.


{You would do that for them?} asks the dragon, fixing him with eyes that have seen eternity. {You, a human, would do that for us?}

"I would. I'm not one of them," N lies confidently.

The dragon of truth (or is it ideals? the line between them blurred long ago) nods impassively. Wings flare wide. Energy crackles to life. Hilda is screaming in the background, the winds have picked up, someone else is scrambling up the shattered staircase—

It doesn't matter any more.

Legendary power fills his veins, reaches down and grabs hold of the wish that's wrapped its tendrils so firmly around his heart, and time freezes.

Humans and pokémon. Surely humans didn't mean any slight when they listed pokémon as second. Surely they were equal partners here; surely battling was what was truly what pokémon wanted; surely abuse was individual rather than systemic; surely, surely, surely.

Well. If he's wrong, his ideal will shatter into dust beneath the will of the dragon. That's a nice way for the equation to solve out without anyone else being hurt.

When he opens his eyes, he sees two worlds. One for humans, one for pokémon. There isn't room for both. They tell stories of the others sometimes, but that's all they are and will ever be—stories. Everyone is happy and no one hurts, because no one knows how things used to be.

Time speeds up again.

Alder's volcarona shoots a jet of fire towards the pedestal where N stands, but the dragon's leathery scales are between them in an instant. Alder balks, as if noticing the pokémon of legends for the first time. Hilda is shouting something to Vaselva, but with one glance at N, both the human and the serperior hesitate.

They hesitate. N does not. He brings his hands down and cleaves the two worlds apart.

The rest of the story plays out backwards.


"Don't make me do this," Hilda says, but her pokéball is already in her hand, Vaselva clamoring within. Her neck strains up the staircase to Dragonspiral Tower; drawn to the sounds of a dragon above. "Don't make yourself into a criminal. You can still turn back from all this."

N doesn't know if he should laugh aloud at that. He isn't making her do anything. She's the one making her serperior fight. And humans are the ones who set him on this course from the very beginning, made it impossible for him to choose any path but the one that short-circuited their entire system. If you couldn't change the rules legally, you had to break the rules. Surely the species that invented slash-and-burn understood that sometimes the only fertile ground came from the ashes.

"You did that for me," N responds with a bitter smile. Idealistically trying to explain the truth to her until the bitter end. That was always his shortcoming, but it won't be his undoing. Not when he's so close. He spreads his hands out wide, invitingly. He knows the weight of this fight, how heavily he must square his shoulders against it.

But it's his pokémon who will have to take it. That's the true injustice he aims to fight, even as he gestures Spur forward. The klinklang whirs without hesitation, so N has to speak as such. "Now come, Hilda. Challenge me to a fight you can't win, or leave this place and watch the birth of a new world where pokémon are free from people."

The serperior materializes before him in a flash of red light. {N, please,} Vaselva whispers to him, the leaves on the back of her neck flickering alongside with her resolve. {I'm happy here. Pokémon are happy like this. Hilda made me into who I am today.}

He does laugh aloud at that. Now they're attributing who made whom correctly, even if they don't mean it.


The castle window has a magnificent view of the world. Ghetsis may have had a lot of things wrong, but he did do that one thing so very right.

N sighs and turns away from the sunrise glinting over Unova's mountains. Zahhak is coiled before him, three snapping heads braiding their bloodied gaze into one. The hydreigon rumbles with amusement. {So you finally came to visit me again.}

"I was wrong, what I told you about playing by their rules. You were right not to trust them from the start."

{You finally admit it.}

"I'm sorry."

{Easy enough for you to say.}

Words never came easy to N. His mouth never quite felt made for it. So many thoughts lived and died on his lips. But this is different. It isn't the language that's making it hard for him to talk right now. What is he supposed to say? Once upon a time, in a different time, in a different world, he and Zahhak had fought legends and won. Partners.

{I'm sorry,} N says at last, slipping back into their tongue.

It isn't the right thing. The hydreigon's wings snap to attention, scarred hide rippling into a sea of movement. Flashes of blue, black, and violet blur into motion before the dragon is fully unfurled before him. The two side heads snap incessantly, as if racing the other to reach for his throat, but the center one is trained on him with a hunter's precision.

{That's the funniest thing.} Venom drips from Zahhak's words, so tangible that N almost checks the stone floor to see where it lands. {My species is born blind. When we were young, you spoke like me. I was foolish enough to believe that meant we were the same, because your voice was my entire world.} The jaws of the arm-heads are locked wide, wide open, giving N a view straight down their scarred and well-used maws. {But the humans will always see you as one of them. A quirk of our birth, perhaps. What do you want me to say? That in the time I patiently waited for you to come to this conclusion, Ghetsis was kind? He was loving? That I was the only pokémon to suffer while you pondered your philosophy, pondered what it meant to put your body on the line for a fight?}

N bites back a sob. The hydreigon's hide is marred, scarred, but there's no vulnerability left here. Ghetsis saw to that. {Zahhak.}

{You remember.} The furious inferno that the hydreigon has been cultivating in his eyes dims, just a hair. {We saved the world together once. It didn't come easy. But did you forget? When we arrived here, I was the blind one, but you were the one who can't see.}

{We saved the world together, once,} he repeats. N thinks of the sunrise behind him. The mountains, the trees. There's a whole world out there that will be destroyed if he goes through with this, people who live happily with their pokémon who never will again. People who harm their pokémon who never will again. People who can't see that one isn't worth the other. {And we'll do it again.}


"That was a hard fight," N says, expertly understating the obvious. They barely escaped. "If any of you want to leave after that, I won't stop you."

{I don't. Want. To do this any more,} Peal says politely. The joltik was never very good at asserting himself. Even now, his mandibles are quavering; the bristling fur on his thorax cannot cover the way his entire body shivers. {We lost that fight. Very badly. Are you mad at me? Can I still go?}

The fear is the worst part. After all of this, somehow N is someone to be afraid of still. Somehow all these poor pokémon think he's going to say no, just a little longer, just put yourselves on the line a little bit more for me. N crouches down so he's almost level with the joltik, tries to compress his gangly human frame as far down as it can go. "I understand, Peal. Don't be afraid. Go wherever feel is right."

The joltik's front two forelegs tap incessant patterns in the ground. {That world. You mentioned. Where pokémon live free. Did you mean it?}

No, this fear is the worst part. That somehow N is just filling these pokémon up with hot air to achieve his own ends, that he's somehow like Ghetsis, promising a better world to get the masses to follow.

"I did. I will go to that world one day."

{I'd like to go too.}

"We will," N promises.

Peal leaves to go back to his swarm. Knurl returns to the roggenrola caves to the north. Ferrule decides to try his luck with a different trainer, one who will fight him hard enough to evolve him into a ferrothorn.

Only Spur choses to stay. N wasn't expecting that.

{To the end,} the klink says quietly. They're of few words, which is maybe why they get along with N so well. {And after that.}


"So you were serious about challenging me, boy? The freak without a human heart, versus the true king of Team Plasma?"

Of course I don't have a human heart, N wants to say, but that's not the important thing here. "This isn't me challenging you. It's my pokémon versus yours."

"There's no difference."

"There's all the difference," N's saying, but the words he's been stalling for has given Peal just enough time to crawl up the seismitoad's neck without Ghetsis noticing. A lance of electric energy to the back of the head is enough to finish the fight.

Fjord's gotten big. Gone is the nervous smile that he used to have as a tympole. There's no sign of the timid way that he used to slither in the mud, as if to avoid notice. Forelimbs at thick as N's torso flex into the ground, and the seismitoad falls forward, unconscious. N flinches at the suddenness, the brutality. But it's what has to be done.

N gestures Peal away. The fur around the joltik's tiny body bristles protectively with static, and for a moment he wonders—how, how can I make him do this? We're so outmatched—but there isn't time for that. There isn't time for doubts. They can't lose this, not when there's the fate of Team Plasma, of their hopes for changing the entire world, dangling on the coin toss of this outcome.

A fraction of a second late, N recognizes the glint of the dusk ball that arcs through the air next. A resounding roar announces the hydreigon's presence, but it isn't until he sees Zahhak unfold in a blast of crimson that N knows it's over.


The ferris wheel doesn't let pokémon on. Of course it doesn't.

Hilda doesn't seem to notice, though. She clambers onto her half of the carriage happily, squares herself up against the metal of the seat platform as N gingerly seats himself on his.

"Thanks for coming here with me," N says at last. He's rehearsed this speech for a while, but it's still hard to get all the words out. "I have a lot of questions. And most people don't like listening. Thank you in advance for your sincerity."

Hilda nods. If she's put-off by his demeanor, she never shows it. Of course she wouldn't. A true hero of ideals, never questioning the truths in front of her.

"Do you truly believe pokémon are happy?"

Her gaze doesn't even stray down to the pokéballs at her hip before she responds. "Of course! I treat mine right."

She calls them hers. N almost gags. "But others?"

"Oh, you mean like that Team Plasma stuff?" When N doesn't answer, she presses forward anyway. "I mean, yeah, sometimes bad people do bad things, but there's nothing I can do about that." She frowns, and then corrects herself. "I mean, I try to fight it when I can, and if I see someone abusing a pokémon I'll definitely step in! But what else am I supposed to do?"

There's a lot to unpack there. Quite a lot. Better to throw out the entire suitcase. N didn't bring any of his charts and he doesn't really know how he'd begin to explain systemic injustice versus individual responsibility anyhow. "Do you think pokémon want to be fighting for humans?"

Hilda takes the conversation change in stride. "Of course. That's what they told us all the time growing up."

See, this would be interesting to know, if he'd grown up here. "They?"

"Our teachers."

"Pokémon?"

"Humans, of course."

Oh.

The ferris wheel creaks higher. They're probably almost halfway through. He's running out of time to convince her, but maybe he never had any time to begin with.

"What if your pokémon didn't want to be fighting for you?"

"Then they'd tell me."

"But you never asked them."

Hilda purses her lips. This is unsteady territory for the both of them, and they both know it. "But they'd run away, or they wouldn't listen to me, or they'd go ask for help. You know. What else am I supposed to do?"

She makes it sound so easy. Like a child running away from an abusive home. He wonders if comparing it to that will make it easier for her to understand, or if it'll just make her angry instead.

This is why it's so hard, playing by their rules to try to convince them. If he made them feel bad about their bad actions, they'd blame him for attacking them. As if holding them accountable for their abuse was just as bad as the abuse itself.

"What do you think pokémon would do if humans weren't around?"

"Trainers are important. They provide the strategies that pokémon aren't as good at. The pokémon do the fighting. We're a team."

She almost sounds like she believes it. She almost sounds like a textbook N had read in primary school.

But she didn't answer his question. Not really. He leans forward. "Ignore that. Ignore battling." Battling for sport is a farse of survival here. The thought of it makes his blood boil, and he can't be angry and still argue logically with her. "What if it was just… society. With just pokémon. No humans. What do you think would happen?"

Hilda probably doesn't mean it. She laughs, though, and perhaps that's the final straw. "What, pokémon trying to dress up? Like furfrou at the groomers?"

The ferris wheel makes is almost to the bottom. There's no way he's going to get out of this without a fight.

Hilda seems to sense the change in him. Her head swivels, and suddenly he sees the tactician's glance in her eyes, callously studying every inch of him and taking it all in without a second thought. Maybe she's not wrong; maybe humans are better at this strategy stuff.

It doesn't matter. N sighs. Straightens his chin out, tilts it up defiantly. Polaris rises up behind him, the sigilyph's wings like sails in the wind. He can't stop the tide of this fight without help. "Okay then. You should know." Pause. "I'm the King of Team Plasma."


{You aren't from around here, are you?}

It's the sigilyph from before, the one who used to work with Ghetsis. She's hesitant; he can see that much in the way she twists her wings uncomfortably with each word.

N sighs. "Ghetsis took me in," he recites. "He is like a father to me."

{I don't mean that. You aren't from around here. Unova. I think. I can't tell.}

Oh? N raises an eyebrow. A fun human quirk he's been trying to pick up. "What's your name?"

{The humans didn't give me a nickname.}

{I don't mean that. What's your name?}

{Polaris.} She answers almost on instinct; one set of wings drifts closer as if to take back her secret. And then: {You can speak our language?}

{It's my native tongue.}

There's an excruciatingly long silence, the kind that N knows he needs to fill. His fingers flex uneasily. No. They aren't his fingers. None of this is his.

{Would you believe me,} he says quietly, {if I told you that there was a world that's just like this one, except there are only pokémon in it?} She doesn't answer. They never do, not at first, because it's too much to hope for, too much to believe. {It's just pokémon. In a society. Doing what we want. Some of us are explorers, some of us are guardians. We have our own houses. We're citizens. I don't even know how to explain all the other differences.}

{Do you battle?}

{If we want.} N fishes for the words that'll answer the gaps between her questions. {There aren't any trainers. I had a partner. The deino. His name was Zahhak. We saved the world together.}

{Where are the humans?} Polaris asks quietly.

{We had stories about them. Sometime there are rumors of a human who gets reincarnated as a pokémon into our world.} N blinks. {Do you have the same rumors here? Of a pokémon from our world who gets reincarnated into yours as a human?}

Sigilyph are rumored to be able to see all of time and space. Maybe in this world they haven't had the opportunity to explore the full reaches of their power. Maybe they have. Polaris connects the dots easily enough; she'd seemed to know he didn't belong in N's body from the start.

{Is that why you believe so strongly in Team Plasma? In liberating pokémon?}

He's had this talk with all of the allies he's tried to make so far. Some have stayed, fueled by his hope; some simply can't see it. He doesn't blame them. It's not easy, trying to change the world like this.

{My home is a better world for us. We'll make the humans here see that. They'll treat us right.}

{I'll help.}

She'll try. The both will.


He watches the snivy fight. There's a brown-haired human commanding her. He's studied this for years now and he still doesn't understand the partnership all the way. Pokémon are fully capable of organizing their own battles; that's what they were quite literally born to do. Perhaps the humans want to feel useful? But somehow they've made themselves into the most important aspect of this whole thing, have shifted the tides to favor them all the time.

He approaches the snivy at the end of the fight. Her leaves are singed nearly completely off; she's panting hard. The tepig she just fought is unconscious. No pokémon should ever have to fight that far for no reason, and yet—the humans are chattering merrily like it's some sort of joke.

"Is this what you want?"

The sniy blinks back at him, round eyes wide. Around them, all sorts of battles are taking place. {Of course. What else would I want?}


"Do you have a name?"

One of the humans comes to visit. This one walks like a leader. They have the coloring of a ralts, leaf-green hair with the crimson eyes to match. But one look at the human's posture, the hunched thunder that settles around their shoulders, is more than enough to broadcast that this is no empath, and he will get no sympathy here.

"En—" He begins to say something to the human, but the words die in his throat. He can't explain why at first. He shouldn't feel fear. He's fought harder opponents than this before. And yet. Something about this human is wrong, a tear in the fabric of reality that screams to be corrected.

And besides. What would this human know about names, about the glow of the summer moon silhouetted around unfurling birch leaves? Humans name themselves after their dead; he was named for the living. "Not one you can pronounce," he rasps back instead. His tongue struggles to form the words of the human tongue; the sounds weigh heavily on his lips. But better to say a truth than to let his lips shape an approximation by trying to translate it.

"N, then." The human gives him a new name without a second thought. Does he even realize what— "I take it you are being treated well?" This human is polite. As polite as the sigilyph, and the female human that came in with the tray of food before, and the male one with the food before that. But anyone can pretend.

"We. We're sorry for trespassing." The human syllables. How did they manage to do this all day? His tongue is flopping in a thousand directions at once; his growls are dead in his mouth. It just doesn't make sense. "Please let us leave your lands."

"I'm afraid I can't just put you back." The human mulls through their next words carefully. Their expression is hard to read, especially without practice, but it doesn't really look afraid, no matter what the words say. "Deino are disruptive species in these parts. Releasing one back into the ecosystem, especially as one as… lively, one might say, as yours… the effect would be catastrophic."

"Zahhak isn't mine," he blurts back immediately.

The human's eyebrows quirk upwards. "Oh? He's not yours?" Now their expression certainly isn't afraid. They (he? Humans are hard, and this one's hair is longer than a normal male's) look somewhere between a purrloin about to filch a full hoard of apples and a weavile aiming for the throat.

"He's his own person," is the natural response, but somehow his words are already dying in his throat. But before he can even finish the response, the human is getting up to leave.

"I am Ghetsis," the human says, looking impassively over one shoulder. The one eye that is visible pierces deep, deep beneath the skin. The stab almost goes deep enough to align with the words the human, Ghetsis, had once shouted—you aren't one of them—but it glances away before it can strike his heart. "We'll talk again soon."

And just like that, he and Zahhak are suddenly owned by a human.


{Young one, my master just wants to help.}

He recoils at the touch of a psychic on his mind, bares his teeth outwardly. They can't hurt him, but he doesn't want them to pry, to see. He hisses back, frustration slipping off of him like steam. {Then let me go.}

{You're safe here. We're helping you.}

He doesn't mean to, but he cuts himself short. {You're helping? Them?} Warily, he looks up again at the sigilyph that hovers before him, rainbow wings serenely floating on an unseen breeze in the white walls of his prison. {Why are you helping the humans?}

The pause is longer than he would have expected, and then: {That is the agreement we have.}

{Oh. I see.}

There is a long pause. He uses it to study the smooth, white walls of the space they're keeping him in. Even the sky is white here. He doesn't like it.

The sigilyph presses, fixing him with a firm, unwavering gaze. {Your companion. The deino.}

{Zahhak,} he corrects automatically. He can't help himself, no matter how much he wants to appear unphased before his captors. {Did you hurt him?}

{No,} the sigilyph responds. The blue tips of his wings are paler than normal. Interesting. The sigilyph doesn't seem to pay that any mind as he adds, {But you need to speak to him.}

{Do it yourself.}

{He attacks me before I can,} the sigilyph responds glumly. {Would that I could.}

He sighs. None of this is right. But he will make it right. He has to. For both of them. {What is it that you want me to tell him?}

And this is how he ends up huddled next to Zahhak, crouched with his fingertips splayed against the cool floor of their now-shared prison, repeating in hushed whispers and glancing over his shoulder with every other word. {The humans who caught us. They will let us go.}

{Will they?} Zahhak is stock-still, ears pricked forward to pick up every passing sound.

{They will, if we just do what they say,} he responds firmly, hoping that if he sounds convincing enough, the deino will believe him. If he can only keep the fear and unease pinned to his cheeks, where his partner's eyes are too atrophied to pick them up, he may be able to believe hard enough for the two of them. {Also, you need to stop attacking their translator,} he adds guiltily.

{They attacked me first!} Zahhak snaps back, indignant.

He shrugs. {That's their tradition around here, I think. You know how strange the wilds are.} He sighs. Looks down at his fingers, flexes them slightly. They don't feel like his still, but he clenches one into a fist even as he places the other onto the deino's shoulder reassuringly. {We'll get through this together. Just like we always have. We just have to play along with them for a little bit, talk to their guildmaster, follow their rules, and they'll let us out of this in no time.}

It's all wrong. But it's what he believes—this doesn't make it the truth, but it doesn't make him a liar, either.


He doesn't listen, not at first. But his nails can't claw off his attackers, his teeth aren't sharp enough to bite into their flesh. His body is not his own. Try as he might, they are big and he is small, and the humans take him away.

Human hands cut off his panicked scream, but it's what he hears next that will sear into the depths of his brain, crystallizing with the adrenaline into his bloodstream and sinking into the pit of his stomach, where they will rest forever, defining the rest his life.

When he remembers this moment, all of the other sounds—the schnick of Zahhak's fangs sinking into flesh, his own frantic thrashing in the bushes, loud voices shouting orders—are muffled, as if playing in the background. His world seems to freeze as he hears the words that will carve his path before him like letters of flame.

"Just stop struggling, boy! You aren't one of them, anyway."

And he isn't. And he never will be.

Playing the story backwards, watching two worlds untwine from one another, he realizes this is the only conclusion. Hero, villain, truth, ideal, human, pokemon. Too many conflicting concepts could never form a functioning reality, so he had to split them. There was never another choice.

He saved the world once. He'll do it again.

It's only Natural, isn't it?


.

hey!

Quick a/n—this one-shot was heavily inspired by a Discord convo, featuring a theory cited by Namohysip and best summed up by unrepentantAuthor as "woke: N is a zoroark / bespoke: N *was* a zoroark", aka "what if N was the PMD Hero put in our world."

Other inspiration includes Keleri's "People and Pokemon" and Negrek's "Decoherence".