
Director Clavell was writing more and more quickly now. “The lake as well?”
“I don’t know.”
He flipped the paper over and continued writing on the other side. “Where are the two of them at present?”
“I…” Nemona barely managed to cut off her own words. She could only imagine how Penny would react if the director came into the lighthouse looking for her friend.
Clavell paused his writing. “My apologies. I can see why you’d be hesitant to divulge that information.” He made a few more notes, this time at a more normal pace, then let the pen rest on his desk. “Please inform them, then, that their well-being–that any student’s well-being–far exceeds the importance of any debt they owe, criminal or otherwise.” He stood up. “This appears to be quite the tangled mess, legally speaking. But that is not my concern. If I can provide any assistance until their safety is assured, please tell me how I may do so.”
Nemona nodded. It wasn’t the win she was hoping for. But it was a start.