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Natural Liberated

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Dedications: To D. Le, for helping me kindle my, and thus your, interest in the Unova region, one of the franchise's most beloved characters, and this story. To E. Sherwood, who helped me hoan my battling skills in the Kalos region, which I look forward to someday visiting in real life a second time, in order to pay tribute to its trainers. To I. Rowe, who I hope I have appeased with my second attempt at interpreting and representing your character, in a role I prey to Arceus you will find N-joyable. Also I want to apologize to my cousin, who should know that though I put your character through quite an ordeal, you will receive the treatment proper to you.

Part I: The Acquiring of Powers

 

Chapter 01

Ash Ketchum walked along the edge of the road cutting through Indigo Plateau, waving to trainers who passed by, Pikachu trotting alongside him. "Are you ready?" Cilan asked him, resting a hand on Ash's shoulder lightly and squeezing it.

Ash nodded slowly. "As ready as I'll ever be."

He stared around the once-beautiful plateau, noting where the grass had been burned, rock melted, the stadium where Pokémon battles had taken place for decades still smouldering not too far away. Who would have thought that it would ever be destroyed by anything or anyone, let alone someone like, _him...

"Who else is, speaking, today, anyway?" he asked haltingly.

"Testifying," Iris informed him gently, lacking her usual upbraiding tone.

"What does, testifying, mean?" Ash wondered.

"It means to speak in court. You do it to provide evidence, to prove that someone is guilty or innocent. To find out what's what. I'm testifying there too. So is Cilan. And many others. It just so happens that we are doing so at the same time. And Ash?"

"Hmmm?"

"_He, will be there, too..."

Ash shuddered, feeling anger and fright rise inside him at the mention of... that trainer. "What is this even for?" Ash asked, spotting a crowd in the distance. "Someone called my mom a few weeks ago. There's gonna be a, a..."

"A trial," Cilan filled in for Ash. "That's the time when you testify. We'll be testifying in front of a lot of people. A lot of trainers."

"A, trial, here, then. N's sorry for what he did, isn't he? Why do they have to ask us about it? He wouldn't lie!"

Even as Ash defended the unique trainer, he held back the urge to run, to yell his anger at, _him, to the sky, all at the utterance of his mysterious, instantaneous, formulaic, name.

He came out of his thoughts when he heard Cilan say, "They have to do _something, the Pokémon League and the International Police, I mean. People want answers. It's their right. After all, N and Team Plasma, their crimes aren't just a Unova region thing. They endangered all Pokémon. This trial is on behalf of all Pokémon trainers."

"Pika!" Pikachu jumped onto Ash's shoulder in fright and clasped its paws around his neck. Ash stroked its back, the scars across its back and forehead. He could still remember the attack being aimed at them and fired off, how it was too quick for any of them to dodge, how he had a similar scar on his forehead, that trainer's name written into his skin...

After a couple more minutes of walking, Iris pointed ahead. "We're here!"

A tent had been erected at the base of an Oranberry tree, one of the few which remained standing. A crowd parted at the entrance to let them through. A man emerged from the flap. "Nice to see you here, Mr. Ketchum," he walked up to them and held out his hand. "Your mother and I talked on the phone, about you testifying. I'm glad you could come. I know it's been, difficult."

Looker gestured vaguely at Ash and his Pikachu.

"Thanks for allowing me to come Looker," Ash replied softly, as they entered the tent. Benches lined the walls of the tent, a podium at one end, chairs grouped in lines facing each other around it.

"Your part of the story will be very important Mr. Ketchum, all of your experiences will be. You and your friends know N and have traveled with him extensively, so you will be able to help us dissect his behavior. And you are a prominent Pokémon trainer yourself. And many of your friends are gym leaders. You are a powerful witness in this case." Looker responded solemnly.

Ash gazed around the tent. "What is this place?" Ash asked Looker.

"Well, since most of Unova has no power, many buildings there have been destroyed, including its main court, and this place is famous among Pokémon trainers worldwide," Looker explained, leading Ash, Cilan, and Iris to three chairs, "this was the most proper place to perform the hearing. Besides, we collected jurors from all over the Pokémon world. Everyone knows this place. Everyone must help come up with a suitable verdict. You've talked to your advisors, yes?"

Ash and his friends nodded. "Good. You should know the proceedings from the papers I sent you. Follow them, and be honest, and all will be well. The trial will start soon."

Looker took his seat beside Cilan, and people filled the bleachers around them. Ash waved to Brock, Misty, and his mother, who stared grimly back. "Good luck," Misty mouthed, and Ash gave her the thumbs-up. His mother's Mr. Mime looked at Ash, mirroring his trainer's nervous look. "Are they, testifying, too?" Ash leaned over and whispered into Cilan's ear.

He nodded. "Eventually they will. Just you wait."

A tall, sturdy-looking man walked in and stood behind the podium. His sharp, dark eyes stared out from under his spiky purple hair, and several badges were pinned to his coat. "He's worked in all six regions, see?" Iris pointed to the badges, which were shaped like the six Pokémon world's regions, arranged like they were on a map. "So, he's--" Ash began to say.

"I'd like to call this hearing to order," the judge boomed, and Ash almost jumped out of his seat. "The hearing of Natural Harmonia Gropius shall begin now. If you please, bring in the convicted!"

Chapter Text

Chapter 02

At the judge's cue, two Ace Trainers, one on either side, led a man into the tent by the arms. He blinked and stared at his surroundings confusedly and curiously, his long, pale green hair flowing around him, for it was not tied back in its usual waist-length ponytail. The sleeves on his black jacket were rolled up past his elbows, his crisp white shirt slightly ruffled. He calmly approached Ash, his shoes, which matched the color of his hair, clicking sharply, decisively, against the dirt floor. Ash's eyes automatically gravitated to a colored cube, which jingled on one of his left belt loops. N sat in the chair provided for him, and his bright green eyes opened wide at seeing Ash, adopting a surprised and, seemingly innocent, stare. "Ash," he whispered to him.

"You are Natural Harmonia Gropius, correct?" the judge asked.

"Yes." N answered in his quiet, mysterious, and, Ash felt a pang when he realized it, powerful and confident, voice.

"And your witnesses? Where are they?"

"They... have been causing some difficulty, back where they are being held in custody. They... are not stable enough to come here, Your Honor. So I will be the only one here, for now."

"Very well."

The judge turned to face the bleachers closest to him. "This trial, as some of you may know, will not be a traditional trial, for this man--" he pointed at N, who looked back nervously, "did not commit a crime, not in the way you would all imagine it. Trials are usually conducted to determine a man's guilt, but this trial is to determine whether it is even viable to convict him at all. Therefore, during this hearing, we shall hear evidence from all sides. Normal court procedure will go out the window. As long as you are honest," he said to Ash, his friends, and N firmly, "you will be fine. One of you will begin the testimony, and any of you may add evidence when needed. During this testimony, I will ask you questions to help lead or clarify your testimony. If you need assistance, do not hesitate to ask. Are we clear?"

The four interviewees nodded. Pikachu tightened his grip on Ash's shoulder. The judge smiled. "Relax. You have no reason to fear anyone or anything here. Courts are just places, and they're safe. I will make sure of that."

Ash felt butterflies in his stomach, but they soon faded. This man, he was assuring. This place was definitely safer than those cities up in flames, his friends running through the streets, looking for a place to hide, those green eyes always finding him...

He shook himself. "I'm ready!" he exclaimed.

"Well then," the judge said warmly, "you're up first, Mr. Ketchum. And to all of you, you do not need to call me Your Honor. My name is Ian Davis. We're just finding out answers, no one's going to jail. Now," Ian Davis turned to the court at large, "we shall begin. Mr. Ketchum, tell me as much as you can remember."

Chapter Text

Chapter 03

Ash launched into his story with no hesitation. "Well, Cilan, Iris, and I met N on a boat headed to Aspirtia City, where I was gonna visit the new gym leader, Cheren. He had been staring at Pikachu. And when we approached him about it, he told us about how he could "hear the inner voices of Pokémon", how he could basically read their minds. He told us about how he desired to meet Reshiram, the Pokémon of Truth, so that he may learn the purpose for Pokémon, why they had to exist in the world, and why we train them like we do."

Pikachu jumped off Ash's shoulder and stood beside him, looking up at Mr. Davis curiously. It began to run towards N, but it stopped halfway. It slowly walked back to Ash and clung to his leg tightly.

"Mr. Gropius, what did you do on the boat to Aspirtia City?" Mr. Davis turned to N, who nodded. "I boarded the boat at the same time as Ash. I had noticed Pikachu... and I wanted to know more."

Ash continued. "When we got off the boat, N said that we would meet again. And we did. Several days later, on the way to the White Ruins to meet Cedric Juniper, we met up with N again. He had told us about how Team Plasma had stolen a Braviary, and how he wanted to set it free. He had been injured. And we had helped him by helping the Braviary escape, while he led the Team Plasma people away.

Just before Braviary was to fly away, I saw that it looked distressed. Cilan realized that Braviary was distraught because N was in danger. So we ran as fast as we could and found N alone with the Team Plasma grunts. They had their Pokémon out and they were about to attack him."

Ash stopped, unsure of how to explain what happened next. Even now, after his experiences with N, he could make little sense of what had happened. It still seemed impossible…

"What's wrong Mr. Ketchum?" Mr. Davis asked kindly, and Ash shook his head.

"You wouldn't believe me. I know it. You'd think I was crazy. It couldn't have happened."

Mr. Davis shook his head as well. "Everyone's all ears Ash. Just say as much as you can. Take your time. We can help clarify it for you."

"All right then. Long story short, I saw N hold up, the cube he has there on his belt--" Ash pointed at the cube, which was about two-and-a-half inches square and was painted in many colors. It glowed faintly. Ash noticed N looking down at it with a visible look, a mixture between pride, awe, and sadness. That cube, N's childhood toy, transformed into the bane of Pokémon trainers…

"Well, N held up that cube and had begun turning it. I shouted at him, warning him about the Pokémon, about how they were attacking, but just as the two Pokémon reached him, N jumped in the air. He glowed blue, and the Seviper and Zangoose glowed blue too, them and their trainers. They were all thrown in the air, and wherever N looked, they went. When he looked away, they fell back down again. I realized that he was controlling them, somehow. It looked like what Sebrina's Cadabra had done to Pikachu at the Saffron City gym when I challenged it. Like, like Psychic.

The Pokémon had both managed to stand up after that, though. One of the grunts had commanded Seviper to use Bite, and the other said for Zangoose to use Scratch. This time, N had lunged at Zangoose's trainer and his had fists glowed blue. He struck the grunt and he flew high in the air, and when he came down, he didn't try to get up. As for the Seviper's trainer, N did the same thing. Both the Pokémon trainers were unable to fight back, due to being unable to give their Pokémon orders. We managed to release the Braviary safely after that."

"Mr. Gropius, what did you do when these Pokémon attacked you?" Mr. Davis asked.

N nodded vigorously. "Sir, I did what Ash has described. But in jumping up initially, I also used Agility."

"To all of you," Mr. Davis turned to the four witnesses, "can you describe what you saw?"

Ash and his friends slowly nodded, while N agreed fervently. "They were Pokémon attacks, Your--I mean, Mr. Davis," Iris said slowly.

"They were Psychic and Mach Punch," Cilan added. "And N's aforementioned Agility, too."

"And if you don't mind me asking," Mr. Davis turned to N, "how were you able to do these things?"

N took the earlier-indicated cube off his belt and held it up in front of him for all to see. "It's because of this, Mr. Davis. It gives me the power to do what is supposed to be the exclusive reserve of Pokémon. I can fight like them. I am a trainer with the powers to speak with Pokémon if I may, and fight for and against Pokémon if I must."

Chapter Text

Chapter 04

The courtroom was silent for only a couple seconds before the entire jury started shouting at once. "What is he talking about? That can't be true! Is he crazy?"

N stood from his seat and held the Natural Machine above his head for all to see. It started glowing brighter as everyone watched, and little sparks of different colors flowed out of it. He let go of it, and it continued to hover over his head. "No my fellow trainers, you are not mistaken. I can use the same abilities as our Pokémon. I have told Ash this already... I actually told him right after we set the Braviary free. But I will tell all of you now, so there may be no confusion or misinterpretation, for I know that people will misunderstand.

As you know, Team Plasma made a device that manipulated the brain activity of Pokémon by exposing them to certain radiations. The scientists who made this machine, mainly consisting of Colress and his associates, actually developed this device and similar ones over the course of several years. This cube, which was eventually dubbed the Natural Machine, due to me being the only person capable of using it, was one of these devices. It is apart of it, actually. In order to understand why I have this device, I must tell you all everything…

You see, I used to live in the forest with Pokémon, and my constant contact with them allowed me to develop the power to understand them, to communicate with them from a very young age. One day, Ghetsis, who would become Team Plasma's founder, discovered me and my abilities. He took me into his home.

While I lived with Ghetsis, I was educated by the Seven Sages. They emphasized how trainers were evil... how Pokémon were meant to be free from peoples' control. I believed them… and to foster this mindset in me completely, Ghetsis forbade me from going outside. I stayed in the room he provided for me for virtually my whole time I was living with him. He brought Pokémon to me who had been abused... who hated people. This made me hate trainers.

Due to my constant isolation and Pokémon being my only company, I was transformed. I would spend hours conversing with them. I learned about their abilities... how they lived… knowledge that every Pokémon professor would kill for, even just one bit of it.

I knew I had changed when I saw myself doing… what I can only call extraordinary feats… looking at an object, and having it come to me… conjuring jets of water from nothing… setting papers alight without matches… and it happened more and more all the time. And eventually, I learned to control it."

"So," Mr. Davis asked, "let me get this straight: you think that your contact with Pokémon gave you the power to do what they do?"

N nodded. "Very much so. The Pokémon I befriended taught me to harness these powers. They told me about how they controlled them in battle… how to direct them at other Pokémon. I practiced unceasingly…

Then, one day, a Team Plasma grunt came to my room. "Give me that Pansage," he had said roughly.

I had refused, saying that it was my friend, but the grunt just pushed me aside and strode into the room. The Pansage had run behind me and cowered. The grunt was about to strike me down, but I felt my hands tingle. Tendrils extended out of them and lengthened. Without thinking, I yelled and struck the grunt. The tendrils wrapped around his arms, pinning them to his sides. He struggled, but the Vine Whip attack wrapped around him tighter. "What the--" he tried to say.

My fist crashed into the side of his head, to the sound of cracking bone. He winced as a thick purple liquid seeped from between my knuckles, spreading across his face and uniform. Poison Jab, most likely… "How did you--"

I felt my hands begin to tingle again. This time, I looked down and saw yellow sparks jump up from between my clenched fists. Almost instinctively, slowly, deliberately, I raised my hands over my head. The grunt cowered back in his bonds. "Please, my Lord N, don't, give me the Pansage, and I promise, I won't hurt it…"

I shouted at him. "Never! You aren't friends with Pokémon like me! You don't know what I know! You can't do what I can do!" As I uttered the last word, I saw a bolt of electricity escape my up-stretched hands, falling onto the grunt. It hit him hard enough to drive him out the door, headfirst. He didn't even have time to scream for help.

When the light of the Thunderbolt attack faded, I saw someone standing in the doorway, his head almost touching the top of it. His purple and silver robes reflected the remaining light from my attacks. His red eye stared down at me, already filled with what I only know now was greed. "You never told me you could do that, n," Ghetsis had said, a hint of surprise in his voice.

I had stared up at Ghetsis, not feeling the fear I usually felt when confronting his tall stature, one visible eye, and monocled right eye. I suppose it was because I knew that I had something that he didn't. "Well, you know now," I said simply.

"And how long have you been able to do this?" Ghetsis had asked me."

I had thought for a moment. "Several months. Why do you ask?"

The glint of greed and desire had filled Ghetsis' eye. "Do you not know already? Team Plasma would value your powers more than anything. You could help us, N. You could free the Pokémon more easily, you know."

I had contemplated what Ghetsis had told me. I could free the Pokémon… lead them in battle against abusive trainers… "Sure," I had answered.

Ghetsis had smiled. "Wonderful. I will have Colress come by tomorrow. He will find this very interesting. As do I."

He had turned on his heel and left the room. As he closed the door behind him, I had heard him laugh. It had sent chills down my spine, stronger than any Ice Beam. Then, I had felt an instinct within me… telling me that Ghetsis was not as benevolent or kind as I thought… but I ignored it. Oh, what I would have done if I had followed my gut feelings!" N slammed his palm on his forehead for emphasis. "I didn't know how right I was at the time. As you all know, I turned out to be correct."

"Ash," Mr. Davis asked, "Mr. Ketchum, please tell me what you know about these events."

Ash nodded. "Well, N told me what he told you. He told us in the days following his rescue of the Braviary."

Ash rubbed Pikachu's ears, thinking. "Even after hearing it once before, it's still pretty, different, to say the least. It's shocking. I couldn't believe it, at first, but I knew deep down that it was true. I certainly know it now."

Mr. Davis stepped away from the podium and stretched. "Well, everyone, I think it fitting that we have a break. Cilan and Brock have been kind enough to provide refreshments for the duration of this hearing. You can thank them. They are set up outside. We will come back here in an hour. Please leave all Pokégear, XTransceivers, and Holocasters in that box. This meeting is supposed to be as private as possible. The rest of the community, no, the world, may not be as sympathetic as you all to our friend."

Mr. Davis gestured at N. "Remember that as we proceed."

At the judge's signal, the witnesses and jurors left the tent and exited into the hot noonday sun. Everyone gathered around the picnic tables provided for them, taking food as needed. Ash, Iris, Cilan, and his friends from Kanto sat together. "It's so astonishing," Misty said as she ate her sandwich. "I still can't believe all of this either, Ash. It's, almost unreal, you know?"

Ash put down his fork and nodded. "Yeah. You weren't with N and everyone else and me as long as you could have been, so you kinda don't understand everything, but I still hear you..."

As Ash and his fellow witnesses ate, N sat alone close by, listening to their conversation. "Oh Ash, there is still more… much more. You know that. But they don't. There is one witness in this trial that no one will expect, let alone prepare for. Reshiram… you know it all. I wonder if you will help me... even after what I've done…"

Chapter Text

Part II: Augmenting Natural (and Creating His Machine)...

Chapter 05

After the hour-long lunch break, the witnesses, jurors, and judge returned to the tent and assumed their places. Mr. Davis gestured to the witnesses. "You don't have to sit so far away, you know. Pretend like I'm another person that's traveled with you. Or Professor Oak. For all intents and purposes, I will be acting like both. Personally, I am just as curious about this story as anyone here and like Looker, I'm trying to find out the answers, like a Pokémon professor doing their research."

Ash felt much better after hearing Mr. Davis, so he scooted his chair closer to the podium, his other friends following his example. "Now," the judge mused, "where were we, Mr. Gropius? Something about, oh, Colress?"

N nodded. "Yes Sir. Do you want me to tell you about him?"

Mr. Davis assented. "Go ahead. We have as much time as you need. We'll be patient."

N sat back in his chair, rubbing the Natural Machine between his hands in thought. "Well... as I told you, as Ghetsis promised, Colress came to my room the next morning. After telling me that his hair was naturally... different... from anyone else's hair that I had seen previously, he told me about the types of experiments he had planned for me. He wanted to connect me up to different meters, expose me to different substances, to try to augment my powers. "I find it very intriguing that you can do this," he had said, twirling his pen in his hand as he spoke. I remember how he had been fascinated at how I made his clipboard hover in front of him and move toward him when he needed to write. "Will you come with me, N?"

I had hesitated, remembering Ghetsis' greedy looks, his laugh… but Colress seemed very friendly, very relaxed. "Okay."

Colress had stood from his seat on my bed and gestured to the door. "Follow me, then."

I stared around the room in awe as we entered it. "It's so shiny!" I had said in wonder, laying a hand on a metal bench beside me.

Colress had smiled and sat beside me. "I enjoy this place too. So many theories to test, so much data to collect."

A somewhat dreamy look had entered Colress's eyes, but it only lasted for a couple seconds. He had become business-like again as he turned to me. "N, I will first conduct some rudimentary tests, to see the current level of your powers. Please face that back table."

He had gestured to a long steel table across from us, on which laid several objects: notebooks, magnets, batteries... I had gazed at them curiously. "Now N," Colress had instructed calmly, "I want you to look at that--" he pointed, "block. It has a mass of one kilogram. You are sitting three meters away from it, and it is one meter off the ground."

I had looked at Colress inquisitively. "Why are you telling me these measurements?"

"This is partially for my sake, but it's also so that you know what you are expected to do, and within what parameters. I will be controlling the parameters within which you are being experimented. This is to test the extent of your powers as thoroughly as possible. And you have a right to know the nature of my experiments, after all. Have I made myself clear?"

I had nodded. "Yes."

Colress had taken up his clipboard, which started to float in front of him once more, and had written on it. "1-3-1 fore test, in five, four, three, two, one…"

As promised, Colress had asked me to move various blocks of different masses at different distances away from me and at different heights above the floor. He had asked me to move a block hanging from a pulley in a certain pattern at varying velocities. He had measured the amounts of electric current I could generate within certain time frames and the loss of energy from my body in the process... how strong a magnetic field emanated from me… how quickly I could use all my powers to complete tasks. He had challenged me to use my powers in ways I had never thought possible. He had stretched me, my body, and mind to their limit. He was kind, but firm, a coach, while I was the athlete… training me to exercise a power never-before harnessed by a trainer. And as he experimented, I learned. He always told me his results between trials and the conditions of the experiment. So I adapted. Very quickly.

After several hours, Colress had said that he had sufficient data for the time being. "You are very intriguing, you and your powers," he had said as we walked back to my room. "You are different from anything or anyone I have ever studied. My Lord N, Ghetsis will be very pleased to see your results."

A chill had gone through me at the mention of Ghetsis, but it vanished almost instantly. Colress… he was… different from Ghetsis. He only wanted to help me become stronger…

"Colress?"

"Hmmm?"

"What does Ghetsis want with me, anyway? Why do you want to help me? It's for him, isn't it?"

Colress had begun to chuckle. "You are very smart, N! I congratulate you for figuring it out. As Ghetsis told you yesterday, he wants to use your powers to liberate the Pokémon. I will help you do that. From what I have seen of your data, you are very strong. You have much potential, but there is much more to be unlocked! Much more power to be unleashed! Much more energy to be harnessed and controlled. And I will help you do that. Keep that in mind, I am helping you as much as I am helping Ghetsis. Have a good night, N."

Colress had closed the door behind him and left me alone with an Emolga and a Pidove. They had run up to me, and I had laid a hand on each of them gently. "I'll become more like you," I had told them eagerly.

They had cooed in reply and followed me to bed. As I had closed my eyes, I had thought about what Colress had told me: "…potential to be unlocked… power to be unleashed… energy to be harnessed and controlled..."

It came to me, a Focus Punch to the gut. I had shot up in bed and stared off into space in shock.

I was going to be Team Plasma's weapon."

Chapter Text

Chapter 06

As N recounted his training sessions with Colress, Ash thought about what had occurred over the past several months: the physical and psychological therapy, the days when he did not want to leave the house because he was afraid that someone... N? would attack him, the nights that Pikachu would stay up crying in Ash's arms, and he would cry too, because they were very close and felt each others' pain. He found it almost impossible to believe that a man who actually loved Pokémon more than his own life, someone who was almost a Pokémon himself, could do so much damage to them and others like him, those who cared for them...

He snapped back to his senses as N's piercing green eyes landed on him in mid-sentence. "--told Ash about this, but not all of it... how the Natural Machine was actually created after several months of training sessions and experiments. It had been the culmination of Colress's work with me. He had showed it to me one day after we had worked on manipulating targets in different ways, which he had specified. By this time, I could move objects as heavy as a man... throw them in the air... and control their flight. I could make objects levitate. I could sustain flames of high enough temperatures to melt metals for extended periods of time... break concrete and bend metal with just my mind... and other similar talents. Colress had beamed at the arrival and analysis of each new collection of data. "Excellent!" he would say. "This is far, far beyond my wildest dreams! No theory could account for such perfect results!" He would finger his pockets in excitement when he thought I didn't see, but I did.

At last, his excitement, it seemed, became too great to contain. "My Lord N," he had said, straining to remain professional, "I have a gift for you."

I had blinked. "A gift? For me?"

Colress had smiled widely as he fished his hand into his lab-coat pocket. He pulled out the cube that I now hold before you today. He had dangled it from one finger with the chain attached to the center of one of its faces. I recognized it somewhat because it was similar to the Void Cube, a type of puzzle which I enjoyed playing with. When I asked him about why it looked this way, he explained how he had done this on purpose. "You are familiar with it, N. So you won't have much to learn, in knowing how to use it. It doesn't have a hole in the middle because, well, I'll explain." He had explained how it worked in very vivid detail. All of you must know how it works, as well.

Colress had said, "This cube has nearly all the data of every Technical Machine, every Hidden Machine, every move to be taught via move tutoring, and every move to be taught via breeding, known. However, only the moves which are biologically feasible for a person are in here, for humans lack wings, claws, tails, and sufficiently-built craniums to perform some moves. By compressing memory and optimizing processing power, this is, quite simply, the highest power TM ever created. This machine interacts with and monitors your brain activity. When you turn the modules, like so," he had held the cube in his hands and turned part of its bottom once clockwise, "a certain configuration of TMs is accessed. This cube is made of five layers of five rows and five columns, 125 modules in all, ninety of them determining the number and type of moves accessed. The symbols at the center of each individual cube indicate type. The cubes are transparent so that you can align alike symbols in columns next to one another. The types are organized in alphabetical order in a clockwise manner, so bug type moves are in the top-leftmost column of five, dark next to that, and so on, spiraling inwards until water is in the third column in the second row. Thus, when I turn it like so," he had turned the cube several times, "see these three columns--" he had pointed "one with four blue cubes, one with three yellow cubes, and one with three black cubes? That means that you will have a certain number and configuration of moves of the water, electric, and dark elements available to use simultaneously. If you want to utilize moves of certain types, align the appropriate number of modules so that they are next to one another and begin by occupying the upper-leftmost column.

The remaining thirty-five modules, from the fourth column in the second row, clockwise until the third column in the third row, control power. Aligning like cubes here will increase the power of the configured moves by intervals. Right now, the first, second, and third columns are completely filled, so you are at just less than half power right now. For easier configuration, you can think of each cube being an increment of 0.2. We will be using this scale in training from now on. When all the cubes are aligned, 7 is the maximum power setting."

Gingerly, I had touched the cube with my finger, and immediately, I had felt a rush of energy enter my body. "It's… amazing... an almost infinite set of permutations... crammed into such a dense volume... I commend you Colress," I had said, beaming as I continued to admire the cube.

Colress's grin had grown wider. "Well, My Lord N, I have a question for you: what would you have to do to activate all the moves simultaneously, at maximum power?"

"Simple," I had answered at once. "I would have to somehow maximize all the colors, five cubes in every column, and align all the power modules."

Colress had chuckled. "Correct! But not quite. In order to access the true power of the machine, you must activate it yourself, whether it be with a tactile or verbal cue. For the time being, the way to fully activate it is to first configure it fully, then by twisting the top and middlemost block once. That block is the one attached to the chain. The chain will be connected to a miniature computer in your belt. It is the device which unlocks the true power of the cube."

N's lips turned up in a slight smile as his eyes met Ash again. "It's complicated, I know," N said to him. "I remember you staring at the machine for hours, trying to understand it. It's still confusing to you three, I know, and it is for you too," N turned to the jury, "but you will eventually understand it. You must."

"What did Ghetsis say when he saw this cube?" Mr. davis asked.

N tensed. The cube lit up in his hands. "Oh, he was absolutely delighted. After several weeks of experimentation with the cube, Ghetsis had stopped by Colress's lab while I was working with him. I had been improving the amount of force with which I could strike targets... and how fast I could do so. After using only one Agility attack, I could react to attacks from virtually three hundred sixty degrees around me, and faster than most trainers' eyes could see. I could steal the Pokéballs off a trainer's belt without laying a finger on him.

Ghetsis had walked up to me and asked for the cube. He had held the cube in his hands... the same glint from several months before entering his one visible eye once more. "Excellent," he had said, stroking the cube. "Your work with N is simply beyond words," Ghetsis had turned to Colress, who had smiled and bowed slightly. "Thank you Ghetsis. But N's potential hasn't been fully unlocked yet. _Far from it! N has progressed in leaps and bounds since I first saw his powers, but there is so much more to do! The only way to know how far N has come is to test the machine. Experimentation alone can only do so much."

Ghetsis had turned to Colress and asked, "what do you propose? How and where should we put N's powers to the test?"

Colress had snapped his fingers. "Oh Ghetsis! Why, that is simple. We simply find a trainer, and... liberate... their Pokémon from them."

Ghetsis had smiled and laid a hand on my shoulder. "N, this is your chance. You will have the opportunity to change the world. Yes, you will only liberate the Pokémon of one trainer, but that will turn into ten, a hundred, a thousand. Then... the whole world. N, I actually have an important mission for you. I will be doing something very important tomorrow. And it is imperative that you be there."

"What are you doing?" I had asked.

Ghetsis had leaned forward. "We are looking for a very important Pokémon. We are seeking to get the opinion of this Pokémon. After all, it knows the true extent of Pokémon's suffering."

I had gasped. "You mean...?"

Ghetsis had smiled. "Oh yes, N. _That Pokémon: Reshiram, the being of Truth. You will help us summon it tomorrow morning. You will do it, no?"

I had almost jumped for joy. "_Reshiram! Here? Of course! A hundred times yes!"

Ghetsis had clapped his hands in excitement. "Excellent! Colress shall wake you tomorrow at dawn so that you can prepare yourself. Good luck."

I had laid awake in bed that night, wondering about Reshiram's purpose in helping to free the Pokémon. I did not know, but I approved of it. Reshiram would know how to free the Pokémon. And I would have to follow its advice."

N turned to Mr. Davis and asked "Do you follow, Your--I mean, Mr. Davis?"

Mr. Davis nodded. "Of course. I've heard more confused testimony in my day. You are doing well. What happened when Ghetsis summoned Reshiram?"

N nodded. "Oh. Well, it was... as to be expected... to say the least."

Chapter Text

Chapter 07

Ash looked around the courtroom as N talked, observing the faces of the jurors, his friends, and Ian Davis. Many of the jurors seemed skeptical, for they looked at N very doubtfully and openly. They almost scorned him, scoffed at him. "How could he be truthful?" they were probably thinking. "Why must we hear him? He is out of his mind."

However, some of the faces in the surrounding bleachers stared down at him, N, and his friends in anticipation. They sat at the edge of their seats, leaning forward to catch a glimpse of N. They knew intuitively that it was not N which they feared, rather the small multi-colored cube at his belt. They searched his face curiously, wondering how such an intelligent, kind man could be controlled, to be turned into a weapon, like how he and his friends had done every moment for the past several months...

"Mr. Davis?" Ash faced the judge, who turned to him, smiling. "Yes, Mr. Ketchum?"

"May I ask a question of N? I know that you're supposed to ask the questions, but, I'm curious."

Mr. Davis nodded. "If Mr. Gropius approves, then yes, you may ask."

"Of course you can ask," N replied in a surprisingly quiet manner, lacking the power that it had had during most of the proceedings.

"You told me and my friends that when Reshiram was summoned, it was very angry. It destroyed the building. And you had met it. But, you never told us everything, didn't you?"

N nodded. "Yes... you are right. I never told you everything. So I will do so now. What you have said is true... but keep in mind, _I was used to summon Reshiram. You see, Colress, as promised, had woke me at dawn. He had walked with me to the very top of the building, where Ghetsis and other Team Plasma grunts had waited. "Shall I prepare N for the ceremony?" Colress had asked, and Ghetsis had nodded. "Yes, yes you may. We will summon Reshiram at noon."

Colress had led me aside, where a more compact version of some of his lab equipment had stood. "Please sit down N," he had said smoothly, gesturing to a chair. He had strapped me into the chair and asked me to take up the cube. "Now N, I want you to solve the cube and twist the unlocking mechanism. Then, I want you to close your eyes, and do not open them until I tell you. Have I made myself clear?"

I had nodded. "Yes, Dr. Colress."

I had solved the cube, closed my eyes, and leaned back. There were a couple seconds where I was aware of my surroundings: the metal chair, restraining straps, the sounds of Ghetsis and Colress talking. "...ready?"

"Yes. Locked on... and firing!"

A stab of pain in my right arm... a crash, and a flash of light so bright that I could see it, even through my closed eyelids. Energy had flowed from me, for I had grown tired. The room had grown very hot, and I had tried to jerk away from the chair, but was held in place by my straps. I had heard shouts, running footsteps. "Oh legendary Pokémon Reshiram, come forth and ignite your flame, and descend into our world once more!"

Another crash... and a piercing roar.

I had felt the floor shake under my feet, the chair rocking on its base. I had heard cracking, more screaming. Suddenly, the chair to which I was strapped had pitched about wildly, tumbling through the air. Against Colress's orders, I had opened my eyes mid-fall.

I had seen flames surrounding me, so close that I could reach out and touch them... The fast-approaching lower stories of the former Team Plasma building, some already alight, some already smoking and charred.

The third sign I had actually seen slightly later. My fall from the top floor of the building had seemed to pass slower than one might believe. However, when I had hit the ground, I had hit it hard. I had fallen into unconsciousness almost instantly. The only reasons I had survived were the chair fragmenting under me, absorbing the energy of my impact, and in my panic during my fall, my creation of a Reflect and Protect around me, providing a shield which deflected any shrapnel.

When I had awoken, I had seen this third sign. It had stood above me, staring down at me with fiery blue eyes. I had even felt the heat emanating from it through the protective energy fields around me.

As I had stared, I had realized who was staring at me, and my heart had almost stopped. "Reshiram," I had breathed. "You... came... after all..."

As I had stared at such an illustrious being, a single thought had entered my mind: clear, cutting, pained, and angry... very angry. "You will regret what you have done. All of it."

Then, a flash of light had surrounded Reshiram. Searing heat had surrounded it and me, and I had cried out in pain. The cube had turned white-hot in my hands and glowed brightly. Another thought had entered my mind, both angrier than before and more determined than before. "This power which I grant to you, it is so that you will find a way to escape. Natural, this is _your machine. Do not let it fall into the wrong hands. Or rather: snatch it from those wrong hands, punish those who have attempted to steal it, and keep it with you as closely as you can."

With one brilliant flash, Reshiram had set itself alight, and, with a sudden lunge, had grabbed me by the back of my shirt. I had screamed in both pain and fright as Reshiram flew high in the air.

I know I fell unconscious for the second time, but I don't know when Reshiram had dropped me. The last image from that flight... it stays with me, even now. It was Reshiram's rage-filled blue eyes boring into mine, that one thought tearing my head from my body and my mind from my body, such intense anger, bitterness, and... resoluteness, in such two short sentences.

"You will regret what you have done. All of it."

N turned to Ash, his fellow witnesses, Ian Davis, and the jury at large. He raised his voice and the Natural Machine above his head, which glowed brightly blue, white, and yellow with power. "As you know, Reshiram was right. After all, it is the pokémon of Truth. And it gave this cube its name, the Natural Machine, for it is mine, and I am the only one who can control it. But I only learned this after a long struggle. Ash," N lowered the Natural Machine to Ash's eye level, "it is time you tell these fine Pokémon trainers what happened. Do it for the sake of all trainers, from Kanto to Kalos."

At N's cue, Ash stood and turned to face Ian Davis and the jury. "Well," he began slowly, "I'll start from when N saved the Braviary, and what happened after, after my friends and I first saw the Natural Machine's power..."

Chapter Text

Part III: The Removal (and Creation) of Doors and Their Locks...

Chapter 08

Ash started where he had left off a couple hours earlier. "So N had told us everything, like, everything he has told you, Mr. Davis. And as to be expected my friends and me, we were so shocked. But from the start we knew that it was true. A person can't impersonate a Mach Punch. N told us about the Natural Machine, and I had asked if he knew anyone else who could do this, anyone else who could use the same skills as Pokémon could. He had said no, as far as he knew but that it was likely that other such people existed. "Only if they have a strong enough bond between their Pokémon... only if they are able to turn their two bodies and minds into one..."

"Could you teach me?" I had asked.

N had sat for a few seconds. I guess he didn't know what to say or how to say it. He had finally replied, "Maybe... just maybe. It will be painful, it will be difficult, it will be... formulaic. You will just have to trust me, okay?"

I had felt really enthusiastic about it, and so were they."

Ash pointed at Cilan and Iris. "N certainly introduced me to several new spices I could use to season up my life," Cilan said thoughtfully. "He was intriguing."

"I thought N was very determined in helping all of us," Iris added. "I mean, Cilan and me, we thought that we knew about Pokémon, due to our positions as gym leaders. But N proved to us that we basically knew nothing. N taught us all about how to spot the signs in our Pokémon that they were happy, excited, tired, or discouraged. And how to make them feel better, how to really get to them. He helped Ash, Cilan, and me on the entire journey to the White Ruins."

"I remember that first morning, when he started training us," Ash continued where Iris had left off, chuckling. "N had used a Shock Wave to wake us up. "That is nothing," N had said, laughing a little. "I could have done worse to you. And Pokémon will certainly want to do that to you and your partners in battle. You have to know how to endure it... because your Pokémon endure it for you. But unlike your Pokémon, you have to learn to channel that same power. That is what I will teach you to do."

From what I heard about Colress's tests on N, I guessed that N was gonna do the same things to us. He saw how powerful our Pokémon were, how much pain we could endure from them, how much they were willing to do to us. Like Pikachu, it was always very hesitant to use a Thunderbolt or any attack on me. N had told it that I would recover if it hurt me, but it still hesitated, it didn't believe him. I had finally knelt down and stroked it. At my signal, Pikachu had used a reasonably powerful Thunderbolt on me, hitting me squarely in the leg. I had gasped and fallen on my back. I had gritted my teeth and tried not to cry out, because N said that would scare our Pokémon. And I wanted to do what he had said, I knew that I had to do what he said, because he knew more than any of us."

"Oh. Those times were very educational," Cilan said, smiling. "N had used a Bullet Seed attack on me and a Dragon Claw on Iris. We were all on the ground, laughing and shouting in pain and confusion. But it passed. As we walked, N's hands or feet would light up, and one of us would sprawl on the ground. But each time we got up more quickly than we did the time before. He had bruised me everywhere, with those Razor Leaf attacks of his."

"It took us a long time to get to the White Ruins, like several weeks, at our pace," Iris said. "Several times each day, N would attack us. And we almost always had no warning. Sometimes, he would happily be chatting with us, or translating a conversation he was having with our Pokémon for us and in the middle of his sentence his foot would strike one of us on the leg. There was one occasion which still comes back to me because I didn't know why he did it. It was different. Only now do I know why.

N had been excitedly talking about how he had learned how to run as quickly as a Pokémon in battle, to integrate his attacks together. Then, all of a sudden, he had stopped speaking. He had stood rigid, his hands clenching into fists, his green eyes shining with a very, formidable, light. He had raised his fists up and jumped up, and struck Ash across the face with the palm of his hand, just like that."

She imitated the movement with the palm of her own hand, striking it against the air. "Ash only had enough time to put his hands halfway up toward his face and just opened his mouth to shout in surprise as N attacked him again. N had given Ash no time to recover as he struck him from all sides with many attacks: Sucker Punch, High Jump Kick, and his initial attack, Force Palm. Ash could barely stay standing. As N had drawn back to deliver what looked like the knock-out blow, Ash had suddenly given a yell and lunged forward. His fist had glowed yellow, and sparks had flown out from it. He had yelled as he retaliated.

Shockingly, N had not struck back. Rather he had stumbled back, looking as surprised as me. "Ash?" N had said breathlessly. "You... attacked me."

Ash's face had seemed almost calm for a couple seconds, immediately after he had punched N. "I, I c-c-can't b-b-believe I, I'm sorry. Did I hurt you?" Ash had asked with concern.

N had shook his head. "I feel--"

"Look."

I had pointed at N's shoulder. After Ash had used his Thunder Punch attack, a bruise had developed very quickly. However, as we watched, the bruise had faded, and the normal color had returned to the previously broken patch of skin.

"N," I had asked. "How did you do that?"

"Iris... I... don't know," N had replied, a new expression crossing his face: confusion. N had never looked confused in front of us before. None of us had ever thought that we would see him confused before or thought that he could look that way. He was so knowledgable. We all knew that he was so smart. But he didn't know how he had healed his own wound."

"And I was actually the one to figure it out," Cilan continued. "I had told N that he had used an Aromatherapy on himself. We had known about Team Plasma's Pokémon controlling device. I had asked him if the device could effect him, if he could have done it against his will, or by a similar method, like instinctually. N had thought about it, and finally answered, "Yes... when I had fallen from the top of the Team Plasma building and met Reshiram... I had used a Reflect and Protect... it had appeared around me, all by itself."

"And Iris, my friend," Mr. Davis asked, "what did you think of N's use of his powers, without thinking?"

Iris was about to answer, but Cilan answered at once. "I had thought about it for a long time, and I had finally figured out the identity of this ingredient. I figured out that N could use the power of the Natural Machine at minimal effort, without aligning any modules. The power resided very deeply in him, deeper than the Natural Machine could access. And as for his attacking outburst, I had realized that N had had no control over himself. Someone else had made N act like that."

"And you were correct, Cilan," N suddenly said, turning the Natural Machine in his hands. "Very much so. Ash, you should talk about Team Plasma's mind control device... what happened at the White Ruins... and the seizure of my powers by Ghetsis..."

Silently, Ash nodded. "Okay. I'll start with when we saw the Light Stone, and when we got trapped under the White Ruins. It's close enough to, to what happened."

Chapter Text

Chapter 09

Ash took a shaky breath. He knew that recounting these events would be difficult for him. The White Ruins, that was where it all started: the frantic runs through the streets of a score of cities, the futile attempts to secure Pokémon centers against attack, the threats echoing in his ears in that quiet, mysterious, and powerful voice...

"Are you all right, Ash?" Mr. Davis asked. "You seem, troubled."

Ash nodded. "It's hard for me to talk about it, the White Ruins. But I know now that I have to. Looker said that I was important."

Looker, who had been quiet for the duration of the proceedings thus far, stood from his seat and laid a hand on Ash's shoulder. "Ash, that's still true. You know that your friends are here too. They'll help you out when you need it. And they saw what you saw, experienced what you had experienced. And they have a different take on it too. It'll be okay. Just take it nice and slow."

Ash breathed a little easier. He knew that he could do it because he knew that he had to do it, for his friends, for Pikachu, for N...

"It was afternoon when we got to the White Ruins," Ash began. "Looker, in disguise, drove us there in his van. We found Professor Cedric Juniper in a central chamber of the ruins, talking with his assistants. "Thanks for coming," he had said. "And I have good news. I've figured out how to obtain the Light Stone."

At first I thought he was crazy. And so did all my friends. And I was right, because Mr. Juniper said, "at least I think so." and we all groaned. Such a serious situation and he couldn't pull himself together, even then. But anyway, he told us that he knew how to unseal the chamber where the Light Stone was kept, and after unsealing the door, we saw it for the first time.

Now that I think about it," Ash mused, "it was much smaller than I had imagined it. I thought it would be the size of a boulder. But no. It could have fit in the palm of my hand, if I really wanted to hold it." He held up a clenched fist. "Cedric Juniper was actually about to pick it up from its place on its rock, but suddenly it had lit itself on fire. He had winced and stepped back."

Ash chuckled. "He lost a few eyebrows. Well, he and his assistants had put the Light Stone in a clear case and brought it out to the outer chamber. He'd set it on a table and began measuring it, while Iris had told us about how the Light Stone was actually Reshiram in a different form, and of course, Mr. Juniper had said that there was no proof that it wasn't the Light Stone. And we believed him, in spite of the awkward wording."

"And, if I may ask," Mr. Davis turned to N, "what were you doing at this time?"

N smiled wryly. "Ah yes, my folly... well I thought it to be correct at the time. Mr. Juniper had been telling Ash and his friends the legend of Reshiram... how it would pass on its knowledge to a chosen hero... how it would treat that hero with kindness, as a parent would treat a child... how the hero's goodness would be forever ruined... how their home country would be consumed in flame... and how Reshiram would depart. I had actually completed Mr. Juniper's telling of the story myself. During this time, I had felt very angry. I had thought it foolish and deplorable that man could truly harness the power of Pokémon like that. Shortly before Mr. Juniper began telling the story of Reshiram, I had resolved to steal it."

N sighed. "I did not think that I was using my power for ill. Nay, I thought that I was doing the world a service. Not Team Plasma, no. I had either realized deep down that they were not as well-intentioned as they said they were or I always knew and that it was only then when I acted on it. So I used Teleport and reappeared right behind Mr. Juniper. I had said the story and revealed myself. I had asked him this: "What do you plan to do with the Light Stone?"

He had replied: "I want to study it, I want to do my research on it, about how Reshiram is able to turn its biological form into an inorganic, geological one."

In a fit of anger I had slammed the table with a fist, which promptly broke. Ash and his friends had stared at me but at the time I hadn't cared. "You have _no _right to treat Reshiram in such a manner as this! It is a being to be revered... from which we humans have more information to learn from than any experiment could ever yield! Sir, you don't know Pokémon! Only _I do!"

Mr. Juniper had looked very surprised. Well, he always looks like that." N remarked, to the jury's amusement. "You know about him more than I do... But in any case, he had asked Ash about me. And Ash had told him about my powers... and of course, he had not believed me. He reacted how Ash and his friends reacted to his own strange, musings. He had thought me stupid, ignorant, narrow-minded. I remember..." N said, fingering the Natural Machine and turning its modules as he spoke. "I had shouted at him, held the Natural Machine in my hand, right in front of his face. "Do you know what I can do?" I had asked.

He had shook his head. "What?"

To answer, I had turned the NM so that all the black and purple modules aligned, and quickly set all the power modules to maximum power. "This!" I had said shortly, striking him on the forehead. He had stumbled back and had no time to react. I had used a combination of Agility, Thief, and Teleport to steal the Light Stone. I had run several hundred yards before Ash and the others had figured out what had happened."

"I tried to call out to you," Ash remembered. "But you were too fast and too far away."

"But he stopped," Cilan pointed out quietly. "N, you stopped. You could have left us alone there. I wonder now, why did you let Ash catch up to you?"

N stood in thought for a short while. "I remembered my training... my attacks on you three. I guess I knew that you meant well, but that you knew less. My anger had abated for just long enough to let Ash come close to me... close enough to take the Light Stone back. But I had recovered, somehow, this new state of mind possessing me once more. I had sprinted faster, Ash barely keeping pace. I had warned him about how the ruins were treacherous, how they had not been fully explored... but Ash, you still ran after me."

Ash laughed. "Oh yes. Now that I think about it, I was kinda foolish too. Really reckless. I knew you could have killed me, if you wanted. I don't..." Ash trailed off and started again, "well now I know that you would have killed me, if you had the chance, in your state. I saw it in your eyes. It was like what happened when you had attacked me. You weren't yourself. But you didn't try to harm me. You got free of the control or the control dissipated. You let me follow you. We fell into the lower section of the White Ruins together. And you saved me, with that Telekinesis of yours. Me and Pikachu."

"Pika!" Pikachu squeaked as it repositioned itself on Ash's shoulders.

"We were down there for a while," Ash said, stroking Pikachu's back. "Mr. Davis, do you wanna hear about it? Our time down there?"

"And Team Plasma's siege on the Ruins?" N added. "He must know that, as well... everyone must."

Mr. Davis nodded at once. "Of course. And so do they."

He pointed at the jury, whose members nodded collectively. Ash had forgotten that they were listening.

"Start whenever you are ready," Mr. Davis urged. "Take time to collect your thoughts, if you must. I know that this was almost right before," he stood for a second, unsure of how to phrase it, "everything."

Ash, N, and his friends assented. "I'll do it," N said to Ash. "Because after I speak, you will use Rage Powder."

At Ash's confused expression, N chuckled. "You will be the center of attention. Very soon. Our conversation was also the last coherent memory I have, so I might as well recount it..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

N looked out at the jury, whose members stared back in either fascination, awe, or, for a couple people, fear. He was not the same N as before. He was not shy or reserved. _This N was in control, firm, and dignified, and he was not uncertain of what to say or how to say it. From what he soon said, it was obvious that he was very eloquent, contrary to his usual quiet, systematic manner. "I have heard," N began, "that my conversation with Ash has been called a "clash of ideals..." however... I will say now that this is false. We did not "argue", rather we attempted to reconcile our differences, as great as they were. Ash, Pikachu, and myself had landed in a spacious, sand-filled room. I had ensured that no one was hurt and that we still had the Light Stone. Ash... do you remember?"

N turned to the trainer, who nodded. "Yeah. I asked you why you wanted to steal the Light Stone."

"And I had told you what I'd told Cedric Juniper, except in much greater detail."

N chuckled. "Our "conversation" was more like me saying a monologue to you. But oh well. With every word, my memory of that conversation fades... but I can piece it together well enough. I remember how I had been angry, then. It was less than before, but it grew in intensity, very slowly and very inevitably, from deep inside me. I had said this: "There are few Pokémon in our time who are not owned by trainers. I have been told of the days when people thought Pokémon training foolish or unpractical. This, in fact, was recently... until the invention of the Arceus-damned Pokéball. _Now, Pokémon can be transported with an ease never-before imagined. And these portable prisons give humans the false impression that _they are the masters of Pokémon... that _they have to educate them, imbue in them their ways... that _they must take up the trainer's burden... But... while you emphasized time and again that you had bonds with Pokémon that could not be broken... that you were meant to help each other through the toils of life... you treated them like servants, machines which felt no pain... had no emotions or intelligence of their own... like the slaves of times gone by or the peoples of conquered territories...

But _I know otherwise! Ash, I have fallen asleep nights hearing the cries of scores of Pokémon. I could recount the stories of hundreds of Pokémon who found humans the ones without emotion. _I used my powers to heal the wounds of more Pokémon than you have seen, let alone caught and supposedly befriended!"

You tried to interject, Ash. Remember?"

Ash nodded gravely. He again heard N's angry shouts fill his ears. He was reliving it...

N continued. "You had tried to argue otherwise... and I knew that. You were about to gesture to Pikachu and its attentive gaze upwards, as proof that it was undeniably loyal to you. You were about to counter, with the utmost passion, that it would do anything for you! And I had not let you finish. I had known that you would say these things, so I had cut you off. I could feel the Natural Machine grow hot at my side. I had looked down and saw it glowing white. You had seen it too. "Ash, you cannot understand Pokémon like I can! You cannot decipher their yells of agony when you send them into battle! _You cannot truly empathize with your so-called "friends". You have not felt their pain! And do you know what?"

N stopped and turned to Ash, gazing at him intently. "You remember... don't you?"

Ash nodded again, his eyes covered by a fog, beyond which lay the courtroom, and within it, lay that chamber below the White Ruins, Pikachu at his side, and the impassioned and angry form of N attacking all of his conceptions of Pokémon-training. "Yes. It was awful. Well-said but awful."

"Well... this part of the conversation... I can barely remember. I suppose Team Plasma had taken control of all the Pokémon above ground by then. So they had me too. But they didn't let any sign appear unless they wanted to. You know that now."

"I remember what you said," Ash spoke quietly. "You were in my face. Like, your fist was right in front of my face. You had basically pinned me to the wall..."

Ash trailed off, remembering N's furious stare, his hands gripping him by the shoulders, Pikachu's frightened eyes staring up at him, the NM grasped in N's right hand, its surface pressing against his forehead, N's shout.

A hand rested on his arm, and he jerked back and gasped. "It's okay," Iris said gently. "It's only me. You were remembering it, weren't you?"

Ash nodded. "Yeah. I can feel everything. It's like it's happening again, here."

He shuddered as he felt at his arms and face gingerly, making sure that they were not being grasped by N... no. By what could then be called Team Plasma's weapon. With his ability to look back, he knew that he would have welcomed a thousand score of those angry words and potentially violent situations. It would have felt like nothing when compared to what happened after...

"If you don't want to say it," N assured Ash, "then I can--"

"No," Ash said bluntly. "I'll do it. Besides, it'll help me, get over it, you know? It's the only way that will happen. I'll do it."

Ash took a deep breath. He stared around the makeshift courtroom and looked into the faces of all his friends and every juror. "N had said, "And do you know what? I will set them free! Pokémon will chant my name! They will make me one of their own. Do you hear, _Ash _Ketchum!? I, Natural Harmonia Gropius, will free all Pokémon! And I will do whatever I must in order to do so! You, your friends, and all Pokémon and trainers now and forever, will never forget the name of the liberator of their supposed life-long partners, the remover of their shackles which bound them to their captors!"

Ash stopped, his eyes closed as he saw what he described before them. "You had slammed your fists on the rock wall around my head with every word. The room had lit up with power. I guess the ceiling had shook, your voice had seemed that loud. And this was what was echoing in my head, and theirs too. And it still does, even now."

Ash gestured at Cilan and Iris. "One letter. One identity. One name that even those above ground heard, I'm sure of it now. And it had grown louder every time. "N! N! N!"

Chapter Text

Part IV: Flee Him, Believe Him, How to Defeat him...

Chapter 11

Ash started his story where he had left off solemnly. "You may have heard from others that my Pokémon, by their strength and their faith toward me, helped N and me out of the room. And that N helped us too, in his own way. But you're wrong. Those who have such romantic notions are damned foolish, I say! Much of what I will tell you today will be contrary to what you have heard, from hearsay and the mouths of the ignorant. It has already started, in fact. It started long ago. Know now that I know what truly happened, and I will fight to the last to have it heard! I have endured too much to have it be scorned by those who know nothing.

Aye, it is true that Team Plasma had taken the Light Stone from N and that they had controlled Pikachu."

Pikachu, at hearing itself being mentioned, jumped onto Ash's shoulders and looked up at the jurors with interest. It chatted excitedly at Ash's ear, and N, at his place beside Ash, smiled. It was happy, even while its trainer told the most sobering story of his life. Pokémon had a strength of will that surprised him, even now...

"But on these matters, I will be brief," Ash said matter-of-factly, "for these events are not disputed. It was N's concentrated power which had freed us from that underground chamber. Some of what happened after is undeniably fact: Reshiram's summoning, the sudden edition of more energy than could be currently used by the Pokémon-controlling device, Ghetsis' command to Reshiram to set us alight. N had been standing quietly while this happened, when Ghetsis had turned to him. None of you know of this. He had asked, "N, do you not feel revulsion at the abuse of these creatures? Do you not want to see their cries of pain and agony turned to shouts of joy? Do you not want to _set _them _free?"

Then suddenly N had jumped up and struck Ghetsis across the face. He sent his cane flying, which promptly broke against the ground. "Do not say such to me!" N had shouted in rage. "_You are the one who made me so. _You gave me my powers. _You made me how I am. _You are to blame for the suffering you have caused!"

"But what can your passion do in the face of our superior, flawless technology?" Colress had asked smoothly as he sat behind the controls of their Pokémon-controlling device. "You stand no chance. I know the true extent of your power, N, so I know what you can and cannot do."

"How can you say such!" N had asked him as well. "You taught me to be this way! Your science has turned me into a being with the body of a man, but the mind and soul of a Pokémon! You cannot control me! They say that technological advancement is primarily performed in war... and this is true! I have become one with the Natural Machine! Its power is mine and I am the source and user of its power. Your mind-control device cannot control me! _I will fight a war for the sake of all Pokémon!"

Where I had been standing, I could hear only this much of the conversation. I saw Ghetsis stand there for a few seconds, quietly. I wondered why he didn't shout back. But I guess he'd spoken, because N had nodded his head vehemently. Ghetsis had turned to Colress, who had looked at N. More talking I couldn't hear. Then I saw Colress standing from his seat and working the controls. I saw a bright light emanate from the machine. It was only a couple feet away. There was no way N could have dodged it, even if he had tried. I saw that N was bathed in a bright blue glow, which stayed with him as the beam probed his body. Colress pressed some buttons and the beam was attracted to the Natural Machine. It glowed blue like the rest of N's body at first, but it changed to green. Then blue. Then green, flashing faster and faster. Then it stayed green. And N began to glow green too. The beam from the mind control machine turned green. And all the Pokémon suddenly began shouting. Their angry behavior, brought on by the brain-wave interference of the machine had vanished.

And N stood in the middle of them, gazing with passion and joy on those around him, while Ghetsis and Colress had stood back in awe. Cilan, Iris, Cedric Juniper, Looker, and me crept closer to watch. "You can't control me, Ghetsis," N had said calmly, his whole body glowing green. "I have turned your machine into a different combination of the same elements. It is no longer a Pokémon control device, rather a Pokémon liberation device. Thank you for your fine work. But now I have no need of your services. All I will need is the aide of my Pokémon friends. They will help me create the formulas I will use to shape this world how I desire!"

Ash stopped, his eyes wandering off across the room. His hands clenched, his back tensed, and he began to breathe in gasps. "He had turned to me, then," Ash said in a shaky voice. "He had seen us. And he'd said, "Ash Ketchum, try to stop me! Your loyalty to your friends is noble, but you can do nothing to stop me! Tell all the world of my quest to free all Pokémon, then! They will welcome it. Challenge me, and I will show you who is the master of Pokémon!"

With that, N had vanished in a flash of green-tinted fire and lightning."

Ash turned to Mr. Davis. "You must think me mad, to have seen such sights as these," Ash said, his voice shaking. "Even you, with your impartial mind and moral nature, must doubt me."

Mr. Davis shook his head. "Ash, I do not doubt you. Neither does anyone here. Just say as much as you can. I see that you shake. Do you want to take a--"

"No!" Ash shouted in passionate protest. "I will not rest until all in this courtroom know what I have suffered! The pain I have felt! The sacrifices I have had to make for my Pokémon! They must know!"

Mr. Davis assented. "I admire your determination, Mr. Ketchum," he said genuinely. "So your determination has not lessened in the slightest, even now. Please tell us more Ash."

Ash's face, which had been illuminated with a determined expression, changed subtly. The flushed cheeks acquired a brighter tone and radiated fire. The eyes, already alight, became feverish in their energy. His gestures about the room became animated, not through excitement, but through sheer want of releasing all the energy that they contained, all the memories of pain trapped within his still-young body.

"We were left there, at the White Ruins, alone. I don't know where Ghetsis and Colress had gone. But Looker had suggested that we drive to Aspirtia City, as soon as possible, to warn everyone. We had gathered the supplies we could and driven off. When we saw trainers by the road, we stopped and told them about N, his powers, his promise to free their Pokémon. But no one believed us!" Ash shouted angrily. "They thought us stupid, ignorant, foolish! Oh, what they would have said a half-year later, to see the trainer who stands before you, with nightmares of, of liberation! But nonetheless, we had gathered a decent enough following. Trainers traveled alongside the van and helped us find supplies. They passed the news along via any means possible. So by the time we got to Aspirtia City, a crowd of curious townspeople had arrived at the gate to watch our arrival. In my overly determined state, I had excitedly jumped out of the van and ran among them. I had shaken many hands and returned many greetings. I hadn't, however, noticed the anxious faces of the people. But back to the matter at hand. I had asked for Cheren, but the townsfolk refused to tell me where he was. I had said hotly that I had to see him, that it was so important. That it was about N!

A trainer a few years older than me had heard me and approached me. "Cheren's at the Pokémon center, but he's injured. He's in critical condition. You mustn't disturb him.

"i'd said to him, "Why's he injured?" but I felt a sickening feeling inside me even as I asked. I knew why. And he knew that I knew. But he answered anyway.

The trainer had shook his head. "Why else? Do you not notice the faces of the people, their anxious glances and fright? The one who you speak of, he passed by here several days ago. He had gone to the Pokémon center and demanded the release of all the Pokémon there. Cheren had refused, and N had attacked him. He had thenceforward threatened Nurse Joy that if she didn't free the Pokémon, he'd..."

The trainer had stopped. Then, suddenly, he had begun to cry. He had tried hiding it, but everyone saw him. "He said he'd... make her faint, and no Pokémon center could ever help her back up again! It was terrible! He was so strong! See? As soon as he'd entered town, he'd melted the gate! See? He'd scorched the gym, burned it down, and no one could stop him. And that's not the worst of it! Come see!"

We tried to keep up with the trainer, who ran frantically through town, glancing behind him all the time. Finally, in front of the Pokémon center, he had stopped. He had stood frightened and pointed at a spot about twenty feet away.

On the ground, there was an arrangement of charred concrete blocks, which Iris had guessed were taken from Cheren's destroyed gym. It was about six feet square and meticulously made. Even at our distance, I could see that the corners and edges were sharp enough to cut skin, clothing, even wood or metal. And maybe, just maybe, even the exterior of a Pokéball.

And it still glowed brightly green, the choicest color of our previous friend, who had then transformed into our enemy in an instant. It was the exact same shade as his hair and eyes.

It was a capital N."

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

"I see that you're still holding up, Mr. Ketchum," Mr. Davis said smoothly. "Are you still willing to proceed?"

Ash nodded quickly. "Yes Mr. Davis. I have to tell it, for Cheren."

"How is he?" Mr. Davis asked. "I actually met him, several months ago, right after he became a gym leader. He's very young, probably only five or six years older than you."

Ash nodded. "Yeah. When I battled him, he said that he'd been appointed very recently. He has been burned on his arms, face, and chest. An arm and a leg were broken. He was tended by doctors and Pokémon at all hours of the day. We visited him, right after we saw the, the N outside the Pokémon center.

Cheren had been on the top floor, in a room that was soundproof and had minimal lighting, all by himself, save for a couple doctors and their Audino. I was the first one to see Cheren, and, I guess it was right after he'd gone into surgery or had his casts fixed or something, but, I didn't see much, I might have imagined the rest. Maybe not. The broken skin and bones, the scabs, the blood. One of the nurses had been helping Cheren bandage up his arm, and that was the first time I saw blood. I mean not like a cut, that's happened to me plenty of times, but real blood, blood which pools, blood which seeps from a person and clings to everything..."

Ash stopped. He shuddered, for as he looked down at his own arm, he could see Cheren's half-bandaged arm, attached to his shoulder like it was his own, blood and all. He held back his desire to wretch and to scream. Cheren would not want him to scream. Not now. Was he hospitalized, even now?

"Mr. Ketchum?" Mr. Davis asked, "are you okay?"

Ash nodded. "Yeah. It's just, hard, I guess."

Mr. Davis put a hand on his shoulder and patted it gently. "I have seen much in my day, Mr. Ketchum. I have seen many a distraught trainer. I cannot begin to empathize with you now, maybe it will never happen, but I can try. Now, tell me what you did when you talked to Cheren. Take it one step at a time."

"Well," Ash began slowly, "we all crowded around his bed and started asking questions."

He chuckled. "Rude I know but we were all anxious, in regards to his welfare. He looked pale and was connected to tons of monitors. But he still spoke. He had waved his free hand weakly to hush us. "Calm down," he'd said to us firmly. "Tell me what you saw. Then I'll tell you what happened. Just, please, one at a time, and quietly. They've been treating my head too." Cheren had touched some bandages on the back of his head. I had asked myself, he'd been injured there too?

"We, Iris and I, actually told Cheren about N," Cilan began where Ash left off, "and Cheren was surprised, to put it mildly. He actually didn't seem surprised for long though, just sad that it happened. "He's something," Cheren had said as Iris and I finished up, Ash adding in whatever ingredients we had forgotten in our little confection. "So he's targeting good trainers, then?" he had asked Iris.

"I'd been really confused when he'd asked me that," Iris admitted, laughing. "Targeting good trainers?" I had asked.

Cheren had explained: "Ash: finalist at seven Pokémon League tournaments. You, Cilan, and I: gym leaders. And the trainer you met: Touya, co-champion of Unova. Don't you see? He wants all the esteemed trainers to submit, as an example to those of a weaker cast of mind. And I realize that he's already succeeded, in me, and Touya."

Ash and Cilan and me, we had agreed. "It makes sense," I'd said to him, "but what about his wanting to free Pokémon?"

Cheren had smiled wryly. "Well, you haven't seen it all yet, but this Pokémon center has no more Pokéballs, empty or full. N, he had destroyed the empty ones, and the filled ones too, after releasing all the Pokémon. I tried to stop him, so did Touya, and all the other trainers in the city, but N, he was too powerful. He told our Pokémon that we were not meant to be partners. We were not, cruel people, just misguided in thinking we could control them. We were not, meant, to have Pokémon. It would be better for them, to be free."

Iris sighed. "Cheren had asked for a cloth to wipe his eyes with. "He freed all the Pokémon at the trainer's school, the ones we had worked so hard to train. I had tried to protest, but he'd stopped me. "You are the epitome of Pokémon bondage... the extraneous solutions in the harmonious equations which govern all these Pokémon's lives," he had told me. "You have no business tampering with their existence any longer."

Cheren had touched his belt. "He had wrenched my Pokéballs from my belt, with his own--no, not with his own hands. He had pointed at them, and they had flown to him. I tried to grab them, but they flew high above my head. He had smiled at my shock. "Do you not see, Cheren? I have become a composite function, bearing the characteristics of man and Pokémon. What chance have you against me?"

Iris laughed harshly. "And I still remember Cheren's harsh laugh. "Oh how stupid I was, to fight him! My passion overtook my reasoning." He had said sadly. "I had tried to tackle him to the ground. Yes, in my foolishness, believing that I could fell him with just a physical attack, N had anticipated my gesture and used Telekinesis on me, throwing me into the air. He had used Bind too, pinning my arms to my sides so I couldn't protect myself. He'd slammed me against the ground once. "You know now how futile it is to alter my formulas, do you not?" he had asked, calmly, almost mockingly, no, not that. He was very friendly to me, almost playful. He brought me up in the air a second time, his hands gesturing in patterns, conjuring flames and lightning with the ease of my own Pokémon, like how they had done. A Thunderbolt to my leg, then a Flamethrower to my arm, then a Focus Blast to my back, and N did it like it was nothing, which it basically was. It was as easy for him to break my arm with Air Cutter as it is for all of us here to breathe. I had tried not to cry out in pain.

"You will forever regret your attempts to insert your values into my equations, Cheren," N had said as he brought me down onto the ground a second time, slamming me against the dirt right in front of the Pokémon center, where the whole town was gathered. Where they could all see.

"No," I had breathed between clenched teeth. "You can't, free them. There are, too many trainers, in this world."

N had raised his hands above his head, about to send me upward a third time, but he had hesitated. He had stepped close to me and looked down at me. I hadn't realized until then that he was quite the specimen: six feet tall, lean, muscled frame, dexterous hands, and those keen green eyes, watching my every movement, waiting for the chance to strike me down. "I assure you Cheren, that you will not forget this day. You will regret all you have done to your "friends". You will regret ever meeting Ash Ketchum, that blasted trainer who calls himself a friend to all Pokémon. Remember, _I am one of them. And I will free them!"

With this, N had sent me soaring high in the air, summersaulting and spinning until all I saw was a haze. A green haze.

"You will not forget my name!" This was N's utterance as he sent me skyward.

"_N!"

A lurch as N moved me higher, possibly fifty feet in the air.

"_N!"

A second mental tug as he jerked me upward again, so that I was about sixty feet above the ground, and just above Touya."

He had turned to the pensive trainer who stood by the head of Cheren's bed. "But you couldn't have saved me, not if you tried with all your might. You couldn't have resisted him. I tried to. And look at me."

"_N!"

With N's last shout, he had sent me hurtling toward the ground. In spite of myself, I had screamed as I saw the ground rush up to meet me. The last objects I saw were Touya's eyes on mine, N standing beside him, and green. The green of his hair, which fell below his waist, and his piercing eyes on mine as I impacted."

Iris stopped. "Ash knows this, but I, wanted to tell it. I see how he's uncomfortable, and Cilan too," she gulped, "and I wanted to do my part."

Iris shuddered, cowering back from an invisible foe, not knowing that he stood only a few feet away, searching her and his other friends' faces with those same attentive green eyes...

"Thanks." Ash told Iris shortly, with a quick nod from Iris. "Well, after Cheren told us this, we were all very frightened. Actually, everyone except Looker and Cedric Juniper. "You should tell the world this Cheren!" Looker had said eagerly. "The International Police, they would be interested in this case."

"They could help us," Cedric Juniper had said, "at least I hope so."

Of course we were all annoyed at his second-guessing. But I guess we were annoyed because we didn't have the guts to admit it out loud. "He's very powerful. But there are many of us, and only one of him. Our only advantage is that of numbers."

"What do you propose we do, Professor?" Cheren had asked.

"Didn't you hear Looker just say that you should tell the world? You should get on TV. Everyone will see what's happened."

"And I liked that idea," Ash added. "But I'd said to everyone, "We've gotta do it right. We have to look credible. People have disbelieved us before. They will still do so now. We have to get help."

"Can't we go to Verbank City?" Cilan had asked."

"Yeah!" I had said. "Lucus, and his films! He'd know what to do!"

"And Burg!" Cheren exclaimed, sitting up in bed. "And his art. He could photograph us, and, outside." Cheren gestured vaguely.

"And Professor Juniper, I mean, Aurea Juniper, she could speak!" Cilan had suggested.

"What are we waiting for?" Cheren had asked, without giving us time to reply. "Let's write up some ideas and get to work. We don't have much time."

Chapter Text

Chapter 13

"So what did you all end up doing? I mean, I know I'm supposed to be impartial, but that's only applicable in a traditional court."

Mr. Davis laughed. "Let's face it this is nothing like a traditional court. So in light of that I'll tell you this," he turned to Ash, "I saw you guys on TV. Live from Verbank City, sometime in the evening, right? You, Iris, Cilan, Looker, the Junipers, and Cheren, you were all there."

"Yeah. And Touya," Iris added. "He came at the last minute."

"Wow!" Ash exclaimed. "Who knew that you'd see us, even before we ever met you?"

"Well, my position does give me the right to know of current events," Mr. Davis pointed out, "and at the time, I found all of you intriguing. I didn't know why, but you all moved me, in one way or another. Just like how you moved the crowd."

"Well, it wasn't as hard as one would think for us to set everything up. Just really damn scary." Ash gave his own sharp laugh. "Well everything over the past few months has been really damn scary. Roxey paid for us to have a half-hour of television time on Unova News Now, based in her home city, obviously. She hadn't told the news people about why she wanted us on, just that it was urgent. And they had only believed her when it was too late.

It took us a little more than a week to drive to Verbank City. We drove by night, so we wouldn't be spotted. And we turned off our Xtransceivers. It was midnight when we arrived in Verbank City, and many people were still awake, including Lucus and Roxey, somehow. They met us at the gate.

"Hi!" Roxey had said to us as we climbed out of the van. "How are--"

"Shhh," Cedric Juniper had put his finger to his lips. "We mustn't be heard. If we haven't been already. Where can we meet in private?"

Roxey looked startled but composed herself quickly. "In my gym--"

"No!" Looker had said sharply. "It's too dangerous there."

Roxey looked from Cedric Juniper to Looker, confused by their frightened and serious faces. "The Pokémon center?" she suggested.

"No," Cheren said at once.

Roxey shook her head. "Then, maybe someplace in Pokéstar Studios," Lucus said. "In my office?"

We all agreed and run as fast as we could to the place, locking and barricading the door. We found a safe place to put Cheren in his wheelchair and emptied out Lucus' closet. "Just in case we have to hide," I had said.

Roxey looked at all of us with concern and then some fright of her own. "Okay. What's up with this? You all look like someone's after you."

I had laughed wryly. "It turns out that you're right. Someone's been after us for a few weeks now. Not just us though. You, Draden, Lenora, all of you."

Roxey picked up quickly. "Gym leaders?"

I nodded. "Yeah. And strong trainers. And Pokémon. All Pokémon owned by all trainers. He wants to liberate them."

"Liberate them? Who is this?"

In a few sentences, my friends and I explained what happened on the way to Verbank City, why we came. When we were done, she just stared at us. "By Truth and Ideals, _that's who you're up against? It's like, like what happened five years ago, all over again."

She stopped, shaking her head. "Never mind. Well, if TV time is what you want, then TV time is what you'll get. I'll take care of it."

"I'll contact the Aspirtia city Pokémon center for surveillance video. I can integrate it into your little documentary." Lucus said. "And Burg, he can take photographs. And all of you can speak."

"When can we do it?" I had asked.

"How about on the Unova News Now primetime show? Around eight o'clock? I'll pay for everything."

We all assented, and we pretty much locked ourselves in Lucus' studio from midnight until noon. He told us about how to write speeches and talked to us about the possible formats of our set. He told us how to act honest and act emotionally all at once. "Remember when we made that one movie," he said to Iris, "and I told you to cry like you would never see Axew again?"

Iris laughed. "Oh yeah! I remember now!"

"Well, do that, but without the crying. Okay maybe a little crying. Let all your emotions out. Imagine how you felt, and try to replicate the circumstances that made you feel like that as closely as possible. It'll get to people real quick."

The news anchors Ana and Andraes had called us around three and we met them around five. We rehearsed in their studio until seven. Then they herded us all out to the center of town and set up the cameras. And told us when we were gonna talk. It was only a half-hour until the news program would start when Andraes and Ana had pulled Cheren and I aside. "You know," Ana said in a quiet voice, "you never told us what you wanted to talk about."

She caught Cheren and me glancing at each other. Our frightened looks as we searched the square. Our peering into the faces of everyone who passed by. Cheren grasping his empty belt. Me leaning down to pick up Pikachu and set him on my shoulders. "What's happened?" Andraes had asked, his dark eyes alighting on us.

Cheren had sighed, his hands resting on the arms of his wheelchair and tapping them uneasily. "You'll just have to hear it. Trust us. We're not trying to lie to you. Just, take my word as a--"

Cheren had stopped. "No, not as a gym leader. I'll tell you now that I don't have a gym to lead anymore. Take my word as a trainer who has lost what matters most to him. Do this for all it's worth."

So we had waited beside a building behind a makeshift curtain for the first half-hour of the show. There was a sizable crowd watching the news live, people often waving to the news anchors. They soon got real friendly. Ana would call out people's names, and Andraes would laugh at a spectator's joke. But while watching those people, all I could see were black jackets, white shirts, and green eyes.

Finally, Ana spoke after a brief commercial break. "Now, we bring to you a very, special, news story. Even Andraes and me don't know what it is. But it's very important. Come on out guys."

She gestured to us, and we filed out: Cheren, Cilan, Iris, and I in a little group. Looker, Cedric Juniper, Roxey, and Lucus in another. And I didn't know it, but another figure had stepped to the front of the crowd and watched us intently.

"The floor's all yours, Mr. Ketchum," Andraes said to me as I stepped up to the microphone. It was decided early on that that I would be the one to speak.

"Ladies, gentlemen, trainers, Pokémon. I will not waste any more of your valuable time tonight with introductions. Standing before you are four beloved Unova gym leaders, the father of the famed Professor Aurea Juniper, the up-and-coming film director Lucus, and I, Ash Ketchum, a finalist of seven Pokémon League hosted tournaments. And I want to tell you all that at around 9:00 tonight, your perceptions of your Pokémon training will change. Forever. Like ours.

Several weeks ago I was blessed, but now I suppose, cursed, with the companionship of a young man named N. Yes, _that N. His real name is Natural Harmonia Gropius. By his name you may suppose him an educated sort of fellow. And he is. His two areas of expertise? Mathematics and Pokémon. Aye, his expertise in the latter has led him to be capable of communicating with Pokémon. And yes I know we do so too, when we battle, but he can actually speak with them. He could ask Pikachu here questions and have them answered and translated for us, if he wanted."

Most members of the crowd seemed skeptical. Now that I think about it they looked kinda like all of you." Ash pointed to the jury sitting around and above him and his friends. "At least, what you all looked like this morning. But some were waiting for more. Like how some of you did earlier today. They were curious. And I gave them more than they could handle, I'm afraid.

I had glanced for a few seconds at the faces to gage their feelings. Then I continued. "Aye, there is more. N was raised by Team Plasma, the group which has recently made headlines all across the region, due to their Pokémon-controlling ends. But they have been doing so for just shy of two decades more than what you know. Their leader, Ghetsis, he took N in as a child. He essentially left him captive in his room for twenty years. He made him see abused Pokémon, those abused by people. And due to this contact, N gained their powers: from telekinesis to pyrokinesis.

And he was experimented on by Colress. Colress used his science to augment N's powers for Team Plasma's benefit, eventually creating the predecessor and companion to their Pokémon-controlling device: the Natural Machine. It is, simply, the most powerful Technical Machine in the world. And N's natural abilities were further strengthened by Colress training him to use his powers in battle. He turned him into a weapon.

N's powers were used to summon and try to control Reshiram. And yes, _that Reshiram. Ghetsis failed. And after months of wandering the Unova region he had met me. Became my friend. Entrusted me with the knowledge of his powers.

But it changed in an instant. You see, N's power derives from the Pokémon around him. Control them and you control N. And this is what Ghetsis did. But N channeled the power of the device and Reshiram into his own body, further strengthening himself. He freed the Pokémon. But then he threatened me. He said that he'd free all Pokémon. He said he would tolerate no resistance. He said that he'd have me!" I'd shouted, raising a Pokéball above my head. "He wants to take these!" I said. "He actually succeeded in Aspirtia City. Behold Cheren, who is in a near-full body cast and wheelchair for his Pokémon's sake! Behold Looker, who has already risked life and limb for us and all of you!" I pointed at the projector above my head, where Berg now displayed video of Cheren's failed attack on N in vivid detail. The formation outside the Pokémon center. The empty PC boxes. Cheren lurching through the air. The cries of _N, _N, _N.

People began gasping and shouting, then. They were believing it. And I spurred them on. "My friends, my friends and I, we will fight him! I will not stop until N is shown the resilience of the Pokémon trainer's spirit!"

"And so will I."

I heard a voice from beside me. I turned to see a trainer slightly taller than me. Dark hair and dark eyes. Kind, yet sharp and alert features. And a Pokéball at his belt.

"I have seen N too. I have witnessed his powers for myself. Ash, I, Touya, Hero of Truth, will help you in your quest. Just say the--"

Just then, a light had fallen over the whole crowd. Light had played over the people's faces. The projector had squealed as the picture had been replaced. People had looked up and gasped in shock.

When I looked up, all I saw was one symbol. It was written in green light, and it hung in the sky fifty feet above us, tall as the actual man. It was also projected on the screens. And before my eyes, it was being carved in the ground with unimaginable speed and preciseness, like a huge stake being dragged through the dirt.

And all of them were in that same shade of dark green.

It was in the sky, on the screens, and forming before my eyes on the ground, and it was the last object I saw before I fell to the floor in front of thousands of Pokémon trainers.

All of them were Capital Ns.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

The courtroom was silent, but not only out of politeness toward Ash and his friends. The jury members sat and stared at Ash with shock and surprise. Their eyes were asking him: "What happened to you?"

"Why is Touya following you around?"

"How is N able to make these symbols appear?"

"Why? Why make these symbols at all?"

"How is N's hair so healthy? And Green? I want his hair..."

Amid the silence, Ash suddenly began to chuckle. "What's so funny?" Iris asked him.

He laughed harder. "Don't you see it? It's because everyone's so freaked out! It's like everyone's watching a horror movie!"

"Well let's be serious about it what's happened to all of us is better than any horror movie," Cilan said, trying to hold back his own laughter.

"Also," Ash said slightly more seriously, "well I fainted, so, uh, I don't know what happened after this. No one has ever told me. So, uh, Cilan? Iris? Looker? Please?"

They nodded. "Of course Ash," Looker answered. "And it would be best if I told the jury what happened here in any case, because I was put in charge of you. And I saw most everything. May I do so, Mr. Davis?"

"Of course!" the judge answered warmly. "You are a detective, Looker. This is part of your profession, after all."

"I'll say this now: after Ash fainted everyone rushed onto the stage with concern. Complete strangers demanded that he be brought to the Pokémon center while volunteering to use their car or Unfeazant to take him there. And we humored them. We ran to the Pokémon center as fast as our burden would allow and set Ash down in one of the wards. Doctors quickly checked his pulse and made sure he was hydrated. They hooked him up to several monitors and they scanned his body for injuries and found none, but recommended that Ash rest there for the night. They provided Cilan, Iris, Cedric Juniper, Touya, and myself with lodging near him and we settled down. Meaning that we all decided to share one room and once again barricaded the door and prepared the closets for hiding in. And that trainer, Touya, he signaled for us to gather around him.

We sat on the bed in the middle of the room and waited expectantly. I knew that the subsequent conversation would be serious, for Cedric Juniper was silent throughout the whole thing, asking not a single contradictory question.

"You may be asking yourselves why I came. I will be brief."

Touya had chuckled. "Well Ash said he'd be brief and it didn't happen, so scratch that. Just hear me out, okay?"

We all said we would. "Long story short: this is not the first time N has tried to free Pokémon from people. He did so a few years ago, a year after I earned all eight of my badges. I met him then and several times along the way. We'd battled. We talked. I saw Zekrom before my very eyes. And battled against it. And won. And found out that N was the king of Team Plasma. How Ghetsis had controlled him. But not necessarily in that order. N did not tell you this, but Team Plasma has tried to conquer the Unova region twice before: the first time, led by N and by using Zekrom, when he met me and my sister Touko. The second, when Ghetsis had used his Pokémon-controlling device on Kyurem and nearly succeeded if it weren't for three other trainers, our close friends Hugh, Nate, and Rosa. He told all five of us of his powers, over the course of several visits to the ruins of Team Plasma's castle, in the months following Neo Team Plasma's defeat."

"When did this happen?" Cilan had asked.

"Well, I became a trainer six and a half years ago. Touko and I battled Zekrom a year after we met N, which was literally on the same day we became trainers. Two years after that was when Hugh, Nate, and Rosa became trainers, and a year and a half after that was when they had met N for the first time, when he and Zekrom had saved them from Kyurem and stopped Ghetsis. We were all in contact with him until a couple months ago. I guess that's when he met you guys and Ash."

"So N's story, about Ghetsis trying to summon Reshiram and failing, that was more than six and a half years ago," I had confirmed. "So Team Plasma's done this before."

Touya nodded. "Yes. This will be the third time. You've gotta admit, Ghetsis is pretty damn persistent for trying for so long, practically three decades."

"Where are all your friends? Touko? Hugh Nate and Rosa?" Iris had asked Touya, to be greeted with a contemplative look. "Touko was in Nimbasa City, last time I saw her. Hugh, Nate, and Rosa are traveling together. I'll contact Touko to see if she knows anything."

Touya's eyes suddenly alighted on Cheren. "Cheren, where's Bianca? How is she? The last time I met her for an extended period was a few weeks after defeating N the first time. And Hugh told me that he and his friends met her in Driftveil City a little less than two years ago."

Cheren nodded. "I've kept in touch with her. She's working with Professor Juniper at her lab in Nuvema Town, I think. Why do you ask?"

"We have to find all our friends. Cilan, Iris, my friends and yours are the only ones who know how to combat N. We've all seen his powers for ourselves. We can help the people understand better and--"

A scream rang out, and we all ran to Ash's room, where a nurse stood by Ash's bed, while another frantically searched the closets. "Ash is gone!" one nurse said. "He was here when I checked on him ten minutes ago. And the window is locked and barred! He was hooked up to our equipment--"

"Excuse me m'am, but I think I have some answers," I had said calmly, bending down and looking at a spot beside the bed, near the floor. "Look."

Everyone had crouched down to see that there was a neat pile of monitors and cables, plugged into the wall, but not connected to their patient. "So Ash set himself free?" the other nurse had asked.

"Ash would have been too weak to do it." Touya had pointed out. "He couldn't stand or walk by himself when we brought him here."

"But in any case we have to look for him!" Iris had said, and we had searched all the rooms on that floor of the Pokémon center, every closet and under every bed. We had found no sign of him on the second floor, where communications equipment and the library were located. But we succeeded when we finally ran down the stairs to the first floor, where a group of people had surrounded the PC systems with fright and shock on their faces. And Ash had stood in the middle of them, crying.

"I didn't do it!" he had pled. "I swear I'm innocent!"

I had run to him and looked into his face with concern. He seemed healthy again. He seemed energetic, too energetic. Almost panicked.

"Ash, how did you get down here?" I had asked him.

"I don't know!" he had replied, searching around the room. "Where is he?"

"Who?" I had asked.

"Him!" Ash had shouted, pointing to a place in the room near the opposite wall. "He was just here! I know it!"

"Who? Who was here?" I had asked.

Looker turned to the jury. "I see the shock on your faces. So you've figured it out. I will say now that I was frightened then, as well. I have seen much in my long years as a detective, but Ash, what you told us then, that was what indicated to me that this case, it was nothing like anything I had done before, and probably unlike anything that will come after."

Ash nodded slowly. "Yeah. I kinda remember this. I wasn't myself then. But nonetheless I think that I should tell the jury what happened."

Looker agreed. "Very well. I had asked you what happened. Do you remember that?"

"Yeah. "I was lying in bed in my room staring out the window," I had told you and the others. "I was weak and tired, and I was about to fall asleep. But I didn't. I felt like I shouldn't. So I continued to look out the window, at the Xtransceiver on the bedside table. Everything. But when I found something to look at, soon afterward I always looked somewhere else, 'cause I, I felt like I wasn't supposed to look there. I felt like I was looking for something and didn't know what.

Then I felt the room become different. It looked the same but how I felt in it changed. I felt like I was being watched. Like someone was waiting for me to do something. And I had been right.

"You were foolish... to do what you did... to speak in public."

A voice coming from behind me. I didn't turn around. I don't know why. I felt like if I did..." Ash trailed off. "It would make things worse. So I kept staring out the window.

"You were noble... risking your life to tell them... but you were foolish nonetheless. Did you not know that the chances of me finding you were practically a hundred percent? Did you care that by your presence you have put the whole city in danger?"

That voice was quiet but it echoed. It was persuasive. Authoritative, yet nondescript. And it irritated me. I tried to identify it. In my concentration my eyes had averted from the window and instead focused on the floor, just in front of the bed.

"Your theorem was easily torn to pieces, Ash," the voice had said. "I admire you for your attempts... but _my equations are hardened against your halfhearted attempts to prove them false. You are predictable... and now you are at the exact coordinates where I want you."

The voice had moved, then. As it sounded it had moved around the back of me until it came from right in front of me. I looked up. And then I wished that I had just fallen asleep."

Ash shuddered. "N was there. He had stood at ease as he looked down at me, leaning back slightly, a couple strands of his tea green hair floating free of his ponytail. "Now you see the futility of your efforts," he had said calmly. "You are arrogant, Ash Ketchum. You thought that one act would render my formulas unusable. You have always thought so. You think yourself better than others, just because of your experience as a "trainer". How could you ever think that the gym leaders are strong enough to stop one who has defeated the champion... harnessed the knowledge of the Beings of Truth and Ideals... and possesses the power to fell their teams with one blow?"

Ash began to cry then, the sensation of N's hand clamping over his mouth and the sight of the green-glowing Natural Machine hovering over him coming back to him. "He didn't let me speak!" he choked out. "He restrained me! He said that if I tried to resist he'd destroy Verbank City! But I just proved him right. I mustered the strength to throw my covers off me and pull myself free of the monitors. Pikachu had run at N and tried to use a Thunderbolt on him, but he just took it. I don't think he even felt any pain, just took up the power and returned it, with a Shock Wave from the hand holding the Natural Machine. Pikachu didn't have time to scream. It just fell on the floor, paralyzed.

As for me, N had leaned in close to my ear. "You brought this upon yourself. You had no idea of the full extent of my powers when you met me. And what you have seen is just the first value in a very large set. You will have to fight an exponential number of fights for your life, before I am finished with you. I will end it now, so you may realize the grave error you have made in tampering my harmonious equations... those of which will produce the values that will help shape this world into one where Pokémon are free. _I am the one variable that no one in this world has ever anticipated to be substituted into any formula. N."

A flash of light as N wrenched me into the air so I floated near the ceiling, and another as Pikachu was brought up to hover beside me.

"N."

A rush of air and the sensation of objects bumping into me. I know now, from what you have said today Looker, that they were the Pokéballs from Verbank city's PC. I had tried to move free, to grab the Pokéballs as they floated around me, but N's eyes were locked on mine and held me in place.

"N!"

Clicking noises as the Pokéballs vanished. The room spinning around me, due to, from what you have said, me being teleported from my hospital room to the now-empty PC boxes downstairs. And N as he vanished, the green of his hair and piercing eyes forming what seemed to be a blinding light around me as I reappeared on the first floor of the Pokémon center where you found me."

Ash leaned down to Pikachu and held him above his head for all to see. As he held Pikachu with his left hand, he held up his right arm. Everyone's eyes alighted first on a scar on Pikachu's back, and secondly on a mark, as if written in green ink, on Ash's right forearm. The two marks looked identical. Both of them were about two-and-a-half inches tall and an inch-and-a-half wide. They had sharp corners and clean lines, the diagonal between the two vertical, parallel lines forming what the convicted would have called a transversal, forming two forty-five degree angles where it touched the top of the left line and the bottom of the right line, and possessing a negative, rightward and downward slope.

Each bore a Capital N, the first of many scars of such a kind among Ash and his friends.

The name of the man who had made him truly believe that he was serious in his intentions and that the world was doomed.

The name of the man who very nearly succeeded in his goal and succeeded in ending his arrogant ways while breaking him in the process.

The name of the man who stood beside Ash with reflective green eyes, long green hair down to below his waist, and the same, still glowing, still dreaded, still powerful, machine in his hands.

Chapter Text

Part V: The Attempted Defense of Unova...

Chapter 15

After Ash had held up his scarred arm before the jury, Mr. Davis thought it proper that the testimony stop for the day. Several dozen tents had been pitched beforehand in a ring around the walls of the courtroom. The witnesses and N slept in separate quarters from the rest of the jurors. "For security," Mr. Davis had explained, "and for privacy. Try to sleep, okay?" he had told Ash and his friends. "We won't start until eight o'clock tomorrow. You have plenty of time to rest. I won't force you to wake up early or anything either. After your... weeks, no, months, of sleepless nights the last thing I can ask of you is to wake up early."

Later, no matter how hard Ash tried, when he closed his eyes, all he could see was that tall, lean, black-and-white clad, green-haired, green-eyed figure standing over him, a glowing cube clutched in his right hand. All he could feel was that same figure wrenching him into the air. All he could hear was his shouts, those words echoing in the minds of his friends. _N. _N. _N.

In the tent beside Ash, N, despite having the power to put himself to sleep via Hypnosis, could not rest either. His memories... they were slowly coming back to him. Ash's retelling of their meeting in Verbank City... he could remember it now. His teleportation into Ash's room when he was ill... he remembered it now. His restraining of Ash and Pikachu... he remembered it now. The theft of the Pokéballs... he remembered it now.

However, despite their anxiousness, Ash and N eventually both fell into a deep sleep, the body of the former preparing to relive the pain of past wounds, and the latter preparing to simultaneously unleash and repress the same power which had wrought destruction over six regions...

The next morning, after a breakfast provided by Brock and Cilan, the witnesses and jurors sat down in the courtroom once again. Mr. Davis stood before the podium and cleared his throat. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, I am glad that we have had the chance to sleep on what our friends have told us thus far. And that our witnesses have had well-deserved rest. I presume, Mr. Ketchum," he turned to Ash, "that you will continue as before?"

Ash nodded. "Yeah. I've had the time to recollect my thoughts. And a good night's sleep helped too. I guess everything helped. Where do you want me to start off?"

"In Verbank City, I suppose." Mr. Davis answered. He next turned to N, who sat quietly in his chair, fingering the Natural Machine. "Mr. Gropius, at what point would you like Mr. Ketchum to continue recounting his evidence from?"

N looked up somewhat shyly, a small smile on his lips. "From where you began yesterday. No need to make a Piecewise Function out of a line."

Ash looked at N, took his whole personage in for the first time without fear of being killed. N looked very concerned. He watched Ash as if waiting to see when he would relive his memories again. He was very attuned to the emotions of others, and Ash knew about how he could be emotionally influenced very easily, for that was how Ghetsis had manipulated him. However, despite the comfort of knowing that N cared, Ash still saw the same powerful, persuasive, formula-inclined person just under the surface...

"For the time being, I'll be brief, then." Ash began. "I rested in Verbank city. We contacted our friends. We said we would meet them in Nimbasa city as soon as possible. We would spread the word about N along the way to whoever we could. After a couple days of preparation we left. And we failed miserably."

Ash gave yet another harsh laugh. "We were too slow, too clumsy, too stupid. N came and went when we were twenty miles away from anywhere he could attack and anyone we could alert. Trainers on the way told us where they had supposedly seen him: in a clearing near Opelucid City, biking to Mistralten City, attacking Driftveil City's Pokémon World Tournament. And this was all on the same day we left Verbank City. I supposed that these people were crazy, at first. So I asked them. And all of them confirmed it with some testimony from another trainer that lived in the aforementioned city.

"He was walking through that clearing when he saw my friend. And he stole his Pokéballs too."

"He went to the Mistralten city gym and broke all the fans and dragged Skyla so she was hanging from the top of her own battling platform, upside down."

"He shattered the scoreboards in the Pokémon World Tournament in Driftveil City with a Hyper Beam, while holding back everyone with Bind, so they couldn't stop him."

We estimated that it would be between ten and fifteen days journey to Nimbasa city by foot. Looker said that going by car would only be beneficial by night. I asked him how we would hide the van, and he just looked at me. "You'll see when we get to Nimbasa city," he had said.

Like when we went to Aspirtia City, we didn't turn on our Xtransceivers. We borrowed the Pokégear or other Xtransceivers or Holocasters of people from Johto as we passed by them instead. Checked the news. Sent messages to our friends. And saw that N was everywhere.

In one day we once found out that he had supposedly been to five places within hours of each other. The next, seven. And the next, ten. The accounts were mostly the same: N would approach the Pokémon center, gym, or lone trainer and demand to have the PC boxes opened or for the gym leader to come out or that the trainer remove his belt. When the lone trainer or the people guarding the gym or Pokémon center refused, N would threaten force. Maybe crack a paving stone or window with an attack. Burn something nearby. Then, if they still refused, he would suddenly become angry and attack them. However, when they were found unconscious, were revived, and the Pokémon center or belt checked, the Pokéballs were untouched, as if N had never been there. This was completely contrary to the cracked pavement, broken windows, and bruises and nearly-broken bones of the unfortunate trainers who happened to oppose him. Some of these people appeared on television, bandages still visible and confidences still shaken. They would tell their story and people would try to be cautious."

Ash sighed. "But N always returned. And people were always standing up to him, despite the danger." He said bitterly, "I thought they were rash. But many thought them brave."

"Why did you think these people "rash"," Mr. Davis asked. "if you yourself and your friends were standing up to N? Why did you think these people were foolish to do so?"

"That's easy," Ash replied. "It's 'cause they didn't know _anything about his abilities. They probably thought he was just a psychic or something. Which he is. But not just the trainer class. He is what Cilan calls an "omnikinetic". He can control every element: fire, ground, water, flight, electricity, psychic power, darkness, you name it. In any case, there was a more compelling reason for us to be afraid of N. And that was when we were a couple days away from Nimbasa City, when Bianca had called us.

It was evening. It was mild but it felt too hot. _So oppressive. We were staying at the house of a local Ace Trainer, where Looker had kept the van. Apparently, other people had been driving it during the day so it would be there, where we would stop for the night. I had asked Looker why people were willing to do this for us. He just said that it was necessary. "We cant do this alone," he had said. "People want to help. So we'll let them."

He was about to ask the Ace Trainer a question when Looker's Xtransceiver rang. And when I looked over I saw Cheren and Touya glancing at each other nervously. We had crowded around the Xtransceiver and peered at the screen.

Bianca's face, usually cheerful to the verge of folly, was now streaked with tears, her eyes puffy and red. Professor Juniper stood over her with concern. Bianca held a handkerchief to her eyes and dabbed them.

"Bianca!" Touya and Cheren had said together. "What--"

"Touya!" Bianca had said in her somewhat squeaky and breathy voice. "You won't believe what just happened today!"

"Can you please tell us?" Cedric Juniper had asked, but he had suddenly shook himself. "If I don't already know. It was N, wasn't it?"

Bianca had begun to cry. "He came here! It happened so fast! He, he was so strong."

"He came to see you?" Cilan had asked. "What did he say?"

Bianca had sniffled and taken a breath. "Well, I had been outside picking berries, for the Pokémon, you know. And suddenly all the Pokémon around me had run off. I had followed them a little ways and saw, _him. I didn't know it was him at the time. I didn't recognize him for some reason."

She had laughed nervously. "Well you'd think with hair as long as that and an outfit like that he'd be instantly recognizable. But anyway. N had stood in their midst. He seemed so happy. He was smiling like a little kid playing with his friends, and I know now that this was true. "Soon you will all be free," he had said to them. "I will help you become free. Our equations... they are in different forms... but soon I will transform them into one."

"I heard your speech on TV Ash," Bianca had said to me. "It was real moving. But I didn't understand why you were so worried. Well that's 'cause I hadn't seen N in a long time. He had been so happy then, when he talked to Cheren, Touko, and the others. He had seen me and he had turned to me and run to me, embraced me. "Bianca!" he had cried excitedly. He said how happy he was to see me, and I said that I was happy to see him too. He had asked how my job was and I had said it was interesting. "I learn a lot. I've learned more about my Pokémon by working with those of others."

N's eyes had darkened a little then. He seemed troubled. "But Bianca," he had asked insistently. He reminded me of a kid, asking a question over and over again. "Don't you suppose that keeping so many Pokémon is wrong? That you aren't devoting enough time to them... that you're not letting them exercise their true power? That this makes them less happy?"

I felt some suspicion then. But I had brushed it aside. This is what he says all the time. He cares for Pokémon more than his own life. It's only natural that he say this, even now. N had asked if we could go inside. And we did. We had gone to my office. And I hadn't thought anything of it when he had closed and locked the door and stood in front of it."

She had laughed a little. "And yes, before you say it, I was an idiot."

"Bianca," he had said sweetly, "have you seen the news?"

My gut had told me to lie. But I was _so stupid!" Bianca had slammed her palm against her forehead. She had begun frowning intensely, like she was concentrating. And upset. "I said yes!

Then N had leaned closer to me and asked innocently, "Do you believe them... Ash and the others... what they've said about me? How I'm bad?"

I said no. "Granted considering what happened with Reshiram and you summoning Zekrom and what you're capable of, I don't blame Ash for wanting to tell the world. People would misunderstand you even more. People can be mean sometimes."

N's brow had furrowed. He had frowned and looked at me sadly. Like a kid being told bad news. Well not bad news but something important. "I know people will misunderstand... they always will. But you understand me... and what I want to do... don't you?"

I had asked what he meant. And N had said in that same innocent voice, "Don't you know that _I, personally, must be the one to set Pokémon free?"

There had been something in his voice which ticked me off. I felt the back of my neck tingling. I had probably stared at him for a good minute. Something had changed inside him. He acted like how he was when Touko and you, Touya, had fought him at his castle before it was destroyed, that first time. He had had the same determination, the same innocent exterior, but with much more confidence and exuding more power. Much more power.

"I cannot trust trainers to do it themselves," N had said, his voice taking a slightly more angry tone with every word. "The bonds between them... they were infinitely stronger than I initially thought... six and a half years ago. But back then I was only becoming accustomed to my position of having the mind of a Pokémon, and the power of one. I didn't know what to do with it then... but I know now. I have the same powers as your so-called "friends". I have more in common with them than you ever will. You helped me Bianca, and I thank you. But I have one simple request. Free the Pokémon here, and I will leave. Oppose me," he had said, the Natural Machine beginning to glow green, "and I will be forced to make you... undefined."

My instinct had told me to run. I tried to push him away from the door, to unlock it, to scream or call for help. But he had reacted before I had a chance to even move. He had grabbed me by the arms and pushed me onto the floor, below my desk. I had fought against him."

Bianca had chuckled a little. "I think I managed to pull off a sleeve of his jacket. But I couldn't shake him. He didn't have to use the Natural Machine to subdue me. Just his own strength was enough. I guess Colress had trained him physically too and N had kept it up. Or maybe his powers augmented his already impressive strength. He lifted me over his shoulder like I was your bag, Ash. Even after I had scratched him enough to probably make his arms bleed and kicked enough to make his shins ache, he didn't let go. And all the while he still seemed so," she had stopped, disturbed, "with no other way to say it, happy. Like _I was playing some game with him. And the scary thing was, was that when I looked into his green eyes, I believed it."

Someone had tried to speak. I guess it had been Touya. 'Cause he'd been staring at Bianca the entire time, searching her face. I did too. We all did. 'Cause me encountering N was different from her doing so, 'cause I didn't know him nearly as well. She had known him longer and better. And he could play on her knowing him. Lull her into a false sense of security. Make her still think that he was the same childish, curious, happy N. _No!" Ash abruptly shouted passionately, gesturing widely around his head. "_This N is disillusioned, rigid and mature. Much more mature. He knows how the world works now. He is not a victim. He is the one victimizing. He is the one always using super-effective moves and receiving barely any flack for it. _He is the one with the power to give you Darkrai's nightmares without the Nightmare Pokémon, turn your world into a twisted version of itself, the Distortion World in reality. _He is the one who can turn you into a variable to be manipulated and later eliminated. And he is the mathematician, applying his harmonious equations to a discordant world.

Bianca had held up a shaking hand for quiet. She had put down the handkerchief. "N had pinned me down and pressed the Natural Machine to my arm. Hard. I had tried not to scream. And he had leaned in close to my ear. He had whispered softly, still in that very sweet, very playful voice. "I've told Ash not to tamper with my formulas, Bianca. And I will tell you too. Do not tell _anyone, okay? I wouldn't want to... eliminate your solution."

I had squeaked some reply. "I won't--" I had begun to say.

"But I _know that you'll tell!" he had suddenly snarled in my ear. "You flighty, foolish girl, do you think me stupid? I, with the power to turn your body to ash... your equations to single values... your Pokéballs to dust? All I can do is restrict your domain... give you no reason to tell anything..."

Before he left, he had pressed his hands and the Natural Machine especially hard into my arms. A blinding light had engulfed us. As he had imprinted his hands and the Machine into my skin, he, I don't know why. I don't know how else to say it. He had bared his teeth and snarled at me. Like being attacked by some, some animal."

Bianca had shook her head. "No, not really like that. Like, like something instinctual. You know, how people are when they wanna survive, or when they're scared, and they do things they would otherwise never do? It was like that. All that power and anger, but it was rational. It could be controlled.

"N." He had growled as he pressed down on my left hand.

"N."

He had said a second time as he pressed his left hand down on my right hand, digging his fingernails into the flesh, squeezing my arms and pressing his weight down on me till my bones nearly broke.

"N!" he had said furiously as he pressed the Natural Machine to my forehead. I guess I had blacked out, 'cause when Professor Juniper found me, she found me under the desk. She'd asked me what happened. And I'd told her!" Bianca had pointed at the professor, who nodded. "I had told Bianca that the Pokéballs were untouched. "My surveillance cameras don't show anything. You must have imagined it."

Bianca had straightened up, then. "It was like he was an illusion," Bianca had said thoughtfully. "An illusion that only I could feel."

Then, she had unfolded her hands and displayed them to us and removed her customary large floppy green hat.

On her hands and forehead, clear as day, were three capital Ns, imprinted in green like tattoos. "These are real," she had said, "but what about N? Was he an illusion?"

"Well you're not alone," I had told her. "He's been appearing all over the Unova region."

"So," Cedric Juniper had said slowly, "if I am interpreting this correctly, N can duplicate himself. Probably via Double Team. Bianca, is this right?"

Bianca had stared at us solemnly. "What do you think?" she had asked us."

Ash chuckled. "And I knew the answer, even before she finished speaking. All you guys should know it too. Of course he could."

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

Ash sighed heavily. "Bianca hasn't been the same since then. I don't know where she is now, but the last I heard she was in Nuvema Town, defending it against N's onslaught. Even now, I don't even know if she's alive."

Mr. Davis laid a hand on Ash's shoulder firmly. "We can hope to Arceus that she's doing okay. If by some work of Absol or Geretina she is not alive, then you have to be strong Ash, for her. She tried to be brave for you guys. Dead or alive, she would have made a valiant effort. Think of that."

Ash nodded grimly. "Of course you're right, Mr. Davis. I'll continue, then. Well, when we arrived at Nimbasa City, it was one in the morning. We had been passed a message from a trainer on route to go to the Battle Institute. Elesa had apparently told him to tell us to go there. So we found the Battle Institute like we had been instructed. It was in the northern part of town. A man had stood before the door. "You there," he had said to me. "What powers electronic devices? And don't you dare tell me it's electricity because I know you know better."

He had grabbed my arms roughly. A device had snaked around me and clamped my arms behind my back. Pikachu had squealed in protest and tried to free me, but the man had restrained him with a second similar attachment. Cables had flown from the attachments and tied up Cilan, Iris, Cedric Juniper, and Cheren, even though he couldn't move himself anyway. I had stammered, "b-batteries?"

He had suddenly let me and my friends go and opened the door. "Good job Mr. Ketchum. I'm sorry for scaring you like that. Welcome to the Net. I'll explain once we're inside. Just talk quietly and come with me."

This trainer had been a little shorter than me. He had blonde hair, bright blue eyes, sharp features. He wore a strange backpack, which contained the attachments. As we walked down some stairs, I had stared at them. He had laid a hand on one of them. "Oh. These?" he had indicated. "This is my, invention. Well one of my inventions. I'm well-known throughout Kalos, you know. Youngest gym leader to date there and anywhere. I'm Clemont, that's the Clemontech gear, and I am Lumiose City's gym leader."

I had stared at him even more openly. "So, you're from Kalos? I hear it's nice."

Clemont had smiled. "Oh yes it is. Good food, hospitable people, and no problems with a biochemically, bioelectrically, physically, and mentally-enhanced Pokémon trainer who could kill Mewtwo and have an engaging conversation with Mew."

He had laughed as he pressed a button on the strap of his backpack. An arm on his backpack had unfolded, its metal claw-like end doing the same. It had pressed itself against the door. Clemont had done the same with both his real hands. It had slid open. "Please leave all Pokéballs you aren't planning on opening up in the near future in this vault," he had pointed at it. "Only I can open it. This is so that," he had hesitated, "worse comes to worse, if, he," he had trailed off, drawing a strange symbol in the air with a finger, "tries to open it, it will seal permanently. _He, would have to break it open, and that would hurt the Pokémon inside. And, _he, wouldn't want to do that under any circumstances. We know that much about, _him, for sure."

I had grasped my belt resolutely. I had gestured for Pikachu to jump on my shoulders. "I'm not leaving anyone behind. If N wants my Pokémon, he'll have to have me first."

Clemont had winced as I had spoken, but for some strange reason, I hadn't noticed then. He had smiled wryly. "That's what Cheren--" he had gestured at the gym leader in his wheelchair "had said. And look what's happened to _him."

That had silenced me quick enough. "Well, if you insist. Do it at your own risk. Let's introduce you to the others. There are a lot of them. Or rather let me formally introduce you to your cause."

The next several hours had passed by very quickly. It turned out that many people from all over Unova, Kalos, and the other regions had come to help my friends and me. I met several Kalos gym leaders, including Viola, a photographer, who told me that she'd helped Berg edit the surveillance footage from Aspirtia City when we appeared on TV. They told us about how people from Kalos were sending surveillance systems and self-defense implements to the Unovan citizens. And how people had contacted them for help long before I had arrived in Aspirtia City. They had catalogued sightings of N. And based on this information, Clemont had acted. This was when I found out that friends and associates of Clemont had been the ones driving Looker's van. The Ace Trainer was a predetermined pit stop. The trainers we asked for information from on route were recruited by Clemont too.

We had discussed this in a room underneath the Battle Institute, connected to the Pokémon Center, gym, and other essential facilities via unused subway tunnels. "How did you build this place?" Cedric Juniper had asked Clemont. "Did you anticipate something?" He had stopped. "Well no one could have anticipated this. But if anyone could do that, you could have, Clemont."

Clemont had nodded. "It was hard work. And unexpected too. But Elesa, Clay, and myself used our own money to pay for the equipment that we used to build this place. We did it very quickly. And it was done all at night and even with the equipment, we did it mostly by hand and with minimal Pokémon aid. Several others like it are being built in the other five regions, supervised by their gym leaders."

Clemont had gestured for quiet from his place at the head of the table at which we were all seated. "Everyone, I would like to ask you all a question: how shall we proceed? From what Ash has told us about what happened to Bianca, and from what gym leaders and news reporters have relayed to us, it is true. Yes--" he suddenly stopped and drew the symbol in the air again, "_he, can duplicate himself. Very accurately. Or rather his doppelgängers can be controlled remotely. Thus, him being able to speak and affect the environment, making it appear like a person is really there."

"How would we know the difference?" Touya had asked. "If he can feign being actually there physically with such accuracy, how would we know the difference between a fake N and the--"

Clemont had gestured for Touya to stop speaking, drawing the symbol in the air for a third time. "The only sure way is to force him to show up at one place. Make him show himself. You've told us that he always disappears after he is finished speaking to someone. If we can force him to stay long enough, then we will know he is real."

"Then, why were we supposed to contact you?" Iris asked. "You're not from Unova. We barely know you."

Clemont had said, "that's obvious. The freeing of Pokémon: it's not just your problem. It's mine too. And Viola's. Everyone's. And you can't do it alone. You're charismatic, Ash," Clemont had praised me, "but let's face it your group is too small. Too unorganized. Valiant, but impractical. I can help you with that. As soon as news reached Kalos about, _him, several weeks ago, I brought together my friends and their friends and good trainers and came here. We're risking our lives. What do you say?" As he finished, he drew the same symbol yet another time. I began to wonder why he was doing it. I would have figured out why eventually.

He had stopped speaking and I had begun to smile widely. "Of course Clemont you can help! Why wouldn't I let you help?"

"Thank you," Clemont had told me and my friends. "Welcome to the Net."

"Clemont?" Cheren had asked, surprising all of us. He hadn't spoken much since he'd seen Bianca on the Xtransceiver.

"Hmmm?"

"Why are we called the Net?"

"A net is a flattened version of a three-dimensional object. Like if you were going to make a flat template of it by cutting it up and if you were gonna fold it and fasten it together, it would form the object. The source of, _his, power is the, Machine. I want to limit that power, break it down so it can be controlled. Turn that cube into a "net"."

"It sounds like something N would tell us," Cheren said had thoughtfully, Clemont wincing back. "His formulas. Geometry. I miss them so."

Clemont had laughed a little. "Well I'm an inventor. I also use math. I'll divide up his multiplied self."

We had groaned. "Your math talk sounds less cool than N's math talk," Touya had said, and we had laughed some more. But the task of welding our friends into a resistance movement had only just begun.

Clemont had stood from the table and beckoned for us to follow him. "And guys?"

We had listened intently, and I had begun to wonder why Clemont had put his finger to his lips and leaned in close. "As long as you are here or doing any operations with the Net, actually from now on, do not say, _his, name. In as few ways, shapes, or forms as physically possible. If you must use it, draw the symbol that you've seen me draw." He had written the letter N in the air. "Pronouns are okay. But not the name. Not the short one or long one. Under all except the most dire circumstances."

"Why--" Cedric Juniper had begun to ask, but he'd stopped. "It's because it's powerful, isn't it?"

Clemont had nodded. "Yes. After all, names are power. Say that name, and that power comes to you. We can't have that happen here. Not to mention he's psychic. We mustn't give him any mental signposts by saying the name. How many other people do you know called that? No one. Keep it that way. We can't stop mentioning him entirely, but it's the best we can do."

Ash stopped and smiled, despite his serious testimony. "I had admired Clemont very much, for what he'd done. I still do. He'd thought it all through a lot better than I ever could have done. He'd come up with codes we would use to contact other members of the Net and gym leaders, and devices that could not be tracked via the usual Pokémon League instruments. "'Cause if--" Clemont drew the symbol in the air, "_he, can make those communications people talk somehow," he had explained once while outfitting our Xtransceivers with special cases and transmitters, "then we can be tracked. It's already done by the Pokémon League at a rudimentary level, but there's technology that could be found and used to spy on us. _He's, not stupid. _Far from it. _He'll, do whatever he can to find you. And as of now, to find me too."

"I'll admit," Cilan mused, "Clemont was a very enlivening and vital ingredient in our recipe for success. Well more like survival rather than success. He was savory and unexpected and versatile. He knew a little of everything. And he was only sixteen, almost seventeen, when we started out."

Iris grinned. "He was very attentive to us. He treated us like close friends. He even said to us that everyone in the Net was a close friend to him. He became the leader from the very beginning, despite our age difference. I especially remember these several days because he brought our Pokémon closer to us. He taught me to fight alongside Axew with techniques that coga and his daughter use. We learned something from everything, from programming to medicine to even espionage. I had asked him once, "Where did you learn all this stuff?"

He had replied, "Some of it is from the professors and trained Pokémon researchers. Some is my own. And the rest is from two actors who are very famous outside Kalos and throughout Unova too. Everywhere, actually. You might have seen their movies. One of them has the name of one of the Team Rocket members, you know him. The other--"

"Enough," Viola had said. "You can talk about your commentary on and narration of Skyfall later, Clemont. My photographers, Alexa, and I have a lead for you. Look at this."

A screen on the wall had lit up and an image had appeared. It was of a girl with brown hair in a ponytail, blue eyes, and Touya's thoughtful expression. She was walking down a street, and someone was following her quite distantly. I had noticed right away her red eyes were glowing and half-closed with concentration as she walked and that her Pokéballs had floated around her. "Is that," I had asked, and Clemont had nodded. "Yeah. That's Sebrina. Thank Arceus that she showed up. I told her to trail Touko very distantly and wait until she was in a crowded area to approach her. And she could use her psychic powers to scan the area for, for him." Clemont had gestured with a finger, tracing the N in the air.

We had assented and watched the video intently. Sebrina and Touko had entered the amusement park with several minutes between them, but Sebrina had tracked Touko precisely the entire time. When Touko had been a few dozen yards from the ferris wheel, Sebrina had walked quickly up to the end of the line and waited. When Touko had been about to enter it, Sebrina had walked up to her. "Hey," she said, smiling. "Wanna go on the ferris wheel? None of us can go alone."

Touko had accepted. They had stepped on the wheel. Just before the Pokéball-shaped compartment shut, Sebrina had taken one of her own Pokéballs, lifted it out of her psychic field, held it in front of her face button-first, and moved it side to side so that it first pointed towards Touko, then herself, then out each of the windows. We could apparently see her actions via a hidden camera on her hat. "That means they're alone and safe," Clemont had explained. "Pokéball signals are easy to disguise. 'Cause everyone uses them and plays with them all the time."

Sebrina had turned to Touko, who'd stared at the gym leader turned actor. "You're Sebrina, right?" she had asked slowly. "Why are you here?"

Sebrina had smiled. "I'm an actor now, at Pokéstar Studios. And Unova's a nice place. There are interesting cities. Nice weather. Good food. And intriguing people."

She had turned the Pokéball in her hand so that its white half faced the camera. "Here's where it gets tricky." Viola had said. "Let's see if Touko catches on."

"Catches on to what?" Cheren had begun to ask, only to stop. "She's gonna tell her, isn't she?"

"Shhh," I had said, putting a finger to my lips.

Sebrina had studied Touko cautiously. "This ferris wheel's gained a ton of infamy among, well, everyone. Let's face it you're synonymous with it. And, _he, is too." Sebrina had made the same letter-drawing gesture in the air as Clemont had taught us to do.

Touko had become serious all at once. "Yeah. I haven't seen N in--"

Sebrina had shushed Touko gently. "How long has it been since you two talked?"

"A couple months. We met at what's left of his castle. We battled. We talked about what was happening in Kalos. N said that--"

"What did, _he, think of it?" Sebrina asked, cutting her off as politely as she could again. "Team Flare, I mean?"

"N was angry," Touko had said, and at hearing the trainer's name, Sebrina had flinched back in her seat. "He said that Lisandre was foolish, to try to eliminate all Pokémon. He told me how he didn't know about the bonds between Pokémon and their trainers and how you didn't need to kill anyone to make a difference. "You just need to eliminate Pokéballs," he had said to Touya, Hugh, Nate, Rosa, and me. I hope N's okay."

Sebrina's body had tensed in her seat, and Touko had seen it and looked at her with concern. "Are you okay?" she had asked. "You afraid of heights?"

Sebrina had looked anxiously out the windows. She had turned the Pokéball so that some of the red face showed toward the camera. "That's bad," Viola had said. "This is live, so whatever Sebrina's signaling is happening now."

"What do the red and white parts mean?" I had asked.

"Well, if I am not mistaken," Cheren had said, wheeling slightly closer to the screen, "the more red, the worse. At least it looks like it from Sebrina's face. Look."

"--if you please don't say that name here." Sebrina had been saying to Touko, barely able to contain her fright as she had turned the Pokéball so the red face showed more. It had been half red, half white then.

Touko had seemed flustered. "What's wrong? If you didn't want to talk about N, you could have just said so."

As soon as Touko had finished speaking, Sebrina had turned the Pokéball so that the whole red side faced the camera. "Touko," she had said, grabbing her arm, "trust me on this. We have to get out of here. _He's, close. Probably just outside the park. Maybe even in it already. We have to get down from here! Now!"

Touko had looked at Sebrina, irritated. Oblivious. Insistent. "Sebrina, why are you scared of him? He's a little strange I know, but N is--"

The windows of the ferris wheel had shattered, and the compartment had shook violently. Supports holding the spherical pod in place had fractured and it had fallen to the ground thirty feet below. In her panic, Sebrina just managed to grab Touko's hands and erect a wall of energy around them to break their fall. They had jumped from one of the shattered windows.

Luckily they had been about halfway down when the ferris wheel had broken. People had rushed up to them to make sure they were uninjured. "Sebrina, how did this happen?" someone had asked.

Sebrina had let loose a pulse of psychic energy, which had driven the man back. He had fallen on the ground. "It was _him!" Sebrina had used her hands to trace the letter N in the air. "He's here. I know it! Everyone, you have to get out of here! _He's so close!"

The man had stood up from the pavement, brought there by Sebrina's defense and looked at her with concern. "Sebrina, I know you are an eminent psychic, but you don't have to worry. The wheel just needs repairs. Only that one car fell. Thank Arceus that you weren't at the top."

Touko had stood by quietly during this exchange, taking it all in. Slowly, she had pointed at a fractured metal beam. It was twisted and crushed, having taken tons of pressure and enormous heat all at once. It had fallen from the wheel like a fallen tree facing a storm."

"She'd been staring at the beam for almost a half-minute," Iris recalled, taking up ash's story, "Sebrina looking more terrified with each passing second. She looked like she'd been thinking. Really hard. Then, in a split second, at almost exactly the same time I saw it, she had jump back, almost falling to the pavement."

"I'd seen it too," Ash agreed. "So did everyone else. We had shrunk back from the screen. "Look!" Touko had pointed at the beam, which had been treated especially harshly compared to the others. "By now, you should know what shape the beam had taken. The color it had turned and the color in which it had begun to glow. And who had appeared ten feet in front of Sebrina and Touko, his body glowing with power, his his long hair standing on end due to the aura of electricity which surrounded him, his left hand poised to unleash a Dark Pulse, his right holding the Natural Machine and turning its modules to maximum power..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

Ash stopped to catch his breath and collect his thoughts. He chuckled. "Yeah. You can guess how me and my friends felt by now. It seemed like everything revolved around how much time it took to see N try to kill one of us. And that was no exception. But this time we couldn't do anything 'cause we weren't the ones in danger. N had let loose his Dark Pulse attack, the stream of black energy sending Sebrina to her knees. He had stepped up to her and struck her across the face and body again and again, his hands glowing darkly. Sucker Punches. Even with her level of psychic expertise, Sebrina couldn't withstand N's attacks, not that close. She was soon lying on the pavement, covering her face so that all I could see were some bruises on her cheeks and chin.

As for Touko, she had stared at N, both fascinated and horrified, as he had attacked Sebrina. When she finally spoke, my fellow Net members and I could barely hear her. "N. Why did you do that?"

N had turned to Touko then. He came closer to her, Sebrina screaming in protest. "Don't! He'll--"

"Don't mind her. She's just a... temporary misplaced value. But you Touko... you are very unique."

Touko seemed to be listening. But that notion disappeared when she stepped back and shook her head. "No. I know what you've been doing. Don't you dare think that I don't know. You hurt Bianca, and nearly killed Cheren! What will you do to me, eh?"

N had studied Touko and Sebrina calmly, evaluating the newest editions to his collection of variables he must," Ash gulped, "eliminate. "I would not hurt you Touko. Indeed, I would do precisely the opposite. You made me who I am, after all."

"I made you want to hurt trainers? I thought you learned! I thought you knew that trainers loved their Pokémon! That Pokémon would do anything for their trainers. You said so yourself, at your castle!"

N had shook his head slightly. "Yes, Touko... that is true... but I did not know of my powers... and their true purpose, then. I had called myself a mediator between Pokémon and people... but I see now that I am more of a Pokémon than a person. You helped me create the formula which would maximize my powers. And for that... I commend you."

N had next turned to Sebrina, who lay in pain on the ground not five feet away from him and Touko. "You feel their pain, being a Psychic. All of your kind do. But you choose to make your Pokémon suffer more. If this is what you desire, then be it as you may. I find now that no more warnings should be necessary."

N had stepped close to Touko, placing his hands on her forehead and leaning in close to her ear. She had not tried to get away, not until N had begun to press the Natural Machine to her forehead. "No!" she had yelled, squirming in N's grip. "Not like Bianca! No!" She had tried to pry his hands off her head but they had stayed firmly in place. N had no need to even use an attack on her. He just had to stand there and use his once-innocent voice to sway her. He knew she would be in complete shock. "If you wish to oppose me, then do so! I know you want to. If you wish to stop me, tell all you meet that I am here to free Pokémon... and that people are the ones who stand in my way. And tell them," he had said, his body glowing, "that it is only Natural that they be liberated! When I am haled as ruler of Unova... a trainer who did not train Pokémon... and they ask you what I did, tell them this. _Natural _liberated."

The camera on Sebrina's hat had pitched about wildly until it focused in on N's green eyes, overflowing with determination. Then it had shattered.

Clemont, Touya, and I were sent to look for Touko and Sebrina. We found them where they had been in the video, but Touko had been kneeling over Sebrina, holding a cloth to her face and another to her chest. "I can help," I had said. I had used my newly-acquired medical knowledge to clean and bandage Sebrina's wounds. We were about to pick Sebrina up, but she opened her eyes, which glowed intensely. When I next looked around, we were standing in the main underground room, surrounded by the other Net members. "Thank you," Touya had told her.

"Your welcome," Sebrina had replied, her eyes closing and her body going limp.

After administering to Sebrina's injuries, Clemont had asked Touko to come with him. They had walked out of the room and hadn't come back until almost an hour later. When I next saw Touko, she seemed calm and sober. She had looked around the room with new eyes, it seemed. "So you wanna turn the Machine into a net?" she had asked us.

We had confirmed what Clemont had told her. "If we're not burned, fried, frozen, drowned, strangled, or telekinetically maimed first," Cedric Juniper had answered, to our collective morbid amusement.

"So you're Ash Ketchum?" she had turned to me curiously. Searching me, I guess, for all the heroic qualities she had probably heard about."

Ash laughed. "She expected to meet someone older and taller, but I told her that I was none of those things. "I know who you are. And since you're with Touya here you know who I am. I'm gonna tell you now: I've been through so much. I never could have known six-and-a-half years ago that I would have done this. Created all this." She had chuckled wryly, gesturing to the elaborate equipment surrounding us. "I'd cry and have a fit over it and say that I regret my actions but let's face it I wouldn't have known. And now that I think about it I probably would have come to the same conclusion too, that if I acted more like a Pokémon I'd want to help them too. So I'll just have to work with what we have here. Where to, Clemont?" she had asked briskly, catching him off guard.

"I like your energy," he had replied. "And to answer your question, quite the ways away, actually. What I'm thinking is this: Ash, you're the, leader, of this fight. And yes I know that I lead the Net, and we should keep my location a secret. No one knows who we are. But so many more people know you. What you should do is travel through all the regions. Tell them about what's happening. Viola, Alexa, and Burg can provide the video. Cheren, Touko, and Bianca can provide the pathos. And when the time is right I can provide the people of the world the firepower. Better yet travel with famous people. Hell, your friends are famous, so you can travel with your friends from the regions. You know them far better than I do. You guys would make good teams. And with the knowledge you give them, when you leave the region in question they'll know what to do. I've done this in Kalos. In fact ever since Geosenge Town was, uh, attacked, people have been more than willing to pitch in. What do you say?"

Of course I had agreed. And so did Iris and Cilan. Cheren had wheeled closer to us and smiled. "I'd high-five you for your awesome idea," he had said to Clemont, "but I, uh, don't have, uh, a good working arm, to high-five you with. But it's the thought that counts, right?"

We all knew that we had to hurry. N could be anywhere at anytime. Clemont called up the gym leaders in Cinnoh to say that I'd be there in a few days. I dug out Dawn's Pokétch number and called her, asking if she could meet me in Nuvema Town. "To catch up," I explained. "A lot's happened."

Several days later, we decided that I would leave that same day for Nuvema Town and Cinnoh proper at dusk and that Touko and Touya had to come with me. "They know a lot," Cheren had said. "And I'll only get in the way. I'll be a liability. And besides Clemont needs a fellow nerd to keep him company here."

"And in any case we need to keep track of your progress," Looker told me. "The International Police need to know how to integrate into the Net. They'll be a great help."

"And I can help my daughter protect the Pokémon." Cedric Juniper added. "Like I haven't been doing that already. I'll be of greater use here. Don't worry about us."

We all stood just inside the entrance to the Battle Institute, Clemont's bags slung across our bodies, our new equipment attached to our belts, and new knowledge in our heads. Contrary to what you might think we didn't take very long to say goodbye. "Teary goodbyes are for couples and Pokémon in Pokémon Tower," Clemont had said. "Considering our situation and how unprecedented it is, if you guys fail, we'll be dealt quick deaths. _He--" Clemont wrote N in the air, "wouldn't want us to become martyrs. He'd find a way to, eliminate us, properly. And after all, all our Pokémon came from the wild, right? Even those which were bred. Their parents far back enough were living in the wild. They'd be going back to what they had been entitled to, after all. Just catch 'em all for me, okay Ketchum?"

I had nodded. Pikachu had called out and waved to the bright gym leader as he closed the door for the final time, leaving us to either save the world or watch it be transformed.

Our trip to Nuvema Town was pretty damned boring, at least to our standards. We had traveled in the backs of pre-arranged cars and vans and walked in disguise. We would sleep during the day, and even then we did so in watches. We checked the news every hour and had our Pokéballs travel along a similar parallel route in separate cars. When we finally reached Nuvema Town, it was actually morning for once." Ash laughed. "For some reason for the past several months everything important has been happening at night. Don't ask me why it just did. But when we got there, Dawn, Professor Juniper, and Bianca were already waiting. "Dawn!" I had said, about to shake her hands or give her a quick hug, but she'd stepped back. "There's no time," she'd said. "No time for that Ash! Come on! We've been waiting for you guys. Come inside quickly! Didn't you hear the news?" She stopped, flustered. "You must have! It's about the Cinnoh Elite Four! They've been defeated! And not by a trainer and their team of six."

Chapter Text

Part VI: Shackling the World with Green Chains...

Chapter 18

Ash was about to continue when Mr. Davis held up a hand. "Ash, I think it best that your traveling companions from each region, Dawn, in this case, supplement your testimony, as Iris and Cilan have done. Thus," Mr. Davis signaled with his hands, "can Dawn come forward please?"

As Cilan and Iris walked past Ash, they laid encouraging hands on his shoulders. They squeezed his hands and stroked Pikachu's scars. "Glad we could help," Iris whispered in Ash's ear. "We'll be routing for you."

"I'll make you dinner after this is all over," Cilan reassured Ash as he and Iris took their seats beside his mom.

A woman a few years younger than Ash walked past his Unovan friends and up to him, taking the seat where Cilan had sat before. She twirled her dark blue hair between her fingers. "I was wondering when you'd call me up, Mr. Davis. I thought that Cilan and Iris were all there was." she said, lacking seriousness.

Ash smiled at hearing Dawn's typical banter. "No, no they're not, not by a long shot," Mr. Davis said to Dawn. "I presume, this is your first time in Kanto?"

Dawn nodded. "Yeah. It's too bad that it had to be like this. But there's no need to worry now. I'm here. And I can talk about what happened."

"Should I?" Dawn asked Ash. "I mean I told you first. I saw pretty much everything. Not that you don't remember it all but it'll be more truthful that way."

Ash nodded. "Yeah. Sure. We're all ears. I've pretty much scared the living crap out of this jury, with N's kidnapping and near-killing of several people, and," Ash suddenly faked fright, causing N to chuckle where he sat next to Mr. Davis, "mathematical threatening. Let's see what you can do to up it."

Dawn launched into her part of the testimony as eagerly as Ash had done only the day before. Ash saw this immediately: her excitement, her anticipation at all her nervous, pent-up energy being released, a relaxing of the shoulders, which awaited the lifting of their burden. He knew, however, that she would grow tired of it soon. He was on the verge of this state of mind himself. She would learn, like how he had learned.

"Well it started one morning. I was sleeping in late, which I've done quite a bit since I've seen you last in Unova. And it was around five in the morning when my Pokétch went off. It was the sound of my alarm. I tried to turn it off but it wouldn't stop. So I looked at the screen, which displayed the headlines of that day's Cinnoh Now News. And I saw this: Elite Four "Liberated" from Positions: Second Unovan Crisis? I usually don't watch the news you know, but I did this time. When I tuned in the anchorman was speaking. "My fellow Pokémon trainers, my colleagues and I have grave news to report to you today. Last night, someone broke into the Pokémon League and defeated the Elite Four and champion. Or rather attacked them. We go to Sheril Adams, live from Sunnyshore City, only a couple miles from the Cinnoh Victory Road and Pokémon League. Sheril?"

I told Ash this so you should know too if you're not from Cinnoh. Sheril Adams is known for being way too happy. All the time. She's really optimistic and that's why people like her. She's rarely serious so when she's serious you know the situation's gotta be pretty terrible. And damn, she looked scared, in front of the Sunnyshore Pokémon center. She was so nervous and she could barely hide it. "Thanks Max," she said, barely able to stop her voice from shaking. "Victory Road guards stopped a man trying to enter the Pokémon League building around one o'clock this morning. When he refused, there was a short confrontation between him and the guards, resulting in all but one of the ten sent to detain him being injured. As of now, they are in critical but stable condition in a nearby hospital. This man then demanded the remaining guard to let him into the building where our Elite Four and champion reside. And he obliged. He and the man then entered the main hall, whereby the intruder used the PA system to call the Elite Four and Cynthia out of their rooms. Now, I will let Mr. Konner Kraeg explain further."

Sheril had stepped away from the camera, beckoning the remaining guard forward. Dark glasses covered his eyes, and his dark hair was raggedly cut short. And only after staring at him for a little while did I see that it was burned off in several places. "I, d-d-don't know how to e-e-explain what h-h-happened. It was n-n-nothing like I've ever s-s-seen. He ch-ch-challenged the Elite F-f-four to a battle. And he s-s-said that if they l-l-lost, h-h-he'd," he gulped, glancing anxiously around him, like he was being watched, "_liberate, their Pokémon."

He'd shuddered, then. His hands, at his sides before, came together and clenched the strap on his bag tightly. "But he d-d-didn't send out any P-p-pokémon. He w-wanted to fight the Elite Four trainers themselves. And that's what he d-d-did. He'd used attacks, Pokémon attacks, himself. So did the Elite Four. They teamed up, watched each other's backs. But, he was t-t-too strong. I think he knew attacks of every t-t-type. It's not even s-s-s-supposed to b-b-be p-p-possible. Even m-m-most of the b-b-best trainers focus on one or two t-t-types. Alone, I saw Mach Punch, Swords Dance, Earthquake, Thunderbolt, Psychic, and Signal Beam. There were probably more, b-b-but I d-d-don't remember or c-c-couldn't see them."

Mr. Kraeg had stopped talking, taking quick shallow breaths. I thought that it couldn't get any worse. But of course I was wrong. I realized then that me and Sheril had something in common: we're too damned optimistic. So when things get worse we're devastated. She got this look on her face, like, like she came home to find her house wrecked. Or that her Pokémon were being held captive. When he next spoke I noticed that he didn't stutter. "He defeated them all single-handedly. Yes, the Elite Four and champion have trained for years to counter their weaknesses, but one can only do so much while focused on only a couple types. This man, he knew at least one move which could incapacitate every member. He knocked each out cold with one or two focused attacks. Except Cynthia and her Garchomp. They fought hard. Cynthia even took most of the blows for Garchomp so it wouldn't get hurt as much. Near the end, Cynthia had actually stepped in front of Garchomp to prevent it from being attacked."

Mr. Kraeg's voice had cracked. "She took an Ice Beam for Garchomp. I know this probably won't help but the only good to come out of it was that, well, all I can say is that she didn't scream when she finally fell. Her last act as champion was to fall on top of her Garchomp, to protect it even as her title was stripped from her."

As I watched, the fright of the guard had transformed from terror to an inevitable dread. He had stopped stuttering and his voice became even but monotone. "Just before she fell unconscious, she had looked up at her opponent. She had just enough strength to raise her hand and point to him, at something I only noticed then. There had been a cube on his belt. It had glowed an intense green and white. She had pointed at his face, which I somewhat recognized. But only when she spoke did I remember who he was. "N." she'd said, falling across Garchomp, defeated.

The man had chuckled wryly. "I know. I should have known who he was when he attacked the Elite Four. I _should have run. Called the police. But I didn't. And for this I am sorry."

He turned to the gathering crowd around the Pokémon center and the camera. I saw him brush a hand on his cheek, which did nothing to conceal the few tears which fell from his face. He didn't bother to hide his sorrow. Anyone would feel broken and defeated, after not acting, even when it would have been best to do so. But I guess he cried because even if he'd called the cops, what could they do? Nothing. "To all of you. I know I have doomed our region to his power. I, I'm sorry. I know apologizing isn't anywhere near enough for this, but what else can I do?"

His dread slowly dissipated. "He let me go, you know. He wanted me to tell you all to surrender. That he will raze this city, like he did Aspirtia City, in Unova, if you don't free your Pokémon. That soon there will be no more Pokémon trainers. That," Mr. Kraeg said as he walked toward where Sheril stood stunned, "there is no more Elite Four. There is only the champion now. And you can guess who he is."

Chapter Text

Chapter 19

Dawn turned to Ash when she finished. "Do you think I've scared the living crap out of the jury now?"

Ash looked up at the faces in the jury. Most seemed to wear the same attentive expression as before, though some were a little less composed. Some of them looked off into a corner or out of the tent, and some shook slightly. Ash realized that they were from Cinnoh. They had probably seen this news story on TV, and only now did they know of its significance.

Ash nodded, speaking in a rough and flippant tone. "Yeah. You might have done it. But that doesn't beat what happened after. When you left Cinnoh to see us. Your mom was scared to death."

"Yeah," Dawn said thoughtfully. "She'd kept up with what had happened in Unova, N reviving Zekrom and Nate and Rosa nearly being frozen to death and all. And she'd believed it, so she really didn't want me to go. But I said that I'd let her escort me to the airport outside Sunnyshore City. I'd be okay from there. And that Nuvema Town wasn't in any danger yet."

"How long did it take you to get to Unova?" Mr. Davis asked.

"A few hours. It was a four, five hour flight. Security was tight, but lines weren't long. Probably because no one had had the sense to leave Cinnoh yet, especially to go to Unova, where it all started. But what you care about is what happened when I got there.

I had asked for directions to Professor Juniper's lab. When I arrived and knocked on the door I had seen Bianca in the window but hadn't known it was her yet. She had looked scared out of her wits. I had said that I was your friend but she hadn't opened the door. I had tried to wave to her to let me in, but she had run away. I'd stood there for a couple minutes and waited, until Professor Juniper had let me in. "A girl was just here. She looked terrified. Is she okay?" I'd asked her.

"Oh. Bianca? She's a little, shaken. Well very shaken. She doesn't want to work alone or outside anymore. Even then sometimes she starts screaming and when I come in she freaks out. She nearly brained me with a lamp once." Professor Juniper had chuckled a little sadly. "It's because of, of, _him."

She had gestured in the air. Only later did I know what it was about. "She was attacked here."

I had felt really sorry for Bianca but also a little confused. I was about to ask who attacked Bianca when Professor Juniper's Xtransceiver rang. She had answered it and hung up almost immediately. "Come with me," she'd said. "I have visitors. You should meet them."

Dawn stopped for a second. "We met you near a back entrance and I saw Bianca again. She was a little nervous when she said hi to me, but she had calmed down. She had asked Professor Juniper about where your friends and me could talk together in private. "About--" she had begun to say, only to draw the symbol in the air that I'd seen Professor Juniper make and the professor had nodded, like she understood.

"What's that--" I had been about to ask her, but she had shushed me as politely as she could. "Not here," she'd said simply. "Inside."

So we had crowded into an office, shutting the door. I thought that it was weird that you barricaded the door, moved the desk, and emptied the closet. And when I asked you about it you said that it was just in case we were found.

"And when you asked me "found by who? What?" I had written N's name in the air like Clemont had taught us," Ash remembered, "and you stared at me like I was crazy. Which I probably was, by that point."

"Dawn," Mr. Davis asked her, "not to be rude, but when did you tell Ash about the attack on the Cinnoh Elite Four?"

"I told him here, after a little while. This was when I had asked Ash why he wanted me to come to Unova, so he told me everything. Or rather Touko and Touya said what had happened to them and Ash told me what happened while he traveled there, after I left. They'd told me about the Natural Machine and the Net and N's illusory powers. "So," I'd asked the whole group when they'd finished, "why did you want me here?"

Touko had turned to me. "'Cause you know more about Cinnoh than we do. You traveled with Ash. You know something about who and what's important in Cinnoh and we don't. You'll be our guide while we warn the citizens about, about _him." Touko had written N's name in the air, which they had just told me was their way of saying his name. "You said that your mom didn't want you to come so she must have known about the attacks."

"Unova made news a lot a couple years back," I had said. "Some people were afraid of Team Plasma so they'd walk around with their Pokéballs hidden. I was entered in a contest when news reached us about you and Touya fighting--" I wrote N in the air tentatively. "People brought only the Pokémon needed for routines and stashed the rest."

Then, Touya had looked at me and asked quietly, "Dawn, I hate to be rude, but I want to ask you a question now. What we're about to ask of you is extremely dangerous. If you accept, the chances of your death are almost certain and inevitable. You will have to lie, possibly steal, and be ready to give up your life rather than surrender at virtually any time. And you'll have to sacrifice your attire for less fashionable clothing. Dawn," Touya had asked me solemnly, "will you join the Net?"

Dawn halted for a second time. "I remember this," Ash recalled. "Me, Touko, Bianca, and even Professor Juniper stared at you for forever."

"It was hard." Dawn's voice suddenly sounded different for Ash. Dawn was usually bubbly and somewhat temperamental, apparent through her often erratic mood. Now, her voice seemed harder, colder. "I wanted to say no," Dawn said wistfully. "I wanted to be safe. I wanted to live my somewhat superficial life as I always had, with my contests and the advice from my mom and my constantly-changing array of outfits. But I'd been through quite a bit with you. We'd been chosen by the Lake Trio together, us and Brock. We had traded Pokémon. You helped me out when Pikachu destroyed my bike!" Dawn chuckled, and Ash laughed also, and he heard his Kanto friends' voices in the bleachers above them. "So I thought hey: if I can foil the plans of one evil organization with you I can foil the plans of another one."

"I didn't know you were that hesitant," Ash admitted. "But I don't blame you for being like that. I had no right to drag you into that damned mess."

"You kinda did," Dawn replied sarcastically. "When you called me you said that it was important and that you couldn't say anything over the phone because it could be discovered. And when I asked "discovered by who?", you did this."

Dawn lifted one hand from the arm of her chair slowly, as if it were pained, and wrote N in front of her face slowly. "Nervousness and hesitation and fear of Arceus in you and all. But with all seriousness, I wanted to help. I knew that if you took the time to call me and wanted me to come to a place I'd never been to before than it had to be urgent."

"And from that point forward you had to suffer through Clemont's terrible nerd humor," Ash said, laughing. "Dear Arceus--" Ash abruptly stopped himself. He realized that he was wasting time that could be used for Dawn's testimony. "Sorry," he said, turning to Mr. Davis. "You don't want to hear me talk about Clemont's nerd humor. And not just because it was pretty painful."

Mr. Davis chuckled. "No Ash, you two just take your time. I don't want to rush you. But I did want to ask you this. I want you to act natural. You'll be more truthful if you act like that." He turned to Dawn. "What did you do, when you were in Unova?"

Dawn spoke quickly, her voice seeming to pick up the same sarcastic heir as Ash. "Oh, plenty. Learning the Net's codes, rigging my stuff to receive their coded messages, contacting the Cinnoh agents, buying new clothes where I could hide our gadgets and accessories I could manipulate if I created coded messages. Just what you'd expect by this point. I stayed for only a day, to the hour, sleeplessness included. Touko and Touya wanted to prepare me as well as they could before we left. We were gonna fly with Skyla to Sunnyshore City. From the news we heard that people were panicking so we decided to start our work there and leave Unova an hour or so after dawn. We crashed in one of Professor Juniper's spare rooms, rotating sleeping and watches. Skyla had contacted us and said that she'd land right outside town that morning."

Dawn stopped, her next words changing tone entirely. "So that was how I got entangled with the Net. And soon, how Unova has to find a new suitable building site for its Pokémon lab."

Ash knew that tone of voice: it meant that he had to brace himself for the worst. Unfortunately, he was very accustomed to doing so by now.

Mr. Davis, rather than listening impartially, looked surprised, which seemed shocking considering what he had been told over the past couple days. "New building site?" he repeated, his professional demeanor vanishing instantly. Ash noted that his expression looked like what he supposed he had looked like when Touya told him Cheren was injured and that his gym was burned down. "What do you mean?"

Dawn shook her head, somewhat sardonically. "With all due respect Mr. Davis, I'd think you'd be able to guess what happened to it by now, considering what Ash has told you. There is no more Unovan Pokémon lab. It was burned down that night right before we left."

Dawn's arm swept up off the arm of her chair sharply and pointed at N. "By him."

Chapter Text

Chapter 20

As Dawn broke the news to the jury that Unova no longer had a Pokémon lab, Ash looked up at them to see their reactions. The number of calm, attentive faces in the crowd was smaller than he had seen it thus far. Most people looked nervous, putting up calm fronts, like Mr. Davis, because they knew that him and his friends were scared, so they did not want to make it worse. They anticipated bad news, like Ash. He admitted to himself that they took it much better than he thought. They were learning.

Then, he looked at Iris, whose cheeks were wet with tears, and even Cilan was having a difficult time looking optimistic and composed. The whole group of Unovan trainers sitting around them stared with open mouths, wide eyes, and glistening cheeks. They did not know yet. He had not told them yet. They had been halfway across the region when the lab had burned down, and he and his fellow Net members had been woefully unprepared, so they had had no time to send details about their plight, other than that they had to leave. As this realization washed over Ash, he barely heard Mr. Davis saying that it was time that there was a break. He did not remember walking outside or eating or talking to anyone. He only remembered Iris' eyes on him, brimming with tears as she held her Axew tightly to her side. He wanted to tell her that he had meant to tell her, all their Unovan friends, eventually. That she could have figured out that the lab was destroyed by now, but every time he tried to speak to her, she turned away.

When everyone returned to the courtroom, Mr. Davis began by turning to the jury. "I would like to begin by apologizing to all of you. I should not hold an opinion during this hearing. And I am sorry that it showed. It's just that," he stopped, raising a hand to his cheek and brushing it lightly, "that, it is a tragedy, for all of us. No matter how many cases I have presided over, this one is, different. And I cannot help but feel for those from Unova here with us today, because this is a situation that no trainer should ever deal with. At least you will find out what happened now." Mr. davis fingered a hexagonal badge on his jacket, taking it off and holding it in his palm, turning it sadly, his eyes wandering off into the distance. Suddenly, he shook himself, realizing that he was in public. He turned to Dawn. "Can you please tell us about, about the lab?"

"What is there to say?" Dawn replied, the slightly cold tone entering her voice again. "Someone was taking the last watch. I don't know who. And someone shook my shoulder. I had barely had time to open my eyes. Touya had been standing over me. "What--" I had begun to ask, but he had cut me off sharply. "Come on. We have to go. It's, an emergency."

"What kind of emergency?" Touko's voice had come from somewhere behind me. I'd heard the sounds of clinking objects, zippers, buttons snapping. She'd been getting dressed.

In the second of silence that had followed, as I stood lacing up my boots and putting on my bag, I had felt a sinking feeling. No one had seem panicked, at least no one had looked like it. That meant that Touko and Touya had known what to expect. And due to my twenty-four hours of training with the Net, I had known it too.

We had walked out of the room briskly. There had been a person keeping watch in a separate room, waiting for news, along with the one who watched us while the rest slept. Ash had been the one on watch with the surveillance cameras and Net transmitters. The small office next to our makeshift sleeping quarters had seemed normal. I had heard typing on the computer where Ash sat. But in the light from the monitor I hadn't seen his dark cyan hair. It was just green."

Dawn chuckled then, the only type of chuckle Ash knew how to make. "N, I mean, _you," she turned to him, "you were so different from what I'd thought you'd be."

At the mention of his name, N looked up somewhat shyly. "Really?" he asked in the same shy manner.

Dawn laughed again, but this time, it was actually due to humor and surprise, rather than to mask a morbid situation. "I thought you'd be like those Rocket grunts from Kanto. You know. Buff, roughly shaven, scarred. But you weren't. And that's what surprised me. I actually saw why Touko liked you: the hair the eyes and the hat. But mostly the hat, which if I remember correctly, had been hovering over your head."

N stared at Dawn, confused. "What? I... don't remember this..."

"I'm not sure how you can not remember something like that," Dawn insisted. "You were so calm. We saw that you were sending a message to Clemont in our code. I suppose that Ash had started it when you came in. And that Ash was on the floor at your feet with a broken nose, black eye, and ripped hat."

N continued to stare at Dawn blankly, and Ash did so as well. "Dawn, how long was I unconscious?" Ash asked.

"Not for long. But long enough. I'm getting there."

This, Ash figured, was why he had not said anything to Iris and Cilan. Since he had to be told about the lab after the fact, he did not know everything. He was unconscious when the lab had burned, so he could not be as reliable as he wanted.

"Anyway I wasn't as scared as you might think, standing three feet away from such a dangerous criminal. And this continued until N had turned around and I had seen the Natural Machine personally for the first time, glowing brightly. And that he was around a half foot taller than me. Touko and Touya had seemed almost relieved to see him. "N," they'd breathed. And I'd said it too, unused to so short a name. "N." she said thoughtfully.

N had smiled then. But it hadn't been mocking or understanding. It was just, expectant, like them. You know those smiles in horror movies which don't even look happy but they look scary instead? Yeah, N smiled like that. "You knew, did you not?" he'd asked us in this innocent voice, which seemed to make his smile seem even scarier. Again, like something out of a horror movie."

Dawn turned to N again. "I didn't think you'd be so quiet. Again I thought you'd be a thug. But you weren't."

A faint smile crossed N's thin lips. He nodded very slightly, to Dawn's amusement. "He knows he's intriguing," Dawn insisted. "But anyway, I'd asked you, "Knew what?"

"Did you not know that your efforts would be so... futile? That my predictions for where you would appear were correct? That you have just added another variable to my equations that I must... eliminate?"

"What the hell do you--" I had begun to ask, but N hadn't listened to me. He had strode about the room, speaking as he did so. "This place... it imprisons Pokémon... it does not consider them as living beings... beings with minds and hearts and desires. This place... it is contemptible." He'd struck the wall with a fist and I'd seen the break in it from where I stood. And the sparks. "This place... it must be... substituted... for the free spirits of the Pokémon who have been confined here." N had said, his voice rising as he had kicked the wall beside the computer monitor, inches from Ash's head. Touko had tried to wake you up Ash," Dawn turned to him. She had seemed urgent. "But we couldn't get to you."

N had suddenly whirled around and grabbed me by the arm. I had remembered what had happened to Bianca so I had tried to free myself and move away from the table. I knew I couldn't get stuck under there or else I'd be doomed. But N had been too fast, too strong. He'd dragged me by the straps on my bag under the table with the computer, one foot on my chest, the other ready to strike me if I dared to resist. I couldn't see his face. I only heard cracked plastic and splintering wood and screams and saw the Natural Machine glow a brighter green. And only did I realize what N had done when I had felt searing hot pain on the back of my neck and smelled the smoke. Only with Touya's help had I managed to get out of there. They had been the only ones with sense, the Heroes of Truth. They were the ones who had run and helped Professor Juniper and Bianca escape. The ones who'd carried Ash. And freed the Pokémon as flames leapt from the windows and tinted the sky blue and yellow and white. Only when the four of us were out of town and flying away on Skyla's plane did we look back. I saw a huge group of Pokémon running about, the tiny figures of Professor Juniper and Bianca trying to reign them in. But it hadn't worked. N had succeeded. Not only in freeing the Pokémon, but in leaving his signature imprinted and twisted into the ashes and remains of the now-smouldering building."

Dawn removed her jacket, lifted up her shirt collar slightly, and turned around, pointing at a spot on her neck and upper back. "And on me."

Chapter Text

Chapter 21

The rest of the day passed by relatively smoothly. Dawn said most of the testimony, which was what had happened up until Ash had gained consciousness while they were flying back to Cinnoh. He himself told Mr. Davis about how when he awoke, he looked down and saw the blue ocean flying by beneath their plane, and when he looked up, he saw the yellow of a banana hovering over his face, held and being peeled by Touya. He talked about how he'd screamed and nearly knocked the banana across the airplane cabin. "And why did you do that?" Mr. Davis asked Ash.

"Because," Ash trailed off. He could not explain it. It was stupid, foolish, probably insignificant, but he decided to try. "Well, we were flying over the water just after dawn and it was blue. And the banana was yellow. Put them together and it makes..." He stopped.

"Green," Mr. Davis finished. "What did the color green mean to you then? How did you feel when you thought of it?"

"Afraid. Very afraid." He shook his head. "It's stupid I know. It's crazy I know. But I was afraid of it."

"Why?"

Ash did not speak. He just pointed over to one side, where N sat, listening.

"The trip was pretty long, longer than it took me to get there," Dawn mused. "Skyla got constant messages from air traffic control people asking who she was and why she was flying. They knew her 'cause she flew all the time, but people were cautious. And we got a ton of messages from Clemont. We told him that we were going to Sunnyshore city. He said that he'd send a few groups of Net teams after us, to spread the news to the rest of the region. We landed after seven hours in flight and saw the panic in the city after five minutes."

Ash described the chaos at the airport: people frantically running through the terminals and security. People shoving strangers out of the lines so they could be the first to board. Crowds standing before the multiple PCs by the baggage carousels, practically fighting to send their Pokéballs to their destinations before them. Ash and his friends had found Net members doubling as employees at the airport, who directed them to the gym. Ash recounted how they had to solve a ridiculous puzzle, using controls on the gym walls to move pieces of the floor into place so they could walk across it. How when they finally completed it, Volkner had stood at the end of the room, suppressing a grin as they walked cautiously across the thin bridges they had created. How Volkner had walked them to their sleeping quarters, hidden behind machines which controlled the generators and computers in his gym.

Ash talked quickly through the day, speeding through a conference call with Clemont, who had the chance to see Dawn for the first time, tattoo-like imprint on her neck and all. He breezed through the couple hours which they spent on the Xtransceiver talking to Clemont, Viola, Alexa, and Burg, when they planned to send a message via Xtransceiver to as many people as possible in the city. At least, until Cheren, who had sat beside Clemont, had spoken and shook his head.

Ash repeated Cheren's words to the court. "We can't do that. Not again. Last time we staged a speech on TV..." He wrote N in the air. "We can't do that here. Sunnyshore is pretty large. We can't endanger the people here more. All you guys can do is gather people in front of the Pokémon center and speak there."

"Cheren," Touya had said, a smile spreading across his face, "I have a better idea. Have our photographers compile a collection of photos from Unova. From everywhere that's been effected. Pictures are a thousand words, so a pamphlet full of pictures is worth more than a thousand of our speeches. We can pass them out to people. And we can write out our goals too."

"So we helped the Net artists make the pamphlets," Ash explained. "We chose which photos would make the most impact. We used screen shots from the surveillance footage from the Cinnoh Pokémon League. We used quotes from Net members and trainers effected by N as captions. And when we finished we sent the files to Burg to edit and print. He said he'd send them to us the next morning."

By the time Ash finished telling the jury about the first day and sleepless night in Sunnyshore city, the sun was setting behind the few trees and the horizon. Mr. Davis said that the witnesses had testified for a sufficiently long period of time for the day and that everyone would meet at the courtroom the next morning at the usual time.

Ash didn't speak to his friends until they were in their tent. He was almost asleep when he heard Iris's voice. "Why didn't you tell us?"

Ash opened his eyes. Iris sat beside his cot. He sat up. "Why didn't you tell Cilan and me?" she asked again.

"I was planning on--" Ash began to say, but Iris cut him off. "When? It's been six months. And you knew about it for all that time!"

"Didn't Clemont tell you? Didn't you see our messages? I sent one to you as soon as I saw N, saying that there was an emergency."

"Well I don't recall ever reading one. All I saw was a message saying that you were taking the last watch. You had met and trained Dawn as best you could. And that the departure would go as planned."

Ash stared at Iris in alarm. "I never said that! I said that we'd been discovered! That N was there! That we had to leave!"

"You could have called," Iris said, her voice rising. "We could have seen what happened for ourselves!"

"I was writing you an emergency dispatch but N knocked me out before I could finish it. He must have changed its contents while I was out. To deceive you guys into thinking that everything was okay. So you wouldn't do anything about it!"

"Well," Cilan asked, lacking Iris's anger, "Clemont told us all the time that we had to be prepared. That we had to have a back-up of everything. That if you sent a text, you had to write it as an email. And say it as an audio file. You knew this. That way if something happened to one message the rest at least would be unchanged."

"I knew that!" Ash said, frustrated. Did his friends not understand that N had attacked him to surprise him? That N had used Mach Punch on him before he could have acted? "N must have teleported in and attacked me from behind." he realized.

"That's what Clemont always warned us about," Iris pointed out, still slightly angry.

"But anyway if it weren't for that I would have had time to say that everything was going fine or that there was an emergency. You would have received multiple copies. I was about to make the second one when he came."

"So, why didn't you do it sooner?" Cilan asked calmly.

Ash was about to shout a reply, that one cannot make multiple copies of emergency messages, that by their nature they must be believed on sight, but he stopped. He could not be angry at Cilan. Cilan was being his usual composed, thorough self. He was just following protocol. Just as Clemont had taught them...

Ash answered slowly, each word falling heavily from his lips. "Because I thought we were safe. Because I thought that N wouldn't dare to attack a Pokémon lab. Because I thought that we were far away from Nimbasa City, where he was last seen, so we weren't in danger."

"But you forget," Iris said, her voice even less angry now, "that Clemont always said to assume that N was in the next room. That he was right outside the door. Hell, that he was invisible in the room and waiting to attack you. He punched Touko in the shoulder while explaining this to us while she was eating her banana and she threw it at him. Remember?"

Ash nodded gloomily. "Yes, I remember."

"Well if you remembered you should have done it," Iris said simply, sharply. "Maybe N was right after all."

"Right about what?" Ash asked, even though he already knew the answer.

"That you are arrogant. That you assume that you know everything, even when you don't."

"But N wasn't himself then! He was just saying that to make me wanna stop fighting back!" Ash retorted.

"N has met Reshiram, Ash. Due to that he wouldn't have lied to you about anything, or at least that's how he would have perceived it back then. You're defending your action, even when you know it's wrong. Isn't that an act of arrogance?"

Ash thought about it, then nodded again. "Yeah. I guess."

He chuckled wryly. "Now I feel like a jerk. Thanks a lot."

"Well," Cilan said softly but firmly, "at least when you testify, now you can tell more of the truth. You won't embellish your actions. And that's gonna make helping out the world so much easier. It'll help N too. Because I don't think he remembers all of it."

Ash shook his head. "I suppose." was his dejected reply. "But how could he not remember? He did those things."

Cilan cut him off gently. "It's just a hunch but, I think it's 'cause of the Natural Machine and the Pokémon-controlling device."

"What about it?" Iris asked, only for cilan to shrug. "Never mind. It's probably wrong."

"Guys, I think we've had enough deep conversation for one night," Iris said, feigning lightheartedness. "I don't know how else to tell you guys. This is like something Touko and Touya would talk about. We've done nothing but talk about the meaning of life for six months. By the way are they coming? If they are, then when?"

Ash shook his head. "Maybe. I haven't heard anything."

"They'll come," Cilan said with certainty as he lay back down. "They wouldn't ditch us. Not now."

Ash and Iris nodded. "Good night," Iris said, touching Ash gently on his scarred arm.

"Sleep well," Cilan said, Pikachu agreeing with a soft "Pika!". His personal image of himself transformed, his confident persona permanently broken and re-broken by his friends, one of his friends' hands on his arm, Ash fell into an uneasy sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 22

"So Ash," Mr. Davis asked the trainer, "how did handing out the pamphlets work out for you guys?"

Ash stood for a few seconds in thought, hands deep in his pockets. "Well, in stead of telling you, I'll just show you. Dawn, you brought them, right?"

"Yeah. I'm surprised that there are any left."

Dawn fished her hand into the purse around her shoulders and pulled out several pamphlets. She handed one to Mr. Davis and Ash. On the cover was a still from the Verbank City broadcast: the crowd standing in bewilderment under the green N in the sky. "What do you wanna see Mr. Davis?" Dawn asked the judge, who shook his head. "Anything. Everything. Whatever you deem me necessary to see."

"Everything it is!" Dawn affirmed, opening the booklet to the first page.

A Pokémon center on an ordinary morning. A crowd of around a hundred people of various trainer classes gathering in front of a podium. Dawn pointed to objects of interest in regards to the hearing. "That's Ghetsis," she said. "Well you must know 'cause who else uses a red monocle?"

"And there's Touko and Touya!" Ash recognized the two trainers. They stood near the front of the crowd, each looking thoughtfully up at Ghetsis as he spoke. As Ash looked around at the jurors, he noticed that they were looking up, so he did so as well. He saw that a screen above their heads projected their booklets' contents for all to see.

Mr. Davis gestured to a fourth figure, to Ash's delight. "That's Cheren?" he asked.

Ash laughed. "Yeah! How did you guess?"

"I remember him from the Verbank City broadcast. Because of the glasses. He's right next to Touya. He's the one holding the camera."

Ash leaned in close to the screen and saw an Xtransceiver in cheren's hand. "Oh! I see it now."

Dawn turned the page, and Ash flinched back instinctively. There was a photograph of Touko, Touya, Cheren, and, _N. They stood together in the sun, beside a bench. Touko and Touya each held a Pokéball, and N did as well, but just with his fingertips. Cautiously. Like it hurt him to hold it. The caption underneath read: "Let me hear your Pokémon's voice again!"

"I remember choosing this photo," Ash mused. "Cheren tried to write the caption so it looked like how N talks, 'cause you know how he talks really fast, but it, it didn't work. We would have had to run all the words together."

"You also would have needed... let me see... a calculator... a protractor... and every "s" would be a sigma... and it wouldn't be black. It'd look like this!"

Ash started at hearing, that voice. It was, happy. What had happened to it? What did he want with him now?

Dawn began to chuckle. "Like what?" she asked N.

N pointed. Ash then noticed that N's hair was now tied up in its usual very lengthy ponytail, some of it slipping out and standing on end. He looked down at the picture. He looked back up at N. Then back down at the picture. The real N and the image looked exactly the same: the same black and white shirt, jacket and pants, the same hair, the same cube at their belts...

Ash looked away. "What's wrong?" N asked him, but Ash could not answer. Ash could not meet his eyes without seeing Sebrina on the ground bleeding, Cheren in his wheelchair. He did not know why, but he failed to understand why N would care about him, after all he had done to him. He knew he would not, if he had made such an impact on someone else's life for so long. After a while, he would not care about them.

"I'll show you the rest of the booklet, then." Ash said dryly, averting his eyes from N. "This was taken in front of Nacrene City gym, Lenora's. We never learned who took this but whoever did deserves the credit."

He turned another page. This was from Nimbasa City, the first time. Or what Touya calls "why girls join Team Plasma" or what Touko calls "why you should beware of people with green hair." Ash recalled, to everyone's amusement and N's confusion.

"And this was Dragonspiral Tower," Dawn said excitedly. "Touko and Touya told us about how when N--I mean when you, summoned Zekrom you scared the living crap out of them!" Dawn said to N, who began to chuckle. "I remember... I was wondering why they ran down the stairs so quickly... why they screamed so loud... now I know."

Ash stopped turning the pages of the booklet. "Now I'm gonna show you some stills from Aspirtia City, Verbank, and Nimbasa. If you're from Cinnoh or Unova you might recognize these."

Ash turned the page. The scorched remains of Cheren's gym. The abandoned rooms of the trainer's school, doors hanging off their hinges, marred with claw marks. Verbank City's Pokémon center, lines of people demanding to have their Pokéballs' locations tracked. The Nimbasa City ferris wheel, every car in tact except one, the twisted beam that Touko first indicated to Ash looking as green as it was when he had first seen it in Sebrina's video.

When Ash finished, Mr. Davis turned to him once again. "Well, I'm glad you've been able to show this to us Mr. Ketchum. Why don't you tell us about Sunnyshore City and what you did there?"

"Well," Ash started, "we received the first shipment of pamphlets that morning, about a hundred of them. We went to the Pokémon center and handed them to people. We told everyone we saw to read them, to tell everyone they knew about them. To warn them. We did this all day, you know. The four of us split up and handed them out to anyone we saw, of all trainer classes. We didn't ask for names or addresses. Just for people to read them."

"And no one did!" Dawn suddenly shouted, wringing her hands. She slammed her palm on her forehead for emphasis. "Someone called me a cohort of Team Plasma and to get out! Someone else called me a fool. And someone else nearly punched me."

"I was about to say that too," Ash agreed with Dawn. "The same things happened to Touko and me. Once after I handed someone a pamphlet, while we walked away, when they thought we weren't looking, we saw them throw it away. Someone said that we didn't have any business meddling in their city. Someone else said that I could be someone mind-controlled by N and that I couldn't be trusted, that me and all my friends were like that. No one cared. No one wanted to. Even after we were there for a good ten days, handing out more flyers each day, it didn't seem like anything changed."

"I thought of giving up, then." Ash said quietly. "I thought, that, that if no one could see the pain I'd gone through then there would be no hope of convincing anyone. I actually told Touko and Touya about this one night, on the tenth day. That we should just go our separate ways. That they could go home and help out there. That at least Unova could be saved, because they knew about, about _him."

"And _damn was Touya mad at you!" Dawn said, laughing. "I thought he'd punch you or something! He said he wouldn't let you give up then. How we'd barely begun. He said that you couldn't give up. Not after what had already happened. Not after so many Pokémon had already been taken from their trainers. "Not you, out of all people!" he shouted at you. "I'd rather have Clemont become a comedian and be forced to review his material rather than see you give up!"

Ash began to laugh too. "That brought me back to my senses. So I'd said that we'd keep trying. That we'd travel the whole region. That we'd keep telling people."

Dawn suddenly became thoughtful. "And it worked, remember? That kid at Volkner's gym?"

"Yeah," Ash said pensively. "Him. There was a kid who asked to challenge Volkner, on the morning we decided to leave. We'd been walking out of the gym, Volkner standing behind us. And he had come in and asked me. "Is Volkner here?"

"Of course," he had said warmly, coming up to the kid. "What do you need?"

"I wanted to battle you," he'd told him simply. "But I wanted to see if you were really here."

"Why wouldn't I be here?" Volkner had asked. "I work here, don’t I?"

"I thought you wouldn't be working here anymore." the kid answered, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. And soon we realized that it was.

"Why would you think that?" Volkner had asked.

"Because this says so." He had pulled one of our pamphlets from his pocket and turned to the last page. "It says here that soon all the gym leaders won't be gym leaders anymore."

Understanding had flashed across Volkner's face. Though his eyes had lit up with determined sparks, he had spoken surprisingly gently. "And do you know why I wouldn't have my job anymore?"

The kid had stood there in thought for a little while. He had finally answered: "Because you'd have no Pokémon."

He pointed to Volkner's belt, laden with six Pokéballs. "The Pokémon would be gone."

We had knelt around the boy, Volkner speaking to him quietly but firmly. "You mean released, my boy. I would have no more Pokémon because someone would have taken them from me."

The boy's eyes had widened. He probably hadn't known that possibility existed before. "But why?" he'd asked. "You're so strong. You'd get them back." He had said earnestly. "Wouldn't you?" he had asked innocently.

Volkner's eyes had darkened. He had looked sadly into the kid's eyes. "No. I wouldn't be able to get them back. Even if I tried my very hardest." he had responded bluntly, trying to sound both honest and kind.

But the boy hadn't given up. "But why wouldn't you get them back? You could just battle. You'd win!"

Volkner had smiled sadly. "Oh, I wish that were true. But no. He'd be too strong."

"Stronger than you?" the kid had asked.

"Yes. Much stronger than me. Even Lance. Hell even Red wouldn't stand a chance. He could take my Pokéballs in any way he wanted. He wouldn't have to touch me. He'd be able to pin my arms to my sides--" he had demonstrated, "without even touching me. Then he'd point at me--" he had pointed at his own belt, "and my Pokéballs would fly to him."

The boy's eyes had suddenly lit up. "I know who that is! He's here!" He'd turned the booklet to a page, to a picture from Aspirtia City. To the Pokéballs floating in midair around Cheren. "Like that?"

"Yeah. Like that." I'd answered.

The boy had suddenly looked at the facing page, searching the photograph. He'd pointed again. "N." he'd said shortly. "That's him, isn't it?"

All of us had stepped back at hearing the name. "He's the one doing it, right?" he'd asked. I guess he had sensed some of our fright.

Touya had stepped back toward the boy and nodded. "Yes, yes he is."

"You can stop him!" the boy had said. "I saw you on TV. You and her!" he'd pointed at Touko, who'd smiled shyly. She'd asked him: "Are you a trainer?"

"I am! I've been one for almost a year. I wanted to get my last badge. Then I'll be able to go to the Pokémon League tournament here."

"Well," Touko had said honestly, "if we can't get everybody's Pokémon back, then there will be no Pokémon League tournament. You will collect no more badges. There will be no more trainers to fight. There will be no more battles or Pokéballs."

"But why?" he'd asked.

I had resisted the urge to flinch as I'd pointed at N. "Because of him," I'd said. I had tried to be calm. He looked so much like me, when I'd begun training. Happy, optimistic, smiling. I hated to think that I'd ruin that for him. But it was better to know and be broken than to have one more moment of happiness and discover that it was all a lie. "He thinks that Pokémon battling is wrong. So he wants to free them. So they won't hurt anymore. So trainers won't hurt them anymore."

"All of them?"

"Yes. All of them."

"Even mine?" the boy had asked. I had seen in his eyes that he was catching on. And I had hated myself, for making him understand. He deserved better."

Ash brushed his eyes with his hand. "I'd said yes. That look in that kid's eyes, I couldn't take it. I couldn't bear to think of him, without his Pokémon. It was like taking part of someone's childhood. Part of their life. A world without Pokémon is a world without anything worth living for. Like having only one arm or eye or half a heart. So I had told him this: "We will stop him," I'd said to him resolutely, grasping Pikachu by the paw. "We'll get all the Pokémon back. You'll get all your badges. Trust me, Pokémon training is amazing. You'll come to love them. Even more so now."

"Promise?" the boy had asked.

I'd laid my hand on my heart, then on my belt, then on Pikachu's head. I'd clasped hands with Touko, Touya, Dawn, and Volkner, who followed my example. "We promise." we'd said in unison.

As Dawn, Touko, Touya, and I had turned to leave, I had remembered something. "I never got your name. I'm so sorry. It's so rude of me."

The boy had smiled. "It's okay. I'm Aaron. I live around here, just outside the city."

"I'm Ash," I'd said. "And that's Dawn. And they're Touko and Touya."

Volkner had straightened up quickly, smiling. "Well, if a gym battle is what you want, then a gym battle is what you'll get. Come on. The gym's this way. Might as well do it now, it's as good a time as ever."

He had led Aaron further into the building, turning around to wave to us. "Arceus help you all," he'd said over his shoulder. "Good luck. Raichu, I choose you! Use Thunderbolt! Now!"

"Monferno, go! Use Mach Punch!" Aaron had called out as we'd walked out the door."

Ash smiled. "And you know what? That was the only thing that kept me going. The whole time. The chance for kids like Aaron to go to the tournaments I've been to. And make a ton of Pokémon friends. And make friends with trainers too. They make you a better person, you know. 'Cause you have to give everything to them. They become you, after long enough. And it shows."

Dawn nodded. "Enjoy the peace while it lasts." she said shortly. "Like we did. Those few minutes were probably the most peaceful we had in, in a really long time. 'Cause it just gets more, more, interesting, from here."

Chapter Text

Chapter 23

Ash spoke much more quietly now, for he knew that everyone was listening very hard. "Oh Lakes Acuity, Verity, and Valor. Famous for Mesprit, Uxie, and Azelf, who we've befriended, clear water for swimming, and officially having no water in them for a few months now." Ash's voice suddenly changed tone when he mentioned this newest development. "I'll get to that later. I can't say soon 'cause nothing around here ever happens soon. It's either later or never."

"I would ask for you to elaborate on that," Mr. Davis admitted, "but in light of how things usually turn out with you and your friends it'll be really damned disheartening. And give some people here nightmares. It would also prove you right."

Ash chuckled. "Right on Mr. Davis. I knew you'd catch on. Well, to answer your question, yes it will be disheartening. But only at the very end. So hold that thought."

"Handing out the pamphlets was so much easier after we saw Aaron," Dawn recalled. "Not including traveling, we spent three days in every city with a gym, and two in ones that didn't. We passed out pamphlets by day and tried to sleep by night. Most days we'd just pretend to sleep or talk or sit up playing stupid Internet quizzes. There was this one about, I don't remember his name, but Clemont likes him. About spies. Jason something--"

"Dawn!" Ash turned to her reproachfully. "Get to the point! And if you're gonna talk about spy movies get it right. It's Bourne. Jason Bourne."

"Okay. Well, anyway, when we weren't making toasters explode we were actually being productive. Burg sent us more pamphlets. We updated them every time the Net people found surveillance footage by taking screen shots from it. And when we saw people we told them stories about what other people had told us they had experienced. And more and more people believed us every day. Hell we started handing out booklets on the road and we'd run out all the time. But soon people donated to us. Slipping rolls of Pokédollars into our back pockets or bags. Giving a Pokégear number to Pikachu to hold, a check attached, for us to look at when we were safely away. People giving us addresses on napkins with our insane lemonade bills. You name it."

"These people were a lot like us," Ash explained. "Some were people from Unova who remembered what happened in their home region and didn't want it to happen in Cinnoh or anywhere else. Most were trainers like us who didn't wanna be separated from their friends. And there was this one guy, a former Team, Rocket, grunt I believe. He talked real weird. And he gave us a crap ton of money, so it turned out nicely, even if we couldn't understand most of his reasons why he gave it to us."

"Why do you think people believed you guys more? Besides the pamphlets? And constant references to movies?" Mr. Davis asked.

"Well, to be perfectly honest," Ash acknowledged, "at the time I didn't really think about it. I knew that, that _he, was there, in Cinnoh. And that people knew about what happened in Sunnyshore City, but I didn't think that it'd hit so many people so close to home. One person we met said that his friend had seen the Pokéballs at one of the Pokémon centers disappear, right in front of him. They weren't full. They just disappeared. But in some places it was pretty bad. People said they saw, _him, at Phantina's gym. He had come in with a challenger, knocking out the gym trainers as their Pokémon were defeated. And then he had done the same to Phantina. And taken her Pokéballs, all of the ones there. At the same time he was threatening a Pokémon center employee in the next town over. And everyone thought that both appearances were real. Despite the warnings that, _he, could duplicate himself. And that both encounters turned out to be those same illusions."

"How did you know that N was actually there or not? As you said, Touya thought that it was virtually impossible to know."

Ash moved his hands across the armrests on his chair in thought. "There was a way, actually. Besides seeing if the Pokéballs were gone, well this is gonna be uncomfortable. If N prevented people physically from touching him, then there was a higher chance of him being an illusion. He'd only make the illusion as real as he needed. Real enough so you could feel him touching you while stopping you from laying hands on him. But no one was fast enough to try it. So it continued on like that for weeks."

"This was when Net membership began to increase," Dawn explained. "Clemont's other teams also handed out pamphlets. And via coded messages we enrolled people. There were more and more all the time. And people from the other regions joined too. We helped them prepare for, for _his, attacks as best we could."

Ash started at seeing Dawn, for as she said "from _his attacks", she drew the N in the air, even while the real N sat by, watching anxiously, intently, amazed.

Ash continued, trying to keep his composure. "We would meet with Clemont over Xtransceiver and help him organize meetings and training for the new Net members. We would give them code names. Send them equipment. Tell them where there was the best food 'cause let's face it: if you're gonna participate in a war, revolution, thing, you've gotta have the best food you can, right?"

Dawn chuckled. "Now _that's the Ash everyone hear knows and loves. Always making everyone hungry."

Mr. Davis, who had been sitting intently, leaned forward, his dark eyes lighting up. "Ash?"

"Hmmm?"

"Why do you call it a "war"? What you and the Net did, I mean?"

Ash shook his head. "It should be pretty easy to say if it was a war or not. We were fighting against something. That's what a war is, isn't it?"

"Yes and no," Mr. Davis began to say. "Most trainers here do not know about war, for nowadays it is virtually unheard of. Pokémon battles give people an outlet through which to release those hateful emotions which cause the most horrible atrocities in war. Thus you and many like you don't know exactly what it is or what it's like. A war is a fight between differing groups of people. They may have a disagreement over government or social ranking or the current state of the world. They yearn for changing something. Whether that be to revolutionize society or revert it back to a previous state. They want to determine who is right via conflict."

"Like Pokémon battles." a voice said.

"What was that?" Mr. Davis asked.

"You heard me." the voice said again. "A war... it is an extended Pokémon battle. For all that distinguishes between war and Pokémon battles is their scope. How many people put their beliefs on the line... how many fight... how many people win... how many people lose... how many people who are hurt... it is all the same. The only difference is that there is no Pokémon center that one can go to to heal their wounds in a matter of seconds. One must either do it himself or let them fester for all time."

Everyone stared at N as he rose to his full height, unhooking the Natural Machine from his belt. It shot up into the air and hovered at his shoulder, flickering with colors and sparks. "You fight wars over property... over political ideas... over the nature of people... this is what you did, Ash. You fought against the idea of Pokémon being freed."

"So," Dawn said nervously, trying not to flinch back from N, "what do you think we fought for? What do you think _you fought for?"

N suddenly slammed his fist on the back of his chair, which split in half and crashed to the floor. "I did not fight for anyone! I fought for the sake of all Pokémon. I did not want anything for myself... but what did _you want?" As N pointed an accusatory finger at Ash, a spark of power flitted to the tip of it and hovered there, on the verge of zapping him. He tried not to jump up and run to the other side of the tent. "_Eh? You were selfish... all of your friends were. You fought for those you knew. _I fought for those I did not know, for the good of thousands! And what did _you fight for? Your own "friends". Your own desires. To maintain the status quo. I had none, then."

N turned to the jury, where some people were visibly frightened, gripping the bleachers tightly, bending knees, preparing to run. _This was the N who had sent the Pokémon world to its knees. _This was the N who had imprinted his very name on Ash's body. They knew, _him, now. They understood, now. They feared, _him, now.

N's voice dropped to a whisper, a firm, persuasive, powerful whisper. Ash could see him now, as a king. He certainly possessed the charisma. If it were not for his twisted, formulaic personality, he would listen to him with no hesitation. He begrudgingly gave this much credit to Ghetsis, for giving him the fervor and compelling personality to draw people to him, to listen to him, to be influenced by him. "And don't you dare say that the fight is over... it has barely begun. Hell, it happens even here, even now... a war of words. Wars do not have to be fought with guns and bombs and generals compelling Pokémon to bleed and die! No; we fight now over whose opinion is correct. That is what a court is. And if you insist on listening only to this damned fool... who thinks his opinion the most important because he is supposedly good and "innocent"... then you are no better than he. Was _I given help in preparing for this trial? _No! Was I given time to gather my own witnesses who were mentally stable enough to aide me? _No! Do you care? _No! All you care for are your "friends"."

N's voice rose to a bitter near-shout. He stepped forward and turned to face the jury head-on so the whole room could see and hear him. The Natural Machine sparked as it flew to his right hand, which grasped the cube as a king from another time would grasp his scepter, his symbol-turned embodiment of his power, which was not intangible anymore. _This power was real. "All you care for is who will get the compensation for their supposed suffering... and who will be depicted in the newspapers as a poor, poor victim and who will be depicted as an Arceus-damned villain! I see you, _don't _you _dare think that I don't. I see the world as it is now... that is one of the few things I can truly thank Ghetsis for. His success at breaking me taught me that the whole world is a Pokémon-battling arena... it is only a matter of who fights who with what... and who gets up after they are beaten down and what one does after winning. I have been given the ultimate preparation to fight anyone, anything, anytime!"

N raised his hands over his head and gestured to the bleachers, where people stared up at him in fear, for now he floated so he was twenty feet above the floor. His gestures encompassed everyone. "I see you, clinging to your Pokéballs as a drowning person does a raft... as a drunk to his precious bottle... and you know what? _I caused the wave which swept down upon your homes... the gales which flattened your cities... emitted the shouts which sent millions of you to your knees to cower before me... conjured the fires which razed your damned gyms! It may seem like I enjoy being feared... however... I disagree! I all I want is to see my opinions taken into consideration... even if that means traumatizing a hundred people, a million people, to do it! For my entire Farfetch'd life _no _one listened to me! Ghetsis _never let me do what I wanted... say anything of what _I wanted to say. Taking man's right to express his opinion is essentially taking his right to be a man. I know you distrust my testimony. I can see it in your eyes. The people of the Pokémon world gave me the one chance I have ever had to tell all trainers what truly happened to me... what Pokémon truly suffer... what I tried to do to free them... and you've ruined it! I have met the Being of Truth in the flesh... and you still do not believe me. All I will say is this: _fine! If you do not believe my testimony, then you should not hear it at all! _No _one should! I shall bring my grievances to the Being of Truth... and watch you all burn!"

A flash lit the room, and for a few seconds, Ash thought it looked like his hospital ward in Verbank City. All he could see was a light, a green light, but instead of being minute and far away, it surrounded him, his friends, Mr. Davis, and the jury. Electricity pulsed through Ash's body, and he screamed in pain, crashing to the floor. Yells of panic erupted from the bleachers, and Ash could hear the sound of twisting, wrenching metal close by. The green light engulfed him, covered his eyes, and sent him plummeting into a frightful trance, full of that powerful voice and flames.

When he awoke, the light was gone. Everything seemed the same: Mr. Davis sitting close by, Pikachu at his side, the jury in their seats. However, when he looked closer, he saw the changes: the understanding etched on the jury members' faces, the chair, turned to splinters, and the...

"Look!" Dawn had no need to tell him. Seemingly painted on the floor, mimicked in the twisted bleachers in front of him... he need only look for a second to know that N had left his mark.

Mr. Davis stood shakily from his seat and cleared his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen, I," His voice trailed off, words seeming to allude him. He began anew. "I apologize. I couldn't stop him from leaving. I, I believed him. Every word. I, I have failed you. I hope you can forgive me. Well, since the subject of this trial is no longer present, this hearing can't continue, unless there is someone here who can take N's place, someone who can provide an equivalent amount of evidence."

A rustle from the crowd, whispering. The squeak of someone standing from the newly-configured bleachers. "Ash."

He stared as a much younger boy came up to him, brushing his short hair from his eyes. Hair the same color as, as _his, hair.

He held out a small, scarred hand. "Don't you remember me?" he asked, a little hurt entering his close-knit, smaller-sized features, an equally small frown on his lips.

Ash stared long and hard at the boy. "I, I do. Aaron?" he said hesitantly.

He nodded. "I can't believe you remembered." He turned to the jury, raising his voice. "Aaron Ghedaul. Cinnoh. The pamphlet kid. As of now--" he touched his hand to his badge case and the empty spots on his belt "having no badges and no Pokéballs."

Chapter Text

Chapter 24

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.

"Hmmm?"

"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.

"_N!"

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.

"_N!"

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."

Chapter Text

Chapter 25

When Ash looked up at the jury, no one met his gaze. Everyone looked down at their feet or stared up at the ceiling. Regardless, all of them looked shaken, and some were even on the verge of tears. A girl in the front row covered her face with a handkerchief to stifle her sobs, while an older man next to him laid a comforting hand on her shoulder and looked gravely at the witnesses. People held hands or put arms around the shoulders of strangers. Human nature at its best, despite Ash explaining what happened when humans behaved at their worst. Maybe, _he, was right, for in some instances, people acted selfishly and hurt others just to achieve their ends. After all, _he, himself, had done so...

Ash began to wonder why he was destined to be the bearer of bad news, why he was burdened with the responsibility. He felt sorry for them, to have such terrible news thrust upon them in such a sudden manner. However, this did not last long. There was much more to come. This was a horrible tragedy, yes, but the jury did not know any of the pain, the hardship, the emotional whiplash, that Ash had suffered through, in edition to such a loss. He took time to grieve, but not for long. He had to move on to the next city, the next Pokémon center, the next trainer to help. He could not afford to wallow in grief, then. Possibly even now. If he did, he would be unable to recover and disengage himself. Thus, he put on a stern face, for Roark, for though Roark failed to stand firm, even after his hardest efforts, he had to do so as well, and succeed, for his sake.

"We hadn't asked Nurse Joy about, about when Roark was, attacked. But she'd told us after showing us the hologram that it had happened early that morning, just after dawn. She said that it would be fitting if we all helped out with his funeral. Us and the Net. And of course we agreed to do it. We sent word to Clemont and conferenced with him and he said that he'd have Net members stream the funeral via the Internet. We had sent word to Burg, along with the file containing the hologram, so he could take screen shots from it. To make more pamphlets. People had to know about this. Cinnoh had the right to know about it. He was their gym leader."

Aaron stood from his seat abruptly, gesturing for Ash to stop speaking. "I came here 'cause I wanted to show you all this." Aaron took a square piece of plastic from his pocket, about an inch long on each side. Ash cringed and looked away when he saw it, for it, reminded him of the banana he saw while flying on Skyla's plane, above the sparkling ocean. The tattoo on his own arm. _His, hair.

Aaron told the jury, "This is a copy of the video. The projector up there--" he pointed, "can scan this and play the file on it, like Nurse Joy did for Ash. Mr. Davis, I hope you don't mind if we play it for you. Telling you about, about Roark, is one thing but showing it to you is another. It's the only way to do him justice. And I've been holding onto this for a long time. Waiting to show someone."

"Everyone, by a show of hands, can you please let our friends know if you wish to see this footage?" Mr. Davis asked the jury. "I will give you a minute to decide."

Even before Mr. Davis had finished speaking, hands shot into the air. Some people even held up two hands. When Mr. Davis saw this, he cleared his throat and announced, "Well then, it seems like we're in agreement. Mr. Ghedaul, play the video please."

Aaron held the memory card up above his head, and Ash helped him maneuver it so it was opposite the bottom edge of the screen. A beam of light fell on the two of them and the memory chip. The screen flickered, then disappeared as Roark's sturdy, scrubbing form took its place.

Ash forced himself to look up at the hologram. He knew that it was the only way he would recover, to see Roark again, to release all of his pent-up grief, but even now, the sound of Roark's voice was causing him to shake. He glanced over and saw that Dawn was effected in the same way, gripping the arms of her chair tightly. When he saw the flicker of movement at the corner of the screen, he could not help himself. He winced and looked away. However, he had no need to look to know what was happening: the last conversation of Roark's life.

However, Ash did not look away for long. After what only felt like a few seconds, which in reality was about a minute and a half, he looked up again and heard gasps as he heard a fist meet skin and bone. _He, had punched Roark. He saw that some members of the jury looked terrified, clenching hands on bleachers or in their laps, eyes wide, and some faces were already growing pale. A flash of blue. A blur of movement. Roark's body jerking back in pain as, _his, attacks hit him. He saw people leaning forward, trying to catch sight of, of _him, changing from an illusion into his true appearance. As Roark fell down, in the split second before he touched the floor, Ash heard screams, shouts, cries, of, _his, name. "N."

"It's N!"

"Oh my Arceus it's N."

"His hair isn't as green as it is in person."

Ash stared in horrified fascination at the jury as they watched Roark's last moments: their anger at seeing N insult Roark, their shock as N pummeled him with attack after attack, and finally, their horror and dismay at seeing Roark's last act, one of submission. People screamed each time N struck Roark with a new attack, shouted insults every time N said another taunting remark, yelled in anger and fright as N rose into the air, as the Natural Machine flew downward, impacting into Roark's skull.

When the hologram finally ended, the courtroom was silent. People stared up at the blank screen, wondering how such a horrifying event could be simultaneously intriguing. Even as some people seemed about to panic, some turned to Ash and stared at him for a seemingly long, painful moment, their eyes wide but not terrified, their faces set but not emotionless, their bodies rigid, but not because of fright or panic. They now felt some of his pain, and they were learning to cope with it. To push it aside. To await the next piece of news.

These people knew, _him, now.

These people understood, _him, now.

By the looks on some of the peoples' faces, these people hated, _him, now.

Ash heard the scraping of a chair on the floor, heard a cough. He turned around to see Mr. Davis, a hand brushing across his rough cheek, but he did not have to hide the few tears which fell from his dark eyes. He seemed to stoop forward suddenly. Either that, or Ash saw it for the first time. He now saw the lines around his eyes, his slow, pained movements. He was probably at least three times his age, if not more. Dawn beckoned to him. "Sir, we're, we're so sorry. We never meant to do this to you."

Mr. Davis came forward and sat between Ash and Aaron. He smiled sadly. "Well, I had a feeling this would happen. When I was chosen to preside over this hearing, I wanted to call Roark and tell him about it. But I couldn't get a hold of him. At least I know why now. I was good friends with him and his father Byron. They were the ones who showed me around Cinnoh, my first time there, when I was just out of law school."

Ash did not know how to reply. He simply nodded and asked, "well, do you still wanna hear about the funeral?"

Mr. Davis assented. "Of course. It is only proper."

Dawn spoke, lifting her head to look solemnly at Mr. Davis, speaking in a quiet tone. "We didn't actually have the funeral in Orburg City. We did it on the shore of Lakes Verity, Acuity, and Valor. We helped prepare his casket, using our Pokémon to carve it from rock from his gym. It too had been burned down by, by _his, attack. Like Cheren's. Anyway we arrived at the Lakes on a morning both chill and cloudy. The weather people said that it would get sunny later but we doubted them. I don't know why. Maybe 'cause they never went out and felt the heat or cold. Just talked about it. Like the people who criticized the Net back in Unova. Except those people understood us, now. We told people that the service would start at noon, on the shore of Lake Valor. But when we got there there was already a crowd waiting. To help us set up the tents and the Net's cameras, people told us. People who wanted to help and keep busy, to honor him, 'cause grieving and doing nothing wouldn't help anyone. And Aaron was one of those people."

The boy nodded. "Yeah. I helped set up the podium and directed everyone to the chairs. And places to stand. And where to sit on the grass. There were so many that we just moved everything so our podium was in the center of the people. So they could see everything."

"The actual service was short," Ash recalled. "We spoke about his life, what he'd done for the city, told the people what happened to him, how he'd been attacked by, by _him. And how right before his death, he surrendered, even after he tried with all his energy to warn us. And at the end as people laid flowers and berries and Full Restores on his coffin, people spoke about him. One was a trainer who said that the first time he came to the city, he got lost and Roark had noticed him and asked if he needed help. So he'd asked Roark for directions. And after he'd found the Pokémon center, Roark had made sure he was okay. Another had been a student looking for a job, so he'd went to Roark's gym to find work. And he did, eventually becoming a Kalosian gym technology specialist."

Dawn chuckled. "And there was that girl. She was the last person Roark gave a badge to. She was barely ten years old. So small. She'd been scared of him. But she said how he'd been real nice to her. Even during the battle he helped her out. Gave her tips. And bought her ice cream after. That made me cry, it was so sweet. And a lot of people did too. The speeches lasted for a few hours. There were so many stories about him, they reminded me of one of the books Clemont let us read. We had a lot of down time while we were driving, you know. In the book, it was about this really rich guy, everyone loved him, his parties, damn they were awesome. But when he died no one came to his funeral. And I was thinking, you can be liked alive and dead. I don't remember his name though. Jack, no, Jay something."

"And I remember how you were so shocked when the sun came out," Aaron reminded Dawn, "when we were lowering the casket into the grave. The clouds went away, right above us. And Ash said how the weather people hadn't lied this time. And how it was weird that it happened, right then, when the service ended. Not at the beginning, but at the end. But oh well."

"Yeah." Ash said reflectively, "that was true. At least until Lake Valor spun like a top."

"Spun?" Mr. Davis repeated. "What do you mean, "spun"?"

Ash explained. "It happened right after we finished the service. People were just standing around talking. And someone took a picture of the monument our Pokémon had made for Roark. And the lake. It was really pretty. At least until it began to rise up in a wall of water."

Aaron suddenly began to speak, his words rushing from his lips as he described the sudden wave, blurring together. "It happened so fast. It didn't seem possible. But all we had to do was look once and start running. We were a quarter of a mile away but the water came too fast to be normal. And the lightning, it was above the waves, arching down. Which shouldn't have been possible 'cause of the sun. And the wind, which made the wave spin. And even I knew that that shouldn't be possible. But what shocked me was when the lightning scorched the ground about halfway between the lake and us. You should know what it did by now, the pattern it formed. And only a couple seconds after that someone grabbed my shirt and yanked me down. I didn't know who it was at first but all I had to do was feel the pain to figure it out. The hands pressing down on my arms. The nails scratching and drawing the patterns in my skin. See the cube hovering above my face. The green hair. The power which tore my shirt open and scarred me."

Aaron suddenly turned around and ripped his shirt open, throwing it aside. Ash stared in shock as he saw the tattoo-like impressions on his body.

Chains. Chains wrapped around his young body, scribed on his chest, back, and arms. He bent down, removed his shoes and socks, tore the bottoms of his pants away, and revealed his tattooed ankles. Then he lifted his hands above his head, indicating his wrists. Also tattooed.

All green.

Aaron stood calmly, not afraid of displaying his bear form. He lifted a shaking hand from his side and drew, _his, name in the air. "_He, said to me that he'd do all possible to stop us. Even me. All of us. Even though he didn't interfere with Roark's service."

Aaron scratched his head in thought. "I don't know why he wouldn't stop it. I guess he still felt enough empathy then. May be he didn't feel it before but felt it now. And when I asked him about it, why he didn't stop us, he didn't answer. Just looked away. He seemed sad, like us. He wasn't scary, then, despite him pinning me down with all his weight. Then all of a sudden his face had changed. The faint smile at his lips contorted with sudden anger into a grimace of pain. Then he had said that I was an equation that had to change form. So he'd pressed against me, his whole body. And he'd said that it was Ash's fault, that by him knowing me he had shackled himself to me with green chains. That I had done this to him too, by knowing him. That I had doomed the whole world, by supporting him, the whole world and generations after us. I made these chains, he just had to provide the power needed to make them show up. By spreading the Net wider, I had increased the number of terms to be factored out of his equations. Before I blacked out he had stood up, his hands gesturing, sending me into the air."

"And did he do his, battle cry, catchphrase, thing?" Dawn asked, only to stop. "Of course he did. He always does."

"_N." Aaron said as he sat down again, pressing his hands to his back, grimacing. Ash realized that he was reliving the pain, like how he relived the Verbank City hospital room attack, every night, rather than having his well-deserved, restful sleep. The first time he had been attacked by, _him.

"_N," Ash repeated as he laid a comforting hand on Aaron's shoulder, which he did not know until now had been scarred. He could not forgive himself for leaving Aaron behind with, _him. He could not stop thinking about how his efforts to help the future generations of trainers had hurt him, how he had doomed them to tyranny and power and systematic disillusionment.

"_N." the jury echoed. They sympathized with the witnesses, now.

They regretted that the witnesses had to feel such pain, now.

By the sound of how some said, _his, name, some wanted to take action, to make, _him, pay for what he had done, now.

Chapter Text

Part VII: Shutting Down (and Regaining) the Power...

Chapter 26

N walked through the Indigo Plateau, ignoring trainers who passed him or waved to him, his Zoroark following close behind him. He continued to fume, occasionally kicking a rock or slamming his palm on his forehead. "You fool... you damned fool... you graphical impossibility... you disgrace." he muttered under his breath in his quiet, firm voice. He shook his head.

When he at last found a rock he could rest on, he gestured to Zoroark to take a seat before him. After he sat beside it, he laced his long fingers around the Natural Machine in his lap, which sparked in the gaps which they created. Whatever he felt, it emulated it, for although most of his anger had abated, some continued to linger inside of him, an occasional flare-up of sparks leaping from the cube. He did not regret his decision, to leave. The jury... they deserved it... to feel his disgust... his fear... his pain. It was all for the good of Pokémon... everything in his life... he did it for them. Even... even breaking Ash...

As N sat in thought, images flitted before his closed eyes, which he slowly came to recognize as his own memories, the events Ash had described: the Elite Four of Cinnoh, sprawled before him, Cheren's broken form, Roark's cracked and bloodied skull. He remembered now... what Ash had described... the fights, the frantic people, the supposedly perfect formulas. He felt no anger now, merely... discontent, at being unable to contribute to Ash's testimony... that his place as the first term in the sequence granted him no benefits...

"It is good, that you remember."

N did not lift his head from his lap. He continued to let the images enter his mind, or rather, to reveal themselves: the people of Verbank City, watching the news broadcast and one of many demonstrations of his power... the panicked citizens of Sunnyshore City, attempting to escape him... the screams... and Clemont...

"Its hold on you has made you angry. Even now, you feel such, no?"

A voice from nearby. "I wish to be left alone." N said firmly.
"It is my duty that I find out what happened to you and Ash. You know that. It is my nature, to find the truth. That is what Mr. Davis wants as well. In Unova, their law students and anyone in a court swear to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them, me, for a reason."

The green-haired man did not reply He continued to hold his head in his hands, his nose practically touching the middle block of the Natural Machine. He held back the urge to sneeze. "You know I am right, Natural. Your thoughts are uncertain. But now they go in the right direction. And I do not mean the direction in which that hoard of Kalosian singers live."

N finally spoke: "Who... are you..."

A scratch on the ground. A warmth on the back of his neck. He lifted his head, looked up, and nearly fell back in shock. "Reshiram... you... found me..."

The same voice, slightly amused. "Of course. You stand out like a sore thumb here. In more ways than one. And I wanted to tell you of the proceedings, with Ash."

N sighed. "I know I should have stayed... I did all of them a terrible disservice... denying them my contribution to their solution set. I... I hope that they can forgive me..."

The Being of Truth gazed into the trainer's eyes, nodding slightly. "They will forgive you, Natural. It is only a matter of time before they finish. Before you remember everything. Only then will the mind-controlling device's hold on you cease entirely."

N stood up, Zoroark following suit. "Where... are they?" he asked, slightly embarrassed. When he had left the courtroom, he had teleported to a random location on the Indigo Plateau. He could be miles away, for all he knew...

The Pokémon glanced at N's hat, lifting it off his head and spinning it around, the brim pointing off into the distance. "That way for a half mile. Look for the Oranberry tree still standing. You can teleport back there whenever you like. What do you plan to do? Help Mr. Ketchum with his testimony?"

N nodded, regaining a little of his famous confidence. "Yes... but not yet. When the time is right... and that will be soon. What are they talking about?"

"About Clemont--I apologize, you may not remember. His friends from Kanto are there now. It will happen soon. You may wish to head off now."

The green-haired man raised his hand in a beckoning gesture as he walked in the direction of his still-floating hat. He picked it out of the air and put it on his head. "Ash won't know who I am without it," he hastily explained.

A soft mental chuckle. "He will know who you are in any case, Natural. Just take your time. When we are there, if you need me, do not hesitate to say so."

Reshiram took off and flew in the same direction as N, its body flaring, N's Natural Machine doing the same. As he walked, he looked up and asked, "Why are you escorting me? Why not Zekrom? Where is..."

"This trial concerns both of us equally, Natural. It matters not who is there when the verdict is eventually called, only that it is in accordance with what happened. And my friend, he is, occupied."

The Hero of Ideals nodded. Soon... they would know about his experience... and trust it too. Soon, they would forgive him... and trust him too.

Soon, he would remember everything... and feel no remorse about it, too. Reshiram was right... true to its word and its nature.

"Yes Natural?"

N looked up, slightly puzzled. "Hmmm?"

"You said that I was right. Right about what?"

"Oh. I said that... aloud? Well, you said... at Team Plasma's castle... that I would regret everything... all of it."

Quiet agreement. "Of course. And you are beginning to feel this way. However I also gave you the power to fight against those who wanted to use your powers for ill. And I have, Natural. Give it time."

Comfortable silence as N continued to walk toward his friends, closer and closer to fulfilling Reshiram's promises.

"So the people of Hoenn had organized long before we got there," Ash explained. "They had hidden their stashes of Pokéballs and their people had formed city watches. May and Max headed the effort, actually. Max had become a trainer, when I saw him. Him and Treeko. They had both changed so much. So we were proud to see them taking charge. That was what we wanted, actually. For the native people to do it. And they did it very well."

"How long did you stay in Hoenn?" Mr. Davis asked. "A few weeks?"

"Actually," Dawn picked up for Ash, "we stayed only _a week and left Petalburg City at the end of it. Because Max and May said so. And it turned out that that was all the time we needed to stay for."

Mr. Davis was about to speak, but he stopped. "I know why." he said, hushed, realization entering his dark eyes. "Because of Lavender Town, right?"

Ash, Dawn, and Aaron grimly nodded. "How do you know?" Aaron asked.

Mr. Davis shrugged. "Who _doesn't know? It was all over the news. And that's when the entirety of Kanto and Johto went into a panic."

Somewhat relieved, Ash replied, "Well at least we don't have to explain _everything. You know that Lavender Town was destroyed, even Pokémon Tower. And that the explosions after, they, well, Clemont."

"Oh no," Mr. Davis almost groaned, not bothering to act professional in light of this news. "Really? I, didn't know he--"

"Well all you need to know," Dawn said, was that we were actually in Ecrutiac City at the time, so we weren't that far away. We'd left Hoenn to go there, 'cause Clemont had sent us orders to go there and wait for further orders. But it had been far enough. Clemont had decided to travel out to Johto and Kanto himself to help us. I still don't know why he wanted to do it. Only that he did."

"No one really knows what happened," Dawn mused. "Well, the Net's hideout in Lavender Town had been in the midst of Pokémon Tower. They'd been taking a break, Clemont and Misty and Brock. Because there hadn't been a sighting or attack in a few days, in a week, actually. That's how we were able to stay in Ecrutiac City for only two days, not three, to hand out our papers. Clemont had thought that the attacks stopping for a little while was a good thing. But it wasn't."

"They'd let their guard down," Aaron added bluntly. "Now that I think about it, _he, was probably trying to find information about the Net. _He'd, probably suspected it for a long time. _He, probably wanted to be absolutely sure, before he, he, ended it. I suppose that when he had finally found Clemont the guards and watchmen around the tower had been killed or injured, because, _he, had been able to break into the room where they were, security and all." The boy looked off into a corner sadly, fidgeting more than usual.

"What did he do?" Mr. Davis asked, horror and fascination crossing his face. "Did he kill them?"

"No. Not Misty and Brock. He wanted information about the Net, the recruits' locations. The hideouts. The codes. The pamphlet-handing out routes. And Clemont was the only one who knew. So N had left the room with Clemont."

"The screaming, it was horrible."

A soft voice, almost the same pitch as his own, even though it was feminine. Ash turned around and saw Misty and Brock standing beside him and his Cinnoh friends. "We suppose that, that _he'd tortured him. I heard cracking and screaming and, something about eliminating the most important variable of all."

Misty suddenly burst into tears, tearing at her clothes and already-disheveled red hair. "It was terrible! We couldn't see it and we still knew it was terrible. _He, he must have hurt him so bad."

Brock laid a hand firmly on Misty's shoulder. Ash, Brock, and his friends took a confident step toward the jury together, to demonstrate to the Kanto and Johto natives that they were not afraid to tell them every last detail. "So he hadn't given up. Even on the verge of death, he hadn't said anything about the Net. He had even scorned, _him, for not attacking him hard enough. But it had all changed when, when _he had threatened to take Clemont's Magneton and Heliolisk. To, to "isolate" their quantities from him. To liberate them."

Misty sniffled. "I heard him crying. Beating his fists on the floor. "Please! Anything but that! Don't, don't take them from me!" he'd pleaded. He sounded just like a little kid, which he still was, he was just over seventeen years old, after all. Which is really young, for a Kalosian trainer."

When Misty next spoke, her voice was cold, edgy, exactly the same as his own voice, his other friends' voices. A word flashed across Ash's mind, a word he had learned from speaking to Burg. Cynical. That was what he and his friends sounded like. "That's the thing about being a trainer. You think you're selfless, but you're really not, not in the normal way. You devote all your energy to your Pokémon, so they become part of you. So when they're taken from you, what are you?"

Misty gave no one time to answer. "Nothing. Well in Clemont's case it was a body broken in half on the floor. We saw blood seep under the door. _He, hadn't let us react after that either. _He came in and bashed us against the floor, telekinetically, no less. We got knocked out. And when we woke up, we saw the flames. The townspeople screaming and panicking. The Pokémon center, razed."

Brock added almost surreally, "And we heard the crack, it was the loudest thing I've ever heard. Like thunder and glass shattering and something really big splintering, all at once. And we saw the Pokéballs shatter off people's belts in little pieces. You don't have to be told how it happened. All you have to know is that Lavender Town, the Pokémon Tower, all Pokéballs in the Kanto and Johto regions, and Clemont are all no more."

Brock gave a quick glance to the jury, Ash following suit. Only now did he notice that about a third of them had no Pokéballs. They must have known, even before the trial. "As far as we know every Pokéball in the Kanto and Johto regions was destroyed," Brock told the jury. "All at once. People sent in reports about it. How they just broke like glass. And how the Pokémon within them left the people in waves. The mark of the Pokéballs upon the Pokémon which designated them as belonging to trainers disappeared upon, upon liberation." he said slowly, touching a hand to his own belt. "Even mine. Even Misty's. They all left us."

Misty wiped a hand across her eyes, holding back tears. "We tried to convince them to stay. But they didn't. Even after all we went through together, they, they left us."

Dawn and Aaron suddenly walked up to Ash's Kanto friends, embracing them both tightly. "I, I'm so sorry," Dawn attempted to console the older trainers. "It, it must have been, horrible. I, I can't begin to say, to say anything really."

Brock spoke grimly. "Just you being here is enough. Damn I haven't seen you in years."

Dawn shook her head, brushing her hands on her pants. She turned to Ash, who had watched his friends' gestures of affection, confidence growing inside of him with each passing moment. _They _came. Even though they had the option to, to, follow the same example as their Pokémon, to liberate themselves from the world due to grief, they had stayed true to their friends, human and Pokémon. They had not wavered. Ash admired their steadfastness. He wondered if he could follow their example.

"Ash?" Misty turned to him, brushing a hand across his cheek gently. "Are you ready?"

He gulped. "Ready for what?"

The water-type specialist shook her head. "Don't you know? The end. The unraveling of the Net. And, and _his," she trailed off, needing no explanation.

Ash nodded, picking up Pikachu. "Come on buddy," he spoke gently, Pikachu's tense body relaxing. "It's almost over. We'll have to go through hell first, but it's almost over. Just hang in there. I'm tired too. We can sleep after this is all over."

He turned to the jury, whose members did not bother to conceal their grief, shock, and sadness. Many began sobbing openly, not bothering to cover their mouths and faces. Ash raised his voice. "You all must know about this, not just 'cause you're the jury. This directly effected you. You have the right to know. As trainers and as people."

He gestured for his friends and Mr. Davis to follow him toward the twisted bleachers, even the older man following him. He gestured for the jury to stand from their seats, and he helped them reconfigure themselves so that they sat around him and his friends. Brock began to ask the crowd, "Should we take a break? It's been--"

"No." several people spoke up at once. "Not now," one trainer said.

"Yeah. We've been here for almost three days. Why stop now?" another person agreed. "And besides you don't have to explain absolutely everything now. 'Cause we saw it. On TV. Everywhere."

Ash gave a slight, cautious smile, unused to the gesture on his lips. "Of course. I'll start off with, with Clemont's funeral. It's close enough, to what ended up happening..."

Chapter Text

Chapter 27

Ash opened his mouth to speak, but before he could begin, he heard a heavy thud from close by and rushing footsteps. "Ash!" someone shouted.

He turned around and saw a girl brushing slightly-singed light brown hair from her face. A boy somewhat taller than both him and the girl followed close behind. He smiled softly. "Sorry we're late. We had to buy lunch. And we had to meet up with someone."

"Touko! Touya!" Ash and his friends shouted, running toward them and embracing them in a tangle of arms and bags. "How'd you get here?" Dawn asked.

"How else? We flew from Nuvema Town. Or rather Zekrom nearly tore my shirt off me in dragging me through the air until we got to Sunnyshore City. And nearly breaking my Xtransceiver in texting Reshiram our location." Touko pointedly touched the straps of her backpack, which nearly fell from their places. "Why is it that Reshiram wasn't the one to find us and cause property damage? At least if anything happened we'd know to be sorry."

Aaron shook his head. "I don't know. They'll do what they--wait did you say Zekrom?" he stopped himself.

"You heard correctly," Touko responded, laughing. "If you don't believe me--"

A sudden flash of lightning as Touko jumped back. A second thud. A cheery voice saying, "Touko! Touya! I'm back! Me, and my hat!"

Ash had no need to turn around to know who had spoken. He was not sure if he was more scared or glad to see, to see _him, again. He gestured for his friends and the seated jury to follow him outside. "You should see this," he told them.

When he stepped outside the tent, he took in a surprising scene. Touko and Touya stood at Zekrom's flank, watching N dismount Reshiram, somewhat uncomfortably. The two Pokémon, unlike what Ash had expected, did not quarrel, for they gazed down upon the scene with equally intense red and blue eyes. N said to the crowd, "I... don't know why he permitted me to... to mount him... but he did." He gestured vaguely. Ash noticed that Touko was holding back a chuckle.

Misty and Brock stared open-mouthed, disregarding subtlety or dignity. "Oh, my, Arceus," Misty managed to say.

"But," Brock stammered, "how do you get away with..." He trailed off, imitating N's vague gestures.

Touya answered to everyone's amusement, "It's not the weirdest thing in the world. I mean, Unova went through it, six years ago. And again, last year. And besides: we are the Heroes of Truth and Ideals, so this is their business too."

As Ash gazed at the assembled jury, their faces mostly seemed calm. Fascinated, but calm. At least, until someone shouted, "Why are you letting him return?"

Ash turned to the man who had spoken. "He's a witness too. He has to--"

"He nearly killed us all!" another person retorted. "Can't you see he feels no remorse? That he's a madman? Looker, lock him away!"

The detective answered sharply, "He was not in his right mind, he's still not. Sir, you must know--"

"He's a damned anarchist, that's what he is. He wants to tear down everything so _he can rule it!" the man replied, pointing at N, whose eyes stared back in suppressed anger, the Natural Machine beginning to spark at his side. "_You should be in an asylum, not in a courtroom. Your testimony should be considered invalid. How do we know that you're not manipulating us right now, to make us think that you are a helpless victim? Because we all know you're not. You killed two people, and who knows how many others?"

As Ash watched, the Natural Machine ceased sparking. N relaxed, while his eyes brightened. "You are mistaken," he said, his voice acquiring the edge of power which Ash had come to dread, while at the same time, inside him, a feeling of excitement began to bubble. N _was _not helpless. He _was _not weak. Quite the opposite. He was stronger than the man knew. "I _am in my right mind. I _do know what happened to me... to Ash... to the Net. I remember now. Reshiram... has confirmed it to be so. I will tell you what happened and Ash will affirm it. If he does not, then you may call me a liar, coward, and murderer."

Without giving anyone time to reply, N began to speak, his calm, collected heir becoming contagious. "That day I remember most of all... out of all of them. At the time I had thought myself the victor... by destroying Lavender Town and the Pokéballs. I thought myself invincible... that my formulas were indestructible... but I was mistaken. And it took only a matter of hours to realize it.

Kanto had been in a panic. I could feel the fear constantly pressing in on my mind, fueling me... driving me to seek the Net headquarters and destroy them. Resistance... it was always fervent... at least until I threatened to... liberate... peoples' Pokémon. From that moment on they became willing suppliants."

"How did you find the hideouts?" Mr. Davis asked, filling his usual role despite the unusual circumstances. "Did Clemont give you the codes?"

N shook his head. "No. Put simply people were thinking about them: about Ash and his friends... about Clemont... and about me... so I found them. When people were thinking about me I found them. They did not try to conceal their fear. Their physical security was ingenious... I can give my two degrees to Clemont for those systems... but he did not truly emphasize mental training. A few Psychics can only do so much. Fear cannot be hidden forever. Thus, their location was clear as day when they were afraid. And every time I found a new location, I asked for others... and people always told me. So in a matter of days I had broken the polynomial that was the Net into its many factors. In a matter of days there were no more Net members in Kanto and Johto."

"Ash, what did you do when you found out about the Net being attacked? And people surrendering?" Mr. Davis asked.

"Well," Ash began hesitantly, "me and my friends had flown in as close to Lavender Town as possible. I had met Brock and Misty when we landed. It had been the day after, after what happened. That's when I saw that the whole of Lavender Town had been destroyed. No houses remained standing, not even the Pokémon Center. And the only thing left standing was Pokémon Tower, scorched on the outside but otherwise fine."

"And we took you up to the top," Misty remembered, her voice lacking Ash's other friends' edginess or sarcasm. She spoke sadly and quietly, but firmly. "Brock and me walked you guys up to the top room. That's where we, put, Clemont. It was the only place we thought proper for him. Oh, the irony," she groaned, as if in pain. "To die in a cemetery."

She abruptly laughed harshly at her previous pain. Almost like a self-reprimand, or rather being desensitized to the true nature of her comment. "And that the only things left of Lavender Town were that tower, with the souls of Pokémon, and the freed living Pokémon, who may have driven many trainers to join the dead ones."

N shrugged, his ponytail swishing about his waist. "I never thought of that... even though the relation between those two values is obvious."

Ash gulped, holding back the urge to wretch. "I could barely recognize him. His arms and legs had been broken. and all his ribs. His shirt and pants had stuck to him, and they looked sticky. And by then I knew why. His blonde hair had been matted with blood. But his face was, was calm. I thought he'd look like how Misty and Brock described, like he'd been tortured. Broken. Defeated. But no. It looked like he'd solved a problem. You know what it looks like right? That satisfaction and contentedness and quiet happiness. If it weren't for the fact that he did not breathe and for his injuries, I could have pretended that he was still alive. But that's foolish. I realized that as soon as Misty and Brock told me about how, _he, had killed him. How Clemont had given up the locations of the Net members. And as a result, how Clemont had doomed half of us to the Natural Machine."

Ash heard a faint gasp, a soft whisper. Mr. Davis glanced sidelong at him, but he shook his head. He heard the whisper again. "I remember now... I remember..."

Misty touched Ash gently on the shoulder. "Do you want me to, to go on?"

He was about to answer when Misty cut him off gently, shaking her head. "I'm sorry. I should be more sensitive. But I'm gonna tell you now. You look tired. Don't you know that? The circles under your eyes. The way you barely look at anything. Even Pikachu knows it, he's barely managing to stand beside you. How you can barely stand up."

"Ash," Brock intoned, "you should at least have a little time to collect your thoughts. Let us talk for a little while, me and Misty and Aaron and N. You don't have to do this alone. We bore the burden with you at Lavender Town. We'll do it here with you too."

Even before Brock finished speaking, Ash's shoulders sagged. He sat down and leaned against the nearby Oranberry tree, closing his eyes. He cradled Pikachu in his lap, who rested in the same position as him. At last, _rest. _Real rest.

A voice came from above him, and he did not bother to flinch back from it. N spoke to him gently, and he felt a simultaneously soft and firm hand on his head, a hand whose long fingers tingled with power, whose palm pressed upon him with hidden strength. "Ash... it is only proper that I complete the graph which depicts what happened to us. You have exhausted yourself. And in any case... this is cyclic. I started it... so I will end it. And your friends will do it too."

As Ash heard these assuring words, he felt a slight warmth and electrical tingling touch his skin, and when he opened an eye in curiosity, he saw the close by blue and red eyes of, "Reshiram," he breathed. "Zekrom."

They gazed on him with mutual calm, and even though he could not hear their thoughts, he felt their mutual admiration and sympathy flow from them into him, compelling him to lie back. Just before he fell asleep, he turned his head toward them and begged aloud, "Help them remember. Help, _N, remember. Everything. By Truth and Ideals, help them."

Chapter Text

Chapter 28

N gestured for the jury and witnesses to gather around the Oranberry tree and the sleeping body of Ash, everyone stepping around him quietly. A trainer removed Ash's hat and his own pack and put them under Ash's head to serve as a pillow. "I assume," N raised his voice slightly, "that you want them--" he pointed to Brock, Misty, Aaron, Touko, and Touya, "to tell you about Clemont's funeral?"

Misty began to ask, "You were there?", only to halt in mid-sentence. "Of course. How could I forget?"

The green-haired man nodded. "I was... but only now do I remember... the procession of the hearse, halfway across Kanto... you and Ash and,"

"Brock," Brock told him.

"Brock, following it... and the Elite Four. Well, the Elite Eight, those from Kanto and Johto. And all the gym leaders from those regions. They were all there."

"And Burg was too," Misty mused. "And Roxie and Viola and Alexa. And their cameras."

Mr. Davis asked softly from across Ash's sleeping form, "Why were Burg and the others there? Did they come to Kanto with Clemont?"

"Yes," Brock confirmed. "They had joined local Net teams in handing out pamphlets and reenforcing security systems. They had wanted to show their faces, to show that they weren't afraid. But they hadn't been there when Clemont died. But they had come soon enough, after we'd told them."

Misty's eyes became unfocused, gazing off into the distance beyond the group of jurors. "It was so early when we got here," she mused. "It wasn't even sunrise yet. It took several days to drive from Saffron City to here, the Indigo Plateau. I'd say Lavender Town but," she gulped, holding back tears, "it's not correct to say so anymore. But when we got here there were already people, lining the paths. Hundreds, maybe thousands. They had heard the news, they said. They had camped out for a week, they'd said. They had known him in Kalos and wanted to honor him, they'd said. Even when we'd said, "No, it's too dangerous. _he'll, come here. And kill all of you!", no one had let up. And we had admired that. I still do. So a column of solemn Pokémon trainers followed the car where Clemont was being kept. And Ash carried the Clemontech gear, the backpack thing. Because he was the leader of our strand of the Net. And not just ours, he led us all then."

Aaron added, "We basically set everything up here. We didn't need a podium 'cause Net members set up screens all around so people could watch us. We just had to talk and they'd hear us. In any case everyone was listening, so why use a microphone?

Ash had asked all the Net members there to walk with us. And they did. There were hundreds of them, of all walks of life and trainer classes and from all the regions. People had flown from the other Net locations to see Clemont. I didn't know why Ash wanted them all there, but soon we all found out."

Brock turned to Aaron. "I'll continue it. We can share this. Unless you guys want to help," he gestured to Touko and Touya, who shook their heads. "Just you wait. We'll tell you what happened to us soon enough." Touya reassured.

"And besides, it's only right you guys do it," Touko agreed. "You're native to here."

"Well, if you insist. We didn't waste any time. Clemont's coffin was wheeled out of the car and we gathered around him. I remember how somehow we made him look," Brock shook his head, "I don't know how else to say it. Handsome. We got the finest fabrics from Kalos and had people make him new clothes. Made him a new belt. And a hat 'cause that was the only part of his outfit he didn't have in life. As we passed people gave us screwdrivers and coils of wire and memory drives with all the James Bond films on them and we put them around Clemont. And people gave us little drawings of his Pokémon and Pokéballs from their own belts, which we knew were not from Kanto or Johto since a majority of the Pokéballs had been from the other parts of the world. We put them around him, so at least he'd be with his Pokémon in death. Like, like a civilization he told us about, from long ago. They'd be buried with stuff for, for the, afterlife."

"N," Mr. Davis asked him, "how much of this did you see? Do you remember this?"

N nodded his head fervently. "Yes... I do actually... but I don't remember what I felt then. Maybe because the Natural Machine had sapped my ability to empathize with people or feel anything but anger and determination. I had hidden myself close by. I'd been sitting up in that very tree," he pointed, "when it still had branches. I had seen everything... from the delivery of introductions to Ash's surrender."

Mr. Davis's attentive dark eyes flashed with an obscured emotion. What little of his professional and impartial demeanor that remained vanished, replaced with one of shock. "Surrender?" he whispered, incredulity spreading rapidly across his face. "No, you can't mean," he began to say.

"You heard me." N told him firmly, accompanied by shocked expressions like those of Mr. Davis appearing on the faces of the jury members. "I do not remember all of what he said... but I remember his last remarks, the end of his speech."

N raised his voice and lifted his arms from his sides. "I'd like to first apologize to Ash if I wake him up. So listen well. "I really don't wanna do this, but I, I know I have to. There are too few of us, too many Pokémon already freed than can be retrieved. And _he, he is too powerful. And Clemont's gone. So I will be brief. If Clemont isn't here to lead us the Net can't stay together 'cause he tied all of us together with his own hands, with knots he named and cherished. Our uniforms, our weapons, they were made of his own sweat and tears, and now, blood. We all knew deep down, that he was the keystone, holding us together. Thus, I implore all of you--" N gestured to everyone in the crowd, like he had seen Ash do, "to lay down your arms. To undo all our security measures. To thank the ones who have shown you hospitality. And tell them that they have no need to worry about you anymore. Because as of the end of this service, the Net is now, now, disbanded."

N's voice dropped suddenly, ending his imitation of Ash's oratorical voice. "Yes, you are not mistaken. Ash Ketchum, friend to all Pokémon, aspiring Pokémon master, surrendered... in the process giving up thousands of others, essentially leaving the world defenseless, for the Net were their only hope."

Misty, Brock, and Aaron grasped hands, squeezing tightly, Misty allowing silent tears to fall from her bright eyes onto Ash's shirt below her, Touko and Touya following suit. N began to wonder why he was being left out, only for Touko to take his hand too. "Why..." he began to ask.

She spoke gently in his ear. "Because I see that you feel it too. The shock. The disbelief. The sadness. Not only because you heard him, but because you remember it now. After all you were right above him."

"And also you dropped down from the tree as soon as everyone was done burying him," Aaron commented wryly. "With me in toe."

"You were with--" Mr. Davis began to ask, only to stop. "oh no. Please don't tell me that--"

"You're right," Aaron told Mr. Davis sadly, resignedly. It was only now that N remembered that Aaron was barely over eleven years old. "N marked me with those chains on my body for a reason. It was to keep me compliant. Because I'd joined the Net on the way to meet Ash at Lake Valor, I knew their ways. Clemont had trusted me with more information than most, 'cause I was young and 'cause I'd remember it. Young people are flexible, he'd said. And he said that I'd be valuable because I could appeal to younger trainers. But anyway I was interrogated every day. And if I didn't say where Clemont was," he turned to N, "you'd draw another link of a chain on me. Use Bind so I couldn't move. Use Haze so I couldn't see you. And you'd use Psychic to move me, so I'd have no choice but to expose myself. I was the one who told N about how Clemont was headed to Kanto and Johto. I told N about how Ash was part of the Net and how he was handing out propaganda. And I was the one who told N where to find Ash and the others that day. And I told him to hide in the tree."

"And I followed his advice," N said sadly. "From my hiding place I had seen Ash and the others... removing Xtransceivers from their belts... undoing straps on bags, secured around their shoulders... unclasping belts from their waists... and removing hats from their heads. So yes... I have seen Ash hatless. They had laid them all in a pile beside the tree. Then Ash had gestured for everyone to come closer, pointing to several carts full of shovels. "Send out your Pokémon too. They might as well help out before they, they're, liberated."

"And we did," Brock spoke, his eyes slightly closed. "We sent out Pokémon who knew Dig and Rock Tomb and Hydro Pump to help us carve a tomb from slabs of stone. Misty and Pikachu had sealed it shut, with Aqua Jet and Iron Tail. And only when we were done did we know that we were in danger."

Brock turned to the jury and chuckled harshly. "And yes we were idiots by exposing ourselves and being unarmed and not noticing that one guy with bright green eyes and long green hair and that damned cube had been standing right in front of Ash."

N touched Brock's arm, and instead of recoiling, Brock turned around and asked, "You remember this? Do you want to--"

"Yes. I remember this. All of it." N answered confidently. He faced the jury, unhooking the Natural Machine from his belt and cupping it in his hands. He understood now why some members of the jury seemed to shrink back from him, and why at the same time, why still others leaned in closer to hear him. "I ambushed them," he said matter-of-factly. "I had jumped down from that tree and had been about to grab Ash by the collar... but when I had looked at him he had been wrenched in the air. And I hadn't even meant to do it yet. He didn't even have time to scream or move... only enough time to stare as I had slammed him on the ground... watched as I had restrained everyone else... and I hadn't even thought about it. Only do I know now that the Natural Machine had taken control of me... all its power..."

"Show them."

A voice in his head: soft, calm, collected, and... slightly alien. He saw the faces of everyone change from shock to those of wonderment. They heard it, too...

"Reshiram," he breathed, "what do you mean, show them?"

"Project a picture of what you saw. Shape it before you, and provide the sound. Make your thoughts their thoughts." A louder, slightly deeper telepathic voice answered. He heard Misty mouth beside him, "Zekrom. I think."

He complied. He closed his eyes, the images flowing into his head, filling the emptiness which only now he knew existed. He saw before his closed eyes Ash lying on the ground, surrounded by his friends and half the Net... heard his own voice... and realizing that Ash and his friends' fear of it was justified, for he heard she Natural Machine's power in it. "I am glad that you hear sense."

"Smug." A word flashing across his mind, in Reshiram's quiet voice. "That is what you were then, Natural."

Ash's reply, slightly muffled. "Well, you came, then. I was right. You've got us cornered. Now what do you want? We'll be happy to give it."

"Resigned." Zekrom's voice, interfering with the memory. "Ash giving up used to be less likely than Colress having normal hair."

A rough chuckle. "Well now you know we're waiting on Colress' hair." Ash's gesture to the crowd of Net members around him.

"So you knew I would come." N's own calm response. "Why did you do this, then... if you knew you would be discovered? That the formulas dictating your actions would be so predictable?"

He saw Ash glancing at the Natural Machine, which hung from his own belt, lacking its usual green glow. "Yes I knew that. And I did it because I knew it would be best. It'd be better to surrender now rather than have us watch all our friends get killed over several more months."

N watched as he saw a slow smile cross his own face. At the same time, he felt a sinking feeling. He began to wonder why he felt it only for it to hit him: he had enjoyed seeing Ash helpless, then... restrained... obsequious. He knew why they had feared him, and continued to do so. "This is true empathy," echoed Reshiram's voice as he watched.

"You are as competent as ever."

He heard his tone change... felt a thought flashing across his mind.

_Sarcasm. _That was what sarcasm sounded like. "You know that I will accept nothing less than your... elimination. And that of your fellow extraneous solutions?"

"Even then you were a damned nerd," Zekrom commented, cynically.

A slight nod of Ash's head. "Yeah. I understand that. But could I make one last request? If you are truly to rule this world, you must demonstrate that you are merciful, so people will follow you."

N's head tilting slightly to the side, the Natural Machine beginning to glow almost imperceptibly. "If that is what it takes... then I will let you do so."

Ash, being helped onto his feet by his friends. Grasping his hands in front of him, shaking slightly. Glancing to his left and his right, where Touko and Touya each stood. The Heroes of Truth bowing before their opponent for the second time.

"This monologue." A whisper, from outside the hologram. "I remember this. It was as awesome as your monologue." Misty's anticipating, admiring voice.

"For all you jury people," Aaron told them, "now you can decide which monologue is more awesome. And N? Now you can see what you look like when you're not trying to kill us."

"Shhh," N shushed the crowd. "Listen."

"I will say this and try to be brief. Touko and Touya told me about something, from six years ago. Alder told them to tell you that if Pokémon were ever liberated from people, no good would come of it. And I realize now that he was right. 'Cause yeah, you'll kill me and my friends, but what about years from now? Will you enslave people's minds, so they forget what you've done? So you won't have to go around and put them down like this? Will you demand that all accounts of the Pokémon League's existence be destroyed, all Pokémon centers demolished, this very plateau turned to rubble? If you did the book-burning would go on for years, that's how ingrained Pokémon training is in people and society. And we know how repressing information represses free thought. You are a,"

Ash stopping, uncertainly. "Dictator." He tried the word on his lips, nodding to himself, confirming that he had used it correctly. "And only after seeing all you've done do I know that you really are one. Dictators always want to force people to follow what they perceive is true or ideal. Dictators threaten people with force if they don't obey. Dictators keep information from people, so people can't fight back. They brainwash them. So by these criteria you're a dictator." He nodded again.

Ash's voice dropping to a contemplative whisper, almost like he was talking to himself. "You remind me of someone I read about. Clemont sent us files about him, while we were traveling. I never heard of him before I met Clemont. And none of my friends did either, because Clemont said that he lived a long time ago, somewhere else. His country was in ruins, 'cause his people had just fought a war, and they had lost. They were treated badly by the other countries' 'cause they wanted to make them pay for what they did to them. The people were downtrodden. And he brought them up from their bad position by blaming people for the country's problems, people that no one liked, like how you blame trainers for Pokémon's problems. And he did bad things to these people: he stripped them of their right to education, political participation, to own businesses, even to live in their own homes. He had agents who would arrest these "bad" people, and take them away so they couldn't interfere with his government, like how you tore the Net asunder and used your illusions to spy on us.

But unlike him, we will fight back! If you want to liberate Pokémon from people, if you _really want people to stop training, then you'll have to get rid of them. _Every last Pokémon and _every last trainer. 'Cause all of us here live for one thing: to train Pokémon!"

A cheer... the Net members raising their arms high above their heads. "You'll have to kill all of us to succeed! And you know what? There will be others like me! There will be others who will revolt against you! There will be other Nets, there will be other Clemonts and Roarks and Toukos and Touyas! If you can't stop us, then why bother to continue it? After all, the dictator I read about, he was liberated from his position, by people from the outside because those on the inside didn't know anything of what he planned, his brainwashing was that prevalent. But _we know!"

More cheers... Ash's tensing body... Pikachu's cheeks sparking with electricity as it crouched at Ash's shoulder... Ash's hand moving to a button on Clemont's backpack. "If you want the world to know what you did to take power, tell them this! Tell them that you vanquished the Heroes of Truth, slain the Pokémon master, Ash Ketchum, and that you, Natural Harmonia Gropius, were liberated!"

A bolt of electricity flying through the air as Pikachu sprung off Ash's shoulder... sparks from Ash's fists as he lunged forward, using his second Thunderpunch... a yell as the Net members charged forward, pulling batons and stun-guns from their waistbands, Clemont's lasting legacies... green-tinted fire and lightning filling the sky, coalescing to form lines for a moment, but soon fading into turbulence... his own ear-splitting yell... a clang as the metal arm on Clemont's backpack grabbed hold of the Natural Machine, twisting the middle block attached to the chain on his own belt free... a thunderous bang...

A sharp, clear thought shooting through the projection, shouted from unfettered lips, a clear mind, and ruined heart. "I remember!"

"He remembers!" The shouts from Ash's friends.

"You remember." Reshiram... Zekrom... and Touko, Touko wrapping her arms around him firmly. "You remember."

Chapter Text

Chapter 29

"It's okay, just relax. Breathe. Ti84 graphing calculators. I don't know. Oh by Arceus and the Dread Plate does anyone know what calms him down?"

A gentle voice crooning in his ear... fingers brushing against his forehead. N looked up and saw Touko and Touya standing over him, the former Kanto Net members behind them. "After you showed us the thought projection thing," Aaron explained, "you blacked out. You haven't been out for long, just a couple minutes."

"So it did work," N whispered, awed.

"Not just that." Zekrom's rough voice in his right ear. "The jury had this look on their faces. Like seeing an eclipse on a sunny day. Or Touko on the ferris wheel--"

Touko's reddening cheeks. Her face suddenly twisting in intense pain... her body cringing back as if someone had pushed her... her hands grappling with an invisible foe...

With a pang, N realized that she was fighting against him, the Being of Ideals coming to the same conclusion. "Damn it I didn't mean to, crap."

"Touko!"

He lunged forward, trying to stop her from moving as gently as he could, but the closer he moved to her, the harder she struggled, until Touko suddenly writhed in pain, falling to the ground. When N looked down, he saw that the Natural Machine was glowing green and white at his side, that his hands were charged with power, and that Touko's right hand was clenched into a fist. He saw his hands flash in patterns not even he could decipher... saw Touko's eyes dilate... saw her hand turn first green, then red... saw beams of power reach out from his fingertips, carving up the flesh on Touko's hand.

His own name stared up at him, tinted the same green as his hair, the Natural Machine continuing to glow, tears on Touko's cheeks.

He felt a heavy, suffocating weight fall inside him and on top of him. "Touko!" He did not hear his own anguished scream as he fell to his knees beside her. He saw Touko's maimed hand up close and the tears which began to fall from Touko's brown eyes. He tried to place his hands on her forehead, to divert his powers so he could heal her, but she turned away. He felt a shock ripple through him, and he saw that the Natural Machine had begun sparking, creating bands of power, which extended out of it, lashing in the air, trying to restrain him. "Stop!" he commanded, but it would not obey. The bands of power whipped against his body, leaving trails of pain in their wake across his back and chest. He pleaded, "Please... you must let me..." only for her to sob even harder, the Natural Machine continuing to attack him.

A thought... an obvious correlation between values, flashing into his head. The heavy weight, pressing on his chest, adding to the pain. A cracked sob from his own throat as he realized what had happened.

"I didn't mean to!" he moaned, rocking on his knees, tears falling from his own green eyes. "My formulas... they... they... I didn't... no!"

Realizing that he could no longer control his powers, he fell onto his back, defeated. Like Ash. Like Roark. Like Clemont...

Sobbing from both of them that he could not hear. N beating his fists on the ground, tearing at his clothes, trying to lessen the pain of the weight on his entire body and inside him. "Grief, guilt, regret, remorse. These are emotions which make people human, well, human. That and empathy. You feel it, no? All the pain Ash has suffered through. You know it now." Reshiram speaking to him, sadly.

"Your mind is clearing up, Natural." Zekrom's voice, cutting through the sadness. "This was the one thing that Ash couldn't do. He couldn't make you feel the pain he felt. He thought that to defeat you he needed superior power and force of will, which in this case you both had. You were both powerful, but equally matched, like we were. But no; all you needed was a little feeling."

A rough chuckle. "Actually more like a lot of feeling. This was the one component that the Natural Machine was not created with. Ambition, intelligence, determination, creativity, but no empathy. You were taught to be a weapon. A weapon is not supposed to feel the pain of those it targets. It is not supposed to regret its actions, let alone understand their significance. But you do now."

Reshiram, now. "You are free from it now, Natural. The machine's control over your mind and heart. Ghetsis' manipulations. All this pain is all your pent-up anger and emotion being released. Let it happen. We cannot alleviate it. You must endure it yourself. Do it for Ash."

N lying on the ground, allowing his own powers to harm him, not bothering to protect himself, for he knew that his pain was necessary. Touko's eyes, no longer teary, gazing at him with a strange look as she watched him feel his pain.

An actual, rather than a mental, voice, beside his ear, after only Arceus knew how much time. "Come on my boy," Mr. Davis spoke softly to him. "I can hear them too. And I agree. You do feel her pain. As you said yourself, you are a psychic. And you two are very close. It is time you feel like this. It is one thing that Ghetsis never gave you which was essential for your development as a person."

Tears falling more slowly now, a child curled in a ball on the ground, sniffling. Mr. Davis patting him on the head, attempting to ruffle his very long green hair. "N."

He did not answer.

"N, please look at me. I have to tell you something."

The child, slowly looking up. More sniffling. Wiping tears quickly from his eyes. "Yes?"

Mr. Davis, pointing at his belt. "It stopped."

N looked down and saw that Mr. Davis was correct. The Natural Machine was not glowing anymore. N felt only a faint tingle of power at his side. "All that pain, all that anger you had inside you, it's gone now." Mr. Davis told him gently. "And from what Reshiram has said, that is the source of your powers."

"So they're gone?" the child asked.

Mr. Davis, nodding his head. "Yes. In exchange for your free mind and heart, you have lost your powers. But it is not something to grieve over, Natural. Those powers were instilled in you with evil deeds, manipulation, and selfishness. A misuse of human knowledge. You are better than those who gave you such gifts. Aye, it can be said that they were a curse, not a gift. You should feel happy, Natural, for being liberated."

A random comment, flashing across his mind. "You sound like him." A trembling finger, pointing behind him. "So you did give me the power to fight Ghetsis after all..."

Chuckles, telepathic and actual. "I am a judge, am I not? It makes sense for you to think that."

"I merely led you to finding this power for yourself. Contrary to what one may think, seeking the truth can be emotional as well as logical. It just so happens that your form of truth was emotional. But empathy is valued, whether seeking either form of truth. Empathizing with others forms closer connections to them and allows you to trust others. And for them to do the same to you."

The judge agreed in a slightly more serious, but still friendly tone, "Well, I never thought of truth like that. And I've been a judge in Unova for, for now that I think about it as long as you've been alive. More insight into my job, that's always good. I also wanted to tell you that it is time."

"Time for what?"

Mr. Davis smiled softly. "What else? It's time for the jurors to meet. To make their verdict."

The clearing of a throat, his voice slowly regaining its usual soft, firm tone. "But... why? Why now?"

"Empathy." a voice close by replied simply, sadly.

"Hmmm?"

"Because you felt my pain." Touko's then-small voice. She did not sound... confident. Reassuring... protecting, like she used to sound. "Well, since things have settled down significantly, and you've showed empathy and sufficient guilt, as well as saying all of what you experienced, I think that's why Mr. Davis wants to have the jury meet now. That and," Touko trailing off... glancing down at her bleeding hand. "This needs to be treated properly."

Mr. Davis nodding, turning to face the jury. N had forgotten that they had been watching him the entire time. He liked their quiet watchfulness... how they offered feedback without speaking. "Well, you hear them. Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to make your verdict. I think it proper that we let our friends have some privacy." He helped N to his feet, and he was about to take Touko's hand as well, but she lifted off the floor of her own accord, wobbling slightly. "You have enough to deal with already." Reshiram's voice, and Mr. Davis's thankful nod toward the Being of Truth. He gestured to the jury. "Into the tent guys. I'll stay out here with the witnesses. Let us know when you're done."

Soft, abundant footsteps as the jury filed into the tent. When he looked away from the judge, he heard a kind voice in his ear, a woman standing before him, and a Mr. Mime at her side. "So you're, _N." She said, extending a small, warm hand. "I'm Delia Ketchum, Ash's mom. Nice to meet you."
A shy smile. The gentle, firm, encouraging pressure of Touko's undamaged arm across his shoulders. The child, daunted by the mundane experience. "It's nice to meet you too Mrs. Ketchum. And I do say that your son, he's something else." Touko praised.

"That's "my Ash!" Deelea smiled warmly and enthusiastically down at Ash's sleeping body and began to lean down to straighten his cyan hair, only for it to move out of the way by itself. When she looked up, blue and red eyes met hers. "He is under our protection now." Zekrom's telepathic voice, explaining its motives in its customary brief manner.

Delia seemed unperturbed by the alien experience. "Thank you. And as for you N," she turned to him, "I share the same sentiment, I guess. You are Ash's friend, so you are part of our family now. I hope you can understand this."

His own gratified nod. "Thank you..."

He did not know what to say, but soon, a thought entered his head, his curiosity providing it for him. "What is Pallet Town like? Ash... he never told me. Well he never had the time." he added hastily.

Delia's smile. "In due time Natural, in due time. I'm excited that you wanna see the world."

Touya, approaching the three of them, taking Touko's other arm. "So what can we do now?" he asked as his attentive eyes fell on Touko's bleeding hand. He tore a strip from his coat, wrapping it around it tightly. "Thank Arceus for Clemont's medical advice. It won't bleed much anymore but I'm afraid it'll get infected or something."

He shook his head. "Just wondering does anyone have an Xtransceiver with WiFi? I haven't checked my YouTube account in days. It's random, I know, and superficial, I know, but let's face it we can all lighten up a little now. I'm missing out on the Nuzzlocks."

N did not know how much time passed, only that it passed with quiet and interested chatter, telepathic conversations intermixed with verbal ones. Talks about philosophy, politics, and Clemont's favorite movies, which N learned featured the secret agents James Bond and Jason Bourne, who probably provided inspiration for the Net, all at once. There was even sufficient time to watch Skyfall, featuring what he came to learn was Clemont's recorded commentary. It was during this time that Aaron took him aside, so they stood near Ash.

The younger boy opened his mouth to speak, only for N to speak first. "I know I have done an... an unforgivable evil... hurting a Pokémon trainer... threatening them and their closest friends... I know now... I put you through unimaginable and terrible pain and fear and made you suffer grief indescribable. I know that I cannot be forgiven... for ignoring such a deed would not only be wrong for me, for I would go unpunished, but for you. You deserve the right to get your revenge on me. And I am fully prepared to accept that... as long as I live."

Aaron's too-young and watery green eyes staring up at him. He answered in a tone much too serious and knowledgable for his age. "N, I'm not the one who will want to get revenge on you. Other people like me would want to do that. I know now that the Natural Machine's power had been controlling you entirely, so I know you couldn't have refused, even if you tried. But a lot of people won't get that. They'll call you,"

Aaron stopping uncertainly. "an anarchist. But you're right; I still feel them." Aaron touched his wrist with a finger, one of the green chain links. "I know you want to repent and remove these. But you were right then too: what you did, what we all did, everyone after us will think of us. Of you. I do want these chains off, I do! Like the, these people Clemont told us about, from long ago. The, _slaves, who really did belong to people like property. They fought for their freedom and got it. And I want to do it too. I won't have these removed until I know everyone will be safe. At least safer than me."

N, emotionally nodding, unsure of how else to respond. "I forget," he slowly thought aloud, "that you're only ten. I made you mature, so fast."

"Eleven."

"Hmmm?"

"I'm eleven, now. Today is my birthday. I've been a Pokémon trainer for a year."

Aaron shook his head, a little sadly. "Well, I would have been one."

After they returned to the larger group, Mr. Davis abruptly gestured for silence. "Look."

Mr. Davis, pointing to the entrance of the tent. "Look." he said again.

Jury members filing out in a solemn line, each waving to N. They lined up in front of Mr. Davis, hands clasped in front of them. "Why--" he began to ask, only for a jury member to open his palm.

A Pokéball, the first he had seen in weeks.

The soft, rustling sound of six hundred men and women opening their clenched hands, each holding a Pokéball. Mr. Davis turned to them. "Well, if all of you have decided, then display your verdict. We will do it like Sebrina. White for yes, red for no. Mr. Gropius, please turn away. Don't look till I tell you."

He obliged. With his back turned, he heard Mr. Davis calling out names of trainers. "Johnson. Schmit. Chlide. Rowe. Le. Sherwood. Debleiker."

The time seemed to pass too quickly to be real. At some point, Mr. Davis touched N on the shoulder. "Look."

He looked... and saw six hundred Pokéballs on the ground. Six hundred pairs of empty hands. No red, no white. All he could do was ask, "Why did they... why didn't they choose...?"

"It wouldn't be right." one jury member said. "You know how you said that courts are Pokémon battles? Well I didn't wanna have you suffer that. 'Cause you deserve better."

Nods from the crowd of jurors. "And everyone else thought this too, about what you said. We didn't think making a decision was fair." a woman agreed. "You are not a criminal. So we didn't want to treat you like one."

A third trainer, in a quiet voice. "Yeah. Like Tom Robinson. Both of you were victims of circumstance. And both of you have been discriminated against. Like you'd know who Tom Robinson is. Or Scout or Harper Lee, for that matter."

Silence, and yet another nod of N's head. "So... you didn't make a verdict?" he asked them.

"They did, Natural." Reshiram's voice... and slight smiles on the jury's faces at hearing it. "They have come to this realization, all by themselves. This is good. What all of you have done."

"This is neither the true way nor the ideal way," Zekrom added, "it is just _a way. A way that best suits you and your circumstances. And besides in real life there aren't just two ways to do anything. Everyone's different. Especially you."

More silence. Touya's soft, calm voice. "Ash, Ash please wake up."

Rustling as Ash sat up close by, rubbing his eyes, beginning to rub Pikachu behind the ears gently at the same time. "Yeah? What's up? I didn't think I'd have such a good night's--" he stopped, laughing, "good afternoon's sleep. I haven't slept so soundly in, in months. Especially here."

He glanced up at the jury, their empty hands, and the Pokéballs on the ground. "Why are they--" he began to ask.

"The trial's over." Touya said bluntly.

Ash, becoming aware of the silence. More shuffling... palpable uncertainty filling the air. "What do we do now?" Ash asked, while still sitting down.

Shuffling footsteps from the jury. Coughing. "I don't know."

N's own voice, lacking all of its confidence, firmness, and power. "I just don't know. My formulas... they're... they're broken. I don't know what to do, Ash."

Ash's affirmative nod. "Neither do I."

"At least we're in agreement for once." N said cautiously, unsure of how to act. "Regardless of truth and ideals, uncertainty is universal. It's when both perspectives fail... when all formulas... no... no formulas... not now... not anymore..."

A gap in conversation that no one knew how or wanted to fill. Reshiram and Zekrom's grim stares at their respective heroes. The Natural Machine, unseen and somehow forgotten, glowing faintly green for the final time, even then beginning to fade away.

"Thank you, for all you've done," Mr. Davis said, trying to fill the silence and express all he felt. Ash and Touko taking N's arms, Brock, Misty, and Aaron following close behind. Touya taking Touko's other hand, winding another makeshift bandage around it. Delia taking her place beside Ash, cradling Pikachu, who seemed to at last sober, like his trainer. "Goodbye," Mr. Davis called as they began to walk across the ruined Indigo Plateau, to Arceus only knew where. "May Truth and Ideals smile upon you, _N."

"_N." echoed the witnesses and jury. People waved to him and his friends as he and the small crowd of former Net members began to walk away in earnest, the six hundred Pokéballs clutched in their hands. He noticed that everyone said his name in a tangibly different way than before. They said it with no fear. No sadness. No regret. Merely reality, recognition, and what he only knew now as empathy.

"_N."

The solemn voices of the Beings of Truth and Ideals echoing in everyone's heads, as confounded and saddened as their heroes, as even in these unprecedented circumstances, they flew low and close behind them, their eyes always trained dutifully on them...