All posts by Damon Sasi

108: Mistake Theory

Red stares at the numbers in his bank account and tries to really internalize what it means to have nearly three million dollars of personal wealth.

At first pass, it simply feels… impossible. When he tries focusing, the felt-senses that come up are a lightness in his chest and a numbness around his head that, when prodded, come up with phrases like “unreal” and “undeserved.” He wonders how much of it is due to the speed and the method of his wealth, and how much is just a carryover from spending so much time worrying about money.

Red’s research managed to earn him almost as much as he spent after his abra sales, which meant he had roughly $150,000 to buy up pokemon that could learn Miracle Eye… of his own money, that is. It wasn’t hard, with his name recognition, to get some sizeable loans; in fact, when one of the bankers remembered why Red first got famous, he offered to double the loan amount that Red asked for.

“So which pokemon is it this time?” the man asked as he filled out the paperwork, clearly joking but also clearly eager for some hint.

“What makes you think it’s a pokemon?” Red responded with a smile, and made sure to highlight that part of his request in his future applications.

By the end of it all he had nearly a million dollars in loans, which felt surreal on its own, and somewhat panic inducing. He had to keep reminding himself that this wasn’t a scheme that might or might not work; the price of abra and natu and male meowstic would go up, the only question would be how much. Even if he could only resell them at double the price he got them, even if he could only sell one per month, that would more than cover the interest, and those were some pessimistic estimates indeed.

So he borrowed more money, from Bill and Professor Oak and Dr. Madi and his mom and Leaf (who he offered much higher returns to, as apology for not being able to let her in on the secret), and then asked Leaf if she’d agree to take out loans that he’d cover, which she did.

By the end of that round of funding he managed to have nearly three million dollars, and the issue he faced was one of supply. Buying up the entire market would have been hard even if he wasn’t competing with Blue and Satori, but they made a game of it to keep things from getting too cutthroat.

Timing things so that others wouldn’t notice what was happening was also important, and they first reached out to the breeding farms to secure as many backorders as they could, which got expensive quickly. There was some debate about buying up other psychic types too, as the discovery would doubtless encourage a ton of research into finding others who could learn it, but they recognized this as more speculative, even if all psychic pokemon rise in price a little. Blue decides to dabble in some of that, which left more of the sure bet for Red and Satori to buy up.

Occasionally Red felt guilty about what they were doing. He spoke with his mother about it first this time, and she agreed that as it was their direct discovery, it was a different situation than the one with the clefairy. But he could also sense that she still found it… distasteful, maybe? Just a year ago he was struggling to decide what to spend his limited funds on, and once he imagined some new trainer eagerly saving up their money for one of the pokemon that are about to skyrocket in price, it was hard not to keep thinking about how many people just wouldn’t be able to afford these pokemon after their announcement.

They ended up doing a similar deal for Rangers and Gyms, which soothed the guilt somewhat, particularly since the decision was reached before they devised their selling strategy, which began with some talks with a couple experts that were well worth their consulting fees. As he looks over the amount of money he still ended up with, the guilt starts to creep back in… along with the fear that he’s wasting it by not spending enough of it for good purpose.

It might not make sense to increase his spending proportionally, he’s not sure he can actually get good value out of ten times the spending he was doing before, let alone thirty times. But he should at least be spending twice as much as he was before he got it, realistically closer to five times as much. At the very least he could be funding more research by others.

He could also buy a female dratini under the same reasoning he used with his ivysaur and wartortle; getting a pokemon with high potential power that could also be rented out to recoup its cost in the future. Or he could just invest it directly into the stock market. He doesn’t plan to save for retirement, but if he’s not going to be spending it anyway…

And yet instead he just keeps staring at the numbers, on some level worried they’ll disappear, on another worried about wasting them.

He thinks over the mental tools at his disposal, including some of the more recent ones he practiced with Dr. Seward, and decides to try holding both emotions at once.

First he summons the memory of what it felt like to be limited by money; the worry about not having enough to buy what he needs, the longing of wanting something that was out of financial reach… then he summons the feelings of abundance he gets while looking at the numbers on the screen. More than that, he summons the feelings of… triumph, and confidence, that came from watching each step work out, one after the other, from his ideas, of watching the numbers go up over time.

Then he switches back to the worry he felt, the sense of scarcity and limitation… and now the sense of overflowing possibility. He lets himself sit with each feeling for a handful of slow breaths, sinking deep into each set of memories and emotions until he can start swapping between them more easily.

Then he holds both feelings together, side by side, as best he can, and when he finally starts to feel like the edge has been taken off of the financial worries, he takes one last deep breath and slowly lets it out.

When he opens his eyes and looks at the numbers on the screen again, the worry about spending it is still there, but not nearly as strong. He looks up the cost of a female dratini, winces, then decides to start with something smaller, but still a larger purchase than he’s made before. A few minutes later he finishes signing up for and prepurchasing one of Game Freak’s headset prototypes. The one on the site looks more advanced than the one showcased on the cruise, and he wonders how closely the final product will match it.

He feels a small stab of pain and regret upon clicking the Complete Payment button, but also some relief and excitement. He expects that it’ll get easier, and takes another breath before closing his computer and getting dressed.

Blue’s return to Saffron is by the traditional methods, which for him means riding in on Soul. Red has to admit that the scarred arcanine continues to make his friend look impressive, but if Blue had a teleport point set to the city he likely would have saved himself the time; he did, of course, fly most of the way before riding the last bit so that word of his arrival would spread by observation.

The reality of dark teleportation is that it still requires a dark trainer to create enough of a bond with their pokemon that it will understand who they are, and Blue is still working on creating one with his second abra so that it will be able to teleport with him. Meanwhile he said he plans to keep Tops’s teleport point in Fuchsia.

Blue swings down off his saddle, and Red steps up beside him to help unstrap Soul. Sunlight makes the arcanine’s fur glow in ripples along its side as it breathes in and out, and Red enjoys the warmth radiating off the large dog while Blue feeds and waters it. “None of the others came with you?”

“Some are staying for the long haul, the others are waiting behind until they get their badges. It would have been nice to get them in clusters again, but unless I can convince Blaine or Giovanni to do scenarios too, that might just stay a Vermilion-only thing.”

“No chance Janine changes her mind?”

“They’re okay with them continuing, so maybe. But she still seemed pretty against it becoming a way to do challenges when I left.” Blue returns Soul to his ball, then sighs as he takes his helmet off and runs a hand through sweaty hair, then waves at a couple onlookers across the street. “I need a wash. Mind if I use your shower before I head to the TH?”

“Sure.” They head inside and up the stairs. “So what’s the plan for Sabrina?”

Red thought his voice was casual, but Blue grins. “Itching to get back to the drawing board, huh?”

“Maybe, yeah.” Red smiles. “Planning battles out is almost as fun as doing them myself now.”

Blue laughs as their steps echo through the stairwell. “You know, on the list of things I never thought I’d hear you say, that’s pretty high up.”

“I wouldn’t have predicted it either.” He wouldn’t have predicted a lot of the ways he’s changed since leaving Pallet Town, but the way he enjoys battling is particularly surprising to him given how he’s been surrounded by it his whole life. “It’s also surprising to me how battling wild pokemon isn’t nearly the same.”

“Huh, really? It’s pretty similar for me, even more intense in some ways.”

“In… good ways?”

“Sure. It’s less predictable.”

Red wonders if they’re just misunderstanding each other. “What about the danger?”

“Oh, well that’s different. Normally I feel totally in control in battles, up until something really dangerous happens.”

“Wait, the ‘Battle Calm’ from Elaine’s game? That’s real?”

Blue turns to him with a frown as they step onto Red’s floor and head down the hall. “When did you—”

“She’s been sending us all drafts to get feedback. Each is a different copy so we can’t see each others’.” Red pats Blue’s shoulder, enjoying his friend’s rare bit of self-consciousness. “I particularly liked your Dueler’s Attitude.”

Blue tries to flick Red’s ear, but he dodges. “I asked her to tone that down, but she disagreed. ‘Artistic license,’ she said.”

They enter Red’s room, and Blue summons his eevee, then does a double take when Red does the same. “When did you buy—”

“Oh, I didn’t. Remember that work I did for the Celadon police? While we were going through buildings, we found an eevee in a ball just sitting in a room that’s been empty for years.” Red shrugs, a little self-conscious himself now. “It was really random. Thankfully it was in a plugged in charger, but there was a huge layer of dust over everything. They’ve been trying to track down its owner for the past few months, but none of the contact info reached anyone. Apparently they finally got hold of a family friend who said they passed away and had no benefactors, so the CPD decided to give it to me.”

“That’s… bizarre. Lucky for you, though.”

“Well, yeah, but it’s a little funny, because I could actually afford an eevee pretty comfortably now.”

“Okay, so it’s not too lucky. I’m so sorry for your gain.” Now it’s Blue’s turn to dodge Red’s flick. “Been going on a lot of daylight walks?”

“Yep, and made a nest of sunstones, which to be fair I would have hesitated to buy before.” They’re still not sure what exactly causes each eevee evolution, but there are some patterns that are less noisy than others. Red examines Blue’s while the two fluffy pokemon sniff at each other. “She’s gotten big.”

“Yeah, reckon she’ll be ready before I face Sabrina.”

Red’s thoughts go back to the pre-Challenge planning they did for Koga, and what that might look like for Sabrina… “So is the ‘Battle Calm’ based on something you really feel?”

“That one’s… more or less right, yeah.”

Red tries imagining what battling is like for him. The best he can come up with is his own many-mirrors-and-a-dim-room, which feels like it would be too detached to have the proper motivation or carefulness for a battle. “How do you stay motivated while not feeling things?” The two eevee’s minds feel less curiosity toward each other now, and are searching for stimulation, so Red takes out a pair of stringed wands with bright charms on the end and hands one to Blue.

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not sure, actually.” Red considers his own surprise, following the confusion it leads him to. “I think I had a subconscious model that, without emotion, we’d just be following some logical process to decide what to do moment to moment. And maybe emotions are, like, a shortcut for that? We don’t need to reason out why we should eat if we just feel hungry.”

“That’s an instinct, not an emotion. Or… a sensation, I guess?”

“I don’t know how distinct those things are.” He bounces the charm up and down for his eevee, who just sits and watches for a pattern rather than pouncing right away. He’s not as cuddly as Red expected, and Red sometimes wonders if that’s part of why the original owner left him behind, assuming it was intentional. “We don’t need to spend time and energy reasoning out why something is bad for us if we just get scared or angry and run away or hit it, and that saved time is probably really valuable.”

“Sure, I get that. But you’re saying now that emotions are more than a shortcut, right?”

“Maybe? The more I remember what it was like to block out most of my feelings in the abra field, the more I remember how hard it was to decide to do anything. I was able to reason things out, but it was hard to care about the conclusions. I almost just… stood there and didn’t do anything.” Red sits silently with that for a moment. “What if ‘feelings’ are just another word for ‘motivation?’ What if they’re how we decide everything we do?”

“Huh. Wouldn’t have expected you to say that.”

Red knows Blue’s teasing him, but he nods. “I know, it doesn’t seem right.”

“Doesn’t seem right up here?” Blue points to his head with his free hand, then his stomach. “Or down here?”

Well, now that he pointed that out… “I mean… logically, it seems wrong. People go against their emotions all the time.”

“Nah, they just go with a different emotion.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s not like we feel just one thing. You can care about someone and be angry at them at the same time, and sometimes one wins out and sometimes the other does.” Blue shrugs. “Same with things like fear and courage.”

A familiar pit forms in his stomach, mixing anger and sadness and despair, and Red almost argues that it’s not that simple… but after a moment he closes his mouth, realizing that his friend might not even be thinking of that night.

Huh. Was that a counter example right then? “Just now I was about to say something, because of a strong feeling I had. And then I stopped myself, and I don’t think I had a feeling associated with that.” Though maybe he did… caution? But it “felt” like the thought came first…

Blue gives him a look, but stays silent for a moment before saying, “I just did it too. Was going to say something, then another emotion got bigger and stopped me.”

“Got bigger?”

“Yeah, like it… rose up? Took up more space or something.”

Red also chooses not to dig into what that emotion was. Instead he reflects again on what he felt, and what stopped him. Red’s eevee finally pounces, but Red felt the intention rising a moment beforehand and bounced the charm up just before it could be grabbed. “I guess… there was an emotion there, but… if so it was really subtle?”

“Worry?”

“No. Caution, maybe. But it felt like it came from the… the top down, rather than the bottom up.”

“Huh.” They’re both silent for a moment as Blue’s Eevee continues to leap around while Red’s sits and stares again, gaze flicking around to track the movements of the colorful feathers. “So maybe thoughts can stop you from doing things, but not get you to do them. Which means you’ve wasted how much time on all that rational stuff, exactly?”

Red rolls his eyes. “I’m not saying we don’t use reason to make decisions.” He thinks back to the decision he made on the cruise, when he was shifting back and forth between becoming Sabrina’s student or staying with Leaf and Blue. “But maybe reason only works because it changes how we feel? And how we feel is… well, it’s not always explicitly rational. People have biases and bad epistemics and blindspots. But we do update, eventually, if we’re given the right data or arguments or explanations…” He trails off, less sure as he realizes he doesn’t know how that works, exactly.

“Seems like you’re trying to have it both ways. What comes first, the pidgey or the egg?”

“Well we developed emotions first, obviously. And that analogy is terrible by the way, it’s just about how you label things, eggs definitely existed for longer than—”

“So what you’re saying is there’s an obvious answer to both, which means it’s a great analogy.”

Red opens his mouth, then closes it and rubs his eyes. “My point is, if reason developed after emotion, which is a pretty safe bet… then what caused it to stick around and grow as an adaptive strategy is probably the way it allowed humans to decide things other than just following emotion? Maybe? Or like, a way to explicitly alter emotions… so how much reason influences what decisions we make could just depend on how strong the emotions involved are?”

“Hang on, I’m pulling in Leaf.” Blue takes out his phone and starts tapping. “She’s spent more time trying to convince people of things than either of us, at this point.”

Red smiles as a light fluttering enters his stomach. “Right, good idea.” He’d been wondering what she would say about all this, but didn’t want to be the first person to suggest it.

“Meanwhile, I’m going to get cleaned up.” Blue hands Red the toy wand and opens a container ball to take out some extra clothes and a towel. Red plays with both eevee while Blue closes the washroom door behind him, and there’s silence for a moment before his muffled voice comes through the door. “Hey, what’s the latest research on trading pokemon to evolve them?”

Red raises a brow. “You’re thinking of trading Tops?”

“Of course not! Just wondering if I can game it somehow.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking about that ever since we proved Koichi’s methods work. I still think the trading thing is mostly a superstition, there’s even more noise in the data there than with eevee evolutions. But Professor Rowan’s got some interesting papers on pokemon like kadabra and machoke, so it might have a stronger effect in different species? Still, if the mechanism is that some trauma involved in losing a trainer and getting a new one causes pokemon to grow faster, it’s not obvious what actually triggers it.” Red senses his eevee about to pounce again, but it’s quicker than he is this time, and manages to snatch one of the feathers in its teeth. He lets it gnaw for a bit while he plays with Blue’s. “People have tried to exploit it a dozen different ways. Trading back and forth, trading to people in different regions, faking their own death while the pokemon watches… nothing reliably leads to measurable changes in growth.”

“But it does work sometimes?” The shower starts running, and Blue raises his voice. “No one’s figured out why?”

“Not that I’ve seen! The data is inconsistent, and no one has a good enough explanation to try something new!”

“You should work on that next, then! It would be huge!”

Red doesn’t respond, partially because he doesn’t want to keep yelling over the water, partially because he’s not sure how he feels about it. The truth is, as fascinating as Koichi’s training method and the Miracle Eye were, they’re not the main thing he wants to be studying.

He still hasn’t had the unown dream, and he’s increasingly becoming the only psychic on the islands who hasn’t, along with everyone else in the city. The omission is becoming large enough that people are starting to notice and wonder why, and Red has to keep his partition up more and more often to not leak that Sabrina’s ex-student or friend or whatever is actually the one going around warning people about the end of the world.

And he hasn’t fully grappled with that whole thing either, of course, because it’s scary and also because he has no idea what he could do about it. And also maybe because if he takes it seriously he’ll have to stop working on figuring out where pokemon come from.

But since both might be related to unown in some way, he could feasibly still end up working on both, if he can just find an inroad. Lulie’s idea of tracking unown flight paths caught on, and the What Comes Next forums have a whole section now to show pidove tracking charts, but there hasn’t been much time to set up a formal investigation team, and the regions are still bickering over what does and doesn’t count as pokemon creation research and how illegal it should be.

So maybe figuring out how trades might cause pokemon to grow faster would be a good thing to do, but it would also just be another side project that has more to do with battling than anything. And as much as he’s been enjoying trainer battles lately, and as useful as it might be for people to be able to grow their pokemon faster, he’s still not intrinsically as excited to do that sort of research. Maybe whatever he learns will have applications and insights that go beyond it, but…

His phone chimes with his personal assistant’s tone, and he puts both toys in one hand to check the message:

Call from President Silph, as in, the President himself(!) not a sec. Says you’ve met before? and he’d “like to speak with you.” Asked what it was concerning, he just said it wasn’t what you might think(?) and that it’s “somewhat urgent”(!?) so gonna call in a minute if you don’t respond. Gave his direct number…

“Red?”

“Yeah?!” His heart is pounding in his chest, thumb poised to start calling, then realizes he doesn’t know who he’s calling. The president, or his mom first, or maybe Leaf…? “Sorry, I got a message!”

“Alright!”

Silph said it wouldn’t be about what he’s thinking of, which means it’s probably not related to his mom’s investigations, assuming Silph would assume she’d tell him about that. Which he must have, if he said it’s not what he’d think… or maybe that meant…

Leaf first, definitely. She’d know if something happened with the informant, though if the President knows anything about their collaboration…

Red buys himself more time by typing a message to his assistant to thank him, and confirm for future reference that he did speak with the President in the past. It’s common practice, apparently, for people to report a connection to get through screened calls where there is none, but Red’s a little flattered by the idea that his assistant thinks President Silph might pull that sort of trick. He leaves the rest of the question marks unanswered, then calls Leaf.

“Hey Red, I was just messaging Blue to say I won’t be free until—”

“President Silph wants to talk and says it’s about something I can’t predict and he’s right.”

“What.” Leaf is silent for a moment. “Meta-honestly, I’m not hiding anything, I actually have no idea what he wants. Call your mom?”

“Yep, gonna do that now.” He still hesitates, enjoying the excuse to talk to her, however briefly. They’ve both been busier than usual lately, and he hasn’t even had time to come by the ranch to help out. It’s not as much of a problem now that more exposure therapy groups and friends of Blue are coming by to help more regularly, but… he misses her.

He almost says that, but instead just goes with, “How are you?”

“Good!” There’s a pause. “I’m good. Busy, you know.”

“Sorry, I can go—”

“No, that’s okay! How are you?”

“Yeah, good! Busy too. Got another few offers.”

“Anywhere tempting?”

“Kalos, actually, but only because of the things I’ve been hearing about the weird ways pokemon are acting there.”

“Oh yeah, there was something about a clefairy doing something odd, right? But they do unpredictable things more often than most pokemon.”

“A jigglypuff too, and there are reports of a granbull single-handedly taking down a wild machamp.”

“Huh.” He can practically see her brow creasing as she looks up and to the side… “That seems really unlikely, unless it was a really strong granbull.”

“Right? So that was tempting, but free-T makes a lot of things tempting.”

“I’ll bet. Still haven’t gotten around to visiting home, but I’ve been thinking about it more since I’ll have one fewer teleport spot soon.”

“The Safari?”

“Yep, it’s moved pretty far beyond me now, and I can conference call in. If it wasn’t for my new friend I’d hardly travel to Fuchsia at all.”

“Right.” There’s a moment of silence, and he tries to think of something else to say to continue the conversation…

“Should you be—”

“Yeah, gotta go, later!” He hangs up, then winces at how abrupt he was. His thumb hovers over redial for a moment before he closes his eyes and bonks his head against the top of the phone and calls his mom instead.

“President Silph wants to talk and says it’s about something I can’t predict,” he repeats. “Help?”

“That fucking—sorry, Hon, one second.” The background noise disappears, and he shifts his weight as he waits for his mother to finish cursing, or going somewhere private. Maybe he should have messaged her first.

She still sounds angry when she unmutes and says, “Did he reach out to you directly?”

“Yeah.”

“Then it’s something he doesn’t want others to know about. Record the conversation, don’t sign anything, make sure you choose the place you’re meeting, and bring someone else with you. Not me, obviously, but maybe Blue or Leaf… no, she’s not dark or psychic…”

Red hesitates. “Some of that makes sense, but… I don’t know, it seems a little antagonistic?”

“Antagon—Red, he sicced the police on me!”

“Right, yeah, I know that, sorry, I’m not… I get that he has a lot of power, and he might be involved in some shady things, but… what if this invitation is on the level? I don’t want to set things off on a combative foot. ” He was nice to me. It’s a naive thing to say, especially given that he had plenty of reason to have ulterior motives, but on the whole Red didn’t feel like Silph did anything bad to him.

He was angry on his mom’s behalf when he heard what happened, of course, furious even. But over time it became more clear that, from President Silph’s perspective, knowing that there was in fact someone stealing information from his company and (allegedly?) attacking his employees… well, even if he wasn’t doing anything illegal himself, alerting the police that someone may be working with them just seemed like the reasonable thing to do? Losing the Silph Scope technology didn’t just affect their ability to sell as many, their stock took a dive as confidence in the company went down. Red would expect a different CEO who was totally clean to also take the same actions.

“That’s not the point, Red.” He hears her audibly take and release a deep breath. “Even if it is, you have to protect yourself.”

“But if protecting myself signals that I don’t trust him, he might not trust me either! I don’t want to defect first when all he’s done is cooperate.”

“Defect on what?” She sounds alarmed. “Did you make any agreements with him?”

“No no, sorry, it’s a game theory term.” He realizes the eevee have been gnawing on the toys for a few minutes now, and tugs up to start waving them around again. “There isn’t a specific thing that I’d be defecting on, but… let’s say he has a value of treating people neutrally until they’ve done something that hurts his company first. That might not transfer between you and me, so I might still be off-limits to any unfriendly actions.”

“Those are far too many assumptions for dealing with someone as powerful as him, particularly since they all rely on Silph sharing your values at all! I know you’ve spent a lot of time around famous people, but he’s not a Professor, or a Gym Leader. He’s a businessman, and you’re playing with fire by assuming he has the same goals you do, or will draw the same lines.”

Red bites his lower lip, thinking of a blog post he read at one point that compared two opposing theories for social conflict that people tend to ascribe to. Mistake Theory said that people who are fighting for different goals than you just have different facts or the wrong reasoning, and if you talk things out, you might educate each other and reach some consensus. Conflict Theory, on the other hand, said that people in conflict largely just have different values or are too focused on competing for resources, and no amount of rational exchange of ideas would change that.

The article talked about this in a way that made it clear that the majority of people acted as though Conflict Theory was true by default, which often led to painting their political enemies as not just stupid, but malicious. He doesn’t think his mother views everyone that way, but because of her career she’s had a lot of exposure to bad people, and it makes sense to him that she’d be predisposed to think of anyone with different goals from her that way.

He’s not so naive to think he could convince Mr. Silph to drastically change his actions, particularly if he’s actually doing things like coercing researchers into working on secret projects, or hiring renegades to steal fossils. But there are already people working to stop him adversarially… it feels like Red has a better chance of changing things by pulling the rope sideways than joining one side in a tug-of-war, especially since he doesn’t have a lot to offer in direct confrontation or espionage.

Red winces as he realizes that’s not strictly true. He could become one of the best spies in history, if he decided to use his powers that way. But he doesn’t want to, and it would require revealing the secret to others, not to mention give perfect cause for people to distrust psychics all the more.

“I get that I need to be careful,” he finally says. “But I still want to keep my options open, and some of those things feel like they close things, or limit me, or something.”

His mom sighs. “Alright, Red. Let me think for a moment.”

“Sure. And thanks.” Red is worried about too much time passing before he calls the President… the message did say “urgent,” after all.

Not so urgent that I didn’t take an extra minute to chat with Leaf, of course…

He tries to focus on playing with the eevee again, and as his pokemon pounces for the third time, the sound of the shower cuts off. Red tosses the eevee some treats and steps outside so he can take the call in the hallway.

After a couple minutes, his mom sighs again. “Okay, so the things I said before about recording and not signing anything still apply. You don’t have to choose the meeting place, and you don’t have to bring anyone. I know he’s not going to do anything to you, and if you bring someone for moral support or to be a witness… that would change the dynamic, yeah. Still, don’t let him control the pace or feel of the conversation. If you’re in his office, then he might do little things to make you feel rushed, or like he’s busy and you’re bothering him with questions, even though he’s the one that reached out to you.”

Red almost asks why she’s assuming he’ll want to meet in person, then remembers her point about it likely being a private conversation. “Right.” He remembers what Leaf said about how talking to Giovanni while he was on his phone made her feel less confident in herself, and harder to push back on things or speak what came to mind.

“Also, don’t forget how subtle status effects can be. You’ll be in his place of power, and that’s going to manifest in a hundred minor ways. Be deliberate with every question you answer and any information you give. Even the smallest feeling of ‘well, I’m not sure if I should…’ is a sign that you shouldn’t, at least not without careful consideration for whether you’re seeking his approval or trying to avoid his disapproval.”

“Okay.” He thinks he can do that, particularly since he’ll be able to look out for his partitioned self… “Is that it?”

“All the other things I was going to say would set the tone ‘antagonistically,’ as you said. You can shield from psychics, so that’s not a worry, and you’ve already told relevant people… did you talk to Leaf?”

“Yeah, she has no idea what this could be about.”

“Honestly I’d suggest you not talk to him today. Something might have happened, there could be some information he has that it would be good to know going in. But the same is true in reverse… not that he’d tell you anything he’d be worried about me hearing… Red, I have to say I just don’t think you should talk to him at all, even later.”

Red hesitates, trying to take this idea as seriously as it deserves given that it’s his mom saying it. “But if I don’t…”

“I know. Can you blame me for caring more about your wellbeing than… all this?”

“No. I love you, Mom.”

“I love you too, Hon. Call me right after.”

“I will.”

Red hangs up, then downloads a call recording app, takes a breath, then another, and calls the number President Silph left for him. He doesn’t even get through the second ring.

“Hello, Mr. Verres.” The old man’s voice is as he remembers it, papery in some hard to define way, but also strong and sure. “Thank you for returning my call so promptly.”

Right. It felt like forever, but actually barely ten minutes have passed since he got the message. “Of course. I never got the chance to thank you for your advice on the cruise. It’s been very helpful to me.”

“I can tell by your accomplishments. All things considered, it was a very productive lunch. I was hoping we could have another.”

“I’d be happy to.” Independent of all the stuff that may or may not be going on, he actually would. Unless their conversation goes worse than he expects, lunching with the president was surprisingly impactful for him despite how short it was, and he’s interested in hearing more about the man’s beliefs and ideas to see if they’re as useful. “So what was the urgent matter I could help you with?”

“That’s what I was hoping to discuss over lunch, if you’re free.”

“Ah.” He assumes he’s not about to be asked to taste-test things, but this does seem to confirm that he wants the conversation to be private. “I am.”

“I’m glad. I can have a car waiting at your teleport point in Saffron, which I presume is Sabrina’s school?”

Red wonders if he should be more worried or less that Silph is taking for granted that he’d be okay with meeting at his office, and tries to think of where he can suggest that’s more neutral. The school itself is a building full of psychics…

But no, even saying he doesn’t want to meet at Silph HQ would be acknowledging things that Red thinks would set a certain tone that he doesn’t want to set. In fact, going could actually be a useful show of good faith.

“I think I can make that work… give me twenty minutes?”

“Of course. I’ll see you soon.”

“See you.” Red hangs up, then taps his phone against his leg for a moment before stepping back into his room.

Blue is dressed in fresh clothing and playing with the eevees, his silver one bouncing around in an energetic blur. “Important call?”

“Yeah. Sorry, but I have to hold off on our plans, unless you want to come with me to Silph HQ?”

Blue raises a brow. “Woah. Why?”

“Dunno, but the President said it’s ‘urgent.’ Figure he’ll want to talk privately, but if you don’t want to wait in the lobby I can always meet you after.”

“Nah, I want to know what’s going on as soon as possible.” Blue smirks. “Unless you’re going to lecture him about meta-honesty and miss out on whatever juicy gossip he wants to share?”

Red grimaces. “Yeah, I’ll probably have to. Might be a short meeting.”

“Well, all the more reason to come along then.” Blue looks him up and down. “You should change your clothes.”

“Really? It’s just lunch…”

“With one of the most powerful men in Indigo. You want to impress him, and you also don’t want to feel too inferior. Trust me, it matters.”

This is similar enough to what his mom said that Red decides not to argue further. He changes into a black button-up and takes off his hat, then combs his hair and puts on the dress shoes he bought for the press conference. After that they spend a few more minutes playing with their eevee, then go downstairs to wait for the ride.

“I’m nervous,” Red admits as they stand on the curb. “I’ve never talked to someone who might actually want to hurt people before. Maybe even my mom.” The thought of something happening to her makes a surge of blackness pour through his mind, a heavy ekans curling in his stomach, but he takes a deep breath and lets the anxiety and fear out as best he can. “What if I fuck it up?”

“Just treat it like a pokemon battle,” Blue says, hands in his pockets as he scans the road. “It’s no more life threatening than those.”

“But I know the rules in those.” Red wipes his palms on his pants, wondering if it’ll be easier with his partition up… or maybe if he tries to dim just the negative emotions… No, now’s not the time to experiment with that. The thought reminds him of his earlier question, however, which suddenly seems more relevant. “How does it work, the battle calm? I mean, if you don’t feel anything, how do you still decide things?”

Blue shrugs. “Didn’t say I don’t feel anything. I still care about winning. That’s basically all I care about, in those moments. And that guides everything I do.”

“Huh.” A truly uncomplicated, singular purpose… That would be incredible to experience in chaotic or dangerous situations. He wonders how similar it is to the “flow state” he sometimes enters while researching or exercising…

And then he realizes there’s actually a way for him to find out.

Red spends a couple minutes thinking about whether it’s a good idea to bring up, then another couple minutes deciding how. Eventually a Silph car arrives, and they get in the back seat. Red scans his ID, confirms the destination, and they’re off.

“Look,” he says as the car turns toward the highway. “This is… I know this is a big ask, alright? And I know I messed up the last time I asked something like this. But I hope I’ve grown since then, and our friendship has, and… I hope that I can ask this, now, and you’d trust that you can say no without me getting upset. But also, I know it might upset you if I ask at all, so… it feels a little risky for me to ask in the first place, so I want to know if it’s okay to?”

Blue is giving him a wary look. “You know this is that thing again, where I can’t promise not to react a certain way, right?”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“Okay. And I get that you know you’re about to say something that might be fucked up.”

“That’s… not a bad takeaway, really.” Red runs a hand through his hair, then stops himself and tries to pat it back into place. “Okay, so the thing that came to mind is… I might be able to actually copy your battle calm, if I use Miracle Eye on you and merge while you’re doing it. Like, permanently, I can save the mental state then use it in battle.”

Blue is silent for a long time, staring out the window. Red’s nervousness grows, and he almost apologizes and says to forget the whole thing, but Blue doesn’t look angry, from what Red can tell. Just distantly thoughtful.

“You know, if another battle trainer asked, it would be really hard to say yes,” his friend says at last. “Bad enough to let someone else in my head, but to copy one of my greatest strengths… it feels unfair, that someone else would get to do that.” Blue shakes his head. “But it might save their life, too. That’s what matters, right? That’s why we’re all doing this. And if I say no, if I don’t let you in my head and let you copy what’s in there… if you ever die in a wild battle I’ll never be able to live with myself.”

“Blue, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have—”

“Shut up, I’m still talking.”

Red swallows and does so. Blue still doesn’t seem mad, however, and he actually smiles at Red.

“I’m not complaining. Not really. You helped give me something I never thought I’d have. That no dark person in history has had. And I meant what I said, before. I trust you. But it’s still hard to say yes. So what does that say about me?”

Red doesn’t answer, just meets his friend’s gaze until Blue looks away.

“I’ll think about it. And I’ll probably say yes. But either way, I’m not mad at you for asking. Well, part of me is, but I’ll get over it.”

Red swallows, and whispers, “Thanks.”

They ride the rest of the way in silence, until the car reaches the Silph office park. They drive through an automatic gate, then toward the main building… then past the front doors, and around the side between it and the walls surrounding the campus.

“Huh.” Blue sits up. “Ominous.”

Red feels his nervousness growing again, and one hand drops to Kadabra’s ball in case he has to get out of the car and teleport… but no, that would be leaving Blue behind.

The car finally stops once they reach a back door, where someone is waiting outside. Red takes a breath and brings his partition up…

…and steps out of the car on the same side as Blue, who’s also got a hand on his belt.

“Mr. Verres,” the man says, and frowns at Blue. “Mr. Oak. I wasn’t informed that you would be coming too.”

“I was planning to stay in the lobby.” Blue says before Red can speak up. His friend casts a disdainful looks around at the dumpsters and company car lot around them. “I guess I can hang out here instead, if this is what passes for hospitality at Silph.”

The man is frowning harder now, but says, “I’ll find somewhere suitable once I’ve led Mr. Verres to his destination.”

“Appreciated.”

The man opens the door, then leads the two inside and through some of the most opulent corridors Red has ever walked through. There are security cameras at every corner, and they pass through a scanner before reaching what looks like an exclusive elevator. It’s a short walk, but even still, Red notices that they don’t see anyone else the whole time.

“This will take you to the President’s Office,” the man says to Red, then turns deliberately to Blue. “I can lead you to a nearby break room, Mr. Oak.”

Blue gives the man an exasperated look, then turns to Red. “Call if you need me.”

“I will.” Red bumps fists with him, then watches them walk away before he takes a moment to calm himself and enters the elevator.

The penthouse is twelve stories up, but the elevator is quick, and Red barely has time to go over how he’s going to greet Mr. Silph before he finds the doors opening to let him out into a reception area with carved milotic fountains along the walls and live plant pokemon resting in pots around the couches. The receptionist is watching him, and Red approaches her quickly, shoes squeaking on the marble floor,

“He’ll be ready for you in a minute, Mr. Verres.”

“Alright.” There’s no nametag on her desk, and he realizes he never learned the name of whoever was waiting for them. Is that normal for corporate cultures like this? He realizes he has no idea, and wishes suddenly that he had a frame of reference.

Rather than sit on one of the incredibly comfortable and expensive looking couches (though part of Red realizes, with a start, that he can probably afford to have an office like this himself, now), Red wanders around the lobby examining the pokemon and registers with only mild shock that the tangela, ivysaur, cherrim, and sunflora are all shinies.

Okay, so maybe he can’t afford an office exactly like this. Not without losing a good chunk of his wealth, at least.

“You can enter, Mr. Verres.”

“Thanks.” Red goes for the door, making sure his shoulders are straight and his strides are confident, and then he’s inside the President’s office.

It’s nice.

Not as lavish as Red was expecting, but clearly expensive while still being muted about it. Thick, complex rugs, heavy, richly colored drapes, a large and solid looking dark wooden desk. There are paintings on the walls, along with a large monitor, while one of them is all glass. Without that part it would have reminded him of someone else’s office, but he can’t think of whose at the moment.

His attention is taken not by the man behind the desk, but the one standing beside him wearing a police uniform. A commissioner’s uniform, if it’s at all similar to Celadon’s.

“Thank you again for coming on such short notice, Mr. Verres.”

Red turns to President Silph, who has a pair of bamboo bento boxes in front of him, then slowly approaches, heart pounding so hard he’s sure it must be audible. Is he about to get arrested? He can’t imagine what the charge would be… so why is he so nervous? “I figured it must be important.”

“Very much so.” The President’s voice is casual, but his face is serious. “As promised, I have had lunch prepared for us. And then I and Commissioner Burrell are going to humbly ask for your help in finding a renegade, possibly more than one, that I believe is hiding in this building, under my very nose.”

107: Perception

Red stares at the branching tree of possibilities on the projected screen, a dizzying web of red and green and white lines that crisscross from and through various pokemon names, most of which pivot from a single node. “So you think you basically just have to beat the haunter?”

“I think it’s his best chance. It’s not as fast or strong as kadabra, but it’s faster than anything else he’s got.”

“Even his venomoth?”

“Yep, by just a bit. With enough training it could outspeed a kadabra, particularly a younger one… but Tops in particular is a beast. I doubt Koga’s got a top tier pokemon on his five badge team.”

Red looks over the rest of Koga’s team, thinking over everything he’s been learning from Blue about the competitive meta. “And it’s immune to your Ground attacks, and both will be Super Effective against each other, so whoever strikes first might just take it.”

“Now you’re getting it. If he does something to slow Tops down—”

“Or has something to set up a Light Screen—”

“—right, he might get just the lucky hit that he needs.”

“Bob can handle him, though, right?”

They turn to look at Blue’s snorlax, who’s idly scratching its stomach as it lazes beside Glen’s. “Probably, if he can catch him.”

“He’s getting big.”

“They all are. I think Maturin’s about ready to evolve.”

“You’re not going to wait for that before you challenge?”

“Nah, might not even use her, and it’ll still take a couple weeks I think. Unless you want to…”

“No.”

“It would just take a little—”

“No, Blue.”

“Hang on, hear me out. Winning this is more important than just the badge.”

“I know, you want to improve the gym culture to the one you’ve been pushing—”

“No, not that.” Blue gives Red a meaningful look. “There were some people who wanted to share something secret with me—”

Red rolls his eyes.

“—but after I told them about metahonesty, they said they’d have to spend some time thinking about it, and I think we should have warned people that explaining metahonesty may make them miss out on juicy secrets.”

Red gives him his best flat stare, which Blue seems impervious to. “You know it’s not meant to work like that, and also you gave away enough information that I can now guess who has the secrets. Doesn’t do much to inspire confidence in your ability to keep other people’s secrets, my own included.”

“Hey, they didn’t say I couldn’t share things they told me.”

Red almost asks if he’s referring to a plural they or a singular one, but reminds himself not to dig. “In any case, it sounds like winning was the precondition, but now it’s not. Of course they might not share it with you once you tell them you might share it with others, that’s the point.”

“It still sucks,” Blue grumbles as he looks over his chart. “Sometimes it feels like every time I get stronger I’m also being told to fight with another limb tied behind my back.”

Red eyes his friend, wondering if he’s talking about the conversation they had that night before he and Leaf left for the cruise. “Do you regret letting Koga know about Miracle Eye?”

“No, no. It was the right call. I’m seeing it more and more, what you said about the power in sharing my secrets and then winning anyway. It keeps surprising me that despite all your blind spots around social stuff, you saw the value in that before I did.” Blue’s smile is warm, but brief. “But there’s only so much optimizing I can do while also worrying about how people are going to see me.”

“Don’t people celebrate it when a battle trainer takes unusual paths, though?” Red asks. “Like that guy who won the world tournament with the pachirisu… there were parades and stuff back in his home region, weren’t there?” Little as Red paid attention to the competitive battling scene back then, even he heard of that.

“Se-jun Park. Yeah, he got lots of attention for that, but it’s not like it was his favorite pokemon; he picked it strategically, and it only worked because of some very specific things he knew about his opponents and meta of the time.” Blue shrugs. “I can bring a pokemon I bought, like Rive, but I still have to be too careful with which ones and how often.”

“He’s hamstrung too,” Red points out. “It’s not like he can just have his weezing self-destruct to take your kadabra out, because if he could that’s the obvious right play.”

Blue frowns. “That’s different, we both have to care about safety. If I went all out I’d also have more options.”

“But he’s holding himself to an even higher standard. Is there a way you can exploit that?”

Blue raises a brow, but he looks impressed. “Wouldn’t have expected that kind of thinking from you.”

Red shrugs. “I figure you have to take every advantage you can get. Have you ever tried to do something like that?”

“It’s tricky. You can get a bad reputation doing stuff like that, though I think what I did with Brock’s arena was borderline and mostly got away with it…” Blue is frowning at the team projection. “Now that I think about it more, he might use a haunter just in case it’s faster, but it may be too luck-based to be his real pivot…”

Blue creates another hypothetical Koga team and runs some simulations to see which of his pokemon might be best to match it, while Red keeps staring at the earlier one and trying to think through the various surprises the Leader might have in store.

The puzzle that competitive battles represent fascinates Red more and more each time he engages with the novel problems they can present. He remembered being surprisingly good at them back in Vermilion, but what he didn’t remember was how fun it was… maybe because back then he was just trying it for its own sake, rather than having a goal to prepare for and overcome. His experience with psychic pokemon makes him an extra valuable tutor for the group as they prepare for their challenges, and what started with simply demonstrating techniques and battle strategies with his own kadabra and hypno became full competitive battles where he did his best to model what psychics could do with the right training.

With research into the unown frustratingly stalled, he’s even found himself spending a few spare hours now and then looking over past competitive matches to try and find clues to what might be coming from Koga’s challenge.

His thoughts drift back to Blue’s suggestion to use the psychic projection training again. Since they’re not yet ready to fully reveal the technique, Red asked Professor Oak whether there would be any particular negative effects to pokemon only being in battles where they feel their life is at risk. The Professor recommended he talk with a few pokemon psychologists who specialize in battle trauma. One was even psychic, so they brought Tops to her to get evaluated.

The woman only took a few moments of merging with Tops to conclude that he should “probably spend a week out of the ball in relaxing situations” before going into battle again. Blue was disappointed, as that meant no more training before his battle with Koga, but dutifully spent every hour Red has seen him since in a place his kadabra could relax and recover a little from the ordeal they put him through; it wouldn’t be a week for the challenge match to happen, but Blue decided one match is probably fine, and Red only argued with him long enough to draw the line at using Tops or the technique again until they have more comprehensive studies on whether it will have any permanent effects.

Once Red found the right mental state to project, Tops’s growth was, in fact, measurably rapid, both in combat metrics, and in size. Red made sure they registered it in the pokedex throughout the process, plotting numbers against the average curve until it became more and more clear. Tops doubled in size within a day, and evolved into kadabra the next, going through enough food for a week.

By that point Red no longer needed the unique mental mode to get Tops to fight while fearing for his life, but it became more and more clear how powerful the technique was, powerful beyond even what Koichi must have experienced, since he would have to spend at least some of the time during training getting his pokemon to the edge… unless he had it get brutally hurt as soon as possible, of course.

Which is another reason Red is uncertain of how and when they should reveal this information. There aren’t enough psychics like Red for the discovery to change the world—which is a bit of a relief, given how many of those there already are—but the non-psychic version of the methods would still likely spread, which could mean a lot of trainers with stronger pokemon, faster… but also a lot of competitive trainers who are so eager to get the power boost that they end up actually debilitating their pokemon, either mentally or physically.

Red is mildly terrified that Leaf is going to hate him forever if that happens.

He’s also mildly terrified that it leads to less trainers having pokemon available to deal with incidents when they come up, but if he’s being honest with himself it’s Leaf hating him that feels more immediately relevant.

So when Blue explains why they might not want to share this secret training technique, Red doesn’t need much convincing. What’s one more secret? And it’s not like it’s relevant to the main thing they’ll be announcing…

It takes another minute before Satori joins them, and Red’s attention immediately catches on how different she seems than any time he’s seen her before. There’s a lightness to her movements, a calm that makes him feel more relaxed just by watching her walk straight over to Blue and pull him into a deep hug.

Blue looks as surprised as Red feels, and a little more alarmed than he would have expected. His friend awkwardly pats her back, and Red realizes Blue didn’t pick up on what he did, and is unsure whether she’s upset or not. “Uh… did it… were you able to…?”

“Thank you.”

The words are muffled by Blue’s shoulder, and he looks at Red again before awkwardly patting her back. “It… worked, then?”

“Yes.” Satori takes a step back, face filled with wonder. “It worked. My sister and I are truly connected, now. I can feel her emotions, merge our minds. It’s… strange, and wonderful, and everything I hoped for.”

Red grins. “That’s great, Satori! I’m really happy for you both.”

Satori gives him a long hug too, then turns back to Blue and straightens her dress. “I am eager to return to her, but first… are you ready to become the first dark teleporter in history?”

The first dark human, of course. They tested all sorts of psychic techniques on Dark pokemon before Satori built up to using Miracle Eye on her sister, and as far as they could tell nothing caused harm that didn’t intend to; the dark pokemon didn’t even seem to experience discomfort at losing their “darkness,” and though they do regain it swiftly after teleportation, mergers can last for minutes at a time before the psychic pokemon can’t maintain it anymore.

Besides the spirit of scientific curiosity, they also want to make sure they have as many answers ready for their press conference as possible. While dark people would likely have mixed feelings about the loss of immunity from psychic mergers, Red smiles every time he thinks of how life-changing teleportation would be for them. It’s nice to make discoveries that will unambiguously help people again, for a change… Though it required them to code Miracle Eye as a non-attack, a loophole in the programming allowed by psychic pokemon being unable to attack dark humans mentally in any case… until now, at least. He’s not even sure how to report the loophole given the lack of context, but he worked with Satori to write up the report, which would be sent as soon as the media interview starts.

It takes them just a few minutes for them to go outside so Blue can set up his teleportation point, then command Tops to use Miracle Eye on him, then rerun the training programs of himself as the kadabra’s trainer. Red merges with Tops as he reappears, and can feel the pokemon’s confusion as he looks at Blue, who he now recognizes visually and has a memory of a merger with…

“Wait,” Red says, holding a hand up, and Blue stops himself from commanding the Miracle Eye. Instead they all watch and wait, and just as Blue is about to speak again, Red feels the kadabra twist his perspective, a sort of shoving motion using limbs Red can’t quite feel, and suddenly another mind appears in the room.

Though part of him is terribly curious to know what Blue’s mind feels like, Red quickly tightens his senses until all he can sense is the vague cluster of thoughts and feelings. “He did it!”

“On his own?” Blue frowns. “That doesn’t seem good.”

“It’s natural,” Satori says. “Having the sort of bond the training programs create would make it hard for any psychic not to desire a merger when possible.”

Like she felt for her sister. But Blue is still frowning. “But I’m vulnerable as long as he does it, right? It’s not just from him.”

“Correct. Any psychic will be able to detect and attack you.”

“Will he still have protection against ghost attacks?” Red asks.

“I don’t… believe… that should be affected?” Satori shrugs. “Perhaps Jason will have a better sense for this, once he learns of it.”

“Still, not sure how I feel about this.” Blue glances at Tops. “Is he still doing it?”

“Yes,” Red and Satori say together.

“You guys aren’t reading my thoughts, right?”

“No,” Red says, while Satori shakes her head. “Do you want to withdraw him?”

Blue looks oddly hesitant, and Red realizes that despite Blue’s initial excitement at being able to teleport, he must have underestimated how used to having his psychic immunity he’s been.

Satori steps forward and lightly touches Blue’s shoulder. “Don’t be afraid. You are no more vulnerable than anyone else in the world, including your grandfather, who lived his whole life, and achieved all that he did, without your darkness.”

Blue takes a breath and nods. “Right. There might be situations where I want to summon Tops and not lose it, though.”

“We’ll have to see how strong this impulse is in him,” Red says. “Whether he can be trained out of it. Want to hold off until we do that?”

“No, no. I’m okay.” He smiles at Satori, and she returns it before stepping back. “Alright, let’s do this.”

It’s not dramatic at all; he just puts his hand on Tops, says “Teleport,” and disappears.

Red positioned himself so he could see the arrival zone without turning, and lets out a woop as Blue and Tops reappear. A knot of tension releases in Red’s stomach as some inexplicit part of him, convinced that Blue was going to disappear forever or reappear a hundred years older or something, relaxes.

Blue himself drops onto his rear and hangs his head over his knees, and Red feels a spike of alarm that quickly fades as Blue lets out a rush of air and says in a small voice, “Holy fuck am I glad that worked.”

“Congratulations, Blue,” Satori says. “Also, your darkness has returned.”

“Oh, really? Sweet.” Beside him, Tops is looking around, notices him, then…

“It’s gone again.”

Blue falls onto his back. “Okay, we’ll deal with that tomorrow. For now, let’s just focus on what comes next.”

“Yes, the significance of this on society will need to be evaluated most thoroughly—”

“Nah, not that. I mean, not yet, I’ll let the community talk that to death before I wade in.” Blue grins and sits up. “I’m talking about something more fun.”

“Ah.” She looks between them, brow raised. “Your battle with Koga, then?”

“No,” Red says with a grin of his own. “Buying as many abra and natu as we can afford.”


The stands around the arena are full enough that it’s hard to find a seat, but even with his newfound appreciation for competitive battling Red still doesn’t see much reason for being up close to the battles. The screens often provide clearer view of the action than a direct line of sight would, and even let you see things from the trainers’ perspectives, which Red finds particularly immersive.

He and the rest of Blue’s friends shuffle along the rows together until they find a space big enough for all of them, then Red plops down at the end of one beside Maria. Red feels a mental prod to give her an encouraging smile for reasons he’s not sure he fully understands, and she returns it looking faintly grateful, so he supposes his unpartitioned self knows something he doesn’t and lets the thought go with long practice.

Koga walks out into the arena first, and the gym members among the audience rise as one, then bow, which cues the rest of the spectators to do the same. Red cranes his head up to watch as Blue enters the arena a moment later, and Koga takes a moment to bow to both sides of the audience before bowing to Blue, who does the same. Once the gym members sit, Red and the rest of the guests do the same, and then the pre-battle speeches begin.

“Been waiting for this,” someone in the row behind Red mutters, and Red feels absurdly vindicated when he turns around and shushes them.

“We are all tools,” Leader Koga begins. “Tools for survival, tools for progress, tools for happiness, even. But tools nonetheless. So I believed, once, and so some part of me still believes, despite wanting something more for myself. For my daughter. For my region. And for all mankind.

“But if we must be tools, we must remember we are also our own maker, sharpener, and wielder. That is the only way we can ever become something more than what the brutal necessity of the world requires us to be, and since arriving at this gym, Blue Oak has proven himself to understand this, both as a guiding principle for himself, and an aspiration for those around him. In addition, he has shown us all his vision for another path… knowing that we must decide whether we wish to take it.

“Now the time has come to see what we’ve taught him in return. Blue Oak, what is your Challenge?”

“I challenge for Mastery.”

“Fuchsia Gym accepts. Our battle will be six against six, to the faint.”

Red thinks back to the battle maps Blue was studying, picturing the nodes that represented the most likely paths to victory for Koga; haunter, golbat, and venomoth seem the most likely, but he’s also likely to include at least one Dark pokemon, and they can’t guess which, but the heuristic that makes the most sense is fast versus bulky. Since kadabra are too frail to take hits, particularly physical ones, Koga’s best bet is to hit first or take at least one hit and hit back.

Koga’s problem is that kadabra hit hard in exchange for their frailty. It’s the quintessential glass dragon; even otherwise tough Poison pokemon like muk can be taken down in one hit if the kadabra is powerful enough, and Blue’s is one of the strongest on record. If he can’t take advantage of Miracle Eye’s setup, it’s too big a risk.

Koga’s other problem is that Kadabra are fast. Drapion are too, but kadabra still has them beat, and while something like a crobat could outspeed it, they’re too powerful for a 5th badge challenge, and golbat wouldn’t be enough.

One potential solution is the indirect, and obvious, route: poison…

“Go, Weezing!”

“Go, Pals!”

“Sal!” A shimmering Light Screen appears between the pokemon, though it does nothing to stop the toxic spikes that Koga’s weezing suddenly spits out. It also doesn’t stop the electricity that snaps through the air in the weezing’s direction as Blue follows up with a “Bat!”

“Toxic Spikes!” Koga yells again, and Red grins as the poisonous spikes on Blue’s side of the arena grow more dense. As he predicted, Koga’s hoping to poison Tops badly enough that it won’t be able to Recover past the building toxicity. What he could only have guessed is that it’s a kadabra whose recovery powers are strong enough that it has the rare ability to passively negate any chip damage, including poison.

It was worth a try, but the bet might cost him a pokemon. Only two rounds and Blue is already ahead, even if others may not recognize why.

“Bat!”

“Flamethrower!”

The weezing tanks the second Thunderbolt, clearly trained for toughness, but Blue’s magneton struggles against the stream of fire despite the attack only partially penetrating its Light Screen. Red judges Pals can get off one more attack before it gets taken down, but if the Weezing can survive another Thunderbolt…

“Return! Go, Ivysaur!”

Looks like Koga isn’t willing to take the risk, though Red wonders what an Ivysaur is supposed to do against a magneton. They hadn’t expected him to use one in most of their projections, and Red immediately feels models of the match falling away, leaving the possible worlds they’re in more narrowed…

Leech Seed and Synthesis.

The thought seems to come without him even thinking about it, and sure enough a moment later the seeds are flying out to cover Pals as the ivysaur takes the thunderbolt about as well as the weezing did, then starts to visibly heal itself of the damage even as the vines start to stretch around the magneton.

“Return!” Blue shouts. “Go, Nin!”

The golbat appears above the toxic spikes, and Red leans forward. Now they’d find out if Koga brought a toxtricity… a risky move given it would just be another easy target for Tops and stacks ineffectiveness and vulnerability to any Ground types…

Instead Koga replaces his ivysaur with a Galarian slowbro, which shrugs off the free hit Nin had already been commanded to give before Blue’s followup whistle brings it back to be replaced by Aegis.

Stealth Rock, Flamethrower, Rapid Spin?

There’s a clear sense of uncertainty attached to that last thought, and Red realizes what’s happening. His partitioned self is thinking ahead, less distracted by what’s happening in front of him, and able to predict—

“Ras!”

“Flamethrower!”

“Sar!”

And just like that the first pokemon is down, having accomplished little beyond setting out the Stealth Rock trap and clearing the toxic spikes. Red knows from their preplanning that this is all within Blue’s path to victory; his forretress didn’t even need to Rapid Spin, but Blue did it to make Koga think he’s concerned about avoiding the spikes.

The audience doesn’t know that, however, and there’s a tangible increase in tension as Blue appears to shift to the backfoot. He sends Rive out to deal with the slowbro—

swap to Ivysaur, Flamethrower—

And so it goes, Koga’s misplay re-doubling the crowd’s excitement. Red has to pull his senses in around himself, and he notes Maria shifting beside him.

“Is it always like this?” she murmurs.

“Dunno,” he whispers back, cognizant of the potential retaliation he might get from the person he hushed. “First time as a real psychic.” It’s impressive that she’s picked up on anything, and a testament to Jason’s tutelage. Red’s attention shifts back to the battle as Koga orders a Mega Drain, which Blue swaps Nin back in to take on, which causes Koga to return his slowbro, which brings back Blue’s magneton…

Red can see the threads of potential futures collapsing as it becomes clear who has what, and both trainers are able to judge their swaps to only take resisted damage, which will nevertheless add up in Koga’s favor if Blue can’t manage to take out that slowbro. But if he risks using Rive to do it, he might not be strong enough after to actually check whatever’s waiting in the wings.

Blue’s golbat checks the ivysaur, which checks his rhydon and magneton, which means

Pals tanks the psychic attack and re-establishes the Light Screen, and then—

Soul.

“Go, Soul!’

Blue’s arcanine brings a cheer from part of the crowd, who no doubt still remembers the part it played in his victory in Celadon. Its roar clearly intimidates the slowbro, and combined with the lightscreen none of Koga’s attacks hit quite as hard as they normally would.

What follows is a brutal exchange that leaves the combatants covered in burns and sagging from poison, until both are returned together, and then it’s 2-1, and Koga brings his weezing back out to reset the toxic spikes.

Rive, meanwhile, starts chucking stones at it, which miss, giving Koga the time to swap his ivysaur back in, which returns Nin, which brings out—

The Alolan muk shimmers like an oil slick, rainbow highlights playing over its sludge-formed body as it rushes forward to meet the golbat.

“Return!”

Trap, it will have Giga Drain

“Go, Pals!”

The prediction saves Blue’s rhydon, but magneton is already weak, and even the resisted attack visibly takes something out of it. A thunder wave is its last gasp, and then it’s taken down, bringing the score 3-1.

The audience is stirring and murmuring again, starting to believe they might just witness the end of Blue’s win streak.

And Red just smiles, because none of it matters until Tops comes out. Which should happen right about…

“Go, Tops!”

The arena goes silent, confusion and shock disorienting Red for a moment before he pulls his senses back into himself again, fingers gripping his armrests as the kadabra appears on the spike-littered ground.

This is it.

Koga doesn’t waste the lesson he learned from Janine, and sends his pokemon convulsing forward with a “Crunch!” as Blue yells “Eam!”

Without the paralysis, things might have gone different. But the muk is still struggling against the Magneton’s shock, and so is only halfway across the arena when Blue says, “Pa.”

The muk’s whole body vibrates, goo flaring out and then contracting, and the battle is done before the audience even understands what happened.

Koga withdraws his muk rather than risk it being killed by another hit, and sends out a haunter.

Many in the audience visibly flinch and look away, but Red’s gaze just stays fixed on Blue’s side of the arena, where he simply repeats, “Pa.”

And the haunter goes down, just a bit too slow to get its own attack off, followed by a venomoth that faces the same fate, and that’s the match. What would follow is a single syllable, two more times, and the sweep would be complete, unless the kadabra goes down to its poisoning… which it’s showing no signs of being affected by. Something Koga no doubt would be noticing, now.

So instead of sending his last two pokemon out to be instantly felled, Koga simply lowers his hands after withdrawing his venomoth, and smiles as he bows. “Well fought, Challenger. I concede.”

The audience is still silent, still grappling with what they saw, as Blue withdraws his pokemon and bows. “And you, Leader.”

“Wait,” the person behind Red says. “What the f—”

“Shhh!”

“You’ve not just earned your badge, but your place in history by redefining what is possible. Thanks to your gracious decision to share your discovery of a way for psychic attacks to affect Dark pokemon before our match, I did my best to prepare a fifth badge challenge that still might win against such a unique strength, and still failed. To luck, some might say… but you prepared the stage to create that opportunity, and it’s more than fair given what would have happened if I hadn’t known what to expect. Of the many changes in the days ahead, the world will have to prepare, now, not just for dark trainers who can use psychic pokemon more skillfully, but also psychic pokemon who can pose some threat to dark ones.”

“Thank you, Leader. It was Satori Komeiji and Red Verres who took my idea and turned it into reality, and they were gracious enough to hold their press conference after my challenge. The world will have plenty of questions, but I’ll leave answering them to those most equipped to.”

Many in the audience around him have turned to stare, and Red manages to withstand the attention until some of the cameras start displaying his face. He catches himself raising his hand to lower the brim of his hat…

No, we deserve this recognition.

…and instead tips it up, smiling as he lets himself lean into the feelings of excitement he’s felt around the discovery.

“I see that you’ve inspired more than the new culture in this gym, then, but also your friends. What will you do now?”

“I’ve thought long and hard about what my team and I have accomplished at this gym,” Blue says. “And while many of my friends have decided to stay and continue our work, I’ve decided to return to Saffron and claim its badge as well now that Sabrina has invited me to return for my Challenge.”

As always, Red wonders how often claims like that are cleared ahead of time with whoever is being referenced. The wording itself, even, implies things that are definitely intentional on Blue’s end, but that Sabrina might object to… unless she has a good enough relationship with Blue to not find it worth quibbling over in public. Which, from what Red has seen, is probably true.

His heartbeat is still higher than normal, the ambient energy of the crowd and atmosphere adding an expectation that anything can happen, even with the battle over. Or at least, the physical battle. Red still doesn’t know how much exactly is planned out and how much is improvised; Blue said it was always a bit of both, though denied having ever coordinated with a Leader other than Erika. But the audience doesn’t know even that much, and many are leaning forward with bated breath.

“And will you return, once you’ve claimed her badge?”

“I will, and even before. With this discovery, we also paved the way for Dark humans like myself to teleport.” The audience begins to murmur, but Blue’s amplified voice still cuts through the noise, and people immediately quiet. “I feel I’ve made bonds here at least as strong as those in Vermilion and Celadon, and with so many of my friends remaining to continue our work, I intend to keep a close eye on how the culture of the gym evolves.”

The implicit, ongoing challenge to Janine is obvious, but Red knows that it’s only the badge victory that makes this, in any way, not a failure… or at least, a retreat. Blue said he ended things close to ideally with Koga and Janine, but only in private; the public would see it as Janine’s win, which, even Red understands, is part of how his relationship with Janine is better than it otherwise would have been. It seems a fair trade, but if it slows his plans for group battles spreading through gyms…

“I trust that whatever direction the gym chooses to grow in, our culture will help us rise above the competition. We’ve built our strength in part on pushing the forefront of the Poison Type, and though part of our institutional knowledge is going to rapidly become obsolete, that means Poison, along with any Dark, Fighting, and of course Psychic gyms, are on the forefront of new strategies and tactics that will define the coming meta. Whatever the future holds, Fuchsia will prepare our region for it.”

The audience applauds, somehow both measured and disciplined while also showing fierce pride, but Red finds himself frowning. It’s not like wild pokemon are going to suddenly start using Miracle Eye; insofar as its discovery requires a change in strategies or tactics, it will be mostly for competitive trainers.

Red reminds himself he could be jumping to conclusions. This isn’t his field, after all, and he could be underestimating what new offensive tricks trainers would be able to utilize against wild Dark types. But if not, all this is a further reminder of why part of him feels so uncomfortable with the idea of being a competitive trainer, even if trainer battles are one of the most exciting things he’s experienced.

He’ll have to ask Blue about this. In any case, Koga and Blue have bowed to each other again, and the audience, so Red gets up, limbs still trembling with adrenaline, and starts shuffling past everyone to get out ahead of the still-stunned crowd.

He’s got a press conference to prepare for.


The Saffron Gym isn’t just aesthetically standard compared to places like Vermilion or Fuchsia, it’s also fairly plain, as utilitarian as Pewter without even the thematically appropriate stone structures. But the conference and press rooms are far fancier than any Red has been in, and as soon as he enters he’s glad Blue convinced him to dress up for this.

Satori is already waiting inside, and smiles as he joins her on the raised platform at the front of the room. “You look good.”

“Thanks,” Red says, and wipes his sweaty palms in his pockets as he looks out over the cameras pointed at them. Not recording yet, he hopes. “Is that your sister?” He can see the resemblance, though she has green hair instead of violet.

“Yes.” Satori waves, and the other girl cheerfully waves back. “She made you and Blue a gift.”

“Oh.” Some of Red’s nervousness fades at the warmth in his chest. “That’s very nice of her, but she didn’t have to—”

Satori turns to him, gaze level above her smile. “It was her quest as well, Red. She pursued it in her own way, and in far less valued a manner than my own studies.” She turns back to her sister and sighs. “Now we both have more time for other things.”

Red slowly nods, watching his friend and taking in her continued transformation from the solemn girl he’s known ever since he arrived at Saffron. It’s been a week, and yet she’s continued to exude the relaxed, happy energy each time he’s seen her… which hasn’t been as much as before. It’s understandable that she spend less time in Saffron now that she’s completed the main goal of her studies, particularly if she’s using the extra time to enjoy the fruits of her labor, but Red’s curious if it will end at some point, or if she’ll just keep drifting away until she finds something else more meaningful to do with her life.

That said, even after she got what she wanted out of Miracle Eye, she continued exploring its limits with enthusiasm, if not as frequently as before. In this case that just meant she’s actually been getting enough sleep.

More than he has, at least. After they told Sabrina about Miracle Eye yesterday to prepare her for the press conference, the Gym Leader entered what Red could only describe as a manic mode, trying to learn it herself since she could see psychic colors. Red did his best to help her, but she’s nearly as good as he is at mirroring mental states now, and mostly joins in the practice to be a sounding board and share in the discovery process, frustrating as it can sometimes be.

Red enjoys being treated as an equal by Sabrina. There’s something nostalgic in the way it reminds him of being a research assistant at Pallet Lab, where he was obviously there mostly to learn and do simple tasks, but where Dr. Madi and others would talk to him about their ideas and listen to his thoughts on them. He’s more aware now of how precious and unique a position he’s been in, both then and now.

But after that day when he believes he tripped over her secret, he’s been more and more restrictive with his partitions around Sabrina. He thought about having a conversation with her about meta-honesty, but realized that, of all people, he can’t do it with her in a way that doesn’t imply he knows, or thinks he knows, she has a secret she’s been keeping, and from there it wouldn’t be too hard for her to guess which. Not after all the ways they’ve already been honest with each other, and not unless there’s some broader context that lets him do it in a way that doesn’t single her out.

Of course, he did post his meta-honesty rules online, as did most people who were at their meeting. But he can’t exactly ask her if she’s read it without the same problem, and if she has, she’s given no indication.

He puts all that out of his mind as she enters the room, dressed in her usual public red and black finery. Satori is dressed in more formal psychic robes, and Red adjusts his lab coat to make sure it’s even. Blue insisted he start crafting his professional public image, but allowed that it needn’t be fancy, so Red went with the standard white coat over his usual black undershirt. Leaf insisted he add a splash of red, both for the obvious association and to build on the black-white-red trend of his usual outfit, so he bought a red vest, then a black one and a red shirt, then spent an hour debating with himself over which to wear until he gave up and called his mom, who advised him to go with black shirt with red vest.

Everyone vetoed his hat.

The leader raises a hand to those assembled as she makes her way onto the stage. “Hello Red, Satori. Are you ready?”

“Yes, Leader.”

“I think so.” He can see she’s wearing makeup to cover her lack of sleep, and almost asks how her night was before thinking better of it. “I think I’m getting used to these.”

Sabrina smiles and turns to survey the room. “I did my best to keep things manageable.” The crowd is fairly small, mostly some reporters and a few of the higher ranked gym members. Satori’s sister and parents are there, as are Red’s friends and mom, along with Professors Oak and Elm.

As none of the island’s regions have a Dark gym, Elite Karen is also present, presumably to say something about the effects of the discovery on her signature type, or just ask questions. He’s not sure what sort of emotions he’d expect her to be having, but she seems very relaxed, leaning against one of the walls beside Professor Elm’s lanky figure and teasing him about his new glasses.

Red returns his friends’ encouraging waves and thumbs up as they see him look over, and is tempted to go speak with them a little, but Sabrina has already stepped up to the podium, and so Red goes to stand beside Satori. After a nod to them both, the Leader turns forward.

It’s only then that Red realizes he doesn’t see someone.

“Where’s Rowan?” he murmurs.

“I don’t see him either,” Satori whispers back. “Is he sick?”

“Maybe.” The gym’s oldest psychic student has been nearly as absent as Satori lately, but Red just assumed he was being his usual reclusive self. Missing something like this, however, is even more unusual.

Lights start to blink on from the cameras set at various angles, and once they all do Sabrina places her hands on either side of the podium. “When I became Leader of Saffron Gym, I had one objective: to ensure the city’s defense and trainer culture were in capable hands. I became a Leader because I felt a duty, and a proud one. But a part of me also wanted more; in my heart, I’ve always been fascinated by the study of psychic phenomena, and that curiosity burned within me throughout my journey. Once I had the responsibility of Saffron in my hands, I knew I couldn’t devote myself entirely to that curiosity… but I also knew there would be others like me out there, Gifted from all schools and philosophies who would want to collaborate and grow their knowledge. So I began a school, and invited the most talented and dedicated to come learn from each other, and teach psychics throughout our region.”

Sabrina gestures to the crowd, and a few of the cameras swivel to pick Daniel, Jason, and Tatsumaki out of it. “Along with the natural collaboration of those who came to train at our gym, Saffron has become one of the leading hubs for original psychic research in the world… and while I expected most of our discoveries to be esoteric to our craft, I knew that eventually the right combination of talent would gather to change the world.”

Sabrina’s smile is warm, and it makes her look younger. “We watched in shock as Blue Oak used the new ‘Miracle Eye’ to secure his victory over Leader Koga… and by ‘we,’ I am in fact including myself. While my students and I often collaborate on projects, my duties frequently keep me busy, particularly lately. I can claim no credit for this latest discovery, and am happy to cede the spotlight to those who made it.”

Red takes a breath and steps forward with Satori to answer the flurry of questions that come. Most are predictable, and the two of them confirm that this does mean dark humans can have their minds read and teleport. Red recites the assuredly incomplete list of pokemon they’re currently aware of that can learn Miracle Eye and explains the concept of psychic colors, and how some pokemon can see them, while Satori describes the subtle differences between psychic and ghost senses.

Most questions come from the experts in the room, while a few are by the (surprisingly well-informed) reporters. Whenever one asks something related to social or political consequences, however, Sabrina steps in to simply say that she plans to hold a separate press conference on that once she’s had the chance to confer with various regional bodies.

The third time this happens Elite Karen snaps, “What are you implying, that they should have kept this secret?” The reporter looks abashed, and the questions stay on the scientific aspects going forward, but some part of Red feels uncomfortable, and he wishes he could reassure people… but the truth is, there probably are dark people out there with secrets they don’t want revealed, and they might well be pressured to submit to mind reading in the months ahead, now that they can be. It still would have been wrong to conceal a secret this big, of course, but Red still finds his thoughts distracted…

“Okay, that’s enough for now,” Sabrina says an hour after the questioning begins. “I trust the interested parties can meet in their own time and disseminate information as they see fit. Before we end, however, Satori had one last thing she wanted to share.”

The young woman steps forward again, and takes a breath. Her gaze finds her sister, and she smiles before turning back to the cameras. “I have lived my whole life in Kanto, and love many things about our culture, and that of our sister regions along the islands. Our history, our music, our food, our spirit. But one thing I have never been able to love is our still-lingering superstitions around those of us who are a little different.

“My sister was born of another mother, but we are both of one soul. I had no doubt of this from a young age, even when my powers began to manifest and I couldn’t sense her thoughts or feelings. I knew she had them, the same way a blind man can know their brother by the shape of his face. And yet I had a stark reminder of how this difference between us, so inconsequential in so many ways, led to such differences in the way we were treated by society.

“As soon as I was known to be ‘gifted,’ I felt admiration and deference from those around me. As soon as she was known to be ‘dark,’ she suffered suspicion and aloofness. A pattern I’ve seen, to some degree, repeated throughout Indigo and beyond.”

Satori’s voice shakes a little, but she takes another breath and sweeps the cameras with her gaze. “I have finally sensed her mind. I have felt her emotions. And I tell you now what I have known all along, and what the rest of society must surely learn: she is no different from any other person. None of those born dark are. And it’s up to each of us to find any part of our systems, our culture, and our own souls that might treat them as lesser in any way, and let those beliefs melt away to the past where they belong.”

There’s a pause as she lets her breath out, then simply says, “Thank you,” and steps back, freezing as many in the room burst into applause, Red included. His gaze finds Blue, whose expression is still vulnerable and uncertain, and then Sabrina, who for reasons he can’t understand, mirrors his friend’s.

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’…”

Journaling 101

I often get asked what the most things valuable things people can do to improve their mental health are, and while it’s really hard to give a general answer to that sort of thing, what immediately always pops into my mind is journaling.

Journaling is almost the physical exercise of the mental health world; something uncomplicated and risk free that most people would benefit from doing more of. The reason it’s not is that physical exercise is also the physical exercise of the mental health world.

But there more similarities; even just a little bit tends to be significantly better than none, the kind you do doesn’t truly matter that much, and people are more likely to do it if they don’t have an expectation that there’s one specific kind (that they don’t like) that they’re supposed to do.

Personally, I hate running, but I love to swim. I get bored with stationary bikes or lifting weights unless I’m watching anime at the same time, but VR has been a fantastic way to get your heart pumping while having fun.

Similarly, I want people to know what their options are, so that when people think “maybe I should try journaling,” or are told to by their therapist,  they know there are a variety of different ways to do it, and know not give up just because the first they try doesn’t feel good.

So here’s a handful of ways to journal that clients have found helpful:

  1. Recounting Your Day

This is the most basic and stereotypical form of journaling, where you just write out what happened that day that was noteworthy, and maybe some thoughts or questions or worries that came up. Nothing wrong with it, but many find it a difficult or boring.

2. Stream of Consciousness

Less structured than the previous form of journaling, this is literally just writing whatever comes to mind.  It doesn’t matter if it feels “relevant” or “important” at all, it could be fiction, it could be pure sensory input, it could be anything. It’s just about creating space to sit with your thoughts and let them flow. You might be surprised at what comes out.

3. Scaling Your Day

This is the minimal viable product for journaling. Scaling how your day felt, either -5 to 5, or 0 to 10, with the lowest being “genuinely wanted to die” and the highest being being “life felt perfect,” can be useful even if you don’t accompany the number with any words (although you always can, of course). It sets a baseline that can be useful when you want to check if thigs start to change in a positive or negative direction, and also can be valuable for noticing large spikes up or down compared to previous days, which are sometimes hard to notice in the moment. But again, the value of even this sort of journaling can come from simply taking the moment to reflect on your day.

4. Gratitude Journaling

This is another really popular and common form of journaling that often surprises people with how much value they get out of it. You can write about people in your life that you’re grateful for, or things about yourself, or things in the world like puppies and books, or all of the above. You can do a simple 3 bullet list every morning, or write a paragraph about one thing every night. The idea is to generally spend more time thinking about positive things.

5. Letter to Future You

Many people have found that framing their writing as if to someone specific often unblocks the process for them, whether it’s to explain some technical bit of knowledge or just to explore their own thoughts and feelings. Writing your journal as a series of letters for the next-day-you can be valuable in this way, but also helps frame the content in a useful way too; what do you want to yourself to remember tomorrow? Not in a “to do list” way, though obviously you can include that stuff if you want. This is more about what sorts of emotional states you want future you to retain, and it can lead to some interesting chains between the various yous throughout your week or month as the conversation baton is passed along one day to the next.

There are plenty of other journaling methods, but this is the shortlist that I tend to recommend to clients, and usually they’ll find at least one of them appealing and valuable. Basic habit setting advice applies; set an alarm, keep your journal by your bed (or just use a phone if that’s easier), accountability apps, etc. If you have a romantic partner, maybe it’s something you can do together.  If you’re on twitter, try tweeting the things you’re grateful for and see how it feels.

Also, don’t feel a need to actually write if you hate writing or typing; Even just talking out loud to yourself is better than nothing, and definitely adds an extra element to “letter to future you.”

105: Meta-Honesty

“Stop!”

Blue stops, brow raised, as Red sighs and starts rubbing his face, muttering that it’s too early for this. “Uh, okay, I wasn’t expecting that part to be what you had a reaction to…” They’re in a training room beside the one where Satori is currently merging with his abra, where he led Red after Red arrived and Satori explained her discovery. All Blue said once he closed the door behind them was I need to tell you something…

“It’s a secret, isn’t it?” Red asks, voice resigned. “Not like a personal secret, the kind that might get me or others in trouble if I spread it around?”

Blue stares. “…yeah, how did you—” Did Red already figure out how to see into dark minds himself? No, that’s ridiculous, no way he would keep that to himself…

“It’s been that kind of week. Month.” Red frowns. “Season.”

“Wait, what other secrets do you—”

“Hush! Before we talk about this we need to work out meta-honesty rules.”

“Seriously? I just drop the biggest psychic discovery of our lifetime on your lap, and you want to—why are you giggling?”

It takes a moment for Red to stop, still grinning as he shakes his head. “Ask me again later. You’re right, part of me really wants to ask Satori a million questions and get to testing dark aura stuff out, but… if that’s not considered a secret but whatever you were about to tell me is, then it’s really important we talk about how to talk about it.”

Blue doesn’t expect the dark aura stuff to be kept secret forever exactly, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like it kept under wraps for a bit. The same goes for Koichi’s theory, if it turns out to be true. Blue sighs and leans against the Fuchsia training room wall, settling in for a lecture. “Alright, go ahead. What’s meta-honesty?”

“Hang on, we should get Leaf here too, we were talking about this just a few days ago…” Red takes out his phone and starts typing.

“Wait! Uh, I’m not sure…” Blue can’t imagine Leaf being okay with the idea of making pokemon fear for their lives, even artificially, and suddenly feels unsure about whether he should tell Red after all; if he’s not willing to keep it from Leaf, then… “Okay I think I get why talking about how to talk about secret stuff is important.”

“If you don’t want Leaf to know I probably won’t tell her, but…” Red puts his phone away. “Yeah, that’s part of what we should go over. I’ve been reading about this online and it turns out there’s a whole lot of disagreement about what makes for a good policy on what amount of honesty is the right amount.”

“Doesn’t that just depend on how many secrets someone has, and why they keep them?” Blue shrugs. “It’s that thing you said once about trust, right? You either trust someone to not lie, or you trust them to have a good reason to lie, or you don’t trust them at all.”

“But what if two people disagree about what a good reason to lie is? They might think they trust each other in the deep way, but then find out that the other person lied about something they wouldn’t have thought. The best outcome is they understand why there was that confusion and don’t hate each other, but they might still think they’re on the same page but not be. If I think we’d both share any info about each other that someone tells us, and you don’t think that, I would take you not telling me stuff meant no one said anything to you, while you would think people might be telling me stuff that I’m just not telling you.”

“Sure, so we talk about it… okay it would be hard to talk about every situation…”

“Or what if there are competing vows of secrecy? If my mom tells me something about you, and she doesn’t know I tell you everything anyone says about you—”

“That’s something you’d say before she tells you though, right? If she doesn’t say it’s supposed to be a secret first, that’s on her.”

“But she can’t tell me what the secret is about first without revealing information that I might share if I say no! She might ask ‘Can I tell you a secret you won’t share?’ But then what, I’m supposed to say ‘Yes, but only if it doesn’t put someone’s life in danger, or if it’s not about Blue, or if it’s not something I think the scientific community should know, or if it doesn’t interfere with this secret project I have…’ You see?”

Blue does, and it’s getting harder to ignore the obvious implications. “How many secrets have you been keeping, exactly?” Red just looks at him until Blue holds his hands up in surrender. “Fine, don’t tell me, but if Leaf has a bunch too I’m going to end up feeling left out.”

Red rolls his eyes and starts pacing. “We can also think of it in terms of tiers. Like, there are some people who you’d have no secrets from, usually someone’s spouse, so it’s expected that if someone tells one something the other will hear about it. The next tier is close friends, where you’d expect someone to tell them something that they’d want to know. But then there’s also tiers for who secrets get told to. If you know me as someone who always holds on to secrets no matter what, then you might tell me a secret that someone else told you, breaking their trust, because you trust it won’t go further. So a meta-honesty strategy might be to say ‘I don’t tell your secrets to anyone of a lower tier than you,’ and then you have to explain what sorts of people or specific people that excludes—”

“Which itself might give stuff away, yeah, got it. But really, the thing I’m telling you isn’t even a secret, it’s just… it might be sens… if it’s even tr… stop that.” Red stops singing and uncovers his ears, and Blue sighs and rubs his eyes. “Okay, I give up, just tell me what to do.”

“What?” Red seems genuinely horrified. “Blue, it doesn’t work like that, I can’t just—”

“You can if I trust you, right? Like the real trust.”

The look on Red’s face makes Blue waver, for a moment, wondering how bad a secret Red can possibly be keeping… if he knows a renegade or…

And then he remembers, and mentally kicks himself..

They never really talked about Aiko again, or that whole situation. Not that they’ve been avoiding it or anything, it just hasn’t come up… they haven’t battled in the same incident since Lavender, and Red did great there, and he’s been active in helping at incidents…

But no, bravery was never the problem. He knows what Red would say; it’s about calculating risk, and if Blue’s being honest he has wondered, now and then, how Red decided on which incidents to go to, and who he was fighting alongside at them, and what lengths he’d go to to save them if they were in trouble.

Okay, so maybe he doesn’t trust Red completely. Blue shifts his weight, then sighs. “Look, that’s a different thing.”

“What is?” Red asks, voice cautious.

“The thing about… the burning building. It’s not about who you are, it’s… I mean it is about who you are, but not like…” Blue trails off, realizing as he says it that he might actually be wrong.

What if it is the same thing? What if Red kept or spilled a secret that was the equivalent of not running into a burning building to save a friend?

Blue tries to imagine what that would be, and immediately comes up with the reverse of the secret he was about to share. If Red discovered something about Dark types that would hurt Blue, but felt compelled to share it anyway… no, that’s not quite right. If Red knew a secret that had a small chance of saving someone but would, say, ruin his scientific career if it was wrong… no, that’s not fair, it’s just hard to imagine a secret that would put his life at risk.

Red is just watching him, expression hard to read. Anxious? Wary? Blue sighs and runs a hand through his hair. They should probably have talked about this again at some point, but it just seemed… easier, not to. “I can’t imagine you doing something with secrets that would break that trust, is what I’m trying to say.”

Red is quiet for a moment, then sighs. “But there are things I could do that you can’t imagine, that would break the trust. Which means it’s not the second layer, it’s not trust in me, it’s trust in your models of me.”

“Well shit, Red, no one’s perfect,” Blue says, starting to get annoyed. Here he is trying to tell Red how much he… no, wait, he gets it. “I mean, I’m not either, so okay, say you’re hiding a secret that I can’t even imagine you hiding and it totally changes who I think you are. I’d still know you were doing what you thought was best, even if I disagreed.”

That seems to surprise Red, for a moment. “So… you wouldn’t regret it? Trusting me?”

“That… come on, how am I supposed to know that? If you fuse all the Stormbringers into some crazy three headed mega-Legendary that destroys all of Indigo, yeah, I’ll probably regret trusting you a little bit!

Red stares at him a moment, then cracks a smile. Soon it’s a grin, and Blue finds himself grinning back as Red begins to giggle. “That’s stupid. How would that even work, fusing pokemon together?”

don’t know, I’m just saying—”

“Would it have six wings?”

“Of course it would have six wings, and three tails—”

“No, one tail, but it’s like, all their tails blended together—”

“And six legs—”

“What? No, that’s dumb—”

“Oh sure, that’s dumb. It’s my idea you know—”

“Yeah well I’m the scientist, and it’s my hypothetical mad-scientist creation. What would it even need six legs for?”

“For its long body!”

“Long body!” Red laughs. “Like a caterpie!”

“Not like a caterpie you idiot, like a bird body, just long! Where else would the six wings go?”

“I don’t know, the same joint?”

“So says the scientist. You are picturing each head on its own neck though, right?”

“Of course, like a dodrio.”

“Alright, at least we’re on the same page there.”

Silence descends, broken by the occasional chuckle, and eventually Blue shakes his head and sighs. “What were we arguing about again?”

“Were we arguing?” Red shrugs, smile fading. “I’m glad, for what you said. I just… I don’t know. I guess I’m afraid you’ll…”

“Yeah,” Blue says, voice soft, and clears his throat. “I get it. I just don’t know if, like, I should apologize, or—”

“No, it’s okay. It would be unfair of me to ask for that level of trust. We were always on different pages, I think, we just never had reason to know it.” Red grimaces. “Actually, that’s not… totally true.”

“What do you mean?”

“When we started our journey, I was thinking we weren’t ready for a Stormbringer attack. I… haven’t thought of this in a long time, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought about ways to keep us from one before we were ready.”

Blue stares at Red, anger and indignation rising up… then fading as he lets his breath out. “Yeah, well. That was shitty of you, not telling me how you really felt. But I’d be a hypocrite if I thought less of you for feeling that way at all, given that I—” The words get stuck in his throat, and he clears it. “After Vermilion, I changed my mind about going to every Stormbringer battle. It wasn’t what I thought it would be like, and we…”

We might have died.

Even after they lost Aiko, he feels rejection of that in his core. It’s possible, sure, but he doesn’t really believe it. Not if they stuck together…

Meanwhile Red is looking surprised, and relieved. “We would have been even less prepared.”

“Right. So we might not have been on the same page then, but we could be, someday, right?”

He’s not sure what he’s asking, really. He’s not sure what he’d do if Red says no. But he still feels conflicted and confused about how much he trusts Red, and how much he should. On the one hand he needs Red to be okay with hearing about Koichi’s theory if he’s going to get his help.

Not a great reason to share such a dangerous secret, really. And maybe he doesn’t need Red’s help, but it would take longer without it, and meanwhile he’s losing the soul of the gym, splitting it in two factions instead of making it a unified, stronger whole.

“We could be, yeah,” Red says, and his voice is soft too before he seems to shake himself. “And this is a good first step, I think. Talking about what honesty means for us.”

“Right. So, okay.” Blue sits on the ground, hands on his knees, and after a moment Red mirrors him, legs crossed. “How do we figure this out?”

“Well… first off, as a baseline, I think this quote makes for a really good starting point, though the person who wrote it might be really horrified by what we’re trying to do here… ‘Don’t lie when a normal highly honest person wouldn’t, and furthermore, be honest when somebody asks you which hypothetical circumstances would cause you to lie or mislead—absolutely honest, if they ask under this code. However, questions about meta-honesty should be careful not to probe object-level information.'”

“How the hell is anyone supposed to know what a ‘normal highly honest person’ would say? What if someone straight up asks if you know an embarrassing secret about your friend?”

“Well, there’s something called glomarization. ‘I can neither confirm nor deny that.'”

“I’m going to feel like an asshole if I go around saying that all the time.”

Red rolls his eyes. “You can also just say ‘no comment.'”

“And sound like a slimy politician?”

“Add whatever charm you want to it, the point is that you can set a policy of what sorts of things you won’t answer specifics to, and as long as you stick to it you won’t leak info or lie.”

“Right, but I can’t just start saying that if I have something to hide. Like if someone asks what I did last night, and I was in a secret meeting, if I say ‘the usual’ or ‘nothing special’ that implies I was training or hanging out with friends.”

“Yeah, that is a problem.” Red shrugs. “You could say ‘either I did the usual, or I don’t want to tell you what I did.” This time it’s Blue’s turn to stare at Red until he gives in. “Look, I’m not saying this is easy. But if you set an expectation—”

“Red, if you just say that at the end of everything you’ve reinvented lying with extra steps. Of course people might not want to tell someone what they did! That’s taken for granted in ‘nothing much!'”

“Privacy is different from… hm. I guess if it’s ambiguous and they’re just assuming… alright we’ll come back to that one as a general principle, but between the two of us at least, we’re on the same page about it, right? Our idea of two honest people talking will assume ‘or I don’t want to tell you’ is attached to the end of statements, and won’t get mad about jumping to conclusions?”

“Sure, I guess. Social convenience can’t answer everything though, right? What about white lies?”

Red shrugs. “My model of a ‘highly honest person’ doesn’t directly lie about something non-private for anything short of someone’s life being at risk.”

“Yeah. Okay, so… we both agree that a highly honest person doesn’t do white lies.”

“And that we know ourselves to want to be that honest, and know each other to be?”

Blue thinks about it for a moment. “I can’t actually remember the last time I said one.”

Red laughs. “Yeah, me neither.”

“I came close, with Glen. Not sure if it counts, when you’re really not sure what you feel but want to support someone… anyway, he wouldn’t have it.”

“I think if you’re unsure, and you don’t mention that you’re unsure, it’s still a white lie. I mean, no one can be absolutely sure, of course, but…” Red trails off, looking thoughtful. “I guess people can start including probability estimates—”

“Absolutely not. No one’s going to do that.”

“I—”

“Try it, Red, you’ll get sick of it in a week, and look like a total weirdo to everyone. And most people aren’t going to take it well if they ask if you believe in them and you say ‘I’m 87.34219—'”

Red’s glare is ruined by his twitching lips. “A number that high should be reassuring.”

“‘—12173% sure that you will, in most cases and circumstances—'”

“Okay, okay! So it’s unrealistic to be precise about reassurance. But still, I don’t think it’s a white lie if you’re reasonably sure and just say yes? Like if you’d bet 3:1 odds on it? Can we commit to that baseline?”

“Sure, but we can’t make a public commitment like that, right? Everyone’s going to assume we’re hiding things already.” Blue studies his friend, wondering again what secrets he’s been holding on to. Was he told something, or did he discover something new with his psychic research? It would be ironic if it turned out to be the same thing Koichi did. He’s not sure Red would have the social awareness to keep that secret, though. He may have… no, he definitely would have told Leaf, who would have even more to say about not spreading the news.

Red also could have told Sabrina, of course, and she would be perfectly positioned to explain it to him. Blue tries to replay his conversation with her about all this, but is distracted by Red’s sigh.

“I know. Someone online named Raymond even suggested a meta-honesty holiday where everyone posts their rules about metahonesty at the same time so there’s no reason to think that posting your rules about it indicates you’re hiding something. But for now at least, we can talk about ours.”

“We still haven’t talked about keeping secrets.”

“In what sense?”

“Does a highly honest person keep secrets for others if they know they’ll have to lie about it if asked?”

“Probably not. They’d probably let everyone know, or at least their close friends and family, that if a secret is shared with them they might glomarize but they won’t directly lie. And if there are some exceptions to that, depending on the situation, they should say that too.”

Blue considers this. “Should we invite anyone else to this? There are things I’d keep from Glen and Elaine, even Gramps and Daisy, but not a lot.”

“Okay, see, that’s good info. Uh, I’m not sure how to check this without getting object-level information…”

“No, none of them know the secret, mostly because they’re not dark or psychic. That’s another reason I’m not sure Leaf should know.”

Red groans and slaps his forehead. “Blue! I assumed that was why you weren’t sure she should come in the first place, now that I know that’s an extra reason, I can pretty well guess what this is about!”

Oops. Still… “Doubt it, unless you already know somehow.”

“Well I won’t try guesses out loud so I don’t get any extra info. Also, I think I’m still going to invite Leaf. Even if she doesn’t end up hearing the secret, it’s the perfect time to coordinate the meta-honest conversation, and each of us already knows why we might have secrets of some kind that having this conversation won’t trigger any extra suspicion.”

Blue considers this. “So, obviously you could be holding a secret about someone’s research that you helped with, and you’ve already worked with a couple Leaders, one about Renegade stuff, so it makes sense that you might have learned some things you can’t share while helping hunt for them in Celadon.”

“Right, and you might be keeping science related secrets for your grandfather, or secrets from the Leaders you’ve been talking in private with. Leaf might be keeping science related secrets for her family too, plus she’s done some journalism, so if she says she can’t reveal something people might just assume that it’s from a source for a story.”

“Huh.” Blue considers his journeymates and wonders if any of them could use him as an excuse. Probably not. “That sucks for normal people.”

“What, not having plausible deniability that people would take for granted?”

“Yeah.” Blue frowns. “I kind of want to bring the whole gang in, now. Seems important, in case…”

“Yeah, I should probably pull Jason in too, and Satori…”

Twenty minutes later they’ve sent out messages, dragged a protesting Satori away from the training hall, and holed themselves up in Blue’s room, which has just enough space for everyone, but not really enough space for everyone and their pokemon. Which means there are a lot of them on people’s laps or shoulders, which helps keep the chaos down a little, though Leaf’s buneary keeps hopping away from her to play with Satori’s torracat whenever Leaf lets her petting lapse.

“Alright, everyone, settle down,” Blue says. His two newest journeymates from Saffron, Jamil and Viraj, are the first to sit up and focus. It’s been interesting watching the way his fame has affected new people who join his group; both are really eager to prove themselves, and he expects they’ll settle down and relax by the time he finishes in Fuchsia and maybe picks up some new newbies. “We’ve got a scenario in a couple hours, and this might take a while.”

“Just to be clear,” Red says once everyone’s (mostly) paying more attention to him than their pokemon. “We’re not here to exchange secrets. Everyone got that?”

The group glances at each other, then nods.

“We’re just here to talk about how to be honest with each other, even if we sometimes have things we can’t share. And, if we have secrets that we feel morally compelled to share, at some point, how do we do that ethically.”

“Which you may not!” Leaf adds. “Either have them or ever feel it’s okay to share them. But just in case, this can be useful to do.”

Blue still sees some expressions that might be nervous, or skeptical. “If anyone wants to not be part of this, you don’t have to. You won’t lose points with me, and again, we’re not sharing any juicy gossip or anything so you’re not missing out.”

No one moves.

“Right,” Leaf adds. “This might just be boring for people who have no secrets, and irrelevant to people who have no intention of ever sharing them. So it makes sense for either sort of person to leave.”

The room is silent again, until one of Blue’s newer journeymates raises a hand. “But… if we’re not here, we won’t get secrets shared with us, if someone decides to share them, right?” Jamil looks around. “Because we won’t know the code, or whatever? Etiquette?”

Red looks pained. “That’s not…”

“It’s a fair question.” Leaf shrugs. “I can only speak for myself, but if I ever have secrets that I don’t want to lie about, or if I have to share information in a way that does its best not to violate trust put in me, it would be easier if I know someone’s meta-honesty norms and they know mine.”

“Same,” Glen says. “And it makes sense to me that someone would say that whether they have some major secret or not, since I feel the same way and don’t.”

Lizzy frowns. “Well I also don’t mph—!”

“Please hush,” Maria says, hand over her friend’s mouth. “It will reduce plausible deniability for everyone else who does not also say it.”

The others start looking around too. Some look suspicious, others look confused, and others, like Maria, look distinctly nervous. Then again, it’s Maria, so that doesn’t really tell Blue much…

But Jason is giving her concerned looks, and she’s been spending a lot of time with the psychic… medium… whatever.

Red sighs. “Trying to guess who here has a secret and who doesn’t isn’t really in the spirit of this. And yes, avoid saying anything that would pressure everyone else into saying the same thing to avoid suspicion. We’re here to find ways to talk about this stuff without having to say things like that without lying.”

“Sorry,” Glen says sheepishly.

Blue pushes his own curiosity aside and nudges Red. “Just get started, huh?”

“Right, so to recap what Leaf, Blue and I talked about already…”

Blue listens as Red goes over everything again, including stuff from a conversation he had with Leaf (who reveals she’s made a simple script for showing the higher number of multiple anonymously entered), the questions they asked each other and what they were unsure of. He’s actually getting better at lecturing, Blue has to admit. Maybe it’s because the topic is so juicy, or maybe it’s all the teaching he’s been doing in Saffron.

In any case, the room is rapt, and once Red finishes and asks for questions so far, practically everyone raises their hand.

“Society has some things we accept people keeping secrets about, right?” Elaine asks when pointed to. “Like, there’s stuff we consider personal and private, that everyone has a right to.”

“Yeah, good point. There’s also, like therapists and priests, who are expected to keep secrets for others even if it seems bad to do so, unless it crosses some specific lines…”

“Private companies keep projects secret, governments keep security risks secret,” Glen adds.

“Family,” Satori says, a cup of strong tea in her hands. “Spouses. Expecting one spouse to keep secrets from another would be difficult, unless they had already discussed this.”

Red nods. “There’s a few things everyone just sort of accepts are okay secrets for people to keep, and part of what makes them okay is that people know, more or less, what sorts of secrets will be kept by whom.” He shrugs. “It seems like that’s outward facing, at least?”

“But would it be okay if, say, a therapist said ‘I can’t tell you about that, therapy stuff,’ if it’s not?”

“No,” Red says, shaking his head. “Also depending on the question, saying that even if it is therapy stuff would probably be revealing information they shouldn’t.”

“But then, going back to that thing you guys weren’t sure about as a general principle… is it okay to not say why you can’t tell someone something, and let them assume it’s therapy stuff?”

Red hesitates. “I… think so?”

“The alternative would be bad,” Leaf says. “If being maximally honest includes having to correct people’s misconceptions, it would be easy for a bad actor to exploit that.”

“Right.” Red looks around. “Jason, think you had your hand up next? Different question?”

“The numbers,” Jason asks, turning to Leaf. “If the consequences of not keeping things secret seems too high, why not check with the one who originally shared it first?”

“It would be good to, for sure. But that might not be possible, if it’s time sensitive.” Leaf worries her lower lip. “Also, sometimes just telling someone if it’s okay to share a secret with someone, in enough detail to check if they’re okay with it, could break the trust of the one who told you the secret.”

There are some looks around the room that show clear skepticism, or maybe intrigue, but Jason just nods. The next few questions go over how people should evaluate their priorities, which is pretty personal and hard to make rules for, and how to balance different kinds of responsibilities to different people.

“Sharing secrets can also be dangerous for the listener,” Elaine says, and something about how forcefully neutral her tone is makes Blue suddenly wonder if Elaine of all people is holding some big one. Aiko used to tease her for how expressive her face is, how eager she is to talk about any ideas she has… “How do you warn someone just how bad the danger might be, without giving some stuff away?”

“That’s a good question,” Red says, and then lapses into silence, glancing at Leaf, who’s focused on her buneary, frowning thoughtfully. Blue has no idea what to say either, so he looks at the rest of the room, which is mostly silent.

“Maybe we should have invited someone who keeps secrets for a living?” Lizzy asks, and looks at Red. “Your mom’s probably kept a lot of secrets for her job, right?”

“Yeah, but… well…”

Leaf sighs. “It’s fine, Red, let’s just call her.”

Blue thought Red was just embarrassed to bring his mom into things, but it seems Leaf knows something he doesn’t. Probably related to the secrets talk they already had… he wonders if they’ll tell him what it was about, and if not, what made them able to talk to each other about it but not him.

Red dials his mom, then puts his phone on speaker. “Good morning, Sweetie. To what do I owe the early pleasure?”

“Hi Mom, you’re on speaker phone with, uh, a lot of people. Are you free for a bit?”

“Sure, I can chat. Who, exactly…?”

“Blue—”

“Hey, Aunty.”

“—Leaf—”

“Hi, Laura!”

“—guys, this’ll take too long if you all… Glen, Elaine, Maria, Lizzy, Jason, Satori, and, uh, sorry—”

“Jamil.”

“Viraj.”

“—Jamil and Viraj, new friends of Blue’s, are all here too.”

The phone is silent for a moment before Aunt Laura speaks again, voice cautious. “Hello, everyone. What can I do for you all today?”

“Okay, so… we’ve all just been talking about some stuff.” Leaf covers her face, and Red nudges her with his elbow, which causes her to nudge him back until he holds his palms up in surrender. “Uh, meta-honesty stuff, basically, like, how to be honest without lying when there are some secrets you’ve got to keep, right?”

“O…kay…”

“And anyway a question came up, if you had to tell someone a secret, but the secret is dangerous for them to know, how do you make sure they know how dangerous it is before agreeing to hear it?”

The whole room is silent, until Lizzy’s flaafy lets out a baa.

“What was that?” Aunt Laura asks.

“Uh, our pokemon are here too.”

“Oh. Red, are you… should we…”

“No, I’m not in trouble. We could talk in private first, but honestly, this is just a question we were wondering and thought you’d know. No one is about to reveal any dangerous secrets.” Leaf elbows him again, and he elbows her back. “I’ll let you know first if I plan to.”

“…okay. So. No information given but the risk profile, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Alright, so… infohazards come in a number of forms, but I want to dispel the myth that probably just popped up in your heads, which are sometimes called cognitohazards. As far as I know, there aren’t any so bad that just learning them will cause the one who knows it permanent harm. Obviously I might say that even if not true to keep overly curious people, like my son, from going looking to test this.”

The room chuckles, and Red looks like he wants to object before he stops himself, looking torn.

“But in this case I can say, under the umbrella of meta-honesty, that I don’t know of any that act like that. I could be wrong, but the closest things to cognitohazards I’ve encountered are spoilers for movies and gross pictures.” Glen snorts, and Blue can hear the slight smile in Aunt Laura’s voice. “And minds can get used to even really gross things, over time. Still, it’s true that some ideas can lead to people having a few sleepless nights, maybe some existential dread now and then. On top of that, some people might turn down a lucrative job or stop being friends with someone if they learn of secret immoral behavior. I think considering that ‘harm’ is debatable, they still have a choice in the matter and by that standard any unpleasant knowledge would be considered a cognitohazard, but it’s still worth flagging as a concern.

“Next are infohazards related to behavior, and those can be further split into active vs passive. Some information is dangerous to share because it would allow bad people to actively do bad things more easily. Think of some technique for training renegade pokemon more easily, or an easy to recreate combination of household chemicals that would make a clear, odorless, lethal gas.

“A passive infohazard isn’t risky because of what people might do with the information, but just from having it. This seems to be more the sort of thing you all are talking about, since the danger is to the person being told the secret.”

They hear the sound of water bubbling, and after a few moments it fades before liquid is poured. Blue feels a nudge as Eevee settles up against his leg, and pets her as he glances around to see everyone else staring as intently at the phone as he was. The pokemon are picking up on their trainers’ moods, becoming more wary and protective.

“So, that danger itself can come in two major forms, which I call social and targeted.

“Social infohazards are secrets that, if people knew you had it, would cause problems for you. This usually arises from expectations that the information puts on you if you don’t act; for example, if you’re told that a friend is being cheated on, and you don’t tell them, you might be judged for it if it’s found out. This can also include more serious social issues, of course, like being told of renegade activity and not reporting it.

“Targeted infohazards paint a target on your back. These are secrets that might bring harm if people even just believe you might know it, maybe because they notice your behavior changed, maybe because a psychic senses that the person who told you the secret did so. We have to be really careful of these when investigating organized crime, of course.

“For both of these, the goal is to ensure the person learning the secret is aware of what they’re risking. So you ask them that. You go over all the different risks associated with secrets to make sure they have an idea of what could happen, so they can decide what they’re comfortable with.”

Red is frowning. “But…”

“I know. That’s where my own invention comes in; after you go over the different kinds of hazards, you make a new category. I call it a penalty infohazard. You ask them what the limit they’re willing to pay you in damages is, if the secret were the kind that would cost you money if it got out. Not if they reveal it, just if it got out at all.”

Leaf laughs. “Oh, that’s clever!”

Lizzy nods. “If they say they’re okay with cognitohazards and social infohazards but not targeted ones, and you don’t tell them the secret, they know which it was. But with this extra category that’s an automatic no for them…”

“Right,” Aunt Laura says. “They can’t know if their number just wasn’t high enough, regardless of what kind of secret it is. It’s content-neutral, so it could invalidate their willingness for any of them.”

“For people who know the trick, though,” Maria says. “Would this still work?”

“It’s not a trick, though I understand why you’d say so. There are in fact some secrets that would cause financial loss if they became public knowledge, like, say, a pokemon you have a lot of that’s about to lower drastically in value. Everyone got that?”

Red looks around to see everyone nodding. “We got it. This was great, thanks, Mom!”

“Thanks, Laura!”

“Thank you!”

The rest of the room choruses their appreciation, and Red’s mom is back to sounding a bit apprehensive. “You’re very welcome, I think. Let’s talk soon, alright Red?”

“Sure thing. Have a good day!”

“You too. Love you. Goodbye everyone.”

They say goodbye, and Red ends the call and sits back, looking deep in thought.

“Well,” Leaf says once people start shifting. “I think we’ve got a lot to chew on from all this, and most of you have to go soon, right? And I’ve got some morning chores to get to…”

“Yeah,” Blue stirs, then gets to his feet and stretches. “And I still haven’t had breakfast. Let’s meet at the dining hall, everyone.”

His journeymates start withdrawing their pokemon and say their goodbyes to Leaf and the psychics before heading out the door. “The plan is still on,” he tells Satori. “I just need to talk to Red first. Why don’t you go get some sleep until then?”

The sleepy girl looks like she’s about to argue, but only yawns instead before giving a resigned nod. She follows Jason and Maria out, leaving him with Red and Leaf.

When he turns to them they’re staring at each other, and he gets the feeling again of missing something. They’ve all had their own projects, their own social circles, their own schedules, but ever since the Hoenn incident he’s gotten used to feeling like they’d be on the same page about important stuff again. He knows he’s been particularly focused on his own stuff lately, but… if the two of them were not just holding their own secrets, but also sharing them while excluding him…

Sure, he was about to tell Red a secret that would leave Leaf out. But only until they figured out if it worked.

“Okay guys, what’s been going on with you two?”

“What? Nothing,” Red says, too quickly. “What do you mean?”

Leaf rolls her eyes, though she’s smiling as she glances at Red’s flustered expression. “There’s some stuff Red may have discovered that might be relevant to something I’ve been working on.”

“If it’s important enough that you had to design that number thing, I want in.” If it’s just about the tech Leaf’s been working on to recreate sakki he doesn’t think that would be necessary, and besides he already knows about it. The only other recent big thing that’s been going on are those crazy psychic dreams, but he has no idea what that might have to do with Leaf.

Red frowns. “That’s not… we just had this whole talk—”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m not saying I’ll be pissed if I’m kept out of the loop.” He’d be irritated, maybe a little hurt, if he’s being honest. “I’m just flagging it, you know? If there’s anything I can do to help…”

“Of course,” Leaf rubs her buneary’s ears. “We just have to figure out if there is something first. I’ve sent a message to a certain someone who might shed some light on things, but they haven’t responded yet.”

“And my own research has been inconclusive too,” Red says, tone so careful that Blue can’t help but force a gasp, which makes Red turn to him in panicked surprise.

Blue’s laugh sets Leaf to giggling, and Red’s scowl quickly breaks into chuckles of his own, and Blue feels a little better. Maybe from the sign that they haven’t shared secrets yet, are still figuring out if they even have one to share, or maybe just from the laughter.

“Ah, fuck it.” He’ll take his chances, so long as they’re willing to. “I have to go, but first… let’s do the thing Aunt Laura mentioned. What sorts of secrets are you guys okay with hearing?”

Leaf and Red exchange looks, then look away, expressions growing thoughtful on Red’s part and cautious on Leaf’s. He gets Eevee’s ball and plays fetch with her for a bit while they think, thinking over his own. Being Dark means he doesn’t have to worry about most of the things people hearing secrets do… though come to think of it, given what Satori told him this morning, that might not always be true.

The thought is a strange one, and an exciting one, and a frightening one too. He’s had years to get used to the idea that he’ll never be able to teleport, never be fully trusted by some people. He’s barely had one to start to appreciate the value he’s gotten in return.

But he’s jumping to conclusions. For now, he should take for granted that secrets are safe with him. Which means…

“I’m okay with cognitohazards,” Red says. “I mean, I can just amnesia it if I need to, but even without that.”

“Big surprise there,” Leaf says with a smile, then nods. “Me too. If something is true, I want to know it. I trust myself to deal with the implications of it, and living in blissful ignorance… I mean, if I’m in a really fragile place, emotionally, maybe I’d want to wait a bit. But outside of that, I’m game.”

“Same,” Blue says. “Also fine with the rest of it.”

“Even target hazards?” Red asks, brow raised, at the same time that Leaf asks, “Even Social…?”

Blue chuckles along with them, then shrugs. “Yeah, both. I get it, I’m careful with my image, but… I’d rather know what sorts of social blowups are potentially around me. As for becoming a target… I’m an Oak. I’d like to see who thinks they can get away with putting one on my back. If one of you is in trouble, I’d want to help.”

They’re silent at that, for a moment, then Leaf sets her buneary down and stands to walk over for a hug. He returns it, only feeling a little embarrassed until Red joins them a moment later. He almost tells them not to make such a big deal out of it, but his friend’s expression looks deeply moved, and Blue decides to just shut up and let them hug him for a bit.

Blue’s embarrassment is just starting to grow when Red and Leaf pull away, and he clears his throat. “Uh, money stuff… I guess I’d rather not pay more than ten thousand? Not without some details of how important the secret is, I guess, which maybe those ‘how bad is this’ numbers are helpful for too.”

“Five thousand for me,” Red says. “And, uh… I’m fine with the other kinds of infohazards too.”

“Same,” Leaf says. “Except, don’t tell me active infohazards that might be dangerous in the wrong hands. I don’t trust my mental defenses that well. And, oh, I think I’d be okay with paying more. Let’s say ten thousand too.”

Blue frowns. “Hey, I didn’t mean to—”

“We did this wrong from the beginning,” Red says. “We should have written our answers out, then shared them. But I don’t regret it. Everything you said… these probably aren’t my standards for everyone, but for you guys, yeah. I’d want to know if you were in trouble too.”

“Same,” Leaf says.

Blue can’t help but grin at them. They’re still connected. He shouldn’t have doubted them.

Though now he has a problem. His secret is one Leaf can’t hear, but if he tells her that, she’ll know what kind it is. The number thing doesn’t work, he realizes, if they share them publicly like this and the person not okay with a certain kind of secret gives a higher number than the other.

Red’s right, they did it wrong. But he doesn’t regret it either, and in this case it’s an easy fix, thankfully. He’ll point out the extra flaw to them later.

“Right, I’m off to eat, then. Got a scenario after, so… let’s talk more later?”

“Sure.”

“You got it.”

They collect their pokemon and head out together. Once they’ve teleported away, Blue messages Red and tells him to come back in a few hours.

They’ve got some training to do.


It’s surprisingly hard for Red to remember what fearing for his life is like.

Not impossible, of course. A few situations stand out more than others, and with some concentration he can practically relive the moments of desperation. But the older the memories, the less sharp they are… with two exceptions. The night of the storm, with Pressure beating against his mind like a drum of fear, and the night of the incident, trapped in the casino rubble, desperation filling every moment.

“The real trick is projecting those feelings onto an abra without them teleporting away,” Red explains as he takes a break and Blue sprays some ether onto a berry and feeds it to Tops. “Being indoors helps ensure they can’t, and the pokeball conditioning makes them somewhat less likely to want to… around a normal trainer, at least. Since he can’t sense you, running away is still registering as the best option. Keeping him focused on fighting is difficult, he’s already fighting an instinct that says the best thing to do when in danger is make use of the nearly foolproof defense mechanism he’s had since birth.”

“I get it,” Blue says. “If this is too hard on you—”

“I can do it,” Red insists, and takes a deep breath. They’d only been at it for an hour, and while they can test the theory with another pokemon, abra would show the clearest signs of unusually quick growth. “I just need to find the right balance.”

Hearing about Koichi’s theory was fascinating, and horrifying. Red understands immediately why Blue didn’t tell Leaf; as he’d guessed, it had to do with pokemon welfare, but on top of that, it’s definitely a secret she would regret leaking if some psychic picked it up from her.

The implications, if it is true… well, he’d think about those later, once they have some data.

“Balance,” Blue muses. “Maybe not, if you mean balanced fear. Try a memory of when you were sure death was close, but you fought anyway.”

Red considers this, then sorts through every brush with death in his memory again, from the pikachu swarm in Viridian, to lying injured in the Rocket Casino basement as the renegades approached, to the pack of growlithe that nearly burned him to a crisp during one of the recent attacks near Saffron.

He sinks into those moments as best he can. Fear so strong he could taste it, metallic and suffocating. A trembling in his limbs, tightness in his chest, the urge to move fighting paralysis. He was able to make himself, time and again; he just needs to communicate why in a feeling that abra understands, particularly since fighting back for him involved doing things abra don’t, and abra fighting involves doing things he doesn’t.

If only abra had some killer instinct, but the sakki would be worse than useless here, and Red can’t exactly send his own, since…

“You just realized something.”

“I, uh… may have, yeah. Do you… want to kill pokemon when you fight them? Or hurt them, even?”

Blue furrows his brow, and after a moment shrugs. “Once in a while, after one of my pokemon gets hurt, or killed.”

And now Red remembers…

…”It has lightscreen!” Leaf yelled, and he knew her well enough to hear the way she was pushing past her heartbreak over the pokemon they’d just lost, past the Pressure making her feel guilty for fighting at all…

…”Be ready,” Red said, voice rough as his blood sang with a rage more primal than anything he’d felt before as he/Charmeleon opened their mouths and breathed death at their enemy…

…a time when he wanted his opponent not just disabled or captured, but dead. It wasn’t his feeling, not really, but he felt it as much as he could through his bond with Charmeleon, and maybe that’s enough.

Can abra feel rage? He supposes there’s one way to find out.

But rage wouldn’t be enough, according to this theory; what matters is the genuine fear for his life. Luckily, while being bonded with Charmeleon under the effects of sakki would normally wipe that away, the Pressure ensured he still felt it.

The only problem is he never deliberately created a memory of that mental state, which means he can’t perfectly reproduce and project it. He’d need to find another source of Pressure…

He almost asks Blue if he can reach out to the rangers he helped catch the absol, see if they’d let them run an experiment with it, then realizes it wouldn’t matter; he wouldn’t feel the same way he did in Vermilion, Pressure feels different depending on context and what you’re feeling in that moment. The best he can do is try to project from the memory.

“I’m going again,” Red says, and takes a deep breath before recalling that mental state as best he could… then merges with Tops and projects it onto the abra, who starts to tremble. Red’s own body twitches in sympathy, voice strained as he says, “Go.”

“Tops, Pa!”

Red feels the attack get sent out in a burst of confusing sensations (as always, he can almost feel what a pokemon is doing when it uses kinesis… almost) coupled with fear… and something else, something that’s not quite rage, but it’s enough to keep the abra focused on its opponent.

Red’s Drowzee twitches from the attack, barely hurt… but, for the first time, hurt, while the abra was in a state of mortal fear.

He lets the emotions go with a rush of breath, wiping sweat from his brow and smiling in triumph as he opens his eyes and sees Blue grinning just as wide as he slaps Red on the back. “I knew you could do it. Let’s see how many blasts it can send out like this!”

Red nods, and focuses on the abra again, doing his best to ignore the trembling in abra’s limbs as he remerges their minds. If this actually works, he could train his pokemon faster without putting them in mortal danger.

He can be ready, the next time a friend needs him to be stronger.

You’re Probably Underestimating How Hard Good Communication Is

People talk about “Public Speaking” or “Oration” as skills, and they are. We call people “gifted communicators” if they’re generally skilled at conveying complex information or ideas in ways that even those without topical expertise will understand. 

We get, on some level, that communication can be hard. But the above is mainly about one-directional communication. It’s what you’re engaging in when you write blog or social media post, when you’re speaking at conferences or in a classroom or for a Youtube video. It’s not what people engage in day to day with their friends and family and coworkers, which is more two-directional communication.

And yet we don’t have a word for “two-dimensional communication skill,” the way we do “Oration,” or words for people who are really good at it. We might say someone is a “good listener” if they can do the other half of it, and there are some professions that good two-dimensional communication is implicitly bundled with, such as mediators or therapists, but neither is specifically skilled in doing the everyday thing.

So first let’s break this “two-directional communication” thing down. What does it actually take to be good at communicating like this? What subskills does it involve? 

1) Listening to the words people actually say, also known as digital communication.

2) Holding that separate from the implications that went unsaid, but may be informed by body language, tone, expression, etc, also known as analogue communication.

3) Evaluating which of those implications are intended given context rather than the result of your heuristics, cached expectations, typical-mind, and general knowledge you take for granted.

4) Checking your evaluation of implications before taking them for granted as true or reacting to them.

This is what it means to be a good listener. Not in the “you let me talk for a long time and were supportive” sense, but strictly as a matter of whether you managed to accurately take in the information communicated without missing signal or adding noise.

The second half of being a good communicator involves:

5) Communicating your ideas clearly, with as little lost between the concepts you have in mind and the words you use to express them.

6) Being aware of what your words will imply, both to the individuals you’re speaking to and to the average person of the same demographics.

7) Being aware of what your body language, tone, expression, and the context you’re saying it will imply. 

8) Adding extra caveats and clarifications  to account for the above as best you can.

Each of these can be broken down further, but as the baseline these are all extremely important. And yet very few people are great at all of them. let alone consistently able to do each well at all times.

I think this is important both as a signpost for what people should strive to do, as a humility check against people who take for granted that they’re communicating well while failing at one or more of the above, and last but not least, as something that should be acknowledged more often in good faith conversations, particularly if things start to go awry.

Good communication is harder than we collectively think, and effective two-directional communication is one of those skills we often take for granted that we’re at least decent at because we engage in it all the time, and usually get by just fine. But this leaves us less prepared for when we’re in a situation where we or others fail at one of the above skills, in which case it’s good to have not just a bit more awareness of why we fail, but humility that it’s always a two-way street.

Trust vs Trust

The word “Trust” was never quite operationalized as well as it should have been in society, and as a result it can now be used to mean two rather different things.

The first form trust takes is probably the most commonly understood use of the word; expecting someone to behave in a way that’s cooperative or fair. If you trust someone enough, you may enter into a business partnership with them or let them borrow your belongings or vouch for them to friends or colleagues. This trust can be broken, of course, if they start to act in ways other than what you expect them to, particularly if they start to defect from agreements. It is, ultimately, about how well you can model their ability to act prosocially.

The second form trust takes is much rarer, and yet somehow feels to me more like the “true” meaning of the word. It’s a level of trust that’s related to your confidence in someone’s character, sometimes despite their actions. It’s not about predicting what they’ll do in any given situation, but rather predicting the arc that their actions will take over a long enough timeline; trusting them, essentially, to error correct.

This may seem like it has the same outcomes, like if you trust them enough in this way you’d still be okay with lending them something, but it’s far less reliant on game theory or incentives, and far more about what you believe about what kind of person they are. In the first case, if the person you trust does not give back what you lent them, your trust is broken. In the second case, if they do not give back what you lent them, your trust endures, because your expectation is that their character is one who had a good reason not to give it back. This doesn’t require a resolution; it’s baked into the decision to lend them the thing itself, as you’d expect yourself not to regret lending it to them if you had all available future information, and are thus okay with not having that information.

That’s why, in this second sense, “Trust” really only has meaning if it’s applicable to situations where you might normally trust someone less or be unsure of them. If you can always know what someone does and why, your trust of them lacks the real power of the second definition. It’s only when someone is able to act without your knowledge, or acts in ways that you don’t understand, or even that seem like they harm you, that your “true” trust in them is tested, and either justified or not.

Because it can be unjustified. People can trust others in this “true” sense and still be wrong, and be hurt as a result. I think this is why it’s such a rare form of trust, in the end; it’s a more vulnerable stance to take, the same way an expression of love is different from an explicit commitment.

Which ultimately makes this trust about you as much as others. Whether you want to be the kind of person who trusts others to that degree or not is an orientation to vulnerability, and the deeper connections that can result from it. It makes sense not to grant it too often, but to never grant it at all would indicate either an inhibition of true connection, or a paucity of good friends.

Memorization Matters

When I was young I and others I knew used to deride “memorization tests.” In a world where being able to learn facts is easier and faster than it’s ever been, it was hard to imagine why being able to recite trivia for a test would ever be useful. And since structured education is an abysmal way to learn in general, it took me a while to distinguish the poor pedagogy from the value of actually having memorized knowledge of things, even in the Information Age:

1) Synthesizing existing knowledge is usually necessary to gain new insights about the world. It seems obvious when stated clearly, but pay attention to how often people feel like they have new or interesting ideas, only to discover that they’ve already been had by others or are invalidated by some facts they didn’t know. Knowledge builds on knowledge; the more you have, the more likely you are to generate more.

2) Memorized information saves time, the value of which is often underestimated. People spend a lot of time trying to remember things, arguing about what facts are true (often for inane pop-culture info), and even a 10 second google search adds up if you do it enough, and can break flow of thought and productivity. Personally, I spend hours every week researching stuff for my story that someone with more in-depth physics, history, biochemistry, etc education would just know and be able to utilize to write.

3) Having a large body of true knowledge is VITAL for good information hygiene. Lack of knowledge is a big part of what makes up “gullibility.” When you hear an assertion about reality, your mind often automatically feels something, whether it’s skepticism, plausibility, confidence, or just uncertainty, that weird “back and forth” feeling as your brain offers up arguments or data or comparisons for and against.

The more true facts you actually know, the better calibrated your skepticism of false claims will be, and the more likely you are to actually investigate things that are presented as true when you think they’re not, or presented as false when you think they’re true.

To be clear, when I talk about memorized facts, I mostly am referring to actual understanding, not just being able to say the right combination of noises by rote. Memorizing a list of invention names doesn’t help you create new inventions, being able to recite atoms doesn’t help you understand each one’s properties, and new information would just get absorbed if you don’t understand what you’ve memorized enough for there to be some interaction with it. But once in a while even basic memorized trivia like names and dates are valuable for their own sake too.

I don’t mean to counterswing into an opposite extreme. Simple facts are no substitution for critical thinking or creativity, and knowing how to gather good information is also a very important skill. But the knowledge you have stored is what informs your thoughts day to day, and often affects whether you will know to start gathering more when faced with new info of dubious quality.