The jury stared at Aaron in fascination. Aaron's light eyes stared back from under their thin, tapering brows. "We haven't seen you since we were at the Lakes," Dawn did nothing to conceal her surprise from the much younger boy. "How have you been? How'd you get here? And why'd you come?"
Aaron fidgeted with the hem of his shirt. "They invited me. The Pokémon League and International Police, I mean. I'm a witness, like you. I didn't have to come. But I did anyway. They helped me here. Touko and Touya, I mean."
Mr. Davis stood from his seat and held out a hand, which Aaron took nervously. "I'm Mr. Davis. I've been the judge for the past couple days. How long have you been here? Watching the trial?"
"Since it started, actually. I've been sitting with Ash's mom. Helping Brock and Cilan with the cooking. I've gotta stay busy, you know. It helps."
The judge asked, "Helps with what?"
Aaron shook his head dismissively. "With everything. Ash'll get there. He's done it so far."
Ash gestured for Aaron to sit where Cilan sat earlier. "Sit down, then. Well, I was talking about us passing out the pamphlets to people. How people were getting into it. I was just about to talk about Roark."
Aaron began to ask, "What about Roark--", but he stopped when he saw Ash's eyes darting about the room, from the scarred floor to the twisted bleachers. "Oh. I remember now. He," he stopped. Ash began to wonder why Mr. Davis seemed to become uneasy, glancing about as well, fingering another one of his badges.
"Things actually didn't seem any different, at first," Ash mused. "We stopped at Orburg City, for our three-day pamphlet run. We went to the Pokémon center and asked Nurse Joy, in code, about Roark. Asked her if she could let him know that we'd be staying with him for the next three days. And she had stared at us like we were crazy, which I still wasn't used to seeing. "Didn't you hear?" she'd asked, lowering her voice. "He, he's..."
Dawn had asked if he had been injured, by, by _him. Nurse Joy had shook her head. A tear had appeared at the corner of her eye. "No, he's not injured. He's... dead."
Ash halted, speaking flatly. "I hadn't believed her. I said that it wasn't possible. Roark was so strong. He was a tough opponent, and respectable too. But she insisted. She had signed to a fellow nurse to take her place and led us to a back room, where we blocked off the door, covered the windows, and emptied the supply closet. She had sat down at a desk and turned on her Pokétch, hooking up Clemont's transmitters. After typing in some codes, a holographic image had hovered in front of her, a couple feet wide, three-dimensional, and in full color. We'd crowded around.
I'd recognized the austere room that was the main arena in the Orburg gym from the times I'd battled there. Roark had been on a ladder, polishing the walls. He had been alone.
"Clemont and Cheren sent us cameras," Nurse Joy had explained. "They bought them with the money you've been sending them."
"It's nice," Touko had mused. "It's plain, but rock gyms are like that. That's why we don't have one."
"It's 'cause everyone in Unova's too flashy," Touko had said, laughing. "Have you _seen Elesa's gym?" She had abruptly stopped and started laughing harder. "Wait, you have! With Bianca. But since she's added fireworks and a runway and a live streaming camera of footage from the--"
"Shhh," I'd said, pointing at the hologram. It hadn't changed for the past few minutes, it had just been Roark scrubbing and polishing the wall. But I'd seen movement at the corner of the screen. Nurse Joy had pointed at the spot and zoomed in by drawing a border in the air around it. I had seen a trainer, an ordinary Ace Trainer, with backpack and Pokétch. But no Pokéballs. It had been generally agreed upon by everyone that having Pokéballs endangered people, so most people hid them on their person or used other similar devices to store their Pokémon.
The trainer had looked up, slightly confused. "Roark?" he'd called.
The gym leader had chuckled, turning his head to greet him with his dark red eyes. "Hello. I'm sorry. I should have told the gym trainers that I was working. Forgive me. Well now you know what it looks like when a gym leader isn't battling."
"I didn't know you did your own chores," the trainer had said in surprise. He'd walked closer and peered up at Roark, who stepped down off the ladder, holding out a slightly soapy hand. As the trainer shook it, I had seen a silver flash around the trainer's wrist, but it had passed by so fast I hadn't thought anything of it.
Nurse Joy had been real nervous. "Did you see that?" she'd asked.
"You mean the, the flashy round thing?" Touko had asked, pointing at the trainer's right wrist. "I did. What is--"
"Shhh." Touya had said.
"--thought that all gym leaders cared for were their... Pokémon." The trainer had frowned slightly, his hands at his belt.
"Well we've gotta do what we've gotta do. Whether that be clean our gyms or battle." Roark responded cheerfully.
"Roark?" the trainer had asked.
"Why did you become a gym leader?"
"Well my father Biron was one. I wanted to be like him. To be strong. To fight good battles."
The trainer's frown had deepened somewhat. "Were there not battles that you knew you must not fight... but fought anyway?" he had asked. I had noticed a slight change in his voice. It was no longer curious and light. It had sounded questioning, probing.
Roark had looked visibly taken aback. He'd shifted his weight on his feet and shook his head. "I've learned from every battle I've fought. I seek to help all my challengers learn too. I may not be a teacher but I've given out plenty of lessons. And not all of them are written on a board or on a piece of paper. Some you've gotta experience for yourself."
"But," the trainer had insisted, his voice growing slightly louder and higher, "have you not considered that you have hurt the Pokémon you have fought... the weaker ones? Have you not seen the pain in your "friends" eyes as they take blow after blow for you?"
I had asked Nurse Joy to pause the hologram and zoom in. Again I'd seen and pointed out the flashes of silver. On both of the trainer's wrists this time. Flashes that had appeared as he talked, his hands lifting from his sides, gesturing widely and sharply. Roark's eyes had shifted from one of the trainer's hands to the other. He had seen them too. I'd seen his right hand move to his cheek, his thumb on his throat. Nurse Joy's voice had shaken as she'd explained. "He'd been in trouble then." She'd drawn, _his, name in the air. "He had realized his danger. That he'd been cornered. He was alone. He had to get out and warn people. Or die trying. But he'd seen, _him, too late." She had continued the hologram.
I'd heard a scream of pain and turned back to it, where Roark had been clutching his nose, red seeping between his fingers. "That... that is only a tiny fraction of the pain your "friends" have endured for you."
Another scream from Roark. And I had seen what had happened this time. The trainer's hand had shot out and punched him in the jaw, but Roark had grabbed the trainer's other arm, yanking his arm back behind him, striking him across the cheek, trying to restrain him. But as soon as he'd touched the trainer's arm, he'd yelled an ear-splitting yell, his body wracked with pain. Before I could fully grasp what had happened, the trainer's fists had glowed blue, and he'd jabbed at every place he could reach: arms, face, chest. His feet had glowed too, kicking Roark in the legs and back. Roark could barely stay standing.
At last the trainer had slammed an elbow into Roark's neck and stomach. Arm Thrust.
As Roark had collapsed to the ground, the trainer had stepped forward so he was right above Roark, to the side of him. He'd lifted his left hand from his side, sparking yellow, one spark landing on Roark's forehead. Thunder Wave. Roark had writhed for a second, then lay still, eyes open, nose, legs, arms, all spurting blood. In his right hand, he'd grasped a sparking, glowing cube of metal, which pulsed with energy, a living thing in its own right. The power was its lifeblood. And his. And surrounding his body and Roark had been an aura of green energy and around his black and white jacket and black pants had floated locks of green hair.
Even paralyzed on the ground, Roark had enough strength to look as terrified as someone with full control of their body. Facial muscles are awfully helpful in doing that. Despite himself, he'd screamed, straining on the ground to get away from N, but it was no use. N had trapped Roark between a rock and a hard place. If Roark didn't escape, he'd die. And if he did, N could disguise again himself and get away with beating him senseless. But Clemont had always told us to choose the former, if it would save more lives. And that's what Roark had ultimately done.
N had looked calmly down at the gym leader. "You may be a rock-type expert, but you cannot stand firm like one." he had said. What had caught us off guard was that he wasn't insulting Roark. Just pointing out the obvious from what had happened, a slight smile at his lips. Logically.
Roark had twisted his head slightly, staring N down with angry, wide, dark eyes. "Damn you," he'd said between clenched teeth. "You, won't, get away, with this. Not on, my watch." Roark had paused to take breaths, coughing up blood when he had finished speaking.
"It is interesting... how you claim to give all your effort when you are truly not... how I had no need to turn any of these--" he had gestured at the Natural Machine, which to, _his, word, was not activated to any type or TM arrangement, and the power was at seven blocks out of forty-nine. He had not needed to augment his powers any further than their usual level and Roark had already been defeated. I had wondered, fascinated and horrified, at what, _he, would do to him next.
Roark had struggled valiantly, but N had planted a foot on his chest, standing there, waiting. "Why do you even bother fighting me," he had asked calmly, turning the modules of the Natural Machine to two columns of TMs of every type and fourteen of the forty-nine power modules. He'd struck downward, yellow sparks shooting from between his fingers as he had broken Roark's nose, the Thunderpunch causing red to coat Roark's face and his own knuckles. Roark had gritted his teeth, trying not to scream again.
Then abruptly he'd given out a determined yell. He'd bashed the heel of his shoe on the ground, and a blade had emerged, embedding into, _his, leg, a trickle of blood falling to the floor, this time from, _his, own body. "But," Touya had said, "if he's an illusion, he wouldn't bleed. So that means that he's real!"
"So there is a way to know," I had said. "At least we know now."
"Shhh!" Nurse Joy had shushed us fiercely. "Look!"
N had let go of the Natural Machine and watched it hover at his shoulder. It had begun turning itself, to three full modules of power and three columns of TMs of every type, just under half power. "I wonder why you fight me... knowing that you have such an insignificant percentage of my power," he had mused. "You must know that there is no chance of you surviving... for any more time... I tell you... you must know that you will die soon."
Roark had growled through his teeth, through the pain. "I will not let you do this. I have defended this gym for too long to give up now. You are despicable." He had writhed onto one elbow, striking at N's other leg, tearing the pant leg open.
N's eyes had flashed with anger as he'd pressed his foot down on Roark's chest even harder, crushing Roark's wrist with his heel. I had no need to look to know that Roark's wrist had been crushed to splinters.
The Natural machine had suddenly jumped from its position at N's shoulder, spinning rapidly. It had suddenly turned so that all five TM columns per type were full and so that six of the seven modules of power had been aligned. A flash had lit up the gym, luridly showing off Roark's broken body. Silver surrounded them, the Natural Machine shining with power. Flash cannon.
Suddenly, N had placed his hands at his sides. He had stood, contemplating Roark's limp form. He had removed his foot from Roark's chest and stood still, gazing off into a corner. Roark had lifted his hand weakly and made a sign at the ceiling."
Ash faced the jury. "I would do it or tell you it but you'd all find it offensive. But it had been proper at the time. It meant that though roark had been ambushed, put simply he'd put N through hell first. He'd make him do everything possible to kill him. And that was pretty damn admirable."
Ash stopped. He could not decide on how to proceed. He knew what had happened, but he did not know how to tell Mr. davis. However, just when Ash was about to turn to Dawn, she turned to him and began to speak. "Ash, I know how you feel. I know it was, was, I don't even know what. But we have to do it. If we don't then who will? Just talk and I'll help."
"Okay. Thanks." Ash said in blunt gratitude.
"What did you," Mr. Davis began to ask, only to stop. "Oh no. Please don't tell me that..."
Ash and Dawn nodded in unison. "Yes," Dawn confirmed, lacking emotion. "Your suspicions are correct. After the Flash Cannon, N had stepped up to Roark again, to above his head. He'd held the Natural Machine in his right hand, which had begun to glow softly green and white. He had spoken slowly, clearly, but angrily nonetheless. "Now you see what I am capable of... the number of permutations I can compel into existence. _Now you see the error in your ways... now you feel their pain, do you not?" N had asked.
Roark had opened his mouth to speak, only to gag, red coating his lips. "Yes," he'd croaked. His eyes, filled with determination, almost dilated, had changed slightly. Instead of looking exclusively at N, they'd lingered on his own belt. N had noticed. He'd stepped closer, so that his feet were inches from Roark's head and face. He'd looked down at Roark, his eyes searching his shattered, blood-spattered features, evaluating his progress in creating yet another transformed graph. His eyes had locked on Roark's belt.
And before Roark could react, he'd lunged downward, raking his hands across Roark's chest, tearing open his shirt, seizing his belt and dangling it above his face. Roark had tried to grab onto the end but N had stomped on his jaw. He'd held the belt in both hands and burned it, embers at his fingertips causing smoke to waft toward the ceiling, causing the Pokéballs' surfaces to glow red with heat. "I admire your steadfastness... but steadfastness is not enough to withstand one with the precision to create an equation to suit any data set... any scenario... to free _any Pokémon from any damned trainer. You have suffered through all the pain your "friends" have suffered through for decades... all in one day. What have you to say for yourself?"
Dawn faced the jury as well. "I had thought that Roark was dead by now. He hadn't seem to move or even breathe. But he had had just enough strength to speak. We'd all thought he'd say something scathing and defiant, that, that _he, had not done enough. That, that _he, knew nothing about Pokémon. But he hadn't. He had lifted his wearied, bloodshot, defeated eyes to N and uttered these words: "I understand now. I understand why--" he'd coughed, his body thrashing on the floor. "I know now. Their pain. Their toil. You were right. I regret ever daring to oppose you, _My _Lord _N."
At the time, I had thought Roark was crazy, we all had. Everything he'd trained for, and he'd given up!"
Ash added, "I'd actually been angry at him, for giving in. But that didn't last. N had raised his hands above his head, Roark's burned belt and its contents following suit. "I commend you for seeing sense... but you have not experienced all that you must experience. Pokémon must suffer near-death experiences every day for their trainer's amusement. Now _you must know their fear, their pain, their last thoughts! You must know the thought that they would kill for if they could tell the whole world, the name of their savior!"
N's hands and the Natural Machine had been fully above his head now, Roark's Pokéballs hovering around it. "_N!" he'd shouted at the ceiling.
The Pokéballs had shattered into pieces, raining down on Roark, a downpour of flames. No Pokémon were to be seen. N had probably freed them by then.
The floor had begun to quake, causing Roark to bash against the tiles. And he hadn't bothered to resist as N had rose into the air, his hands burning impressions in the ceiling.
I had seen streaks of color and electricity stream from the Natural Machine as it spun in midair. The hologram had begun to splinter so that we could only see parts of it. But I'd seen enough of it. I'd seen the Natural Machine turn to maximum power, inches from Roark's forehead. And I'd seen it plunge down further and touch skin and I'd heard the sickening crack. I didn't have to know what had happened. All I knew was that one thread of the Net had not just unwound itself from the whole. No. It had unwound itself from the whole, been shredded into pieces with blades of power, burned to ashes, and drowned in blood."