Executive Dysfunction 101

First things first; “executive dysfunction” is not a diagnosis. Executive functions are what govern our ability to plan actions, take those actions, maintain focus on them, adapt to changes, and more subtle steps between.

ADHD is a diagnosis that points to a cluster of common struggles with executive function: working memory, impulse control, and self monitoring. But there are plenty of other diagnoses that can impact one or more of those eight, and of course even things like lack of sleep, hunger, being irritated, disruptive environments, and other stressors can affect them.

So in general when we talk about executive dysfunction what we’re really pointing at is a symptom we witness when someone isn’t able to act on their desires, or on things they think they should do, or on things they think they should desire.

Which brings up the more philosophical question; what does it mean to “fail to act” on a desire? Does someone “have executive dysfunction” if they struggle to complete something they don’t want to do, but feel they have to? What about what they “want to want” to do, but don’t find interesting, even while they can still work on passion projects without issue? Or is it only executive dysfunction if they can’t bring themselves to work on something they feel a strong desire to do, in which case what does “strong desire” mean?

All this makes the question of whether someone struggles with executive dysfunction ill-posed. The better question is “in what domains or in what types of circumstances does someone struggle with executive dysfunction,” followed by narrowing down to which of their executive functions are the chokepoint. Organization? Task initiation? Emotional control?

(I’m also not a fan of “emotional control” as a phrase, as it implies something like stifling or dampening or wrestling with your emotions. This might accurately describe the feeling for some people, but integrating emotions in a healthy way doesn’t have to feel like any of that)

With this more precise understanding, the possible interventions also become more clear. Organization and planning skills can be learned, as can self-awareness and emotional integration. Multitasking and working memory, meanwhile, are harder to improve, and so reducing distractions by adjusting the environment might be more effective.

But most importantly, the question of whether the task is tied to a “want” or a “want to want” or a “should” can itself guide people to better understanding whether their struggle is one that is worth resolving at all, as compared to one that isn’t worth the costs compared to other actions or paths. Many people have pushed through some difficult job or university degree and were glad they did; others regret time wasted and emotional suffering endured for a goal that didn’t end up mattering to them.

Which is why executive dysfunction should not be treated by default as a difficulty that needs to be overcome. Instead it can also be a signal from one or more of your parts that the path you’re on is not the right one for you, and that you might benefit from searching for other, better roads, or even goals.

Along with depression and anxiety, additional factors can exacerbate executive dysfunction, such as perfectionism. The idea that anything tried must succeed, or be done perfectly, often leads to a feeling of dread or hopelessness at the prospect of even starting a task. This is particularly exacerbated by OCD.

Which leads to a general theory of treatment that includes things like exploring motivations and dissolving “shoulds” as a first step before taking for granted that failure to do something is about the person rather than the thing they’re trying to do.

Once that’s done, only then is it useful to focus on strategies for breaking tasks down into simpler versions of themselves, finding tools and contexts for improving focus and accountability, and generally working around that colorful circle up there as much as possible to improve all the ways executive functions might be disrupted. For example, since past difficulties can exacerbate this sense of predicted suffering or failure, it’s also important to focus on small, achievable steps that are more likely to succeed and thus increase predictability of success.

[The above refers to the parts model of the self, and to the therapeutic idea of systematically replacing the concept “should” with less normative framings. A lot of people find these helpful, but they’re not consensus views and they don’t work for everyone.]

To further explore this, I plan to write a series of posts on how to procedurally explore executive function within ourselves so that we can identify the places where we get stuck when we have trouble doing stuff we want to do, and have a better idea of what can help.

Procedural Executive Function: Part 1

Procedural Executive Function: Part 2

Procedural Executive Function: Part 3

Procedural Executive Function, Part 1

In this series I divide the 8 aspects of executive function into three parts that I consider roughly sequential in how people experience “deliberately doing something,” from start to finish, to point out pitfalls and how they can be dealt with.

Before starting, it’s important to take an extra moment to specifically emphasize that this is a process with multiple steps. Part of what I hope people learn from this is to better understand which aspect of the process is blocking them when they feel stuck with their own executive dysfunction.

So if I focus on a certain aspect of the process and share a perspective on how to help ensure that part goes smoothly, that doesn’t mean the assumption is everything will go fine as long as that one aspect does. For some actions you take, the whole process will go smoothly. When it doesn’t, the part that trips you up will likely change depending on personality, diagnoses, the type of action you’re taking, or just the context of your life at that moment.

We’re first examining these parts individually so that we can then examine how they interact more systematically; no part of this process should be taken as a final, normative word on how your own inner workings must look. But I hope it will be helpful nonetheless.

(As a final note, I won’t talk about medical solutions to Executive Function, as it’s outside of my area of expertise. I hope to add more resources for that at some point.)

Planning/Prioritizing

The first step of any intentional act can be called the “notion” to act. Notions themselves are involuntary, often vague, and not particularly compelling. They’re just an idea, summed up generically as a thought like “oh, that’s a thing.”

This sometimes comes with a should attached. “I should study” or “I should throw out the trash.” But the more neutral version is simply a could. “I could get a drink” or “I could watch some  TV.” It can also be nonverbal; just an image of something, maybe with a vague sense of desire or worry.

Once the notion occurs, a few things might happen automatically (that is to say preconsciously):

  1. Our mind discards the notion, sometimes so quickly that a few moments later we might not even remember having it.
  2. Our body starts acting on it, such as by walking to the fridge or alt-tabbing to a web browser.
  3. Our imagination starts to plan out how we might do it, or simulate what doing it might be like, or envision what the outcome might be.

We often become aware we’re doing the 2nd one as we do it (though it can take a surprising amount of time), and then decide if we want to continue or not. If the thing is enjoyable enough, it might be hard to stop. This will be covered more in future articles.

The 3rd one, if noticed and latched onto, can then be continued consciously. This is the first point at which intention enters play, which makes it the first relevant step of executive function; by definition, something is only a result of executive function if it’s intentional.

It may seem strange to count “what you decide to do” as part of executive function, but this is why it’s important that Planning and Prioritizing are grouped together; before you decide how to do something you must decide whether you actually want to at all. And your reasons, context, and frame for prioritizing something is all upstream of how “motivated” you will feel to overcome the various other challenges that might come up during the process, including the actual initiation of the task.

So how do we do that?

It’s difficult to make a full list of things to prioritize for; there are multiple entire frames you could use before you even start listing things, such as short term vs long term, or selfcare vs productivity, or explore vs exploit. Or you can divide your life up into different areas and goals, such as Health, Work, Leisure, and Love and then decide what to prioritize based on which is lowest, or which feels the most valuable in the moment.

Whatever the category or specific thing being prioritized for is, the first step to avoiding executive dysfunction is recognizing what feels, for lack of a better word, alive. That can mean “fun,” even if challenging, or “compelling,” even if scary… these are just a couple of the many words we use to refer to specific emotions that make up the umbrella term “motivation.”

Motivation comes up all the time when talking about executive (dys)function. Sometimes it’s called “willpower.” Other times people refer to its absence, “akrasia,” when they wonder why they’re struggling to do things they, ostensibly, want to do.

But this is why distinguishing actual “wants” from feelings of “shoulds” is important. There will always be more notions to do things than things you end up having time to do, and always more “shoulds” that you will feel pressured to follow than the ones you endorse doing.

Again, prioritizing is crucial to executive function. It’s how you avoid not just decision paralysis on one hand or regret on the other, but also how you avoid motivation traps (simply not caring enough about the thing to do it, despite feeling like you need to). Trying to do something that doesn’t feel alive is similar to getting a car from one place to another without enough gas; the less you have, the more you’ll have to push.

So what does it mean to prioritize based on what you “want,” in a world that’s so often full of things you “have” to do just to survive, or maintain basic quality of life?

There’s no easy answer to this, as your wants are to some degree a reflection of reality. There may be some activities that just are more fun than others for you in the territory. There may be some outcomes that just are more scary than others for you. There isn’t anything wrong with recognizing this.

But we understand reality through models, and our maps of the territory can change as we gain new knowledge. Some activities turn out to be more fun than we at first think they are, either with experience or with the right knowledge of how to do them a different way, and our motivation to do them increases. Other times we reframe our expectations or experience of an activity, and it becomes more or less motivating based on the attitude we take, or the predictions we have, about it. Genuinely believing that failure is just an opportunity to learn and grow makes activities with uncertain success less daunting to try, but of course this is more difficult the stronger the negative consequences are.

This may seem obvious to some, but it’s worth spelling out that this means our ability to simulate what will happen if we do something, or don’t do it, is actually fairly important for how motivated we feel to do it. If you can’t clearly visualize the steps from where you are to where you want to be, it’s much easier to end up feeling stuck, lost, or adrift.

(For those with aphantasia, the alternative process might be similar to what you do when thinking of something in the future you’re excited about; I’m not sure how analogous this is, and would love to hear from anyone who has trouble with mental visualizations, or see research on whether there’s a connection between the two)

We can also find more clues to why things might be emotionally difficult to do by looking at the reverse: habits.

Endorsed or not, we tend to feel no particular rush of motivation or painful akrasia when doing habits because, in order for an action to become a habit, we’ve done it so often it has become predictable. There’s no chance of failure, and no need for thought to ensure a particularly good outcome.

(Probably worth noting, it seems that some people really just don’t form habits, or at least the threshold for forming habits is much higher for them such that the closest thing they experience to being able to do things on autopilot while thinking about other things is something like “walking” or driving.” This is also something I’m curious to hear/learn more about.)

All of which leads me to my first crystallized insight from research:

Executive Dysfunction most often occurs when the next step between where you are now and what you want to do is difficult to imagine, and/or painful in some way.

Task Initiation

This, ultimately, is why a lot of the leading advice for clearing ugh fields are things like “break things down into smaller steps” and “check if there’s anyone you can reach out to for help” and “try approaching the problem from another angle.” It’s also why just talking through a fear and being reassured that the reality won’t be as bad as it seems can help people do things they’ve been putting off.

I suspect it’s also why just having company around can help people get through things they expect to be unpleasant. There’s a sense of ambient safety that comes from being around those we trust to support us, even if there’s nothing in particular they can do about the bad-stuff that we imagine. On top of that, as a separate thing, having pleasant company and conversation can just make unpleasant tasks easier to do.

This might seem really basic, but is worth highlighting as separate from social pressure or worries of how you’ll look to others, which tend to be how people perceive accountability partners or similar. Those can definitely have influence, but for many they’re aversive rather than compelling, and these more positive frames can be more valuable.

But those are all just a few ways to unblock the initial spark/decision/compulsion to do something you deliberately plan to do. If you don’t focus too much on deliberate steps of an action, you might find yourself able to do them more easily by just following notions; “non-doing,” or wuwei, is a phrase often used for this state. Of course, you also might find yourself non-doing something else other than the thing you “intend” to (that’s rather the point).

But that this “cheat” can work at all indicates again that there’s something about deliberate attention and focus that can evoke things which demotivate us, or paralyze us with indecision or fear. Acting before your conscious thoughts can get in the way is, in many ways like putting yourself in a state of total freedom from consequences; consequences only impact our behavior when we know about and believe in them, after all. This is a great strategy when the risks or consequences aren’t “real.”

Not that non-doing is fool-proof, even if you invoke it and and follow the “right” notion to, say, sit in front of your computer and open your email inbox; once you’re face to face with a difficult email, it might bring your attention back to the things that made it hard to answer them in the first place, sending your attention to something less uncertain or painful. But again, we’ll cover that in a later section.

How does task initiation happen at all, given the existence of multiple different possible acts you could take? What tips the mind in the direction of one over another?

At some level a calculation is being made from evidence accrued about what you want and how likely a given task is to get it for you, set against evidence of risk and consequences of failure. So all you have to do is find a way to make something seem more likely to get what you want, right?

Well, yes, except doing that is itself a task that requires initiation, which means it also gets stymied by next-steps that seem unclear or painful. It’s turtles all the way down.

But that’s not to say it’s hopeless; again, what frame you’re thinking of the problem in matters, as does real knowledge about what you want and how to get it, as do incentives.

So here are my practical suggestions, along with all the usual stuff like “reduce friction to doing what you want” and “set up good incentives” and “break tasks down” and “ask for help” and so on:

Suggestion 1: Distinguish what you actually want.

There are four things people confuse all the time, and use the same sort of language to express, despite them meaning very different things:

1) I want to do X.

2) I want X to be done, but don’t want to do it.

3) I want to be the sort of person who does or can do X.

4) I want to be seen as the sort of person who does or can do X.

It’s important to notice which of these actually applies to your circumstances, not just to better figure out what sorts of frames and evidence will motivate you to do it, but again to figure out whether it’s something you endorse trying to do at all.

(It’s also much easier not to beat yourself up over failing to be motivated to do something when you realize that you don’t actually want to, and realize what similar motivations might be crossed with the one you thought you were acting on.)

Always be clear whether priorities are guided by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. I don’t have a source on this, but in my experience and from reports by others it is genuinely easier for a lot of students to do bullshit busy-work when the people asking them to do the bullshit work acknowledge it’s bullshit and take a “let’s just get through this together” approach rather than a “you’re a bad person if you don’t want to do this” one.

Suggestion 2: Review the actual costs/benefits.

Whether you’re journaling, Internal Double Cruxing, doing Narrative Therapy, or exploring Internal Family Systems, there’s something uniquely powerful about letting your thoughts finish.

Our brains are great at blocking or hiding from unpleasant thoughts. It’s basic behaviorism, reflexive as catching or flinching away from rapidly approaching objects. So when we need more evidence that something is worth doing to feel motivated to do it, we might keep the examination of that evidence from happening without even realizing it if the information comes “packaged” with painful thoughts or feelings.

You never know what might tip the amount of evidence your brain needs to do something past the initiation threshold, so one of the ways that we can “amass willpower” is by putting all the information in front of our System 2 and giving it time to process. This is part of why just talking to a friend about something difficult to do can make it easier, and we can isolate the effect by noticing a similar value from writing out the thoughts about it instead, or doing Focusing on some felt-sense of urgency, or giving space to internal parts to talk to each other. These can all provide different benefits, but what they have in common is that they’re time spent actually reviewing, sitting with, and absorbing the reasons why we want to do something, if you do, or why we’ll be glad that it’s done.

Let your inner sim slide forward in time, not just to the activity itself (which will likely make your attention focus on things that are fun to do moment to moment) but also to the post-act feeling, which may motivate you by focusing your attention more on the “completed a challenge” joy.

Suggestion 3: Prioritize smaller steps.

This planning/prioritizing stage can be a lengthy process or a nearly instantaneous one. Many have had the experience of feeling like they want to do something, or should do something, perfectly visualize what it would take to do it, but are simply/just unable to move their limbs.

In an extreme version of this, I heard from someone who reported that they needed to charge their phone, and the charger was even in reach, but the actual act of moving to get the charger felt insurmountable.

As a form of “break the task down into smaller steps,” I also suggest “prioritize smaller steps.” Don’t just break the task down into “turn off TV, get up, go to the computer, open email, select first unanswered email,” etc. That can be helpful sometimes, particularly for complex or obscure problems like research projects or bureaucratic paperwork, but it’s not priming the motivation generator.

Instead, also focus on how each step is itself valuable to you. You know the positive feelings you get sometimes when you stand up after being prone for a long time? You know how being in a sitting position for too long is bad for health? Let your attention focus on those things, and prioritize the task of just getting up first. You know that feeling of pleasure you get when you check something off a list, or remember that you made some progress on a task today? Focus on those feelings, and prioritize just opening the email and reading it if you haven’t, or starting the draft if you haven’t.

In other words, seek the positive valence attached to each step of an activity and focus on those to motivate you from one step to the next. If you’re having trouble feeling anything while doing this, note what your body sensations are as a default; if you feel numb in general, it’s going to be hard to feel motivated to do anything, since you won’t have an associated felt-sense (this is likely why depression and low-motivation are so correlated) and thus none of the things you imagine will help you reach the activation threshold.

In that case, do something to help you get re-embodied. For some people this is as simple as dancing; put on some music that makes you move, or just notice your body and feel your feet and sway your limbs. For others it means grounding yourself in your breathing or heartbeat, and expand outward from there.

Cheat Codes

I’m labeling these “cheats” without malice or judgment, simply because I have no plausible explanation for them beyond “they trick your brain into being in another state.” Even the word trick feels perhaps too judgmental, as it assumes that any other state you could change to needs to have some difficult or explicable process. Maybe it doesn’t/shouldn’t, and in any case, it seems worth noting these strategies in case they’re helpful, or to flag them as interesting things to explore in case others have models information to share about why they work they way they do.

Music: The right music can motivate you to do all sorts of stuff. This likely is related to the positive-valence thing; music can often shift your emotional state, and this is a valuable tool in many cases, such as when you want to exercise, or clean the house, or do something that feels scary. I claim a big part of this comes from narrative power, particularly as music from movies or games or anime seem unusually effective, but it’s not exclusive to those.

It’s hard to shift entirely from one emotional mood to a completely different one, so if this seems like it doesn’t work for you, one piece of further advice I have on this is to pick a song that evokes an emotional frame that’s in the direction you want to go while still being in the venn diagram of the one you feel. So if you’re sad, and you know playing a super bubbly, energetic, positive song just makes you feel worse, or can’t reach you at all… instead try a song that’s at least melancholy, but with a hopeful or nostalgic or bittersweet tinge to it.

Totems: Objects can change your mood too; clothing, teddy bears, pictures taped to your monitor, etc. Anything that alters or changes your state of mind can be a valuable tool for enhancing executive function. If you’re having trouble typing in that journal app you keep insisting to yourself you’re going to do, but wearing a bathrobe and writing in a physical book with a quill by candlelight seems more appealing to you, then go for it.

Frames: I claim that frames are, quite possibly, the most powerful and ubiquitous psychotechnology there is, but that’s a claim for a bigger post than this. Meanwhile, my assertion here is that they’re not just very powerful for motivation, but also possibly very dangerous if used in the “wrong way.” There are often many different frames that people can use to recontextualize or view the things they “have” or want to do, and it’s worth noting when the narrative you’re telling yourself isn’t working so you can explore what others might feel more true or reach that positive valence tipping point.

An easy example of this is how many people manage to work quite hard for long periods of time, day after day, because they believe it will advance their career if they do, compared to those who believe they’re working on something vitally important to the world or their values, compared to those who do because they believe there are people directly relying on them to. These are all things that can motivate different people in different ways, whether true or not… and also, all three can be true, but which one someone’s attention naturally focuses on in any given moment might not be the most motivating one.

Gamification: Adding an extra layer of incentives or accountability can be fairly motivating for many people, and may seem less of a cheat, since it can be obvious why it works, but there are some forms of this that still feel “mysterious” to me, such as the idea of a “winning streak” that many apps use to keep people motivated to keep doing something day after day without missing one, even with no extra tangible reward. For many people, being rewarded with recognition of our effort, even if it’s just pixels on a screen from a computerized process, can still affect our expected emotional valence enough that it can tip us over the motivation threshold when we might not otherwise do the thing.

Further Resources

The next parts of this series will cover the other 6 aspects of Executive Function:

Part 2: Emotional Control, Self Monitoring, Impulse Control

Part 3: Working Memory, Organization, Flexible Thinking

And there’s a video I’d recommend if you’re looking for another take on Executive Function. It breaks it down into three areas of the brain:

  1. Frontal-Striatal Circuit: Response suppression, Freedom from distraction, working memory, organization, planning. “What” network.
  2. Frontal-Cerebellar Circuit: Motor Coordination, timing/timeliness, “When” network.
  3. Frontal-Limbic Circuit: Emotional Dysfunction, Motivation deficits, hyper-impulsivity, aggression. “Why” network.

And offers its own list of practical advice with some overlap:

  • Reinforce yourself with rewards
  • Use verbal self-encouragement
  • Take 10 minute breaks between tasks
  • Frequent 3 minutes of relaxation/meditation throughout day
  • Visualize future benefits
  • Engage in routine exercise
  • Drink sugary drinks to keep your mental energy up

106: Interlude XXII – Tools

Michio’s arms moved in automatic gestures, folding and tucking clothes as fluidly as though he were throwing kunai or pokeballs. It was still not fast enough.

That’s it, then? You’re leaving?”

His mother’s voice was soft, all her anger spent. He expected his father to come, but perhaps they’re not trying to change his mind anymore. The thought was a relief, but he kept his expression blank as he continued packing.

You should have told me.”

We never lied to you.”

You said we were preventing war. Not doing a criminal’s dirty work.”

That criminal’s wealth and connections gives her as much power as any Leader, more. She serves integral functions in the regional government, with full awareness of what she is by a number of politicians. She is just as focused on preventing war, and just as legitimate as we are.”

Michio stopped and turned to his mother. “You don’t believe that.”

No, but in the eyes of society, we are just as criminal as she. That our philosophy is different, that we refrain from holding power, is immaterial.”

Not to me.”

His mother was silent at that, and Michio finished packing his shirts and pants and began emptying his sock drawer by the time she asked, “Where will you go?”

I will stay in Indigo. For now, at least. After that, I am not sure.”

Will you come back at least once, if you decide to leave for good?”

Michio’s hands slowed, for just a moment. “Yes.” He speeds up again. “I’m not doing this with anger in my heart, despite what Father said. I just know I can not stay anymore.”

I understand.” Mother’s voice was low. “You are not the only one who has wished for more say in what we do, how we do it.”

Wished for. But done nothing.”

It is not our way to be both judge and executioner. To wield dark arts and rule would—”

Then I will not wield dark arts, or I will not rule. But in either case, I will at least do something in the world besides further the aims of others. I will not be a tool.”

Oh, Michio.” His mother sat on the side of his bed, and he kept his gaze from the compassion in hers as he finished packing his clothing box and closed the lid, then absorbed it into its container ball. “We are all tools of society, one way or the other. My parents did not force me to kill, any more than we forced you. There were many tools I could have fit in my hands, but none felt as natural, nor as important. Even the most moral of men must keep a hidden blade if their rivals do, and—”

“—’the hidden blade can reach beyond the brandished sword.’ I know, Mother. But if staying concealed means that is all we can be, then it will never feel ‘natural’ to me.” He began to fill the second storage box with the thirteen tools and weapons his parents gifted him on each of his birthdays. He was five before he began training with the first handful, all small, simple things that even a child could kill with. His fingers traced the handles of his small kunai set, then folded the leather into a roll and clipped it to his belt rather than putting them in his box. “The world needs leaders who know what lurks in the shadows, if we are to ever leave them behind.”

Will you go after this woman, then? Try to topple her criminal empire?”

If that’s what needs to be done.”

And the one that comes next? Or the multitude that fill the vacuum that gets left behind?”

If people find out—”

They will raise an outcry, and something will be done to show that the law is the law. But the powerful will continue to do what must be done, and within a year, perhaps two, the attention will fade, and all will return to normal.”

Michio frowned. “I know that I do not know much of how the world works, yet. But I will learn. I will not bury my head just because it is difficult.” His camping gear goes into his third storage box; it will be a long trip from the hidden village to the nearest city, but one he has made many times before. Still, this time he will not have…

His gaze moved to his belt hanging by the wall, and the pokeballs on it. In the rest of society, children are expected to catch and teach their own pokemon, to naturally scale the power they wield to their experience and skill as a trainer. In Kanto, the average age for new trainers to get their license is fifteen, but he was given fully evolved pokemon, and trained in how to command them, from the age of nine.

Still, he could not bring them with him. Though they’ve been his partners for years, they ultimately belong to the village… and were trained to attack humans and pokemon alike. If he were branded a renegade with them the investigations might lead back to the village, and if he chose the traditional path instead, he could not use them for the trainer battles he would be expected to win in his journey for power.

Which means he would be traveling alone.

He zipped his bag closed, slung it over his shoulder, and stepped up to the door. He took the belt off the hook, then pointedly unclipped each ball on it, placing them on his dresser before he clipped it around his waist. Then he reached for the door and began to slide it open.

Michio.”

He paused, and took a slow, centering breath before he turned back toward his mother, expecting one last insistence that he reconsider, or perhaps a final hug goodbye.

Instead the hands she held out to him were cupped under a pokeball. “I believe it is customary to gift a young novice with a pokemon, on the first day of their journey.”

Michio stared at the ball, then met his mother’s gaze, chest tight. There was sadness and worry in her eyes, but also a spark of something humorous, and warm.

He could take this simply as a mother’s desire for her son to be safe. But he knew it was more than that. It was a blessing, perhaps not of his goals, but of his will to achieve them, even if it meant leaving his home and family.

It was more than he dared hope for, and Michio lowered his head in a deep bow as he took the ball from her and clipped it to his belt. “Thank you, Mother.”

Go in peace, my heart. Go find your freedom.”

I go to find more than my own. Someday, I will free us all to be the tools we most wish to be. I swear it.”


Kyo Koga sits in his dojo and studies the kunai laid out in front of him as he waits for his daughter. His hands pass over each tool, and he occasionally takes one out of its sheath to pass the whetstone over it. The motions and sounds are soothing, meditative, and allow him to carefully inspect each as if seeing them for the first time, understanding their unique functionality with full appreciation.

The rightmost one is thin as a needle, and incredibly easy to hide in the sleeve. Another is thicker and leaf-shaped, capable of blocking as well as striking, and weighted for throwing. Another has serrated edges, thick on one side and thin on the other… so many variations on a theme, together creating a suite of tools specialized for a variety of purposes. Each made small enough for a child to wield, yet still able to fit in an adult hand.

These are not the ones he took with him from the hidden village he was raised in. Those he lost in battle, fighting alongside his pokemon in a way that most normal trainers would find wasteful and dangerous. And it’s true; even the most powerful crossbow would barely hurt many pokemon, would be utterly ineffective against entire Types, and those it might seriously wound are often too quick for all but the most expert marksmen to hit at all. The combat techniques his ancestors passed down were created in a time before pokeballs made anything else a human might hold in their hands during battle obsolete.

But they had another purpose too, a purpose that created the hidden villages centuries ago, and kept them relevant. Humans are not tough. Humans are not quick. Pokemon were trained to defend their humans even from other humans in historic times, but they had to recognize a threat to stop it, and a kunai from the shadows could be more deadly than a pokemon.

His gaze is drawn to the wall, where a hanging scroll depicts a tangela and machoke grappling in the forefront, with two katana wielding samurai locked in battle beside them. He was forced to learn many things in his first year leaving his village, transforming himself from Michio of the Endo clan to
“Kyo Koga.” The Koga clan was outed a decade before he was born, and had the size and power to survive the backlash. Now instead of training assassins and spies, it is famous for running historical museums, commercially successful martial arts dojos… and adopting those who leave their still-hidden villages, claiming them as distant family members to provide new, legal identities.

It has not been an unpleasant life, being Kyo. He has done much of what he set out to do, and his failures sting less with each passing year, or are not yet final. He even found a wife, birthed a daughter, raised her to be strong, clever, ambitious. It is something he has often been as proud of as his Gym Leadership, when he allows himself pride.

And he has not killed since he was sixteen. That above all else, he feels pride in. More than he would have expected, when he was young and angry enough to leave the village behind, but not yet sure if he would renounce its methods.

He picks another blade, this one broader, flatter. The first kunai were farming tools, or so he was taught. Simple equipment that could be used for not just cutting and stabbing, but digging or prying. In those days, adaptability held more value than specialization. But as humans began to work together in larger numbers, as technology advanced, a handful of specialists became far more valuable, until new, even narrower specializations continued to branch from the old ones…

…and yet people were still capable of doing more. With technology, everyone can calculate more complex mathematics more easily than most people in his great-grandparents’ age. Everyone can cook as many recipes as a master chef, heal better than the greatest pre-potion physicians.

The role of a ninja was no different. His grandparents were spies and assassins who barely used pokemon, but his parents’ generation could and did incorporate them into nearly every skillset. Thieves and spies became hackers, assassins and scouts became trainers.

If a tool for creation can be reforged into a tool for killing, then he has done his best to prove that the reverse is also true. And if his mother was right, and humans must all be tools of society, the same should apply to them.

The door slides open, and Anzu walks in with the same expression she’s had around him in private since he caught her returning home that night; a mask of neutrality over prepared defiance, and wariness. It hurts every time, to see it on her face, aimed at him. Just as he knows it must hurt her, to see his disappointment.

“Is something wrong, Father?”

“All the usual things.” He gestures, and she steps further inside and closes the door behind her. “Spar with me.”

The frown-line she inherited from her mother appears. “Spar… hand-to-hand?”

“Yes. Like we used to.”

“I’m not… I don’t have time for this.”

“What do you have time for?”

“Ensuring this gym keeps its integrity, as you well know.”

“Tell me anyway.” He stands and tucks his gi, then tightens his belt and moves to the center of the room. “As we spar.”

She sighs, then removes her shoes and joins him. They stand across from each other, bow, and begin to circle one-another.

He allows himself to take in her stance, her balance as she moves, watching for any sign of an impending attack… then meets her gaze and launches his opening salvo. “Do you really care about the changes Oak is making to the gym, or are you just upset that he is the one doing it, and not you?”

Anzu’s face shifts to a mix of surprise and anger, and he steps forward and strikes all in one motion, fist to torso and foot to shin. She backsteps, almost too slow, and he uses the kick to step forward and strike again.

She sidesteps and counters, and for a moment Kyo’s mind is blank, body moving in an automatic flow of strike, block, twist, counterstrike. He has superior reach and strength, but she is quicker, which means normally they can both keep each other from landing solid strikes, but she is still on the backfoot, and within seconds he lands an open palm against her stomach.

She takes it well, falling backward and down, slapping the ground and rolling back to her feet to be ready for his followup. He doesn’t chase, however, instead relaxing to regain his breath so she can too.

“It’s been a while since I fell for that,” she finally says.

“You’ve lost your focus.”

She understands immediately. “I was doing fine until you forced me into a contest.”

Kyo raises his brow. “I must be a powerful hypnotist, to have planted such ambition in Blue Oak’s head.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I do not. He began his journey a year ago, started changing gym cultures by his third badge. Many have wondered how he would affect the ones he had yet to visit, and even how those who journeyed with him would affect those he already had.” Kyo begins circling her again. “Had you been paying attention, you would have seen him coming. Seen this coming.”

Anzu’s body tenses, but he doesn’t attack, and after a moment she visibly takes a breath to center herself before she begins to circle as well. “Excuse me for not spending all my time following each celebrity trainer’s journeys. Besides, I’m handling this just fine. He can’t beat me, and he knows it.”

“I see. So you believe he will soon give up, then, and leave?”

His tone is neutral, but she detects the irony. “Whatever deal you made with him, it’ll become obvious something’s wrong if he doesn’t challenge for his badge soon. He might try to spin it as a victory somehow, say he’s ‘planted the seeds of change’ or whatever, but I still have more students than he does, and more members. I’ve shown what the future of this gym will look like.”

Kyo does not regret the deception he recruited Oak into; that Anzu would fall for it at all is further evidence that she’s not ready. But he does regret the necessity, and wishes that they could be as close as they used to be again, aligned in both means and ends.

Perhaps that’s what makes him say what he does next so bluntly:

“All you’ve shown is that you’re not fit to run it.”

Again the flinch, and again he strikes. She counters seviper with zangoose, then drops into sandile and forces him to hop back a step, turn, kick.

She grabs his foot and wrenches, but he merely spins with it, other leg kicking as he catches himself on his hands and vaults back when she releases him to dodge. She begins to speak, but he’s not done, and two steps puts him back within her guard, keeping her backstepping as he throws strike after strike. His arms soon ache with the force of her blocks, but he’s forced her to the edge of the room, and when she tries to sidestep around him he ducks her strike and sweeps her legs.

She jumps, but not quick enough, and her whole body jerks toward the ground as his leg catches her ankle. Once again she slaps and rolls away, and once again he doesn’t follow.

“What the hell does that mean?” she asks once she catches her breath.

“It means that you’re still not taking this seriously.” He straightens. “I can tell from your movements. You’re still training your body rather than your pokemon, still focused on your crusade rather than securing your position in the gym beyond challenge.”

“I told you, I’ve beaten Oak—”

“Wrong.” Kyo shakes his head. “You are about to be defeated so thoroughly that you cannot even conceive of how, and thus can do nothing to stop it.”

Now he truly has her attention, at last. “What are you talking about? If you’re about to throw blatant endorsement behind him—”

“No, I had no part in what’s coming. I only allowed him to try his ideas here, and yes, even offered him an early challenge if he proved your superior in either leadership or training.”

His daughter stares at him, jaw clenched. “And?”

“I thought he failed, until yesterday, when he came to tell me of his latest breakthrough.” Kyo gives his daughter a small, wry smile, still feeling some awe at what he was told… and what he saw. “He’s going to challenge you tomorrow, Janine, and he’s going to win.”

Kyo isn’t sure how Oak would feel about him sharing this information; when the boy asked permission to use an untested battle technique in his gym, and explained what it was, Kyo asked for a demonstration more out of skepticism than adherence to safety standards. It was, all things considered, a more than considerate request; while accepted practice for experimental or risky techniques, it’s not required to show the Leader themselves any that might grant significant advantage if revealed in combat. Oak could have gone to Kyo’s Second or Third.

Instead he was shown something truly paradigm shifting, something that would change the entire meta of pokemon battles the world over. And yet Oak still shared it because it was new, and… perhaps… as a show of respect. Kyo was right to recognize him as a radical reformist, but was surprised by the show of wisdom of his deference.

Or at least, the wisdom to know that showing deference would be appreciated, which in this case is close enough.

Anzu’s eyes are narrowed, her mind clearly racing over possibilities both feasible and outlandish. “He can’t possibly have closed the gap that much…” Despite her words he can see her doubt growing. “Not unless he’s been hiding his true ability this whole time… If he bought some Elite level pokemon—”

“I will not reveal any more. I’ve told you this much because you are my daughter, and despite everything I still want you to succeed, but I am still acting as I would if I did not know. I cannot put my thumb on the scale by giving you answers. Only advice, if you have the humility to receive it.”

She hesitates, clearly still processing his confidence in her impending loss. He can tell that she is tempted to keep challenging it, perhaps even dismiss it entirely. Instead she takes another breath to center herself, then sits. “Alright. I told you I still value your teachings, and I meant it. What have I missed?”

He folds his legs beneath him, then takes a moment to organize his thoughts for what may be the most important conversation of his life. “First, I wish to better understand something. What are you so afraid will happen, if Oak succeeds in changing this gym?”

Anzu frowns at the new angle of conversation, but after a moment says, “That he’ll turn it into some cheap Ranger school knock-off.” Her jaw sets. “The League is about improving and evaluating the strength of the trainer as an individual, not as a group. That is what I’m fighting to protect, as much as to show I’m worthy of Leadership.”

“Does the League not exist to protect the people? Do its trainers not rely on each other to do that?”

“Of course they do.” She sighs. “I’m not against these ‘group scenarios’ in principle. I just don’t believe it should be what Gyms are for. If Oak were forming his own school or working with the Rangers, I might even support him. Instead he’s leeching off the existing system, the prestige of the gyms he visits, to force his ideas into the mainstream. It’s not right.”

“Spoken with true conviction. And yet this desire is not strong enough for you to commit everything you have to it.”

“I told you, I won’t just stand by while villains act freely in our city. What I’ve uncovered—”

“Has nearly gotten you arrested.” They haven’t spoken about that night in Celadon when she narrowly escaped the police. He’d hoped it would make her more cautious, and it seemed to… for a while, at least. “Or worse.”

“I’m being more careful now. Working with others, letting them investigate… but after what I’ve learned, I can’t just let it stand. Not just because I’m being challenged, not when I can handle both. And I can. Whatever Oak showed you, I’ll beat it—”

Kyo feels the anger flare up again, and almost snaps at her that this is exactly the arrogance that would get her killed, or bring ruin to the gym—

“—and I’ll take down the renegade conspiracies at the same time, with or without your blessing!”

—and instead blinks, staring back into his daughter’s angry gaze. “What are you talking about? You said you were investigating Silph.”

“And I have been. But Silph was connected to others, and I’ve allied with the people investigating them to learn more. Those renegades under the Celadon casino were just the most public.”

A coldness is spreading through Kyo’s stomach, and despite himself he asks, “What have you learned?”

“Oh, now you’re curious again?”

“Anzu, please. What have you learned?

He’s surprised her again, and he sees uncertainty in her gaze before she looks away, then back. “You said you’d stop me if I went too far. Is that what this is? You’re worried I’ll cross the line to fight an even greater evil than corrupt businessmen?”

The thought occurred to him, but… “That is not my worry at this moment. I swear it.”

His daughter still seems worried, but nods and begins explaining what she’s learned from her new allies. First of Silph’s rivalry in securing access to fossils and the renegade-thief that was murdered before his execution, then of missing and hidden scientists from around the world, and then stolen technology with foreign renegade guards.

Until she finally ends with their tentative conclusion; that Silph, though itself guilty of crimes, appears at times to be in contention with an actual criminal empire.

And so the coldness in Kyo’s stomach has spread, because he recognized these movements, these actions, these strategies. They were altered to be more clever, harder to detect, but also more ambitious… and more protected, if even other gym leaders are potentially involved.

It seems he has run out of time.

“Father?”

Kyo looks up from where his gaze had been staring through the earth into the void beyond, and sees his daughter’s concerned gaze on his. All of her hostility has faded, leaving her angular face appearing softer than he’s seen it in a long time. It may be the first time she’s completely dropped her guard around him in years, and he feels an urge to go to her, draw her into a hug. Not just to protect her, but also to reassure.

She’s not just concerned about what his reaction means for her. Whatever she sees in his face, it concerns her for him.

And so Leader Koga takes a deep breath, centering himself in the feel of the air rushing into his lungs, then back out. He tried running from his past, believing he would be able to, eventually, confront it on his own terms. And yet now that the parallels between himself and his daughter become clear, he smiles a bitter smile at how obvious it now is what he’s been doing wrong.

“I am alright, Janine.”

“I know you are worried for me, but if there’s something else…”

“There is, yes.” Kyo takes another breath, lets it out slowly, and cups his hands over his knees. “First, I must apologize. I was… not at my best, the last time we spoke about this.” The night he put a tracker on her, hoping against hope that he was wrong, that she was not responsible for the rumors of a vigilante in his city… “I was angry. And… frightened for you. But I never fully explained why.”

Her expression shifts back to a wary confusion. She expects him to go back to trying to discourage her. “What I mean is, I never told you why I left my village.”

“You did, when I was young. You had an argument with grandfather…” She trails off, face going blank and weight shifting back onto her ankles. “Was all that a lie?”

“It was not the whole truth. That argument was… long, and bitter, but it wasn’t just a philosophical difference.” He searches for the words, thinking back to who he was two decades ago, dusting the memories off. “I was taught that the life of the ninja was a necessary evil. That every warlord had agents that worked in the shadows, and so every region must have the same, or else fall to the others willing to use such practices. And it’s true that, for most of my young life I saw my family work to do good. What I said about my village tracking spies, hunting renegades, even training legitimate hunters… all that was true. Not everyone in the League and Council knew, but many did, and that was enough for us. So long as someone else told us what was needed to protect our region, we did it, even if others would consider it immoral.”

“And you said you weren’t satisfied with that.”

“I wasn’t. What I’ve told you before, about wanting to make a real change, about feeling like a tool, it was all true. Your grandfather called me selfish, and I… may have compared him to a tamed poochyena.” Anzu snorts, but Kyo still feels the ember of shame flare in his chest, even after all these years. “It… got worse from there, but it was only a part of the problem. What truly led to my departure was learning that those giving us orders… were not all as pure as I thought. Organized crime had its own channels of power and influence, and sometimes our services were sold to them, often for mutual exchanges of favors.”

Anzu stares as if seeing him for the first time, and it’s a struggle to not drop his gaze from hers. “The village did work for criminals? Did you do work for them?”

“Yes.” The word burns on the way out. “Worse, I didn’t leave immediately, when I learned. I was young, only went on missions with others. I trusted my mentor when they said it was rare, but necessary. When I was older, I saw it more and more, realized it was not an occasional exception. And still I stayed, thought there was something we could do about it. But when I began talking seriously about refusing such orders, or even making them public… the village elders insisted it wasn’t our place, your grandfather among them. And that’s when I realized what it truly meant, to view oneself as a tool.”

His daughter listens to his confession in silence, and he sees lingering confusion in her eyes… but also compassion that he’s not sure he deserves. “Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”

“I made an oath, Janine. When I left the village.” His hands are clenched, and he relaxes them with his next breath. “My life and freedom, and in exchange, I would not reveal anything that might cause problems for the village. I didn’t even tell your mother, though she knew there were secrets I had to keep, and said… that they didn’t matter.” Grief claws at his insides, for a moment, as deep and black as the months following her death, but a few breaths later the pain is back to a distant, dull ache. Most of his attention is already wondering if this was a mistake, if Janine will tell someone…

But he has been released from his oath by Janine’s own discoveries. If anything this might reduce the odds that the public becomes aware of the villages. He sighs. “I know it will sound like an excuse, but it was simpler to say that I disagreed with the philosophy. You’ve known what my ambition is. Now you better understand why.”

“But could you stop them, even as Champion? If they have that much influence—”

“It will be difficult, yes. And dangerous. I have made what preparations I can, and plan to make more once I am part of the Elite.” For one thing he’ll have even more influence than he’s gained by being the leader of Fuchsia; all the work he’s done with the stewards of the Safari Zone has won him many friends among the Rangers, which would be key. “And of course, I’ve made you as safe as I could.”

“By teaching me what you learned,” Anzu says, voice low, and now it’s her gaze that wavers, then drops. “Which I then used to put myself, and you, at risk.”

The stir of hope in his chest makes it a little easier to breathe, though it’s tinged with bitterness. His oath would have exacted a greater cost than he expected, if all he had to do to convince his daughter all this time was tell her of this…

But if he had, then she may never have discovered what she did, which means he wouldn’t have learned of it.

“You were doing what you thought was right,” Kyo says, the words strangely hard to say. He’s not sure why, when he believes them. Perhaps it’s just his pride.

“I was.” Anzu stirs, then straightens her spine. “And if anything, this makes it more obvious that these people need to be stopped. If they’re not just using renegades, but hiring ninja, working with council members… did you ever learn who was in charge?”

She’s leaning forward now, the familiar glint back in her eyes, and his hope sinks back into the dark depths. She won’t back down from her path. It was foolish of him to ever think she might.

But that doesn’t mean his concern was misplaced.

“No,” he says honestly. “She was referred to only as The Madame, and her reputation for ruthlessness made her more feared by criminals than the Rangers, League, and Hunters put together.”

Anzu frowns, but not in a way that seems aimed at him. “Alright, I’ll ask around, see what I can learn.”

“Janine—”

“Father, I know you—”

“Wait, please.” He takes a breath, wondering why this feels so hard to say. Perhaps because it would come off as an endorsement, an encouragement of her taking actions that might bring her harm…

He remembers his mother, handing him a pokeball with his starter. He’s always imagined that was something she felt compelled to do, out of love, despite her disagreement with his choice. But perhaps she was as conflicted, handing him that ball and knowing what he would do with it, as he is now, with these words balancing on the tip of his tongue.

“I think you should continue.”

“What?” She blinks, blinks again. “You… really?”

“I have always believed in your conviction, but… I also thought you simply needed something to challenge you. A sign that your efforts were needed somewhere, at a time when the Gym had no challenges left to offer you.”

“And now?” Anzu asks, voice cautious.

“Now I believe you should follow your conscience, wherever it leads you. But my position is the same as it’s ever been; a Leader cannot also be a concealed dagger. My ambition is to end such duplicity and abuse, and even if you disagree, on a practical level I say you cannot commit wholly to your mission and the gym’s demands, and excel at both sufficiently. You know this gym’s virtue. You must choose.”

Anzu seems taken aback, and he sees her hurt and disappointment before her face closes down. “So nothing’s changed, after all.”

“Much has changed,” he disagrees. “But Blue Oak is still here, and has devoted all of what he is to changing this gym and defeating you. That has not changed, and I would not stop it if I could. He has closed the gap on you, fairly, and it is the result of your split focus. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps you will defeat him, and show that I am underestimating you. But if not, then remember this conversation. Remember what it means, to hone one weapon at the expense of all else. It can leave you limited, but it can also make you strong, so long as you focus your energy where it is most needed.”


Kyo makes his announcement the next day, before Oak can find Anzu for his challenge.

“When I gave Blue Oak the opportunity to extend what he began in Vermilion, to teach what he and his journeymates developed, I did it knowing this would disrupt the culture of our gym. A culture of personal excellence, of competition and support, of discipline and respect. A culture I am proud to have developed and fostered.. But that was in a different time. A time before the world changed, thrice over. And I knew, sooner or later, we would have to change as well…”

He goes on to explain that, while he still believes in the concept of a gym that trains and evaluates individuals, he has been impressed by what Oak and his journeymates have demonstrated. Similarly, he heaped praise on the way his daughter and other gym members have given more of themselves to training others, sharing techniques and providing guidance above and beyond that which other gyms in the region could boast.

“…value of competition, of challenging our preconceptions, and devoting ourselves to what unique skills and ideas we can develop and spread.” Kyo takes a moment to find Oak in the crowd, then Anzu at the other side of it. “I wish to encourage more competitions like this, to reward more trainers for trying new things. To that end, to ensure no one is discouraged from trying such projects if it delays their Challenge. I am announcing that any trainer who contributed in some meaningful way to the culture of Fuchsia Gym, as judged by any member of the gym leadership, may Challenge for Membership or Mastery without going through the preliminaries.” He’s mostly just building on what Surge has implicitly allowed, but it feels like a turning point in the region to make it an explicit rule. Another ratchet along the path to further incentivize diversity and specialization. “Up until recently, the niche that this gym has filled seemed enough. But the world is changing, and so must we… whether that means using new strategies, or improving on what has served us well thus far.”

Kyo bows his head to his audience, who bow back, all at various degrees, then begin to disperse or talk among themselves. He steps down from the podium and reaches Oak just as the boy is approaching Anzu, who is waiting with her arms crossed. “I know,” she says before either can speak. “Another battle. I accept.”

Oak doesn’t seem particularly surprised, though he does give Kyo a look he cannot interpret. “Alright. Ready when you are.”

“Let’s get it over with.”

“I will act as referee,” Kyo says, and leads the way to the battle arenas before either can object. They draw many curious looks, but only Oak’s friends are bold enough to approach, no doubt also interested in watching the battle, until the boy shakes his head and they fall behind.

“Six on six,” Anzu says as they take the elevator down to one of the private arenas, and Kyo smiles. Without knowing what Oak’s trump card is, she’s giving herself the maximum range to have an answer available for it. “To the faint.”

Oak simply shrugs and nods, and when the doors open both pass by the PC and head straight to their platforms. Kyo takes a moment to deactivate the cameras in the room, then goes to stand at the side of the arena. “Are you both ready?” They nod, hands on their pokeballs. “Set…”

“Go, Mal!” Anzu shouts, again making the safe choice. Her toxapex is her most defensive pokemon, useful to scout out what Oak might do—

“Go, Rive!”

Oak’s newly evolved rhydon drops onto all fours as soon as it appears, which means his “Ras!” command sends it barreling forward within a second, horn tearing up the earth ahead of it as it spins.

“Bunker!”

Mal’s hard shell contracts around her, spines jutting out, but Oak’s pokemon is already slowing as pieces of stone start to break off its own hide, floating lazily around Anzu’s pokemon. Oak is ready for when the Baneful Bunker ends, yelling “Rad!” as Anzu shouts “Scald!”

The Drill Run hits first, and at such close range Mal gets trampled even as she sprays boiling water all over Rive. Kyo is glad to see both trainers withdraw their pokemon at the same time; toxapex are tough enough that Mal would likely be okay, but with such an all-encompassing injury the chance of a critical organ being hit is high enough that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

As for Rive, it’s possible with the right training or items for it to withstand that sort of hit from a toxapex; most of a toxapex’s body is oriented to defense, which means even with TMs they can only expel a little water or poison per attack. But Oak isn’t risking it either, and both send out their next pokemon within a breath.

“Go, Brutus!”

“Go, Nin!”

Anzu’s venusaur gets cut by the stones as soon as it appears, roaring in pain, while Oak’s golbat dives in for a Wing Attack. Anzu quickly swaps Brutus out for her crobat, which takes even more damage from the stones but easily defeats Oak’s lesser evolution before blowing the stones away in a gust of wind.

Normally, this would be the point at which Anzu’s victory would be inevitable. All of Oak’s remaining Ground types would be checked by Anzu’s crobat and venusaur, and while his wartortle may be strong enough to take down the crobat with a well aimed ice beam, it’s ultimately a tossup which would defeat the other, particularly since a single Cross Poison could wear Maturin down even if Oak battled defensively.

Combined with the fact that Anzu still has her tentacruel ready and waiting to further wear the wartortle down, Oak doesn’t have many options. Apparently he had spent time before their last match training his wartortle’s physical combat skills, but the gap between his pokemon and Anzu’s was still too large, particularly since she made sure to train plenty of Fire/Fighting pokemon to break through Steel types her enemies might bring against her.

What Oak has needed, all along, is Poison’s only other weakness; a Psychic type, one strong and fast enough to take down even a blaziken. But even if he somehow managed to train one of his abra enough to evolve and fight well, Anzu’s Drapion would be there to stop it cold.

All this, his daughter knows. And yet she’s still being wary, because he told her Oak would defeat her. He’s not sure what she’s expecting, perhaps a dragonite or tyranitar, but when the kadabra appears she freezes, for a moment, almost long enough for Blue to command his pokemon to attack.

And then she does the obvious thing, and swaps her crobat for her drapion. The purple and black scorpion rears up with a roar, tall as two men and long as three, towering over the kadabra.

“Tops,” Oak says, voice firm. “Eam.”

The kadabra’s eyes suddenly lock onto its opponent as Anzu commands her pokemon to fling toxic spikes all over the arena. She’s still acting defensively, still preparing for some surprise, but she can’t prepare for what comes next. As he warned her, it’s completely outside of her conceptualization space.

“Pa.”

Seeing it a second time still sends frisson down Kyo’s spine; the drapion’s body vibrates like a tuning fork as the invisible wave of psychic force crashes over it, causing it to stagger.

It took a long time for scientists to discover why Psychic attacks do so much damage to Poison pokemon. It was debated for decades, until the leading hypothesis emerged; the unique vibrations that run through a body when hit by psychokinetic force are similar to the vibrations caused by most Ground attacks.

Gas, acid, venom, sludge, whatever the form the “poison” takes in a pokemon’s body, it’s always kept separate from their vital organs. Internal bleeding is harmful to any creature, but combining toxic substances into the blood or surrounding tissue, even in a body resistant to them, causes more damage than would normally be sustained, in essence turning the pokemon’s own weapons against itself.

And so they all watch as the towering Dark/Poison pokemon sways in the aftermath of its first telekinetic attack, body twitching as pain spreads through it. To his pride, Anzu recovers from the unprecedented attack by shouting “Night!” within moments, but the kadabra is faster, and the next wave of force makes the drapion shudder, then topple.

Anzu’s hand darts out to withdraw it, and Kyo watches as his daughter’s limbs twitch to select her next pokemon, then pause, twitch again… then stop. He can only imagine what she’s feeling; confusion, shock, fear. Perhaps even awe.

And what she’s thinking, beyond how did he do that, is that she has no pokemon to respond with. Her crobat is the only thing that could outspeed his kadabra, but he can switch into a magneton, and both his wartortle and kadabra could defeat the blaziken she would send in to defeat that.

It all plays out in Koga’s head, strike and counterstrike, and he knows the same is happening in Anzu’s, and likely Oak’s as well. There is always some chance of surprises, a miss or critical strike, a clever deception or unusual tactic… but in cases like this, among trainers as skilled as they, that chance becomes smaller and smaller.

Oak waits, patient. He knows he’s regained the advantage, but he’s still being cautious as well. If Kyo hadn’t warned his daughter, if she’d treated this like any other match, Oak may have won already against a more reckless strategy… or he could have lost, if she treated his kadabra like it was any other threat.

Either way, he’s not taking his victory for granted. It speaks volumes about his battle philosophy, as well as his general worldview, that he did not start with the kadabra. He was feeling her out as well, making sure he wasn’t walking into any surprises of her own. Anzu did that to herself, in part, by working so hard to keep changing her strategies up. Generally a good thing, but the best opponents will always find a way to adapt, even if the thing they adapt to is unpredictability itself.

Nearly a minute passes before Anzu finally lets her hands drop.

“How?”

It is, perhaps, the most defeated Kyo has ever seen his daughter. And to ask an opponent trainer for their secret, so directly… to ask a rival for it…

Oak glances at Kyo. “I thought you might have told her,” he admits. “Sorry for doubting you.”

“I told her you would defeat her. That is all.”

Oak nods, then turns back to his opponent. “I’m happy to tell you, Janine. Really,” he adds at her clear surprise. “I only did this with the help of others, and they’re not battle trainers. They don’t believe techniques should be kept secret, and in this case I agree. It’s too important.”

“You could have revealed it in your Challenge match,” she says, voice tinged with confusion and wonder. “The whole world would have seen you do the impossible while winning a badge.”

“Oh, I’m definitely still planning to do that,” Oak says with a grin. “I’m not that altruistic. Sure, you can tell people first if you want, but that would just draw a bigger crowd and more hype. The plan right now is for Red and Satori to make an announcement about it in a week or so, since they’re the ones that actually discovered it, and if I show it off first, then great, more hype for them. In any case, I’d have shared it with your father before battling him. Not looking to humiliate anyone, and I’m pretty sure I can beat him even with him knowing.” Oak turns to him again and bows his head. “No disrespect intended.”

“None taken,” Kyo says with a raised brow. “I hadn’t selected my lineup for your mastery challenge yet, but among my fifth badge lineups I tend to prepare for at least a couple psychic pokemon on the challenger’s team, even if they are Dark.”

There’s been some debate over whether it’s fair to adjust a challenge lineup in that way; should leaders aim for a relatively consistent experience across badge levels, or adjust teams to the individual challenger? The Indigo League has no official policy, so some Leaders will use the exact same lineup for each number of badges (replacing them once they grow too strong) while others make minor adjustments based on the trainer’s pokemon, and yet others will tailor their lineups to maximally challenge particular trainer personalities and strategies.

Perhaps it comes from being Dark himself, but Kyo has always believed that challenges are meant for trainers to prove their growth, not just benchmarks to check-off… which means Dark trainers must learn to compensate for their more limited options, rather than expect others to adjust accordingly. Wild pokemon certainly wouldn’t.

Or, in the young Oak’s case, create new options.

“That doesn’t mean you should take the battle as a formality,” Kyo continues. “It may well be, but I find myself excited by the unique puzzle you’ve presented. It will be an honor to be the first Leader to test the new meta.”

Oak grins. “That, and you’ll have to prepare for the changes it will bring to future Challenges.”

“As you say.” Kyo’s own smile feels wry, but it’s still genuine. “Here we have been plotting the future of this Gym, and yet with this discovery, Poison as a type has lost nearly as much as Dark has.”

“No, it’s too early to be so fatalistic. There must be limits.” Anzu turns back to Oak. “It seemed to take your pokemon time to prepare for its attacks. Was it similar to charging a Solar Beam, or more like a Swords Dance…?”

“Neither, actually. In our training, Tops always has to spend some time seeing through the Dark pokemon’s aura first, but once he has, he doesn’t seem to have trouble seeing them until the Dark pokemon is recalled and resummoned.”

“When you say ‘seeing’…”

“Or sensing, whatever. Apparently the eyes are important though. Red and Satori even called it ‘Miracle Eye,’ which seems really dramatic coming from two non-battle trainers.” Oak smiles. “I was actually impressed.”

Anzu is frowning at him. “You’re continuing to show more humility than I expected.”

“How’s that?”

Kyo catches Anzu’s glance. “I believe she means that this seems, so far, like it was not your accomplishment. And if I know my daughter, it feels unfair to her, to be beaten by a trick you did not even help develop… or more accurately, it feels unfair to have her capabilities as a potential leader questioned over such a thing.”

Anzu shifts her weight, and Oak considers this a moment before shrugging. “Alright, well, it was my idea that got them looking into it, if that helps? And there’s another new training technique that I’ve been using which helped make Tops so strong so quick, though I’m not ready to share what that is yet.”

Anzu’s frown deepens, and when she turns to him, Kyo keeps his voice as gentle as he can as he quietly asks, “And what new insights have you inspired in others, in your quest to become the best Leader you could?”

He sees it hit her in stages: confusion, recognition, denial… and then a growing desperation as she tries, and fails, to come up with anything.

Kyo sighs. He’d hoped, still, that there was something he’d missed.

Oak looks back and forth between them, brow furrowed. “I’m missing something.”

“Indeed. Have you figured out the virtue of our Gym yet?”

“I think so, especially after your speech. People online said it was about discipline, focusing on your goal at the exclusion of all else, but once I got here and spent some time with the older gym members, it seemed like that wasn’t quite it.” Oak points his thumb at Anzu. “It’s what you were upset with her about, right? Lack of focus. But that’s a means, and a sloppy one. The real thing is the blend of means and end. Having a niche and leveraging it as hard as you can.”

“I refer to it as ‘specialization.’ When I was young, my father told me a tale of a blacksmith who discovered a forging technique to create a sword that would never break, and would easily shatter other swords… but only against other swords. It would be a weapon for disarming, never killing, as striking any armor or even a bone would irreparably damage the blade. Many samurai thought the man who mastered this sword would forever be at a handicap, unable to end a threat, whether human or pokemon. But for one swordsman, it was elegance itself. A blade that could only ever cut one thing would allow him to truly devote himself to a fighting style that focused on cutting that thing, mind, body and spirit.”

Oak slowly nods, leaning against the railing of his platform. “I get it. So now you decide if your gym is going to specialize in the sort of thing my friends and I have been exploring, or double-down on what it was before, with what Janine’s been doing.”

“No,” Anzu says before he can respond. “Father has already made his decision. I lost. You win.”

She doesn’t sound bitter about it. If anything she sounds… lighter, than she did before. Something between resigned and accepting.

Oak, meanwhile, looks conflicted. Kyo wonders if he’s thinking of admitting that he never intended to lead the gym, but instead he says, “I don’t know what you’ve been so focused on besides all this, but if it’s that important to you… maybe you need to settle it before you can really focus on being a leader.”

She turns back to him. “What are you saying?”

“I mean, I’ll probably need another year or so to become Champion.” Oak makes the utterly audacious claim with a completely straight face, and after what Kyo has seen in the past two days, he finds little skepticism in himself. “Maybe by then you’ll be done with whatever else you’ve been working on, and be kicking so much ass here that I’ll decide to go to another gym instead. Hell, I still haven’t been to Cinnabar. Might be even cooler than Fuchsia. Or maybe by then I’ll change my mind about being a gym leader altogether, especially if they start changing without me having to micromanage.”

“I don’t need your pity,” Anzu says, though she sounds more stoic than angry. “I’ve been arrogant, and that has to have consequences. I may have more support in the gym now, but I can see that you’ll just keep working at that until you find a solution to it too, while I… won’t give up my other project. Can’t.”

Even though it’s what he wanted, it still hurts to hear her say it. To hear the pain, just below the surface of her calm voice. But he’s proud of her, as well, and almost says so when Oak snorts.

“So why not work together? You’re acting like it’s all or nothing, and I don’t get why.” Anzu is silent, but her eyes shift to him, and Oak catches it. “Oh. Well, no disrespect, Leader, but without knowing what you’ve got against whatever else she’s working on, if it’s important enough to get someone like Janine to give up her dream of succeeding you, I’d just as soon make sure I can beat her when she’s not distracted, instead of beating her just because she is.”

Kyo watches Oak, meeting those steady eyes, while in the corner of his vision he sees Anzu… relaxing. Regaining some of her confidence, her poise, and most of all, her hope.

And he decides that the young Oak might be more than a simple tool as well. However much he’s grown to reach where he is today from when he started his journey, he likely has only just started along the path to who he will become.

Someone, perhaps, that Kyo will feel is worthy to follow. Someone who will help expose the corruption, rather than accept it.

“I think,” the leader says, “We should all speak more on this, after our match. There is a story I would like to tell you about my upbringing, and my ambition. And after that, Janine may feel more comfortable sharing her own.”

Anzu is staring at him in open shock, but Oak just raises his brow… then surprises Kyo by sighing and rubbing his eyes.

“Alright, but… first I gotta tell you guys about this thing called ‘meta-honesty’…”