Seasons of Growth

So over the past year I’ve been breaking every three months up into personal development seasons, in the style of the CGP Grey video on Themes.  They’ve been far more successful than I expected going in, maybe in part because I’ve had a great Season Buddy to talk to every few weeks about our goals and progress. I highly recommend it in general, as the benefits from each previous season definitely seem to be persisting past them.

My first was Season of Completion (stop taking on new projects, go through list of old ones and finish what I could), then Wealth (lean into asking for more money for things, and spending more money on myself), then Health (physical therapy and regular exercise), and my latest one has been Season of Aesthetics, as in trying to develop my own sense of it for myself and focusing on more deliberate ways to embody it.

There have been some fairly big additional motivations along the way throughout the past year that have definitely helped with all this, but I think it’s really worth highlighting the ongoing, *gentle* motivation and guidance that the seasons provide to decision trees I face. Often something unpredicted will provide a big burst of energy to start doing something, like swimming every day, but the Season will provide added, ongoing motivation to maintain it.

Standout benefits so far:

1) I finished a handful of non-fiction articles that have been on the backburner for years, and feel better capable of deciding whether to take on new projects or not.

2) I’ve consistently been asking for more money for things I do, sometimes 1.5x-2x as much as I used to, and feel more comfortable about it.

3) I’ve bought about a dozen things that would have felt frivolous before despite the convenience and value they add, and seem to have eliminated any sense of guilt over self-purchases as high as $320 (Oculus Quest 2) and as low as $10 (slim wallet for Season of Aesthetics).

4) My average weight has gone down ~20 pounds, and my single arm barbell lift weight has increased from 15 pounds to 25. When I started swimming at the start of October it was for about 20 minutes before I’d get exhausted, can now swim for 40 and barely feel winded.

5) I’ve also acquired a number of new sets of clothing, particularly more fancy ones than I would normally wear, for a variety of weather types and events.

The year’s not over yet, but overall it’s been a massively valuable experiment, and I figured I should share all this now so people can think about it before the new year starts in case it’s something they want to try (not that it has to start on a clean new year, “themes” as Grey calls them can be short so even a month each is fine, but 3 months felt right to me). Would be happy to answer questions about this if anyone has any, as this is definitely the sort of thing I’d like to encourage to catch on.

Chapter 99: Interlude XX – Change

Gifted.

It was a concept Natsume carried with her as close as her name for as long as she could remember. There was no “talk” about the gift, no explanation for what it was, what it meant. She learned about it the same way she did how to hold a spoon, by simple observation and gentle guidance. She learned how to bend the spoon the same way, around the time she was learning her letters. In their home, there was barely any talking at all; why use words, when sending and sharing feelings and notions was so much more direct?

Losing them was like losing parts of her mind. Learning to live without them was impossible without relearning how to learn.

She stayed, for a while, with a man who had a kind and perpetually worried face. She could feel that he cared for her, but it was abstract compared to her parents’ love, and laced with worry and grief. He took care of her, tried to encourage her to speak more, but he wasn’t like her. His mind was like a picture; her mental fingers touched it without being touched. It wasn’t what she needed.

Eventually someone came who was, and little by little she regrew around the parts that were missing, felt their absence without suffering their lack… though there was suffering, too, as she was made, little by little, to understand what she’d lost. The kind man, who she later understood was her father’s brother, held her many nights as she cried.

But still she barely spoke, making her wants and needs known through her gift. She pitied those who had to resort to speech for all their communication needs, felt no desire to use it herself. Every word felt like dragging meaning and feelings and thoughts from a deep pit, misshapen and painful. Each time she managed it felt like leaving her parents further behind. No one seemed to understand; even others like her were too immersed in the world of the ungifted, preoccupied by concepts of separation and privacy.

You cannot simply immerse yourself in another’s thoughts without asking,” her sensei explained, the words emphasized by a projected sense of support and patience. This was not their first conversation on the topic, but he never became upset with her. “Even asking is considered rude, and even if they say yes, they will not mean forever. If you keep trying, people will not want to be your friends.”

So? She asked without words, sending back her wariness of such people. Why would she want to be their friend, if she couldn’t understand them and they didn’t trust her?

The next session she was introduced to the empty people. A creature that looked like a man, but with nothing inside; who spoke without thought; who smiled without feelings.

It was all she could do not to run, screaming, from the room.

What kept her rooted in place was the utterly horrifying thought that perhaps the man was, in fact, a real person… and that the fault lay in her own gift. If the man was real and it couldn’t sense what he was feeling or thinking, how could she trust it to tell her what anyone really thought or felt?

How could she trust her memories of her parents’ minds, and what they shared with hers?

She’d pitied non-gifted, for not knowing. For having nothing but hope, some words, some gestures, to believe in their parents’ love. It seemed far sadder than her own losses, to never feel that love directly, know it as true as her own.

Once her own certainty was stripped from her, chaos reigned. Order was all that could save her, and so she threw herself into her gifted lessons, took every idea she was given and turned it around in her thoughts, examined it from every angle, and when her brain felt too small to hold it all she used paper, and when the paper too small she taught herself to type, and from there she had access to the whole of the world’s knowledge, sterile and abstract as it still seemed without a mind behind it.

She had little interest in other subjects, but some of the research involved psychology and history and math, and so she threw herself into learning those too, which involved learning still more things first. It was slow, and difficult, and she realized she needed a sensei for something other than her gift, and so, painfully, began practicing her speech.

Eventually, frustrated in part by the lack of others’ ability to communicate clearly, she developed a more direct way to transfer a concept from one mind to another. Her sensei was surprised, then delighted and proud. No one had done something like this before, apparently, and suddenly the way she was treated changed.

Before she had been considered slow and stupid and broken, because she didn’t talk, because she didn’t want to talk. Now people were interested in her, intrigued, excited. More gifted wanted to meet her, to experience what she could do. She was introduced to psychic pokemon minds, which felt even easier to communicate with, and lauded as a prodigy.

It wasn’t long after that before the man appeared.

He was another empty person, but his dark eyes still seemed to peer into her mind when he met her gaze and asked her what she wanted, and what she would do to get it. She answered honestly, and he told her about a special, private school for the gifted, one of his philanthropic projects that combined cutting edge research with an environment that fostered both personal and psychic growth.

She was only eight, but she agreed immediately, and after a couple conversations, her uncle did too. She said goodbye to her second home and went to her third with eyes forward.

She had to learn everything anyone knew about the gift, everything everyone knew, and if that wasn’t enough she’d learn more. She’d figure out how it works and how accurate it is and in the end she would know that the love her parents felt toward her was real.


Had it not been for the Hoenn incident, the battle for Cinnabar City would be the most frightening in Sabrina’s life.

Part of that is how unknown the stakes are; failing in Hoenn would end civilization on the island, perhaps the world, and while the danger posed by the shapeshifters doesn’t seem quite as obviously large, they still seem likely to change the world if left unchecked.

But that’s abstract, a fear for the lulls and space between breaths. In the moment, her old enemy chaos reigns once again.

Sabrina watches from atop her bronzong as the trainers fight below her, alert for another discrepancy among the minds of the wild pokemon attacking them. She senses one just as a raticate starts to turn into an ivysaur, and sends a psychic blast from Bronzong down on the imposter, keeping it disoriented until a nearby trainer can swap to a magmar and bathe it in flames.

But the distraction costs them when a sandslash, normal to Sabrina’s senses, emerges under the magmar, pulling it underground and out of withdraw reach. Sabrina quickly has her bronzong confuse the wild pokemon long enough for the suffocating magmar to counterattack, the glow visible through the soil for a moment. But even with the sandslash dead it struggles to breathe or dig its way free, and she quickly withdraws her mind rather than feel its suffocation, the trainer too busy fighting another wild to save it.

She sends a pulse of mental comfort and resolve to her, a holding-shared-grief-for-later, and then there are other threats to face. Sabrina sends out attack after attack through her bronzong for another minute, then guides it higher. The bell-shaped pokemon slowly rotates beneath her feet as it ascends, giving her a wider view of the battle.

The stampede is staggered, each wave coming from a different direction and composed of a varying mix of pokemon. The perimeter they’ve set up is between the city’s proximity sensors and the most dense portion of its suburban borders, as tightly knit as they could make it while leaving as few buildings unaccounted for as possible. All have been evacuated, but the property damage would still be substantial.

Luckily, with the whole island turned out and extra assistance from various gyms, there are enough people at hand to keep each other in line of sight. The dark makes it harder to coordinate which parts of the perimeter need extra help, but that’s what watchers like Sabrina are for.

“Another cluster heading east. Reduce to one trainer per ten meters, everyone else head there.”

“Two growlithe heading west, form a wall.”

“Trainers by the grocery store, weaker pokemon out first. If you’re out then rotate with others.”

There’s too much happening at once to stay on top of it all, and she alternates between going high enough to see the pools of light beyond the perimeter and low enough to help with the battles again, trying to keep her attention on the big picture. Every few minutes she wonders how the other sections are doing, if they’ve already broken or let some of the transforming pokemon through, before she pushes those thoughts away with long practice to focus on what’s in front of her.

Trust is hard for you. I understand. I’ll never be able to prove myself with my mind, but neither will most people in the world; there isn’t enough time to merge with them all. So you’ll have to learn to live with that uncertainty, if you want to be part of a society that trusts each other to try and keep everyone safe.”

They fail. Often.”

Yes. At many things. If people didn’t, trust wouldn’t be necessary.”

High again. “Incoming group of magmar, prepare for a few changers among them!”

Low again as a trainer is killed to disorient the group of identical magmar until others can catch them.

High again to scan the line and say, “Another mixed wave, return to standard.”

Back to low, then high, again and again, until her bronzong is moving slower with exhaustion and the trainers are down to their last few healthy pokemon when she finally sees nothing coming in the furthest lights.

“I think we’ve got a breather,” she says as she guides her pokemon down to settle on the roof of a tourist shop. “Rest up and heal, prioritize Water types.”

She hops off her mount, legs a little wobbly, and sprays some ether onto its metal body. The dim light makes it hard to tell how quickly it’s absorbed, but she can sense when Bronzong’s thoughts quicken and clear. Its body is too alien to feel as though it’s her own, but she can still sense the thrum of energy that goes through it, and decides to give it a minute of real rest rather than immediately climbing back up to start patrolling again..

She uses that time to meditate, slipping quickly and neatly into the calm, quiet place that’s always waiting for her inside, when she looks for it. For some it’s a grassy field, for others it’s their bedroom, but for her it will always be a memory more than a place; an immersed and complete sense of love between her parents and her.

Sometimes, particularly when she was younger, she would wonder if she only imagined it. But when she’s reliving it, it feels as real as anything.

Her muscles begin to relax, and her racing heart is just beginning to slow when her phone chimes an alert for a high priority call and kicks it back into high gear. She lets out a frustrated sound and quickly opens a new channel on her earpiece. “Yes?”

“Hey Sabrina. Word from the boss.”

Archer. The last time she spoke to the administrator it had been to browbeat him for the way his subordinates in the Casino started killing civilians who fell into it; Giovanni said he already dressed him down, but she felt that one of her students nearly getting killed also gave her the right, and she didn’t have much sympathy over the fact that he lost a number of people he worked with daily there, and nearly died himself.

Just thinking about what happened that night brings up a flash of anger, but she controls it with long practice. She doesn’t know everything Giovanni has going on around the region and beyond it, but he’d assured her that Tahu was helping weed out the truly dangerous renegades, rather than just those who were unlucky or made mistakes.

She didn’t touch base with Giovanni before coming to the island, but he would know this is where she’s needed, just as she knows he’s likely been busy coordinating his people to learn as much as they could about what’s happening however possible. Having one of his top administrators reach out to her at a time like this is like having him reach out directly, given how busy they both are.

“Is everyone at the mansion safe?”

“For now.” She lets out a breath, but the next words make her suck it in again. “The pokemon can imitate humans, but not clothing, and according to Naoto they don’t get much smarter.”

Sabrina tries to control her expression before remembering that there’s no one around. If Naoto has access to one of the new pokemon, and they’ve already been experimenting with them… “Archer, was this us?”

“Don’t know any more than you. Boss wanted to coordinate letting the secret out ASAP.”

She grits her teeth, then lets another long breath out. Now isn’t the time to pursue this, the priority has to be getting the information out. It wouldn’t be the first time they had to invent a reason for her to know something Giovanni deemed valuable to the public, but it would be tricky in a situation with such a new threat, particularly since all her movements on the island have been fairly public… unless… “There’s a ‘rescue’ planned?”

“Yep, a guy named Kota is riding to your part of the perimeter on a gogoat.”

Sabrina knows Kota; most of the lab workers would only leave the grounds for vacations, but Kota’s a Cinnabar native, and would regularly travel to the island’s various towns or the city on errands. When she first visited the lab a decade ago he was already in his mid-40s, and she’s worried about someone his age pulling a stunt like this.

But after a moment’s thought it’s obvious why they chose him. A ruse like this would shine the spotlight on whoever’s involved for a bit, and they’d want to keep scrutiny off everyone else at the mansion and lab. So she just says “I’m on it” and hops onto her bronzong, hoping another wave doesn’t arrive meanwhile.

Luckily her section of the perimeter is spared, and after a few minutes she spots Kota riding up the main street. She sets down in his path, far enough that they won’t be seen by the defenders on the perimeter, and he slows to a stop beside her.

“Good to see you again, Sabrina,” Kota says with a wan smile as he takes his cap off and scratches his short white hair. “You know the plan?”

They’ve never exchanged more than a dozen words, but the familiarity doesn’t bother her; Kota was never one for formalities or titles, and even acts like Giovanni and he are old friends. “The basic gist. You have one, then?”

He pats a pokeball on his hip. “Rhea caught it. They did what experiments they could on short notice, took samples, all that.”

“What do we know?” How much she’d be able to find a reason to share is a different matter, but it’ll help to learn as much as possible. Plus, she’s curious.

“They can transform once they touch something, and they can transform into people, but they don’t get smarter, just stare and smile and babble a bit. They tried teaching it basic language, but nothing worked, and Naoto said it’s basically still a pokemon.”

“Basically?”

“He said it’s also kind of like a baby, but…” Kota shrugs. “Seemed uncomfortable, didn’t want to talk about it much.”

Kota doesn’t seem uncomfortable, which is interesting given it’s presumably him that it copied, or soon will, but since he’s a deft hand at psychic shielding she can’t tell how much of his calm is a mask. “How long can they hold a form?”

“Not sure. Once this one pulled at its restraints a few times it transformed back into the jelly and slipped out of them. Also, there’s almost no cooldown on switching, a few seconds, maybe.”

“Does it have to switch once it touches something new?”

“Ah, no, they tried forcing them to transform into weaker pokemon. Mostly didn’t take, though the boss said they might be ‘judging by size or something like it,’ which, yeah, we only used stuff like caterpie and rattata. There’s testing, and there’s being stupid, am I right?”

Sabrina absently nods, mind already racing through all she’s learned and what she can do with it. “Let’s keep this simple, then. One breaks through as some kind of flier, dives at you. Transforms, doesn’t seem like a threat right away, gives you time to call it in. Less coincidence of me finding you, and I’ll have an excuse to merge with it while it’s in human shape.”

“Sure thing, just tell me when and where. Oh, and Naoto did say if you plan to merge with it to warn you that it can be, ah, ‘unsettling’ is the word he used. Like I said, he seemed uncomfortable talking about it.”

“And you? Did you get the chance to merge with it?”

“Oh, sure, but I’m not in the same class as you two, you know. All I got was surface stuff.”

She just nods, unsure how to react to Naoto’s warning. On the one hand, she’s had much more experience merging with pokemon than he has. On the other, he knows that, and he warned her anyway. “There are buildings people are using to act as spotters nearby. You have a flier?”

“Nope, scared of heights,” he says matter-of-factly. “The roof of that motel isn’t too high though, and I think I can make it up there from the inside.”

Sabrina follows his gaze, worried about cameras but also feeling an itch to get back to the perimeter before another wave hits. “Make sure there’s no surveillance up there, and if there are then find another place nearby.”

“Not my first mission, girl.” When Sabrina turns back to him in surprise, he just winks. “Don’t you worry about me. I’ll listen in on the chatter, and when the next wave starts to quiet I’ll call out. Work for you?”

She nods, more amused than chastened. “Works for me.”

“Righto. C’mon boy.” He squeezes his thighs and tugs on its reins to guide it toward the motel, and Sabrina guides her bronzong up and toward the perimeter. She looks back in time to see Kota withdraw his gogoat at the motel entrance, then walk inside.

She spends the next few minutes floating along the perimeter, occasionally touching down to check in on trainers and make sure everyone is okay. She trusts most to have called for support if they weren’t, but it also helps improve morale, and she can tell by the intermittent brushes with the many minds below her that tonight morale is in high demand.

She reaches one end of her section before doubling back, listening as new waves hit the other parts of the city perimeter. By the time she reaches the opposite end her people have spread out twice to cover new gaps in other sections. “Command, my line’s looking pretty thin,” she says after switching channels. “We should retreat to close up more.”

“Copy that, Sabrina, we’ll put out the order as soon as the latest wave hitting the western perimeter is over.”

And if we get hit meanwhile? “Understood.” She swaps back to her local frequency and tries to think of ways to plug the gaps, but every alternative to the straight line she considers would have the opposite effect, or leave other parts randomly exposed…

Ten minutes later another alert goes out, and this one is headed between her section and the one to its west, which is being headed by Ariya. Cerulean Gym’s second is already in the thick of it when Sabrina arrives, and the sight of the oncoming pokemon through the pools of light outside the perimeter makes her swear under her breath, heart hammering despite her efforts to focus on deep, steady breaths.

It looks like the whole island is coming at them.

“Command, we need support now. There’s no way my people will be able to keep this wave from breaking through!”

“Local sectors are moving in to reinforce now.”

Sabrina doesn’t respond, already heading off the attack by landing between two trainers and summoning every pokemon on her belt: kadabra, barrierd, xatu, hypno, swoobat. Nothing too strong, nothing that would be disastrous if turned against them, but hopefully enough to buy them some time… particularly with her merging with them all at once.

The experiments with exeggcute that led to Red’s new partition had other effects for her and her people; each time they practiced merging with the exeggcute together, it became easier to do alone, and that in turn made it easier to merge with multiple other pokemon at once.

She links with each mind one at a time, incorporating their thoughts without merging senses, which feels strange to do with so many relatively smart pokemon, like having six sets of awareness without six sets of senses to feed them information. It’s not her preferred way to do battle, but she can’t handle even three full mergers at once, let alone six, and all she needs them to do is synchronise their actions.

Only a few seconds have passed since she summoned her team, but the first pokemon in the wave are nearly in striking range. REFLECT, she sends, and a dome of force propels a leaping raticate back through the air. LIGHT SCREEN, and the pokemon around her team are coated in a shimmer, the closest thing that humans can detect of what Mazda sees.

The rest crash into the barrier, some immediately spilling around while others try to crawl under. She has her bronzong snipe those while leaving the rest to the other trainers, particularly Ariya, whose pokemon surgically focus on taking out the fire types before they get too close.

For the third time today at least, Sabrina wishes she had her strongest pokemon with her. Not just for their power, but for the familiarity of their minds, the ease of impulse and response and reaction that all blends nearly seamlessly together.

But she has to make do with pokemon from her 4-badge teams, and so the barriers start to falter after just a dozen seconds. She disconnects from her kadabra just before he gets attacked, trusting him to defend himself or die trying, and instead focuses on finding the not-right minds, the doubled-instincts that give away the transforming pokemon.

There, and there, and a third under…

She almost misses the one above, a simple pidgey that flies lower to the ground than any normal one would. It’s passed the perimeter and almost out of range before bronzong slaps it down so hard its wings break, and she knows with resigned certainty that others will have made it past where she’s not as close, let alone other parts of the perimeter without powerful gifted.

Trust them, even though some will fail. If you crave certainty so much, then be certain, but certain in different things; that they will fail your trust, that you will fail your trust, but also that you will only ultimately succeed if you trust them anyway. Not individuals who betray you, but the masses who haven’t, yet, and the ones who you think might have.

Words that helped her when she was young and in despair. Words that helped her make sense of Rei’s betrayal, and see past it to continue working with her in some mutually beneficial fashion. Words she hoped would help Mazda, when they felt even more isolated than she ever did.

They were enough for her. Clearly they weren’t for Mazda.

“Pidgey on the ground behind us,” she calls out. “It’s a transformer, capture it before it shifts!” She can already feel its thoughts changing, the second layer of instincts melting away. She needs to go capture it, before it gets away—

Its thoughts suddenly vanish, and she almost turns around in alarm and surprise—did it transform into a Dark pokemon?—before someone calls out, “I got it!” and she realizes no, it was just a dark trainer doing as she asked, keeping her and Ariya free to focus on the battle in front of them.

She’s lost two of her pokemon now, but thankfully she’s been able to single out the transformers enough that none of them got copied. A scream of pain to her far left indicates that not everyone was so lucky, or maybe they’re just breaking through on the strength of the stampede alone; Ariya leaves to attend to it, and Sabrina realizes she’s been down on the ground too long, lost sight of the overall battle.

A few more precious seconds spent stabilizing the area, then she withdraws her pokemon (even the dead ones, in case the enemy can transform from corpses, no one’s tested that yet as far as she knows) and lifts off again. The perimeter seems secure, though it’s thinner where the scream came from, and she urges her bronzong in that direction despite its renewed weariness.

Later, she wordlessly promises through her own growing fatigue. Rest later.

Bronzong’s thrum beneath her is mournful, but it continues on.

Once Ariya’s section is stabilized Sabrina returns to hers, and though it was hit less directly, she ends up losing three more trainers before the wave is done. She only sees one of them fall, the rest just candles in the sea of minds that get snuffed out.

The gaps between each of them have grown to the point that most are exhausted running back and forth to any area new clusters approach, and when she finally feels safe enough to call for rest, a few of the trainers sag into sitting or kneeling positions before they start summoning their pokemon to let them rest and heal too.

Sabrina almost forgets Kota in her own desire to be still a minute, but his voice on the general channel snaps her back to attention. “Hey, I’ve got one here! On the motel roo-SHIT!”

Despite knowing it’s an act, she feels a kick of adrenaline as she commands Bronzong back into the air. “I’m on my way,” she barks on the open channel. “Everyone else hold position!”

Even expecting it, the sight of the extra Kota on the roof beside the real one is disturbing, though she’s not sure if it would be more or less so if he wasn’t naked. Its expression sends a deep unease down her spine to settle in her stomach, and its thoughts are a strange mix of instinctual impulses to search and touch things, and… simply put, arousal, or rather, searching for things that would be mateable.

She doesn’t waste words once she arrives, simply hopping off her bronzong when it gets close enough and unclipping a great ball from her belt before realizing that it wouldn’t work.

She freezes, long enough for the copied Kota to turn to her, eyes wide and mouth flapping open and closed, and she can faintly hear the wet babbling sounds it makes as it takes a step toward her, arms reaching.

Sabrina immediately takes a step back and cuts her mental link from it, almost sending an impulse to her bronzong to attack it before remembering that this wouldn’t work either. We should have thought of this, we were too distracted—

The real Kota suddenly steps up to the copy with a folding chair and slams it over the head with a crack.

Sabrina jumps, and it takes a moment to remind herself that it’s not a person, as evidenced by its reaction; rather than crumple or fall, the copied Kota sways for a moment, skull visibly dented as blood starts pouring down its neck. Its expression goes from a mindless smile to a slack puzzlement, then screws up and puckers until it looks alarmingly close to bursting into tears.

Until Kota smashes the chair down again, and this time it collapses into a pile of purple goo about as high as her knees and wide as a coffee table. Sabrina stares at it, then quickly holds the ball out toward the goo until she hears the ping, and throws.

She half expects the greatball to get stuck in the gelatinous form, but instead it bounces off, sending a ripple through it for the brief moment before it all disappears in a flash.

She looks up at Kota, who’s examining the chair, expression calm. The blood that was on it a moment ago has turned into a cloudy pink stain that’s flaking off even as she watches.

“Was worried I dented it,” he says matter-of-factly as he sets it down. “So, what did it feel like? The inside of its head, I mean.”

She feels her neck grow warm and climbs back onto her bronzong. “I have to get back.” As soon as the bronzong is in the air, she clicks through each channel to get a sense of what’s happening and hears—

“—too big,” Taira says. “Scouts say this is the final wave, but it’ll be bigger than the rest.”

“If they hit us, we’ll collapse,” Misty says, voice frank. “We weren’t prepared to take on the whole island.”

“Us too,” Sabrina adds. “My trainers struggled with the last wave, and I’m sure some have been getting through.”

“Bring the hammer down,”Blaine says.

“Leader, are you sure—”

“Nearly. All points, confirm no sightings of long-range transformation.”

“None,” Sabrina says. “Contact only.”

“Same here”

“And here.”

The confirmations come from every sector, and finally Blaine says, “Good enough.”

“Understood,” Taira says, voice crisp. “Stand by for aerial bombardment.”

Sabrina feels a mix of relief and dread, and switches to the local channel.”Hold fast everyone. Help is on the way.”

They wait together in the dark, the wind swirling her hair around her face as her gaze stays on the distance, straining to make out any sign of movement. If the horde comes first… if the support doesn’t make it in time… everyone below her would likely die. And so would she, if she commits herself to helping.

Trust them anyway.

The first sign are the flashes of light. She turns to see lines of energy illuminating the sky, raining death down in blooms of yellow and orange. More and more of them umbrella up, and before she can register how close they’re getting, a trio of dragonite fly by so fast that they strip leaves from trees.

A moment later the Draco Meteors start to land closer by, the explosions demolishing houses and stores… and pokemon by the dozen. Some of the explosions are in thick enough clusters of pokemon that she can make out the survivors at the edges who scatter in every direction.

A trio of salamence goes by next, and then another three dragonite. By the time the last explosion fades, Sabrina has remembered to breathe, and it’s in relief as much as anything, even as she prepares to fight, because now that no dragonite spontaneously arose from the wilds she knows they’ll be okay.

The remnants of the stampede are far fewer, and less coordinated than before, and are repelled without much difficulty. Once it’s all over, Sabrina informs command that she’s caught one of the new pokemon and will give a debrief soon.

Once that’s done, she uses her secure line to Shaw.

“Something go wrong with Kota?” he asks by way of hello.

His voice sounds rougher than usual, but as he dispensed with pleasantries she decides to get to the point too. “No. What’s going on over there, Shaw?”

He pauses a moment. “You talk to the boss?”

“He’s busy.” Probably. “I’m on my way, just thought I’d ask first.”

“Might not be a good idea.”

“I won’t be missed—”

“No, I mean your teleport point might be over rubble right now.”

Sabrina pauses, surprise mixing with her growing anger. “This was us, then?”

“What? No. Not on purpose, at least.”

She shakes her head. “I’ll teleport elsewhere and fly over.”

He sighs, says “Right,” and ends the call, which surprises Sabrina. Despite her confident words, she’d expected more pushback, and technically Shaw outranks her when it comes to the mansion and lab.

Your teleport point might be over rubble.

She shakes her head, then starts searching for a working PC to refill her belt. She also calls Naoto, hoping her fellow gifted will fill her in along the way.


The first thing she notices at the mansion are the hooded light posts set up around the new, massive, rubble filled hole where most of it used to be.

That’s the second thing she notices.

The posts keep the area illuminated without making a noticeable glare from a distance, allowing those stationed around it to remain vigilant for new signs of the transforming pokemon. There are precious few non-dark, non-psychic people left on-site, but Sabrina can sense the worry threading through their thoughts as she searches for Shaw.

She finds him and the rest of the remaining mansion residents set up in a series of storage structures, each just barely large enough to accomodate the people or things in them.

“Expect a massive hunt over all of Cinnabar,” Zach says. “The Rangers were talking about dividing the island up into square-kilometers for thorough searches of any nests.”

Shaw grimaces, flexing the fingers of one hand in a way that makes it clear it’s the one he temporarily lost. The doctors weren’t able to reattach his eye, apparently, but while the older man isn’t particularly handsome, the eyepatch does add a dashing flair to his strong, square features. Or maybe she’s just looking for bright spots; the news of what happened here tonight still leaves her feeling off-balance, her earlier anger evaporated. “Even pulling strings, there’s a lot of risk someone outside the know will be assigned the land containing the mansion.”

“Depends how they divide things up,” Sabrina says as she steps forward, the others making room for her. “Gym members and rangers will make up most of the search parties. Between Erika, Blaine, Giovanni and I, we can probably get this sector.”

“Probably isn’t good enough, but we’ll hope for that and plan for failure.” He studies her a moment. “Is there something else you needed here, Leader?”

Using her title means he’s pissed with her, or just feeling in need of distance. She can understand, given the night he’s had. “No. I’m just… I wanted to see it.” It sounds so frivolous, said out loud, but she spent ten years traveling back and forth to the island, and it’s hard to wrap her head around it all just being… gone. Not just in disrepair, temporarily vacated, but wiped out, nothing but the ruined remains of the mansion above crushed rock and concrete…

Shaw seems to understand, however, and simply nods. “Don’t worry, we’ll leave someone here for it, just in case it comes back.”

Mazda wasn’t on her mind just then, and she stares at him, unsure what he meant by the comment. She and Shaw were never close; her own familiarity with Mazda saw to that. She understands it, understands his professional opposition and distrust of her, but this seemed almost cruel.

Unless it wasn’t meant to be.

Trust them anyway.

Sabrina forces herself to nod back and step away, walking until she finds herself at the edge of the rubble. Once she’s there, facing the hard reality of what happened and what it means for the future, she realizes that some part of her really held out hope that, somehow, things might go back to the way they were… or maybe, a better way. That she and Mazda could move freely about together, and travel back to the mansion or lab once in a while, for old times’ sake.

As she lets the last of the fear and tension of the night’s battles go, weariness and sadness take their place, and the memories start to wash over her. The first time Mazda flew. The first time they walked out into the sunlight, hand holding hers, and cried, as human as any of them. The first time she named them, and their gratitude and fascination at having a name rather than a label. Their fear and anger and grief, when Dr. Fuji left. Their pain at being stuck for so long in one place, only accessing the wider world through memories and screens.

The first time they spoke together, mind to mind. How thrilled and nervous she was, how in awe of the strange creature that could only communicate through psychic connection.

The kinship she felt, for this being that was so like her younger self.

How much of that was a lie?

She closes her eyes against the tears until the burn fades. She can’t know when Mazda first learned how to hide his true feelings, but she has reasonable guesses. Sometime after his desperate threats, almost certainly. Sometime before their last meeting, obviously, unless he formulated his entire escape plan and decided to go through with it spur-of-the-moment, once the opportunity presented itself.

Why didn’t you trust me?

A stupid question, but one she can’t help thinking time and again. The more she’s relived those final months, the more she thinks Mazda developed the ability to lie around the time they became more optimistic about the future, more positive in general. At the time she thought it was just the increased freedom the suit provided them, the increased time spent outside, the proof that the lab was, little by little, working toward their freedom.

But of course that’s exactly when such a ruse would be most beneficial to begin. She thinks everything that came before was genuine, but she also wants to believe it, and she knows better than to put too much trust into such a pleasant theory. For all she knows, Mazda was never her friend at all.

Trust them anyway…


It takes three days to do a complete, sector by sector sweep of the island. Three days of teleporting to Cinnabar as soon as the sun rises, then back home after a nightly debrief. Once again she suspends all her duties and classes to attend to the emergency, and tries not to think of all the work that’s continuing to pile up without her. At least she has a public excuse this time.

They do manage to have Erika’s gym cover the sector of the mountain with the mansion on it, which the Leader personally oversees and reports finding nothing on. Sabrina could tell Erika had questions about it, but they’re all in the dark about some things.

Two more nests are found, but after the last section of the island is swept and no new outbreaks of the transforming pokemon are found, they feel confident that, for now at least, the situation isn’t about to explode. The island stays on high vigilance, however, and a region-wide League meeting is scheduled to discuss next steps.

They’re rare enough that Sabrina only remembers it happening once in her past six years as the head of Saffron. All eight Gym Leaders are present, along with Champion Lance, Ranger General Taira, and Professors Elm and Oak. The latter looks simultaneously more tired than he did at the Lavender Tower debrief, and more excited. She can sense it more than see it, a buzzing energy that lifts her own spirits and sharpens her focus, but he has a spring in his step as he and Elm set up the computer and projector for his presentation. Without any Seconds, assistants, or other staff in the room it feels almost empty compared to how often each of them has their own people around.

“Hello everyone,” he says once everything is done, and what little chatter there is between Brock, Misty, and Erika fades. “Since it will get annoying to keep referring to the new pokemon without a name, the first order of business is semantic.” He sighs. “As usual, the race began on the net before anyone even fully knew what we were naming, but on the bright side the most popular ones aren’t too bad.” He clicks on the first slide, which shows trendlines for a dozen different words on the net. “As of now the leading three are ‘metamorph,’ ‘metamon,’ and ‘ditto.’ That last one is pulling ahead, so I’m going to abuse my power over this meeting and try to normalize my own preference.”

A light chuckle makes its way around the room as the Professor clicks to the next slide, which is labeled “Metamon Biology.”

“Metamon are, in almost every way, a defiance of classification. Their entire bodies appear to be made up of cells that follow basic instincts: copy, mate, feed, reproduce, and that last part is different from the second. But rather than each cell being independent, they make up individual organisms; one piece of a metamon that gets cut off will wither and die, though we’re not entirely sure why, as they don’t have a circulatory system or consistent organs that would indicate why separation would be deadly.”

“But the reports say they reproduce by separating bits of themselves,” Lance says, brow furrowed. “What makes those bits different?”

“Still unknown. It’s not just lack of organs that make them a mystery; their bodies seem to be made up of stem-cells that they can repurpose at will once they’ve sampled the DNA of another living organism, but that alone is an insufficient explanation for how they can so precisely mimic their targets. When transforming into, say, a blastoise, parts of them simply liquify into something that resembles water as close as their biology will allow, ready to be weaponized through their attacks. This costs them mass, of course, but seems to have no effect on their overall health.”

“Where did they come from?” Giovanni asks. “Not geographically, I know we’re still searching through those caves, but do we have any idea what substance they arose from?”

“None,” the Professor says, and sighs. “Their own DNA is an absurd, impossible, chaotic mess that we’re still trying to understand, with fragments of plant, mammal, reptilian, avian, and even mineral life forms. At first we thought that was just a result of their transformations, but even freshly born metamon are like that… though the parent may be passing the accumulated DNA of its transformations down.”

“The science of all this is fascinating,” Koga says, sounding sincere. “But I hope you will forgive me moving to other matters, such as the likelihood that this pokemon will be trainable.”

The Professor runs a hand through his hair. “We’ve only had a couple days, but what we’ve confirmed is that we’ve found a true nightmare scenario, worse than falinks and even exeggcute. These things have one mind, such as it is, but their copied form introduces an entirely new set of instincts that their original ones get channeled through. There’s little enough for the training programs to build on when they’re in their basic form, and trying to get them to retain it once they transform is going to take a while.”

“But it’s possible,” Sabrina says, not quite a question.

“I’m not ready to declare it impossible, but it would take a major breakthrough to do it anytime soon. Luckily Bill has grown fascinated by the challenge, but he said it’s too soon to give estimates… which, knowing him, means it’s on the order of months at least.”

“Containment,” Blaine says, voice hard. “I want my island back. What do we need to do?”

“Catch them all,” Oak says, face devoid of humor. “A single metamon could potentially start duplicating if it can find a mate, though thankfully not just any mate will do, which is why we have some chance of actually doing it.”

“Meaning?”

“Remember what I said about mating and reproduction being different; from the two small nests we found in the wild, we can confirm that the eggs created by the copied pokemon appear to create normal children of the species the metamon mated with. Their own reproduction only occurs afterward, in a parasitic process of separating a portion of themselves into the eggs to absorb the embryo and grow into a new metamon.”

“So they can only reproduce if they mate with egg-laying species?” Erika asks.

“That’s our current guess, though they can mate with others.” He clears his throat. “In fact, when placed in a contained habitat with a single pokemon, as long as no other pokemon of the opposite gender were around, the metamon first copied the pokemon, then transformed into the opposite gender of the same species.”

The room is silent for a moment before Misty mutters, “The net’s going to have a field day with that one.”

“Say again, Misty?” Lance asks from the other side of the table.

“Just thinking of the possibilities, Champion.”

A chuckle works its way through half the room, and Professor Elm raises a hand. “Just to clarify, they can probably be impregnated or impregnate non-egg-laying species as well. But if so, their transformation almost certainly keeps any children from coming to term, which is why laying fertilized eggs would be their fastest method to duplication.”

Ranger General Taira leans forward, face thoughtful. “There are plenty of those, to be sure. While obviously a threat to the local wildlife, this species represents boundless potential opportunity. The implications for breeding alone… under careful monitoring and observation, the destructive post-mating behavior could be interrupted such that each ditto—sorry, Professor, metamon—doubles our breeding stock for rare pokemon.”

“Good as that is, the real prize would be using these things against legendaries,” Erika says. “They’re equalizers the likes of which we’ve never seen.”

The room is quiet again, but Sabrina doesn’t detect any real surprise this time. No one in the room would be where they are if they weren’t the sort that would already have considered it.

“It would be hard to get one close enough to touch a Stormbringer or Beast,” Misty muses. “But the Titans…”

“Surely they couldn’t become that bi—”

Blaine claps his hands together, and everyone turns back toward him. “Doesn’t matter. Too dangerous without knowing how long they can stay transformed and whether they copy abilities like Pressure.”

“Aren’t they weaker than the copied pokemon, though?” Misty asks. “Can we confirm that yet?”

“We can,” Professor Oak says. “And reasonably predict it. They retain the same mass when they transform, and so copies of smaller pokemon are more likely to be tougher than the original, while larger pokemon are less so, sometimes drastically less. A copied snorlax collapsed after a single hit that barely fazed the original.”

“But they can obviously mimic the properties of other pokemon,” Koga says. “Fire, electricity, claws as sharp as any genuine pokemon. A group, all wielding these metamon, might be able to take a titan down.”

Surge stirs. “If their mass stays the same no matter how big they get, they’ll be able to be returned to their ball, and if the transformations persist… you’ll have trainers with legends on their belts.”

“Leaders and Elites, surely,” Brock says, brow furrowed.

“You think that will matter to their neighbors once those legends are used to expand their borders?”

“Gentlemen,” Erika says before Brock can respond. “While this debate is arguably long overdue, perhaps we should table it until we have a better idea what we’re dealing with. If these metamon can transform into pokemon that powerful, and they can persist in that form for long, then we should definitely have that conversation, but meanwhile there are other things we need to discuss.”

“One in particular,” Blaine says. “Had my people check outposts all over the island, spotters, ranger cams, looked over everything. Unown were spotted flying patterns near the caves a week ago.”

“Shit,” Misty mutters.

“Experiments are still being done in controlled settings,” Professor Oak adds. “But combined with what Wallace reported after Hoenn, at this point the odds of coincidence are shrinking.”

“What experiments? Where?”

“Independent, mostly. The What Comes Next initiative has been bearing fruit, or rather in this case, has grown branches from which fruit can grow. The researcher that assisted in Lavender, Artem, took it upon himself to study an unown Red purchased in isolation with objects for weeks at a time.”

“So far there has been no effect,” Elm says. “But this kickstarted a community effort; people have been collecting different number of unown with a variety of objects to see if any of them result in abiogenesis, and if so how many were required, what sorts of objects, how long it took…”

Blaine frowns. “Even if none do, it would not disprove the hypothesis.”

“Worse,” Giovanni says. “If certain letters are needed, there will be millions of combinations untested. If letters relate to objects, billions. If environments outside the lab are needed—”

“—it’s even worse than that,” Oak interjects, voice wry. “Maybe only wild unown can do it, and even with the right combination of letters and objects we won’t see anything. All that is why no lab could justify such an expensive and time consuming line of research, not while being thorough. But people are doing it anyway, because it’s important, and someone has to, just in case.”

There’s a contemplative silence, and then Erika stirs. “A bounty. Collectively paid by multiple institutions, for the first individual or group that demonstrates it with sufficiently scientific documentation.”

“Hmph.” Blaine shakes his head. “Less a bounty and more a lottery.”

“And yet it will encourage more to try, at no cost if none succeeds.”

“It’s a good idea,” Elm says. “Though we should be cautious not to incentivize it too much, and draw excessive time and effort away from more promising avenues.”

“Something that can be decided later, by those with the knowledge and interest,” Lance says. It’s the first time the Champion speaks besides his question to Misty, and his strong voice always takes Sabrina by surprise for how deep it is. His gaze sweeps the room before he adds, “Assuming it’s allowed at all.”

A third silence, contemplative, approving, surprised, disapproving, a medley of subtle undercurrents combined with each. She can feel Professor Oak struggling to hold himself silent, though his face has gone blank.

No one else speaks, either out of deference or curiosity, and after a moment the Champion continues. “With respect to the Rangers’ ethos,” he nods at Taira, “by my perspective the world has too many pokemon in it already. The ability to purposefully create more could lead to massive destabilization, particularly if any of them lead to the creation of new pokemon as strong as legendaries. Hoenn should stand as a reminder, as Giovanni said afterward, of our fragility.”

The words are delivered well, but underneath it there’s something pained and angry. Sabrina wonders if any of the others suspect just how much their Champion has been struggling with his helplessness in Hoenn. She knows others there that day feel some portion of it too, herself included, but not like Lance.

It cracked something in him. Resulted in something other than change or growth, something destabilizing.

She’s no therapist, but she recognizes it from her own feelings ever since she learned that Mazda left.

For now he’s hiding it as well as she is, however, and so she hasn’t mentioned it. If another few months pass and he doesn’t seem to be improving, she will. Maybe visit Steven and Cynthia, get a sense for how they’ve been.

“I agree with your caution,” Taira says. “While our mission includes the protection of pokemon ecosystems, few rangers are happy when new species arise, as they tend to destabilize habitats until some new equilibrium is reached. That said, knowledge is power, and we don’t like being surprised either, as happened in Lavender Tower. If we knew for sure that wild unown can create new species, it would make sense to put effort and resources into tracking their movements, maybe disrupting swarms.”

“Won’t matter if we disrupt them in the wild while people are churning new pokemon out in labs,” Surge says. “The habitats will be safe, sure; up until a region uses it to expand their territory or something breaks free.”

Sabrina doesn’t look at Giovanni, though she badly wants to know what his expression is. Probably blank, or thoughtful, but she still itches for a glimpse, however misleading, into his true self.

“It’ll make little difference if we disrupt them within our regions if they’re still creating new mons out in the wild,” Misty says. “Assuming the Hoenn incident is what ‘woke’ them, we need to figure out how to put them back to sleep.”

The fourth silence, and this one goes on the longest. Lance’s expression is thoughtful, and when he looks at Professors Oak and Elm, he sighs. “I imagine you have things to say.”

“Only,” Professor Oak begins, then pauses, tone thoughtful. “Only that it would be a mistake to believe that if we do not pursue this knowledge, no one will.”

Professor Elm nods, but Giovanni shakes his head.

“It’s another clock,” he says, voice dull. As always Sabrina isn’t sure how much of what he shows is what he wants to show, but news of Mazda’s escape was the only time she heard his tone hold such… defeat. “Another race against time, and each other. Sam, what if this is it? Not the legendaries, not the myths, not even these new transformers. If unown are the source, or close enough to be the same, and we let that power out into anyone’s hands… it would be a new age, beyond anything we could predict. We haven’t even found the tools to survive this one, and you would have us leap into another before we even know what it would mean?”

Professor Oak has listened with brow furrowed as he watched Giovanni. Now he clasps his hands, staring down at them. “And you propose we study them in secret first? Look before we leap, or slide, into that new age?”

“I propose we not give a power to everyone that is beyond anyone’s ability to predict.”

“Some might have said the same of pokeballs.”

“And for all the lives they’ve saved, uncounted more might never live if we fumble now.”

Sabrina listens quietly, as fascinated as anyone in the room. This is the closest she’s seen Giovanni come to justifying his methods in public, not counting that sufficiently vague What Comes Next video.

“And who would lead this secret research?” Sam asks, sounding genuinely curious.

But Sabrina senses something more.

He knows.

No, he suspects… something. She can’t tell more without a merger, but Misty’s in the room, and she’s not one of theirs.

Giovanni doesn’t need any warning from her, however. “The League. They’re the only ones who are trusted enough by the public, and who might take things slow enough to avoid catastrophe.”

Everyone looks to Lance, whose gaze is distant. She can sense him dipping further into the memory of Hoenn that ever hovers in the back of his mind.

He shakes it off with a shake of his head. “For now, we have to focus on Cinnabar. Further research into the unown will be halted until we have a more firm plan on what it might lead to.”

Various people look disappointed or relieved, but before anyone can say otherwise Lance turns to Blaine. “Let’s go over our plans to secure Cinnabar, and track if any of the new species has left the island…”

Sabrina listens with only half an ear, thoughts on the argument Giovanni made. Keeping dangerous knowledge secret is what he’s worked so hard for, but all the while he’s tried to, carefully, use it for good.

And he has. Inventions through his collaboration with Bill and Silph, secret as those are and rocky as the latter has become lately. Research that’s been leaked from dangerous methods, made clean by independent, “lucky” breakthroughs. Targeted interventions around the region, putting people where they need to be, rehabilitating renegades…

But they’ve also resulted in the deaths beneath the casino, and probably more. She suspects he had some hand in the Hoenn incident, though she knows(?) he also genuinely tried to stop it. And Mazda…

She can’t regret that they exist. And any blame for how things ended were as much to do with her as Giovanni. She should have done more, showed more trust, argued more on their behalf…

Sabrina’s gaze stays on Giovanni as he listens, also seemingly distracted, to the containment plans. Sooner or later they would have to reveal the secrets Red shared with her, and she wouldn’t be able to hide behind the fact that Giovanni told her it was the right thing to do.

She has to be able to believe it herself, argue it herself, and if necessary, reflect back his own words: Trust them anyway.


Once all is said and done on Cinnabar, she heads back to her Gym to see that Tetsuo and Keiji have managed her schedule for her, bless them both. She thanks them sincerely, reminds herself to give both another raise, and goes to her first meeting of the day.

“Good to see you again, Mr. Oak.”

“Good evening, Leader. How was Cinnabar?”

His voice is a mix of sympathetic and fascinated and frustrated, and she smiles despite herself. “I was wondering if you would show up, actually. Riding your arcanine, maybe trailing an army of extra recruits.”

Blue shrugs, looking both embarrassed and pleased. “We were in the middle of celebrating Leaf’s birthday when the alerts went out. Ended up crowding around the TV to watch the battle for the city, spent the night stressing and worrying about what would happen next. Wanted to help, of course, but Zephyr isn’t ready to fly that far, and all the commercial transport was busy.”

She nods. “Well, while the sentiment is appreciated, it wasn’t pleasant. There will be plenty more opportunities for heroism in your future, I’m sure. In any case, what did you want to speak about? I can’t assure you complete confidentiality, of course, but I’ll do my best within what I deem reasonable.”

He’d specified in his request that he had a potentially dangerous question involving training his abra, which had of course intrigued her Second, but the request for confidentiality had made it hard to insist he discuss it with one of those lower in the gym’s hierarchy first. If whatever he’s considering needed to be kept private, he’d of course want to reduce how many people he told it to.

If she hadn’t already invited Blue to speak with her when he arrived in the city she would wonder if he’s just angling for private training lessons or tips, but entitled as he might have become through fame and glory, she doesn’t think that’s his style, and his group has done enough novel things that she immediately took the request as a serious indicator that he might have discovered something new, and dangerous.

Inside, some small part of her protests that she’s holding enough secrets, that one more may just be too many, that the more she takes the higher the chance she lets one slip. A year ago she would have said she was the best psychic in the world at shielding and keeping secrets; even mergers rarely led to glimpses of anything she didn’t want to let out. But Red, Mazda, even Rei were all humbling reminders that there’s always someone more capable. Rei managed to focus her attention so powerfully on what she wanted that Sabrina couldn’t read beyond what seemed obvious, and Red’s empathic reception was so strong that she’s sure he got a glimpse of her feelings toward Mazda when they met, even if he didn’t understand the context… and as for Mazda…

She shakes off the line of thought to dull the stab in her chest. If she can learn to mold her partitions the way they and Red did, she can hold as many secrets as she needs to.

“First I should probably check… do you know that Koichi is in the city?”

Sabrina feels her brow rise, and takes a moment to reorient her thoughts. “I did, yes. Mr. Sabien came to me when considering whether to allow him to teach at the dojo.” It only takes a moment for her to connect the dots. “Ah. He’s tried spreading his ideology again, then? And you’re considering trying it for your abra.”

“Considering is a strong word…”

“I’m sympathetic, Blue, truly. But even if you can get your abra to grow stronger, faster, what’s the point if you’re still struggling to get it to protect you?”

“Well, I was thinking about that, and realized maybe I don’t have to.”

Now she doesn’t try to hide her surprise. “You want to train a pokemon explicitly for trainer battles?” It’s not unheard of, of course, but is frowned upon enough that she doesn’t expect it of someone so high profile. It also can revoke a trainer license, in rare cases where the person’s focus turns more to gaining money or status than becoming a stronger trainer; the League decided long ago not to subsidize those simply trying to game the system.

But it makes sense to do for a particular pokemon, if he doesn’t expect it to easily acknowledge his presence enough to protect him against wilds…

“I think I can get it to follow its own instincts in wild battles well enough.” He sounds a little offended. “I don’t plan on being dead weight.”

“Of course, I apologize for the implication,” she says, and means it. “Even still, you’d never be able to use it to its full potential.”

“You mean as well as a psychic could.”

It’s such a strange thing to say, a redundant thing, that she just raises a brow, waiting for him to elaborate. But he doesn’t break his gaze from hers, and eventually she just sighs. “I’m not here to coddle your ego, Blue. Everything I’ve experienced has shown that psychic pokemon are most effective when used by psychics. What other explanation do you have for why they’re so rare among non-psychic Leaders and Elites?”

“I’m not doubting it’s easier to get a psychic pokemon to its peak fighting power, as a psychic. But if everyone gives up because they’re told to, how much should I really care about what others failed to do?”

She considers this a moment, then nods to acknowledge the point. “It’s not my place to tell you what you can and can’t do. Part of every generation’s journeys is to ascend beyond the expectations of what came before. So long as you abide by the rules of my gym, you can continue to train here on whatever you wish.”

“Is that an answer to my question, then?”

“You never actually asked it.”

Blue frowns, but nods and breathes out. “Is it true? Do pokemon get stronger, faster, when they believe they’re fighting for their life?”

She was wondering if he’d also imply the accusation she’s sure Koichi levelled against her using such methods in her meteoric rise to topple him, but as far as she can tell he sounds simply curious.

She’s not one of those psychics (like Tahu) who will claim to be good at “reading people” even without use of their gift; for her, dark humans have always been an endless enigma, some part of her still insisting there’s nothing inside them but autonomous meat (the thought brings an image of the copied Kota’s empty smile, and she flinches away from the memory of its mind before swiftly hiding it behind amnesia for now). Even Giovanni isn’t an exception; rather, he’s the one person that proves how capable of guile and subterfuge humans can be, the epitome of why dark people are untrustworthy.

Except she does trust him, because she has to. Not to be “good,” but to have things that he cares about, things that he will do anything to pursue, behavioral trends that she can model and predict with some accuracy. That she happens to agree with his goals and not mind his methods is beside the point; she knows he’s a liar, that he’s likely lied even to her. But everyone lies, and most do it for far lesser purpose.

She plans to look afresh on Giovanni’s goals and methods regardless, and wonders suddenly if she should do the same of Blue.

“Do you know how I lost my parents?” she asks, seized by a whim.

Blue’s expression shifts from surprise to caution, and whether that’s sincere or not, she finds herself modeling his reaction as wary. “Only that they were killed by pokemon. Your bios don’t have much info on your childhood other than that you were raised by your uncle, and were a psychic prodigy from before you could even speak.”

Her lip quirks. She’s tried a few times to correct the public record on what she was like as a child, but ironically she’s never been able to find the words. “Not just any pokemon. It was Raikou.”

Blue’s eyes narrow, for a moment. “I’m sorry.”

She simply nods her thanks, as is expected, and wonders, as always, what the tell signified, senses reaching reflexively, uselessly out. “I’ve heard about your goal. Your real goal, beyond becoming Champion.”

The way his body goes still is another tell, but it’s not tension so much as… relaxing, she thinks. “And you understand.”

It’s not a question, though it should be. For all he knows she’s bringing it up because she wants to warn him off a path of vengeance, or caution him against overly ambitious goals. Blue doesn’t spend time with her the way he reportedly did Erika and Surge, and she hasn’t spoken to Red about anything like this.

“I do,” she says, and tries to imagine what Blue Oak would be like in ten years. Or even five.

Strong enough to beat Lance?

Maybe.

Willful enough to keep trying until he does?

Yes. And she wouldn’t be the first to underestimate the young Oak. In five years, the unown question would likely be resolved, one way or another.

But what if he reaches Victory Road in three?

Or two?

Or one?

She’s one of the few things in his way. What if she decided not to be? What would Blue do with the power and prestige of a Champion?

And who as Champion would respond better to the revelations of what Red, and maybe other psychics, can do?

“I’m glad to hear it,” he says, sounding more cautious than anything. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

“So I haven’t.” She spends a minute studying the young man in front of her, which he seems unbothered by, weighing possible choices, possible futures, before saying “I’m afraid it’s not one I can answer, as I haven’t tested it myself.”

“Ah.” He nods, and dark as he is for once she can understand what he’s feeling as well as if she could see the barrier rise between them. “Of course.”

“But maybe I will, in time.”

He blinks.

“After all, the world is becoming more dangerous. We might need every edge we can get.”

“Yeah. So then—”

“I also want to apologize for not going through my backlog of challenges as quickly as I’d originally estimated.” She feels even more guilt over that now, maybe because of the mention of Koichi. Is she being as neglectful of her duties in Saffron as he was? Putting too much onto her subordinates, rather than not enough?

She’s been spending some of the time she could have been catching up on her backlog searching for Mazda. She’d teleport to various places around the island and fly around, casting her mental senses as wide as they would go in the hopes of finding them.

A hopeless plan, and one that would likely end badly if she found them; it’s not as though they couldn’t find her, if they wanted to.

And still she continued, hoping she’d sense them, even if they fled after. Just to know for sure that they survived. That they’re okay.

No more. She has to come to terms with what happened, even if she never gets closure. “I’ve been busy,” she says, but “How about this. You keep training here, if you’d like, until I finally get through my backlog. Or, you can go down to Fuchsia, and challenge Koga.”

He’s frowning at her, but not, she thinks, in anger. “I guess I could do that.”

“You think you could beat him, I take it.”

“Of course.”

“Then do so. By the time you come back, maybe I’ll have had time to not just work through my backlog, but also try out Koichi’s crazy idea. Sound good?”

And there’s that smile, which she knows as sure as anything her gift has ever shown her is real; not just hungry, but grateful. The smile of someone who has found an ally in their life’s goal. “That sounds perfect, Leader.”