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TEEN: Penny Saves Paldea, an S/V fic where glitches are canon

Chapter 1: Penny's Treasure Hunt

KatrinaSForest

Helping Penny Save Paldea
Joined
Dec 31, 2017
Messages
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Pronouns
  1. She/Her
I've posted this on other platforms, but it's still one of my favorite fics I've written, so I figured if I'm going to dip my toes in sharing fanfics, I might as well start with this one. Hope you guys enjoy it!

Summary:
Scarlet & Violet's glitches are all canon. The "anomalies" affect some people more than others, but no one's sure why. Our main quartet, along with the Team Star bosses, is off to discover what's wrong with their home. Well, when they aren't butting heads or bickering with each other, that is. Sometimes you don't want the answers even when you find them.

Rating:
T for some creepy images in later chapters

Audiobook:
An audio version of this chapter is available for anyone who wants/needs it. (Quick note: the audio version is in present tense and may look like it's starting at the halfway point--it's not, I'm just skipping the intro/glitch explanations, which are not included in the story text.)

Spoilers:
Chapter 1 is spoiler free. Chapters 2 and up will contain spoilers for both Starfall Street and Path of Legends. There are no spoilers for The Way Home until much later in the story.

#

~~Chapter 1: Penny's Treasure Hunt~~

Penny leaned back in her desk chair, the dorm-issued one that felt like it had been designed for kindergartners--inefficient and clunky, its remaining shelf life painfully uncertain.

It was the perfect metaphor for everything in Paldea right now. Everything she could see.

Penny pushed her glasses higher up the bridge of her nose and scrolled through the photos on her computer screen. The anomalies had started as little things. A child swinging his legs under his desk, his movements slowing to a crawl while his voice remained as quick as chipper as ever. A wild Pokémon seeming to blink out of existence, only for the witness to be told by fellow students that she probably just saw a Kecleon or something.

Who's ever seen a Kecleon in Paldea anyway? Penny thought, rolling her eyes as she scrolled faster. Of course, with the way things were going, maybe she shouldn't shrug off the possibility so quickly. That was one nice thing about computers. They reported things exactly as they were, whether those observations made sense or not. Penny had documented as much of the strange phenomenon on her own as she could, but her sources had sent her even more, which made her grateful. If nothing else, it would good to have at least a couple people who didn't think she was straight-up losing her mind.

Beneath the desk, Sprigatito mewed and nuzzled her ankle with its grassy, blanket-soft fur. Penny gave a rare smile and patted the little Pokémon on the head. She didn't realize how dark it had gotten in the room. That was what happened when she got absorbed in work. Did she even eat dinner yet?

Penny leaned over and switched the desk lamp on, to which Sprigatito gave a satisfied nod before it curled itself back into a ball at her feet. The little Pokémon wasn't hers. She didn't actually know who it belonged to. The poor thing had phased through a wall and found itself next to Penny in the library, lost and disoriented. Penny had asked a few students nearby if this was their Pokémon, but they had all waved her off and said not to bother them. The treasure hunt was about to begin, and they had to prepare.

Penny had her own ideas for the treasure hunt. Much bigger and more important than any other student's. I'm going to find out what's causing all these strange occurrences in Paldea, she promised herself. If any humans are at fault, I'll make them sorry. And if any Pokémon are at fault...

She swallowed hard. Pokémon were such amazing creatures--capable of flooding entire regions, creating new land out of nowhere, treating even the fabric of time like their personal plaything. If one of them decided on a whim to distort and erase Paldea piece by piece, what hope did she have of stopping them? At best, she might be able to help people evacuate the region and find somewhere safe. If there was anywhere safe.

Penny shook her head and stood up from the desk. Her stomach growled, a sure sign that she had, in fact, skipped dinner. She walked over to the mini fridge and pulled out a leftover sandwich. Chorizo, cucumber, and wasabi. The only correct way to make a sandwich. Then she retook the spot in her clunky preschooler-sized chair, breaking off bits of the spicy sausage and passing them to Sprigatito under the desk. Stay nourished, stay healthy, stay focused, she reminded herself.

If anyone had asked Penny a few months ago what it would look like, practically speaking, for Paldea's existence to deteriorate before her, she would have been clueless. She'd never been the creative type and didn't care to speculate on theoretical disasters. But all the strange events she had seen--Pokémon walking through objects, appearing and disappearing, humans and Pokémon moving like they were in some messed-up, stop-motioned animated film--if that didn't add up to a crumbling reality, she wasn't sure what did. Why, the other day, she'd even spotted the academy's newest student, tucked up in a seated position as if riding a large bike and gliding through midair on absolutely nothing. No one responded. No one noticed. Everyone acted like this was a completely normal and acceptable event. Even among the few students who admitted they'd seen "a few strange things lately," most of them passed it off. Pokémon were Pokémon. A few odd occurrences here and there didn't equal cause for alarm. And wasn't life at the academy all so wonderful? Who wanted to get bogged down with worry when badges and treasures and adventure all waited at their metaphorical doorsteps?

I'll put a stop to this, Penny thought, taking an extra large bite of the sandwich and chewing with uncharacteristic gusto. I'll put a stop to all of it. No matter what.
 
Chapter 2: Fall of the Schedar Squad
~~Chapter 2: Fall of the Schedar Squad~~

A/N: As before, an audio version is available here. Hope you enjoy!

#

The next morning, Penny was awoken earlier than she would have preferred. Much earlier, in fact. An alert on her phone. It was generally set not to disturb her at night, but she had programmed exceptions for certain circumstances. Some more disastrous than others.

She yawned and fumbled for her glasses, squinting at the screen's eerie glow, the only source of light in the room.

Defeat Alert: Mela

Her heart sank a bit at seeing the notice. Reading how her close friend had lost her status as a Team Star boss ...well, it was preferable to getting alerts that reality was deteriorating much quicker than she initially thought. But even so, it wasn't easy news to take. She checked the time on the alert: 4:21am.

Seriously? That weird student she'd recruited for Operation Starfall, Juliana, apparently had nothing better to do right before dawn than go running around attacking Team Star's bases. But Penny had made a promise, after all, so she dutifully sent the promised funds to Juliana's account. She took a moment to gather herself before calling Juliana directly, however.

With Mela's leadership overturned, the Schedar Squad would disband. The students would return to class. And more time in class meant less time they were sending Penny the data she needed. If they still sent it at all.

All perfectly natural consequences of the code Penny herself encouraged Giacomo to write. Her grip on the phone tightened. If only she could go back in time to before she had this stupid idea for Operation Starfall at all. Keeping her friends from getting expelled was the only thing on her mind back then, because...well, because of course it was. How was she supposed to know reality would start deteriorating a few weeks later and the school might need Team Star after all?

Her first hope had been that Juliana would flake out and never touch the Team Star bases. But now that possibility had been well and truly torched to ash. She needed a backup plan and quick.

"How do I get into these messes?" she muttered to the Poké Balls lined up on her dresser, then shook her head. Sometimes it improved her plans when she spoke them aloud to her Pokémon, but there was no need to wake any of them now. She created this disaster, and now she had to deal with it.

Penny took a deep breath, turned on her phone's voice filter, and tapped Juliana's name in her address book. Signal strength came and went in the dorms, a problem that existed long before the students and Pokémon had followed suit. As Penny waited for a good connection (and for Juliana to actually pick up), she mulled over her potential approach to this little chat.

I'd first like to know why Juliana went after Mela before Giacomo. Just a bit of asking around would have revealed that he's the least experienced trainer. Of course, Penny had some hand in his inexperience. Once Team Star secured its place in the school's hierarchy, letting anyone know that messing with members would no longer be tolerated, Giacomo had wanted to "start all over" with new Pokémon he'd never trained before. He'd avoided Dark-types in the past--they had a reputation, after all. Every criminal organization loved them, even the ones who specialized in completely different typings. Team Magma was infamous for its hordes of Houndour and Houndoom, as was Team Aqua for its Carvanha and Sharpedo. The list went on. But Giacomo had changed since Team Star, no longer adjusting his team to what he thought would impress others. It was wonderful progress for him.

Then Penny had contacted him, asking for his base's take on the strange happenings around Paldea...

#

"So you're tellin' me, you've seen Pokémon and people, moving all funny then vanishing?"

Giacomo had kept his tone flat and serious during that first call, leaving Penny clueless on how to respond. "You...haven't noticed anything like that?"

Giacomo gave way too long a pause before he let loose with a loud cheer. "Of course we have! Are you kidding me? But no one believed us! We all thought we were losing our minds over here! Man, am I happy we have you, Big Boss!"

#

The ring tone ended, and Penny heard a click as Juliana picked up and greeted her. Then came some scuffling as it sounded like someone took the phone away. The call ended. Penny grit her teeth. Bad signal again? But if Juliana just defeated Mela, she should still be outside the Schedar Squad's base. It shouldn't have been an issue. Penny dialed again, breathing deeply and falling back to her memories of her last chat with Giacomo...

#

"So what exactly have you seen?"

"Well, for starters, it was training time the other day, and somebody's Murkrow walked right through my Pawniard! Then part of its body vanished, and we just saw a floating Murkrow face for a second, then it went back to normal. Everyone was so freaked out, no one wanted to train the rest of the week. Especially the poor Murkrow!"

"I...I see..."

"Most members thought the base was haunted or something," Giacomo went on, "And we almost abandoned it. You know what's up, then, B.B.?"

Penny had cringed inside. If she would have told Giacomo the place really was haunted, maybe the Segin Squad would have disbanded on its own. No Operation Starfall needed to save them from expulsion. But somehow after all the hiding and deception she'd brought to the friendship so far, she couldn't bring herself to pile on another lie. Not about something as big as this.

She told him everything. Well, everything she had information on, which turned out to not be much. But Giacomo promised he and his crew would dedicate all their time to documenting the strange events and send her what they found. Which had left the crew very little time for Pokémon training. If she let Operation Starfall continue, she'd pretty much made him and the Segin Squad a bunch of sitting Duckletts.

#

I need to call off Operation Starfall, she thought, as Juliana picked up again. Any excuse will do. Tell her Team Star is too strong. Or maybe say they're not as bad as everyone thinks? Ugh, like she would believe that when the school is set to expel all the members.

"Hello?" she said. "Juliana?"

"Is this Cassiopeia?" said a voice that definitely did not belong to a school-aged girl. The voice came from an older male, mid-forties at her youngest possible guess. And it sounded a tad familiar, too.

"Who's asking?" she demanded.

"My name is Clive," the man replied. "I would like to help with Operation Starfall. I'm a student at the academy, you see."

And I'm Mega Diancie, Penny thought with a roll of her eyes. She hadn't attended many classes at the academy, but she did pay attention to all the announcements the school made. And Director Clavell was almost always the one who made them. With the video feed to Juliana's phone turned off, just listening to this "Clive's" voice...yes, there was no doubt as to who he was. Perhaps the man should have tried to disguise his tone a bit better.

"I will need some time to consider this," Penny said, trying to keep her answer as vague as possible. "In the meantime, I'm assuming the person I actually recruited for this operation would like her phone back."

"Y-yes. Of course she would. I mean, uh, yeah. Whatever and such."

More scuffling, and finally Juliana came through. "Sorry. I have no idea who that guy is, but he seems to be following me around. Should I get rid of this phone and maybe get a new one?"

"No need," Penny said. "I'm pretty sure he's harmless. He might even be useful, though that remains to be seen. About the next stage of the operation, though--"

Juliana cut Penny off with a monumental yawn. The poor girl sounded like a Snorlax after battle. "I need to get some rest in the dorms first, but I'll be out again as soon as I can to take down the next base. I promise."

"There's really no rush--" Penny began, only to be cut off again.

"Well, there's benefits to me, too," said Juliana, tacking on an awkwardly long giggle. Penny tapped her foot. Most new students were like her--not much for talking, mostly letting the more aggressive seniors like Arven and Nemona tell them where to go and what to do. Why did she have to recruit the one new student who actually liked chatting?

"I guess what I really mean is, thanks so much for the LP," Juliana said.

Penny's stomach twisted. "Oh, um...of course. I mean, you earned it." Another bonus to ending this whole charade. No more stealing. "Listen, Juliana, there's something I need to--"

"I mean, I don't know what I would have done out in the wild without those extra potions and revives," Juliana went on. "I didn't think I could afford them before, but since I knew you'd be paying me, I was able to spend more. My Pokémon are growing so much better and faster, and it's all thanks to you!"

"Oh, um...my pleasure," Penny said. "Your training helps too, I'm sure. Keep up the good work." It was poor phrasing, which she realized the second the words left her mouth. She'd meant Juliana should keep up the good work of training her partners. Not the work she was doing with Operation Starfall. There Paldea depended on Juliana doing atrocious work.

"Thanks!" Juliana said. "And good night!" The call dropped again. Penny took a few calming breaths (or maybe more than a few--she sort of lost track) and tried to call back. Only Juliana's voicemail responded. Penny hung up without leaving a message, which seemed like the Cassiopeia thing to do. No doubt Juliana would have turned the phone off so she could get back to the dorms and get some sleep. Penny's hacking could do a lot of things, but it couldn't remotely power on a phone.

So now in addition to figuring out what on Earth was going wrong with Paldea, she had to keep Juliana from completing Operation Starfall. Without revealing herself or getting Team Star in more trouble if possible. But if push came to shove...

The fate of Paldea has to take precedence, she reminded herself. That's what Team Star would do. She smiled just the tiniest bit at the thought of her friends banding together once again against an overwhelming thread. Her first plan had been to go back to sleep if she could. But adrenaline had taken over. She needed to call Mela. Even if the Schedar Squad had to publicly disband, the crew might still be able to set some sparks in the shadows.

Metaphorically speaking, of course. Penny really did need to watch her wording from now on.
 
Chapter 3: How Arven Really Reached the Sky Titan
~~Chapter 3: How Arven Really Reached the Sky Titan~~

A/N: The audio version is available here. Hope you enjoy!
#

Arven had been watching Juliana from a distance for the better part of hour.

And no, he reassured himself, he was not being creepy. She'd said this morning she was taking this road through the Area One West Province, and so of course, he assumed she was doing that to help him take down the Open Sky Titan. What else would she do out here? Fight random trainer battles? Chat it up with the Team Star knuckleheads down the road? No way.

If she was going to be nice enough to help him collect the Herba Mystica, the least he could do was wait here until she arrived. He leaned against the mountainside, his large pack resting on the ground beside him, and perked up when her silhouette appeared in the distance. The girl wasn't hard to miss. A fluffy yellow hat sat atop her layered black hair. She also sported pink glasses, matching blue gloves and hiking boots, along with neon green leggings. All of which contrasted horribly with the school's standard orange uniform. It was like the uniform was the only article of clothing she would ever be allowed to wear, and she was determined to make it look as wacky as possible on principle.

The path was long and curved, but easy to follow, and Juliana should have reached him within ten minutes, tops. Instead, she had spent the last--Arven glanced at his watch--forty minutes trying to get Koraidon to jump the river. Koraidon failed over and over again, leaving Juliana to pull herself out of the water and ride the brute to where the water looked narrower. It did not help, and Arven was getting cold and shivery just by watching her.

She knows there's a bridge here, right? he thought as he stroked Mabosstiff's Poké Ball. Doubt crept into his mind about his choice of ally. Then again, there was that whole thing about beggars and choosers. No one else at school would give him the time of day. An attitude he was sadly used to, but that didn't mean he liked it. If Juliana's antics seemed like they would put Mabosstiff in more danger than help him...

Arven glanced down at his hand, opening and closing it experimentally, etching the sensation in his mind. Juliana's a kind person. I've seen that so far. And I need a back-up plan. Like it or not, she might be Mabosstiff's only chance. With that thought, he took a deep, slow breath of the crisp morning air and returned Mabosstiff's ball to his belt.

About five minutes later, Juliana finally decided to cross the bridge, and Arven waved wildly to get her attention. His eyes widened when she got close enough to return the greeting--her clothes and even her long dark hair were completely dry.

Another weird event? he thought. Or is this just a thing she does? Then he realized he still had his hand up in the air and dropped it quickly.

Juliana giggled. "You look like you're trying to answer one of Professor Tyme's class questions."

"I-I...I was just glad to see you," Arven said, his face growing hot. He pulled the heavy pack up high on his shoulders. "You ready for this next titan? It's been tossing rocks down the hillside here, so you need to be care--"

"Actually..." Juliana was already looking down the flat path, the one that definitely did not lead to the sky titan. "...I kind of had, um, other plans? See, I promised this Cassiopeia person I would help her take down Team Star..."

"But--this is important!" Arven said. More like shouted.

Which Juliana clearly didn't appreciate. A scowl replaced her usual friendly smile, and her uncertain tone grew pointed. "I think I get to choose what's important to me. The world is my Cloyster, remember?"

"I'm sorry," Arven sputtered, lowering his head in a deep bow. He didn't have great footing, and with the heavy, kitchenware-stuffed bag, he almost toppled forward. Probably not the best way to apologize. He straightened to regain his balance, letting a loose rock under his feet tumble down to the path.

Juliana, in spite of herself, covered a smirk with her hand.

Arven took a deep breath and made a polite, less dramatic bow this time. "Please. This isn't just about cooking research. I'm really worried about..." His hand went instinctively to his side. Can I trust her yet? And if so, with how much?

"About...?" Juliana pressed.

Arven lowered his hand and shook his head. "Help me get through this next titan, and I promise, I'll tell you everything."

She didn't agree, but she didn't turn away, either. Arven watched with building tension as she glanced between him and the road leading to Team Star's next base. With a sigh, she relented and took a step up the hill. A pushover for a half-told story. Arven grinned and began to lay out his plan. The ground beneath their feet rumbled slightly as the massive Bombardier rolled boulder after boulder from its perch above. For now, the rocks fell harmlessly to the side. Once they got moving up the rocky slope, it would be a different story. Still, Arven was optimistic they'd get through to the next herb without much difficulty. He glanced down at his hand one more time as Juliana began to run up the path ahead of him.

#

Arven waited until Juliana was almost at the peak of the hill before he started to run up himself. Looking back, it wasn't his best idea. While she and Koraidon were bumped and jostled and knocked down by one huge rolling rock after another, Arven scaled the whole thing in a fraction of the time. He didn't think Juliana would pay much attention. After all, she had a Titan Pokémon to deal with. Arven crested the peak of the hill just as Juliana's Tinkatuff took a wild swing at the titan with its hammer. Shards of ice crystalized on Bombardier's wingtips, and it struggled to keep itself aloft.

Yep, Juliana's Tinkatuff knew Ice Hammer. Because of course it did. Arven shivered, thinking of the terror this pink puffball's evolution would cause, when Juliana snapped him back to reality. Hard.

"Okay, how did you get up here?" she demanded.

"I, uh, ran," he said, hoping it would satisfy her. It didn't.

"Tinkatuff, use Ice Hammer again," she commanded, barely watching the battle. Her eyes were locked on him, and she wasn't stepping down without an answer. Meanwhile, her pink wrecking machine of a Pokémon squealed with delight and took another swing. The direct hit sent a cool chill across the wind, and Bombardier was forced to flee. It landed not far away, near a cave opening Arven hadn't seen a moment ago, and began munching on something. A plant that glowed and glimmered with powerful healing light.

Adrenaline pumped though Arven's veins. Herba Mystica!

He took a step forward, only for Juliana to block his path. "There's no way you could run up here that quick. You had a giant bag on your shoulders, and up until a minute ago, that stupid bird was throwing boulders left and right," she said. "What did you do? Run through them?"

If I say 'yes,' will you believe me? "I...can't explain it right now," he said.

Juliana stomped her foot. It might have looked childish if anyone else had done it, but with Tinkatuff at her side, it was downright intimidating. "You literally just said at the bottom of this mountain you'd tell me everything."

If Arven had an attack stat, it would have dropped six levels on the spot. "I-I meant everything about the Herba Mystica, not--"

A screech echoed across the rocky ground, and Bombardier flapped its now ice-free wings. Its beady black eyes fixated on the two humans who had been foolish enough to enter its territory. Juliana crossed her arms. "Well?"

"Fine!" Arven groaned. "I'll tell you. Everything everything. But only after we get in that cave and harvest the Herba Mystica. Agreed?"

She smiled in an oddly similar way to Tinkatuff. Her bright pink glasses only added to the spine-chilling effect. "Agreed."

#

Not even ancient magic-imbued herbs could give Bombardier an edge over Juliana. Arven wasn't quite sure why he brought his Nacli out, but he had to feel like he was contributing something. Once inside the cave, he approached the Herba Mystica with an entranced awe. Then Juliana elbowed him, and he quickly flipped through his notes. This was the bitter-flavored one. Not the best set-up for a tasty meal, but he could make do. He knew the way to prepare it so Mabosstiff would like it. He just had to remember to make extra this time. No doubt that brute of Juliana's would want more than its fair share again.

Juliana, for her part, didn't push him for answers immediately and instead began setting up the picnic table. Arven waved her attention.

"Hang on. Toedscool and Scovillain can handle that," he said. "I need you over here." He motioned towards his makeshift countertop, which really just amounted to a rock slab with an extra tablecloth thrown over it. He usually grabbed ingredients straight from his pack, knowing by feel how much he needed. But since he was aiming for a demonstration this time--or maybe a lesson was the better word for it--he set all the ingredients out so Juliana could easily see them. The horseradish jar and the jam jar looked oddly similar, and he rotated them so the labels were clear as she approached.

"What's all this?" Juliana asked. "Thought you were the sandwich expert. Now you need help all of a sudden?"

Arven fought back his first instinct, which was to snap that his sandwich skills would put even Katy's finest baked goods to shame. Then he remembered he actually did need help. "I just...want to make sure someone else besides me knows how to make these. My Pokémon needs them." He released Mabosstiff from its Poké Ball and told Juliana the whole story. About the injury no Pokémon Center could heal. He kept it quick and avoided her gaze as much as he could. He hated feeling so weak and vulnerable like this. He'd grown up taking care of himself. It felt like he could do better than relying on a near stranger, but life loved to prove how little it cared about his feelings. At least the atmosphere was nice for his confession. The soft glow of the herbs lit the place, and their sharp aroma overrode any damp or mossy smells the cave otherwise had.

When Arven finished his story, Juliana's eyes with shimmering with held back tears.

Great, Arven thought. I just told a literal sob story.

Juliana sucked in a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. "All this talk about your Pokémon, but...what's wrong with you?"

"Huh?"

"You said you wanna be sure someone else besides you can make these sandwiches Mabosstiff likes. What makes you think you won't be able to prep them yourself?"

Arven swallowed hard and looked down at his hand. Probably better to demonstrate this answer than explain it. There was no more stalling, no more excuses. He flexed his fingers, focused, and thrust his hand toward the rock slab. It glided harmlessly through like a ghost's.

"This," he said simply before pulling his hand back out again.

Juliana's eyes went wide, though she didn't freak out like he'd suspected. Maybe she'd witnessed something like this around school, too? Arven laid his hand on a bread roll, confirming he could touch solid objects again, and laid it sideways. "Now, the trick to slicing the bread is--"

"Don't change the subject like that!" Juliana snapped at him, her voice probably louder than she meant in the cave's close quarters. She lowered her head a bit, and her voice followed suit. "So you did get up the mountain by running through the boulders?"

"Yeah," he said. "It always happens when I get scared, so I figured I might as well use it to my advantage there. But sometimes it happens when I don't mean for it to at all. And those times have been getting more and more frequent." He sliced open the bread, not bothering to explain himself and began laying slices of cheese diagonally across the center. His voice cracked a bit as he continued, "Honestly, I'm kind of scared. I don't know why it's happening. Unlike Mabosstiff and that brute of yours, the first Herba Mystica didn't help me." He moved from the cheese to the proscuitto, folding each slice neatly before placing it. The awkward silence became intolerable, and he forced a pathetic-sounding laugh. "My worst fear is that it'll go off when I've challenged someone to a battle, only I won't notice, and I'll look like an idiot who can't even throw a Poké Ball."

"Is that why you slap your face before you send out your Pokémon?" Juliana asked. "To make sure you're not phasing through something again?"

His cheeks grew hot once more. "I thought it looked like I was getting pumped up."

"No," she giggled. "You looked kind of ridiculous."

He should have been insulted, but Juliana's blunt honesty had shattered the tension. Couldn't help but be grateful there. He talked her through the rest of the sandwich instructions, taking extra care to make sure she got the balance of horseradish correct. Mabosstiff loved spicy foods, but in its weakened state, it couldn't handle as much as it used to, so the measurement had to be perfect and the condiment spread evenly. Juliana listened and followed each step with focus and care. Her skills needed work, but there was time for her to learn. (And in the meantime, Koraidon would never refuse an extra goof-up sandwich.)

As Arven had predicted, the Herba Mystica worked its magic, and Mabosstiff's eyes lit up for the first time in months. Tears rolled down Arven's cheeks at the sight of it. As long as he existed in this world, he'd never give up hope. The trick for now was to just keep existing.
 
Chapter 4: The Tragic Tale of Selfie Sal
~~Chapter 4: The Tragic Tale of Selfie Sal~~
A/N: Audio version is available here. Thanks for reading!

#

Mabosstiff was now happily stuffed. Arven repacked their supplies and led the way out of the cave into the sunlight. He felt pretty good about confiding in Juliana. His gut told him she'd soon prove out her reputation as the academy's most promising new student. Some people just had an air of significance about them. Usually it came with odd clothes. That girl Penny with the Poké Ball sweatshirt and Eevee backpack? She'd probably do something epic before she graduated. And Juliana with her neon, just-barely-regulation uniform? That was a save-the-world look if Arven ever saw one.

I'm carrying a giant bag, he thought. Maybe I'm important, too. He chuckled half-heartedly at the thought. Being the kid of someone in the news was enough stress and heartache for him. He'd take seeing Mabosstiff healthy again and leave the world-changing stuff to the people who cared about it. Probably all Mom ever did care about, he thought bitterly.

Then Arven noticed he wasn't hearing Juliana's footsteps anymore. In a panic, he whirled around, but she hadn't gone anywhere. She'd stopped walking and faced the cave they'd just left, staring intently.

"Everything okay?" Arven asked, not sure if he should approach and stand beside her or wait where he was.

"There were a bunch of Pokémon walking around while we were eating in there," she said. "But now I don't see any at all."

"Maybe they ran off?" Arven said. Not the most sound of suggestions. Anyone who took a few steps outside the safety of the academy's gates knew some Pokémon would flee from you. But just as many would charge at you full-force until they knocked you down and liberated half your picnic supplies. Pokémon centers were kind enough to instantly replenish any lost food (while they conveniently vanished some of the students' pocket money.) But Arven had lost more than one bouncy ball by rolling it too far from his picnic site and into energetic wild Pokémon territory.

In summary, the odds of a cave-full of Pokémon being scared enough to bolt all at once without a trace were pretty low.

"I think they all vanished," Juliana said.

Staring at the vacant mouth of the cave, Arven couldn't argue. "Yeah, guess so," he muttered, listening for a moment longer. Nothing. Not even the sound of scampering feet. So whatever was happening to him was happening to nearby Pokémon as well? He opened and closed his hand again for reassurance. It was easy to keep his mind on Mabosstiff when the rest of the world acted normal. But it had been doing less and less of that lately. For all he knew, the Pokémon hadn't vanished at all but instead got absorbed by the cave walls. He shuddered and tried to block the mental image from his mind. "Guessing you've seen stuff like this before?" he asked Juliana. "Not that I'm complaining, but you're pretty calm now and didn't seem, um...particularly weirded out back in the cave, either."

Juliana shrugged. "Should I have been?"

"I stuck my hand through a rock, so yeah, seems weird enough!"

"Oh, right." Juliana rubbed the back of her head and hurried away from the cave, apparently anxious to put the creepy place behind her. "It's not the first time I've seen some strange stuff, but you're the first person who's acknowledged it to me. I guess I was too relieved to be weirded out." She motioned forward, beyond the sparse grass to the road proper. "Now come on, I wanna get moving."

Arven nodded and walked alongside her. When they'd defeated the first titan, he'd left her behind as soon as he could. Which was kind of rude, looking back on it. This time, he'd stick with her until it made sense to leave. "So, um, what do you think is causing all this?" he asked, trying for a casual tone. One that suggested he had his own completely valid theories for wall-dwelling Pokémon and ghost appendages and was simply looking to her for a second opinion.

Juliana avoided his gaze while she considered her reply, which couldn't be a good sign. "Hard to say. Though I suppose...I mean, do you think it has something to do with those herbs you're gathering?"

"The Herba Mystica? Of course not!" Arven huffed at the suggestion and widened his stride until they reached the road.

Juliana jogged to catch up with him, the silver slider on her bag zipper jingling like a tiny bell. "But...you're the only one investigating them, and whatever's happening seems like it's hitting you harder than most."

Arven slowed his pace. "How many other people is it, um, 'hitting'?" The quick burst of anger had morphed to genuine curiosity. He kept to himself so much nowadays, his only real gauge for these strange events was how often they happened to him personally.

"I've seen some strange stuff with other students at school," Juliana said, now taking the lead down the road. A few Rookidee cocked their heads as she passed them. "But it's always a one-time thing, and they keep insisting they imagined it or their Pokémon's abilities must have had some unusual side effects."

"Sounds frustrating."

"It is!" Juliana said. Her voice jumped in volume, and the Rookidee scattered. Juliana clamped her hand over her mouth. Her gaze shifted, moving past Arven to the looming haphazard fence with dark, star-embroidered flags. "Guess I just lost the element of surprise, huh?" she whispered.

"What element of surprise?" Arven whispered back. "Didn't you tell me you ring a bell to start one of these raids or whatever they are?"

She blushed and nodded. Then she dropped her hands and smoothed her shirt before marching towards the gate in search of said bell. Arven followed, keeping a healthy distance behind.

The guard at the gate gave Juliana little trouble, and Arven fully expected to go his own way once Juliana rang the bell and stepped inside. Instead, she motioned for him to follow her. The guard didn't like this and insisted it was one challenger at a time. Juliana replied that Arven wouldn't fight, and even if he did, how many grunts planned to attack her at the same time? The guard conceded and let them both through.

"You sure about this?" Arven said, nervously. "Erm, not that I can't take these guys, but..."

His eyes widened as they cleared the entrance. This place sure wasn't the highly defended fortress he imagined. In fact, fortress seemed like far too generous a word. It felt more like a large campsite, with some scaffolding-turned-bleachers and what looked like rental tents in Team Star white and yellow. A scoreboard sat in the center-not a fancy digital one, but the flimsy plastic kind you had to physically flip the numbers on. The only electronic items were a few vending machines, which Arven could only assume were being powered by some Pikachus hidden in the tents, because there were no running cables anywhere.

Arven had heard rumors that Team Star had some involvement in Paldea's ongoing strange occurrences. No one really knew what they did in their base camps all day, other than skip class and wait for people to challenge them. But even with his limited (or at least dated) knowledge of the group's inner workings, he couldn't quite picture them as capable of reality-alternating shenanigans now. Especially when they barely seemed capable of keeping the drinks in the vending machines cold.

"Welcome!" blared a voice from the static-clogged loudspeakers. It had a deep, feminine tone with a punch of confidence and authority. "Now, you might think you're a big deal coming here to challenge us, but you should know we think you're a pretty small deal! Don't we?"

A chorus of cheers rose up from the grunts around them-some who circled the center area of the camp, some who watched from the safety of the scaffolding. Several threw Poké Balls, which opened to reveal a variety of dark-types, all snarling and ready for battle.

Juliana released Tinkatuff, and several of the Pokémon backed away.

"A-anyway, you're so small a deal," the announcer's voice went on, "That even though our boss Giacomo is totally here right now, you won't even see him. Because we'll take you out first!"

Another cheer from the crowd rose up, though less confident than before. A pair of Cactune moved forward, but an Ice Hammer swing knocked them right back. The grunt by the scoreboard flipped the numbers from zero to two.

"Y-you should know Giacomo is very strong," the announcer cut in as Juliana began running the inside perimeter of the camp, ordering her Pokémon to charge in front of her. "And he would so destroy you in battle if he faced you. Which he won't, because you'd have to beat, like, thirty of us in a row for that to-"

Tinkatuff laughed maniacally as she sent no less than eight Zorua bolting from the next swing of her hammer. Visible sweat trickled down the face of the grunt tracking their score in the center of the base. The grunts lined up along the fences threw themselves into a ball-chucking frenzy, releasing one Pokémon after another, none of which had any hope of putting a dent in Juliana's team. Arven tried to stay out of the way as much as possible, but with the bulky bag on his shoulders, he wasn't as agile as he would've liked. As Juliana felled her twenty-ninth Pokémon, a grunt directly behind Arven threw one more ball at full force. He winced, anticipating from the whoosh of wind that he was about to receive a sizable clonk on the back of his head. Which was kind of a scary thought. Which meant the ball passed right through him.

The riled-up crowd went silent. Arven slowly opened one eye. Crap. Did anyone see that? The scene was blurry from squeezing his eyes shut so much, but he noticed two things right away: One last Zorua fainting at Tinkatuff's feet, and the entirety of the Team Star crowd staring at him. No one moved. No one said a word. There was a crack of static on the loudspeaker, followed by a lull of extremely awkward silence before the announcer grunt's voice returned with a simple, "Um, hold, please." Then the mic turned off. The grunts took that as a cue to start rapid-fire whispering amongst themselves. Except their "whispering" was even louder than Arven and Juliana's had been outside the base.

"Went straight through him."

"Did you see...?"

"'Course I saw. I was standing right next to you, wasn't I?"

"That's how it started with Selfie Sal."

Against his better judgment, Arven took the bait and stepped up to the nearest grunt in the crowd. "Excuse me, but who's Selfie Sal?"

"Who's-oh, right. Guess you wouldn't know." The grunt pulled a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his reddening eyes with the cleanest corner. "Selfie Sal loved selfies. Then one day, he noticed he could wave his hand, and it would go right through stuff. Thought this was pretty cool. Took even more selfies. That very afternoon, he waved at the camera, clicked the shutter, and-and-" The grunt blew loudly into the handkerchief, and Arven took a slow step away.

"Still think I'm being affected the worst by this?" he asked Juliana, who looked close to tears herself.

"I'm so sorry," she said to the grunt. "And you never saw Sal again?"

"Huh?" The grunt pocketed the handkerchief and raised an eyebrow at her. "Of course we did. Sal came right back. Hey, Sal!" The grunt waved his arm wildly, and a near-identical guy across the grassy field returned the gesture. "But his favorite camera did fall in a lake when he vanished for a second, and he can't afford a replacement. Hasn't been the same since."

"Does his hand still go through stuff?" Arven asked.

The grunt shook his head. "Nah. If it did, he'd have gone with Giacomo to visit the Ruchbah Squad this morning. That's where they're gathering everyone who's been affected by this weird stuff long-term."

"Would you say that describes you?" said a voice behind them.

Arven and Juliana both startled and turned to see another grunt, the one whose confident voice they recognized from the speakers. She was a bit taller than the others with bright orange hair roughly snipped into a pixie cut. "I mean, you didn't seem upset when one of our Poké Balls went through you-just worried we would notice. So I'm guessing you've had problems with this for a while now?"

Arven's grip on his backpack tightened. "I-that is...well, I guess it's been a few weeks but-"

The crowd broke into gasps and murmurs, these ones quiet enough for Arven to miss the exact words. The tone, however, was as clear as a thirty-minute day. Few other people had been dealing with these issues as long as he had.

"Would you mind coming with us to the Ruchbah Squad's base?" the announcer grunt asked, her voice rising in pitch as she clasped her hands together. "Pretty please with a star pick on top?"

"It's not far," Selfie Sal's buddy added. "Northern Province, area three. We might even be able to help you."

"Wait, so Giacomo's not here?" Juliana asked. "Did I defeat your squad or not?"

"Okay, technically, yes, but you've gotta admit, there's bigger problems right now," the announcer replied. "Don't be a bully and get all hung up on beating other people down."

You think we're the bullies? Arven thought, keeping his wits enough not to say it aloud. So far this Team Star crew wasn't forcing them to do anything. They'd been pretty friendly, all things considered. Which contradicted everything Arven knew about Team Star as a whole. Then again, maybe they've changed recently?

In either case, he felt obligated to follow along with them for now, which was a real inconvenience. Hopefully it paid off.
 
Chapter 5: Unintended Gym Challenges
~~Chapter 5: Unintended Gym Challenges~~
A/N: Audio version is available here. Thanks for reading!

#

Penny slipped the last of the supplies she would need into her Eevee backpack. She'd chosen her lighter-colored shiny edition this time, notable for its thicker, studier fabric. It wouldn't be a long trip. In fact, the flying taxi would take her most of the way to the Ruchbah Squad's base. But with the situation being what it was, she wanted some emergency travel gear at the ready.

She'd woken up this morning to three more alerts: one good and two bad. Neither of the latter were world-altering just yet. (She'd had the sense to upgrade her alert system, classifying the severity of the alert and playing a corresponding sound so she didn't panic without reason.)

The first bad news: Six disappearing walls had been reported since Monday-double the number seen last week.

The second bad news: Juliana and Professor Sada's son, Arven, had come into the Segin Squad's base and effectively taken it down without Giacomo there. The actual good news: Arven reported experiencing some long-term anomalies. In fact, he could even predict when they would appear. The grunts, by some miracle, had managed to convince both of them to meet up with Giacomo and Ortega. This was exactly the breakthrough the new Team Star needed; an anomaly with a known trigger could be studied. Perhaps the source could even be traced. Ortega had experienced some long-term effects himself, as had a few other citizens they'd managed to recruit, but so far, no one had any idea what set them off.

Yeah, this feels like it's going way too well, was Penny's first thought.

The Eevee's bag fluffy tummy doubled as an extra pocket, so Penny slipped a book inside to read on the trip. It was called "How to Show Your Face to Your Friends" by G.L. Allister, and so far, she'd found it enlightening. Apparently the author had quite a bit of social anxiety himself. But rather than hide behind a screen, he showed up to events in-person, wearing a mask. Penny couldn't picture herself doing that, but she did find a motorcycle helmet with a conveniently dark visor at the hat store. Why the dress code permitted students to completely obscure their faces but forbade fuzzy backpacks shaped like Pokémon was beyond her understanding.

She picked up the heavy bag (which now looked like a droopy, overstuffed shiny Eevee) as she recalled the passage she'd read before dozing off last night: Be warned that wearing a mask can cause people to not recognize you when the mask is removed. Especially if the outfit you wear with the mask is different from the one you wear without it. People are surprisingly bad at recognizing voices. See Chapter 8, "The Professor and the Masked Royal: a Case Study," for more details.

Penny nodded to herself, and before slipping the bag on, she grabbed her navy Ultra Ball sweatshirt instead of her gray Poké Ball one. Naturally she had to go meet Juliana and Arven. But like the emergency travel gear, she kept a healthy dose of skepticism on hand. Just in case.

~~~

"And...just to be clear, you want sixty-three servings of peanut butter?" the shop clerk asked Juliana, raising a thick, bushy eyebrow. He was a tall, muscular guy, and when he leaned on the little sill of the shop window, the wood creaked in protest. Juliana nodded and offered her phone to scan. Instead, the clerk eyed Arven, who broke eye contact immediately. Not my circus, not my Aipoms, he reminded himself, looking around the scenery. They'd stopped in Medali for some picnic supplies, which had taken a surprising long time to locate. Every time they asked people what kind of ingredients they recommended, the folks would answer in some weird, cryptic way and insist on a battle. Arven and Juliana took a lunch break at the Treasure Eatery for some grilled rice balls-Fire Blast style with lemon, naturally-and somehow this had ended in Juliana walking away with her fifth gym badge. At this point, Arven really just wanted to get their supplies and get moving.

"Do you even have space for sixty-three servings of peanut butter?" the clerk asked as he relented and took Juliana's payment.

"Give me one box for now and have the rest sent to my dorm room at Naranja Academy," Juliana said. The man shrugged and walked away from the window, presumably to fill out the shipping forms.

"Why so much?" Arven asked. "Are you stocking for the apocalypse or something?"

Juliana cocked her head. "You said spicy peanut butter is Mabosstiff's favorite, right?"

She actually remembered that? "I-I...yes, it is. But you've got to mix the wasabi and the peanut butter just right. A little goes a long way."

"Right," Juliana said. "So I figured we'll need a lot of peanut butter to practice with."

"You're sweet, but this is expensive." Arven rubbed the back of his head, chastising himself even as he said it. Juliana's financial situation wasn't any of his Combee's wax. For all he knew, her family could be loaded. But even so... "I don't feel right letting you buy it."

"I've got a side job," Juliana assured him, then took a glance at her phone. She frowned when she saw the screen. Arven didn't hear it ping with any sort of update, so maybe she was checking for something that hadn't come in yet? Still none of his business, he supposed, though he hated to see her upset after how much she'd been helping him.

"Everything's fine," she said as she shoved the phone in her pocket. Then, after a few impatient taps of her foot, she added on, "What's the hold up, anyway? It shouldn't take so long to get a few dozen jars of-"

"Oh, blast it!" yelled the clerk, right on cue. "My Machop is stuck in the floor again."

Arven and Juliana stared at one another. The way their dumbfounded expressions seemed to mirror each other told Arven they'd probably both heard the same thing.

"Um...excuse me?" Juliana asked. She tried to lean through the window to see what the man was talking about, but he rushed over and waved her off.

"Hey, hey!" he said. "You don't enter a person's store. It's rude. You read a list of our fine selection and order outside like dignified folk."

Juliana apologized, explaining how she'd moved in recently and was still learning the local culture. The clerk nodded in approval. "Now, then, as I was sayin', I got a Machop that does the heavy lifting for me, but she's got this quirk that's been showing up more often lately. Sinks right into the floor like it's a vat of mayo. Then halfway into sinking, she gets stuck like it's hardened cement. By the way, that first one makes a fine sandwich topping. Don't recommend the second."

"That sounds awful!" Juliana said. "Your Machop must be so scared!"

The clerk let out a chuckle and held up his hands in a what-can-you-do motion. "Scared? Nah. She probably got a new ability or something. Or changed abilities. I'll bet a customer fed her an Ability Capsule when I wasn't lookin'. Anyway, we just close up shop and play cards for a while, and eventually the floor spits her back out. But I'm afraid I can't get you your ingredients until that happens."

Arven eyed the man's large, muscular arms. "So...you can't hand us a box?"

"I could, but it might make Machop feel bad. I gotta be considerate. I'll get your purchase shipped out as soon as I can. Thanks for patronizing our shop, and have a great day." And with that, he lowered the security blinds down over the window, waving to Arven and Juliana all the while. Instead of a plain steel gray, the blinds had a warm wooden color with a large emblem that looked like the upper half of a door. A glance at the wall space below the window revealed a corresponding emblem. When the blinds finished moving into place, the image was complete, and the closed shop appeared to have a cute little wooden door that no one could actually open.

Arven shook his head, told Juliana there probably wasn't much they could do, and suggested they move on. He had enough picnic supplies in his stash if he made the sandwiches himself this time. They could practice more when the shipment came through. With a sad sigh, Juliana agreed.

On their way out of town, Arven scanned every corner for a gift shop or an ice cream stand or some kind of cheering-up place. He came up empty. A wide variety of stores lined the road, but the bulk of them were closed shut the same way as the sandwich shop had been, fake doors included. Were there always so few shops in town open? Now that he thought about it, he hadn't been able to buy a new T-shirt in forever. Or any groceries that weren't directly related to sandwiches.

"Was that guy's Machop really stuck in the floor?" Arven asked.

Juliana glanced at the grass, still frowning. "I didn't get a great look, but it seemed that way. He sure made it sound like it's normal, though." She turned to face Arven. "I feel silly for asking, but...is it normal?"

"No. The Terastallizing phenomenon has been around here forever, but whatever the guy was talking about...sounds a lot like what's been happening to me. And even Team Star agrees that's weird." Arven shook his head. He still wasn't sure how he felt about Team Star, but he was determined to spend this trip keeping as open a mind as possible.

"I guess you're right...oh, hang on. I need to send a text." Juliana lowered her bag to the ground and pulled out her phone once again. She typed lightning-fast, her eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Whatever it was about must have been important. Arven pulled out his own phone, where the Team Star grunts had sent the coordinates for their meeting place. If whatever was bothering Juliana was relevant to him, she'd share it when she was ready. Hopefully she was ready soon, though. Her frown was starting to look like it was permanently etched on her face.
 
Chapter 6: Arrival at the Ruchbah Base
~~Chapter 6: Arrival at the Ruchbah Base~~

A/N: Audio version is available here. Thanks for reading!

#

Penny was almost dozing off to the rhythmic flapping of a surprisingly airworthy mob of Squawkabilly when her phone buzzed with a new message. She adjusted her glasses from where she'd been slouching to read it clearly:

Not sure if you got the alert or not, but I did defeat the Segin Squad, so whenever you're able to send the LP for that, I'd appreciate it. -Juliana

"Seriously?" Penny hissed, then covered her mouth. Not that the taxi driver was paying her any attention. The winds were so loud up here, it was hard to understand each other even when they shouted. Penny slipped on the helmet she'd brought. It not only cut down on the wind, it sent a clear message of, "I do not want to speak to you." She liked it.

What she did not like was Juliana asking to be paid for actively undermining the mission. And she detested the fact that she'd told Juliana to do this in the first place. Couldn't people just figure out what they needed to do without the inconvenience of communication? It would make life so much simpler.

I did get the alert, but I'm traveling right now, and reception is spotty, she typed back to Juliana. The reception was fine, but with the number of lies she'd piled up so far, what was one more? Besides, she needed more time to work up the nerve for the message she'd send once the payment went out. It had to be one action, then the other, so she didn't have the chance to cower out this time.

Payment sent, she typed into the box, without hitting send yet. But I must tell you this is the last one you'll get. I'm cancelling Operation Starfall. Thank you for your help. Penny read it over several times with deep breaths. Simple and straightforward. It would go out with the final payment when she reached her destination. Juliana would have to figure out how to deal with the consequences.

~~~

The moment the taxi landed, Penny did it. She even took her helmet off to show herself she could face this with her head high. With one app open, she sent the text, and then within a matter of seconds, she flipped to the banking app and sent Juliana's payment. Relief flooded her, even as the taxi took to the sky behind her, meaning she'd have to face Team Star for the first time in person. The lies were ending here and today. If she got through breaking the news to Juliana, she could get through the rest. And then she could save everybody. It all started with that first ste-

"What? Nooo!" Juliana's wail echoed across the green oasis of a field that surrounded the Ruchbah Squad's base.

Penny looked up to see Juliana cresting a grassy hill, which stood in sharp contrast to the icy mountains around it. A young man, most likely Arven, laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

Juliana collapsed into the grass, sobbing. "I just got fired from my job! I owe almost 20k for peanut butter jars!"

Where and why did she buy 20k worth of... Penny shoved her helmet back on before Juliana or Arven could see her. Facing everybody was a noble goal, but she needed it to be a feasible one, too. Right now, that wasn't happening. A sinking feeling in her stomach-not unlike eating several dozen jars of peanut butter-said not to get her hopes up for the future, either.

Ugh. I knew this day started too well.

~~~


If there was one thing Clavell prided himself on, it was his sense of subtlety. Unlike the ruffians of Team Star, he knew when a situation required a quieter approach. Take the present moment, for example. He could be marching into the Ruchbah Squad's base, demanding the full story behind why a wealthy business heir like Ortega would join a group like Team Star to begin with. But instead he'd chosen to follow Juliana from a distance and see what Team Star did when they thought she had one less ally. She'd proven herself quite capable against the Segin Squad. But it would be irresponsible to expect her to handle Ortega the same way. His formidable crew had already managed to demoralize her without so much as cracking open the gate. Clavell knew this because of the way she'd cried out in great alarm only a few moments ago. He could not tell what she'd said from this distance, but she'd been looking at her phone at the time. Had they perhaps sent her some photographic evidence of their sinister plot to destroy Paldea piece by piece? If so, Clavell needed to get hold of that phone as soon as possible. He bent low in the grass, the tall blades encompassing him up to his shoulders and poking him in the neck. He'd been bumped by several Capsakids on the way here and had a Gyarados ready to chase off any more that showed up. Of course, using Gyarados would no doubt give away his position, so he sincerely hoped it didn't come to that.

Up until recently, he'd thought the same of Team Star that everyone else did: They were troublemakers–hooligans who spent class time customizing their clothing and vehicles with the most flagrant disregard for dress codes and decency. But in the past few weeks, Clavell concluded this was all a cover-up for their truly heinous plot: pulling apart Paldea's reality at the seams.

A genius-level epiphany, to be sure, though Clavell hadn't made it in a vacuum. An anonymous source had sent the school a list of incidents shortly after the inception of Operation Starfall. Clavell didn't want to believe it at first, but the more he began to pay attention, the more he noticed the strange occurrences all around him. It was especially bad in the classrooms. Sometimes his feet were so sluggish, he could barely move in there. Then there was the time he'd been training up his Pokémon in the schoolyard only to have a ghostly image of a student's face float through the middle of battle. And to think all this time he'd blamed such effects on his questionable choice of morning coffee.

The source didn't name any culprits, but Clavell knew how to read between the lines. Something bad was happening, ergo an organization that began with "Team" and ended with some jazzy-sounding noun had to be responsible. How fortunate he had Cassiopeia and Juliana to help him bring these criminals to justice. He hoped to speak with her before she entered the base itself. He simply needed to watch and wait for the proper opportunity...

#

Juliana dried her eyes, feeling more than a little foolish as she scrolled through her account balance. She'd thought the funds from Operation Starfall were her only major income. Surely defeating gym leaders couldn't pay that much.

In fact, it paid quite well. In retrospect, the gym leaders did tell her what she won after her matches ended, but they always squeezed it in with a bunch of thematic congratulations, explanations about what this or that TM did, and weird photo ops. Juliana would admit, she tended to tune them out. Whatever kind of funding the Pokémon League got, if members could throw this much at challengers, it had to be astronomical. She'd never considered a career in the League before now, but the possibility had moved pretty high up her list.

After she helped keep her friend in a consistent corporeal state, of course.

"You okay there?" Arven asked. He stood awkwardly at her side, unsure what to make of her outburst. Maybe with luck, he'd forget the whole thing ever happened.

"Y-yes," Juliana answered sheepishly. "I, uh...thought my finances were, um, more of a problem than they actually are." She scrolled a little further. "Plus, it looks like the store didn't charge me for the peanut butter shipment, since they didn't send it out yet. Maybe I can return half for a partial refund?"

"Uh-huh," said Arven. He turned and surveyed the base in front of them. On the outside, it looked just like the others: a slapped-together fence, an old school bell on the gate, and billowing flags embroidered with the Team Star logo. In theory, the pastel pink on these flags should have made them look softer. But Juliana knew as well as anyone that fairy types were nothing to be trifled with. If anything, the color was more intimidating.

"Excuse me, but...are you two going inside?"

Juliana startled. The quiet voice sounded familiar, but when she turned, she didn't recognize the speaker at all. The words came from a shortish girl wearing a navy Great Ball sweatshirt, a shiny Eevee backpack, and a helmet that totally hid her face. She reminded Juliana of the shy girl from school. But the backpack and sweatshirt were different, and the shy girl didn't wear a helmet. So they couldn't be the same person. Could they?

"We're about to," Arven said, straightening his backpack. "And you are...?"

"I came to help with Team Star's research into the anomalies," the girl replied. "My name's...uh, Jenny."

"Jenny," Juliana repeated. "I can remember that. Nice to meet you, Jenny."

Jenny didn't answer directly, but she did mutter something that sounded like, "Huh. Guess G.L. Allister was right." She then turned and walked towards the gate with a slow but purposeful stride. The girl really did seem familiar. Just like Clive did when he first showed up.

Juliana started to follow, but as she did so, Arven pulled her back and leaned in close. "Don't turn around, but there's a creepy man with purple sunglasses watching us from the grass. Pretty sure he's been following since we left the Segin Squad's base."

Juliana lowered her hand from its ready position to slap Arven out of her personal bubble. "Oh?" she said, her gut sinking a bit. "Does he have a retro, gravity-defying haircut?"

"Yeah. You know him?"

"Sadly, yes," Juliana answered with a groan. "You go on ahead. I'll follow when I can."

Arven didn't look thrilled with her answer, though he took her at her word and followed Jenny up to the gate. It opened without either of them needing to ring the bell. Guess that's how it goes when you call ahead, she thought.
 
Chapter 7: Enter the Olive Victim
~~Chapter 7: Enter the Olive Victim~~

A/N: Audio version is available here. Thanks for reading!

#

Penny jumped as the gate slammed shut behind her, Juliana, and Arven. She couldn't help it. All her senses were on high alert. The student who might be their key to finding a pattern in all this chaos stood right next to her. It took all her self-control not to corner him and immediately insist he spill his guts. But for now, Team Star still thought she was a helpful hand called in by Cassiopeia. If they suspected she was doing anything to turn Arven away, they'd kick her out. I just need to talk to Ortega and Giacomo, she reminded herself. Drop this whole silly charade, tell them who I am, and then we can all get to work.

"Thanks for coming," said the grunt who showed them in, speaking more to Arven than Penny. "You're the guy who does all the phasing jazz, right?"

"Uh...I guess so?" Arven replied.

The grunt pointed ahead. "I'll take you to our boss. He's just up this way. And..." The guy crossed his arms as he looked Penny up and down. "...what's wrong with you, exactly?"

"Nothing's wrong with me," Penny replied, more than a little put off by the rough tone. She could understand the team being under stress. The importance of their mission had to weigh on their minds. But Team Star prided itself on its acceptance. There was no need to be so terse with visitors. "I'm here to help-"

The gates creaked back open behind them. "Excuse me! Coming through!" a female grunt called from outside. "We've got another olive victim!" The Team Star members all bunched together, creating a wide path down the center of the camp while the edges got straight-up claustrophobia-inducing.

Another what? Penny thought, straining her neck to see through the crowd. She must have heard wrong. In all the documentation she'd been sent so far, there was no mention of anything that sounded remotely like-

A giant olive rolled down the cleared path. Penny recognized it at once as the surprisingly light and bouncy prop that Katy made challengers push through her strange, web-fenced maze. Far less familiar were the arms sticking out the sides of it, waving frantically. Somewhere from the obscured section of the olive, a voice squeaked out, "I don't know why this is happening! You're only supposed to roll the olive! Someone tell me why this is happening!"

"There, there, buddy," said the grunt pushing the poor victim along. "That's rough, I know. But you'll be okay."

Penny stared slack-jawed as the olive-bound gym assistant rolled past her. Then the tightness of the crowd got to be a bit too much and she pulled away, seeking a quiet corner to process everything. She didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She almost felt like doing both.

~~~

The second the gate had closed on Arven and Jenny, "Clive" came tumbling out of a tall patch of grass, yelling and slapping away half a dozen Capsakids. It was the kind of scene that made Juliana feel embarrassed by proxy. She kicked at a clump of dirt, politely avoiding interaction until he pulled himself together.

"I bet those Team Star ruffians sent them after me," Clive growled as he loosed his Gyarados to chase them off. "They want to throw us off the trail, eh? Well, we'll see about that! Operation Starfall all the way! Am I right?"

He grinned at Juliana, who only made eye contact long enough to acknowledge him. "Um, I don't know if you got the message, but Cassiopeia has cancelled Operation Starfall."

"She what?" Clive gasped. Juliana winced as a group of Team Star grunts crested a distant hill, rolling what looked like the giant olive from the Cortondo Gym challenge. They seemed pretty involved in their work, but if Clive got that loud again, he'd probably defeat whatever purpose he had for hiding this whole time. The open, grassy space carried sound inconveniently well.

"Um, you probably want to keep your voice down, Direct-"

"It's Clive!" he snapped, pretty much doing the exact opposite.

Juliana groaned. So it seemed, as with generations of children before her, she had to be the one explaining to an adult how to deal with his problems. She ducked into the tall grass and motioned for him to follow. She wasn't even sure why they were hiding, other than it seemed important to Clive. She'd follow his lead for now, though her willingness to trust his judgement was wearing pretty thin.

The Team Star grunts did pause at the noise, but then the olive started to tip backwards down the hill, and they ran to steady it.

"Why are you so angry at Team Star, anyway?" Juliana whispered.

Clive put a shaking hand to his brow, seeming for the first time to actually hear her. The man never looked young per se, but as he spoke, his voice carried the clear fatigue of his age. "I'm not angry," he said. "But I am frightened. Those criminals in there are actively destroying the very fabric of Paldea."

She blinked a few times. "Figuratively?"

"Literally."

Juliana bit her tongue in an attempt to hold back her laughter. Team Star had been a nuisance, for sure, and she certainly couldn't say she trusted them. But a criminal organization with the technology to attack Paldea's existence? How could anyone even begin to take that seriously?

Then Juliana realized she didn't need to bite her tongue. As hilarious as the situation was, she couldn't bring herself to so much as smile about it. In fact, she couldn't bring herself to smile at all.

Her hands flew to her face in what was probably a very good Arven impersonation. Her cheeks didn't feel numb, and she could speak just fine. But she couldn't change her expression. Her mouth and eyebrows-the muscles simply wouldn't budge past a certain point.

"What's wrong?" Clive asked, suddenly the picture of a calm and concerned teacher.

"I-I don't know!" Juliana squeaked. "I can't stop frowning! My expression won't change at all!"

She expected Clive to shake his head and call her crazy. She felt like she was crazy. But instead he settled cross-legged in the grass and gave a long sigh. "So, it's happening to you too, then?"

"Wha-what?"

"Close your eyes," he said in a calm but firm tone. "Take deep breaths. I've found if one can relax and reset themselves, as it were, this effect usually passes."

Skeptical as she was about "relax-and-reset" advice from the guy who couldn't keep his own voice down, Juliana slipped carefully from her kneeled position to a fully seated one. She rested her bag on her lap, closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose. Then, at Clive's prompting, she exhaled slowly through her mouth. She focused her thoughts on the air flowing in and out of her body, on the solidness of the ground beneath her and the grass all around. Then, as some of the tension began to recede from her body, she felt the edges of her mouth turning upwards. She worked her face muscles, which tingled with a pins-and-needles feeling, but to her vast relief, they moved how she pleased. Her heart pounded with adrenaline, but she forced herself to smile again and again just to make sure she could.

"What...what was that?" she asked as she opened her eyes. Clive, oblivious to his hypocrisy, put a finger to his lips in a shushing motion. He nodded towards the Ruchbah Squad's gate, which had cracked open to allow the olive-pushing grunts through. They had to rotate their baggage to get in, and Juliana saw to her horror that something was sticking out of the olive. Something alive.

She gasped and covered her mouth. "Is that...a person in there?"

"Indeed," Clive answered. "My observations show Team Star has gathered quite a few affected individuals here, though for what purpose I do not know. I assume from your reaction that they have not sent you any convenient confessions?"

Juliana shook her head. "I thought they were going to help Arven. I just sort of took their word on it. And now I'm worried about Cassiopeia, too."

She supposed it sounded pretty naive now that she said it aloud.

Clive frowned and pushed his purple glasses higher up the bridge of his nose. "We should put Cassiopeia out of our minds for the time being. If they are willing to speak with you, you should go inside and get whatever information you can. But do not drop your guard. And call for my help the instant you feel you cannot handle the situation alone. Do you understand?"

Juliana nodded absently. What else could she do? Clive-well, Director Clavell-had all the resources of the academy to back up his claim against Team Star. And Arven was still inside the base, thinking these people could help him. And Jenny? Whoever she was, might know as little about Team Star as Arven did. Juliana stood, gripped Tinkatuff's Poké Ball at her belt, and marched forward. She would go in there, find out the truth, and deal with it. Her emotions would not overpower her again.
 
Chapter 8: A Rare Candy Interlude
~~Chapter 8: A Rare Candy Interlude~~

A/N: Audio version is available here. Thanks for reading! (also, as an aside, I'm a particular fan of Arven & Ortega as childhood frenemies--if anyone's come across any other fics where they know each other, I'd love to read them!)

#

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.
 
Chapters 9, 10, & 11: Show Your Face to Your Friends...with HUGE Misunderstandings
~~Chapters 9, 10, & 11: Showing Your Face to Your Friends...with HUGE Misunderstandings~~

a/n: This is gonna be a compilation post of chapters 9 through 11, minus a bunch of glitch notes and FAQ stuff I put in the Wattpad and Webnovel versions. (I'm attempting to get my updates more organized and regular.)

So the relevant audio adaptations can be found here (part 1) and here (part 2).

Hope you enjoy!

#

For all the time Penny envisioned speaking to her friends in person, she never imagined it going like this.

To start with, she was sweating like crazy, which fogged up her glasses. Reaching for them jostled her phone, and it flashed at her.

"Ugh! Why is changing accessories so difficult?" she muttered, checking the screen where she'd inadvertently opened the Pokédex app, the map app, and marked several locations she didn't actually want to go to. A long sigh escaped her lips as she closed everything and turned the screen off. Having a chaotic phone during a crisis was tantamount to cutting a finger off and telling her to act okay with it.

Thankfully Ortega had the patience of a Gimmighoul coin hunter. He waited until she'd cleaned the lenses and turned to face him in earnest. There was no playful teasing about her clumsiness, like her family would do. Just a grateful smile. "Nice to meet you, big boss."

"Nice to meet you, too," she said, her voice more confident than she expected. I'm the leader, aren't I? And I'm the one who thinks I can actually save Paldea from whatever's happening. I should act like it. Even if I don't feel it. "And it's Penny."

"Penny, then," Ortega said and picked up his Poké Ball staff from where he'd stashed it behind his desk. "Giacomo should be monitoring our, um...visitor from the Cortondo Gym. Is it okay if he comes in to see you, too?"

Penny rubbed her forehead, feeling where her bike helmet's padding left a few marks. "Oh...um..."

"Because that's fine if you don't want him to. If you went through that much trouble to avoid talking face-to-face, it's obviously something you're uncomfortable with, and dragging the other Team Star bosses in here without even asking how you feel about it would be really rude. I mean, the absolute rudest."

"No, no, it's okay. Honest," Penny told him. Ortega gave a satisfied nod and walks outside the tent to find the Segin Squad leader. It was almost sweet how protective he was of her. Then Penny remembered that there wasn't a Segin Squad anymore, thanks to Operation Starfall. Her chest tightened. Maybe I could stand to be a little more protective of my friends in return.

#

Meanwhile, Juliana entered the gate without too much issue. Several of the grunts had their Poké Balls at the ready, but when she explained to them that she was with Jenny and Arven, they backed off and let her through. One of them even helpfully pointed out Arven's location. Not that he was difficult to find. The guy was stomping up the path, already headed in her direction.

Relief flooded through her as she jogged forward. Arven seemed kind of flustered--probably from being left in the base without her all this time. Once they met, she promptly pulled him away from the Team Star grunts to whisper up against the corner of a fence. "Glad I finally found you. "Listen. I just got some important intel. I don't think Team Star is out to help you like they said."

"Really?" Arven said with more than a hint of sarcasm. "And did this 'intel' come from that creepy guy in the grass?"

"He's not creepy. It's just the school director dressed up as this student named Clive following us around and watching what we do."

Arven did not need to reply to this. His deadpan expression said enough.

Juliana tried to explain, "Look, it's important he stays undercover. He's pretty sure Team Star is behind all this weird stuff going on."

"I see," Arven replied. His tone had softened to one less caustic and more...well, sad. "And what do you think about them?"

It seemed like a genuine question, which made Juliana divert her gaze in debate. She wasn't used to people actually hearing her opinion and changing their actions based on what she said. Usually she nodded and went along with people just because they left her little choice in the matter.

"I mean, Clive said they're bad. And he's pretty trustworthy, so they're probably bad, right?" She crossed her arms, tilted her head slightly, and tapped her foot on the ground. She'd seen Arven do it a bunch of times, and it seemed to help him think. Unfortunately, it failed to have the same enlightening effect on her. "Then again, I guess believing whatever he said without proof just as bad as believing whatever Team Star says without proof?"

"No, they're bad," Arven assured her. "Stuck-up, irredeemable jerks we should not be talking to. Glad we're on the same page there. So let's go."

He started for the gate again, but Juliana grabbed the end of his backpack and pulled, halting his progress. If Team Star really was the cause of all these problems, it was up to her and Arven to stop them.

Arven gave the backpack a tug and loosened it from her grasp. "'If' is a loaded word. They're lousy people, yeah, but I don't know if they're capable of something that major. Not without a lot of adult help, which I always thought they were pretty strongly against."

How does he know so much about them? Juliana wondered. Even Clive didn't have this level of info. Maybe Arven was a former member who got out early? But if that were the case, he would have told her by now. The guy literally put the task of healing his Pokémon in her hands. If that wasn't a no-holds-barred level of trust, what was?

While Juliana stood in debate, the grunts had apparently gotten tired of watching them whisper in the corner. A group of them began to approach, accompanied by three people dressed outside the normal school uniform. One of them looked like a DJ, wearing a slick black and white jacket and a hefty set of headphones. This had to be Giacomo--the boss she was supposed to fight back at the Segin Squad base. He carted around a laptop that he was showing to a red-and-blue-haired girl with gray-patterned leggings, though the screen hid most of her face. The third person was shorter than the others and sported a pastel pink and yellow tailcoat that complimented his lavender hair. He also carried a small golden staff and walked with the confident gait of someone who could afford to drag a gold-plated stick through the muddy grass.

"Juliana, I assume?" he asked when he reached her.

She gave a cautious nod, while Arven crossed his arms and looked the other way.

"Excellent. That makes things easier." The lavender-haired guy tapped the ground with his staff. In a room with tiled flooring, it would have made an authoritative click. Out in the wet grass, it made a much less impressive squelch. "My name is Ortega. I understand you escorted Arven here? Perhaps you can help talk some sense into him."

"I could have gotten here on my own just fine," Arven muttered.

Ortega ignored him and continued with Juliana. The anomalies around Paldea were getting progressively worse. In fact, he'd experienced some long-term effects himself. Team Star needed Arven's help--and Juliana's by proxy--to pinpoint the cause and stop it.

As Ortega spoke, Giacomo closed his laptop, letting Juliana get a full view of the girl he'd been showing it to.

Juliana narrowed her eyes at the newcomer. "Wait a second. Are you...?" The sweatshirt and shiny Eevee backpack looked like they belonged to Jenny. But her face reminded Juliana of the shy girl from school. Never mind that their names were only one letter apart...

"Y-you're Penny." Juliana did a face palm. Mostly to hide the scarlet flooding her cheeks. She could understand Director Clavell disguising himself so they could talk on the same level. But when fellow students hid who they were, too? Nothing felt sacred anymore.

And apparently her humiliation wasn't quite over.

"So, yeah, um...I guess I should come completely clean," the girl said. "I'm Penny...and Cassiopeia. Along with being Team Star's leader."

Juliana had no immediate response to that. Her brain fired through possibilities in a desperate attempt to make sense with what she was hearing. Maybe Team Star was desperate for good leadership and Penny was working for them against her will?

"Hold up. Why start Operation Starfall, then shut it down, then become Team Star's leader? Were you kidnapped and blackmailed or something?"

"Hey, hey!" Now Giacomo came forward, pushing past Ortega so he stood only inches from Juliana. The whole group of them were going to be pressing their faces together in short order if they kept this up. "She hasn't been kidnapped. Or blackmailed! Or whatever else you--" His eyebrows rose, and he turned to face Penny. "Hold up. You started Operation Starfall, B.B.? You wanted Team Star to go down?"

"N-no! Penny waved her hands frantically. "I-I mean...yes, I did. At first. To get you back to school so you didn't expelled. But now there's bigger problems than school, and we need Team Star to fix them, and...and..." She buried her face in her hands and groaned. "And why is this so complicated?"

Giacomo didn't raise his voice. He didn't even look that angry--more hurt than anything else. Hesitantly, he patted Penny on the shoulder in a halfhearted attempt to comfort her.

Ortega stabbed at the ground with his staff again, drawing Juliana's attention. "Look," he said. "I don't know where you got such weird ideas about us, but we want to help Paldea. The same as I assume you do. We just need to study Arven for a while and find out what causes his phasing to activate. With that information, maybe we can stop the anomalies altogether."

"I..." Juliana felt a serious headache coming on. She'd come in here so confident, but Team Star seemed genuinely confused by her accusations. Arven was no help, still standing with his arms crossed, refusing to take part in the conversation. What was she supposed to do? Answer for him?

Carefully, she answered, "I don't know. Phasing through stuff over and over again sounds dangerous. Even if what you're saying is true."

"What do you mean 'even if it's true'?" Giamoco demanded. "You think we're lying?"

"Well..."

"What would we get out of a lie like that?" Ortega said, pointing the muddy end of his staff in Juliana's face. "Seriously. How do you think it benefits us to watch Arven sticking his hand through random objects for hours on end?"

"Which I'm not doing," Arven said. "So you can lay off of my friend already!" He came up alongside Juliana and shoved the staff away. Hard. It knocked Ortega off balance, sending him down on his butt into the mud. Murky rainwater splashed up, covered Penny's leggings, and drenched Ortega's fairy-pink suit. Arven's eyes widened, but instead of apologizing, he crossed his arms and stood over Ortega with a piercing glare. "If the same thing is happening to you, why don't you be Team Star's lab Rattata?"

"Because I can't control it, and you can!" Ortega snapped as he pushed himself into a crouch. He reached for his staff, only for his fingers to move right through it. He growled and stood, leaving his staff in the mud.

Doubt again crossed Arven's face, but again his angry tone took control. "Oh, so I'm special?"

"Clearly! Gee, I wonder how that happened!"

Juliana bit her lip. Making a sound judgment here was getting trickier by the second. But first she had to keep Arven and Ortega from going staff-to-frying-pan at each other. She stepped in between them. "Look, there's obviously a lot of tension here, so why don't we talk things out?" She patted Arven's arm and gently pushed down on Ortega's balled-up fist. Mostly to make sure they didn't take any fury-filled swings.

Suddenly, she lost her footing. Or more accurately, her foot. Juliana looked down to see her leg sunk into the ground up to her knee. She cried out in surprise and pulled her hands back, only to start falling forward. For all their hatred of each other, the boys apparently shared a desire not to see her hit the ground face-first. Arven grabbed her left wrist while Ortega grasped her right.

Then things got really weird. Juliana's limbs burned with the sensation of someone powerful pulling on them with full strength. At the same time, the upper half of her body felt like it was flying straight up. She tried to squeeze her eyes shut, but her eyelids hit some sort of obstacle. She could only watch in horror as the ground got farther and farther away.

When it stopped, her feet remained planted on the ground. She was standing at roughly the height of a building, her limbs stretched thin like putty. But when she tried to reach her unnaturally long arm forward, she could barely see it from her peripheral vision. Like her eyes had jutted out too far from her body.

Juliana let out a guttural, horrified scream. The sound was echoed by dozens of terrified, normal-sized humans far below. Grunts were scrambling to get away from her. If she moved, she might step on them. Or fall on them. She tried desperately to look around and get her bearings, but with her disconnected vision, any movement turned her stomach and threatened her already precarious balance.

Then, as quickly as it had happened, the entire process worked itself in reverse. Her eyes pulled back, returning to their normal place in her sockets. Her arms shrunk to their normal length, and the ground got closer and closer.

When the whole insane event ended, Juliana collapsed onto the ground.

Despite all the grunts darting away, Arven came running to her side. "Juliana! Are you okay?" He seemed hesitant to touch her, but she reached out and grabbed his wrist, using it to pull herself out of the mud. Nothing happened. Her body remained normal. Of course it had. They'd bumped up against each other plenty of times before arriving here. Whatever freakish process had taken over her body, it wasn't Arven's fault. And since only one other person had come in contact with her, the culprit couldn't be clearer.

"Juliana?" Arven asked again. "Answer me!"

"C-clive was right," she said in a shaky voice. "Team Star is the cause of everything. We need to stop them." She scanned the grounds until she saw Ortega, Penny, and Giacomo. They were keeping a healthy distance from her, but they weren't running, either.

Juliana grabbed Tinkatuff's Poké Ball and thrust it forward. "Battle me! And when I win, I want the Rhubarb Squad disbanded. Forever."

Penny stood stunned. On one hand she could see how Juliana came to the conclusion that she did. Ortega did grab her only a moment before that horrible series of events occurred. Just watching Juliana's body stretch and change like that was terrifying. If Penny had been in her position, she'd be looking to blame the nearest person she could, all logic thrown to the wayside.

On the other hand...Ugh!

"Well?" Juliana demanded, still a touch out of breath as she held her Poké Ball aloft. "Do you accept my challenge or not?"

Penny breathed deeply. Fair or not, she had to take charge here. Maybe it was different than directing Team Star from behind the scenes, but she was still their leader. It was her job to guide them through this.

"Of course we accept your challenge," she said as boldly as she could manage. "Team Star follows its code. But we expect you to stand by our rules as well. You need to face thirty of our members first before Ortega." And when in doubt about what to do next, stalling's not a bad option.

Juliana nodded.

Ortega called for the members to regroup, assuring them the giant-student-related danger had passed. Once everyone had huddled together--including Ortega's tutor--Penny leaned down and whispered, "Listen. We need you all to buy us as much time as you can." She glanced to Ortega. "Would any of your Pokémon listen to another trainer if you lent them out?"

Ortega didn't look happy about this, but replied, "Mr. Harrington knows my Dachsbun pretty well. Likes his piano music. But that'll leave me short a team member."

"Go ahead and do it," she said. "I'll back you up with one of my own team members."

Ortega frowned at the suggestion but passed his Poké Ball to his tutor all the same. Penny ended with instructions to the scorekeeper to keep her and the others updated on Juliana's progress. With the group invigorated and ready to fight, Penny pulled the two bosses back towards the tents. Arven's gaze stayed locked on them the entire time.
 
Chapter 12: Perfect Backup
~~Chapter 12: Perfect Backup~~

a/n: Audio version is available here. Thanks for reading! (I have one more chapter I plan to post this Friday, then I'll be back on a weekly-at-most update schedule.)

#

Penny never went anywhere without proper equipment. Once inside Ortega's "office," she sat down in his swivel chair and laid her Eevee bag on her lap. From there, she extracted a thin, tablet-like collapsable monitor and a tri-fold keyboard. She laid them out across Ortega's desk, which was quite comfortable to sit at. If she was going to get stuck frantically planning countermeasures to Juliana's attack, this wasn't the worst place to do it.

"We need to know everything we can about Juliana and Arven," she said as she tapped on her phone. It immediately recognized the hardware and connected to it. The keys glowed with a soft blue light, and the monitor lit up with a mirror image of the phone's screen. "Ortega, start talking, please."

"Wha--?"

"You and Arven obviously know each other," Giamono said. He glanced at his phone. "Also, Juliana's taken out three members already."

"We knew each other as kids!" Ortega protested. "That's it!" When no one bought this excuse, he relented and stepped behind Penny to look over her shoulder as she typed. "Okay, okay. Look, the last time I saw Arven, we were both eight years old. My family provided the angel funding for his mom's research, so we always had access to her data and prototypes and all that stuff before anybody else did. Sometimes my parents let Arven and I hang out together at her lab. I'd bring this double-stacked bento box with me for lunch, which Arven always thought was the coolest thing ever. One day his mom was extra busy, and we didn't know where to sit and eat, so I started looking--"

"Not to rush you, but we only have so much time before Juliana takes out our first line of defense," Penny said. Her fingers itched to put her devices to good use. "I could use the quick version here."

"Eight members down," said Giacomo.

"I'm getting there, all right?" Ortega huffed. "The quick version is that something in his mom's lab terrified me that day, and I never wanted to go near her or Arven again afterwards." He gritted his teeth and faced the corner of the tent. "Arven doesn't know. He thought I'd suddenly decided he was below me or something."

"I'm sorry," Penny said, hoping to strike a balance between sympathetic and can-we-please-hurry-it-up. "What do you know about him now, though? What's most important to him that might get him over to our side?"

"I don't know anything about him now," Ortega said. He pulled out his phone and tapped through to his contact list. "I still have his contact info. But he blocked me a while ago. I blocked him back out of spite at the time, but--hey!"

Penny had already snatched the phone out of Ortega's hand around when he said "blocked him back." She fumbled around in her bag, pulled out an extra cable, and added Ortega's phone to her set-up. The monitor showed a split screen, and she enlarged the one displaying Ortega's data first. After a quick glance at what she had to work with, her fingers flew across the keys, her brain happy to communicate in a language that didn't have a million different ways the receiver could misinterpret the message.

This model of Rotom Phone didn't really block new messages. Instead, it stashed messages from unwanted senders in a trash folder, set to be deleted. And even then, phones of all types were horrible at actually deleting data.

"Fourteen members down," Giacomo said, his normally cool and collected tone waning.

Arven must have decided to unblock at Ortega at some point, because with a little bit of prodding, Penny found several recent messages from him. Ortega looked more and more upset as she scrolled through each one, starting from the last school term: Hey, know we haven't talked in a while, but Mabosstiff is hurt bad. Or sick, maybe? Potions and centers aren't helping. Does your family know anyone who could help?

The next message didn't come until a couple months later: Been doing some research. Have you heard of this stuff called Herba Mysitca? Think the titan Pokémon might be connected to it. I'm gonna go check them out but could use some backup. Please?

Then right as the current term began: Forget it. I'll find someone else to help. Or go on my own. Have a nice life.

Ortega rubbed at his eyes. "That's important to him," he said in as steady a voice as he could manage. "Mabosstiff was always there for Arven when his mom wasn't. If it's sick, Arven would do anything, and I mean anything, to help it. I'm kind of shocked he's with Juliana instead of hunting down one of the titans now."

"Juliana's up to twenty wins," Giacomo said. "Hey, you think maybe she's helping Arven with this titan thing? She seems strong enough for it."

"Let's assume that's the case for now," Penny said, then continued her work. In short order, she also recovered some odd spam messages from the supposedly deleted data. She was set to ignore them, but the awkward phrasing caught her eye:

tH3 w0R1D 1S unST4Bl3. O0DS of S4ving AR3... Accompanied by an image file. Finding it clear of any malicious code, Penny previewed it: a photo of a Tandemaus, its two faces blank, a number written across each of its stomachs: "92"

Odds are ninety-two? Okay, that was ominous. But then Penny saw this wasn't the only such text Ortega had received. Scrolling down she saw two more nearly identical ones, the first was from a week and a half ago, and the second had come in only yesterday.

The messages were the same. But the numbers on the two Tandemaus had changed to 89 and 86.

So according to whoever sent these, the odds of us saving Paldea are...going down? Penny shook her head. It wasn't like her to waste time on nonsense like this. Especially when there was little of it to waste.

"Any idea what these are?" she said, showing the texts to Ortega.

He shivered. "Ew. Creepy. But no. I haven't seen anything like that."

"Doesn't look like a mass text," Penny said. "But it could easily be some creep who doesn't like your family." She rescued them from the trash bin for further investigation later.

"Mr. Harrington is fighting Juliana for her thirtieth win," Giacomo announced. "And, uh...this happened." He turned the phone around to show the group the white glow of a Pokémon in mid-evolution. Juliana had come in here with a Tinkatuff. And now it was a Tinkaton. A very maniacal-looking one at that. On the ground beside it lay Dachsbun, falling into a faint.

"Doesn't change our plans," Penny said. "And anyway, it would be rude to embarrass Juliana by beating her too quickly." Wish I felt a fraction as confident as that sounded. She unplugged the two phones and returned Ortega's to him, along with Sylveon's Poké Ball. "She knows Moonblast, Quick Attack, Baby-Doll Eyes, and Shadow Ball," she told him. When he hesitated to take it, she added on, "It's only if you get backed into a corner. Now let's get the Starmobile and show them what Team Star is made of."

#

When the Team Star trio reappeared on the field, things weren't looking great. Grunts were kneeled down beside their fallen Pokémon, feeding them potions and revives, along with every sort of drink the vending machines would spit out.

Mr. Harrington had recalled Ortega's fainted Dachsbun and sent out a Meowth. Not normally a Pokémon he battled with, Ortega noted to the group; it was more of a companion.

He must be giving this all he has for Ortega's sake. Penny had her eyes on Tinkaton. It let out a shrill cry and raised its hammer in a showy fashion, but it also looked fatigued. Maybe Ortega wouldn't even need to use Sylveon.

"Don't you have any other Pokémon?" Arven asked Juliana. "You can't use one for everything! It'll run out of moves."

Juliana huffed. "I know that! And of course I have another Pokémon. Do I look like the type of person who would lose my Pokémon?"

Well, that sounded aggressively defensive, Penny thought. Maybe Juliana one of the people whose Pokémon had simply vanished in the series of anomalies. Or perhaps had one of them run away from her?

Either way, Juliana did take Arven's advice, recalled Tinkaton, and sent out another Pokémon...this one in a Premiere Ball. A blast of cold blew across the field, accompanied by a mighty roar and a bulky, white-furred body.

Arven staggered back. "Wh-when did you get a Beartic?"

"Honestly? I stumbled into a tera raid with a bunch of trainers way better than me. It's been my stronger Pokémon for a while. Especially after I gave it all the experience candy I had. But it usually ignores me. Or attacks at random." She put her hands on her hips and tapped her foot. "I wonder if it gave those other trainers a hard time, too. Once I terastallized Tinkatuff, they all kind of vanished from the raid."

"Uh..." Arven did not look comfortable with any of this. Penny wondered if they should evacuate the base before Juliana's Pokémon decided to freeze it over Team-Plasma style.

"Th-they must have been intimidated by how strong Beartic is," Juliana said with a weak, uncertain laugh. "But I bet it listens now that I've got Larry's gym badge.

Juliana quickly pulled up her Rotom phone. "Let's see...Beartic knows Blizzard, Rest, Superpower, and Sheer Cold. I'm not happy with its moveset, but I haven't really time to change it around much, and--oh! Superpower is a fighting move! Beartic, use that!" She tucked the phone away and turned her attention back to the battle.

Beartic roared and charged full-force into Meowth. Penny winced, expecting to see the poor little thing flattened. This Beartic was high-level. Well, not on Sylveon's level, but it could certainly hold its own against any of Ortega's team. And that was concerning.

But when the dust settled, the audience let out a collective gasp. Meowth had taken heavy damage, but she was not knocked down.

"My little Meowth does love her focus sash," Harrington chuckled. "Now, then, let's see...use Spite!"

Meowth growled and swiped at the air. The shadow of its claws stretched out and formed a gloomy dark-purple haze around Beartic. The massive Pokémon shook it off, but looked confused when it went to raise its paw again.

Juliana groaned. "Superpower's been drained? Beartic, Blizzard! Keep Blizzard-ing until we win!"

"Meowth, Endure! Then use Spite again!" Harrington called out. The pint-sized little cat dug its claws into the ground, bracing itself against freezing chill of the Blizzard attack. She was hardy and determined, even in the face of everything working against her. Actually, it reminded Penny a lot of the Sprigatitio she'd rescued back in her dorm.

Meowth and Beartic seemed to have compatible speed, and this time, Meowth got the upper hand. Spite took out all Beartic's uses of Blizzard, causing its second move to fail. Harrington ordered a Play Rough next, and Juliana ordered a Sheer Cold. This time, Beartic went first, and Sheer Cold landed. Meowth fainted instantly in the blast, and even from a distance, the Ruchbah Squad members shivered. So much for good luck, Penny thought.

Harrington gave Juliana a polite bow before stepping down and handing the stage over to Ortega. He gave the Starmobile's engine a good loud rev as he pulled it forward. The billowing pink flag seemed to energize the members watching. Ortega then stood on the seat and announced the start of the match.

Juliana recalled Beartic and sent out Tinkaton as her first Pokémon. The shiny, heavy hammer was enough to strike fear in the heart of any fairy-type enthusiast. It certainly made Penny shudder.

Ortega had his work cut out for him.
 
Chapter 13: What Are the Odds? New
~~Chapter 13: What Are the Odds?~~

a/n:
Audio version is available here. Also...eh, Friday. Tuesday. Pretty much the same, right? ^_^;;

#


To his credit, Ortega did try to sound cool and confident. It just didn't quite come out that way.

"Oookay, so...you're Juliana," he said. Then he seemed to collect himself a bit, put his foot up on the car's dashboard and leaned forward. "I-I mean, talk about underwhelming. Took you, what? Nineteen minutes to beat my crew? You almost ran out of time."

"Your last guy was really hard!" Juliana objected.

Ortega shrugged. "Whatever. Not like I'm gonna lose to you anyway." He removed his muddy jacket and gave a theatrical twirl before sending Azumarril out to face Tinkaton. "Glad you have enough sense to know fairy types aren't all about cuteness. But you still made a big mistake challenging me with them. Azumarril, use Charm!"

Azumarril twirled the same way Ortega had, sending a flurry of pink hearts in Tinkaton's direction.

"Tinkaton, Gigaton Hammer!" Juliana called out.

Her Pokémon charged forward and hit Azumarril with a clang that echoed across the squad base. But loud and powerful as it sounded, Azumarril appeared more or less unfazed. It threw out another Charm attack to weaken Tinkaton's attack even more. Then Ortega started with the Aqua Tail attacks.

Like Beartic with Blizzard and Superpower, Tinkaton was quickly depleted of its best move, leaving it with Skitter Smack, Play Rough, and Flash Cannon. Penny stood back, watching with pride at Ortega's success. This is what a team was supposed to feel like.

Struggling with the effects of Tinkaton's devastated attack power, Juliana switched back to Beartic. "Sheer Cold!" she commanded. Not that Penny or anyone else was worried. After all, what were the odds of--

A blast of icy air burst from Beartic's mouth and hit Azumarril smack in the center of its bright blue take-all-hits tummy. It swaggered off balance for a moment before it fell over. Fainted.

No way!

"Lucky shot!" Ortega growled, pulling back Azumarril and sending out Wigglytuff. "Why don't you just try that again? I dare you!"

Juliana narrowed her eyes. And she did try again. Penny's heart sank as Sheer Cold hit its mark for the third time in a row. Hesitant to resort to Penny's Sylveon, Ortega sent the Starmobile's Revavroom, only for it to meet the same fate.

Penny shook her head, trying to process what she'd witnessed. Sheer Cold hitting four times in a row? The odds of that were less than one percent. Either Juliana was the luckiest trainer in the world or something else was happening.

Penny thought of the strange photos Ortega had received and swallowed hard. Can the anomalies affect statistics, too? How do we fight them if they can? She forced her eyes to stay on the match. But she barely registered as Ortega sent out her precious Sylveon. The last thing she wanted was to see her own Pokémon taken out in a single logic-defying hit.

Only this time when Beartic released Sheer Cold, it didn't work.

Or rather, the attack itself worked, but Sylveon seemed to shrug it off. Penny's heart leapt from the pit of her stomach back into her chest. Sylveon's at too high of a level to be affected!

And so she was. The pink and blue Eeveelution let out a Moonblast at Ortega's command. Beartic's special defense wasn't as shabby as its speed, but after two hits, it was on the ground.

Giacomo cheered, but Ortega looked like he'd swallowed some extra-bitter Aguav berries. He'd wanted to win but not this way.

Tinkaton came out next and landed a couple of super effective hits on Sylveon with Flash Cannon. But after all the battles she'd had so far, Tinkaton's uses of Flash Cannon were soon gone, too.

"Let's finish this!" Ortega said, raising his hand. "Shadow Ball!"

Sylveon glanced back at Penny, who nodded at it encouragingly. Her Pokémon gave a melodic cry, shot a cloudy ball of purple mist in Tinkaton's direction, and braced itself for the returning attack.

Except it didn't come. Tinkaton swayed back and forth several times before it dropped its hammer with a deep thunk and fell to the ground.

"W-we won?" asked Giacomo in an awed whisper.

"They won!" Juliana moaned. "How could this happen?" She shoved her two Poké Balls in her pockets and headed for the gates.

Ortega grabbed his jacket, clearly unhappy withOrtega stomped his foot, clearly unhappy with his technically illegal win. If this had been an official match and someone saw him take Penny's Poké Ball, they'd have declared Juliana the winner by default. He stomped his foot, but instead of landing with a clang, his foot phased in and out of the Starmobile's floor, causing him to lose his balance. Penny and Giacomo hurried up to catch him.

"I'm fine," he said, pushing them off once his feet were on solid ground. "The base is safe, so let's just get back to work already."

Penny let go and looked back, expecting to see Arven halfway to the gate alongside his friend. Instead he walked up to Ortega, his eyebrows furrowed in what could have been any number of intense emotions. Penny never claimed to be good at reading people.

"That Sylveon wasn't yours, was it?" Arven said quietly. "You don't keep your Pokémon in anything other than Luxury Balls."

If there was one thing Ortega detested more than winning by cheating, it was getting caught in the act. He held Sylveon's Poké Ball defensively to his chest. "I'll have you know this one was a gift!"

Arven crossed his arms. "A gift Pokémon?"

"Uh-huh."

"To you?"

"Exactly."

"In a standard, run-of-the-mill, cheap Poké Ball?"

Ortega looked down at the ground, flushing.

"Yeah, thought so," Arven scoffed with a shake of his head. "Listen, I don't know what crazy thing that was with Juliana before, but I don't think you caused it. So I won't say anything about Sylveon if you answer a question for me."

"Sure." Ortega swallowed hard, which gave Penny a sinking feeling what the question might be. "Ask away."

"Did you ever get my texts?"

"N-not until today." Even if it was the truth, the shakiness in his voice did Ortega no favors.

"That so?" Arven said, his own voice razor sharp. And why wouldn't it be? They were asking him to believe his former best friend had missed all his cries for help months ago but had somehow found those messages again in Team Star's time of need. Quite a convenient coincidence.

"I don't know why I try with you," Arven sighed. "Good luck whenever Juliana comes back here, because she'll probably kick your butt." He started towards the gate. Penny's heart sank. Yes, the squad was safe, but what could it actually do now? They were both going to leave--the only person who could control when the anomalies affected him and the person who'd experienced the most extreme anomaly Penny had witnessed thus far. Even worse, they were going to drain Team Star's resources trying to attack the bases over and over.

"We can help your sick Pokémon!" Penny blurted out.

Arven froze. "What?"

"I-if you're after this Herba Mystica, we can help you. We have dozens of members across Paldea, and our crew bosses' skills are top notch." She had no idea where the offer had come from. She'd entertained it as a last-ditch plan, but it wasn't like her to propose things without thinking them through.

For once, though, it felt like she could trust her gut. If any member of her team had been hurt like Arven's Pokémon had, she'd take any path available. She bet he would, too.

"I have someone helping me already," Arven said. But the doubt had already crept into his voice. He wasn't after loyalty. He was after results. Heck, even if he did think Team Star was plotting Paldea's destruction, he might still be in debate over this. But he wouldn't admit it on the spot. They needed to give him an out for now and pull him in later.

Thankfully Ortega delivered. "Penny fixed my phone so I can't miss your messages anymore," he said to Arven. "Think about it at least and call us when you decide."

Arven nodded and started walking away again, muttering a barely audible "We'll see" under his breath. It wasn't the well-calculated type of outcome Penny was used to. But for now it would have to do.

#

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 be addressed Juliana, admitting he gave out their location info when Nemona contacted him out of worry. He also demanded to know what happened inside the base. "I saw you grow higher than the fence! What was that? An illusion?"

"No, that was real," Juliana said with a shudder. "Not to mention terrifying. And it was completely 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. Then after a moment of debate, he shared a theory with Juliana: it's said if Pokémon have a super-close bond with their trainer, that can have some noticeable effects in battle. They'll dodge attacks more easily, land hits more often, and sometimes 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 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 was a connection, he didn't get it. But he also had three more Herba Mystica to track. So it seemed this particular mystery would have to wait for another time.
 
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