Once again, Penny shared her device’s little screen up on the desktop’s monitor. “I ran dozens of comparisons on the info I gathered,” she said. “None of them show anything of significance. Except this one.” A graph appeared with no data other than a horizontal white line cutting straight through the middle.
Penny pointed to it. “This line in the center is a neutral energy reading. And this–” She made a few more taps, and two additional lines appeared–one red and one purple. The purple line rose and fell in a series of hills, but it always stayed above the white line on the upper half of the graph. The red line did the opposite, dipping into valleys and coming back up again, but never above the center point. In fact, the two lines were near-perfect mirror images.
“Guessing the red slumpy line is me?” Arven asked.
Penny shrugged. “Not sure ‘slumpy’ is a good scientific term, but sure. The farther you’re getting from this center point, the more aura energy you’re giving off. Whether the line goes up or down depends on the type of energy involved.” She pointed to Arven’s ‘slumpy’ line. “The downwards slope shows a surge of defensive aura energy.” She then pointed to the purple line. “Upwards shows a surge of offensive, combative energy.” She briefly removed her glasses to massage between her eyes. “Which might explain why these surges are tied to your emotions. Fear tends puts you on the defensive. Anger flares up when you’re being aggressive.”
“So, what?” Mela asked. “Sada’s time machine gave these two aura superpowers or something?”
“That’s the part we need the professor’s help on,” Penny said. “Right now all of this is certainly interesting, but it doesn’t explain Paldea’s problems on a larger scale.”
“Does it explain them on a smaller scale?” Arven asked. His tone said he made it as a joke, but Penny jumped on the opportunity to segue.
“Well, sort of.” She made a few more taps, and the center third of the graph darkened, highlighting the peaks and valleys. “When the energy reaches about this range, that’s when you start causing other creatures or items to behave strangely as well.” She jumped to showing a series of hasty photos she taken of each object she asked them to interact with. “I was able to get a brief aura reading off these inanimate objects, which I obviously shouldn’t be able to do. It was like you left a kind of residue left on them. But after a few minutes or so, the effect faded.” She closed the photos and stretched her arms over her head. “In other words, if there were only a couple odd things happening and only around you two, I could say the anomalies are caused when your emotions flare up and you interact with someone or something. But this is a pretty grand scale. You clearly haven’t had contact with every single Pokémon that’s gone all flickery. Or every person who gets their face stuck in a single expression. Or every–”
“We get it,” Giacomo cut in. “So the only thing we can do is talk to Professor Sada.”
“And hope she’s open with us,” Penny said. “For someone concerned with saving the world, she sure held back a lot of details on how to–”
Another ping, identical to the one that had started this whole gathering, sounded from Penny’s phone.
“What was that?” Eri asked. “Did your program thingy come up with some more info?”
Penny held up one finger as she looked over whatever had popped up. Her face fell. “Unfortunately, no. I’m keeping tabs on Team Star’s situation with the police, and it’s…not great. They’ve taken over the Segin and Schedar bases, and they’re searching the surrounding area for you guys. And we’ve still got to get to the crater.” She rubbed her chin as she pulled up a map of Paldea on the monitor. “Let’s see…if we approach from the Navi Squad’s base, we might be able to stay under their radar, but–”
“Hold up!” Vanessa stood. Like everything she did, it was big and dramatic. Ortega almost got his hand stepped on. “What’s all this now? You guys are wanted criminals?”
“Wanted innocents, more like,” Eri said. “We were in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s all.” Vanessa raised an eyebrow, which Penny couldn’t blame her for. Eri explained everything that had happened: going to the lake for the herbs that would cure Arven’s Pokémon, accidentally freezing the titan, the lake disappearing, and finally, the police equating their group with some Team Galactic spin-off.
“Okay, Team Star, Team Galactic…” Ortega held out his hands in a more-or-less motion. “I guess I can see how they made the jump. Still sucks, though.”
Vanessa listened patiently throughout Eri’s explanation, but the more she heard, the redder her face got. When Ortega talked like this whole incident was some unavoidable nuisance, his sister looked ready to explode.
“Okay, that is not all-righty,” she said. “Not even a Joltik’s Thundershock worth of all-righty.”
“Yeah, we know,” Giacomo said. “But it’s not like we can do anything about it.”
“You can’t,” Vanessa said, hands on her hips like it was a magical girl pose. “But I can.” She reached up to her left-side bun and yanked several large clips out of it. Her locks of thick pink hair gushed free, fluffing out into one of her huge signature ponytails. She reached into her pocket and pulled out two Poké Balls. When she tapped the button, a pair of shiny, golden Magnemites emerged with a flurry of sparkles. Vanessa undid her other bun, and each of them settled into place on top.
“Y-you’ve always said those are hair clips!” Mela exclaimed.
“Most times they are. Sometimes I don’t have time to fix up my hair, and these two step in.” She gave a wink and wagged her finger. The two Magnemites glowed with electric power, which they directed through Vanessa’s hair. All the wrinkles and flyaway instantly smoothed.
“Looks like you might just get your badge after all,” she said to Juliana. “Here’s the deal-o with influencin’. Ya don’t just tell the people stuff. Ya make ’em ask you about stuff. So here’s the set-up.” She poked Juliana in the chest. “You, sweetie, are a poor struggling member of Team Star, and yer desperate to get your message to the world that your friends are innocent.”
“O-okay,” Juliana said.
“You know if you win a battle with me that I’ll let you say a few words to the camera. So this is your one opportunity to save your whole team from a life of hidin’ from the law. Can you handle it?” She leaned into Juliana’s personal space, their noses less than an inch apart. “Well, can you?”
“Um, I think so?” Juliana said.
Vanessa burst into laughter and smacked Juliana on the back. “Good enough for me! Let’s get this show started!”
Juliana was more or less dragged outside the lighthouse, where Iono–now in her full gym leader attire, which she had somehow fit into her much-smaller travel bag–inspected the area for the best spot to stage a livestream.
“It’s at least flat enough to battle here,” she mused. “We’ll have to skip the gym test. Not really any good place to have it. But since it’s a special episode, I think we can away with it.”
“Can you?” Ortega said with a smirk. “Sounds like neglect of your gym leader duties to me.”
Iono flushed and ordered Ortega back into the lighthouse and out of view of the camera. On one hand, Juliana could see the advantage of jumping right to the battle. On the other, she had been friends with Nemona since her first day at school. And there was no way the school council president would let such neglect of Victory Road traditions go uncorrected.
“Um, maybe we should do the test?” she said. “If I’m getting a real badge, I’d feel bad for skipping it when none of the other competitors could.”
Iono frowned. “Look, sweetie. I know I look like I’m a sparkling fountain of energy, but I’m running on three hours sleep for the past twenty-four hours.” She directed her Rotom phone where to hover for the best shot. The sun was thankfully behind the lighthouse now; plenty of light, but none of it in anyone’s face or turning them all into creepy silhouettes. “The gym test is my big streaming gig,” Iono went on. “Sprinting all over the city, making a show and game on the spot, all while looking like I hardly broke a sweat? It’s exhausting. I’m not up for it now, the space is horrible anyway, and I’m not giving my fans any less than the full show.”
“Maybe I can get the toned-down version off-camera?” Juliana asked.
Iono gave her a death glare. Juliana had always found her on-camera persona a bit intimidating, but this was the first time she’d felt genuinely afraid of her.
“Ugh. Fine!” Iono turned back to the lighthouse. “Hey, Prince Moonblast! Get your royally spoiled self back out here!”
Her little brother peeked outside with an understandable amount of caution. “Why?”
“Because I need you for somethin’!”
After some nudging from the others, Ortega walked out and stood reluctantly beside her. The rest of Team Star watched from the doorway to see what would happen. “At least use a different nickname,” he begged.
“Oh, sorry.” She patted him on the head and ruffled his hair. “You wanna be Prince Stomping Tantrum?”
“Why are you like this?”
“No? Prince Growl?”
“Because you could be, y’know, a nice big sister.”
“Ah-ha!” She snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. Prince Leer. Because, y’know, you’re defenseless right now.”
Ortega groaned, which only encouraged her.
“Right. So now that we’ve got our second unwilling participant, let’s get this over with.” Iono turned to Juliana with a deadpan expression. “Sorry. I mean, let’s play a little game. It’s called Where in This Barren Field is Prince Leer?” She grabbed Ortega by the shoulders and yanked him back so he stood in front of her. He attempted to push her own, but her iron grip held firm. “This is Prince Leer. Can you spot him?”
A large sweatdrop formed on the back of Juliana’s head. She had asked for the toned-down version, but this Iono sounded like she’d taken lack-of-enthusiasm lessons from Larry.
“I said, ‘can you spot him’?” Iono repeated. “Get to searching now. Open those eyes wide like a Magnemite and stuff.”
“Um…he’s in front of you?”
“Wowzah,” said Iono with all the speed and punch of a Slakoth reading a Terms of Service agreement. “You did it. What a cool kid. Now for a change.” She reached into her pocket, fished out her large sunglasses, and put them on her brother’s face. Ortega stopped trying to fight her and refocused his efforts on getting this over with as soon as possible.
“Prince Leer is once again hidin’ somewheres,” Iono said in her flawless deadpan. “Panic. Ack. Find him quick.”
“S-still in front of you,” Juliana said with a nervous laugh.
“Wow. Well done, challenger friendo,” Iono droned. “There is no stopping you. You are the real deal. All righty, then. Last stage will be this place right here–the battle court. Where the battles…” She gave a massive yawn. “…they are a ragin’.”
“But we haven’t moved any–” Juliana began when Iono turned her brother around and gave him a push. He staggered backwards until Juliana put her hands out and helped him catch his balance.
“Can you find our Prince Leer now?” Iono asked. “Let’s find out.”
“He’s, uh, in front of me this time,” Juliana said.
“Ding-ding-ding. We have a winner. So sad this didn’t go live. We could have had literally every last viewer in every corner of the earth on the edge of their seats.”
“Sure,” Juliana sighed. She motioned to Ortega that he could (and probably should) leave as soon as he wanted. He bolted for safety with Eri and Mela.
Once he’d left, Iono’s demeanor change entirely once again. She flashed a sharp-toothed grin and twirled around. When she stopped, a Poké Ball was already poised in her hand. She snapped her fingers at her Rotom phone, which displayed a ten-second countdown to the stream going live.
“I-I thought you were exhausted,” Juliana stammered.
“Oh, I am,” Iono giggled. “Some days it’s hard to muster up my full energy for a good gym test show.” Juliana began to sweat as the countdown reached the last couple seconds. She stepped back to make sure she stood in view of the camera.
“But the battles?” Iono went on. “Oh, those get my blood pumpin’ every time. I couldn’t tone it down if I tried!” The countdown reached zero. Iono threw her Poké Ball, and out came Wattrel with a fearsome screech. “Hiya, everbodiiiies! It’s time for an extra-bonus, extra-special, extra-super-high-stakes episode of the Iono Zone! Whosawhatit? I’ve got a guest here who says it’s do-or-die, sink-or-swim for her in this battle, and if she can beat me, I’ll give her an excluuusive chance to tell her story to all my fans!”
Juliana froze. How was she freezing up now when she got through the battle on Ryme’s stage just fine? Without thinking, she grabbed the nearest Poké Ball on her belt and threw it. Beartic emerged with a roar.
“Thinkin’ you’ll freeze my baby outta the sky, eh?” Iono said. “We’ll see about that! Now show me what ya got, friendo!”
Back inside the lighthouse, Ortega retreated to the kitchen. It wasn’t stocked with any food, Arven said, but it did have a boiler for tea, which he took full advantage of. Watching his sister get taken down a notch was all well and good. However, in the face of a world-saving journey into a forbidden crater with an actual, real-life time machine, he figured he’d better take the time to relax.
The others kept their eyes on the battle. While Iono did her jazzy intro, Atticus asked Ortega what he knew of Juliana’s current style, since he’d been the only one besides Mela to face her. Ortega gladly filled him in. Twice, actually, because the first time he explained what Juliana could do, Atticus didn’t believe him.
“Am I to understand,” he asked after the second run-through. “That Juliana possesses a Beartic whose Sheer Cold hits with infallible accuracy?”
Ortega nodded and took a sip of his tea.
“Harsh,” said Mela, her eyes on the match with her ears on the gossip. “Is anyone gonna tell Iono about it?”
Before Ortega could reply, a loud blast was heard outside, and the air inside the lighthouse felt a touch cooler.
“Again?” Iono cried. “Nande? ¿Por qué? Pochemu? And WHY?”
Ortega smiled and set his mug down. “Oh, I think she’ll figure it out.”
The group nodded and moved forward to get a closer look at the excitement, keeping themselves just barely out of the camera’s view. Ortega set the mug down and noticed the whole lighthouse interior had been left empty. And since Arven wasn’t the least bit interested in watching Iono’s battles…
Ortega glanced up at the ceiling. It had been a while, but if memory served, he knew exactly where Arven had gone.
Climbing the ladder to the upper floor of the lighthouse felt like crawling into the past. Ortega couldn’t count the number of times he and Arven had come up here. They weren’t supposed to. But if he had a Poké Coin for every time they did something Sada said not to, Arven could open his own restaurant.
Should have listened to her that one time, at least, he thought as he reached the top and pulled himself up. Then maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.
He stepped out into the empty, circular room. There was still one more level above them, but this was the space the boys liked to hide out. A small window opened to the seaside and as Ortega had predicted, Arven sat beside it, legs hugged to his chest. His backpack sat beside him, extra-stuffed with supplies.
And behind him, in the middle of the floor, sat a Poké Ball.
Ortega cocked his head at it. “Um, did you drop that?”
“Hmm?” Arven turned and looked at where Ortega was pointing. “Oh. Nah, that was here when I climbed up. Looks like it’s fake, though.” He held up his phone. “Apparently Brassius is doing some new art project? It’s called ‘Pokémon at Our Cores’. He traveled around Paldea, entered random rooms in a bunch of public buildings, and cemented these clay Poké Balls to middle of the floor.” He scrolled a little farther. “Caused some public complaints when it came out that some of the buildings were less public than others. Also, Pokémon have been known to stand over the balls, trying to figure out how to get in.”
“Yeesh,” Ortega said.
“Yeah,” Arven agreed. “Brassius’s official statement is that it’s a compliment to his artistic skill. Even more fun, the guy is supposed to be a guest lecturer at the academy next semester.”
Ortega sat on the floor next to Arven’s bag, keeping it between them. “You sure we want to rescue all of Paldea? Maybe we can let the school go down and save the rest?”
Arven smiled but didn’t laugh. For a long while, he stared out the window at the setting sun over the ocean. “I think it’s my fault,” he said out of the blue. “All of this.”
“You think everything is your fault,” Ortega muttered, also hugging his legs. He almost added a snarky “most times you’re right” to lighten the mood, but it didn’t feel like the joke would land.
“I’m serious,” Arven said. “You heard what Penny said about the effect rubbing off on stuff? The places having the most problems are places I’ve been to the most.” He buried his face in his folded arms.
“Quit whining,” Ortega said. Mostly because he didn’t know what else to say.
Arven didn’t lift his head. Then his body started to flicker. It was subtle, probably nothing anyone would have noticed in the center of the dimly lit room. But in front of the sunlit window, it was more than clear.
Ortega rubbed his arm and for once, tried a softer approach. He reached out to pat Arven’s shoulder, then remembered that was legitimately dangerous and rested it on Arven’s bag instead. He was about to say something encouraging and sentimental about how they might not have chosen their pasts, but they could still choose their futures…
…then the bag started to glow. Not red or purple, but a sort of deep, mellow magenta. Arven jerked his head up and instinctively backed away from the bag. The glow effect stopped. Ortega felt a bit tired; like he’d sprinted through a hallway so as not to be late for class.
But stranger still, Arven had stopped flickering. He looked down at his hand. “I-I don’t know what you did there, but I think it helped,” he said.
“Touched the same thing you did, apparently,” Ortega said, checking his own hand to make sure he wasn’t phasing now. He wasn’t. “Guess it doesn’t blow stuff up when we’re both close to calm?”
“Yeah,” Arven said. “Guess so.” He gazed back out the window. His posture didn’t scream happiness or anything, but some of the tension had faded. He even cracked a small smile. “Who knows? Maybe if we do it right, our two messed-up foie gras can balance each other out.”
“Wait. Our messed-up…what?” Ortega asked.
“Foie gras,” Arven said matter-of-factly. “Y’know. Those energy waves Penny was talking about.”
“Oh. Those.” Ortega started to correct him, but then shook his head and smirked. “Yeah. I think maybe they can.”