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TEEN: Different Eyes

@ogDG - hey, much appreciated. Doesn't look like I'll get the next chapter in before you're done after all, but I'm very appreciative of the feedback you've given so far and I hope you'll stay on as a reader. Thanks very much for the early review, it's a great bit of encouragement!
 
i'm glad i granted you a lil encouragement! :)

i loved the concept of the interlude chapter, but i admittedly thought it was going to have a different purpose. i thought reading it would give a clinical account of the hybridisation procedure that would either a) replace salem's experience such that the next chapter would jump right into her waking up as a pokemorph or b) contrast sharply with your description of salem's experience. both would have been interesting narratively. not to say i didn't enjoy the interlude's presence, but i don't really think it ended up adding to the story or to the reader's experience.
that being said, the prose for salem's pov in ch 5 was extraordinary. your diction evoked very clearly the sensory (or lack thereof) information from the waiitng game of the procedure. i felt my own eyes blink rapidly as if i could get the amniotic fluid out of my eyes since i was envisioning it so vividly.
"She felt as tender as if her entire body was nothing but a person-shaped wound. But the important part wasn’t feeling like one enormous wound. It was being shaped like a person." i think this is my favourite!!

for ch 6, i totally understood salem's impatience to finally be a fully fledged human (as far as she understands it, at least), but i thought it was kinda weird that she even had space to be impatient. i imagined after she woke up she'd continue to be prodded and measured since the interlude makes it clear they're still doing R&D.
something makes the pacing of this chapter feel weird, also. i imagined the actual change itself to be approximately the climax of the story (altho, i'm getting the sense that i'm wrong, so i look forward to seeing what you write the climax to be), so this chapter feels anticlimactic as an aftermath. before chapter, i knew where the story was going to end up, but now that we're here, i have no clue what to expect next. (a bad thing for me, a good thing for you since it means there are innumerable directions in which you can end up taking this story. personally, i hope laura and salem cross paths again.)

looking forward to the next chapter! btw, is there a way to get alerts for this thread so i know when you update next?
happy review-letide (aka what i've been calling this event in my head haha)!!!
 
@ogDG

That's a fair point about the interlude. Reader expectation is important, and the interludes so far appear to not be landing all that well. I'll bear this in mind going forward.

I'm so pleased to hear such praise for chapter five, I'm flattered!

That's interesting that you should think that about the climax. This is yet more evidence that starting the story with four chapters of feral cat!Salem was a bad move. The story is going to be much, much longer than this, and mostly about her time as a morph. The climax isn't even remotely in sight yet.

I'm thrilled that you'll be sticking around to read more - if you want to get alerts, there's a "watch" button at the upper-right on any thread. I'm hoping to update once a month in 2020, let's see if I can manage that...

Thanks again!
 
Secret Santa's time! :D Well, this has been a really nice (re)read! I'll go over each chapter as best as I can. Ready? Ready.

---

Prelude

Press talk, huh? That's an interesting way to start a story, I'd say.

So, in this world, Pokémon are essentially the equivalent of Japanese monsters. It's certainly a unique approach, as Pokémon are usually seen as just the animal equivalents of the Pokémon world. I like that!

You may have heard rumours that in 1996, a hybrid was created by researchers in the private sector. Using genetic material from an uncatalogued pokémon species retrieved in the Guyanese Amazon, combined with the DNA of humans and other pokémon, a new kind of creature with the intellect of a human and the power of a pokémon was given life, not naturally, but through technology. This being, according to urban legend, soon destroyed its creators, and their research with them, before vanishing forever.

Is this a reference to the Pokémon Special/Adventures manga? Because Mewtwo has similar origins, with him having human genes in his DNA. Not sure whether this is a deliberate reference or a funny coincidence, but it is still a nice nod.

Though, I'll have to say this: what prompted scientists into trying out hybridizations and investing funds into that project? Was it simply "for scientific curiosity", or as a way to get in a closer and more intimate relationship with Pokémon? It would be nice to go more in-depth about this.

I don't have much else to say about this prelude. It gets the job done into giving a brief overview of hybrids.

---

Ch.1

Hmm... it may be just me, but I feel like Salem just like that was a bit rushed. Like, I find it weird that Salem just left Laura because of one little argument, if we could say that. It gives the impression that either she is a very selfish cat who barely cared about Laura, or she is recently adopted as pet cat and as such didn't form a strong bond with Laura (yet).

Unless that was intentional, of course. Later chapters seem to reinforce either theory (if not both), considering how little she seems to care about how worried Laura could be about her whereabouts. I just find that the reasoning for leaving was a bit weak. I could understand Salem fleeing once she has been left behind by Laura, feeling betrayed and abandoned, and thinking like her home isn't her home anymore.

I dunno. If you want to make Salem look selfish, it would be good to show more her shades of selfishness throughout her story.

Oh, and I liked the Pokémon anime reference. Now I wonder if the anime in that world is an anime or a real-life show...

---

Ch. 2

Okay, things are picking up the pace here! This was a stronger chapter compared to the previous one, both in terms of narration and in terms of showing more about Salem's personality: a very independent individual. I also like the description of the ambiance, and I could see myself under the rain staring at the building with Salem.

Something that you may consider about Mienshao: the species is mainly based on stoats, which have a quite interesting body language. Their closest relatives, the ferrets, tend to hop around and show interest in interacting when they are happy/curious. The "roll" thing is more a canine behavior, which I could have seen working with Rockruff more than with Mienshao. Of course, "All Animals Are Dogs", and Mienshao could have learned that trick as a way to befriend Pokémon that don't share the same body language. It's fine like that, but I wanted to point that out in case you wanted to show behaviors closer to their real-life counterparts. Other than that, it was a really cute interaction.

I wonder if Glameow will reappear at some point... imagine the surprise of him seeing the "bad hunter" turned into a half-human. :p

---

Ch. 3

Just another day of work here at the shelter. Oh, and they want to give you a new home, kitty. Don't want it? Too bad.

This is a pretty chill chapter, all in all. It was nice to see a rather unexplored workplace, but I wonder... aren't there helping Pokémon at the shelter, aside from Mienshao? I could see Throh and Chatot being helpers in some way, I suppose, but I could have also seen Pokémon like Machoke or Timburr carrying the supplies around and similar heavy tasks.

What I liked what seeing more about the shelter Pokémon, but I kinda wished to see that world a bit more. What do other Pokémon think about the shelter? Are they looking forward to being adopted? Or scared? Or maybe they want to just be free?

I'd suggest you read a bit of A Dog's Purpose, especially the beginning part. That gives a nice outlook of life at a shelter through the POV of a dog, as well as the kinds of hierarchies and rules that are formed between stray animals.

...And Salem decided to flee. Well, hope you'll have a nice ride!

---

Ch. 4

Nope, ride ain't nice at all. I suppose that's bound to happen when you don't have a seatbelt, huh? Pity that you aren't a dog, Salem. Licking the air outside the window while riding the car could have been a nice experiment.

“Humans aren’t much like pokémon. Humans don’t have your strength, and humans don’t evolve. There’s no bright light when humans become adults. They change only with age, which is a slow and gradual process that nobody can avoid. You’ve spent your whole life expecting that bright light. Maybe longing for it. Perhaps you’ve longed to be human, too.”

Now that's a quite bold statement of Alisha to make. Unless that kind of wish is more wide-spread among Pokémon than we may think and she can safely think that any Pokémon who doesn't want a home/trainer/shelter can only wish to become human, I find it weird that she would just... throw that assumption in the open like that.

I feel like this kind of proposal would have come across in a different way. For example, she could have mentioned what she does during her work (turning Pokémon into hybrids) and that could have grabbed Salem's attention. Immensely. Then, she could have told about Zorua's experience and give her an offer that Salem won't refuse.

...And now we are at the lab, and of course Salem wants to look for those "human-pokémon". And her first encounter is with a... red-eyed hybrid made of sand and charcoal? Umm... huh? Sorry, but this part is quite confusing: what Pokémon is this hybrid supposed to be? Red eyes and sand made me think of Hippowdon, but that 'mon doesn't have charcoal nor horn...? Rhydon/Rhyperior, maybe, but they don't have sand nor red eyes? Maybe even a fusion of two Pokémon? An original one?

Going a bit off-work here, but this seems a bit of a recurring thing of yours. Even in Dispatch Deferred it took a long time to get to the reveal of Brisa being a Luxio, due to the vagueness of the descriptions. I mean, it's fine to have the user gather the clues and try to understand what something is what, but you should also give the answer in some way to not have peeps breaking their brains trying to reach the answer. :p

Her temperature was taken, as was a blood sample (against her loud objections) and her microchip. She didn’t realise in that moment what the value of the lost microchip was, being more concerned with the indignity of having her blood taken. No cat would realise the implications of removing such a thing, and nobody would bother giving them an explanation.

Oooh, boy! Foreshadowing of bad things to come due to her impulsiveness?

He struck an imposing figure, at first glance. He was tall, broad, and his head was crowned with enormous black horns, but as Salem watched his tree-trunk limbs move, she noticed a hesitance in his steps. Everything about Church was striking, but nothing so much as his being absolutely covered in fur. Salem had imagined hybrids to look like humans in thick coats, in her naivety, but his off-white and woolly fur thickly obscured all skin. It was especially startling to see fur where human skin would be most visible, around his neck and face. His facial fur was accented by dark markings around his eyes as if he were wearing eyeshadow or a bandit’s mask, Salem preferring to think of it as the latter.

(...)

She did, creeping up to him like she would an unfamiliar human. He leaned down, seeming like nothing so much as a tree bending in the wind as he did so, and reached out a hand for her to sniff. His hands were hands — human hands! They were furred hands, hands where the middle two fingers had the receded remnants of cloven hooves, but hands all the same. His scent was more like plants and earth than anything. Not as if he’d been rolling in a field, but as if he had been made from a grassy hill dug into the shape of a person and brought to life. He had a short mane of what Salem was sure was some kind of scrub grass, which smelled not entirely unlike a freshly mowed lawn.

Now here you did a much better job at describing the hybrid! It becomes clear to the reader what this hybrid is, without needing to shout "Gogoat-hybrid". I've got to say that I really like Church, and I'm definitely looking forward to a future interaction between him and "human Salem". He could be like a sort of "father" for her, in a certain sense.

“Looks like you get to do this the old fashioned way,” Alisha told her. That didn’t mean anything to her, but Alisha spoke so gently and with such confidence, that the fluttering of her heart ebbed at once.

This... doesn't really strike as reassuring. I wonder what this "old-fashioned way" implies, and what is the "new-fashioned way". :unsure:

This was the moment when her story as a cat ended. The moment when the story of Salem the hybrid began.

"I died as a cat, and was reborn as a human." Sleep well, kitty, as I go to the next chapter.

---

Interlude

This chapter gave me serious SCP Foundation flashbacks. The scientific approach, in particular, is very similar. Probably unintentional, but that was my first impression.

SHP is predefined procedural methodology for the use of multiple technologies in the fields of genetic engineering, medicine, and pokémon bio-energy to alter the genotype, morphology and anatomy of a pokémon so as to closely resemble that of a human being.

Holy Miltank! Do they use Infinity Energy for this stuff? Now I can't help but see the Devon Corporation being involved in some way.

...But it may just be a coincidence. Or is it not...?

The principle underpinning SHP is the possibility of permanently introducing human genetic material to the genome of a pokémon subject, in such a way as to stimulate the evolutionary mechanism of its bio-energy. This stimulation, resembling that induced by ‘evolutionary stones’ and similar devices, causes the subject to adopt a hybrid physical form.

Yup. Definitely sounds like Infinity Energy and a genetically-altered version of Mega Evolution to me.

The G2 process is also dramatically more economical than G1, but still has some drawbacks, particularly the difficulty in acquiring suitable pokémon subjects and the need for intensive life support while they undergo the physical transformation. Additionally, there are many pokémon species unable to undergo the G2 procedure.

I'm curious. What Pokémon are incompatible with this process? I suppose inorganic critters like Magnemite and Metang may not be able to undergo this, but now I can't help but wonder how they would react upon finding out that they can't be hybridized. It would be a pretty interesting angle to explore, I'd say.

---

Ch. 5

Gosh, this sounds almost like a nightmare. A pleasant nightmare, in Salem's case.

I don't really have any particular comment about this due to how utterly intrigued and stunned I am by the whole narration. Seeing the transformation through Salem's point of view, just... wow, it was really amazing.

Maybe, one thing that you could do here would be showing more of how her dreams shift from "blurry cat dreams" to "vivid human dreams", since she is more unconscious than conscious in this chapter. Maybe she finds herself focusing more her attention on some details which would have been irrelevant to her as a cat? But I suppose we could explore this aspect once she is fully morphed and in control of her body. In fact...

---

Ch. 6

"Welcome to the world of humans, Salem! Well, half-humans, in your case." - Alisha

Above her was Alisha’s face. Muscles relaxed, grinning widely, eyes creased. That was good, right? Salem checked again. She didn’t trust her intuition. Yes. Alisha was happy, not distressed. Maybe this was normal. Church must have struggled too! Things were okay, she would get to speak. Soon she would speak. Next to Alisha were the humans from before. How could she know that? Had she really recognised them by sight alone? She’d only seen them once before. Hadn’t even got their scent yet. She didn’t understand.

Not going to lie, I've liked this part in a lot, as this is the first hint that she has a humanized brain: face recognition. One of the very first things that human babies master, if I'm not mistaken, as they learn how to recognize faces before they learn how to recognize other objects.

But going further, the whole "getting used to another body" is something I like a lot, as it is very realistic. Such drastic changes... well, they would be due to cause some panic and distress, and there would be a lot of things that you could do before but can't now (and vice versa). One of the few things that I wish other transformation fics adopted and explored (I'm looking at you, Mystery Dungeon!).

Also, the whole bit about Salem discovering new colors reminds me a lot the reaction videos of colorblind people wearing EnChroma glasses for the first time: too much to take at first, but a really lovely surprise once they get used to it. So seeing her being fascinated by the color "red" made me smile a little. The things humans take for granted, huh?

I'd say that this is my favorite chapter so far.

---

So, here we are, at the end of the review.

I'm going to say this. I was never much interested in gijinkas/Pokémorphs, and yet you managed to make me genuinely interested in them with this lovely work. So hats off for you for managing this little accomplishment!

Anyway, as a general note, I can somewhat see why some people would have preferred to see the first five chapters posted at a later time, maybe as flashbacks or similar. After all, the selling point and main draw of the story is "pokémorphs" -- which is by itself a mostly unexplored area, especially in fanfiction -- and taking so long to get a taste of that could make some raise their eyebrows and be a bit impatient. The closest thing that comes to mind in terms of hybrids in fiction it's the Pokémon ReBURST manga, which actually has humans turning into hybrids rather than the other way around.

I personally didn't mind the wait at all and I'm fine with taking things slow, but as I've binge-read this story, I didn't experience any particular "update drought". Or maybe I'm simply so used to Brother Bear that seeing a bit of how life was before the big change didn't affect me at all. Who knows, maybe it's a bit of both.

Still, this is a very unique plot, and I really enjoyed it! It certainly stands out among other Pokémon stories, I can say this much.

And now, for a little surprise: a little fanart of Salem, with a little background "bonus". :3

FxTju7j.png


Left: cat vision
Right: human vision

Hope you'll update this story soon, it's really good. Good luck, pal, with your future chapters! ^^
 
Hey, @Cresselia92! Thanks again for your lovely review, and my apologies for taking so long to reply to it. It's so substantial! I feel it deserves a proper response.

Prelude

The opening is not a press talk, but a briefing intended for the executive board presented by the administrator of the morph project. The whole thing is under wraps - no press!

I'm glad you like the take on pokémon as yokai - I'm still pretty uncertain about it, but it feels like a sensible choice.

The oriinal hybrid is Mewtwo, yes. I'm not familiar with the manga, but I'm aware that Mewtwo is canonically a hybrid in that continuity.

The morphing technology has a number of benefits, such as advances in medical technology and research, advances in pokémon psychology, and so on, but the only way the extraordinary costs involved can really be justified is with a paramilitary application.

Ch.1

Salem leaves Laura because she's already so understimulated left home alone most days that she's basically suffering from animal stereotypy (self harm) out of boredom. She's been raised to be low-tier sapient and then given nothing to do for most of the day. She's just been told it's about to get much, much, much worse, with Laura only being home a couple days a year, as she explains it. Unfortunately, it appears that this justification isn't landing with all my readers, so I expect I'll emphasise it in revisions.

Salem's selfishness will definitely be a thing in the narrative; I only hope I can pull off the characterisation I'm trying to.

The anime has a counterpart in the DE canon, and it's much the same sort of thing. Actual trainers probably hate it for being so inaccurate!


Ch. 2

Glad you like the chapter! Interesting that Salem is coming across as independent here. I'm trying to land both that she's pretty fierce about standing on her own two feet, but also that she craves reliable relationships.

Thanks for the pointers about mienshao - I am aware of how charming mustelid body language is and I have no idea why I didn't go for it in the first place!

I hadn't intended for glameow to matter later, but I love your idea, frankly.

Ch. 3

I kinda rushed through the shelter period because I didn't want to bore my readers and delay the morph content. I regret this now, as seeing pokémon workers and fleshing out the experience there would have been great. Perhaps in the future I'll rewrite the story to be more achronistic or something, to accomodate that.

Ch. 4

I like your suggestions about Alisha's recruitment methods. I might move towards something more like that in revisions.

The mystery hybrid was a somewhat unnecessary bit of obfuscation on my part. They're a variant, therefore completely impossible to guess at. My bad.

The microchip is foreshadowing Salem's lack of agency in all this, despite her firm belief that she's done tihs by herself, for herself.

Church will definitely appear later, glad you like him!

Alisha's referencing of the old-fashioned way is because she's advocating to the medical staff that Salem should be one of the first of the Third Generation morphs, using the latest developments in morphing tech. I'm not sure if I should make this explicit or not. It comes up later, but it does seem a bit mystifying here.

Interlude

SCP Foundation vibes not deliberate, but not surprising.

Infinity Energy in this canon is basically just everything pokémon do that breaks physics.

The G2 process is retroviral, and so can't work on nonbiological pokémon. It also tends to fail when applied to pokémon with entirely unsuitable body types and constitutions. A joltik would probably straight-up just die of the physical strain, while a galvantula might survive.

Ch. 5

Gosh, thanks for the priase on this one! I'm very proud of the chapter, tbh.

I actually really love your suggestion of the dreams changing. Cheers for that.

Ch. 6

Woah, you got exactly the vibes I was going for! Face recognition, assistive technology for senses, and post-transformation weirdness! Brilliant! Glad you liked it~

Review End

You do lovely art and lovely reviews, so I'm delighted to have gained your interest, and hope you'll come back for future updates! I'm hoping to get one or two out in the next couple of months.

Not sure how exactly I'm going to go back and alter these early chapters, but I'm glad that some readers at least are okay with them. Cheers.

And many, many, many thanks for your charming fanart! I'm utterly delighted with it. Be seeing you!
 
Many thanks to my regular readers for their patience with me and my irregular, often glacial update pace. Starting on Jan 1st 2020, I've been writing a minimum of 50 words daily, often substantially more, with the intention of resuming a regular update schedule beginning the 17th April 2020. On that date, I intend to post at least two new chapters, as well as revisions to existing chapters. I look forward to then, and I hope you will continue to read on.

Cheers,
uA
 
It's Different Eyes' second anniversary! I know it's been a long time since the last proper update, but don't worry. I've been working hard this year, and I have quite a buffer of material stored up. It's just in need of some polishing before I upload it. To begin with, I replaced the original prelude today with a brand new chapter serving as prologue to the story as a whole. It's called Conception, and it's about the 'first pokémorph' of the setting. I think you'll agree that it is a more compelling opening for the fic. What's more, it's substantial! It comes in at a whopping 5000 words. No more; no less. I hope you enjoy it!
 
Oh boy prologue time!! You already know what I think about most of this, so let’s try to find stuff to say which I haven’t said already.

(Your spoilerboxes for the old prelude are kind of weirdly doubled-up, you might want to fix that.)



At what point did a threshold in science become inevitable, however terrible?

(…)

This had been inevitable only so long as he’d remained committed to it. He could have stopped at any time, right up until the moment of genesis.

My kneejerk instinct was to complain that my original critiques of this chunk are still valid, but actually I think keeping the stupid “maybe a thing becomes inevitable as soon as you can think of it” line works pretty well with Fuji’s characterisation here; he’s trying to hand off responsibility for his actions by saying “well, it was inevitable, I had no agency in this” before finally admitting that yes, he made a choice to do this and kept making that same choice throughout.



The presence of human structures was visible in a white-grey mottling against the green of the island’s forests. Merely a small town, clinging to the coast. The aircraft passed over it, and cruised for a few miles inland, the forests soon giving way to the red-brown tones of the central volcanic mountain. At its foot was a building complex, squat and angular. A tower at its corner rose well above the tree-line to support a modest landing pad.

Ah yes, thank you for the tweaks you made to this paragraph. The layout of the island is suddenly comprehensible to me now!



Naturally, someone like Giovanni would see an incomplete genetic code as an opportunity for improvement, rather than a setback to accept.

(jurassic park scientist voice) let’s fill in the gaps with sex-changing frog dna, this is definitely a good idea which will not cause problems later.



Ditto being mew clones is still such a good and funny idea! It’s so cute and makes so much sense, and it’s particularly satisfying because on my first read of this my reaction to Fuji talking about mew’s transformation ability was to go “but ditto do that too tho”, so the reveal worked really well there.

Giovanni’s face was tense and his eyes wide, but Fuji thought he could see a hint of a smile too.

I do not care how much of a nasty crime man Giovanni is, there is nothing you can say to convince me he isn’t smiling because he thinks the ditto are cute.



A psychic that powerful could be bonded to the genetic donor in ways we cannot predict or understand!

I think I’m having a bad day for suspension of disbelief because I can’t stop thinking about how much nonsense all the science in this fic is. And yet, despite that, it is somehow less nonsense than the science in Pokemon canon?? Absolutely wild.



Whether his nature was natural

Jack. Words.



Katsura, you blind fool!

(…)

Fuji, you obsessive bastard

I love the dynamic these two have. Really just out here yelling “dumbass!!” at each other through a closed door, fantastic.
 
I’ve just read the prologue to this, and absolutely adored it! It’s my first visit to this forum, and what a way to start.

I really love the richness of the world here – particularly the use of language and cultural references to reinforce the idea that Kanto is a full-blooded region with its own identity. It can be far too easy for Kanto in particular to feel like a generic backdrop, but you really bring it to life.

Dr Fuji’s emotional journey really works for me too. Very impressive show-don’t-tell approach to conveying his anxiety around Giovanni, and I found my heart sinking as I realised that he’s already in too deep. The details about his family are just right – peppered in so they don’t dominate the story, but really inform his actions.

Giovanni. It’s a big challenge trying to reinvent a children’s cartoon villain convincingly in a more mature work like this, but wow, you really sold it. There’s something really satisfying about the idea that the more cartoony aspects of his personality are a front, and there’s this vicious sadist underneath. And more show-don’t-tell – we know he’s a threat because of the work Katsura must do to foil his plan while slipping under the radar. The dishwasher moment is a really efficient way of communicating Katsura’s motives.

The Fuji-Katsura relationship is a ton of fun too. I’m a sucker for powerless individuals taking on an impossible enemy, and these two are so distinct that it plays like an odd couple dynamic. Plus, Katsura’s bulletproof confidence in his ridiculous plan is a great counterpoint to the distressed Fuji.

The story’s so good, it’s a struggle to think of any notes! Particularly since I haven’t read the rest of the story.

I suppose if there was one thing I’d like to see drawn out further, I’d love to see it made a little more explicit that Fuji’s suspicion that Mewtwo might not be grateful for humanity is because Fuji himself finds humanity so painful. It’s a thread that runs through the whole story – that he can’t bear his grief, and that he’s willing to sacrifice his humanity to get rid of it – but I’d appreciate a line or two to make this a bit clearer. As it is, it’s too easy to think Fuji’s just an anxious person, which underserves the theme.

But yes! Absolutely amazing work. Excited to read the rest.
 
'Don't let that stop you from saying it.'
I won't let it, don't worry... :p

I typically write my reviews as lists, with each topic seperated with bolded text - if I have topic that has more than one element, they'll be seperated by itallics. This one won't be any diffirent.
It also bears mentioning that I can get... a bit facetious, so don't take everything I say too seriously. :p With that out of the way...
------
WRITING STYLE
TECHNIQUE
I like that use of anaphora in the first few paragraphs (reffering to how you repeat the line 'if it lived' three times, I think it's called an anaphora?). The narration and sophisticated language, too - I do have a few tiny, asserted nitpicks, but positive things first.

KANTO BITE
You can actually tell apart if somebody's from Kanto or not in this universe? F*ck me. True that I haven't read too much fanfiction, but this is such a step up from the anime and other 'officiall' Pokemon media.

In that opening paragraph for the second part, I can already picture the whole damn thing animated. I now understand the 'less is more' lesson far better. My hat is off to you.

FUJI THE META GOD (Something that made me laugh)
'In 20 years from now, will such things be commonplace' <---- 20 years from now? That seems oddly specific... :lapras:
'I name thy Ditto/Mewtwo' <--- AWWW, COME ONNNNNN...!! :ROFLMAO: :ROFLMAO: :ROFLMAO:

Seriously though, Ditto being a Mew's clone is a theory that's been circulating around the fandom since years. Not that I don't like it or think it doesn't fit, though, but still, that made me chuckle.

Oh, and about Fuji...

CHARACTERS
FUDGY FUJI
A character that it's easy to feel sorry for - I mean, he only wanted to bring back his daughter to life and look at where it got him.

My favourite part is when he begrudges himself for the witless, weak coward that he is - there's only the problem that this degree of whining can't go too deep. Like I said on the chat, I like angst quite a bit, but it won't work in too big doses - it has to be sporadic, sensible and deliberate. Which is exactly why I also liked what happened just a few moments later and the character of...

EMIYA KIRITSURA ( :p )
His dynamic with Fuji is simply great. I know others have already pointed this out in this thread, but it can't be praised enough. Bold and confident Kantonian Gym leader juxtaposed with a character like Fuji, it's simply entertaining to read.

And clever, too. Like I said in my previous point, angst can't get to be too much - somebody has to be there to poke fun at it, and lift up other people's failing spirits.

I, GIORNO GIOVANNI, HAVE A DREAM...
You know how in games, Giovanni is that guy who gets beaten up by children of all people, in spite of having the manpower and resources big enough to stage a city wide takeover?
That ain't that guy. This isn't that Giovanni - this one is a ruthless man with conviction, one that I can imagine'd crush Red under his heels. He isn't being blunt, either - his evilness and power is conveyed subtly enough, without him doing things like, heh... Namedropping 'Eden' or some sh*t like that.

One scene that made me particularly laugh is when Fuji got too deep into science jargon, and Giovanni basically told him to shut up - like, I was thinking the exact same thing because Fuji's monologue begun to confuse the heck out of me. That was kind of obvious, sure, but still very spot on.

THE PART WHERE I'M A NITPICKING A-HOLE
It had to come to this one day, bruh. Don't worry though, this section will be rather short.

'Fuji faltered despite himself, stammering as he replied' <--- that looks unfinished - he faltered despite himself... Stammering? Ehh?
'Opposite it was Ai's tank' <--- *to it
'The question is whether or not we can prevent him using the clone' <--- *Isn't.
'Fuji considered his words carefully [...],
he'd chosen the materiall carefully' <--- That's 'carefully' said twice in the same clause. Do you think 'scrupulous' or 'conscientous' would fit for the kind of mood you're aiming for?

And, lets see... As far as nitpicks are concerned, I think that'd be all. For now... *I burst into a maniacall cackle*
------
IN SUMMATION
What a good start it is. Trully.

Like every beggining of a story, it sets up expectations for how things will continue, so I suppose it'd be helpfull to list my expectations:
The canon has it that the laboratory was destroyed and the scientists killed, but I wonder will there be any change to this now? Will Fuji survive? Will Katsura survive? Will the lab not be destroyed, like, at all? Will Mewtwo somehow contain his inhibitions that made him go haywire in the first movie?

Giovanni was established as a reall threat - when we do the jump 24 years ahead, will he still be in a position of power? Or has him loosing it paved way to some diffirent sort of plot? Where will the cold war Fuji and Katsura have with him will go, in other words?

Wherever the story will go will make this opening either an amazing setup... Or pointless noise. But I judge things by their own merits, so I will give this a... 7.5/10.
 
Here's a quick review for the new prologue (I usually prefer to review multiple chapters at once, but because of the nature of the prologue I'll review it separately then move on to others later):
*I like Fuji's musings about when a scientific breakthrough becomes inevitable.
*I agree with comments above; Giovanni is excellent. The one moment where he seemed almost empathic was interesting--was it genuine? It could go either way, you can tell Giovanni is a manipulator. It seems his major error is that he doesn't seem to know that Katsura is actually against him--without that I'm sure Fuji would just create Mewtwo exactly as ordered, hating himself but still doing it.
*I always preferred the older canon of normal animals existing alongside Pokémon instead of being replaced by them, for various reasons.
*Katsura is great, although going by canon his plan doesn't fully work considering what happens in the lab/Cinnabar Mansion.


Fuji gripped the railing on the rooftop’s edge. It felt good to put his weight on something solid. He spent so much time leaning on an imagined future, one which contained his daughter once again.
I quite like this part.

All around it's a very strong introduction.

Edit:
Chapter one review
*I recall you mentioning Pokésign in the worldbuilding thread; it's an intriguing idea.
*So it seems that Salem at least seems closer to humans in terms of thought proceess than a regular animal but isn't quite the same, which tends close to how I usually interpret Pokémon (I usually think of them as a bit closer to human but this story trends to a more realistic view of the world).
*Poor Salem comes across as rather naive about what being human is actually like, though the fact she had already been dreaming about "being the trainer" is interesting.
*I do find it a little odd that there's a cartoon in the universe that seems to stick so closely to the anime from what we've read about it so far--mainly if Pokémon were real I imagine they wouldn't have the pokéspeak thing.
*I'm not sure if I've previously seen a Pokémon run away from their human partner partly because of them not being a competitive trainer (though it's clearly a bit more complex than that and even Salem isn't entirely sure why she left).
 
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Chapter 1: Human Dreams
Author's Note:

Thanks for bearing with me while I got the next two updates ready. Now the story proper can begin, and hopefully continue at a faster rate. If you’re an older reader, this is a different opening chapter than you remember. If you were a reader way back in 2012, it’ll be more familiar to you. It’s an important sequence, and I had to get it just right! I hope it was worth the wait.

Chapter Changelog:

2020/09/07: Replaced the old ‘Chapter 1’, partly with material originally from a later chapter, edited for quality and continuity, partly with new scenes.

2020/09/20: Minor improvements to prose based on reader feedback. Trivial continuity fixes.


Chapter 1

Human Dreams


Salem was dying. Surely, this was how it felt to die.

Darkness. Vertigo. Every body part, aching. Her eyes stung, so she screwed them shut. A barrier of rubbery material clasped against her face—she tried to shake it off, to pull her head away, but still it clung to her. It pressed her whiskers to her cheeks, and though she could breathe, the breaths came hot and stifled. She needed to push at it with her paws, but she couldn’t seem to move her limbs, or even feel them. She couldn’t sense the ground beneath her paws. She just floated, as if through water.

Water.

There was water; she was in water. Submerged. She was underwater!

She held her breath against the instinctive panic. She had to surface, fast. She tried to swim, flail, anything, but her limbs protested at every effort. She stayed in place, suspended in blackness. Her lungs strained. Her chest shook. She tried to reach for something solid. Her paws, barely drifting any distance at all, only met more water. She couldn’t hold her breath any longer, and drew in a wretched gasp.

Then another.

Air. Instead of water filling her lungs, there was air. Hot, suffocating, but breathable air. It did not run out.

Taking ragged, shallow breaths, yet still not drowning, she fought to bring her paws up and feel for the obstruction at her face. It took an age, but her pads met rubber, and found it sealed over her mouth, perfectly watertight. Inside its confines, she could breathe.

She kept her eyes shut. She could be asleep; this could be a dream.

It was quiet enough beneath the surface that she could only hear the thumping of her own heart and the rasp of her own breathing. No, she was not asleep.

She opened her eyes. They stung from contact with the water, but she endured—then she saw the room outside through the clear glass that surrounded her. Through the greenish fluid that immersed her, dimly lit from overhead, she could just about make out impressions: the shapes of beds, human silhouettes, the light from suspension tanks. Dozens of them. Tanks just like hers.

That was it. She was in the tank.

She kept forgetting she was in the tank.

XxX​

“Run!”

Dusk set her jaw and pushed herself faster. Faster. She could go faster than this. At long last, running once again came easily, felt natural. Her legs worked tirelessly beneath her just as they’d done before. In fact, she was stronger than ever. Faster, too.

“Speed up!”

Dusk broke into a sprint. She pumped her arms harder, the way they’d taught her. Faster. Faster.

“Ten seconds!”

Unfamiliar energy surged through her body, neither shadowy nor chill. Her muscles relaxed, her body seemed to weigh less—this could be it; the technique called ‘agility!’

“Alright! That’s enough.”

What? No! She hadn’t reached her limit yet, she was sure of it. She kept running, willed her legs to work harder, closed her eyes, tried to force the energy, to use agility—!

“Dusk, that’s enough!”

Fine. Dusk slammed the stop button on the treadmill controls and let her arms swing loosely by her sides as the motors slowed. She could go faster than that, she knew it. Next time she would. She let out a disappointed groan, hopped off and bent forward to stretch, making a start on the warm-down routine before she could be told to.

“You did well,” said Dr. Collett from her office chair. “A personal best.”

Dusk paused her routine to sign [Thank you, Doctor,] in reply. She put one hand to her mouth and drew it away in the human’s direction, then touched her wrist as if taking her pulse.

“Come on, you can say that in Galarish.”

Ugh.

“You under-stood I said ‘Doc-tor,’” Dusk replied between stretches, with exaggerated sullenness. “You are not my speech there-app-ist.”

“It’s all good practice. Not everyone here understands pokésign. Anyway, you’re nearly done for today.”

“What is next?”

Dr. Collett placed her notes and pen neatly on her desk and stood from her chair to gesture to the full-length mirror at the far end of her office.

Ah. This again.

Dusk dutifully stood before her own reflection, suppressing a wince as she did so.

In the mirror she saw something no longer exactly sneasel, but neither was it exactly human. It was unnerving, even after almost a moon, to look at herself at all. Let alone with the degree of attention Dr. Collett sometimes required of her.

“Dusk, I’d like you to describe what you see.”

“I know, I know,” replied Dusk, a tiny growl in her throat. “I see…”

She saw a creature both profoundly strange and unsettlingly familiar, that she tried to think of as a separate being, despite it being caught in a mirror. She saw a body that was stretched out far past its natural height, clothed in the attire of humans like some tasteless joke—dark-grey shorts and a white sleeveless top; nothing like sneasel handiwork— and vulnerable for want of its naturally formidable claws. She saw herself.

She knew in her mind that the reflection was her own; it moved when she moved and it shared her features. She just didn’t feel it in her bones yet. Maybe she never really would. Maybe, she didn’t even want to.

“I see… strange creature, tall like humans, hands like humans, but not human. Blood-feathers at the ear and tail like sneasel, white-fur like tundra sneasel, but not sneasel. Some-thing differ-ent. Some-thing new.”

Dr. Collett nodded, her face visible in the mirror over Dusk’s shoulder. “That’s a more measured reaction than last time, Dusk,” she said.

Dusk nodded, and shivered her feathers a little. It was always too warm in Collett’s office, and her blood-feathers could only do so much to keep her cool. “Seeing my-self is normal now,” she explained. “May I go?”

“Well, before our next appointment, I’d like you to focus on seeing the changes in yourself as positive.”

“Didn’t choose to have the Shift to feel good about my-self,” snapped Dusk.

“Still, I hope you give it a try. I’ll see you next time, Dusk.”

Dusk gave her a lazy two-fingered salute.

[See ya.]

XxX​

Dusk had a few hours before her next assignment, so she took to pacing the polished corridors of the facility and glancing at her distorted reflection in the plaques on each office door she passed. Catching sight of her face, she could mistake it for that of an ordinary sneasel. Looking directly at it, she saw an otherness about her eyes, her mouth, her skull. Something not quite right.

Her claws clacked against the hard flooring with each step in a comforting rhythm. The repetition sounded hypnotic in a way, until she heard blunter footsteps from around the corner and turned to see a human approaching her in long, easy strides. With amber-brown skin and a charcoal-brown mane barely kept in a thick ponytail, her narrow face was easy to recognise among the paler complexions and shorter hairstyles of most Perihelion staff. Every morph in the facility probably knew her: recruitment officer Alisha Renadier, the only human Dusk knew who continually communicated in pokésign. Dusk could recognise her by sight alone, not even needing to smell her.

“Hey there, Dusk!” called Alisha, signing the words as she spoke them with one hand, while the other hefted a satchel bag. “Not got anywhere better to be?”

Dusk answered with a shake of her head. [Nah.] Inside she felt a twinge of envy that a human could sign as well as her with only a single hand. “No,” she added verbally, a moment later.

“Me neither,” said the human, with a smile of her own.

Dusk shrugged and fell into step beside her. The woman was more than a full head taller than Dusk and had authority over many of the other humans, but she had a knack for putting morphs at ease. Even Dusk felt it. It was something about her eyes, maybe; Alisha didn’t stare the way most humans did.

“Where are we headed?” asked Alisha.

It wasn’t a ‘real’ question, Dusk knew. What she really meant was something close to ‘is there a way I can help you?’ Dusk considered this for a moment before replying.

[I want to see another like me,] she signed. [One still growing.] It was a complex series of hand motions, head tilts and ear twitches, but Alisha was fluent.

“Ah… you mean another morph, right? A morph still in the process of changing.”

“Yes,” she said, grinning wider at her success in being understood.

“Hmm. Alright. I don’t see why not. Besides, I have admin work in the tank bay.”

Alisha led Dusk without further interrogation to the bay, as if it were a routine destination and not somewhere sacred where living things were fundamentally altered, body and mind. The polished concrete floor changed from the warm swirls of the residential block to clean grey and green angular patterns of the morphing wing. The Perihelion logo was stained onto the pattern every forty paces or so: Galarish runes in white, on a black hexagon rimmed with gold. Every morph uniform bore the same icon, including her own. Alisha spoke up, and Dusk dropped her line of thought as she tried to keep up.

“A lot of active tanks were only recently filled,” the woman was saying, “so the morphs in those are practically ordinary pokémon, but we’ve got one on the way who went in shortly after you. She’ll be ready to meet you soon.”

“She will be like me?” asked Dusk.

“Like you? As in, similar? Well, it depends on how you see it. As social dark-types, your temperaments might be similar, and physically you’re pretty close. A feline-morph isn’t so different from a mustelid-morph. If you want a serious answer then you should ask one of the science staff, but I’m sure you two will hit it off just fine!”

“Feel-ain?”

“Feline. You know, like cats? Like a meowth. This one’s a purrloin.”

“Don’t know purrloin.”

“Well, you’re about to!”

Alisha came to a stop at a pair of sliding doors. She swiped her key card in the lock beside them and they opened onto the bay—where morphs were made. Dusk brushed past the furniture and equipment by the door. An infinitely more fascinating sight lay ahead of her.

Suspension tanks filled the room, spaced evenly apart in several rows. There must have been at least a hundred in total. Glass cylinders reaching from floor to ceiling, filled with greenish fluid through which bubbles drifted up, distorting the appearance of the creatures inside. The internal lighting of many tanks cast a faint, green-tinted glow on the surrounding floor. She stepped forward, hardly breathing.

The lit tanks contained what used to be pokémon.

Dusk wandered past them as Alisha set her bag down by an office desk near the door. Cables fixed to the subjects’ bodies linked each one to the socket at the top of their tanks. All wore some sort of mask around their mouths, she guessed to allow breathing. Most unsettling of all, each one was in some stage of bodily alteration. She took a walk around the morphing ward while her guide was busy and, as she’d been told, most of the hybrids were only subtly altered. Elongation of limbs, narrowing of torsos, something different about the jaw. Just enough to be obvious. She noticed more changes in the species she knew better. An eevee in one tank, curled up in apparent sleep, had hind legs twisted at the hip to support an upright gait. In another slept a noibat with their wings wrapped tightly around their body, their tiny clawed digits at the wrists and wingtips already shifting. Soon, they would resemble human fingers.

The changes all seemed to progress together in tiny increments. Bodily proportions altered to resemble a human’s, many of them increased in size overall, facial features warped in some cases to fit a more rounded cranium. She kept walking, taking note of how the morphs in each row tended to be at a similar stage of development. Until less than a moon ago, Dusk had been in one of these tanks. She must have looked like this, once.

Dusk soon came to the one Alisha must have meant, the only morph left in a row about two-thirds across the room. The next row contained subjects with changes too imperceptible to notice. Dusk faced a nearly-complete pokémorph, almost as tall as a human, with well-defined hands and an entirely upright posture. Large, triangular ears and a flexible tail ending in a curved hook: not exactly what Dusk expected, but definitely the ‘purrloin.’

[Is that what I looked like?] Dusk signed, keeping her gaze fixed on the pokémon—person?—in front of her as she did. Head tilt, indicative gesture, hand motions around the face, pointing to the heart.

Dusk got no answer, so she asked aloud: “I looked like her, before?”

Alisha looked up from her desk. “Mm? More or less, yeah. You went through the same thing, after all. She’s changed plenty already, but the process will keep going until she catches up with you.”

The pokémon in the tank was not much smaller than Dusk, a fully transformed morph. She didn’t resemble a meowth at all—her fur was too short, not at all like bedraggled, steel-wool meowth fur. It was prettier, too; her mottled black-and-orange coat was glossier and more colourful than a meowth’s. Dusk wondered if all purrloin had such an appearance, or just this one.

She took a step closer and examined the morph-to-be. There were obvious differences between the two of them. That long, thin tail for example, and their opposite hues. Still, the similarities seized her attention. Human-like arms. A body covered in fur. Fingers tipped by claws. Dusk wished this one would open her eyes so that she could see whether those, too, resembled her own.

“What is the name of her?” she asked, not looking away.

But the human wasn’t paying attention, already lost in her work. Dusk shrugged, and kept her attention on the purrloin morph for a while. She found herself imagining what she might say to her when she woke up. Would it be it best to introduce herself in Galarish, or in pokésign? There was no way this one would understand sneasel speech, and Dusk didn’t know if purrloin even had their own language, but either sign or Galarish would be a safe bet. Even if the cat wouldn’t be able to fluently reply.

What would this one think of her? Would she think anything of her? Dusk had no idea about her personality. She searched the purrloin’s face for evidence of an animating spirit, something that would tell her what kind of person was inside. Was the purrloin’s head slightly tilted? Asking about something? Perhaps she was an inquisitive sort. That would be nice.

Did it even matter? She’d get by no matter what. Was there any use in wondering?

Well for one thing, this cat was the next morph due to fully change. A ‘feline’ morph, not so different from her. One to whom Dusk’s experience of being part-human would be similar. They would understand each other, yes? It made enough sense. This was about wanting allies, naturally. She just wanted someone like her, who wouldn’t be too distant to have a friendship.

At least, she hoped so. She was used to lacking peers; it would be a worse loneliness to have a peer who remained a stranger.

“Time to go, Dusk.”

“Already?”

“Yeah, really sorry to cut this short. Something came up. After you, mate.”

Dusk padded out and the human locked the doors behind them. She thought of asking questions—do you know anything about the purrloin? What is she like?—But Alisha was already pacing off, staring down at her phone at something more urgent than Dusk’s anxious curiosity.

She headed off to the hub, wondering if she should do some extra training, or find out something in the library about purrloin to help make a good impression. She really needed to start making better first impressions.

XxX​

Each time Salem woke from sleep (if she was sleeping at all—her dreams felt like memories, and when she woke, it felt like a dream) it got a little easier to remember she was in the tank. Her vision became a little clearer. Her thoughts, too. Each time began with choking, then struggling, then opening her eyes. She would realise her situation anew when she saw the ward, green-soaked by the tank fluid. She looked down at the room as if from a height, held in the tank as always.

This time she was just barely lucid enough to notice alien intrusions in her flesh. A tube from above pierced her chest. Another pierced her neck. More connected to the breathing mask. Others that she couldn’t see. They hung her, held her in this half-dream, half-death. She pawed weakly at a cable and felt it tug inside her. She would never have the strength to remove it. Maybe that was for the best. Maybe the cables were what was remaking her.

She hadn’t expected to wake at all while the humans remade her body. This wasn’t right. Something could be wrong with the tank, with the transformation, with Salem. Thinking about it only got harder, and soon she fell back into darkness.

Salem drifted in and out of unconsciousness, her eyes never open long, her mind clinging only to a droplet or two of memory from her dreams or her final days as her former self. Her dreams poured through her head: human faces and her own; watching from a distance as her own body stood on two legs; needles; being held tightly, too tightly; blood and hunger and cold. Dreams of fighting. Dreams of losing.

When she woke to the room, she would glance around for someone she knew. A couple times, she thought she could see Alisha as a momentary hazy glimpse past the water and the tank, or detect her scent. Surely a delusion. How could she smell anything but the dead scent of rubber, the mask fitted to her face? Still, she kept searching for Alisha’s face past the tank glass.

Her reality was fleeting. Her eyes lied to her. Now she lay in the infirmary bed from before, but the room had changed. Curtains drew close around her. Dangling containers fed fluids into her arm. Patches of fabric and metal circlets adhered to her body. Clean sheets covered her legs. She understood none of it. She closed her eyes and continued to wait out this incomprehensible ordeal.

Now she floated in the tank again. Where the wires touched her skin, it tingled with a bizarre sensation, a little like the way her pads had felt on icy pavement. More numb than truly cold. The wires went up overhead and she could vaguely make out glass canisters of liquid fixed to the top of the tank.

She was changing. She found it hard to perceive, hard to concentrate, but she could tell. Even through the clouds in her mind, she felt her body aching, saw it stretching out below her, tall and upright. Her tongue rested awkwardly in her mouth, impossible to feel comfortable with. Her muscles twitched at irregular intervals. Her extremities kept itching. Even her heart had changed. The beat against her ribs was slow and powerful, like the heavy thumping of human footsteps. A human heartbeat. She could hear it as a steady pounding in her head, slower than could possibly be right. She’d known she would change, but she’d thought of what she’d seen of evolution in normal pokémon, of instant growth and light. This wasn’t pokémon evolution that she was going through. It was a slow and gradual change. Like ageing. Like the growth of trees.

Once, she woke up and tried to stretch, and she waved her paw in front of her face as she did. Her foreleg—her arm, it would be her arm—burned as she held her paw up, but she held it there all the same, to see the way her digits were lengthening. She tried to flex them, and they cramped up, making her whimper—a whimper that sounded strange in her head, a whimper that felt odd as it formed in her throat. It never arrived at her ears past the mask and the fluid; she heard it inside her own skull.

She could see her paws nonetheless: pads pulled apart from each other and joints stretched out too far. They were neither paws nor hands now. They were ugly, useless, halfway things. Too stubby and crude to grasp with, but elongated enough that they would probably be hard to walk on. She imagined them stuck like this—useless for all but the most crude pokésign. She dared not move them much. They might stop growing.

She tried to tell how long she’d been this way. Days? Moons? Seasons? Hard to guess, impossible to know. Electric lights illuminated the room from overhead in place of a dimming sun. No windows. No way to measure the suns and moons. As her ordeal went on, she tried to track time by remembering details: what level the fluid canisters were at, how many plasters she wore on her arm and where, how much further below her body her hind paws—feet—had stretched. She tried to count how many times these details changed and found that she always lost count after three or four.

It never got easier to focus, to stay awake, or to control her body, but it did get easier to think. She struggled, but it became possible to hold an idea without her thoughts bleeding out of her head. The mental fatigue had become less raw, more like an irritating scab than a fresh cut. First it was just that her thoughts were clearer. Then she could recall details more readily. At last she was certain: the drip that fed into her arm had been changed six times since she started counting, half as many times as the plaster where the tube that bit her arm had been changed. She was certain too that she’d never recalled so many distinct moments at once. It was as if she’d slept her whole life away, to finally awaken in the tank.

Holding many memories in her head to compare thrilled her enough, even through the continual, subdued panic of her submersion. If she could breathe freely, it would have stolen her breath just to consider something she’d heard and at the same time consider its context. At least, without the memory streaming out of her brain like water off her paw. More overwhelming still was the ability to think about both how she felt about something, and why she felt that way. The difference between remembering and understanding… She likened it to the difference between drinking water, and actually tasting it. For the first time, she could taste her thoughts. For the first time, she could ask herself…

‘Why didn’t I wait for Laura? What if she came back and found me gone? Will I ever see her again?’

That was right. She had only ended up here in the tank, changing, because she’d left home however many moons ago. Why? Why had she done that? Hadn’t she realised that if she left, she might not ever find her way back? Of course she hadn’t. She’d been a purrloin. She couldn’t have known how to plan ahead for the consequences of her actions.

Was she going to be able to plan ahead now?

These thoughts did not thrill her. They terrified her.

She could not escape the dark panic that came with such thoughts while remaining conscious. So she sought sleep again, and despite the cold bruise flowering in her chest, despite the burning of her skin and eyes, she found it. With sleep came an escape from these new and jagged ideas. Her dreams changed, too. She spoke fluent Galarish in a conversation with humans, full and plentiful sentences spilling out of her mouth like water from a tap. She stood as tall as them, and they met her eyes. They listened. They understood. She couldn’t make sense of her words, and when she tried to pay attention to the way her tongue moved to produce them, the dream wavered and reality threatened to pull her out of it. She stopped trying to listen to her own voice and willed the dream to continue. So long as she didn’t concentrate, she kept speaking. She would speak forever.

Salem dreamed of talking to Laura, but the words were trapped in her throat and she choked on them, unable to make a sound. She dreamed of pokémon she’d met. Of signing with the mienshao from the pokémon shelter, fluently and at length. Of hissing at the glameow tomcat she’d seen as a stray. Of walking beside Church, the gentle gogoat-morph she’d met on her arrival. A hybrid she didn’t recognise, her red-rimmed mouth stretched wide and full of teeth, speaking to her, saying “well, soft cat, Salem, good well, all and happy.” The words swam in her ears, utterly meaningless but good, so good and so comforting.

When she woke next, the ward’s lighting shone dimmer than before. A torrent of thoughts hit her, saying ‘is my body any different today,’ and ‘where’s Alisha is she here,’ and ‘Laura lied to me why would she do that,’ and ‘I’m going to live like this for the rest of my life,’ and ‘can I still become a liepard,’ and ‘I have never been this tired in my entire life.’ Not just feelings or half-concepts, but full, clear thoughts. A half dozen at once. Now a dozen. Bright, painful, beautiful thoughts.

The green-soaked shadow of a human moved past her tank, unseeing and barely-seen.

Salem’s body ached in every possible place: in her stomach and her limbs and her head and her pads and her eyes. Even her fur seemed to be hurting, impossible as that was. Once she’d paid attention to the cacophony of hurt she decided that the blunt pain behind her eyes was the worst of it. Still she made herself lift her forepaw in front of her face just to examine it one more time, as was her habit whenever she awoke.

Five distinct digits, each long, dexterous and complete. A hand. An almost human hand, albeit still covered in dark fur, still with firm carpal pads, and still tipped with curved cat’s claws, but a hand all the same. One that could do everything a human hand could. A hand that could do anything at all.

She curled her fingers into a fist, and squeezed. Her claws extended, and dug into her palm, but it felt more wonderful than painful. She’d never had such reach, such dexterity. She tried to flatten out her hand, then to waggle her fingers individually. The experimental flexing ached awfully, but the satisfaction overwhelmed the discomfort. Nothing had ever satisfied her so much. Not a meal, a warm bed, nor even a victory. This was the only moment that mattered.

These were her hands. Her hands. Hers.

Salem brought her other hand above her head, and the sudden effort made her pass out again. When she came to, the lighting was no different and she remained alone. She attempted a ginger, awkward stretch, and though her body complained in a chorus of aching bones and sore muscles, she felt faintly better for it. Simply floating where she was and listening to her body did not tell her much about the fullness of the changes she’d endured. All that she could be sure of besides her completed hands were her new size and proportions. Her size! She easily filled the tank. She could never fit curled up on a pillow now. Or squeeze inside cupboards. Or have her body stroked in one smooth motion from forehead to tail-tip.

Perhaps, though, she could do other things. Maybe even better things.

Salem waggled her hind-paws like her hands and to her vague surprise, they felt much the same as they’d always done. She tried flicking her tail and found that it was still very much there, hanging weightlessly in the tank fluid. That came as a relief. She couldn’t have accepted the loss of her tail. It seemed her limbs stayed her own.

Her investigations continued, and for the first time it made sense why Laura had always made lists of things. With a human mind, you could feel satisfaction at so many things at once! Salem checked off items on an imaginary list as she tested each body part. She began to explore with her hands, starting with her face. Her fur remained, but the shape of her head was altered. Oh, she still had the same nose it seemed, and she discovered her ears where they’d always been, but the bones… the structure of her skull felt unfamiliar. New brain; new head to keep it in.

A new brain. She would think differently now. Be different. A different person. That could mean anything. Now her new brain screamed at her with thoughts and memories and sensory input and fear and pain and tiredness and everything, everything, everything at once without letting up. She tried to gasp, but it died in her chest. She couldn’t bear to think about her own thoughts, not yet. Not for now.

She couldn’t gasp, not properly. The mask that gave her breath also muted her. But gasping reminded her that she’d been promised a voice. Even with her jaw muzzled, she could move it as if she were trying to speak. She put a hand to her throat and tried to feel it vibrate as she mimicked human noises in the complete silence of the tank. She heard her own hums and whines in her skull like before, and she ached with yearning as her throat ached with effort.

Every part of her body hurt to touch, from her neck to her abdomen. Her gut churned when she pressed into it. Her muscles cramped as she felt them. She felt as tender as if her entire body was nothing but a person-shaped wound. But the important part wasn’t that she felt like one enormous wound. It was being shaped like a person.

Even overwhelmed by pain and exhaustion, she wanted to cry out with joy, to run and jump and climb, to roll about and stretch her limbs right out to their limit. Her fatigue rose to match her joy; she was so tired that it hurt. The emotions, the mental fog, the bodily pain, all of it was too much. This was too much, and she should be dreaming. She could still be dreaming even now, but for her newfound and unstoppable-unyielding-unrelenting ability to think and perceive and remember all together. Her eyes hurt from an unfamiliar pressure and her face contorted involuntarily as for the first time in her life, she managed to cry.

She knew what crying was, of course. Laura had sometimes sobbed into Salem’s flank after difficult days, but Salem had never understood it. She understood it now, her chest heaving and her arms closing around her body as tears welled up in her eyes and dissipated instantly into the hazy green liquid of the morphing tank. Her sobs were silent, but each one hit her bruised frame like a tackle. She let them happen, some part of her relishing the new and entirely human experience even amid the pain.

Eventually, she passed whatever threshold she had for endurance and passed into sleep once again.

The process granted her no further conscious moments in which to think and feel. Only a fleeting mist of faint, tiny memories.

Green shadows outside the tank.

The roar of draining liquid.

“Looking good, no problems here.”

Gravity, absent too long, making its unwelcome return.

“There we go. It’s okay. It’s okay, kitten.”

The clashing scents of the waking world filling her nose.

“Salem? Salem, can you hear me?”

Her tongue, finally at ease in her mouth.

“I hear you.”
 
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Thanks to everyone for their reviews! I'm so sorry for the enormous delay in replying, but I've been having a rough time of it for a while now. I will be writing Different Eyes' 2020 revision for NaNoWriMo this year, and hope to publish quite a lot of new content before 2021. Wish me luck~

I think keeping the stupid “maybe a thing becomes inevitable as soon as you can think of it” line works pretty well with Fuji’s characterisation here [...] Ah yes, thank you for the tweaks you made to this paragraph. The layout of the island is suddenly comprehensible to me now!
I'm glad some of the changes to this are working better now!
(jurassic park scientist voice) let’s fill in the gaps with sex-changing frog dna, this is definitely a good idea which will not cause problems later.
Lmfao it will cause problems.
Ditto being mew clones is still such a good and funny idea! It’s so cute and makes so much sense, and it’s particularly satisfying because on my first read of this my reaction to Fuji talking about mew’s transformation ability was to go “but ditto do that too tho”, so the reveal worked really well there. [...] I do not care how much of a nasty crime man Giovanni is, there is nothing you can say to convince me he isn’t smiling because he thinks the ditto are cute.
I'm so pleased you like this little scene this much. And fine, Giovanni thinks the ditto are cute. It's canon now.
I think I’m having a bad day for suspension of disbelief because I can’t stop thinking about how much nonsense all the science in this fic is. And yet, despite that, it is somehow less nonsense than the science in Pokemon canon?? Absolutely wild.
Don't care about realism this is big science fantasy now lol :3
Jack. Words.
Adam. Fixed 'em.
I love the dynamic these two have. Really just out here yelling “dumbass!!” at each other through a closed door, fantastic.
Yes, I love it too. They're like two steps removed from Hermann Gottlieb and Newton Geiszler tbh.

Thanks again for the beta-reading, motherfucker.

I’ve just read the prologue to this, and absolutely adored it! [...] I really love the richness of the world here [...] Dr Fuji’s emotional journey really works for me too. [...] Giovanni. It’s a big challenge trying to reinvent a children’s cartoon villain convincingly in a more mature work like this, but wow, you really sold it. [...] The Fuji-Katsura relationship is a ton of fun too. [...] these two are so distinct that it plays like an odd couple dynamic. [...] The story’s so good, it’s a struggle to think of any notes! [...]

[...] I’d love to see it made a little more explicit that Fuji’s suspicion that Mewtwo might not be grateful for humanity is because Fuji himself finds humanity so painful. [...] it’s too easy to think Fuji’s just an anxious person, which underserves the theme. But yes! Absolutely amazing work. Excited to read the rest.
Thank you for this lovely review. I'm blown away, honestly! And glad to make such a good first impression. I'm particularly happy to get a review praising the parts of the prologue of which I'm most fond! It's much appreciated. You're quite right that Fuji feels more anxious than morally torn at times, but I'm hoping to remedy that over time. The rest is coming, albeit on a wildly inconstant schedule. Cheers!

[...] In that opening paragraph for the second part, I can already picture the whole damn thing animated. I now understand the 'less is more' lesson far better. My hat is off to you. [...] Ditto being a Mew's clone is a theory that's been circulating around the fandom since years. [...] Giovanni - this one is a ruthless man with conviction, one that I can imagine'd crush Red under his heels. [...] NITPICKING [...] The canon has it that the laboratory was destroyed and the scientists killed, but I wonder will there be any change to this now? [...] Giovanni was established as a reall threat - when we do the jump 24 years ahead, will he still be in a position of power? Or has him loosing it paved way to some diffirent sort of plot? [...]
Thanks for this. In particular, your nitpicking was handy in pushing a quick fix to the chapter to iron out any remaining errors. I'm delighted to have left such an impression! I'm going to treat your speculation as rhetorical rather than spoil the fic, but suffice to say I have a plan for those elements which you've commented on here~ Thanks again.

I agree with comments above; Giovanni is excellent. The one moment where he seemed almost empathic was interesting--was it genuine? [...] Katsura is great, although going by canon his plan doesn't fully work considering what happens in the lab/Cinnabar Mansion.
Hey, cheers. Giovanni does have a little empathy in this, mostly for things that remind him of his own weak spots. The Mewtwo Project in DE doesn't quite go according to any of the various canons, so you'll see later on how it differs.

*I recall you mentioning Pokésign in the worldbuilding thread; it's an intriguing idea.
*So it seems that Salem at least seems closer to humans in terms of thought proceess than a regular animal [...]
*Poor Salem comes across as rather naive about what being human is actually like, [...]
*I do find it a little odd that there's a cartoon in the universe that seems to stick so closely to the anime from what we've read about it so far--mainly if Pokémon were real I imagine they wouldn't have the pokéspeak thing.
*I'm not sure if I've previously seen a Pokémon run away from their human partner partly because of them not being a competitive trainer (though it's clearly a bit more complex than that and even Salem isn't entirely sure why she left).
Ah, looks like you've read the old Chapter One. It's still almost entirely canon to the 2020 rewrite, so that's no trouble. I'm glad you liked it!
Salem absolutely has a fairly flawed understanding of human affairs, which is one of the underpinnings of her story in the first third of the fic. I've rewritten this content for a later chapter to make it clearer that Salem leaves because she is, essentially, neglected. She's suffering from animal stereotypy behaviours, like neurotic grooming.
As for the cartoon, it mostly serves as a way to outline how different this fic is from canon. The explanation for why pokémon in the cartoon say their names instead of signing is the same as in the real world: budgetary limits and marketing strategies. It's expensive to animate sign language, and it's easier to sell toys if kids can't forget what the names of characters are.
Thanks again!
 
Chapter 2: First Words
Author's Note:

2020 certainly was a rough year. I haven’t made the chapter updates I wanted to, but progress has continued apace with the back end of the fic. I have an increasingly comprehensive outline, even more buffer material, and at long last, this chapter. It was a tough one to get right, due to how many elements I’m balancing within it, but I trust my efforts were worthwhile. I hope you enjoy it!

N.B. If you’re an older reader and you’re confused to be getting a notification for Chapter 2 when you’ve read further on than that already, please be aware that last year I began redrafting the fic according to a new outline. You may need to double back and read the new prologue and first chapter

Chapter Changelog:

2021/01/28: Tightened up the prose a little and added chapter art!

1d0d1cceb90ab38a8cbc0f10edc2f7f0c4048cfe.jpg

Chapter 2

First Words

Dusk

“Let me in.”

“What? No. Only staff—essential staff—are allowed in for this.”

“I know. Let me in any-way.”

The human shook his head and shooed Dusk away, with that insufferable facial expression the guards in the facility all seemed to wear. She signed furiously at him, trying to explain that a morph should see someone like them when they wake up, that she could help, that she could better put the new morph at ease, but his face maintained blank incomprehension, and he put a hand to a pokéball at his waist. She made a sign with one finger that he’d definitely understand, and stormed away.

Or at least, she began to. Alisha was coming the other way down the corridor. So, she was the purrloin’s recruitment officer as well as Dusk’s. They met halfway, with Dusk already calmer.

“Al-i-sha. Hello.”

“Hey there, Dusk. Figured you’d keep me company again today, huh?”

Dusk offered her a sharp grin and shrugged. “Don’t care about that. Want-ed to give new morph some-one good to look at. Ha?”

Alisha chuckled. “Of course. Well, you already know I can’t let you in. Sorry, mate.”

“O-kay. What can I do?” Dusk frowned at the vagueness of her own words, and resorted to signing: [I am frustrated. I cannot enter this place. I don’t know what to do.]

Alisha smiled gently and hefted her satchel bag. “I’d talk this out, but they’ve been waiting on me awhile now. Hey, how’s this: if you want me to pass anything along to this morph, you just let me know, okay?”

Dusk tilted her head. “Pass things. Give objects?”

“I was thinking messages, but yeah, gifts are fine. Just don’t take it the wrong way if she doesn’t like them.”

“O-kay. Yes. ‘Gifts.’ Let’s do gifts.” Dusk put her claws to her chin and thought for a moment. “What is her name, Al-i-sha?”

“Oh, I’m not telling,” Alisha teased. “I mean for one, don’t you remember what I told you when you woke up? You should have the opportunity to choose a new name to go with your new identity. I'll give this one the same choice when she’s conscious. Once she chooses, then you'll get to know.”

Dusk rolled her eyes theatrically, but she smiled, too. Alisha was right, of course. Dusk was glad that other morphs didn’t know her given name, and it was only fair.

“Alright then, mate. You take care, yeah?”

Dusk nodded and gave Alisha her casual salute, which the human answered with a peace sign before approaching the ward.

Gifts. Okay. She could do that. It wasn’t the same as making an impression in person, but it was a first step toward friendship, and she’d given gifts before. Sneasel typically gave gifts of choice meat cuts, carved tools, or beautiful stones, but none of those were available. What she did have was a lot of saved credit at the rec store.

Yes, she’d find something a morph going through recovery would enjoy.

XxX​

Salem

I hear you.

That’s what she tried to say, as she emerged at last from the hazy half-consciousness of the tank. Instead, it came out as messy, useless noise. Was she not trying hard enough? She tried again and made a strangled yowl. Her throat felt hot from shame, and dry from the air rushing into her aching lungs.

Her head hurt. No—everything hurt.

She opened her eyes. Blinked against the brightness—

Not brightness. Colours?

The world was different now. New colours. Bright colours. Her eyes swivelled in her head, jolting from one alien hue to another. That shirt. That hair. Colours she’d never seen. Never could have imagined. To see so many of them, all at once—too much to take in. She didn’t even face towards them, her eyes just raced—she was dizzy. She felt sick. Too strange. Too new! Too much!

She screwed her eyes shut and wailed against the visual din.

Alisha was talking, but she couldn’t get the meaning of the sounds over the pain and the panic and—

That feeling. That difference. Even with her eyes shut against the world, she could tell.

Her body was not the same.

It felt distant. Stretched-out. Heavy. Impossibly heavy.

She looked down, and saw her altered form laying before her. Human sized. Human shaped. Covered in fur as always, in patterns she knew well. Her body. Yet, not.

This was it—the whole point of being here. Her wish.

She stared at it. Tried to move all at once and found she didn’t know how. She needed to see. Her head spun as she lifted it.

That was her arm, right there. Human-sized, aching bone-deep, pierced by a tube full of liquid. But certainly her arm. Her arm, and at the end of it, her hand. Right? She raised it. It took more effort than she expected, as if it were someone else’s limb. She held it still until it began to shake with the effort. She tried to splay her fingers, and they twitched in front of her, useless. Out of her control. She tried yanking out the tube and found she had neither the strength nor the pain tolerance.

What if… Could she get up? What if she couldn’t move? She needed to be upright. Now.

She tried to flip onto all fours, something she’d done countless times. Pain. Failure. Her body lurched and spasmed; her muscles screamed at her. She gasped, fell back with an audible thump, flinched, cried out in a voice that wasn’t her own.

Around her, someone was talking, but she couldn’t think, she couldn’t listen, she needed to get up—

—a hand pressed gently against Salem’s shoulder, and brought her collapsing down again. Flat on her back, her limbs jerked weakly against the padded railings at the side of her bed. She was exhausted within moments.

“It’s gonna be okay, Salem.”

Above her was Alisha’s face. Smiling widely, with muscles relaxed and eyes creased. That was good, right? Salem checked again. She didn’t trust her intuition. Yes. Alisha was happy, not distressed. Maybe this was normal. Other pokémon-humans must have struggled too! Things were okay, she would get to speak. Soon she would speak. Next to Alisha were the humans from her medical tests. How could she know that? Had she really recognised them by sight alone? She’d only seen their faces once before, and hadn’t even got their scent at the time. She didn’t understand.

Behind the small crowd of humans were clean white walls, equipment she recognised from pokémon centre checkups, and several beds much like her own. They were clearly visible at a surprising distance, more in focus. The contrast between light and shadow sharper. The colours richer. She shrank back from it all. Her vision was drowning her.

“It’s okay, you can close your eyes.”

No. She was weakening, but so was the feeling of wrongness, of being in a body she didn’t understand. She fixed her eyes on Alisha and wished she could read human faces the way she could read feline body language.

“How are you feeling, Kitten?” asked Alisha.

She started to reach to sign, then stopped. She wanted to speak. She forced her mouth into the shapes that she thought were right. What was the thing Alisha had done when she said “feeling?” Teeth against her lower lip. Something with her tongue. She wasn’t sure.

“Fee— oh— I—”

The words died in her mouth. She was so close! It hurt to be so close. But even if she knew how to make the sounds, how could she have explained herself? She felt too much, too many things at once—a storm inside her head! Each sound and scent raised more thoughts and more memories than she could cope with, and emotions too, flowing and flooding and breaching every part of her brain with the weight of her feeling. Too much; too much!

“Take it steady, Salem. You can stay calm, just keep still and you should start to get used to it.”

She gasped and panted, clutching at the bed as if she was about to float away from it. Should start to get used to it? Only should? ‘It’ was her entire existence. If she couldn’t ‘get used to it,’ would she feel this awful forever? Overwhelmed. Breathless. For the rest of her life! She needed to escape, escape from her own lungs— Please— A way out, please—

“Salem, try to take big breaths. You can do it. One at a time, now. Slowly.”

She tried. Breathe in, more, breathe out. Her breath rattled. Inhale, and somehow exhale. Again, again! Slower?—she only knew quick, sharp breaths. Her lungs were so much larger now. She gasped to fill them. Strained. Failed.

“It may not feel like it, but I promise, you can learn to control your breathing. I promise. Keep trying, Salem.”

She took the deepest breaths she could, as if it would brace her against the sensory tide, but could only manage shallow gasps. Fear sunk its teeth into her. She wouldn't manage to handle her new eyes, new body, this was a mistake, she couldn't go back. She wasn’t adapting, she couldn't adapt. She didn’t know how to breathe deeply, contrary to instinct and habit.

Alisha kept speaking to her, but Salem lost her grip on the words. She wanted to feel nothing. Be nothing. She turned to curl into a ball—but couldn’t. Not quite. Was there something wrong? Her back wouldn’t curve all the way. She couldn’t pull her legs all the way up. Why? Was she broken?

Yet, to her tearful relief, turning on her side did help. It took pressure off her chest, allowed more air in, let her breathe easier.

It took time and continuous coaching from Alisha, but she did it. For the first time in her life, she breathed in, deep, held it. And out. What more might she be capable of, with time? She wasn’t her old self; she was new. Maybe with her new eyes, body, brain, she could adapt. There were unfamiliar difficulties in being half-human, but there were also new strengths.

She found something behind the fear. Something different. And it let her breathe.

Alisha talked to her, guiding her breaths and inviting her to control each part of her body in turn, to understand how it had changed, to take her time in experiencing the strangeness of it all. To welcome each thought and feeling one at a time.

She tried. It seemed to take a lifetime. Somehow, she managed.

Once the tide started to subside, it became almost… fun. Now fingers. Now toes. Now ears, still able to pin back against her skull and turn towards Alisha’s snapping fingers. Now tongue, strange and unfamiliar in her mouth, but nevertheless under her control.

It was going to be alright. She was going to be okay. This was really happening. All she’d hoped for… within her reach.

She opened her eyes.

“Feeling better now, Kitten?”

Speech could wait. An affirmative miaow would do. She sounded mostly like normal, but… her voice had deepened.

“Sounds like you are,” said Alisha, smiling.

With some coaxing, Salem rose from the bed and from her stupor. Sitting took effort. Her body felt heavy and distant. She’d much rather be curled up in a ball, but sitting helped with communication, so she struggled on. She felt stable, at least: her faintness subsiding; her breath even; her exhaustion possible to bear. She did, however, have to make several adjustments to her tail’s resting position before it became tolerable.

“Feels like nothing else has in all your life, right?” said Alisha.

Salem blinked slowly and nodded. Alisha blinked slowly back.

“Trust me,” Alisha told her, “it might be pretty overwhelming now, and you’ll need time before everything feels normal, but it’s worth it. It’s so worth it. You’re gonna be able to do almost anything at all. There aren’t many people like… many people like you, you know? With your potential. Mind and body both somewhere between human and pokémon… it’s exciting, right? You’re in good company, Kitten. You’ll be just fine.”

Salem drank it all up, wide-eyed.

Everything would be okay. Everything would be fantastic. She could handle herself. Learn. Even be special.

She raised a weary arm and signed: [Thank you. Friends.]

Something went wrong along the way, because her hands didn’t go where she expected them to, and the motions were vague and amateurish. She could sign better than this. She tried again and just barely got the signs to form. Was she just tired? Yes, she was only tired.

The clumsy signing must have amused Alisha, because she looked down and to the side, and chuckled. “Sure, Kitten,” she said.

Salem concentrated. Aligned her arms with great care. Thought it through. [What will happen–?] she managed, before her hands cramped up, and she wrung them, wincing.

“What happens next depends on you,” said Alisha, softly. "You should rest for a good while. Once you're well enough, then we can try teaching you to walk, use your hands, even talk. But first, rest as long as you need. Most morphs take several days to get their strength up. Minimum."

Salem had no energy left, but she wanted to do those things so badly she felt she could substitute the sheer intensity of her desire for actual bodily strength. She concentrated on bringing her hands up in front of her face and making the right movements. She knew what she wanted to say; it was the physical actions that strained her. Her arms now spoke another language, moving in ways she wasn’t used to, and aching as they did. Were they even the same limbs as before? Why was it so hard to make familiar signs? Somehow, she managed.

Paw to her chest, then a clutching motion. [I want.] A motion from her mouth, moving forward. [To speak.] Hand-over-hand motions. [To walk.] More subtle motions now, ending in a raised paw, high as it could go. [I will try as hard as I can.]

They were halting, cautious movements. Her hands hurt and she couldn't figure out how to move her fingers separately yet. It wasn’t anything like what proficient humans like Alisha could manage.

It was still some of the proudest signing she'd ever done in her life.

“Sorry, Kitten. Even bipeds take a few days before they can hope to walk around. You need rest!”

Her tail repeatedly thumped the bed in quiet anger. [Walk. I want to walk. I can.]

“No way.”

She yowled, signed. [I will walk.]

“Not now, Salem–”

[Now!] She hissed as she signed, showing off her fangs.

Before Alisha could decline again, Salem grappled with the guard rails, preparing to throw herself off with or without help.

"Alright!" said Alisha, hauling Salem back over before she hurt herself. “Alright. Let’s give it a shot.” Was she impressed? Concerned? Her expressions escaped Salem. "We’ll start by standing upright. Let's get those legs carefully on the floor, okay? And I do mean carefully."

She unfastened the rails at the bedside and pulled them down. It took time, but Salem managed to swing her hind paws off the bed and dangle them over its edge. Sudden movements made her feel faint and unbalanced, so she placed her pads on the floor and gingerly pushed off from the bed. Alisha steadied her to prevent her toppling over, hands on her torso. Salem stood, tail and arms thrust away from her body to find a precarious balance.

"You’re a purrloin, so you might think this'll be easy just because you've walked on your hind legs before. It's not going to be easy. Your muscles are exhausted, and your centre of gravity is different. If you were another species, I wouldn’t even let you try standing. Okay, follow my lead..."

With Salem’s arm over Alisha’s shoulders, the human took much of Salem’s weight as she took her first steps in her new body. They were shaky, difficult steps, but her swelling pride was worth it. Her chest heaved, and in a moment of surging confidence, she pushed off to take her own weight unsupported. Instead, she fell to the floor like the contents of a jellied meat packet, clutching at Alisha’s arm. Alisha didn’t even wince as Salem’s claws dug for purchase. Salem looked up at her, her throat burning again. As much as it stung, there was no denying that she wasn't ready.

“Don’t worry, Kitten. You did well.”

Alisha helped her back into the bed to do some light sulking, and reassured her that the emergency call button on the bedside table would bring someone if she needed help. Salem raised an arm to sign her thanks, felt faint, and sank back into her pillow.

“Get some rest, Kitten. You’ve got a tough journey ahead of you.”

XxX​

The first thing she asked for upon waking was water, realising as she tried to punctuate her signs with miaows that her throat was still painfully dry. A nurse fetched her a cup. Salem signed a small thanks and held the thing between both hands, lapping carefully at the surface. Her tongue wasn’t so altered that she’d lost that ability. She was just about dexterous enough to tip the water level towards her face, but her arms were still weak, and she spilt some in the effort. She refused help drinking it, of course. There had to be some limit to what she needed assistance with.

If she couldn’t walk, she'd need something to do besides lying in bed. Some mewling and charades earned her a magazine belonging to a human, something with pictures to look at. Mostly pictures of humans. The nurse offered help turning the pages, and she signed a perfunctory [NO]. If she needed help, she would ask. She touched it with her fingertips, and pulled them back as her claws punctured the material. She tried to slide the pages over with only her pads. At first, she couldn’t get the hang of it, and she tore the paper more than once. Gradually, painstaking pawing at the pages taught her how to turn first one, then the next.

She stared at the pages for an age. It was a joy to see fresh colours revealed to her, to soak them all up at once with her newly-altered vision. She cajoled the nurse over to ask him what colours things were by pointing at them and making the sign for [question]. It took a little while, but eventually he found the right answer.

She discovered ‘red’ from the magazine by pointing at a man’s clothes and being patiently answered by the nurse. Red. It had always been there, at least for humans. Now she could actually see it, really see it, instead of perceiving it as identical to orange, brown, even some purples. The change really was not in the world, but in herself. The thought was strange, that her eyes were different now. Forever. She decided she was okay with that. She chose this. She wouldn't regret it.

Although this moment had no precedent in Salem’s life, the nurse seemed to think that he had more important things to be doing. It was a struggle to correct him on this point. It didn’t matter, she was busy grappling with the dawn of a world in full colour. Brighter, richer, more whole. Brimming over with colours she’d never dreamed existed. Like red.

XxX​

She had barely been introduced to this body, and she could get to know it a little better, even bound to her bed as she was. She became consumed with consuming every sensation, even discomfort and pain, that her new form afforded her. Her body’s greater weight pressed her down into the bed. Her fur had the same texture, the same sensitivity. Her pads remained pads, but were more sensitive, softer, and hadn’t grown quite in proportion with the rest of her hands. Neither had her claws, which were broader than before.

She held up a hand and licked the back of it to find that her tongue had lost some of its rasp, and her sense of taste had changed. Her fur was not exactly pleasant to wash, but if her more human-like tongue could afford her the power of speech, it would be more than worth it.

As time passed, Salem kept moving her attention to another change, another hurt. Her eyes hurt, her paws hurt, her belly hurt. None of them felt like they belonged to her yet, but they soon would. She struggled to relax, but she was still a cat, and persistent at achieving comfort. Eventually, she found a position to curl up in that put less strain on her overtaxed body, and managed to sleep.

In her dreams, Salem was running; running on two legs; running for miles and miles and miles; running, and never getting tired.

XxX​

Salem’s second day as a morph—hard to tell how long exactly without seeing the sky—was less intense an experience on her poor eyes, ears, nose and body. With the lack of intensity came boredom, and with boredom came repeatedly scratching at the side of her mattress until the white-coated humans came to perform more of their tests. She knew how they went from last time, during her pre-morphing checkup, but it was a different experience altogether in her new body. She found some satisfaction in forcing them to ask politely for each cooperative movement, rather than letting them handle her as they’d done when she’d been merely a purrloin.

They moved her to a room of her own on her third day, explaining that she needn’t stay in the ward with her health stabilised. She suspected it may also have had something to do with her shredding the mattress, as her new one was resistant to her claws. Though she would have preferred a room with other morphs, or any other people at all, the advantages of her own space were considerable. She could do as she liked, request everything from an illustrated encyclopedia to soft, warm blankets, and as warm as she pleased it to be.

It almost made up for the solitude.

XxX​

Her uniform consisted of dark grey shorts and sleeveless white shirts. They were elastic, fit comfortably, and often had pockets, in which Salem had taken to keeping loose items, when humans left them unattended. She didn’t care for the constraining sensation of fitted clothes, but they also made her feel very human. On balance, that was a positive, so she consented to wear them.

It also came with a hexagonal badge, black with gold trim (Perihelion put gold trim on everything) and a series of flowing white lines in the centre. It looked a little, but not entirely, like a ‘P’ shape. Salem wouldn’t have paid the thing any attention, but it made a pleasant ‘clink’ when tapped with a claw, and it reflected light as a tiny dancing spot on the walls. Making the little dot of light swim around the room provided considerable entertainment.

XxX​

She stirred on what she estimated to be her fourth day as a pokémorph and began by hitting the emergency call button. Nurse Taylor brought her a plate of soft meat first, which she vanished immediately, but she continued to fuss in exaggerated sign to be taught human speech. It took many tries, but since he always answered the button, and she had more persistence than he had patience, he eventually agreed to schedule her first, solo, speech therapy session. It turned out that getting what you wanted from humans wasn’t so hard, once you got the knack of it. If you made enough fuss, and persevered, they’d figure out what you wanted and let you have it.

This technique worked for many things, but it didn’t make it any easier to learn. Learning was what really mattered. Physical therapy tasks were completed with dreamlike slowness. When she held things she generally either dropped them, or crumpled them. Her pencil wouldn’t go where she wanted it to go. Progress was so slow.

XxX​

At first, she was moved around in a wheelchair. Once she stumbled out of it enough times and the nurse pushing her grew tired of lifting a wriggling cat-person off the floor, she was given her first physical therapy session in the hopes of getting her to walk.

She spent hours learning to put one foot in front of the other, supporting herself by leaning heavily on support rails. She spent hours watching television, trying to piece together fragments of spoken language she was unfamiliar with. Hours practising her sign. Hours clasping her hands together and pulling them apart to develop grip strength. Hours learning to make different sounds with her mouth, so she could finally say real words out loud.

Her first word was ‘hello.’ The first several times she said it it came out as ‘HEYiao,’ trailing off at the end like a miaow. Saying it more clearly, with the second syllable clipped and the central consonant clear, took a whole lesson on its own. But it was still recognisably ‘hello.’ It mattered, her teacher told her. It was very important to know how to greet a human using this word.

Lots of things were important, because of what humans wanted. And because humans wanted them, so did Salem.

Her ‘speech therapist’ was a human woman who smiled often. Her name was Jo, which Salem could only say as ‘Yo’ at first, to Jo’s amusement. When she smiled or laughed the skin around her eyes would crease all the way up, like crumpled fabric. Salem tried smiling back, and learnt quickly that smiling was desirable only if you did not bare your fangs excessively when you did so.

She started counting the small victories, since she couldn’t count the moons from these windowless rooms. Walking from one end of physical therapy to the other, supported the whole way. Her delighted discovery that she could substitute a trilled purr for the ‘rr’ sound. Drinking from a cup without dropping it. Her first time drawing a straight line between two points. Her first time making three steps without holding onto the rails. Five steps without rails. Ten. Twenty.

Saying ‘Salem’ properly for the first time (with an actual ‘mm’ sound!) made her so happy her eyes prickled at the corners. Seeing Jo’s delighted smile lead to tears. Another lesson: tears could come from joy.

XxX​

Often, she would stand in front of her bathroom mirror, and practice expressions in it. Some were easy, because they were similar to what she was used to. A snarl was a snarl, even to a human. Smiles were a little harder. Humans had been giving her odd looks when she smiled at them, but lately they’d been smiling back. More subtle expressions were more challenging, even frustrating, but there was a knack to them, and she was determined to get it.

XxX​

Salem pushed herself to learn with such intensity that it left her exhausted each night, though it hardly felt like night when she couldn’t see the moon. Her small victories had become more significant: Her first sentence without pauses. Her first circuit of physical therapy under her own power. Saying ‘Jo’ with a real ‘j’ sound. Understanding a full conversation between two members of staff, without missing a word. Her first step walking entirely unaided. Ten steps unaided. Thirty.

How many moons were passing as she continually exhausted herself and slept each day?

“This is tay-king so long,” she complained to Jo during one session, hating her tongue for every mangled syllable. She lisped a little if she didn’t concentrate, she drawled half her vowels, and she still paused awkwardly on difficult syllables. It was a wonder Jo understood what she was saying without sign. “Wuh-enn will I speak fast-er?”

“Salem,” said Jo with a smile, “it’s only been two weeks. Take it steady, now.”

Two weeks.

Pokémorphs, it turned out, learnt very quickly.

“It’s a temporary benefit of the morphing process,” explained Taylor. “It’ll wear off in a few months, but for the time being you’ll pick things up like crazy.”

‘Like crazy.’ Figurative language, another quirk of human speech.

The following day, she hit two more milestones: walking a full circuit of the physical therapy room unaided, and pronouncing a whole sentence comprehensibly. She took pains and far more time than she could bear to get out the syllables one by one, but she managed to say aloud: “hello, my name is Salem, and I am a pokémorph.”

My name is Salem. And I am a pokémorph. Saying it in the human tongue made it real.

XxX​

Salem’s room was fast becoming covered in posters, providing sorely-needed staring spots. One of the magazines given to her contained a pullout of a map of Galar, which she’d obsessed over for hours. When Taylor noticed and decided to stick it up on her wall, she demanded more like it. The staff were happy to oblige.

XxX​

“Hey, Kitten.”

“Ah-lee-sa!”

“Nice one, you’re really getting those vowels down, huh?”

“Yes!”

“I’ve got a gift for you. It’s not from me, it’s from another morph. A friend of mine. They know you’re having a rough time in physical therapy and wanted you to have this.”

“Oh?”

Alisha took an object from out of her satchel.

It was soft and colourful and flopped when handled. The outer surface seemed to be a loose skin over something rubbery inside.

“Wha-at is thiss?”

“It’s a hot water bottle. You press it against your body. Good for staying warm and soothing sore muscles. Want me to fill it up?”

“…Yeh-ess. Pluh-ees.”

“Okay, Kitten.”

Alisha took the object to the sink and brought it back swollen and warm. Salem took it carefully with both paws, rested it on her abdomen, and sighed contentedly with a little rumbling purr as its heat seeped into her.

“Who…?” she asked.

“Who sent it? Another morph. She said not to make a big deal out of it, though. Guess you have a secret admirer.”

Another morph had sent her something. To help her.

A restlessness built up in Salem’s limbs as she tried to figure out how to ask to see this morph, to thank her. To meet someone going through the same things as her.

“I want… to see the ad-my-ra.”

“Your secret admirer? That’s a hard no, I’m afraid, not until you’re further along in training. Program policy. Your admirer has to stay secret for now.”

“See-kret?”

“Something you don’t know about. Something hidden.”

“You know many seekret?”

“So many secrets, Kitten,” said Alisha, winking.

XxX​

They gave her toys. She expected little squeaky things and dangling ribbons, like Laura used to play with, but these were not that. One was a cube, each face bearing a different novelty—a switch that clicked when pressed, a disk that could be pushed around in circles, a set of wheels that turned with little noises.

She played with them often. Almost constantly, in fact. Even when asked to stop. Her brain was so fast now, speeding from thought to thought, and clicking and pressing and fidgeting helped her focus. It gave her brain something to preen over while she focused on individual ideas. Even so, it was like being cooped up back home, understimulated, with insufficient company, with not nearly enough to see and do.

Any time her mind went unoccupied, it was like she was back there, with Laura gone, waiting.

Well, Salem might not be able to see Laura here, and (she realised with a crushing feeling around her chest) she might never be able to again, but there were plenty of other humans in this place, and they were willing to tend to her. She decided to make the best of it. She took every opportunity to complain and make demands, and the human staff patiently supplied her with diversion.

XxX​

Dreams continued to be her merciful escape from the sustained agonies of physical therapy. In the waking world, she could barely support herself even by gripping railings on either side. She could manage a step or two more with every bout, but it was barely any progress at all.

“You’re doing excellent work. You know, a human in your position could take weeks or months to make this much progress.”

It wasn’t enough. She wanted to run, now, not push through walls of pain and fatigue just to stand unaided.

XxX​

[Good,] signed her pokésign tutor. [Now make all of those signs, one after the other.]

Salem moved her arms and hands and fingers, making the human-specific signs with the same confidence as the imprecise feline signs she’d used since before she could remember. Now, a series of gestures with digits. Now, a sweeping movement. Now, a twist at the wrist and a certain flick.

[Hello, it’s nice to meet you. My name is ‘Pickpocket’. How are you?] they signed in unison.

[Very good!] signed the teacher again. [You are talented at signing. I’m pleased to see it.]

Salem shrugged. That was another human sign she’d learnt. It meant [I don’t know.]

Maybe she was talented. It didn’t feel like enough. She still cringed at her own slowness, her clumsiness.

More practice. She’d get it.

XxX​

“You need to slow down. You’re pushing yourself faster than we have guidelines for. You’re catching up with morphs that completed the Shift weeks ago.”

“That’s good! I want this.”

“I know you’re proud of yourself, but you’ll wear yourself out. You need rest too.”

“I want to learn everything fast. Then I can be happy.”

“I know. I know you feel that way. I’m asking you to be gentle with yourself. To take it steady.”

“I will try.”

XxX​

Salem decided not to ‘take it steady.’ If she was only going to learn at this pace for a few months, she needed to make best use of it while she still could. She started practising something, anything, every spare moment she had.

She did circuits of her room while talking or signing to herself. She counted out the steps, making the signs for each number. She made fuss at one of the staff until he gave her adhesive putty to stick pages from her books and magazines up on the wall, which she would stare at as if she could will them into comprehensibility. It was exhausting, but her teachers seemed impressed. So she kept it up.

She couldn’t bear to stop.

XxX​

“Put your finger to this part of your neck. Okay. Now say ‘ah’, draw it out, yes. You feel the vibration?”

“It isn’t a purr.”

“No, no it isn’t, ha. Well, that’s where your voice is coming from. If you change your voice, you can feel it differently when you press your fingers to your throat.”

“This is so hard.”

“It will feel that way sometimes. Just keep up your exercises. Especially the breath work”

[Okay. I will try.]

“In Galarish, please, Purrloin? This isn’t a pokésign class.”

“Oh-kay. I will try.”

“You’re getting there.”

XxX​

“When will I meet other morphs? When have I made enough progress?”

Alisha shrugged, but she smiled too.

“When I say so. Which I will when I think you’re ready. What do you think, are you ready?”

“Yes! I’m ready.”

“Well, what do your therapists think? What does Taylor think?”

“They… They keep telling me I’m do-ing well. Very well. Al-so, I need rest. But Al-ee-sha, I can rest and also meet morphs.”

“I’ll consider it.”

XxX​

She still couldn’t read. Literacy lessons weren’t to begin until she’d become fluent in spoken language. She did not know how long that might take.

Alisha told her to be patient. Taylor told her to relax. She did her best.

XxX​

Speaking, it turned out, was addictive.

“Salem, say, lemm, say-lemm, Salem Salemm Salemmm-” she hummed to herself as nurse Taylor brought her some supper.

“I see you’re having fun,” he said, with his soft voice she liked to imitate.

“Having fun,” she agreed.

Taylor laid down her plate and said “I have a surprise for you, Salem.”

“A surprise,” Salem murmured, eyes wide.

He revealed a cylinder of paper, unrolled it, and presented it to her outstretched. It was covered in large, brightly coloured letters, each accompanied by a pokémon. Below it was some text, at which she peered as if she would spontaneously understand it.

“It’s an alphabet. It’s for when you start learning to read.”

“Learning to read…”

Taylor explained it, how each pokémon’s common species name began with the letter beside it. ‘A’ for ‘abra.’ ‘B’ for ‘bewear.’ How the sentence at the bottom read “Cyndaquil's job with fake camps vexes Zygarde” and how that was a pangram. How he knew how excited she was for literacy classes and wanted to help.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“Like it…” She reached out and touched it, to make it real. “Yes. I like it very much. Thank you.”

Taylor smiled, and leaned over her bed to press it against the wall, where it held in place.

“Will I learn to read very soon?” asked Salem. She felt out a longer word silently with her tongue before attempting it. “I want to learn to read immediately.”

“Yeah. Tomorrow, actually. You’re being moved up. Not just lessons in reading, but in all sorts of other things, too. All that fun you’ve been having is paying off.”

“Paying off,” she echoed.

“Plus you’re getting moved to the residential wing. You’ll get to meet other morphs.”

“Other morphs…”

Other morphs!

XxX​

“Hey Kitten.”

“Hey, Alish-ah.”

“You looking forward to getting moved up?”

“Yes! Looking forward to it especially.” [Been waiting!]

“Good. So, there’s just one especially important thing to decide before that happens. Every morph gets to choose their name. It’s important. I worked very hard to make sure that was one of the rules, so think about this seriously.”

“I choose my name?” [Really?]

“Yeah. Both your spoken name and your sign name. There’s nothing wrong with keeping ‘Salem’, of course. That’s fine if it’s what you want, a lot of morphs prefer the name they were already used to. Or they keep it to remember the human who named them. But it should be your choice.”

“My choice… I could keep it to remember Laura?”

“If you want, yeah. Or like Church, you could even name yourself after your human. Go by ‘Laura’ yourself. Bit weird if you ask me, but you do you. Pretty sure there’s even a couple morphs here who go by their species names. You need some time to think about it?”

“No, I’ve decided already. My name is Salem. I’m Salem.” [And my sign name is Pickpocket.]

“Sure thing, Salem.” [Good for you, Pickpocket.]

XxX​

Salem’s nights as a morph were often dreamless, but the night before she got ‘moved up’ she dreamed that her words spilled out of her mouth as brightly coloured clouds, which burst against her forepaws, staining them pink. When she woke, she looked at them with a start, and saw that they were still her normal paws.

‘Normal’. They weren’t even paws any more, but hands, right?

She couldn't decide. She flexed her fingers, interlocked them, fanned them, pressed them together, curled them into fists. It felt right. It felt wonderful. It felt powerful.

It did not yet feel ‘normal.’

She didn’t look up at the footsteps that signalled Taylor’s arrival, but her ears swivelled towards first that sound, then the sound of the door handle clicking as he entered the room and saw her still going at her dexterity exercises.

“They’re still the same hands as yesterday,” said Taylor, not unkindly.

Salem nodded, but kept her attention on her hands save for a brief smile in Taylor’s direction. She appreciated the gentle conversations he always offered, but right now they were a distraction from her dexterity exercises. She didn’t know how to explain this to him, but perhaps she’d be fluent enough someday soon. Humans had such powers of communication. Surely they didn’t have problems like hers.

“How are you feeling, Salem?” asked Taylor as he gave her some breakfast.

Salem received the plate with both hands. She rolled her tongue around in her mouth for a moment, getting her verbal bearings before her first sentence of the morning.

“I feel fine. Thank you, Taylor.” It was slow, stilted, but oh! So exhilarating!

Taylor, tale, lore, tayyy-lorrr,” she trilled, playing with the syllables and signing a needle and thread motion as she did.

“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” recited Taylor, in the same patient tone as he’d used the last dozen times.

“Won’t wear it out,” she said, before muttering his name a few more times under her breath.

“Group speech class doesn’t start for a little while yet, but a lot of morphs like to turn up early to get some extra practice in, I guess. Most of them might already be there, so I bet you’ll want to set off now, huh?”

“Yeah!”

Taylor nodded and began unfolding her chair.

“I don’t need that,” she said, immediately.

“Are you sure? You aren’t resting much.”

“Yeah,” replied Salem. “Sure. Yes. I want to walk!”

Taylor didn’t seem convinced. She growled softly and switched to sign. [I know you’re supposed to ask me if I am sure, but I am always sure! Always!]

“Alright, alright! Let’s go, then,” replied Taylor, who could read her animated but truly fluent signing just fine by now. “But I’m bringing your chair along just in case.”

“Yeah!” she said again. It was such an easy word to say that she could say it without pausing to think. It was barely a step up from a miaow, really.

Taylor helped Salem to her feet and once she’d taken a toy from her bedside table, he walked her out.

Salem lifted herself off the bed with haste, before Taylor could walk around to assist her. She put out a hand to press against the wall, steadied herself, and approached the door.

Door handles. So much easier than doorknobs.

She pushed the door wide open to prevent it closing on her tail, and left her room to stand in the corridor outside, arms outstretched, triumphant.

“Did you saw me?” she said to Taylor, behind her. “You should be impressed!”

“Yes, Salem, I saw that,” he replied, laughing.

“Saw that,” she said, under her breath. She’d made an error. Salem had not yet learnt the word ‘embarrassed,’ but she knew what shame felt like.

“Watch me!” she said, resorting to a favourite stock sentence. She slowly performed a 360-degree turn, arms held out for balance.

“How was my thing?” she asked, eyes wide.

“Perfect, Salem!” Taylor laughed again, so perhaps she’d made another error, but his eyebrows said ‘worry’. He probably expected her to topple over, or something equally humiliating. Still, he followed her out. She waited for his cue, and trailed him along the corridor with her fingertips pressed against the wall to aid in balance.

She could walk. She could. Soon enough she’d be running.

Taylor led her further through the facility than she’d ever been. Since her morphing, she’d started to think about space and the relationship between places, and in an afternoon’s focused concentration she’d realised that the whole facility must be enormous. She’d seen only a small part while cooped up in the recovery wing.

They exited the wing into a large, round room, doors spaced along its walls. As they walked across the room, Salem glanced about for scraps of information. Free-standing computers, benches, humans talking, a water cooler, a few pokémon, even a scaled pokémorph passing by.

The residential wing. Where morphs lived after recovery. Where morphs interacted with one another.

She followed Taylor down a corridor smelling of that particular pokémon-human blend, so different after the sterile halls of the recovery wing. She detected a dozen distinct scents, and her body tensed. She was about to be surrounded by her own kind. Her ‘own kind,’ of which she knew almost nothing.

She’d grown fond of Alisha and Taylor and even some of her instructors, but… none were like Laura. Not even Alisha, with all her kindness. Maybe only Laura was like Laura, out of all humans. Morphs, though… Another morph could be like that to her. She felt such a tugging in her chest at the thought of finally meeting someone who could be her friend.

“We’re here,” said Taylor, brightly.

“We’re here?”

He pushed the doors ajar and let her look past them into a space filled with pokémorphs.

XxX​

Dusk

She was the first morph to look up at anyone entering the room, the first to analyse everything she could about arriving humans and morphs and what details she could glean from their appearance, body language, scent. That meant she was the first to see the new morph enter the lounge for the first time, freshly released from individual recovery and accompanied by her handler, that human boy with the soft voice. It had been longer than Dusk had hoped, but she hadn’t forgotten. This was the ‘purrloin’ from the tank bay.

She was a complete morph now, with fully-formed hands and an upright posture and regulation clothing. She’d opted for the basics: shorts and sleeveless shirt. Just like Dusk. The purrloin was broadcasting her anticipation in every possible way: her ears perked forward, her pupils dilated enormously, her tail held high. She was even doing that same head tilt she’d done in her sleep, going through the Shift. She was as expressive a creature as Dusk had ever seen, and her whole body was signing [Huh?].

Dusk tried to catch her eye, winked at her, and made a beckoning sign. [Come here.]

The other morph noticed, and exchanged a few quiet words with her handler. A nod. A couple small signs.

Dusk gestured again, and smiled warmly. [Come here!]

Then the purrloin smiled—a cat’s smile, with mouth and eyes closed—and walked over, a little unsteadily. Dusk kicked out a chair to make it easier for her to sit down, which she did, her body broadcasting ‘inoffensive sociability’ as hard as she could. She signed [thanks,] and waited for Dusk’s lead.

[Hello, welcome,] signed Dusk, grinning.

[Hello,] replied the cat. [Are you a friend?] Then, hesitantly, “Are you… a friend?”

Dusk’s grin got bigger.

“Yeah. I’d like to be, anyway. You got a name?”

The purrloin paused, and flattened her ears ever so slightly for a moment. Then:

“Salem.”

“Salem, huh? Nice to meet you, Salem. I’m Dusk.”
 
Chapter 3: First Impressions
Author's Note:

At long last, an update. This one has been near-complete for a long time, pending some difficult edits, but finally it's ready. The good news is that so is Chapter 4, which should be up very soon. As always, I appreciate any and all feedback!

69de355bcfa98437afe41e9784ece800bf32a314.jpg


Chapter 3

First Impressions

Salem drank it in, all the while staring at the morphs inside. Each one a mystery. Each one an opportunity and a risk.

The room was larger than the offices and bedroom Salem was used to, but felt much smaller with a dozen or more morphs inside. Just standing by the door, their distinctive scent – at once pokémon and human – overpowered her. She couldn't help but stare, trying to take in every detail and identify every species. Round tables with varying numbers of chairs – and occupants – beside each one, and a desk at the near end of the room. Morphs talking among themselves; morphs alone. They all wore the uniform, they all had a human's upright body plan, and they all had fingered hands. Just like her.

"Don't panic," said Taylor, kindly. "I know it's another big change, but you've already been through the biggest one, right?"

That was true. It had been hard, though. This might be hard, too.

"This is the main seminar room," he continued. "You can stick around here for a bit, then maybe you'll want to see the next room along. That's the morph common room, and it's where you should go if you aren't sure where to be. It's for morphs to meet and spend time together casually. Here is one place where morphs can learn as a group. Alright, are you ready to go through?"

She nodded and stepped forward, feeling more eyes on her than she actually saw. A lizard, half-asleep, with burnt-orange and black scales and a throat that bristled with spikes. Maybe a heliolisk, or possibly a really weird dragon-type… A birdlike morph with strikingly metallic plumage stared at her from one table. She stared back, but couldn't hold their gaze. A morph with leathery wings bunched beneath their arms waved to her. She thought to wave back, but hesitated too long, and her arm stayed at her side.

"You can go ahead and sit anywhere, Salem," Taylor said to her, quietly. "The teacher will be along soon. I'm sure someone will make introductions for you."

She looked around. Most tables had one or more free spots left, and there was even an empty one. Should she pick randomly? Or study the seated morphs in a hurry to make a judgment? Maybe just sit with the one who waved. No, they were talking to their neighbour now, they'd clearly lost interest. Her hands made tight fists as she looked from face to unfamiliar face.

A white-furred hybrid, alone at her table, froze her anxious searching by making direct eye contact. Blood-red feather behind one ear, golden gem centred on the forehead... A sneasel, she guessed. For a moment, Salem's hackles started to rise, but then the sneasel winked at her. Salem closed one eye and opened it again. Definitely not a proper wink. She'd better practice. The sneasel beckoned her by signing [come here] with a pair of long claws. Something Alisha had told her about 'your type' made her wonder if it was correct to sit with other dark-types.

She searched the room for groups of morphs, guessed their types – there was one table with three morphs she thought looked like psychics, but elsewhere there was a rock-type with a grass-type, and a water-type with a fighting-type. She wasn't sure what she'd expected – she was used to seeing like-types together in the teams of type specialists on TV. But this wasn't television. It was a room full of beings like her.

[Come here!] The sneasel was exaggerating the gesture now.

Taylor gave her a gentle nudge, so Salem approached the winking morph and carefully steadied herself with a hand on the table to sit down. The sneasel pulled her chair out for her, and she signed [thank you] when she took it. Taylor gave her a little wave from the door and left.

[Hello, welcome,] signed the other morph, grinning like a human who had grown up doing it. Her smile was full of sharp points.

[Hello,] replied Salem, [are you a friend?] She added in Galarish, "Are you . . . a friend?"

The toothed grin got bigger.

"Yeah," she said. "I'd like to be, anyway. You got a name?"

Salem had already decided to keep her name, but she hadn't considered what other morphs might think of it. After a moment's panic, she replied: "Salem."

"Salem, huh? Nice to meet you, Salem. I'm Dusk."

Dusk made a sign a little like the one for [sundown]. That must be [Dusk], then.

"I'm a sneasel," she continued, the -'morph' part left unsaid. "I guess you're a purrloin, maybe? Yeah. I saw you freaking out and wanted to help. We can be friends, but it's okay if you sit somewhere else next time. I'll even help you pick." Dusk smirked a little at Salem's extended silent stare. "Hey. You talking much yet?"

Salem swallowed, her throat seeming to dry up. "Uh, yes?" she ventured.

"Any bigger words than that?" asked Dusk, leaning her cheek against her clawed hand and maintaining her fanged smile.

"Encyclopedia," said Salem, without thinking.

Dusk burst into laughter at that; a full, eyes-closed, wheezing laugh. For a moment, Salem felt like she was interacting with a human and not another former pokémon. She glanced around to check if this was drawing any attention from the dozen other morphs present. Not really. Good. Without her meaning for it to happen, her mouth pulled at the corners into a smile.

"Okay, that's a good word," said Dusk, when she was done. "I don't know that word! I also don't know this word, 'Salem'. Does it have a sign?"

"I don't think so?" Salem said, and signed out [s-a-l-e-m] as quickly as she could. It wasn't the same as having a single sign for her name, though. What had Laura used…? Oh, yes. "My human used to sign [kitten] as a nickname. Do you understand?"

"They signed [cat]?" asked Dusk, frowning.

"No." [Kitten. Like this. Kitten.]

[Kitten?]

"Yes!"

"I don't like that," said Dusk, her grin faltering. "You're not a child."

"Not a child," Salem agreed. But her tail bristled a little all the same at Dusk's disapproval of Laura.

"It's okay. You'll pick up a sign-name soon enough."

Salem's tail shot up. "Ah, I have one!" she blurted. "Pickpocket!" [Pickpocket!]

Dusk's grin came back twice as wide, and she copied the sign with ease.

"What does this mean?"

Salem tried explaining, with some difficulty, what a pickpocket was. Eventually she settled on 'sneaky thief', to Dusk's delight.

"Nice. So, you were trained?" asked the sneasel.

"Trained. No, I was not trained."

"You gotta stop being my echo," said Dusk, making a face. "Anyway, I was wild. Used to live up in the Alban tundra. I'm telling you now in case you don't like wild 'mon. Some trained – I mean, some 'mon that lived with humans are like that."

Echo? Oh. Of course. Salem would have to try not to copy Dusk's words out loud. She shook her head. "I'm interested in your wild. How did you become here?"

She knew she'd said something incorrect the moment the words left her mouth, from how Dusk's smile curled at the faulty phrasing. Yet, her face did not burn and she did not need to look away. It seemed funny, somehow. Funny. That wasn't a totally new concept, but it was becoming familiar faster than she'd expected. She laughed. It was a chattering, high-pitched sound which she cut off immediately with a strangled noise.

The grin again. "I'll tell you later. Right now is a good time to tell you what you need to know about everyone else here."

Salem nodded. She bit down on the urge to echo Dusk's words and said, "Okay. I'm listening."

Dusk leaned back in her seat and nodded at the starkly-coloured bird. She looked back. Salem expected her head to bob like a pidove's, but she held it still, like a human.

"You see the bird? Steel-type bird, looking angry? She is a corviknight. She is called 'Veracity'. She is sharp. I mean sharp, because she can cut you with her wings, but also her words, they are 'sharp'. All you need to know about her is she thinks she's the boss. The boss bird, maybe."

Salem nodded, mouthing 'boss bird' wordlessly. She listened carefully, clutching at the information, but attentive also to the cadence of Dusk's voice. This was only the second time she'd heard another morph speak at all, and Dusk was speaking at length. Her phrasing, her timbre, her rhythm, were all unlike that of humans, and it was pleasant in the manner of a new toy, or petting from a stranger. Maybe 'fascinating', more than pleasant?

Dusk continued, turning to look over her shoulder, and put her paw on Salem's chair back as she did so.

"That one there is Eliza. No, not the one with scales. The one who looks most human? Dark green hair, very pale skin? She is a gallade. She thinks she was almost human even before the Change and she is always trying to make a proof of it. Like it matters."

The sneasel didn't seem to tire from talking, but barrelled on as if in a hurry. She commented on each morph in the room in turn, giving Salem a basic description. Salem repeated the key words in her head over and over, determined not to have to ask again.

The winged mammal was a noivern, called Nox. Dusk liked him, as he never did anything without thinking, which she respected. The lizard with the spiked throat was Contrivance, and he was a heliolisk. Often quiet, the throat-spikes pumped up if you startled him, which Dusk promised was tremendously entertaining. Salem would have to try that. A lone eevee didn't have a name at all. Dusk didn't know him well; he was another new arrival. There were others still, but Dusk paused her stream as one ear twitched.

"Look up now," she said, "teacher is coming."

A tall figure, made taller by a dark horn rising from one side of their head, passed through the doorway. They and Taylor nodded to each other as the newcomer brushed by him. Beside that curved horn, a sandy mane of long hair, a charcoal-furred face, and a distinct muzzle all made it clear: the teacher was no human. The teacher was a pokémorph. Morphs could teach…?

Salem could read the expression on his face somewhat (scowling, but only slightly), guess his sex from sight (male), and make a note of the clothing he wore. Black leather jacket, chequered shirt with the top three buttons undone, Perihelion badge at an angle. That all meant 'informal'. Very informal. His red eyes settled on Salem for half a second as he strode to the front of the room.

"I see some new faces," said the morph, in a quiet growl. "Today I am your communications tutor. On other days, I will be your combat instructor. You call me Whiskey to each other, and Sir to my face. I am here to help you make yourself understood, and to understand others. If you work hard to do that, I will be pleased. If you are not interested in that, I am not interested in you."

Dusk nudged Salem in the side. "This guy's my best friend," she said, and Salem knew she was joking from the tone.

Whiskey's eyes flicked to Dusk, but he didn't comment. He pulled up a chair for himself at the desk up front, and picked up a pen.

"Class begins in two minutes," he growled. "If you're ready to learn, be here when that time is up. If not, there's space for you elsewhere."

Salem fidgeted with her claws. Was she ready? She'd thought so, but she wanted to keep talking to Dusk…

At this point, Taylor approached, his gentle smile familiar enough to soothe. "I hope this was interesting for you, Salem!" he said, brightly. "Absol Whiskey is probably not the best first-time seminar tutor for you, though. Would you like to come with me again now? I can give you that tour of the facility, if you like."

Salem glanced at Dusk. She'd not even been in the company of other morphs for minutes. She shook her head and signed. [No, thank you. It is still interesting here.]

Taylor made a particular face: mouth pulled over to one side, head tilted the other way.

"Come on, Salem. Class is about to start. You're not even scheduled to join just yet, you've not had time to properly acclimatise."

"No, please. It's interesting."

"Are you sure you won't… Salem, I'm worried you'll have a difficult time, with so many new stimuli at once. It might make learning harder, for you and the other morphs…"

"No! I'll be okay. Very okay. I want to see other morphs."

Taylor was about to speak again when Dusk interrupted him.

"It's alright, chief," she said. "Why don't I look after her? I'm ahead in comms, so I don't need to be here. I can give the same tour you can give, but better for being a morph. Much to learn and fix her ears on, she won't be bored. She will be fine. Yeah?"

Taylor looked inquiringly at Salem, who nodded back firmly. Yes, this would be okay. Even better than class, even, for getting to hold extended conversation with a morph.

Taylor rubbed the back of his neck. "Maybe. If you're sure, Dusk... Do I need to go over the rules?"

"Nah. I got this."

"Okay. I'm trusting you. Salem is your responsibility for now."

"You got it, chief."

Taylor left, looking over his shoulder at the pair of morphs as he went.

Dusk gripped Salem's shoulder. "Alright! I'm responsible for you. You can count on me, yeah?"

"Count on you," Salem echoed, signing a small [I understand]. It was easy to believe the sneasel, with such assurance in her voice. Perhaps if Salem had boldness like her, she'd get what she wanted from humans as easily as that.

Dusk rose from her seat, and Salem rose with her, tail thrashing with anxious excitement.

"Let's start that tour," said the sneasel, all confidence and delight. "Lounge first, then we can get food. Sound good?"

It did.

The absol hybrid taking notes at the front didn't raise his eyes to look at them as they left.

XxX​

Salem peered through the door as Dusk held it open for her. It was full of morphs. Hybrids of every description sat alone, in pairs, and in groups, on comfortable-looking sofas. One at a time would be enough. If she made a mistake, it would be in front of so many… Then again, there were so many to watch and learn from. Her breathing sped up.

She flicked her tail, flexed her claws and watched the morphs, picking up what she could without gawping. No staring. No eye contact. No threat.

Two talking nearby: a peach-and-rose tabby with a pincushion tail, and a grey canine with black fur around their shoulders like a cloak. Pincushion tail meant skitty; skitty were predictable. But Salem remembered the last time she tried interacting with a dog – a rockruff whose playfulness she'd instinctively misunderstood as alarm. These morphs had no such trouble. They signed in continuous sentences, punctuated by quiet words in Galarish. One laughed. The laughter sounded almost perfectly human, but with a distinctly inhuman throatiness to it.

Further away was another bird. Their plumage was a striking red and cream and iridescent green, and a bifurcated scarlet wattle hung from their head... A male blaziken, then? It was males that were so colourful, right? This one was the brightest creature she'd ever seen, and he was transfixed by a wall-mounted television playing muted sports coverage. His beak moved slightly as if he were mouthing words to himself.

There was one morph, cross-legged on the floor, quietly reading a book Salem knew this one's species for sure: mienshao. Salem had met one of those at the shelter. This one was pure white, without banded markings. They caught Salem's eye in a glance, and smiled at her.

Salem tried to imitate the smile, on reflex. To her surprise, it was easier to copy another morph than a human. There was a trick to it, and the mienshao had figured it out. So could she.

She tried smiling at Dusk, who beamed back at her.

"This is the common room," she told her. "You can come to this place when you want to, for seeing other morphs, or just to be here. Just . . . be careful. Not every morph is as friendly as me, yeah?"

Salem nodded, trying to communicate seriousness with a tightly shut mouth and pricked ears.

"Right," said Dusk, nodding at the bird. "That's Sauce. I can't say his real name, but it's the word for a kind of sauce, so that's what I call him. It's, ah, 'suh-ree-racha' or something. He doesn't like being called Sauce, so I will never stop calling him Sauce. He's a blaziken. He . . . also thinks he is the boss bird. Maybe this is just what birds are like."

Dusk resumed her stream of information as if it had never been cut off. She described several other morphs in turn, including the mienshao, Xiaomao, an older morph who kept to herself. The last were the cat and dog pair that sat together. Dusk made a funny sound in her throat when she noticed them.

"Those two are Heather and Bramble. The skitty is Heather, the mightyena is Bramble. I always see them together, I am pretty sure they both were pets before this time, so maybe that is why? They are okay, I guess, but I don't think they want anything much. Usually morphs want a thing really bad, like Sauce over there wants to be big and important and in charge, and Eliza back in class wants everyone to act like she is a human."

Dusk looked at Salem, holding eye contact barely any distance from her face.

"What do you want, Salem?"

"What do you want?" Salem replied, surprising herself.

This earned another grin from Dusk. "I will tell you about that some other time. We have more to look at, first."

Well, Salem would just have to keep talking to Dusk until she got an answer. But for now, she listened.

Dusk pointed at each significant thing in turn as she explained them. The morphs lived here, having all gone through the same process as Salem. The television played preselected shows at certain times of day. A screen on another wall served as a digital noticeboard, updated regularly. Anyone could use the bookcase, stocked with everything from photo albums, to novels, to (precious, exciting) encyclopedias. Various doors led to the canteen, (no more breakfast in bed), other classrooms, the arena, and the dormitories, where her new bed awaited her. Someone would take her belongings over before long. (Belongings! It was still strange to own human things.) If she had questions or trouble, and Dusk wasn't around, the friendlier morphs would be happy to help, or there were always human staff at the reception who would help her out.

"Come on," said Dusk, who seemed to be somehow less tired after talking so much. "I'll show you around on our way to get lunch! Or, at least the places morphs are allowed to go. That's still a lot of places."

Lunch, huh. Good. Salem could do with some food.

XxX​

Salem had found the common room well-populated. The canteen held easily four times the number of morphs and humans present, and the cumulative noise of each spoken word, each clink of fork against plate, each hum of human technology, made a cacophonous attack on her ears. Plus she'd been walking around a building larger than she could get her head around for a while now, as Dusk taught her about places inside it that she'd already forgotten. She flattened her ears and crouched, trying to be lower to the ground than she could stoop to.

"Hey, it's okay," said Dusk, firmly. "You'll learn to be okay in this much noise. I say this… I didn't have such a problem, because in my old life I had dozens in my family, but I still understand. It is very new, very strange. Right?"

"Right," muttered Salem, nodding.

The canteen entrance faced rows of long tables with benches on each side, many of them taken up by morph occupants. A series of counters to the left – staffed by a human, and also by a pachirisu-morph, to Salem's delight – bore not only food, but a stack of trays, plates and so on. Dusk led her along to these, took up a tray, and gave a casual, confident demonstration of asking the human server – with emphasis – for meatballs, please.

Salem followed suit, her claws flexing into her palm as she did. "Meat-balls, pluh-ease."

Somehow, any kind of emotional reaction at all would have been less surprising than the way the young man in front of her dished out the requested food with a plain "here you go".

It smelled fantastic.

Suppressing the urge to start eating it while stood there in front of the human, she followed Dusk as she proceeded to the next counter, where she exchanged a few sharp bursts of speech and sign with the bushy-tailed morph stood there. Dusk laughed; the other morph smiled. Then they served up a small bowl of pale liquid and a beaker of water for them both.

Dusk took Salem to an unoccupied table and sat across from her. Her face beamed, and the gemstone set into her head caught the overhead lighting.

"More exciting food than you got in recovery, yeah?" asked Dusk. "One human thing at a time. This is next!"

Salem nodded, and stared at her plate. Humans used tools to eat. Was she supposed to do that?

Dusk answered her by spearing a meatball with one claw and holding it up between them. "Do as you like," she said, grinning. Then she ate it.

Salem followed suit.

The meatballs were warm.

"Not bad, right?"

She nodded, barely looking up from her food. It was not bad at all. The pale liquid turned out to be some kind of soup, which she lapped at, experimentally at first, then quite a lot more. It wasn't bad, either!

"Still hungry," said Salem, awkwardly.

"Makes sense. Long day! Want to get some more?" asked Dusk, flashing that fang of hers again.

"More?"

Salem tore into her seconds with as much gusto as the first serving. Dusk suggested other options to try, but she wanted the meatballs. They were the best food that existed, so why would she try anything else?

Dusk did most of the talking. No change there. Salem listened, ate her seconds, and mouthed the occasional word to try it out, and save for later. The sneasel talked about life in this place in a way similar to how Laura used to talk about college – excited, but a little forced. Dusk explained combat training with more relish than the rest. Battling... Salem had the opportunity as a kitten to get into some illicit playground scuffles, and more recently she would sometimes bully the snom outside or scrap with feral cat pokémon, but real fights were something she saw on TV. Strange that she should finally fight battles of her own in this place, with no particular human to be her trainer and companion.

At one point, Dusk simply flowed through a description of her favourite battle she'd spectated, with Salem listening, ears perked, the whole time. Dusk's eyes were bright and her feather quivering as she described the attacks involved with illustrative gestures and a few sound effects. Eventually she noticed Salem staring.

"Shit, sorry, I got excited," she blurted.

Salem didn't mind one bit.

"I like to listen to this," she said.

"Oh," said Dusk. "Okay, then." She had a different kind of grin, now. Something about the eyes. Brighter.

The conversation continued comfortably with Dusk doing most of the talking and Salem making remarks to keep the sneasel's momentum up. There was much to learn – about Perihelion, but also about Dusk. For instance, her feather vibrated excitedly whenever Salem learnt a new word from her. Salem liked that.

After a while, Dusk stood. Salem stood too, automatically, but Dusk waved her down.

"Nah, stay here. I'll be right back."

Salem nodded, and sat back down to wait. She would look around at the morphs in the canteen and listen to their sounds, maybe even learn their scents. After a minute of this, she smelled metal.

Salem looked around her for the source of such a strong metallic scent. She soon found it. Approaching her from behind was a pokémorph she recognised: the corviknight, bristling with feathers that may as well have been knives. 'Veracity'.

The bird was tall, even for one of the morphs who had been large in their old life. Although she'd shrunk from her former towering height as a full pokémon, she would come up to a full head above many morphs, and Salem felt tiny in her presence. Dark feathers around her shoulders came up past her neck, and gave off a metallic glint in the light. Her legs, still bird-like, ended in sharp talons that made a sharp 'kla-klack, kla-klack', with every step. The matte-black feathers covering her body clinked and scraped against each-other like a fistful of knives. Her beaked face managed, somehow, to produce a more severe scowl than any Salem had yet seen.

Veracity fixed her eyes on Salem intently. Salem pressed her claws against her palms. Claws could draw blood, but she doubted hers were sharp enough to cut metal feathers. And she hadn't used real attacks since she was small. If the bird started a fight, she'd have no choice but to run. Why was she so afraid of that? It wasn't just that the corviknight was a potential threat, Salem's appetite had vanished, completely. She glanced back at her plate, feeling sick.

The corviknight loomed even at a generous distance, and her eyes, a startling blue, seemed to be little fires of intellect in the darkness of her face.

"I am Veracity," she said, in a voice that sounded like it ought to have sharp edges, were it visible. "Tell me of yourself." Her voice was strained, almost a croak, and put Salem in mind of Laura's cautious footsteps around the creaky patch of the landing floor when sneaking downstairs late at night.

Tell me of yourself? Salem was a new morph, she didn't know herself. She didn't have words to answer that. And anyway, how could anyone answer something like that? Even if they had all the words they could want?

"…My name . . . is Salem," she replied, slowly. "I . . . was purrloin before now." It didn't seem appropriate to say 'hello' or make conversation.

"Does your name have meaning?" came Veracity's next question, the sharp intonation barely changing.

[I don't know the answer,] she signed. "Maybe."

Veracity barely considered her reply before she continued: "A human word. A species. This is not who you are. Tell me of yourself."

"I am a good learner," said Salem, thinking fast. "I have a lot of energy. I am always 'trying it on'."

She didn't know what that last one meant, exactly, but a human tutor had said it of her. Perhaps it would satisfy Veracity. Veracity peered at her with her beak slightly ajar.

"You were a pet," said the corviknight. It wasn't a question. No inflection at the end – just hard sounds and a harder stare.

Salem struggled for the right words. [Yes, but more than just that,] she signed, frustrated with her tongue. [I always intended to become a trainer's pokémon.] "We were going to travel together."

"You did not actually travel together."

"No, but..." Again, the short, hard words meant more than her own. [I do not believe she meant to let me down.]

"You may believe that. Yet, you did not travel together."

"No."

Maybe if she stared back into Veracity's eyes long enough, unblinking, that would be acceptable to the corviknight, and she would leave Salem alone.

"Your companion gave you reason to dream of a future, then failed to provide that future."

Salem kept her gaze steady. There was a growing feeling of tightness in her jaw.

"Your companion is a source of suffering for you," continued the corviknight. "Will you find fault in her, or will you admit to your own weakness?"

Salem's words melted in her head before she could say them – for every thought she had, she anticipated a cutting new statement from Veracity. She stared, growing painfully aware of her own silence.

"No remark," observed the towering bird. "And you are loyal to a human who has hurt you. Perhaps you will not have the strength for what is coming. Yet, there is still time to prove otherwise."

No remark. All Salem could do was stare up at those piercing blue eyes and the sharp-edged metal covering the unfamiliar morph's body. Every feather looked like it could cut to the bone.

Veracity narrowed her eyes. "Why are you here, Salem?"

A girl with dark hair, walking to a car. Speaking Galarish in her dreams. A cold night, sheltering from rain beneath a bench.

"I…"

"Something wrong, bird?"

Dusk! That was Dusk's voice! Salem remained transfixed on Veracity, but her ears swivelled to hear the sneasel's presence.

"There might be," said Veracity, turning to face the same way, "but it will not be solved by your involvement."

Salem finally looked round to see Dusk baring her teeth. Without a smile, her muzzle was all sharp points and predators' intent. Veracity didn't so much as frown. Nothing changed about her cold expression.

"I have done nothing wrong," said Veracity, coolly. "Your anger reveals a flaw in yourself. Go peacefully."

Dusk's eyes narrowed, and her lip curled further, revealing yet more vicious points. "Is that what you think?" she growled.

"I suspect you do not care what I think. I should pay little attention to what you think, in return," said Veracity, before returning her stare to Salem. "I value truth, and strength. Your companion here is a liar, and she is weak. Be truthful, and be strong, and I will be pleased to breathe the same air as you."

Salem swallowed hard. Veracity opened her beak again, but was interrupted by a chill scraping of claw-on-claw from Dusk. The sneasel's claws gleamed with energy; was Dusk using some kind of attack…?

"That's enough," snapped Dusk. "You've said enough words. We won't hear more of them."

"Do you intend to fight me if I choose not to comply?" asked Veracity, with almost no interest at all. "You would lose. Quite badly."

"Doesn't matter," hissed Dusk. "You'd be punished either way."

Veracity's beak parted slightly, and she tilted her head. "Yes," she said. "This is true."

And then she left, as abruptly as she'd arrived, claws clacking on the tiled floor.

There was a long pause as Salem watched the departing morph, and Dusk watched Salem, ear-feather twitching slightly, claws losing their gleam. Dusk's attention lifted the weight of dread in Salem's stomach; the unnerving sense of pressure left her shoulders.

"Good riddance," said Dusk, quietly.

"Will I see her more times?" asked Salem, daring to raise her voice above a whisper.

"If you both get put on the same unit," Dusk growled. Her expression dropped for a moment, then she redoubled her smile. "Who cares? We have nothing to worry about from the bird. It's fine."

Salem nodded vigorously, as if agreeing harder would make it more likely that Dusk was right, and the corviknight would leave her alone.

"She just likes to get under skin," said Dusk, rolling her eyes, dramatically. She'd probably picked that motion up from Alisha. Salem wasn't the only mimic around, then.

"I don't know what I did wrong," said Salem, quietly.

"Who says you did anything wrong?" replied Dusk, jabbing a claw lightly into Salem's side.

"But—"

"I say she's wrong! Not you," insisted Dusk, jabbing her again for emphasis.

Salem's face twisted up for a moment as she considered this. If other people were wrong, then she was right. That was good.

It also meant that being right didn't mean getting what you wanted. Or being happy. Or being safe.

And that was bad.

"Okay," she said, still uncertain.

"Come on," said Dusk, the grin hardly faltering. "Let's become away from here. I'll show you the arena! It's about time you learnt to throw a good attack. Help you feel better if you see her again, yeah?"

Salem pictured her own claws glowing like Dusk's had. She pictured them rending through Veracity's steel feathers.

"Yeah. Let's do that, please."

XxX​

Dusk had saved the 'Colosseum' for later in the tour, it seemed. A massive underground space where morphs could battle without worrying about collateral damage. Six-sided, large enough to host half a dozen simultaneous duels, and apparently available to first comers when not scheduled for lessons or tests.

Dusk led her onto a mezzanine that overlooked the arena. The platform was clear glass, and stretched the full perimeter of the Colosseum, with stands to seat a small complement of onlookers spaced evenly around it. A spot along the metal railing at the edge bore a control panel, which Dusk claimed immediately. Sat at the foot of the stands, Salem could see the battle below at a perfect vantage through the clear platform. Two morphs were battling each other in what amounted to a small forest, slinging ranged attacks at each other and ducking behind cover, with occasional flashes of other moves firing off. As she watched, one morph's body glowed for a moment, and a barrier of light appeared between them and their opponent.

"You might prefer ranged fighting more than me," said Dusk, offhandedly, leaning forward over the safety rail. "Maybe watch these guys. See how they do it."

"There's no trainer?"

"Nope. Don't need a human trainer to practice. We can train each other when we aren't in class."

Salem nodded, and watched in rapt attention as the figures below exchanged short bursts of water and electricity at each other, protecting themselves with energy barriers, or by stepping behind trees and rocks. It was like watching a league match with Laura, only as it actually happened! Her breath caught as fragments of a boulder shattered clean away from the force of an energy attack.

"You can tell they aren't trying very hard," commented Dusk. "But it's fun."

Salem wondered what morphs could do with effort. What she could do.

Eventually, the fighters walked off the arena, and Dusk straightened up off the railing. "Watch this," she said, a kind of wild glee on her face. "This is really fucking cool."

Dusk moved a slider on the control panel, slammed a fist down on one of the larger buttons, and fixed her gaze on the arena floor below. Salem stepped forward to the mezzanine railing by Dusk's side and looked over. As they watched, the arena dropped, descending like an elevator, and slid sideways into the far wall. In its place, from a space below the near wall, emerged a new battleground, with new terrain. Where there had been dirt and dust and grass, there was a rising circle of snow, in drifts and tiny hillocks, with a patch of rough ice around the sides.

"Pretty great, huh?" asked Dusk, practically vibrating.

"Like home," replied Salem.

Dusk was looking for joy in Salem's face. She offered a little up in gratitude, even though seeing the white surface of the arena meant seeing Circhester just before spring, before the first snowdrops emerged, snowdrops she hadn't seen in a long time. The snow was like home, yes. Not much else . . . but it was enough.

"How do we get down there?" she asked, making her face approximate a smile.

"There are stairs," said Dusk, airily. "But we don't care about that! Watch this."

Dusk hopped up onto the railing, turned her head back at Salem with her usual fierce happiness on full display, and let go. She dropped straight down, whooping as she fell, and landed in a snowdrift with a crisp fwumch.

"Come on!" called Dusk, laughing. "Easy!"

Something unfamiliar in Salem's brain insisted that the height was dangerous, that it would hurt to fall so far. But she'd never cared about such things before she'd changed. And Dusk didn't seem to be hurt at all. She licked her lips and put a hand to the railing.

Can I use the stairs? she almost asked. But that wasn't right. Becoming more human shouldn't mean giving up the splendid convenience of dropping from a height and saving the unbearable indignity of walking places when she could leap.

"Coming," she replied. And then before she could think it over again, she climbed the railing, let go, and pushed off with her feet. Chill air filled her eyes and ears. Instinct used her tail as a rudder, working despite her altered form. The snow filled her vision.

Fwumch.

"Fucking great, huh?" said Dusk, her words a little muffled by the snow packing Salem's ears.

First Dusk's, then Salem's laughter filled the silence of the snowy arena.

"You know snowball fights?" asked Dusk, smirking.

Oh, yes. Or rather: oh no.

Dusk's very first projectile hit Salem clean in the face. Ah. A ruthless dark-type after all.

XxX​

Dusk led her to their shared dormitory with a little more swagger in her step.

"Looks like we'll be seeing a lot more of each other, huh?"

"Seeing a lot more," murmured Salem, a tiny chirrup of a purr in her throat.

Dusk showed her in and let her look around. Salem looked closely, but how could she even judge the room? It was better than a hedge on a roadside verge. It was better than the communal space in the pokémon shelter. Was it better than her old room in the recovery wing? She couldn't say. She wandered further in, slowly, while Dusk tumbled onto one of the beds and spread her limbs in every direction.

Dusk had claimed one of two ground-level beds, each of which had another bed mounted on the wall above it. One for her and one for Dusk . . . and the others would be for other morphs, she supposed. What else was here… A desk and chair. A radio. Some rolled-up foam mats, shelves bearing cups, stationery, tiny potted plants… Behind another door, a small bathroom. She'd figured bathrooms out already, but this one had a shower. That might prove challenging. And . . . there was a single sink, with a mirror above it.

A mirror.

She needed to look at herself in it. Properly. An anticipatory thrill ran through her skin and the back of her neck flushed with a sudden heat. So far she'd caught her reflection only faintly in poorly reflective surfaces. What did she look like?

Salem stared at the reflection, hypnotised by her own face. She reached up and pressed her paws against her cheeks, pushing the fur and skin beneath around in that way Laura sometimes used to. She leaned over the sink to examine her eyes up close. The same, as far as she could tell; bright green, with slit-pupils. Whiskers intact, and fur pattern unchanged, but structure somehow just a little closer to human in proportion…

"Try the shower," came a call from the bedroom. "I promise you'll love it!"

Dusk's tone of voice did not sound sincere, as best as Salem could tell. Still… Her room had a shower. That was a peculiarity she had not anticipated. She considered simply ignoring it and grooming herself as she had always done, the normal way, but two things persuaded her otherwise. The first was sheer curiosity; she could not go without knowing what it felt like to use it, how it worked, and so on. The second was practicality. Since her morphing, she couldn't reach every part of her body any more. She had never asked anyone else to assist her with grooming before, and she wasn't going to start now. Therefore: into the shower she'd go.

"Okay," she called back, "show me how."

Once Dusk showed her how to set the temperature and pressure, and to point the shower head away from her to test it before using it on herself, she was in control. Once she had control, the shower became useful, even pleasant. After some experimentation, she found the right degrees of force and heat, and the spray became a kind of massage against her back. The way her fur stuck to her skin wasn't half as tolerable, but during Dusk's brief tutorial, she'd assured Salem it was very temporary.

Whatever human created this device had thought of everything. Combs were kept in a tray on the wall to brush out excess fur. Bottles of shampoo, too, with a scent that did not overwhelm her nose and simple instructions printed in pictographs of pokésign. Nozzles in the shower walls blew hot air on command to help dry her off. A function on the controls activated a disposal unit for shed fur, which whirred and gurgled loudly when in use. She couldn't help examining it, both while in use, and inert. The cap over the drain came away easily, revealing the mechanism: an assemblage of small, sharp metal blades, housed inside plastic casing. That module, too, came away when tugged at, and underneath was the drain proper, with a small recess.

…It would make quite the hiding place for pilfered treasures.

She replaced the mechanism, her interference now invisible, and resolved to make no mention to anyone of the cavity beneath.

Once back in the bedroom, Salem elected to take the bunk above Dusk's. She carefully eased herself up the ladder, exhausted enough to seriously consider everyone's countless exhortations to take things steady, and collapsed into her bed. 'Her' bed. It was a new concept. A good one. She hadn't had any kind of permanent bed since home, and at home it had been Laura's bed…

Will you find fault in her, or will you admit to your own weakness?

She sprawled out, stretching every last limb and digit, and groaned dramatically.

"What the fuck does that mean," asked Dusk, from below, in a flat tone.

"Bad," answered Salem, voice muffled by her bedclothes.

"Okay. Bad why?"

Salem pressed her face into the bedclothes, and made a noise of pure discontent. She was physically tired, and mentally tired, and this good bed that was hers and not Laura's didn't help.

"Salem?"

She needed as few words as possible to sum up the entirety of her worsening mood and how badly she didn't want to discuss it. What was one good word? One that Dusk actually knew?

"Fuck," said Salem, with feeling.

For some seconds after that, Dusk kept silent. Had she said something wrong? What could she say instead—?

A light thump and a slight vibration of the bunk indicated that Dusk had rolled out of bed and taken to the ladder. The sneasel's head appeared over the safety rail, and her fanged grin with it. The mattress shifted under the extra weight as Dusk took a seat beside Salem and patted her shoulder, coaxing her to rise from her prone sulking. She obliged, with a whining growl.

"Earlier, you were feeling great," remarked Dusk. "What changed? It's like you suddenly got all..." The sneasel didn't have the words in Galarish, so she shrugged, made a face, and signed [run away] with a disapproving flair.

"Avoidant," said Salem, smirking to herself. If she couldn't be as fluent as Dusk, she could at least make up for it with a better vocabulary.

"Okay. Whatever. Tell me what's wrong."

Ugh. First she'd have to figure out what was wrong, and then she'd have to find the words to explain it, and then she'd have to get the energy to say those words. And then Dusk would just ask a follow-up question anyway and she'd have to do it all again. It was too much. But Dusk wouldn't take 'no' for an answer, and Salem didn't want to fight. No, she wanted help. She wanted Dusk's help.

"Don't know," she muttered. "Everything is too difficult."

Dusk looked aside like she was recalling something. "It's alright if you're overwhelmed," she said. "Every morph feels this early on."

That wasn't it, though…

"Every morph doesn't feel this," said Salem, carefully. "Everything about being a morph is . . . a lot. I know this. But I also feel my own feelings."

Dusk nodded, and let her figure out how to say it. Salem's throat unclenched, and her shoulders sank into the mattress.

"I'm too tired," she began, "to not feel bad about Laura."

Dusk gave Salem's shoulder a squeeze, and nodded. "Okay. Who is Laura?"

Salem stared at her fidgeting paws. "Laura was my friend," she said, quietly.

"Your human?"

Salem nodded. "We spent every day together, before. We were going to go on a journey together. But she couldn't go. She had to go somewhere else. I couldn't go with her. I want her to be okay."

Dusk tapped her claws one after the other against the wall. "Okay. I understand you care about her," she said.

"Yes. Very much."

"But what will you do? What would make you happy now?" asked the sneasel, with a little force behind the words. Just enough to show she cared, without being demanding. It was a good question.

"Want to see her," said Salem, barely loud enough to hear herself.

Dusk shrugged and made a tired sound. "Not easy to do a thing like that. No morphs here can meet anyone outside, you know. Not even sending messages; it's not allowed. But if she is very important to you, maybe you will try this anyway. What makes this human so important? Explain to me."

Salem clenched her paws. She hadn't even thought about messages, and already she'd learnt they weren't allowed. Why? As for why Laura mattered... How to explain to Dusk? Everything the sneasel said suggested a former life without humans. Even if Salem talked about family, or friends, none of Dusk's words suggested she'd understand trainers. Still, she had to try.

"We did many things together, every day, and we were happy," said Salem, quietly, focusing on getting out any helpful sentence at all. "She cared for me. Watched out for me. Made me safe. And I made her smile."

Dusk's feather shivered, and she raised a brow, but she kept listening, chiming in occasionally with tiny signs. [Sounds nice.] [That's good.]

[Very good.] "She was the only important person who is not me, for my whole life until now."

"Until now?"

"Yes. But she is still important, and always will be important."

Dusk had thoughts behind her eyes that Salem couldn't even guess at, but just the loss of her ever-present grin was clue enough that something was eating her. Whatever it was, she didn't share it.

"So, Laura, she is your family?"

Family. That wasn't something Salem thought of often. She didn't know any of her relatives. "I don't know," she said. "She is very important, though. I think… I want to see her again."

Dusk nodded, slowly. "Okay. I'll help you find her."

Salem nodded, and signed a small thanks. Dusk didn't reply, but perhaps she heard Salem's steady purring and interpreted it as gratitude.

"Get asleep," said Dusk, gently, easing herself up and off of the top bunk. "Making schemes is better when rested."

Salem said nothing, but lay on her side with one arm draped over the edge of the bed. She curled and uncurled her paw in relieved contentment until she heard the sneasel snicker quietly to herself. It was nice, to be reminded that her new friend was still nearby.

Dusk fell asleep first. Salem had always been an easy sleeper, but the inside of her skull was too noisy with thoughts. Finally, enough excitement in a day. Enough to think about. She couldn't stop. She willed the morning to come sooner, so she could explore more, begin training, talk about everything they had yet to talk about. To meet more like them.

Dusk's unconscious breathing reminded Salem of Laura's, just a little, but also of her own as it had been before. Her own breathing must be like Dusk's now, too – partway human, but not all the way. Like so many things. She didn't notice herself drifting off, being so preoccupied with arranging every new fact and feeling in her end.

The morning ambushed her without her having dreamed at all.

XxX​
 
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Chapter 4: Left Alone
Author's Note:

Told you this one would take less time.

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Chapter 4

Left Alone

Before she was a person, Salem was a cat.

Ever since she first understood this fact, she rebelled against it.

Salem first wished to be human many seasons ago, when Laura changed schools. Salem used to accompany her each day, but her new college didn't permit unlicensed students to keep pokémon on the premises. So, when Laura left for her first day there after a long summer together, Salem stayed home. And waited. She waited, and wished that she was a student there too, so she could stay with her human friend. She wished every day after, for so long that she began to think of herself as pre-human: only a pokémon while she waited for the day she evolved.

She would become human when she evolved, she knew. It was destined.

For now, she was a small, dark-furred pokémon, and the most human thing about her was her ability – the privilege of all purrloin – to walk short distances on hind legs. Having their front paws free made purrloin excellent thieves, a skill which Salem was happy to employ to obtain food. It was easy to walk into a shop and walk out with a bag of dried jerky, so long as you didn't do it to the same premises too often.

Otherwise, she was a typical feline. She had a dappled tortoiseshell coat (meticulously maintained), a warbling miaow with a quizzical inflection, and the talent of instantly appearing without a sound at the rustling of food packets.

Cats like routine, and Salem's was important to her. Her eyes opened at dawn, she stretched luxuriously, and she nudged a reluctant Laura out of slumber. A series of polite miaows sufficed to prompt Laura into drowsily pulling on baggy clothes left strewn on the floor from the day before, hastily brushing back her excessively long dark hair, and descending the creaking stairs to squeeze out a packet of wet food. Salem followed behind on silent paws, not wishing to trip her up.

Salem wolfed down her salmon while Laura toasted and buttered herself some crumpets. Salem prized her regular meals, but supplemented them with as many stolen or begged treats as possible. She had made the sign for 'food' so many times over many seasons that she did it on reflex when hungry: tilt head, reach paw above head, curl paw, paw to mouth.

Laura usually gave her a treat or two for signing this while she prepared for school, but on this occasion, she took a new bag out of the drawer, and left it there unopened. Perhaps she had been distracted. It happened. Still, she cuddled Salem goodbye as normal, and called her a sweet cat. Salem slow-blinked at her affectionately, and Laura slow-blinked back, her green eyes creasing to match Salem's own.

Salem purred boisterously, watched Laura take up her rucksack to leave, and waited until the front door closed to tear open the unsecured bag of treats with her teeth and gorge herself silly.

Salem spent school days waiting for Laura to come home. Laura's parents were usually out all day, and the family had no other pokémon, so she had the place to herself. She used this freedom to laze about uninterrupted. She took plenty of naps sprawled out in that one spot on the kitchen counter, where the updraught from the tumble-dryer kept her warm. From there, she watched taillow in flight and dreamed of pokémon battles and of a future with Laura in which they went on grand adventures. Sometimes, she was not the pokémon, but the trainer. Still, human or purrloin, she was always Laura's partner in her dreams.

Laura didn't come home that day until much later than she was supposed to. This was happening more and more often with each passing season, and 'normal' college days were already longer than they used to be. Salem managed to enjoy her time alone by keeping to a routine and sleeping heavily, but by late afternoon she was restless. She would pace through the house in endless loops, groom herself and groom herself again just to have something to do, and scratch the furniture over and over and over until her claws hurt.

Of course, nobody was around to see her behave like this, and her distressed scratch-marks were indistinguishable among years' worth of ordinary gashes.

When Laura finally came home, the sun had faded. Salem jumped up on the stand by the door, like always, to receive scratches behind her ears, like always.

"Hello, silly cat," Laura said, like always.

Salem's habitual reply to this was to turn her left paw pad-upward and curl it inward, approximating a human beckoning gesture, and then brush her own cheek. This was as communicative as she could manage in standard pokésign. She'd signed [WELCOME HOME] as best she could, like always. She was really good at signing that, after years of practice. Other than that and 'food,' her signing was stilted, and her vocabulary painfully limited.

Laura went straight to heat up a meal for herself, with Salem sprawled on top of the microwave, soaking up the warmth and purring to match the vibrations. Then Laura poured out a portion of dry food for Salem, and took the bowl to her room so Salem could eat nearby her as usual. Laura found an episode of Gotta Catch 'em All on her laptop and played it while they ate.

It was Laura's favourite show since childhood, and therefore a familiar part of their routine. Laura once spent a month mimicking the voices of the pokémon characters, most of which were obviously just voiced by humans. Laura said it was too expensive to animate pokésign or hire countless pokémon, and the show was only a marketing tool to sell merch to kids anyway. But she loved it, so Salem loved it too.

The show featured a villainous but endearing meowth who had taught himself to speak Galarish. At least every other episode, he was shown wearing clothes, working a job, or using tools. Salem thought he was practically human. He didn't have a name, just "Meowth," but he was still their favourite character. Laura used to encourage Salem to copy his example, and was only a little disappointed when Salem could only miaow, purr and chirrup. Salem persisted for weeks, until in frustration, she gave up on ever speaking a word. She never quite forgot her dream of talking to humans in their own tongue.

XxX​

The humans were arguing again.

Salem never intervened when this happened; she couldn't properly participate in such things. It wasn't as if a purrloin would be listened to, even if she knew what to say. Neither did she understand half the language or even the point of most arguments, so she was normally resigned to observe such scuffles at a distance, waiting anxiously for them to end. Lately, however, they were becoming louder, longer, and more frequent.

This one was the worst yet and Salem could tell from the lack of eye contact that Laura had little fight left in her at this point. Laura was standing in the middle of the downstairs room, still with her backpack hanging from one shoulder. They were sat on the sofa, her father cutting through her words at a raised volume. If you were ready to fight, you looked the other in the eyes. Laura was looking away from her opponents. That was a sign of unwillingness to spar, if not exactly surrender – but her parents weren't letting up.

Her father thumped the arm of the sofa. "It's not complicated, Laura! These companies, Perihelion and the rest, they just aren't paying the same kind of money as Macro Cosmos used to."

That was Gordon. He was quick to fight, would raise his voice in response to any assertiveness, and had a tendency to pound nearby furniture. That always made Salem jump. He was not at all her favourite human.

"You promised me, though. You promised I wouldn't have to worry, that I'd be able to do my circuit if I stayed in education until after my fucking A-levels—"

Laura was easily her favourite, of course. More important than anyone else, after years of friendship! She cared for Salem, understood her signing, and knew the best way to scratch behind the ears.

"Watch your language, Laura."

And that was her mother, Simone. Quieter, but as firm as Gordon. She wasn't around much, and she ignored Salem when she was, so Salem ignored her in turn.

"Swearing doesn't mean I'm wrong! We had a whole sit-down conversation about how long to wait to do a circuit, and I did what you said I should do 'cause you promised it would work out. Now you're saying that was bullshit—"

"Language, Laura!"

Gordon thumped the sofa. "That was when Macro Cosmos did things. This is now. Rose sponsorships are a thing of the past. If you apply with Perihelion you'll need money of your own to make up the difference."

Laura's voice was breaking now. "If you paid the League fees like you said you would—"

"That's not on the table any more. When we agreed to that, the fees were a fifth what they are now. Everything is different with Rose gone, and you have to adjust your expectations." Laura's dad thumped to emphasise every other word as he argued.

"I only expected that because you committed to it, if I—"

"We can't afford to support a jaunt around the country on the new rates, and that's that. If you're really so committed to this, then you'll have to earn what you need by working yourself!"

"Can you please just let me finish my side of the discussion—"

Salem could only make out every fourth word and half the meaning but she watched from the stairs all the same, peering through the banisters at the escalating fight. It was verbal, like all human scuffles, and Salem had never picked up on the rules and conduct for those. What she had learnt by now was that after such altercations ended, Laura never seemed to have won. This time was no different.

"This isn't a discussion, there isn't going to be a discussion."

"—always agreed I'd be able to, that's why I've worked so hard, and now you're telling me that— "

"Just calm down, you're hysterical. There's no need for that behaviour!"

No different overall, but perhaps a little more intense than usual.

"—will you just listen to me, let me finish just one—"

"We've listened. We have listened. You're not listening."

"—see, you're interrupting, like you always—"

"You're the one who isn't listening. You won't stop and listen."

It went on in this fashion, Laura shifting by half-step and small shuffles to the stairs. As she did so, her speech broke up, and her shoulders sagged. Eventually she abandoned the fight, scooped Salem up off the stair, and trudged to her room even as more words came from the parents below. Words like 'ungrateful' and 'responsibility', words that made Laura screw her face shut and tread heavier on the stairs. Laura swept into her room, and slammed her door behind her, prompting more shouting from below.

Salem allowed herself to be tossed lightly onto the bed, from which she watched Laura shrug her backpack, blazer and headphones onto the floor, where they would surely later attract more loud words from either parent. Salem miaowed a warning about the inevitable complaints, but Laura merely groaned and fell face-down onto the bed, where she made muffled keening noises of frustration.

Salem knew the drill by now. She bunched her body up against Laura's and rumbled loudly. This was the way to help. Laura didn't respond at first except to make the occasional heaving sigh, but Salem was content to maintain her purring as long as necessary. She pressed her body against her human and rumbled her sympathies. Eventually, a human face emerged from the mess of long black hair.

"It's bullshit, you know," she said. "They just don't want me to go at all. They come up with a new reason not to every two years. And Perihelion would cover almost everything, and Dad could just let me use my savings for the rest, but no. They even have a starter pokémon program now. I've read all about it, it's actually great. But they… They just don't care 'cause Macro Fucking Cosmos. They think all these other sponsorship options are shit, even the good ones. Which is bullshit. Perihelion's got a whole humanitarian thing going on that I could totally join if my circuit went well. It's, like, legit. They have wilderness ambassadors, and specialists in rehabilitating abused 'mon, and stuff. I want to do that a hell of a lot more than work in a bloody office."

Salem nodded solemnly. She got the gist. Laura knew how things should be, and other people – in this case, her parents – weren't sensible enough to agree. A terrible shame, but it only really mattered in that it upset Laura.

Salem's human reached out and pulled her close, and she allowed it with a soft chirrup. She kneaded the air slowly as they shared warmth and the pressure of close contact. It was good to comfort Laura, but it helped that such cuddles were soothing for Salem as well. They stayed that way for some time, Laura's body heaving a little at odd intervals and Salem nuzzling her in what she hoped would be a calming way. If this went on uninterrupted, perhaps she ought to start grooming Laura? It had worked before.

Laura released her before she could begin.

"I'm sorry, kitten," said her human. "I bet you're hungry, huh?"

She could eat a bowlful, but Laura's unhappiness was always a priority. Salem head-butted her human's face in a show of affection, but food was food, so she also sat up and signed a request. She tilted her head for a question, did the food sign, and then angled her head as if she were looking down at her paws, the sign for receiving something.

[FOOD FOR ME?]

"Yeah, Salem. I'll get you something nice in just a sec."

Salem trilled a happy purr, and signed by putting one paw to her mouth and bringing it directly away. It was sloppy enough that it could mean either [PLEASE] or [THANK YOU], but either would do. Laura would understand what she meant.

Laura pulled a packet of kibble from her backpack and unsealed it to pour onto the duvet. This was a traditional method of Laura's to avoid having to go to the kitchen, and so avoid walking past her parents. Salem took the food with a loud chirrup of appreciation.

"I feel like today was bad enough to qualify for a bit of really serious self-care," said Laura. She had that kind of smile where her eyes were watering just a little. It wasn't a common facial expression, but Salem had seen it often enough to worry. These moods usually lasted beyond the following morning.

Laura sprawled herself on the bed, hoisted her laptop onto her stomach and made room in the crook of her arm for Salem, who nestled in at once, as per tradition. On the very worst days, the comfort media of choice was always the same. Laura loved documentaries, especially about pokémon, and was always delighted at the way Salem's pupils involuntarily dilated at the sight of taillow, pidove and dedenne on the screen. But her very favourite of all wasn't about wildlife, or even non-fiction, but something much stranger.

Replica Heart was a live-action film with real pokémon actors, most prominently an alakazam wearing fur dye and other cosmetics in the role of 'Mewtwo', a powerful and intelligent pokémon with a tragic past. It didn't feature any purrloin, but there was a torracat with gorgeous fur sheen and really excellent pokésign at one point, which was something. Salem liked her.

Salem had seen this one with Laura so many times over the years that she could actually remember nearly every single scene. It helped that Laura liked to talk about it at length, and would sometimes pause it to explain her feelings about a specific moment or to tell Salem something she had learnt about the film since last time. It was this habit that had thoroughly taught Salem the meaning of 'actor' and 'character'.

The film starred an actress about as old as Laura was now, nearly an adult but still young. Her character didn't have friendships with other humans her age, and wished to meet someone who would understand and appreciate her. This pokémon, Mewtwo, fell from the sky into the outdoor pool by her house one night. Rather than show fear, she took Mewtwo under her protection, to secretly care for and help hide him from other humans who came searching for the missing pokémon.

The human and Mewtwo became friends, and understood each other, and each learnt how to trust another person. But Mewtwo had to leave all the same to keep his human friend safe. That part was the only part that unnerved Salem – she didn't like to think of separating from her own human friend.

There was something desperately appealing about it, all the same. Mewtwo made his own decisions, could communicate with humans with ease, and had a life of his own. He was more than a pokémon. Almost human.

Besides that, though, there was a lot of humans doing human things, running from place to place, yelling at each other. Salem didn't understand the appeal of these parts. Possibly she wasn't supposed to; it was a human thing meant for humans. Maybe an alakazam would enjoy watching human drama? She wouldn't know. But Laura loved it, and that meant Salem couldn't be happier to be watching it with her.

"It's not based on a true story or anything," Laura would say, clearly wishing otherwise, "but there's a ton of evidence that a mew clone was created in Japan in the 90s and I'm going to find out one day."

There was a lot Laura would find out one day. Such things included the existence of Mewtwo, corruption watchdog organisations not holding the League accountable for doping, and live pokémon experimentation by Macro Cosmos. All entirely meaningless to Salem, but she loved to see Laura full of confidence anyway. It made her feel like a trainer's pokémon, ready to get pumped up and fighting.

After the movie, Salem went to curl up by Laura's side and listen to her read stories, like she always did. Laura tickled Salem's chin and signed [NO] with her free hand.

"Sorry, kitten. I've had a long day and I still have homework to do! There was that big fight today too, which I've gotta think about. Can you chill while I get on with some things?"

An outrageous change to their routine! But Salem's indignant mewling and signing didn't stop Laura from moving her laptop to her desk and getting to work. This would not do. Laura tried to do whatever 'homework' was so important, but Salem kept butting her head against Laura's leg, and miaowed raucously, until her human finally relented with a sigh. Laura clambered into bed, leaning against the headboard, and opened the anthropology magazine that they'd started reading the night before. Salem manoeuvred her way into the crook of Laura's arm and gazed wide-eyed at the photographs as Laura read the accompanying text.

Salem spent all day every day waiting for this. Each night, without fail, Laura would read to her about countless subjects, from the natural world, to human history, to pokémon battles. With each bedtime reading, Salem would snatch a new truth, each one more precious than the last. There were great forests and plains in the world still untouched by humans and their cities. People had once lived in caves and hunted with traps and arrows, without microwaves and lamps and books to use. Humans could form bonds with their partners that made them more powerful than any wild pokémon.

At night, Salem would churn these ideas over and over in the mill of her mind, trying to grasp the big picture, to form a proper understanding of the world, and always having it slip away from her. She hoped that by learning everything Laura could share with her, that, like Mewtwo, she could teach herself to be more human. Being human meant never having to be bored and alone again.

Eventually of course, Laura tired of reading. It didn't take long this time.

"Salem, I'm done. Seriously, I still have way too much to do."

[WHAT?] signed Salem, cocking her head and chirping uncertainly.

"Mostly uni applications, since apparently a bloody League circuit is off the table after all. Plus my normal work. And I got home late and re-watched Replica again, too, so, just, ugh. Basically ugh."

That meant nothing to her. She cocked her head the other way and chirped again. If she did that, Laura would know to explain in a way she understood.

Laura groaned, and spoke with care. "Okay, how do I explain university to you? God… Right, you know I meant to run a League circuit after graduation after missing out twice already. Well, uni is what I have to do instead of that now that I've been completely fucked out of my sponsorship… It's basically more school, just . . . lots tougher, and I'll live away from home. Away from Mum and Dad, thank god. And I have to do a lot of work right now to make sure I can even get into a decent campus, 'cause that's the only way any of this shit will be close to worth it. And I just gotta pray I get into one that lets unlicensed students keep 'mon on campus. Fat chance of that, though."

Salem kept cocking her head. She didn't know how to ask 'but what about our adventure? Why are you doing this and not that?' so she just signed [TRAINER] in desperation, mimicking the overarm throw that humans used to release a pokémon from their ball at range.

"What? 'Trainer?' Oh. No, Salem, sweetheart." Laura brushed her dark hair from her face, which she always did when saying something important, and gently stroked Salem's cheek fur, which she always did when she was about to disappoint her. "I'm not going to be a trainer. Not anymore. It looks like there are a lot of things I'm not going to be able to do now. You need to start young if possible and get a sponsorship either way, and I didn't, and I can't." She signed some of the key ideas as she spoke. [NO TRAINER. I CAN'T.]

[TRAINER!] Salem signed again, harder this time. Her tail thrashed anxiously.

"No, kitten. I can't just . . . run away and battle with you. I don't have a sponsorship. I don't have my parents' permission. I don't… I don't know if I even want to. It's one of those things – kids all play at pokémon training, but barely any of them actually run the League circuit when they turn whatever age. Every kid wants to be an astronaut or whatever, but there's only been like, two astronauts from Galar ever. I think. Pokémon training is… I'm not meant for it. Those playground battles we had with other kids never meant we were going to travel the world doing it seriously. It's just not realistic."

There was something unfamiliar in Laura's weirdly calm voice, but the words didn't mean anything to Salem either way. She didn't understand 'sponsorship' even after many previous explanations. She didn't understand 'permission' or 'astronauts' or 'meant for it'. She didn't understand why Laura didn't care, didn't want this, didn't yearn for their shared adventure the way she always had.

She signed helplessly, every piece of communication a continuous struggle. Her paws and body gave her more range of expression than a seviper, or a lanturn, or a voltorb with no extremities at all, but they were still nothing to a human's hands and face. Her vocabulary was stunted, too; pokésign only accommodated simple ideas.'Yes, no, over here, I'm hungry, please stop.'

It was difficult enough to think of what she wanted to say and more difficult still to find a way to say it. Under normal circumstances, she was constantly distracted by the temperature, ambient sounds, loose threads of clothing. Even when focused as she was now, she could never hold more than one, maybe two ideas in her head at once.

When asking about their future adventures went nowhere, she tried to ask something else – [I COME WITH YOU?] – not difficult to sign, but difficult for her to ask with her hopes so recently discarded.

"I don't… I don't know. A lot of places don't allow pokémon in student halls, even for licensed trainers. And since Dad wants me to study finance, and then there's this bloody sponsorship thing… Yeah, that's probably not happening. Even then, I might have roommates that don't want pokémon around. 'Roommates,' that's like, friends who I live with, I mean. You might have to stay home. It's won't be up to me. Fuck, nothing ever is…"

Roommates. Friends who Laura lived with, instead of Salem. Laura already spent so much time with friends without Salem, now Salem would always be without Laura.

She tried to ask if she would see Laura – if there would be visits – and miaowed her general distress.

[I SEE YOU? YOU WITH ME?]

"What? Oh, of course I'll come see you! Everyone comes home from uni for winter holidays."

[MORE?]

"Every year, yes! Don't worry, I'll come back to visit every holiday, I promise!"

But not every day. Not enough to stop Salem pacing and grooming and scratching until her paws hurt for days on days on days. She thought of how hard it was each day just to wait for Laura to come home. Weeks on end without Laura, without any kind of stimulation… She was going to go half-mad.

It was hopeless. Salem resorted to sprawling awkwardly over Laura's arm, tail thrashing anxiously in the hope of being included somehow. Maybe Laura would read aloud what she was working on and give Salem something to listen to? She didn't know how to ask for that. Nothing was forthcoming either way; it was a miserable arrangement.

Laura evidently agreed, because after a few minutes of this, an alarm on her phone went off and she said "That's enough. Really. I really have to do my work, so please, please just leave me alone." She took off from the bed and threw herself into her desk chair, headphones on, fingers tapping at the keyboard.

Normally, Salem would have lain down by the laptop's fan for warmth, or batted playfully at Laura's fingers, or walked in front of the screen for attention.

But…

'Leave me alone,' Laura had said.

She had never said that before.

So Salem left her alone.

XxX​

This became the new routine on weekdays. Even the weekends suffered, as Laura threw herself into studies. Salem did her best to take comfort in lying pressed up against her human as she worked, even knowing that this would mean being able to spend less time asleep during the lonely hours.

Things got worse when Salem was unexpectedly barred from leaving the house. She went to the door flap one afternoon to make her scheduled exit and perform her rounds of the back garden, and found it sealed. To address this, first she scratched at the door. Then she yelled. Loudly.

"No, you can't go outside!" came the voice of Gordon Weir.

Salem demanded an explanation. An explanation was not forthcoming – at least from Laura's parents. That evening, she tried to pester Laura about it by leading her to the sealed flap, and found her uncharacteristically obstinate.

"Sorry, Salem. It's not safe anymore out there. You're going to have to stay indoors for a while."

Not safe? Why wouldn't it be safe? She pressed for information with questioning signs.

"Pokémon are going missing," said Laura. "Don't you listen to the radio when it's on? Hell, I've been talking about it to Mum and Dad, I thought you might have eavesdropped."

[WHAT?]

"Strays, outdoor pets, urban ferals… they're all going missing at a scary rate. It's even happening here, there're posters on half the street lamps between here and school. You know, 'missing pokémon, Hammershire Lillipup, call this number, hundred quid reward' type stuff. I'm not letting that be you."

Salem made a low noise of demand. She didn't see how this should prevent her leaving the house. She wasn't stupid enough to go missing.

"You can complain all you like," huffed Laura. "But you're not going out until it's safe. If you leave the house and never come back, I won't be able to forgive myself."

Fine. She would make do.

XxX​

Things were strained after that. Salem wanted to cling to Laura for every precious second she was available, before she vanished into 'student accommodation,' to return only rarely. Yet, she kept asking to be left alone. She spent most of her free time at home buried in her computer, and her books – books which did not get read out loud to Salem. It was bad to bother Laura, so she tried not to. Mostly she lay in sphinx-pose, as close to her as she could get without risking becoming bothersome.

Then one day, with painful quietude, she left. She packed her things, gave Salem a kiss on the forehead, and joined her father in putting her luggage in the car. She kept hoping for a long, heartfelt moment between them, like one of the goodbyes in their movies.

Salem imagined her best and only friend saying 'I won't be long. I'll miss you. Wait for me.'

What she got, before Laura went out of the door for the last time, was "Bye, Salem."

Quiet. A little tired, possibly. Sad?

If she wasn't happy to leave, then surely she would stay. Salem's human held her head low and did not smile, yet she walked steadily to the car and didn't turn to look back. Salem watched her climb into the passenger seat, and a minute later saw her gradually disappear from view as the vehicle pulled away from the curb, leaving Salem behind.

With nobody else in the house, Salem stayed watching out of the window for some time, imagining what it would look like when the car eventually returned. Would she hear it first, or identify it by sight, when it came?

Gordon Weir came home late that night, and Simone worked late just about every night in any case. By the time they were both home, they were both ready to go to bed almost immediately. Salem was not even spoken to, let alone played with. What was more, with Laura not around to put out supper, they did not remember to do so in her place.

Hungry, Salem scratched at their bedroom door and wailed until Gordon emerged in his bathrobe to hastily squeeze out half a packet of wet food for her. He shut the kitchen door as Salem ate, leaving her to seek out a comfortable spot somewhere. She eventually settled for the top of the fridge, as the warmest, most comforting spot available. If only by a hair.

She spent the night very still, conserving energy, alone with her thoughts.

XxX​

Was Laura as cold that night as Salem was?

Was she as lonely, if she was alone at all?

Was she thinking of Salem, as Salem was thinking of her?

XxX​

Gordon made a habit of shutting Salem in the kitchen after supper. He never slipped her any treats. Or played with her. Or anything, really. He didn't even speak to her except to whistle a short tune to summon her at mealtimes. For a couple days, Salem was able to slip the hook of her tail behind the cupboard door as he let it close, and pilfer an extra packet of wet food to enjoy, but he spotted her on the third try and made sure it didn't happen again. She tried at length to learn a method of opening the cupboards or the door, but they both closed firmly, and their handles were too awkward for her to get any purchase.

Salem tried signing at him, but he hardly knew any sign and didn't want to learn. When he talked on the phone with Laura, Salem could hear her muffled voice on the other end of the call, and miaowed loudly for her attention, but he would always move to a different room and closed the door behind him.

Simone's late shifts meant Salem didn't see her at all, only heard her leave the house before dawn, and return after sunset. Laura's room was off-limits; the door was kept shut. Her scent went stale after two days, and disappeared entirely soon after. Laura's parents had no pokémon of their own, and naturally she couldn't traipse outside with the door-flap sealed. The ways in which the house seemed to close in on her grew with each night.

It wasn't long before the boredom was more painful than the quicks of her claws as she scratched continually at furniture. Scratching to the point of having a perpetual dull ache in her ligaments was better than doing nothing.

Early on she started trying to force her way out of the kitchen window with physical attacks, as if she were in battle against another pokémon. But she was untrained, with no experience beyond trivial scuffles, and couldn't manage to charge her body with elemental energy. The frosted glass remained stubbornly intact, and the impacts she made against it merely bruised her body.

Eventually she began to feel she would rather not wake up tomorrow. Not if it meant another day like these. She no longer roused herself when she woke to sounds, trying to slip back into dreams of fighting, learning, running, anything at all.

One night, Gordon's phone rang as he was feeding Salem. He answered it – and he forgot to close the kitchen door as he left, speaking tersely to whoever was calling.

Salem abandoned her meal of meat and jelly at once to pad out after him into the lounge and squirrelled herself into the gap between the back of the sofa and the wall. Gordon doubled back and pushed the kitchen door shut with his foot, thinking Salem still to be inside, and went upstairs to continue grumbling at his phone.

It occurred to Salem that Laura's mother would be coming home soon. When she did, she would very briefly create a window of escape into the wider world.

In her secret hiding place, she waited.

The waiting was a pleasure in itself. It was different, at least. Anything different had to be good. Eventually, she heard footsteps outside matching those of Simone Weir. She went rigid, and gathered herself up on the pads of her paws.

The moment Simone stepped through the doorway, Salem was out in a sweep of shadow. Simone made no sound to indicate she'd noticed. Before the human could turn round and spot her by chance, Salem bolted down the street in the direction she always used to go with Laura, when they went to train together in Victors' Park.

She was outside! In Circhester! On a cloudless night! The air was even colder than she was used to, and it sent a thrill through her spine into her tail, upright and quivering with excitement. She ran to nowhere in particular along the low sandstone walls that enclosed the city's streets. She jumped over a curious snom and ignored a loose band of intoxicated young humans, only stopping once she felt the cool grass of the park beneath her paws.

She'd left her home behind, and as her wild eyes darted around at the fence, at the moon, at the rustling of the park's trees in the night wind, she knew that she could not turn back. Not for any amount of tinned food or packets of treats. Not if it meant she wouldn't get a chance to leave again.

She set off to prowl around the hedgerow perimeter, seeking out a replacement supper. There was no room for other intentions in her head until she was satiated.

Of course, once she'd caught a complacent squirrel and taken her fill, the thoughts came: should she go back for Laura's sake? She didn't know for sure if Laura was going to ever come back at all. Would she be able to keep herself fed once the local animals knew to run from her? She knew from experience that the snom were more trouble that they were worth to hunt, being made of so much ice and so little flesh. Where would she sleep where she wouldn't freeze alive? Maybe a passing trainer would try to catch her. Maybe she would have to hide from Laura's searching parents.

It made sense that there were no or few other pokémon like her out here. Just plenty of snom, and the occasional frosmoth, like a second moon, gliding over the rooftops.

She found a spot under a hedge and settled down for a different kind of cold and lonely night.

At least she could choose where she spent it, this time.

XxX​

She chose to become human because of too many nights spent half-starved, cowering and afraid.

The moon shone down on Circhester, and the winter chill was setting in. Beneath a car coated in early snow, there was a wretched creature that barely felt like a purrloin, crouched tense and shivering. She stared out at the street with wide eyes, shrinking back at every passing vehicle and every moving shadow.

If only she weren't a cat. If she were a human she would never have had to endure winter rain and winter cold and winter darkness. She'd have a home, or the money to pay for sanctuary and a voice to ask for it. Instead she was a pokémon – a tortoiseshell purrloin, distinguished by the long ears and hooked tail of her species – and she would have to resort to the pokémon shelter if she wanted to be somewhere safe and warm. There was a problem with that idea, though. Shelters fed you, but they also tried to get you adopted. And Salem didn't want that. She never would.

Want was one thing, and need was another. Salem desperately needed food, warmth, a roof above her head, and what more after that she didn't know. She curled her tail tighter around herself and glanced anxiously at the various flitting shadows and wind-buffeted leaves that haunted the pavements and the park across the road from her. Eventually she'd be hungry enough to try hunting again, or rummage through someone's trash for scraps of meat. Eventually she might be hungry enough for the shelter. But not yet. Not quite.

If only Salem were human, she'd be well-fed and warm.

If only she were human, she'd be with Laura.

Whole moons had waxed and waned since, but the time between then and now was unimportant. The only important days were those ahead. The most important day was the day, when it came, that Salem would have the nerve and need to go to the pokémon shelter for help. The time spent cold and afraid – that didn't matter. What mattered was that she was cold and afraid. Hungry, vulnerable, tired. Lonely.

If only she were human.

Being human would mean never being cold, or hungry, or lonely.

This was the moment where she stopped wishing, and now knew: she would become human, no matter what.

XxX​

Curled under vehicles and hedges to sleep, Salem was alone even in her dreams. She was alone, but she was always, always human.

XxX​

Salem watched the front window of the local pokémon shelter from the scant canopy of leaves she was hiding in – several shrubs clustered in the grassy median beside a small car park. It wasn't ideal. She had to press herself low to the ground, which was damp, cold, and shared with worms and insects. Her fur was dark and the winter sun was already retiring, so this hiding place would keep her well out of sight. Yet, it hardly felt like safety. The short flights of the winter sun and her ability to hide at its setting were not a nightly reassurance, but a reminder of all the other pokémon that could be stalking her from the same darkness.

The moon came out from behind the clouds, and briefly lit up the terrain. Salem shrunk back further into the greenery and glowered at it. Its illumination may have been a comforting constant from inside a house, but now it made her visible, and therefore vulnerable. It occurred to her that the moon had lived two full lives since she'd last eaten a proper meal. Slept on furniture. Been petted.

The moon withdrew behind cloud cover, and darkness returned. The pokémon shelter was brightly lit from inside, which gave her perfect vision of the interior. There was one human inside. A young man. After studying him for a few days, Salem felt she could read him well. He was a calm person, never moving suddenly or crying out. She liked that. She had begun to wait for a time when she was certain that nobody else but him was about. If she approached the shelter with only him present, she'd be less vulnerable. It only made sense to scout out the least off-putting opportunity to enter. Or maybe she was only waiting because she still needed to work up the nerve.

The first few nights she'd done this, a silver-tabby glameow tom had come to join her. He'd taken a perch on the wall around the car park, posed like a sphinx, watching her openly from his exposed position without regard to his own concealment, let alone hers. On one of these nights, he seemed to taunt her. A low, strained miaow, certain subtle flicks of his ears and tail. [BAD HUNTER.] An accusation.

She replied with mirrored gestures and a turn of the head. [NOT HUNTING.]

A brief, shrill chirrup, a certain blink: [YES, THAT'S IT.] By this he meant, "exactly, a good hunter would be hunting right now." Perhaps he was actually trying to be helpful, but even so he only managed to raise her hackles. If she knew how to use real attacks, she'd fight him. Too bad.

Salem focused her attention on the shelter rather than on him, and he seemed to lose interest for a time, only to return not long after with a dead mouse, freshly caught. The glameow offered her the first bite, nudging the morsel towards her with his nose. She looked away. She still hated to trade pride for food, even now. He persisted a little while, before finally eating the mouse himself within earshot, punctuating each crunch with small growls of enjoyment that made Salem's belly growl in kind. As he did this, the shelter lights went out. That was Salem's cue to leave.

Every time Salem got up off her haunches to turn away from the shelter, her stomach stabbed at her resolve. When she'd spurned the mouse it had been bearable. Now, she'd been doing this for days and it was a constant gnawing in her gut. There were never enough hunting or scavenging opportunities to keep her strength up. She had made no allies. She had found no home. She wished she had not turned down the glameow tom, for perhaps she would have had several more meals, by now. Food, but also a friend. Sooner or later she would walk through that door and face whatever consequence awaited, or she would give up on ever walking in and eventually meet an unambiguously grim fate.

Tonight the human in the shelter was doing his peculiar ritual with the machine at the front desk. Soon he would start turning the lights off. Last chance to go to him tonight. Last chance before another cold and hungry sleep. Somewhere in the street, she was sure the eyes of another local feral pokémon were trained on her. Last chance.

Salem emerged from under the bushes and approached the shelter door, feeling the moon's light on her fur like teeth.

XxX​
 
Chapter 5: What You Don't Know
Author's Note:

Delicious. Finally some good fucking plot.

This was another tricky one to write by virtue of being yet another frankendraft. My thanks to my friends and beta readers for helping me workshop the damn thing. The next chapter is practically already drafted and the chapter art's been just about done for ages, thank goodness! Expect it soon. Chapter art for this chapter isn't done yet, I'll get round to it.

Chapter-specific CWs:

Implied blood.

Chapter Changelog:

Expect a number of improvements to the prose in a week or so when I've had a chance to implement feedback from folks! And the chapter art... eventually.


Chapter 5

What You Don't Know

"Get the fuck up, everyone! It's another wonderful training day!"

Salem wailed softly into her pillow. Human sleep schedules were an insult to good sense, and her hybrid brain did not seem to have picked up their predilection for diurnal living. Crepuscular, crepuscular, that's what she was. She rolled the word around in her mouth. Yes, she was a creature of long sleeps and twilight hours.

"Salem, I'm going to kick your ass. You get to choose whether I do it in here, or in the gym!"

Salem turned her head to levy a weary glare at her friend. "I don't care about training. Want to find Laura."

The sneasel hybrid shrugged expansively. "We're gonna talk to Alisha about that just as soon as she's back from her trip. Remember you said she was the only human you wanted to ask? Come on, it's training time!"

"Why does this matter, tell me again?"

Dusk laughed. "Pokémon love to fight! Didn't you want to be a League fighter with your Laura? Don't you want to see what morphs are capable of in a battle?"

"No," lied Salem. "I want to only sleep."

"I'll give you my croissants if you come to training with me."

That, tragically, was too powerful an incentive.

Salem rolled out of bed and hissed half-heartedly at Dusk, who beamed at her cheerfully and threw a lazy salute. How was she already dressed? Her other roommate, the gallade-morph called Eliza, wasn't even dressed yet and she was all serious looks and hard work. Did Dusk even sleep?

As was becoming routine, Salem blasted herself in the shower, wriggled into her uniform, and skulked out of the dorm after Dusk, Eliza having gone ahead already without fanfare. The sneasel did her morning ritual of thumping the corridor wall a few paces along with her fist. The morphs in the neighbouring dorm cried out in protest as always, and Dusk snickered quietly to herself as they headed to the battle grounds.

They passed by the canteen on their way to training, and while she could go eat, it would mean missing out on early morning combat instruction, and therefore missing out on doing it with Dusk (and also disappointing Dusk) who insisted that food before a fight put you at risk of cramps. So instead she just inhaled the smells coming from the hall as they passed, shuddered a little with anticipation, and rolled her eyes back in her head as she imagined eating something hot and buttery after training. And seconds. Yes please.

The coliseum's gymnasium configuration was a wide open space, making use of the largest indoor area in the facility to host everything a morph could need to physically or mentally train for fitness and for combat. Chalk lines indicated battle spaces, scuffed by repeated use and scorched by fire and lightning from previous combatants. Mundane exercise equipment stood ready for building a stronger physique. Dummies stood by for target practice. A racing track encircled the room, around which some morph or group of morphs was often running at any time of day. Salem waved hesitantly to Eliza, breaking a sweat on a pull-up bar, and received a terse nod in reply. Dusk, as always, waited for Salem with that sharp grin.

Class proper would begin shortly. For now, though, Dusk would play teacher.

"What are we trying today?" she asked, sing-song.

Salem had an answer prepared this time.

"Teach me how to fight," she said, eyes dilating. Her first few days of training had been heavy on stretches, exercises, and obstacle courses. Her only literal 'fight' since stepping in her tank had been the snowball fight a few days back. But dummies that never fought back were boring; she felt ready for more.

The grin showed every one of Dusk's carnivore teeth.

"Okay, Southpaw."

Another nickname, a reference to Salem's dominant left hand. She wondered if every morph collected nicknames like she did.

Dusk taught her a new stance first, for defence. Then, a handful of punches, swipes, kicks and blocks. The sneasel was confident in every one of them, as if she had learnt them years ago, rather than days. The rapid learning effect was still in play, it seemed.

"Ready?"

"I think so."

"Then show me!"

Dusk waited for Salem to approach with a strike, then just as she wound back an arm, Dusk jabbed her in the side with curled knuckles. Painful! But better than claws.

Salem spat, and went in again, this time with a lunge. The moment she did, Dusk was on her left, landing a blow on her back. Hiss!

Wild strikes, fast and plentiful – Dusk ducked and dodged, then kicked her in the shins when she ran out of momentum.

"Is this really training?" Salem yowled, bitterly.

"No talking during training!" said Dusk, all teeth and glee.

Dusk's jabs, scratches, and smacks all stung, but Salem wasn't tired out yet. Within a few more good blows she became used to it, her anger wore off, and she could keep her mind on the fight.

Breathing hard and dodging strikes, Salem realised that this wasn't a matter of effort, like in physical training. Nor was it like the fights she'd had as a purrloin. This was more of a puzzle. She could fight and think simultaneously. It was almost like being her own pokémon trainer. She could make a plan.

"Don't slow down, hit me!" cried Dusk.

Salem tried a few more jabs, not really expecting them to land, and looked for what Dusk did in response.

'Southpaw,' Dusk had called her at the start. Her opponent was always moving to her left, Salem realised. That way, Dusk kept making it harder for Salem to swing with any force with her stronger left paw. It was obvious. Anger flooded into her head. Stupid! She'd missed it! But she could use this.

Salem went in for a jab: a feint! And swung hard with her right fist.

There was a dull crack, sharp pain in her fingers, two cries of surprise – her own and Dusk's.

"Are you okay?" she yelped.

But the grin was bigger than ever.

"Nice! Good! Yes!" shouted Dusk, eyes wild. "That's what I want! Do it again!"

She got to her feet without help and came at Salem. On the defence now, Salem put up her arms as she'd been taught. Block, block – it was painful, but it saved her face… And it let her hit back.

Dusk's wild energy was infectious, and Salem took on the same furious aspect. Block, block, strike, strike, strike. Nothing else. Not even the pain.

Salem learnt fast, even for a morph. Dusk's attacks weren't terrifying threats now – block, strike, block – they were rote. Easy. She was even faster than she needed to be. She was weightless, tireless, limitless!

She knocked a jabbing arm to the side and caught Dusk on the throat.

Dusk's eyes flashed, then her claws. Her next attack was instantaneous, powerful, and impossible to block.

Someone – herself? Salem wasn't sure – cried out. She staggered back, clutching at her own neck.

"Salem! I didn't mean—"

A tumble backward; a flinch as her head hit floor. The ceiling and its many bright lights. There were so few shadows in the gym. There was metal-scent in the air, and wetness on her fur. Her head rang.

She mumbled something unclear. She didn't feel much of anything, not yet, but she had the vague notion that very soon she would be in a great deal of pain.

Someone was tending to her.

Had she made a mistake?

Maybe she'd got something wrong.

XxX​

"It's a good thing hybrids are almost as tough as pokémon," someone was saying, in a voice that sounded almost human but for a soft, insistent reverberation, like an echo in the skull.

"Eliza?" muttered Salem. She blinked away the stars in her eyes and saw the gallade girl, eyes fixed on Salem's head. Up close, Eliza looked more human than any morph, but for her porcelain-white skin and slate-grey head crest.

"Yes. You'll be alright in a moment; you haven't sustained a concussion or serious blood loss. Just a knockout and a light wound. I've applied a potion. You ought to be fine by this afternoon."

Eliza raised a brow at Dusk, who was looking sheepish on the other side of Salem, and stood to leave. Dusk looked down at Salem and offered her a hand up. She took it.

"Feeling okay?" asked the sneasel.

Salem wet her lips, and touched the scab on her neck, then the bruise on her head. They weren't so bad.

"Yes. I have been hurt more badly than this. Before."

"Uh, okay. I'm glad you're okay. You did good. Really good! Just… Maybe don't go for the neck next time. We don't do that. Not unless— You don't do that."

Salem nodded, swallowed, and tried to focus on 'you did good.'

Dusk beckoned her over, and Salem followed her to the benches to the side of the sparring court. More of their classmates were present – including Veracity, to her chagrin – as was the absol-morph instructor, Whiskey. He nodded to her and gave a quick [well done] gesture to Eliza.

"Is anyone not ready?" he growled, once everyone had taken a seat. "Any problems?" No-one spoke. He grunted in approval. "Good. Let's begin."

Whiskey inclined his head and tapped the curved, bladed horn that crowned one side of his scalp. His claw made a sharp knocking sound as he tapped.

"Many of you have been staring at this thing," he began, without scorn in his tone. "I expect you've been thinking to yourselves that it must be quite a weapon. For a natural absol, it can be used on its own as a slashing implement, or serve as a focus for such attacks as megahorn. I could do the same. But – and pay attention, Sriracha – it is not the most important combat tool available to me by any means. Any guesses?"

Eliza's hand shot up. Whiskey waved at her to speak up while hardly looking at her.

"Your brain, sir?"

Whiskey chuckled just once, sharply. "Good answer. It wasn't a trick question, I'm looking for a physical weapon, but full credit for creative thinking."

"Claws?" called out Sriracha.

Whiskey squinted wearily at the blaziken. "Claws? What? No. Bad answer. Come on, third time's the charm, they say. Anyone? You, new morph. Take a guess."

Salem froze, the absol's scrutiny already enough to make her tail puff up.

"Uh."

The absol shook his head, and reached down for Salem's forearm. He took it and raised it up, shifting his grip up past her wrist as he did so.

"What is this?" snapped Whiskey. He gripped her paw in his such that he was pressing his thumb into the part of her palm nearest her fingers. The pressure made her splay her fingers and extend her claws. For a moment her hackles went up, but then she felt Dusk's lower leg against hers, and knew there was no danger. Her fur flattened a little.

"…What?"

"What is this thing I am holding?" he repeated.

"It's my paw?" she blurted, looking right up at him with her eyes dilated.

"What's it for?"

"I don't—"

"Your 'paw'," he demanded. "What is your paw for? What do you do with it?"

"Scratching," she said, instantly. But that didn't sound right in her ears even as she spoke it.

"Try again." He tilted his head at her expectantly.

"Signing," she said, correcting herself. "I sign more than I scratch. I… I communicate. That's right, isn't it? Communication is the weapon. Teamwork."

"It's a much better answer," he said, and dropped her paw to step back again. "We'll cover teamwork later, it's a bit advanced for now. Well done."

Whiskey faced his students, sighed deeply and asked, "Can anyone here explain what your 'paws' are for?"

There was a metallic shearing sound as Veracity raised her wing. Whiskey glanced at her, and she spoke up immediately.

"Whatever you need them for," she croaked. "A hand is capable of countless tasks, most of them more useful than inflicting small injuries on another creature."

Whiskey nodded, the corners of his mouth turning down pensively. "That is, in fact, word-for-word what I said the last time it came up in class. You have a keen memory."

The corviknight didn't even look pleased. Just somehow… confident. Salem didn't feel so hungry any more.

"Hands are capable of countless uses on their own," continued Whiskey, "including bothphysical attacks and signing, along with channelling elemental energy. They are also capable of using the many tools of humanity, designed to be held in human hands."

Whiskey's expression barely changed, but for a hint of smug satisfaction below his usual dourness.

"You'll learn about those in due time. For now, I'd like to demonstrate the value of hands in combat by subduing an opponent without using any typed attacks at all. Veracity?"

The corviknight-morph stood, and stepped forward wordlessly to stand near Whiskey. She stared down at him with avian coldness. The absol didn't miss a beat.

"Go ahead and attack me," he growled.

Veracity went for him in a flash of polished feathers, her arms gleaming with steel-type energy. Whiskey was ready for her.

Salem hardly followed the movements of the absol's body. He stepped to one side, took hold of Veracity's arm, and pulled her forward. In an instant, the corviknight was hurtling over Whiskey's back, arms akimbo, and then with a decisive lunge he had her pressed to the ground in a sprawl. He paused long enough to make his control of the situation clear, then stepped smartly back to allow Veracity to rise to her feet.

Their faces barely changed throughout. Salem's had turned into a gawp with ears pinned back in shock, just from watching. She could get her head around learning new and challenging combat techniques; she couldn't see herself ever being so calm and matter-of-fact as the instructor and his volunteer.

"Some more good answers I've had from other students include 'creativity' and 'misdirection'," remarked Whiskey, as he returned to his spot in front of the benches. "The bottom line is that hybrids have more options – you have more options – than natural weapons and typed attacks in a fight. For today's sparring sessions, I want to see creativity, misdirection, brains. Not just ordinary strikes. Impress me! Veracity will take the first challenge. Don't expect her to go easy on you."

The corviknight stood at ease in front of the class and waited quietly for someone to approach. That someone, very quickly, was Sriracha. He stood tall, stepped forward, and cracked his knuckles. When he did, flames sputtered into life around his wrists.

"I am an ace striker," he announced, with pride. "Very good at fighting."

Veracity bowed, just a little, and calmly strode to her side of the small battle court. Sriracha took his place with a cocky twirl and a trail of flame.

"We're gonna see who is the boss bird," whispered Dusk. Salem stifled a giggle.

Whiskey held up an arm.

"One round, win by technical knockout or yield. Standard rules apply. I want to see creative fighting, you two. You're hybrids, now."

Veracity nodded expressionlessly. Sriracha was focused on dancing from foot to foot, balling his fists, staring down his opponent. Whiskey growled under his breath.

"Match, begin!"

Sriracha cried out and resumed the odd twirling he'd done before, only faster, more purposeful. With each motion he thrust a claw out as if striking the air, and crowed sharply.

"Swords dance," commentated Whiskey, quietly.

Veracity watched without making a move of her own. She hardly blinked.

Sriracha brandished his blazing claws at her, cocking his head in confusion.

"The fight started!" he shouted. "Fight me!"

Veracity crossed her arms. "I am fighting you," she replied.

Sriracha scoffed with a harsh chirp and resumed his dancing motions. Veracity made no attempt to interrupt, until the blaziken's claws and beak were practically aglow with energy even after he came to a stop.

"Big mistake," he crowed. Then he struck.

Sriracha's body erupted in flames so bright that Salem shrank back from the heat, and he dashed headlong towards Veracity.

"Flare blitz," muttered Whiskey.

In the instant before he made contact, the corviknight braced herself, clutching her shoulders and drawing in a kind of orange light around herself.

"Endure," said Whiskey, with apparent relish.

Sriracha's body collided with Veracity's, and her metallic plumage glowed with the heat of the fire. Her feathers gave off grey smoke and a low roaring sound as they cooled. But she did not collapse. The orange light from before circled her body in a tight loop.

Without a word, she struck back. A feathered arm lashed out with enough power to send a shockwave through the air, and send Sriracha tumbling backwards like a plastic bag caught in the wind. His limbs thudded against the court ground as he rolled to a stop. He did not move except to utter a thoroughly winded moan.

"Reversal," announced Whiskey. "A move that grows in strength the closer the user is to fainting. Excellent technique." Then, after a few seconds, "Sriracha can no longer battle. Veracity wins."

Veracity nodded curtly to Whiskey, and walked off the court. She looked hardly able to stand. Eliza tossed a potion to her, and she caught it deftly. She didn't wince as she sprayed it on her injuries. Meanwhile, Eliza went to help Sriracha back to the benches.

"Striking power alone will not win battles, if your opponent can turn your strength against you," said Whiskey, firmly. "Use your intelligence to surprise and control your opponent, and to protect yourself."

Sriracha wheezed as he got to his feet. "That was a good trick," he gasped. "I won't fall for it again."

Whiskey chuckled. "I hope you're right. Stay alert, everyone, and remember: sometimes the best fighting move is no move at all."

Salem swallowed hard. She'd been digging her claws into her palms as she watched. She didn't even know how to use basic moves, yet, let alone how she could compete with fighters like these.

"I've had enough training today," she told Dusk.

"Okay," replied the sneasel. "I'll catch up later with Eliza. Let's go eat."

Dusk excused them both from the lesson, and Whiskey waved them away. Only when there was a closed door between Salem and Veracity did her appetite return.

XxX​

"Picking at it won't help it heal."

Salem sighed and shoved her left paw in her pocket. Dusk was grinning again, at least, although not in the same mad, toothy way as usual.

"It will get better," said Salem, flatly.

"If I catch you picking again, I'm putting your bandages back on."

"You can try."

Salem returned to picking at her food instead. While she had savoured the warm, buttery breakfast pastries she craved, and devoured a small collection of meats, Taylor had insisted she also eat fruit and vegetables to supply her modified nutritional needs. She didn't like the sound of suffering poor health from not meeting those needs. She didn't much like fruit and vegetables either. She ran her tongue over her back teeth, feeling their edges, their sharp points. They were meat-tearing teeth. Not meant for 'greens.'

"It's this or the supplements," said Dusk, for what seemed like the hundredth time.

"I know."

"The pills aren't so bad, you know."

"You said this already."

She continued to sulk towards her plate, until the silence was broken not by Dusk, but by Sriracha.

"Hello, ladies!" he said, sitting down opposite them with much clicking of claws on the tiled floor.

"Hello, Sauce," said Dusk, showing far too much of her upper teeth.

Sriracha's face instantly collapsed into a displeased frown.

"I don't call you dumb things," he said, wattles quivering.

"Only because you can't think of anything to call me," retorted Dusk, jeering at him.

The blaziken stared at each of them in turn, using only one eye to do so, turning his head to the side like a bird.

"Why don't you like me?" he asked, earnestly. "I'm very cool. Everyone likes me."

Dusk laughed so hard her eyes scrunched up and she slapped the table. "You're so full of yourself!"

"What else would I be full of?" he asked, sincerely.

While Dusk continued laughing, Salem looked Sriracha over.

The blaziken, like Veracity, was another morph markedly dissimilar to herself. Mammals made up most of the population of morphs that she'd had any interaction with, and they at least had ears and fur and plenty of more-or-less the same body language as her, but he was avian, and it showed. His feathers puffed up and shivered at almost any stimulation. A proud beak dominated his face, which did not seem to trouble him when he spoke or ate, but Salem imagined could deal a seriously painful bite. His wattles jiggled when he jolted his head this way and that, which he did constantly. He could look to the side while keeping his head still if he wanted – every morph had that human talent now – but he made very little effort to adapt to his new form.

Salem had seen an un-morphed blaziken in some of the League matches she'd watched with Laura. They were already so much like humans. Perhaps the physical change wasn't meaningful to him. The change to his mind didn't seem to matter much either. Why had he agreed to the Change?

"Being full of yourself means you like yourself too much," she told him, inducing further laughter from the sneasel. "It's . . . dangerous."

Sriracha made an odd noise in his beak that she didn't understand.

"Not liking myself would be bad," he said, as if discussing today's lunch options. "I'm very good at fighting, and that's good. I'm good."

Conversation with less articulate morphs wasn't quite the stimulating experience Salem hoped for in a social encounter. Sriracha was perhaps the best example of such a morph.

While she was thinking of something else to say, Dusk recovered from her giggling fit and spoke up for her.

"You haven't fought me yet," said the sneasel. Despite her persistent grin, there was an edge to it. When Dusk was serious, her eyes didn't crease as much. The inflection at the end of her words went down, instead of up. Salem could tell.

"I'd beat you," replied Sriracha, his head tilting further to the side. "Fire beats ice. Fighting beats both ice and dark. I'd beat you easily."

Dusk shook her head, slowly. "Nah. You don't know what real fighting is, Sauce. When we get paired up in practice, you'll learn."

Sriracha apparently didn't have any way to respond to that, or didn't think it was worth replying to, so after a few seconds of intense avian concentration he gave up and spoke to Salem instead.

"Don't worry, Purrloin! You will get good at fighting very fast, faster than you think. And then you won't be hurt as easy or as bad! Good luck!"

He stood from the canteen bench and wandered off, neatly avoiding any further barbed remarks from Dusk.

"Why are you so mean to him?" asked Salem, out of pure curiosity.

"He's an idiot," replied Dusk, not looking up from her food. "I don't like that. Being an idiot gets people killed."

Dusk didn't go on to elaborate on this point, and Salem had no knowledge as of yet on how idiocy got you killed, but her human imagination provided her with several violent ideas about how you could get killed for being an idiot.

She was profoundly committed to not being an idiot.

She was not especially confident about whether she was one or not.

As the pair finished their food, the skitty-morph, Heather, pushed the canteen doors open and dashed several feet forward, clutching her tail. The doors had swung shut on it the day before when she'd become distracted on her way in, Salem recalled. This time, however, the doors swung shut only slowly, their momentum controlled by some kind of mechanism atop the hinges.

"Good," said Salem, firmly. "My tail is safe."

Dusk chuckled. "Told you it was worth it to complain about the doors."

The suggestion box was a new fixture in the morph lounge, installed shortly after Salem had moved into her dorm. It was a grey cylinder about the size of someone's head, with a thin slot on the upper face, and a small writing table beside it. A pad of paper and a pen were provided for the morphs, who were welcome to make complaints and requests and place them inside. Salem wasn't literate yet, but Dusk could scribe for her, as could the human staff when they weren't busy.

"Why not just talk to someone?" Salem had asked, when she'd first seen it. "Ask them with words? Talk about it?"

Dusk had shrugged. "Well, what if you can't find them? Or you're shy?"

[What is the meaning of] "shy" [please?]

"Oh it's like…" [Being scared, but in deference, not of a threat]

"I'm not shy!"

"Yes but someone might be shy, and they can use the box! Anyway, it helps to have your ask written down so nobody will forget it. Right?"

Bickering had broken out any time someone wanted to use the box, at first. The mightyena, Bramble, deemed it "official" and "human" and therefore inexplicable and best avoided, and several morphs followed his lead. It lasted a tense afternoon, until Dusk started submitting joke requests. She'd made dozens of them, asking for everything from a new battle court inside the canteen, to a delivery service to bring breakfast to her dorm. After that, other morphs felt more comfortable making actual requests.

It seemed that the first one to get a response was canteen doors that don't slam shut. Several morphs had submitted that one, including Salem.

Dusk flashed a confident smile. "Do you feel better about asking for help to see Laura, now?"

Salem pursed her lips, hesitantly thrashed her tail, and then nodded to Dusk.

Yes. The suggestion box was good.

XxX​

When they reached the morph lounge, something was wrong.

Salem could hear chatter. More than just loud chatter, in fact. There was always some casual conversation to be heard, and morphs often spoke loudly when excited. This time it had a sharpness to it. There were people being loud not for fun, but to shout each other down.

"—had it up to here with your naivety," one voice was saying. "You should expect more of yourself than preening, flexing and strutting about as if your past life still matters!"

It sounded familiar, but Salem didn't quite recognise the speaker.

"I don't like you! And I don't like the things you say! I'm right and you're bad!"

Salem easily distinguished the second voice as Sriracha's.

Dusk looked at Salem with a frown and put a clawed finger to her lips. [Shush!]

"We should make no noise ourselves," she said, "or we will be part of the fight."

Salem signed an anxious [huh?] in return.

[Shush!] again, this time with a roll of the eyes.

Salem took the point, and was careful to open the doors without drawing attention to herself. They slipped through and saw Sriracha and Eliza in the middle of the lounge, standing with their faces barely a foot apart and yelling at each other, his wattle quivering and her eyes narrowed. The roundness of the room lent itself to a kind of circle of morphs, all looking in. They stood just off from the blaziken and the gallade, variously trying to talk over the argument, fidgeting nervously, or enjoying the spectacle.

"You're still thinking like a brainless young League sweeper," Eliza shouted, hands balled into fists at her side. "You're not a blaziken any more, you're a hybrid! You're human as well as pokémon! More human!"

Sriracha was alternately yelling back, making explosive avian vocalisations, and signing furiously with sparks bursting from his wrists as he did.

"I was a League sweeper! The best!" [I could knock you out, easily! I'm warning you!] "I'm not stupid! You're stupid!"

Salem's ears flattened back against her head. "He says things without thinking," she observed.

[Shush!] from Dusk again, but the grin was back.

Dusk led Salem around the gaggle of hybrids and hopped up on one of the couches. Salem joined her. The view was better from the back of a couch.

The shouting continued, only now the two of them weren't even stopping when the other spoke, and Sriracha's wrists had lit up with flickering flames. Eliza hadn't brandished the spurs that protruded from her elbows yet. She never had before now, not outside of training.

"What's going to happen?" asked Salem.

Eliza and Sriracha could hurt each other. That could happen. It could be bad, bad enough to send one of both of them to the infirmary.

She dug a claw into her palm.

Dusk shrugged. "Eliza isn't an idiot, she's just angry. She can kick his ass without anything going wrong. It's fine. I think that will happen, actually. I want to see them have an actual battle."

Salem's heart jumped. She used to watch League fights with Laura, back home. Her heart had jumped then, like she'd been part of the battles just by seeing them.

"I think I do too," she said, so quietly she didn't think Dusk would hear.

In the centre of the circle, Eliza's spurs extended away from her arms, and she raised her fists. Sriracha's wrists flared hot.

A sharp bang jolted a dozen morph heads away from the fight as the double doors of the main corridor slammed open.

"I know I've been away for a couple days," called out the human now entering the lounge, "but I don't remember this being the training grounds."

Alisha.

Salem's ears perked and her tail quivered as her current favourite human returned. And a day early! This was wonderful!

Eliza retracted her spurs and stepped smartly back, eyes raised to stare at the wall somewhere above Sriracha's head. Sriracha crossed his arms and let his wrists smoulder against his shirt. Alisha strode forwards, waving her hands at the morphs in loose pokésign to break up the circle. She sighed as she addressed the would-be combatants.

"Honestly, you two. Whatever it is you're bickering about can go to your counsellors, and if you must beat each other up, you ought to be doing it with supervision. Mike's on duty in the gym. Now, do you really want to fight?"

Sriracha nodded like his head was about to come off. Eliza didn't reply, still staring.

"Right, well, go to your dorms and cool your heads, and if you still want to punch each other, you go find Mike and get him to referee it. Understand?"

Sriracha bobbed his head. Eliza hesitated, then gave a terse, "Yes, Alisha."

"Right. Clear off then. You'd have upset yourselves if you'd trashed your own lounge, huh? Yeah, I thought so. I'll see you two later."

Eliza turned sharply on her heels and walked directly away. Sriracha took a moment longer, but then left in the opposite direction. Alisha brushed a lock of hair to the side and shook her head.

"Ex-League 'mon, huh," she muttered. "Mew's marbles, what a pain."

Salem poured herself off the couch and padded around to Alisha's side.

"Heya," she said, waving and smiling. "Was your thing good?"

"Mm?" Alisha turned to her, and chuckled. "Oh, hey there," [Hello, Pickpocket!] "Yeah, it was a good trip. You'll have a few morphs junior to you a month from now. What's up?"

Salem glanced to Dusk, who nodded encouragingly and came to join her.

"My old human," Salem began, not having rehearsed for this. "Laura. I'm thinking about her. I want to see her; I want to talk to her."

She groaned at frustration at her ever-clumsy words, and tried to get to the heart of it.

"Alisha… Please, help me?"

Alisha raised a hand and pressed its knuckles to her lips. She looked thoughtful. That could mean help was coming. Or disappointment.

"Most morphs have no interest in contacting anyone from their old life," mused Alisha. "It's… Well, it's not something I've been asked to handle, before."

Dusk cleared her throat.

"You promised me something about my old life before I was Changed," she said, quietly, in a tone of voice Salem hadn't heard from her before. "This is what Salem would ask, if she could ask first. I don't think it will be very hard to find this human. It is not a big thing to ask for. You should agree to do this."

Alisha considered this further, with her head tipped and her gaze askew.

Salem dug her claws into her palm. Maybe, if Alisha said no, Salem could just insist, the way she had with the nurses.

At last, Alisha threw up her hand and nodded. "I'll look into it," she said. "But I can't promise I'll find her, or that I can do much besides that. These things are tricky. We try very hard to keep you safe, you know. Not to attract attention from dangerous sorts. But look… At the very least, I can say I'll try my best."

For a moment, Salem was weightless. Aloft, and full of brightness. She forgot how to speak and sign. She panicked for a second, then she put her head forward and pressed it against Alisha's hand.

The human laughed, and patted her on the shoulder. "Okay, yeah, you're welcome. Sure thing. Laura, right?"

Salem nodded in confirmation.

"Okay, that's a start. What else can you tell me about her?"

Salem did her best to supply information, with the occasional clarifying comment from Dusk, who'd figured out what parts of Galarish were hard for her. Laura, an only child of a snow-blanketed city home to many snom and frosmoth. Gone to university somewhere Salem couldn't follow. Dark hair, pale skin, green eyes to match Salem's.

"I'll try and look her up when I have a free minute," agreed Alisha, fiddling with the cuff of her dress shirt, "and see about getting you in touch. Take care, you two." Then, in sign, [Goodbye, little Pickpocket. Bye, Setting Sun.]

Salem stood and watched Alisha leave. Her fingers on one hand twitched to the beat of the seconds going by, as if by counting them, she'd somehow hasten Alisha's return. Would she actually find Laura? Would Laura want to see Salem again? Her breath caught. Was Laura even okay?

"Hey."

She looked around at Dusk, and signed a small thanks to her, with a sheepish smile. The sneasel laughed.

"Nice one. Now stop worrying about it. If we are fast, maybe we can go to the coliseum in time to see Eliza beat up Sauce. Would you like that?"

Salem had run out of words for the morning, so she just raised both hands, thumbs sticking up. [Strong approval,] that meant. A good sign.

Dusk grinned.

"Race you there?"

A race? Sure! Salem accepted by stealing a head start, running right past Dusk in the direction of the coliseum, her laughing friend close behind.
 
Hey UA!! It's been a long time coming but I'm finally here to review Different Eyes! Even if Beth's reviewing event was the cause, it was an excuse to finally catch up and read the rewrites!

I'm not going to focus on spelling or grammar errors since I always missed those especially in my own writings and rambles, so I'm going to just look at the rewrite chapters and comment on some stuff.

Chapter 1:
-I just love the text that goes throughout while Salem is in the tube morphing (must resist Power Rangers reference) into a half-human kinda going into what if's and what not's of what would happen if she didn't go through all of this.
-Looking over this, it feels like Dusk is given a lot more special attention than the other morphs since I feel like they're in the know more than others since they were given specific details about Salem while later in Ch.5 Salem is just given saying she'll be a sempai senior to more morphlings. Was Dusk the first out of this batch? Though it looks like Church has more agency than most of them.

Chapter 2: Insert System Errors defilement of the art to add "I'm an Airplane" into the photo here.
-Okay, even Dusk doesn't get into the special areas.
-Alisha seems to give up very quickly when Salem demands she starts experiencing walking, talking as soon as possible.
-They learn very quickly? How is that conceived? The change process causes a temporary expanded and quicker brain activity to catch them up on the necessary materials?
-So I assume Dusk sent the heated water bottle? I might missed it going over, but kinda strange they were able to send it in and Salem is kept in the dark while they aren't.
Any time her mind went unoccupied, it was like she was back there, with Laura gone, waiting.
-I love this line, she is still waiting no matter how long.

Chapter 3:
-I just love Dusk's jacket/over-shirt in the art.

"I'm a sneasel," she continued, the -'morph' part left unsaid. "I guess you're a purrloin, maybe? Yeah. I saw you freaking out and wanted to help. We can be friends, but it's okay if you sit somewhere else next time. I'll even help you pick." Dusk smirked a little at Salem's extended silent stare. "Hey. You talking much yet?"
But you knew about her ahead of time Dusk, didn't you? I love you Dusk but don't make me seem suspicious of you.
-Eliza is a female Gallade, huh? Wonder how that happened..
-Whiskey the Absol Hybrid as a stern teacher seems like a bad idea in my book, since it can strike the wrong reactions out of these folks. Granted, I know they don't want to give these folks the wrong impression on the outside world but it still begs the question.
-How many morphs are there? The common room seems to imply a lot more than one would think. I understand the test tube but so many in what seems like a short amount of time, I hope none of them destabilized.
-Man, Veracity, you're a jerk in the first sentence.
-Dusk seems strangely assured Veracity seems to be a non-problem. What does this Sneasel know!?
-The Colosseum seems also like a strange fit for this. I understand they're still Pokémon in a way but they still encourage battling despite now being human and probably even more susceptible to damage due to human half.
-Dusk and Salem now share a room? That is some influence this Sneasel may have.

Chapter 4:
-Salem refused to be a cat. Kinda like that reversal, some people would like to be a cat and sleep all day but Salem doesn't.
-Ah Meowth, good to see you again. Even though I haven't watch the anime in years and I'm sick of you.
-I know how you feel Laura in that argument, I have that problem sometimes you have argument but you can never say it cause everyone interrupts.
-Huh, you mention Japan but Galarish is used instead of English. Unless you use Japan as a subset for all four Japanese regions (Kanto, Johto, Hoenn and Sinnoh).
-Giving up on your dreams suck. Give this girl Laura a hug!!

"Strays, outdoor pets, urban ferals… they're all going missing at a scary rate. It's even happening here, there're posters on half the street lamps between here and school. You know, 'missing pokémon, Hammershire Lillipup, call this number, hundred quid reward' type stuff. I'm not letting that be you."
Strays? Did you kidnap Orion!? Joking aside, this still puts up the idea of how quickly they're seemingly creating Morphlings.

-And the parents don't even care for Salem. To be left alone, wondering for Laura.
-So she chose to basically be kidnapped? Honestly, I think I preferred her volunteering in a way in the older drafts, but it adds more mystery to the company.

Being human would mean never being cold, or hungry, or lonely.
-Yeah, about that Salem....

Chapter 5:
-Those must be some really good croissants if they can be used as a bribe.
-Is Dusk a dorm leader in a way with them waking the dorm? Is that why they get so much strange leeway?
-Whiskey says he's looking for a physical weapon, but brings up teamwork which isn't really one in a way though the paw/hand is more in line I guess.
-I'm still confuse on why they want them to fight, this doesn't make a good sign for me.
-Dusk can excused them from the lessons? Or just Whiskey doesn't care?
-And the fights begin, this is the problem I was expecting.
-Hm, I do find it strange Alisha is allowing Salem to try to get in contact with Laura somehow and the suspicious part of me is not trusting Dusk again with how much influence they have somehow.
-Now I wonder what will happen? Will this company about Laura or actually reunite the two?

And that's all. It was great to return to this and see all the changes, I'm looking forward to more updates whenever they happen. I'm not really into Pokémon as full-fledge speaking characters centered stories like PMD but you drew me in with your great world and I really want to see more. Keep up the great work UA!!
 
Chapter 6: Longest Night
Author's Note:

Sorry about the absurd delay on this one. I promise, I’m never giving up on this fic, and still have a substantial amount pre-written and planned, it’s just that my life has been too hectic to prioritise a passion project like this lately. I’m fine, and my support network is strong, I’ve much less to deal with of late, and I’m getting long-awaited medical care I sorely need, so hopefully my rate of progress will improve~

I hope you guys like POV-switching, ‘cause it’s time to show off what normal human-pokémon relations are like. I’ve been excited to post this one for a while and could get very carried away talking about the creative process for it, so instead I’ll just say that I’m glad Laura’s in the fic and leave it at that.

Chapter-specific CWs:

Depressive/anxious POV.

Chapter Changelog:

N/A

7616d93c6ec93b436ad66633aa8820ccf445bfc5.pnj


Chapter 6

Longest Night


The thing about trying to get sleep on a train was how easily you got woken up again. Ticket inspectors, obnoxious passengers, the juddering of the window against your skull if your head tilted the wrong way. This time it was an alert on her phone. A press expanded her notifications to reveal a text from Mum hassling her for updates, worthless emails marketing last-minute Longest Night gifts…

No new replies in any of her DMs.

Figures.

She tapped out a quick reply: Gonna walk home, no need to pick me up at the station, won’t be hungry for anything. Thanks. A little ‘x’ to appease Mum’s demand for affection while avoiding an actual ‘I love you’.

She stared at her messaging app for a minute, as if she could generate a new message from the aether. Nothing.

Laura Weir, human, was nineteen years old when she had already lost most of the friends she would ever make. She’d definitely meet new people – if only through classes and a career – but she’d already hit Peak Friend and it would be a falling trend from here.

After all, she was a fuck-up.

A pool of sick heat stirred in her guts. She got that same acid feeling with every stern voicemail from her dad, every shit grade for a piece of coursework, every time her classmates failed to notice she existed. Laura had left campus hours ago, but her course – and the nausea it gave her – was inescapable. Even watching the green countryside of Galar breeze past brought no relaxation, just a slowly-intensifying awareness of time wasted since she last studied, and a chance to catch her reflection in the train window. She had the kind of bags under the eyes that made a girl wanna rethink her life. She put a hand to her face to brush hair from her eyes, and ended up scratching at a stray scab. Stop that. Gotta study.

Laura smothered the urge to drown her brain in useless smartphone bullshit and turned to her textbooks once again. She hunched over the booth’s table and held her heavy head scarcely six inches away from the pages, elbows on either side. Her eyes slid off the walls of text as if they’d been greased. Jargon. Buzzwords. Garbage.

Howls afar, fuck this.

Her eyes felt leaden. She endured perpetual headaches. She berated herself mentally every other bloody minute. Yeah, reading finance with an emphasis on risk assessment at the Wyndon School of Economics was fucking killing her slowly. What was the point in going home for the holidays if all she got to do was revise?

Well. She’d get to see Salem. That would be worth it, at least until she had to leave again.

What she actually wanted was Salem with her on campus, for starters, but there was slim chance that would ever happen. Best not to dwell. As the scenery went by unseen, she worked her way through the pencil, partly from taking notes, but mostly from her habit of eating the fucking things. Disgusting. She jammed it underneath her leg.

Laura’s pencil-chewing certainly hadn’t been in force before starting uni. Now any time something bothered her, she would find one between her teeth without the slightest involvement from her brain. Graphite sure tasted foul, but forcing herself not to use a pencil made her clench her jaw until it ached. She once tried chewing gum instead, and soon earned herself a spot of indigestion. So, pencil-ends it was. Better pencils than fingernails.

The pencils came out for deadlines, missed calls, conversations with strangers, doomscrolling online, whatever. How long had she been staring out of the window, thinking about how unhappy she was…?

The pencil was back between her teeth. She spat it out. She’d never needed to chew shit back when she could just scratch Salem’s chin any time she got strung out.

In lieu of her own purrloin, maybe there’d be pokémon on the train she could talk to… Trainers weren’t uncommon on domestic rail, right? But who approached strangers on public transport to talk to their pokémon? In Galar? Nutcases, and Unovans on holiday.

All the same, she’d love to talk to a trainer. Any trainer. A badass pro like Marnie, a rookie kid, whoever. She could ask about their team, and what they’d seen out in the wilds, and feel like it was all a little less far away. It would be comforting, the same way it was comforting to search online for pokémon-friendly workplaces. That was normal in Galar. For fuck’s sake, practically any field would let her work with pokémon, anything but fucking finance.

Her eyes fell on a snapback trainer’s cap further down the carriage. Worth a try. A minute later, with her luggage tucked into the overhead storage, she approached the wearer and gave a shy little wave. A strip on the boy’s collar held a trio of pokéballs. Perfect.

“Uh, hi?” said the kid, looking up from his phone.

“Uh… Hey. You’re a trainer, right?” she asked, anxious jitters multiplying in her limbs already.

“Yeah? Yeah. Can I help you?”

Laura laughed nervously. “I was just wondering if I could see any of your pokémon… I don’t see a lot of tame ‘mon on campus.”

The boy gave her a bit of a look, and Laura nearly started apologising for even asking, but then he scoffed, smiled, and reached for his collar.

“Sure. In the Longest Night spirit, why not. ‘Do a favour for a stranger.’ He’ll be grumpy that I’m waking him, though. Got any snacks?”

“I have a granola bar?”

The trainer shrugged, and maximised a pokéball. One firm finger-press, and it popped open with that distinctive hollow smack sound, silver energy coalescing in the nearest train seat. When the glow faded, a jade-and-crimson lizard barely shorter than Laura sat there, human-like, returning her stare with a cool, wary gaze. He made a sort of clicking growl, and tilted his head in the most casual sign there was: [Huh?]

The thing about most reptilian pokémon was that they tended not to be particularly social. But grovyle were official starter ‘mon in many regional circuits; they were one of those evolutionary lines that natural selection had happened to make into traditional partners for human travellers. Smart. Loyal. Not to be condescended to.

Laura gave a nod and made a few quick signs – [Hello. Your partner says you are hungry.] – and presented her snack bar. Grovyle peered at it with his head at a sharp angle, then took it in one vicious-looking claw. He looked like a battler, all quick movement and lean muscle. The gloss of his scales made Laura want to touch them.

[Who’s this?] signed Grovyle, somehow managing to look sassy. His trainer shrugged, and Grovyle shrugged back, then tore open the packaging with a razor-sharp claw. His crest-leaf quivered with excitement even though his face remained impassive.

Laura watched Grovyle eat the food, noting how he held it almost like a human, but did not chew. A brief crunch broke it into pieces, in a jaw full of needlepoint teeth. She felt the perplexed gaze of Grovyle’s trainer on her, wondering why she was so taken with a pokémon eating food. Of course, he would have seen this countless times. It was only fascinating to Laura because she hadn’t seen shit. It was embarrassing, really.

[I wanted to meet a pokémon who battles,] she explained, surprising herself. Grovyle watched her, hardly blinking. She continued, [I have been apart from my partner for a long time and I promised that when I see her again, I’d help her become strong. You look very strong. Like I want to help my partner be.]

Grovyle turned his head further, to peer at her more closely with one yellow eye. Then he signed, deftly, in abrupt bursts. Reptile-accented signing was so unlike what Laura usually saw from Salem, and he was so fluent. A guilty part of her mind wondered if Salem would ever be half as articulate as this.

[I am pretty strong,] signed Grovyle, whose throat had flared a brighter red in response to the praise. [However, strength in battle comes from pokémon and human, together. I am stronger with a strong trainer. I am weaker with a weak trainer.] He made the wavering motion with one claw and cocked-head that meant [So…?]

Laura bit her lip. The most important thing in the world just then was to give this lizard a good answer. She tried: slow, deliberate hand gestures, the ‘flexing/pushing’ motion for strength, indicator signs…

[If I want my partner to be strong, I have to be strong.]

Grovyle nodded, then he stuck his tongue out at her and tipped his head up. Clear approval. Laura’s shoulders untensed in relief.

[So be strong,] signed Grovyle. [That is my advice.]

Laura smiled, taking care not to show teeth. “Thank you,” she said. She considered asking to touch Grovyle’s scales. Maybe he’d object… but she had to try, right?

[May I touch you?]

Grovyle put his head on one side. [Do you have more food?]

“[Sorry, no.]”

[Then no. I would like to go back in my ball now, thank you and goodbye.]

Laura nodded, and Grovyle’s trainer bemusedly held out the pokéball for retrieval. Grovyle dipped his head at Laura – [Nice meeting you.] – and tapped the ball with his claw, only to vanish in a flicker of light.

Laura smiled awkwardly at the trainer. “[Thanks,]” she managed, still signing over her spoken words out of habit.

“What was that all about?” he asked, looking up from his phone.

Laura shrugged. “Stuff.”

The kid grunted, and thus seemed to consider the conversation concluded. Laura returned to her seat with a tiny smirk playing at the corner of her mouth. A circuit ace ‘mon had given her advice. And she’d signed a conversation! She wasn’t all that out of practice after all. Hopefully Salem wouldn’t be either, despite Mum and Dad refusing to bother learning sign for her sake. Either way, it would be good to get home and talk to her bloody purrloin again, priceless little shit that she was. Howls, she’d be so glad to see Salem.

XxX​

Four hours later, she was standing in the living room with her rucksack still slung on one shoulder, facing her parents, the acid churning in her gut like crazy. Just her and her parents in the room. Nobody on her side. No-one, anywhere, was on her fucking side.

She didn’t have a pencil. Her hand went to her mouth, and her teeth closed around a knuckle.

There she was. Eyes wide, staring at the floor, stone-still. Almost drawing blood.

She’d gone all semester without knowing. Without hearing an update, or seeing a cute photo sent by SMS, let alone having a video call.

We didn’t want to distract you from your studies, love.”

We thought she might come back. You know how cats are.”

But Salem wasn’t like that. She wasn’t a disinterested purrloin, only caring for a warm bed and some supper. Salem had never gone walkabout for a week and been found in someone else’s kitchen. She was a companion – a pokémon who would have been her League starter. Salem was always there, at home, waiting for her, eager to be together. Waiting.

It made sense, though. Her purrloin had practically begged for her to give her more than a handful of visits a year, and she’d brushed off the request like it was a demand for bigger food portions.

Salem always waited. Every time. Practically at the front door.

She had expected Salem to wait for her like that for three months.

Salem had abandoned her— no. No. She had abandoned Salem.

How dare she be shocked and hurt? This was her fault.

“Laura? Laura, look at me when I’m talking to you.”

She raised her eyes, but she couldn’t look at her father’s face. She clenched her fists tight enough to hurt, and put her line of sight on his sallow neck. Maybe she could just let him lecture her and nod just often enough that eventually it would end, and she could go to her room and think without being scolded.

Then Gordon Weir said what he loved to say.

“Don’t let this distract you from your studies,” he said.

Don’t waste time caring about the only living thing you can count on to be kind to you.

All that matters is that you keep doing this miserable thing you’re no fucking good at.


Laura’s peripheral vision faded as her eyes welled up and a red, serrated buzzing began to boil in her brain. Hot, loud static passed over her head, down her shoulders, and into the skin and sinew of her arms.

It doesn’t matter if you’re never happy again. Merry bloody Longest Night, Laura.

“It won’t,” she said, through teeth welded shut.

She didn’t listen to what her father said next, buried in her private world of guilt and shame. Some admonition to her about spoiling solstice celebrations with her attitude that she hardly processed a word of. She clutched her backpack to her shoulder and turned away, to retreat to her room pursued by her dad’s accusations of ‘hysteria’, and her own self-hatred.

Buried in blankets, the door to her room barricaded against entry, only the self-hatred caught up with her. It followed her up the stairs and got into bed with her to nestle as a darkness behind her eyes. It was a familiar, patient loathing, preferring to gradually darken everything she saw until she became ready to smother the remaining light herself. From her position she could see her posters of Melony and Bea, and their ace pokémon beside them. They bled brightness with every second until all that was left was the thought of Salem isn’t here, until the absence of weight and warmth in the crook of her arm became a pulling coldness she could hardly stand. But the more she clutched at the covers and for distractions, the more reminders of Salem clutched at her chest. Reminders of her failure.

Laura jammed a knuckle between her teeth and forced herself to the bathroom. Private, and with fewer reminders. If she stayed put, she’d soon build up enough guilt in her gut to want to vomit, anyway.

She sank to the floor with her back up against the bathtub, clawed at the skin of her arms, and clenched her jaw so hard it sent pain shooting through her skull. How had it even happened? Why hadn’t her parents told her? Did they let it happen? Did they do it? And where was Salem now? She could be anywhere. She could be gone. Laura could be alone, indefinitely. And more importantly, Salem could be hurt—

…Or not. She could be okay. Salem might not be an outdoor cat as such, but she was a developmentally mature pokémon. She was fast, she could scratch, she’d been in a few battles (don’t think about how they were half-remembered playground scuffles that ended years ago; don’t think about how feral pokémon don’t play by League rules) and she could probably come back if she got hurt or scared.

Maybe she was still in the area. Maybe she was okay.

Laura should put up posters. Gods… ‘Last seen three months ago’ looked pretty fucking bad, though. Howls, how was she going to frame this?

It was moot. Posters wouldn’t help. Who’d be outside to even see Salem – or the posters – this close to Longest Night? She ought to be checking local pokémon centres, that sort of thing. Wasn’t there a shelter in the south part of town? She found herself already pulling her coat and boots on. Backpack, too.

Good. She could do with a walk anyway, to burn off the stress. And put some distance between her and her fucking parents.

XxX​

Winter. Of course Salem would run away from home with winter approaching; of course Laura only found out when she returned for Longest Night festivities. That thought, like so many of her passing thoughts, just made it worse. Unless she somehow found her purrloin and made things right in the next week, it would be her first Longest Night in memory spent without Salem on her shoulder, staring down with her eyes enormous at wrapping-paper being torn from boxes.

Presents! She hadn’t even got Salem a present yet. More thoughts; worse feelings.

She tried not to think. It was easy, with the air being so cold, and the wind so aggressive. No falling snow, just plenty of wind-chill.

There were lights up on many houses. Midwinter decorations to keep spirits high. The odd delibird statue on a lawn or roof.

Step after step. A crunch of frost on the pavement; a crack of ice where a tiny puddle had frozen stiff. Step, step, step. Cold air burning her bare fingers – the comfort of gloves or jacket pockets both meagre and undeserved. All comfort felt decadent when Salem had nothing out here but her fur.

Of course, she could have found someone else to look after her.

Cold fingers. Cold face. No thoughts. Just step after step.

It occurred to Laura that a runaway animal would just be returned to her, but a runaway pokémon could choose not to come home. Salem might choose not to come home.

Well.

That would be her right, wouldn’t it?

Laura wondered if it was cold enough to freeze tears. She looked up at the white expanse of the sky, heavy with snow, and refused to cry.

Deadlines and drama and 9am seminars felt colourless, unreal. Why hadn’t she so much as texted her parents during a lecture to ask how Salem was doing? Because her parents sucked? That just meant she cared less about Salem than she hated interacting with her parents, and that couldn’t be true. So it was just her own thoughtlessness.

Ah, but did thoughtless people feel so fucking bad about it, day after day? Laura gave a shit. She did. She just didn’t know how not to space the fuck out constantly.

‘Thoughtlessness’. The real thoughtlessness was that of her parents – she would never have assumed that they’d hide Salem running away from her. That was the real answer. She’d trusted her parents to tell her if anything happened, and they hadn’t.

A lurch in her stomach as she wondered if they’d taken Salem away themselves. Sold her, or something.

Cold fingers. Cold face. Cold mind. Nothing in her head but step after step, and an anger she could only look at out of the corner of her eye, for fear of feeling it so strongly that she’d forget how to breathe.

When she looked up and took stock of her surroundings, she’d walked the length of town and found herself almost at the very edge, where you could take public footpaths, League Routes or a bi-hourly bus service to the more rural villages west and south of Circhester. She’d stopped at a little market square, with a bus stop shelter that hadn’t seen a new coat of paint since she was born, and bushes that claimed just enough of the pavement that you ended up walking in the road and hopping back to hug the leaves when a vehicle approached. She’d used to come out here to train with Salem.

She thought about calling for her, but the name froze solid in her throat.

She was shivering now. She hadn’t planned on coming this far in weather this cold, and she only had two layers and a scarf. She fumbled for her phone, wishing she had those haptic gloves that kept you warm but let you use a touchscreen. Her finger ran sluggish with friction over her screen as she drew the pass pattern, its tip too numb to feel a thing.

She checked her notifications on autopilot, scolded herself for the distraction, and dismissed the lot without really looking at them. Where could she go now that was nearby? She needed to get warm, and maybe vent a little to a passing soul.

Oh, right. The shelter.

She’d kept meaning to volunteer there when she was younger, but they were already overstaffed with keen young people eager to work with pokémon, not to mention the pokémon who helped out there as well. It was a likely enough place to have picked up a stray purrloin, one way or another. Laura chewed the inside of her cheek at the thought that she was already too late to find Salem there, if it was where she had gone.

She marched off, shoving her hands under her armpits to warm them. Enough useless emotional melodrama. She was going to be smart, determined, and effective. And that meant not catching frostbite. What was the use in punishing herself?

It wasn’t far, but it felt like an age in the cold. They were still open – they stayed open all hours, for pokémon who just wanted somewhere warm to sleep – and the front door yielded to her hunched left shoulder, ringing the chimes above it. The front room was mostly a storefront, and decked out with Longest Night decorations. A girl at the counter gave her a little wave.

“Hi, I’m Sam! How can I help you?”

Laura swallowed, and tried to remember how to speak. Some combination of emotion and winter chill stopped her words coming easily.

“Hi. I’m Laura. I’m looking for, ah, a pokémon.”

“We have almost any kind of pokémon you want, love. Do you want to come through and meet everyone?”

“Uh, a specific pokémon. My… missing pokémon. It’s Sam, right?” She caught her breath as the girl nodded and confirmed her name. “Sam, have you had a tortoiseshell purrloin in this shelter? A female purrloin.”

“Well… when would this have been?”

Laura screwed her eyes shut. “Any time in the last three months, I’m afraid.”

Her throat closed on every explanation. She’d been at uni, her parents had been negligent, they didn’t care, it wasn’t her fault. It was all pedantry. The nauseating guilt proved it was her fault.

“Well, we have a lot of cats in here, so I’m not sure… but let me just check!” said Sam, her smile faltering for a moment. “Was she microchipped? Or would she have been wearing a collar…?”

“Uh, I don’t know. No collar. I don’t know about a microchip.”

Laura’s hands clenched into loose fists and squirmed at her sides. Try not to think about what if Salem was already gone. Think about something trivial. The girl. She liked it here, obviously. It was unfair that this girl got to help pokémon and enjoy it while Laura worked herself stupid trying to read up on finance, business, supply and demand, and stocks and shares and monopolies and loans and—

“Miss?”

“Oh – sorry?”

“Could I have your name please, Miss?”

“Laura. Laura Weir. That’s ‘Weir’ as in Wurmple, Eldegoss, Inkay, Raboot.”

“Thank you, Laura, one moment…”

Laura thought of half a dozen new ways to hate herself while Sam searched in the database, but eventually the girl looked up again.

“So, the thing is,” said Sam, putting fresh anxiety in Laura’s gut, “we have had a purrloin in that time, but that pokémon was already adopted out, you see. And in any case, she didn’t have a microchip, so we wouldn’t be able to confirm that this was your pokémon…”

“I could show you a photo of her,” pleaded Laura.

“I’m sorry, but this purrloin was only with us briefly. I wouldn’t recognise her, and we don’t have a picture of her on record.”

Laura sank to the desk, her head in her hands. Sam fussed a bit, explaining and apologising, but Laura could only hear her own thoughts. She was too late. All she’d had to do was phone home and check on Salem from time to time. Would Mum and Dad have lied about it, if asked directly? Who knew? Maybe there was still a chance she could find Salem, but how slim? Maybe Salem wouldn’t come home even if Laura found her. What would even happen if she did? Laura would still have to go back to campus without her… Maybe she could pretend Salem was her emotional support pokémon. At this rate it would be for emotional support, she was this close to dropping out…

“Laura? Please? Are you with me, Miss?”

She’d lost Salem, yes, but she’d already lost so much else on campus. At least before uni, she’d still held out hope for a proper pokémon journey one day, then moving to Ballonlea and taking up photography, or something. She’d lost even her own wants. When people asked her why she ‘wanted’ to read finance, she could only parrot her dad’s bullshit. She’d never wanted to work for some Wyndon corporation doing budget spreadsheets! Why was she doing it? Any of it?

Well, Mum and Dad had decided for her, hadn’t they.

Sure, she could blame her parents, for twisting her arm her entire bloody life. But they hadn’t forced her at sword-point to apply for this course. She’d given up. She fought back for years before losing the fight, but she hadn’t fought hard enough to know if she could’ve won. She was nineteen now. They couldn’t stop her hiking across all of Galar with a team of pokémon.

Maybe it wasn’t too late to do something, anything, that made her happy.

“…Miss?”

“I’d like to see what pokémon you have available for adoption,” said Laura, her own voice sounding strange to her. “Also, I’d like a provisional trainer license application form, if you have them…? Uh, please. I have my own pencil.”

XxX​

“So… can I see the pokémon? Do you have certain ones that are set aside for trainers – provisional ones, I guess – as opposed to domestic owners, or…?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” said Jamie, smiling. He was the mousy-blond bloke who managed the pokémon at the shelter. He must’ve done a League circuit as a kid, judging by the little twitches of half-pokésign that accompanied his words. “This’ll be pretty informal, though, and I can’t promise the pokémon that you’ll become a League challenger. I’ll just tell them an older girl wants a travelling partner who likes to battle, and most of them will understand. Or they’ll figure it out from the excitement.”

Excitement…? Laura imagined a room full of pokémon who all wanted to be someone’s partner but never got picked, and braced herself for a difficult choice.

Jamie showed her through to the visiting room, where several pokémon were playing, resting, or grooming each other. Pokémon of nearly every type were present, and even some evolved ‘mon. She spotted a morgrem filing their claws, and a lampent that looked like an amber streetlight…

“Hey, everyone!” called Jamie, signing loosely as he spoke. “We’ve got a young lady here who wants a travelling companion who can battle! You know the drill!”

Some of the pokémon sauntered or scurried out of the room, to the private areas of the shelter or to the back garden, while the rest gathered around to scrutinise her. A few newcomers arrived from outside to join the assembly.

“Uh, hi there,” tried Laura. Ugh, she sounded so unconfident. “My name’s Laura! I want to be a pokémon trainer, and travel across Galar. I need a pokémon partner, and I hope one of you guys will pick me.”

Yeah, leave it to the pokémon to pick her so she wouldn’t feel guilty about the ones she didn’t pick. Nice move, Laura.

There was some cross-talk among the pokémon as the more attentive ones relayed the gist to their friends, and several of them tried getting her attention at once.

Jamie chuckled. “It’s you that picks them, love. Look, I’ll leave you with them a bit, ‘cause some of ours are a bit shy to jump at you at first sight. See Mienshao over there? She’s staff, she’s in charge while I go close up for the day. You just let me know when you’re done, okay?”

Laura nodded and watched him leave. Then she turned back to her several prospective partners and carefully lowered herself to sit cross-legged on the floor.

Mienshao approached, her body flowing like water between the other ‘mon. She bowed her head to Laura, and began making gestures in truly excellent humanlike-class pokésign.

[Do you speak sign, Kid?]

Laura blinked, unsure if she’d understood correctly. The sign was a sort of ‘pat’ as if patting the head of a smaller being, like the sign for ‘infant’, but followed by a casual flick that made it a friendly moniker… Yeah, Mienshao had definitely called her ‘kid’. She grinned. It had been ages since she’d had a really good conversation in sign.

[Yeah, pretty well I think. Your signing is great!] she said, using a mix of human- and feline-class signs, the equivalent of having an ‘accent’ in pokésign. Mienshao practically beamed with delight at this, then kept signing with even better proficiency than Laura’s own. It was, frankly, humbling.

[Alright, Kid!] signed Mienshao. [I’ll let everyone know what you’re saying, don’t worry. First question: why do you want to be a trainer now?]

Oh, she was good. Laura almost answered with a rambling spiel, but the inflection in Mienshao’s gestures asked ‘why the delay, huh?’ Fair enough.

[I wanted to be a trainer when I was young, but I was stopped from doing this. I came to feel that this was wrong for me. Now, I am making a decision to turn around from what I was doing, and do what will be happy for me.]

She winced a little at how rusty she was after a uni term away from Salem and regular signing, but really, she still did better than the average human not regularly walking the beaten track. Mienshao seemed content, judging by her effusive signing.

[Have you had much experience with pokémon before?] asked Mienshao, earnestly. [This is important!]

[Yeah, loads,] said Laura, truthfully enough. [I had a ‘feline, dark-type, small’ pokémon for many years, and I have studied pokémon and spent time with them when possible.]

Mienshao gave her a look that took her aback. [A purrloin?] she asked, using the precise sign for that species – a melding of the signs for ‘tail’ and ‘steal’ with a little hooking motion. Was she offended that Laura had used adjectival signs instead of the sign for ‘purrloin’? That would be fair, really. Mienshao had an expert vocabulary, and Laura should know the sign for her own pokémon…

[Yeah. A purrloin. My best friend. She is… lost.]

Mienshao stared at her. The other pokémon, who had been watching the exchange in quiet attentiveness, had changed their energy. They were tense. Something was wrong. She shouldn’t have said she’d lost her old pokémon. They wouldn’t trust her now. Fuck. Fucking damnit.

Mienshao signed again with great care and deliberation. [Your friend. Female, black fur, sign-name ‘Pickpocket’?]

Laura’s heart stopped as her chest caved in and her entire body seemed to pull in on itself.

Salem.

“Yes!” she blurted. “Oh my fucking god, you know Salem? What— How did—”

[You should speak to my friend,] signed Mienshao, cutting off Laura’s flailing. She pointed towards the herdier beside her, who pushed himself to his feet and plodded forwards with a canine snort. Grey fur streaked across his coat, and age had turned his eyes milky, but something in the air told Laura he could fight.

[Talk to me!] he said, with a toss of his head and a sharp bark.

[Uh, okay, did you see—] she began.

Herdier stamped his forepaws one after the other, a sign that generally meant, [You’re not doing what I want!] Laura thought fast.

“Oh, you want me to talk out loud?” she tried.

[Yes!]

“Sure, I guess. So, what, you knew [Pickpocket] or something?”

[Yes!] he said again, nodding and letting out a low woof.

“Was she here? Did she stay with you guys? Do you know if—”

Herdier barked again, and tapped his little feet.

Okay. Slow down for the old dog. One thing at a time.

“Sorry,” she said. “Let’s try that again.”



XxX​

“This one? You’re sure?”

Laura nodded, barely suppressing a wild grin. “Yeah. What’s his spoken name? He says his sign name is [King], which is pretty cool.”

Jamie pulled a begrudging face of agreement. “Yeah. He’s called ‘Caesar’ in Galarish. He’s an old battling ‘mon, experienced, but in his twilight years. The lillipup line are very sturdy, but are you sure he’s what you’re looking for?”

Laura looked down at the old herdier, and offered him her fist to sniff, and to bump with his forehead. He wuffed quietly through his thick muzzle fur.

“Yeah. He’ll look after me.”

And he knew Salem, and he knew the scent of the woman who’d taken her.

Laura waved goodbye to Mienshao – who signed [Good luck, Kid!] in reply – and went to the counter, where Jamie handed her off to Sam to sign adoption papers for Caesar. The herdier sat primly on his hindquarters, looking up with what Laura was sure was pride. He was so different to Salem – old, canine, patient – but that determined look was familiar. Maybe some pokémon just had that spark.

Laura’s hand hovered over the final dotted line.

“You’re sure you wanna come with me?” she asked.

Wuff.”

That was a yes. He’d seemed pretty certain in the visiting room, his stubby tail wagging at the suggestion that he could help reunite her with Salem, but she had to be sure. And now she was.

“There. We’re partners now, huh, Caesar?”

Wuff!”

Dogs had the best sign of all. Tail-wagging that strong always meant [Hell yeah!]

Sam beamed, and after an exchange of thanks, helped Laura pick out a few things for her journey. It turned out the shelter was more than happy to throw in cut-price food, potions and pokéballs from their bulk-purchased supplies, and with adoption fees for older pokémon being low anyway, Laura barely winced at the payment. The starter camping gear for new trainers was pricier, but like fuck was she going without it.

“That seems like everything to me!” said Sam, cheerily.

“Oh, right,” stammered Laura, “One last thing, I think. Would you please give me the contact details for whoever adopted Salem? The purrloin. Uh, thanks.”

Sam nodded anxiously and went looking for them. Then her brow furrowed.

“Well, actually, I don’t think I’m supposed to…?” she replied. “That’s private information, so…”

Laura bit her lip.

“Please. I’m sure that was my cat, and knowing who took her is the only chance I have to find her again.”

Sam looked like she wanted to disappear into thin air. “I’m really sorry, it’s just, we aren’t supposed to give out contact information. I’d call them myself, but since there’s no microchip or collar to show that this was your pokémon…”

There was a crash over at the far end of the shopfront. Caesar had taken himself over to the racks of pokémon toys and pulled one over, scattering chew-toys and balls and everything else across the floor. He held a length of rope aloft with pride.

“Oh, oh no,” moaned Sam, leaving the counter to hurry over and fix the disaster.

Laura’s stomach dropped as her face fell, but only for a moment.

Caesar winked at her, and pointed his nose at Sam’s computer monitor.

Oh.

Holy shit.

Laura leaned over the counter at the screen.

Purrloin, female, tortoiseshell.

Salem.

Alisha Renadier.

The adopting human. Oddly familiar name, for some reason…

Perihelion Association.

Laura swallowed hard. Not a private citizen adopting a pet, then. This ‘Alisha’ worked for Perihelion, maybe in their pokémon rehabilitation programme, and that meant getting her cat back from a corporation—

Sam swore under her breath as she lifted the rack, putting a jolt of urgency in Laura’s limbs. She took out her phone and snapped a quick photo of the screen, along with the contact info, then waved goodbye to the struggling staff.

“Thanks so much for everything,” she called. “Sorry about Caesar, guess I should have bought the rope to begin with, huh? I’ll just, uh, leave a fiver on the counter. Gotta go, take care!”

The bewildered girl managed a scattered reply as Laura left, her new partner at her heel, still holding the rope toy in his smug mouth.



XxX​

Laura Weir, human, was nineteen years old when she left Circhester on foot – accompanied by a pokémon! Her pokémon! – for the first time. Route 8 would give way to warmer weather and ancient ruins further along, but Steamdrift Way, just outside city limits, was cold as fuck. She’d seen Routes at a distance before, mostly from cars and trains, but she’d never trod them, never navigated them, never been at risk of challenges from boisterous wild pokémon. And while she had a pokémon now, her partner was unfamiliar to her, and ageing. Howls, he’d asked to stay in his ball during travel to spare his poor arthritic legs. She needed a team.

Best not to be ambitious. She’d catch something with a mild temperament, familiar to her, with a reliable advantage of some kind. She had just the pokémon in mind. She’d catch a snom. They were easygoing little larvae, happy to eat frozen snacks endlessly, and she knew them well from years of petting them on walks around the city. Well enough to spot the glittery sheen that indicated a snom with ice scales, the unique ability that let an adult frosmoth casually shrug off energy-based attacks.

It wasn’t hard to find a colony. They were Circhester’s iconic local species, after all, and tended to gather both in the city limits and immediately beyond each exit. Laura found a dozen snom sheltering beneath an overpass, hanging like icicles from the brickwork. She could probably just toss a ball and catch one immediately. Didn’t feel right, though. You were supposed to give ‘mon a chance to test you in battle, even the little bugs.

She hefted a pokéball. It weighed hardly anything, but still felt heavy in her hand. There were more ways to get this wrong than right... A twinge of doubt stayed Laura’s arm. What if a snom would be… dead weight on her team? It felt mean of her to consider, but still. They were juvenile little bugs after all, and usually frail.

But even so, they were pokémon. It was a rare ‘mon who didn’t love to fight.

“H-hey!” she shouted up at the colony. “Do any of you want to battle?”

A couple of the pudgy icicles twitched and swung a little. Good enough. Laura released Caesar from his ball, and he sniffed about to assess the situation before announcing, with a rapid series of barks and signs that there were, in fact, other pokémon nearby.

“Good boy!” Laura laughed, before pointing up at the snom. “I’m looking for a new teammate! How about it?”

There was no telling if the snom actually understood her, but first one, then the rest, dropped from the overpass in quick succession at the appearance of a pokémon to challenge.

Laura had expected she might get a challenger. She hadn’t expected a horde battle. Already, the snom were whipping up a swirling barrage of fine, powdery snow. Between them, they could probably put Caesar in trouble. Shit, she needed something to stabilise against several pokémon at once… She recalled what moves Caesar was listed as knowing on his adoption papers. Ah!

“Caesar, snarl!”

He pulled back his lips to reveal fearsome teeth, then barked and growled furiously enough to whip up dark-type energy. Straight for the move, not rusty at all! A flurry of biting snow cut him off with a yelp, but not before his attack connected, knocking most of the snom against the brickwork behind them. All but one.

The single persevering snom puffed themself up and attempted to summon a powder snow attack on their own. As they did, Laura noticed their body was more iridescent than their colony-mates. Ice scales. This one was energy-resistant. Perfect.

“Hey!” shouted Laura, her heart hammering. “I want to— to catch you, and have you on my team! Will you be my partner?”

The snom, who may or may not have understood a thing she’d just said, finished raising their icy attack and sent it straight at Caesar, who weathered it with a stoic growl. The attack was diminished compared to the last, but still not pleasant by any measure. Laura shivered. Alright. It was worth a shot.

She took an empty pokéball from her bag, primed it with a dull click, and tossed it underarm at her opponent. Snom didn’t dodge. In fact, they dropped their powder snow and turned to look at the incoming ball with apparent curiosity. It made contact, snapped open, and converted Snom instantly to bright light, pulling them inside.

Laura bent down to stare at the twitching capsule as Snom’s energy pulsed within. If they were satisfied with the fight, and not desperate to get away, then just maybe…

A hollow clang; a flash from the ball’s front plate.

Laura’s first catch.

She gingerly reached out and took the ball with care, as if it might spring open, or break apart. The ball lay still in her fingers, now much colder to the touch. In front of her, the defeated snom were ascending the bricks of the overpass to reach their previous spot, unbothered by their companion’s absence.

Her second teammate. (Or should that be ‘third’?) While they wouldn’t be able to hold their own for a while yet, they could well be incredible when they evolved. If they evolved. Howls...

She cradled the ball to her chest as she stood up and watched the other snom. It was getting dark already. That was winter in Galar for you. Dark and cold. Please don’t leave me, she pleaded silently, pressing the cool metal sphere to her chin and closing her eyes. Please help me.

Laura turned back, and walked in a soft stupor for a minute until she found a low wall to sit on. Caesar followed, panting stoically. She knew what came next. After you caught a pokémon, you had to talk to them. Make sure they knew what they were signing up for. Make sure you knew what you were getting into by bringing them along.

She pressed the release button on the ball. Snom chose to manifest beside her thigh. They didn’t seem distressed, or surprised. Laura glanced at Caesar – the herdier nodded to her with a very specific forward twitch of his ears. Laura bit her lip. She knew that sign.

[It’s okay – you’ve got this.]

Okay. She’d got this. Okay.

“Hey. I’ve, uh… never done this before,” she told the bug, resting her arms on her knees. “Never caught a pokémon before. You’re the very first.”

Snom looked up at Laura with small, black eyes. Their mouthparts twitched. Did they get what she meant? Base-stage bugs didn’t tend to be the smartest creatures. She wasn’t even sure how to parse Snom’s pokésign, if they even knew any. Caesar nudged her leg encouragingly. Laura brushed hair from her eyes and tried again, her chest tight.

“I’m a pokémon trainer,” she said, feeling like a liar. “I want you to come with me. I’ll help you get strong, and we’ll battle other pokémon together. I’ll look after you; you’ll protect me. Does that… Does that sound okay? Do you want that?”

Snom’s mouthparts twitched, and they bumped Laura’s knee with them.

[Sure. I’m hungry. Feed me.]

“Oh! Just a sec…”

Laura retrieved an oran berry from her bag and proffered it. Snom took it with a squeak of pleasure. At least they already understood that humans could be made to supply food. That was a start.

Snom nibbled away, chirping to themself. Laura hugged herself and shivered a little.

Alongside the shiver came the buzzing of her phone, set to vibrate. Her gut twisted, but she took it out to check her notifications.

Laura, you’ve been out long enough. Come home immediately and help your mother put out Longest Night decorations, and you’ll have time to study before bed.

She blinked. She squinted at the message. She briefly considered lobbing her phone straight at the ground and stamping it under her boot until the thousand-thousand hateful messages inside it were nothing but glass splinters and corrupted data.

She put her fingers to the screen, not sure if they shook from cold, anger, or horror.

I’m not coming home.

I’m looking for my fucking pokémon, like you should have done.

For your Longest Night present to me this year, how about you go to hell.


She switched her phone to silent, and stuffed it back in her pocket as if it would scald her to keep it in her hand. Her shuddering breaths produced a rapid, shallow series of vapour-wisps that felt more real than what she’d just done. She looked down at Caesar, still sat staunchly at her feet. He seemed real enough.

“I just made a crazy decision,” she told him, quietly. “And I don’t really know what I’m doing. You sure you wanna come with a crazy human with no plan?”

The herdier woofed softly, and stamped one foot in the frost.

[Absolutely.]
 
Wow. I discovered this thread by chance, stayed up devouring the entire thing, and then created an account just to comment and say how much the story so far grips me. Your point of view characters are...very relatable (Salem and Laura in particular; Dusk's more like a cool friend I wish I had.) Salem is so eager to learn and drink in all the newness for the first time, and the major decisions Laura makes in the latest chapter have me cheering.

I'll write in more later, but I wanted to say thanks for sharing this, and I'm looking forward to the next episode. :>
 
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