"So… is this one Haze?" Salem asked.
The white-coated scientist escorting the two morphs nodded. "Yes, he is," she said. "I'm able to answer questions, which you will doubtless have."
Dusk smiled evenly. "When will he be morphed completely?"
"He won't be much longer, I assure you," said the human, "no more than a day or two. He'll be recovered, more or less, inside of seventy-two hours. See his paws? He is almost completely through the procedure, which is a good sign. Admittedly he's taken a little longer than most, but that's not surprising."
Dusk tilted her head by way of asking for elaboration.
"Oh, he was a scrawny little thing when we found him," the human explained with a sigh. "Poor little one probably hadn't eaten in days."
Salem stared through half-lidded eyes at the unconscious form of the young eevee, floating weightlessly in his tank. His muzzle was obscured by a mask, gifting him air. Many smaller tubes were attached to his body, the purpose of which she could not guess. His paws and ears twitched occasionally.
"How does it work?" Salem demanded, suddenly, cutting through the idle discussion of stray pokémon that the other two had been having.
"How does the Change work? What does it do; how does it do it?" she asked.
The scientist raised an eyebrow at Salem's sudden interjection. "Certainly. In the simplest terms, it's evolution. Every pokémon has the power to evolve. They can do this as many times as they need to, which is why it can be halted mid-way through and delayed. That's why the Change doesn't prevent further evolution. We just provide the patient with the genetic input to 'evolve' into the hybrid form. The details are difficult to explain in simple terms."
Salem took a moment to consider this, and then flicked an ear. "Why are they in tanks? Tell me about the fluid and the wires," she insisted.
"Morphs going through the Change have no bodily control, so if we laid them on a bed they'd fall off it," the human explained. "We could strap them down, but they could strain unconsciously and bruise themselves - or they could simply outgrow the bindings as their bodies developed. There's also the issue of bedsores to consider, from lying still for so long. So the fluid is there to protect them - and it also makes it easier to monitor them with the wires."
Salem nodded, satisfied, and looked back to Haze. He breathed shallowly, his fur drifting in the liquid with each movement. He was still not fully grown, but Salem could tell he would never be tall. Judging by his proportions, he was likely to be several inches shorter than her, which she found amusing. He was thin to the point of being underweight, though his long, russet fur would probably hide it when dry.
"You should have a pokémorph present when recently Changed morphs wake up," said Salem.
"That's an idea we've had suggested to us a few times now," replied the human. "We've considered it, but we're working on improving the process until a debriefing is not even necessary. The bouts of temporary amnesia are already a thing of the past and we hope that in time, the morphs will not even need to be unconscious."
Salem shook her head. "No, it would still be helpful. To know that you are not the first to make this change, to see another who is not so different from you."
The scientist shrugged. "I can't make it standard procedure, but there's nothing stopping counsellors taking others into the wakening room."
Salem's tail flicked. "I would like to be with Haze when he wakes up."
"Ooh, Salem's crushing on the cute eevee boy," teased Dusk, slipping back into pokéspeak and making heart shapes with her claws. "Isn't young love just adorable?"
Salem didn't bother objecting.
"Have you seen enough yet, Salem?" asked Dusk, in human tongue this time, folding her arms. She looked to the human, but she wasn't paying attention.
Salem twitched an ear to say no, and continued to look around at the tanks containing creatures of varying progression into morph-hood. The hint of memory dampened her mind. i need to breathe Her claws pricked her palms, and she inhaled deeply.
It wasn't long before more visitors entered the room. Dusk rolled her eyes and tapped her foot impatiently. Salem ignored her and the newcomers completely.
The first was Nathan. Salem had yet to see the second, but she could guess who he was. His blue and cream colourations, and his spiked stare, were enough to suspect he was the Pyre who Nathan had mentioned to her earlier. She nodded briefly to him, and he nodded back in mute acknowledgment.
Dusk, as ever, was rather more vocal, this time in pokéspeak. "Hey Pyre," she called. "It's so good to see our local psychopath outside of an arena. I can't believe you're here to check up on little Haze. Or are you just curious about the species of your next meal?"
Pyre glared at the sneasel, fiercely. "The reason you only seem to see me angry is because you are particularly obnoxious," he retorted.
"It comes naturally," said the sneasel, with a fanged sneer.
Pyre scowled, staring into Dusk's deep green eyes. Nathan put a warning hand on his shoulder, but he brushed it off. "Dusk, has it ever occurred to you that people don't like you because you are infinitely infuriating?" he replied, his voice taut with contempt.
Dusk stared back evenly at him. "Only to those who deserve it, sweetheart."
Pyre made to spit a retort but Nathan stepped forward between the two of them. "Don't make me play peacemaker," he warned. "Please. We don't need admin on our tails before the team is even fully together."
Dusk smirked toothily at the quilava, who simmered gently. Watching from the background, Salem continued to claw her palms. Nathan calmly walked past the sneasel, brushing her effortlessly aside, and Pyre followed suite, not deigning to look her way.
"Contrary to what you might believe," said Pyre, more loudly. "I'm not heartless. I'm not actually sure why you choose to make me out as the unbalanced team member, Dusk, given Verity's razor soul and your own grating personality. Neither you, nor that sociopathic sadist are exactly the best of company."
Salem fidgeted uncomfortably at Pyre's description of the skarmory.
Dusk folded her arms. "No, I'm sure you'll be like a father to our sixth member. I'll find it really touching, sure enough."
Pyre smiled to himself, and Dusk, disappointed with the lack of response, made to leave. "Come with me, Salem," she said. "Time to go eat."
Nathan looked to the meowth, raising a brow. She decided not to follow. Dusk made no sign of noticing.
Pyre took a breath, composing himself before speaking. "Salem," he said. "It's nice to finally meet you. Nathan tells me you've impressed him, which probably means you've flown to the moon or some such impossible thing." He grinned, offering his hand.
Salem actually smiled at that, and shook the quilava's hand. Realising a response was expected of her, she clawed her free palm. "...hello, Pyre. I've done nothing so impressive, I'm afraid. I just... told him what I could see, I suppose."
"That, and she knew more about me after two minutes than my counsellor does after two weeks," commented Nathan sardonically.
Pyre nodded. "Feel like trying me, too? I'm honestly curious, now."
Salem nodded vaguely, her anxiety fading as she began to think, actually think about the quilava. Her eyes darted across his figure, and her claws left her palms. The way he stood gave an impression of uneasiness - not discomfort, but the ability to suddenly tense, ready for action. His left ear was split right down to the base, but he had no other major scars. His uniform was made of a different material to the others', something with a strange sheen to it...
She took a deep breath.
"You're a fighter, a good one. You were either wild, or belonged to a trainer who couldn't - or wouldn't - get you proper medical care. Your uniform is fireproof, that implies you can't control your fire, which implies you've got a quick temper. You're from Johto originally but you've travelled far, you change and adapt to situations."
She paused, looking to him for approval. He nodded for her to continue.
"You don't show enough emotion when I talk, which means you're hiding a lot of it. Could be trauma, could be chronic issue. Honest, but always thinking more than saying. Angry at Dusk, even though you dislike Verity more. Probably due to personal feelings, most likely-"
"You can stop now," interrupted Pyre, tersely.
Salem smiled nervously. "Nathan interrupted, too. Sorry, I don't know what you'll not want me to say."
Nathan shook his head. "Warned you," he said, chuckling.
Salem tilted her head at Pyre and blinked. "You want to be the leader, don't you?" she asked. "So do Dusk and Verity."
Pyre nodded, gravely. "That I do. I was leader for a short while once in the wild and travelled far to escape my failure when it went wrong, so I'm not exactly enthusiastic. However, Dusk is immature and Verity lacks compassion, so I feel I'm the best option there is. Or at least, that's what Nathan insists on."
"I appreciate the honesty," Salem replied, smiling again. Her eyes flicked briefly to see Nathan smiling at Pyre. "I am sure Nathan is right in his judgment of your character."
"Of course! I always am," said Nathan, his ear flipping back to indicate that he was joking. "We should get going, though, I'm certainly hungry."
Pyre nodded assent, but walked up to the glass that encased Haze, first. He gently tapped the tank, and smiled to himself when the growing morph inside twitched slightly. Satisfied, he followed Nathan and Salem out. The human scientist, having watched this discussion uncomprehendingly, just laughed to herself.
Salem caught a brief glance from Dusk as she entered the mess hall. She thought it was a look of disappointment more than anything, but Dusk ignored her for the duration of the meal, though she kept looking back at the sneasel hybrid.
Salem said little as she ate. Her finneon was easily the finest food she'd had in recent memory, if not ever, but she felt too awkward to really enjoy it. Pyre gnawed on the ribs of a tauros, picking every scrap of meat he could. Nathan was less enthusiastic, helping himself to a small plate of salad. After listening to cordial conversation between the two males for some time, she finally ventured a comment of her own when a pause presented itself.
"I would have thought they'd give us pokémon food," she said. "It would certainly be easier for them."
Nathan smiled drily, but Pyre actually laughed. The quilava responded first. "True enough, but I don't think they'd get away with it for long," he said. "Not many would accept being treated that way, I think. If one of the hall staff offered me the same sort of garbage they feed their pets, I'd shove it in their damn face!"
Salem smiled at the mental image. She didn't doubt his sincerity.
"I think someone did, actually," commented Nathan, his mouth twitching upwards the tiniest bit.
"Really? Who would that be?" asked Pyre, licking his fingers.
"The zangoose – the pale-pelted aggressive morph from the Hoenn team," said Nathan, still holding his tiny grin.
Pyre snorted. "Seriously?"
The ampharos nodded, sitting back. "Yeah. They wouldn't have been so volatile, but the human server gave them herbivore feed. Zangoose are predators."
Pyre snickered to himself. "Well, at least they admit their mistakes and try harder. If that takes a few amusing incidents with the Hoennese morphs, that's fine by me."
"Mistakes?" asked Salem, inquisitively.
Pyre shrugged expansively. "Sure. There's typical stuff, like faulty air conditioning, that's just normal for humans. Then there's idiocy, stuff that comes from misunderstanding morphs. Used to be that all the doors in this place swung shut so fast they trapped the tails of most morphs. They fixed that one quick!"
Nathan nodded in agreement. "It was I who got them to replace the old plastic chairs with backless metal stools. Since then, they've taken the initiative, and done more things on their own. Nobody asked them to offer a saltwater swimming pool for the oceanic morphs, they thought of that themselves."
"How sweet of them," said Salem, drily, getting another laugh out of Pyre.
"So, you must have been here for some time," the meowth commented, more confident.
Pyre nodded, but Nathan answered. "I think I was first, I've been awake for three weeks now. I was advised to study, or to practice combat, or to socialise with teams that have started training. They apologised for not having the entire team ready at once but I don't mind much."
"Hard to be bored here," Pyre added. "Nathan reads a lot of books; I watch a lot of movies. That, and give out beatings in the arena."
"Why wouldn't you read?" asked Salem.
Pyre looked incredulously at her. "You're human-raised, probably a pet, right? You had the chance to learn. I never saw a human, let alone a book in the first half my life. I can't read."
Nathan shook his head. "It's not even that. Not many domestics learn to read. They don't care to. You should remember that you, I and Verity are quite unusual. But then, morphed pokémon usually are."
Salem nodded, her ears drooping slightly. "I suppose so. I can tell that both of you have problems, and I'm guessing I did, too."
Pyre snickered childishly and Nathan made a face at the comment. "I suppose that 'problems' is one way of putting it," the ampharos said, coolly.
"Damn problems," said Pyre. "I'm done here. I feel like fighting, Nathan, if you do. Would you like to watch, Salem?"
Salem nodded, hesitantly. She thought to herself that any opportunity to observe the abilities of her team members would be useful. And it was a good excuse to avoid talking to Dusk a while longer.
As the three morphs left, Salem caught the sneasel looking at her.
The two combatants stood at opposite ends of the arena. Salem, hoisting herself up onto the railing to get an unobstructed view, saw that neither had anything like the stance Dusk had shown her. She guessed the match was going to feature ranged combat with fire and lightning, rather than the rapid melee she'd had with Dusk.
When Pyre's shoulders and hands burst into flame, she started, nearly losing her balance. She couldn't help glancing about to ensure no one had noticed the momentary loss of poise.
Salem was surprised to see Nathan make the first aggressive move, firing a bolt of energy towards the quilava. Pyre dodged, replying with several short bursts of flame from his hands. This staccato exchange continued, increasing in rapidity, for a minute or two.
Transfixed by the flames and electricity, engrossed in considering the way Pyre steadily drew nearer to his sparring partner, Salem failed to notice Dusk behind her until she said "good match, don't you think?"
She nearly fell off the rail, but the sneasel grabbed her waist to steady her.
"Sorry, Salem!" she said, with genuine shock. "I assumed you would know I was here."
Salem gave her an indignant look on reflex, but turned it into a yawn when she saw Dusk's anxious face. "It's fine. I guess my hearing isn't so good."
"Well, you probably would have landed safely anyway, a cat like you," Dusk reassured her, breezily. Salem silently thanked Dusk for not dwelling on her hearing.
"I wouldn't know if it was a good fight," Salem said. "I've not seen many. None more serious than petty brawls over scraps in an alley."
Dusk shrugged. "I have. This one interests me because they're obviously both very experienced fighters, ranged ones too, but they have very different styles."
Dusk looked to Salem. She nodded, encouraging the sneasel to continue.
"Well, Nathan's style is classic league-level Kanto. It's the traditional, time-tested approach that nearly every veteran human-trained pokémon uses on televised battles. You see the way that each attack is very well regulated? The timing is very standard, very precise."
She paused. "Pyre is more unusual. It's a wild pokémon's uncontained aggression, very dynamic. Less well honed, perhaps, but adaptable. You can tell he's from Johto, too, because of the way he moves about. Kanto pokémon focus on dodging, if anything, but he's getting in close to throw Nathan off. It's less about strength or technique, more tactical."
"Thank you, Dusk. Your great knowledge is very helpful," said Salem.
Dusk's whiskers twitched in what Salem thought was embarrassment, but she pretended not to have heard.
"If Pyre gets in close enough, he can use short range flamethrowers that Nathan will be hard pressed to dodge. All Nathan's attacks that I've seen have been long range ones, unwieldy up close. They duel very often and it's usually very close, so I'm sure Nathan has a way to deal with that."
Salem nodded, returning her attention to the battle, which was now a flurry of blazing attacks being exchanged at fairly close range. To evade the ever-wider reaching crackles of energy that Nathan was directing at him, Pyre was running, rolling and feinting, all while firing off a continual hail of fire. Nathan remained more or less stationary, save for dodging the fireballs.
Dusk grinned. "Watch this," she said.
Nathan, seeing Pyre dash in close, darted forward with surprising speed to grip the fire type's arm and electrocute him. Pyre, utterly paralysed, went into a momentary spasm, and then collapsed. He raised an arm to concede, and Nathan helped him to his feet. Pyre laughed, but Salem couldn't make out their conversation.
Dusk nodded in satisfaction. "Nathan came up with that himself. You almost never see pokémon innovating, and trainers are rarely really able to see what their charges are capable of. Morphs, however, are in the best position to invent new techniques."
Salem nodded, mutely, amazed at the effortless agility of Pyre and the sudden ferocity of Nathan. She found herself unable to picture a future Salem, as skilled and violent as them.
"Just wait until you evolve, kitten," said Dusk, as if she knew what Salem was thinking.
"I expect you're feeling pretty torn about all your teammates apparently hating each other," said Dusk, indifferently. Salem shrugged in response. It was true. She wondered how Dusk could read her so easily, especially when they were walking side-by-side back to the lounge. Dusk wasn't even looking at her!
"If it's any help, Nathan gets along with just about everyone. There's no reason you can't, too." Dusk laughed, uneasily. "Anyway, it's not my right to stop you being friends with Pyre just because I think he's a brute."
"If there's one thing Pyre and I agree on, it's that Verity is poison," Dusk spat. "I'm just warning you that if you choose to get close to her, you will get hurt, and it'll be your own fault. If you make nice with Pyre I'll be annoyed, but Verity? I'd be worried about you."
"Good!" Dusk rubbed her temple. "Sorry for being a bitch, though. Must be awkward for you. I'll try not to do that in the future."
They reached the door to the lounge and Dusk opened it. Salem's first thought was to nuzzle her friend, but she wasn't sure if sneasel did that or not. She decided to play at being human.
"It's okay," she said. "I wasn't angry, anyway... I forgive you, if you want that."
Dusk's ear flicked in acknowledgement. "Okay, then. I think I'll grab a drink from the bar, hang out with the Hoennese; you can do what you like."
The sneasel quietly stole away, and Salem was left standing alone.