(continued from previous post)- "It was a glancing blow, it hardly made contact―Aster, please stop." "I can't understand it," Aster mewled, ignoring Faba's protests and continuing to paw at the swelling forming at his jaw. The two stood far at the other end of the floor; they originally had lingered for a while in the hallway, but upon hearing shouting erupt from Lusamine's office, they hurriedly shuffled their way around the corner and to her secretary's desk. It was just as well: the young woman would surely report to them when Lusamine wanted them back. So as they waited, Aster promptly began to fret and express his disbelief. "I just can't... He always struck me as so polite, so docile―" After shooting Aster a puzzled look and slapping his hands away, something dawned on Faba. "I keep forgetting you haven't been here very long," he cryptically mused. "Don't you know his history?" "Well, I…" Aster shrugged, frowned, and brushed back his hair in a new gesture of discomfort. "I suppose I heard he was some kind of criminal, but he seemed reformed enough. But I wouldn't want to meet him in a dark alley, the way that he was…" Aster visibly shuddered at the thought. But Faba didn't look particularly bothered. "He was emotional," he said plainly. "I understand emotions running high, but the way he went after you―! He might've killed you!" He glanced in Faba's direction, hoping to get some sign of awareness to this fact, but finding none, he sighed and hopelessly stuffed his hands into his pockets. "I hope Madame knows what she's doing, marrying an animal like that." An unexpected twinge and inhale preceded Faba's snap. "He isn't―" Then, just as suddenly, he stopped himself, swivelling his eyes to the ceiling and heaving a tired breath. Aster turned questioningly. "I wouldn't worry," Faba amended in a growl, his words sour. The phone at the secretary's desk rang; when she picked it up, they didn't have to guess what message she was about to relay. She glanced up at them, smiling and saying she was ready for them. "Back into the lion's den, I suppose," Faba said, fastening his hands behind his back. In the midst of saying it, though, they heard the distinct stomping sounds of angry footsteps turning the corner, and the aforementioned "Lion" appeared, dark mane askew, teeth baring, hackles raised. Fortunately, Guzma's silent rage kept him entirely uninterested in the people around him. The two scientists, though, taking no chances, pressed close to the wall and stood stock-still, hoping he would not see them while he stormed past. - Lusamine, seated behind her desk with her hands delicately folded atop it, looked much more amenable. She greeted them both warmly before delving into business. "I ought to commend you, Branch Chief," she said, smiling proudly. "I heard from the others that you were quite heroic in your efforts to keep the test subject safe. Even taking a blow or two! What bravery!" Faba, though, didn't look willing to accept any flattery. His face and voice remained flat. "Hmm." "Now. I don't want you to think any of this is your fault," Lusamine said. "I am the one who miscalculated. I hadn't anticipated how strong his attachment to the beasts would become. We may have to consider a separation period." "Oh?" "I suggest Guzma be locked out from accessing the beasts on his own time." The way she said it made Faba think of mothers snatching their naughty child's toys and locking them up as punishment. She leaned back when she saw Faba's expression twitch. "What are your thoughts?" "Perhaps it will calm him down," Faba agreed tentatively. "Though it will affect his training." "An unfortunate, but necessary side effect, I think." When she still thought she saw a sign of trepidation in him, she tightened her fingers into fists on the desk. "...Faba, what's on your mind?" "Oh?" Faba pretended not to have been caught in deep thought. "Nothing, only―you don't think that the tests ought to be―" She cut him off, hearing his weaseling tone and anticipating his suggestion. "No, I don't. The tests will continue." Her eyes suddenly flitted at him in newfound chagrin. "I'm not sure I approve of this reckless sentimentality coming from you." "Madame, you misunderstand me," he coolly replied. "My worry is grounded in a lack of viable data. You see, we do not know what impact a separation might have on the beasts. Too much stress may alter the test results." "Aren't they sedated?" she countered, trying to snare him in his own logic. "We still have to handle them to get them sedated. We've only managed to carry on this long without incident because of their regular training regimen." She studied him a moment, weighing whether she ought to believe him. Her doubt became transparent when she turned to the other scientist. "Aster? Your thoughts?" Surprised at being called out, Aster jumped a little. "Ah! Well―! It's hard to say, really. But like Faba says―a flood of stress hormones could potentially alter their neural tissues. It's tricky business. And―well, we only have the one specimen, don't we? It's a risk―" "Recommendations?" "Erm, well―" Faba easily slid back in. "We have enough data to run adequate simulations for the next few weeks. We can afford to keep them in stasis for the time being." She tilted her head wonderingly and relented. "Very well. Do what you think is best. I trust your judgement―as always." She nodded to them and began writing out a note at her desk. "Thank you for your time, Faba. Aster." Out in the hallway, Aster tried to speak up. "Um―I'm a tad confused―" Faba growled. "Aster, kindly shut your mouth." - In the training room, lights flickered on and Guzma fumbled forward. He spent many hours in this room, surrounded by the athletic equipment and monitors. Normally, he would come here in his free time to spar and work with his partners, but tonight, he held only vague intentions, layered beneath a knotted frustration. He glanced briefly at the paper in his hand. "Letter of Reprimand," it read. He snorted, crumpled it, and chucked it into the nearest waste bin. She had already gone over the details, anyway: all the revoked privileges, all the areas of the island he would no longer be allowed to access without supervision, the monitoring of his communications, the restriction of his movements off the island, and most insultingly, a curfew, an honest-to-god curfew. In extreme bitterness, he asked just how long he was grounded for, and she tutted dismissively at his joke. "I might be your fiancee," she had said in a blasé manner, "but I'm still your employer. Be glad I'm not putting you on administrative suspension." Guzma glowered at the empty training room, dark thoughts consuming him. Traitors. Traitors all about him. Faba, who he thought didn't hold motives behind his back. Gladion, who had tricked him, made a fool of him. His own mind, which assaulted him with lies on a daily basis, showing him things that didn't exist, vomiting up unwanted memories at the unkindest moments; a mind so crippled and stupid that it could not be depended on, lest it lead him astray. And the beasts―in whom he thought he read loyalty, trust, camaraderie. Loyalty? How could he expect that? Plug them into a machine, zap their brains, and they're no longer his. He staggered to the PC panel system attached to the wall, and after logging in, he blearily punched in the command to withdraw Lady. Naturally, an error message appeared, so, dizzy with hatred, he chose Buzzwole instead, and the blue beast ball materialized in the casing. After extracting the ball and releasing Buzzwole, it took only a second for the beast to take notice of him and, as it usually did, pose its greeting. He didn't respond, only standing stiffly with his hands in his pockets, his face dark. The beast gradually lowered its arms, scurried its large legs over the training room floor, and vibrated its wings to create a curious buzzing noise. Its eyes trained on him expectantly. "You're real stupid, aren't you?" Guzma asked, voice low and crackling. Buzzwole swayed side-to-side, awaiting orders. It leaned on the tips of its mechanical-looking legs, lifting and sinking its body in a rhythmic fashion. "You're not even anything. You're… You're some kinda robot, you don't even feel nothin'! You just do what I say 'cuz you don't know better!" As his voice started to rise and sputter, the beast cocked its head at him, and this only made his body tense with fresh fury. "I don't know why… I thought you were anything. I got mixed up. I'm so..." He shut his eyes. His headache caused him to reach up and push on his temples while he gnashed and clenched his teeth. "You don't even know me― don't even know the difference between me an' a jolt to the head―" Pain enveloped his body, and in the fullness of that moment's agony, he lashed out, striking his foot into the nearby wall. The metal rang out, and he could hear Buzzwole hiss at its clatter. That noise set him off. He turned, bristled, and launched himself at the beast. Before it could understand what he meant to do, he swung his leg as hard as he could at one of its legs, and when his foot met said appendage with a hard crack, the creature let out a squeal of protest. Upon hearing it, he flew into a violent frenzy and screamed. "Shut up!" He kicked it again―rather than fight, it scuttled backwards, making unhappy, confused noises, and the more it spoke out against its abuse, the more his anger grew, and the more he pursued it, punishing it with his feet and eventually his fists. His lungs rushed with air; his heartbeat exploded in his ears. "Whatta you screechin' about, anyway? You don't feel nothin'! That's what they―!" After pushing one of its legs off-balance and watching it stumble, he glared hatefully into its face, trying to read its expression. Its dumb, empty face―full of nothing but big glass eyes that reflected his own contorted expression, containing nothing else. If he had some instrument available to him to do so, he could swear he wanted to kill it, to end its miserable existence. He made do by throwing his fist again, this time making contact with its arm, which swung upward, as if to knock him down, but ultimately didn't. This restraint enraged him. "Look at you! I'm whuppin' you, but you're bigger 'n' me! You could squash me like a bug if you wanted. So why don't you, huh?" He narrowed his eyes at it. "It's 'cuz you're dumb, right?" He tapped his brow mockingly. "It's 'cuz there's nothin' there!" The beast did not answer. Could not answer. It merely looked back at him, pressing its weight back at every step he took towards it. He stiffened and squeezed his fists at his side. His knuckles burned and began to split… He threw his fist again... - The front door lay open and cast a long curtain of light into the dark. Guzma felt his fists burning, stinging―he took a moment to gaze at them, seeing his bruised and split knuckles, ruddy and smeared; the coppery smell still filled his nostrils. He couldn't stop his heart from hammering. He watched from the road as a shadow flickered, then emerged from his house. Though the form was dark, he recognized the shape and the voice that came from it. "Guzma?" Daturo stood on the front step, looking disturbed and afraid. Guzma caught sight of Daturo's hands―there was blood smeared on them. "Guzma―what happened? Your father's―" He cut himself off, seeing Guzma's state. "What did you―" Guzma turned and bolted for the graveyard. "Guzma!" - He suddenly heard Faba's shrill voice from the opened door. "Guzma!" He whirled around, startled, and spotted the scientist gripping a carrying case. The man clapped the case onto the nearby counter and hurried over to him. "―Have you lost your mind!? What on earth do you think you're doing?" Guzma glowered at him, spewing breath from his nostrils. "You said they don't feel nothin'!" Faba was suddenly not so sure he still had any of the boy's loyalty that would normally save him from becoming the next convenient punching bag. He felt the presence of Guzma's size and anger, and stepped back. Still, he yelled forcefully. "Pain! They don't feel pain! It doesn't mean they don't feel you bludgeoning them!" He decided not to launch into a lecture on the distinctions between pain and stress. "Now, if you would halt your tantrum, would you listen to me? You need to return the beast and hand it over to me." "Why?" Guzma asked, voice dark. Faba heaved a sigh, already tiring of his vicious affectation. "Madame requests it." Guzma understood that the 'request' was no such thing, so after a moment's hesitation, he coldly pulled the ball from his belt, withdrew Buzzwole, and stalked back over to Faba. "After the system refresh, you won't be able to access the beasts for a while." Since Guzma said nothing in response to that, Faba promptly held out his hand, awaiting fast compliance, but Guzma took a moment to stare, flashing several severe emotions at him. Alarmed, he didn't withdraw his hand, though he felt the strong desire to. He wondered if he was about to be socked. "...What is it?" "Why'd you…" Guzma frowned, looking hurt. "Hmm?" "Why didn't you tell me?" "What sort of question is that?" Faba, starting to sweat, motioned impatiently for the beast ball. "Madame designated the tests as secret. 'Secret'―surely you understand that word. And orders are orders, aren't they." "But…" Guzma felt his fingers tighten into the ball, like he meant to crush it. He couldn't contain his feelings of betrayal. "I thought you were on my side!" "What!" Faba, so baffled that he could hardly speak, shoved his glasses up onto his forehead. He looked furious, and if Guzma didn't know better, he would think he had just hurt the man's feelings. "How―! How can you say something so absurd!? So puerile―!?" Fuming, he snatched the ball from Guzma's hand. "...You stupid boy! I'm―" The scientist quite suddenly stopped in his tracks, and, huffing with strain, swept his view around them to ensure they weren't being overheard. He leaned in to violently hiss under his breath. "I'm in her pocket. Don't you understand that!?" Guzma had no answer to that, but it didn't matter, because Faba immediately growled, turned away, slammed the case shut, and started carrying it off. Guzma, feeling like he had just missed something crucial, stammered helplessly after him. "Mr. Faba―" "You shouldn't talk to me," was the last thing Faba snarled at him before the door closed, leaving Guzma alone. - In his suite, Guzma keeps the lights off to stave off the stabbing pains in his eyes; he sucks down the nausea and claws through the blur of colors that his room had since turned into; miraculously, he manages to paw through his desk and find his redemption in the form of pills, little capsules of promise; by the time they reach his mouth, washed down in a flood of warm whiskey, the agony has sent him outside himself, like a ghost peeling from out of his skin. He lifts his hands to his head, feeling the invisible tangle of stinging electric wires and screws that cobbled together his thinking, those treacherous mechanisms that lied to him, and in a moment of morbid curiosity, his fingers wrap about a cord he's found, a rope of distant memory that he previously vowed to leave untouched. As he dares to tighten his grip on it, he remembers― it's the same one that flickered in his cortex earlier that night, like the flash of a dream forgotten… He gives it a horrendous yank, and he can hear a snapping sound in his throat and chest. As the memory falls over him, he loses time and sinks into unconsciousness. "Guzma!" "...Guzma!" Though Guzma, at fifteen, rivaled Daturo's height and had all the frantic energy of a typical teenager, he also had the clumsiness that came from growing too fast, and when it combined with the panic that swarmed his head, he stumbled easily. That being so, it didn't take Daturo very long to catch up to and corner him. The policeman found the teenage boy crouched behind a tombstone, uselessly trying to cower out of sight, but he made such a racket with his panting and sniffling that his hiding spot was immediately found out. "Guzma." Daturo brought out a flashlight and passed the cold ray of light over the ground, then to the grave. "Come on out. Let's talk." "I can't." But this excuse would not do. The policeman scratched his head, muttered to himself, and walked around, eventually standing before him. Guzma rocked himself, sniveling, and refused to look up at him, so Daturo stooped down, gruffing, "C'mon, get up," and latching onto his arm to pull him to his feet. Guzma proved too weak in that moment to put up a fight, so the cop was successful in positioning him upright and beginning to interrogate him. "I got your call. Where's your mother?" Guzma's voice was trapped at a squeaky, high decibel as he found himself incapable of controlling his whimpering. He still gaped at the ground. "I dunno. I dunno. I think― she's picking something up at the store―?" The cop flashed the light over him to make out his features in the pitch blackness―specks of blood glistened on Guzma's shirt, and his fists were visibly tattered and bruised. Though he could guess, he still asked: "What happened, Guzma?" "I… I just got home." Guzma trembled. "We― Dad and me―" "You got in a fight," Daturo inferred. "I got so mad, I got so― I musta got on top of him, and I hit him." Vaguely, in the fog of his trauma, he could recall his fist lifting, and falling, and lifting, and falling, and it seemed to him that it moved that way forever, a perpetual agony, a pendulum that broke open his father's head, sent it running with what his young mind interpreted as rivers of gushing blood. "Couldn't stop, I just― kept hitting him― I kept―" His fingers clenched at the dark in front of him. "And then he stopped moving―" He squeezed his eyes shut, but couldn't push away the vulgar imagery or the throbbing pain of his fists. "He's dead," Guzma said, and vomit reached his mouth at the thought. "He's dead, and I killed him; I didn't mean to, I didn't―" But Daturo interrupted him. "He's not dead, Guzma. He's got a pulse." Guzma found himself staring at the blood smeared on Daturo's hand. He must have… touched his father's throat, touched the jugular to check... "I already made a call out. Ambulance is coming soon. So are more cops." Though Guzma could hardly see his face in the dark, he could tell he was frowning, and strained curses dribbled from the officer's lips. Guzma felt his stomach clench again, twisting with nausea. "He's unconscious―I'd bet, though, when he comes to, he's not gonna hand you over to the police. It isn't his way. But if they see you like this―they'll put it together on their own. Understand? They'll arrest you. I can't cover for you this time―" Daturo suddenly lifted his head, turning toward the road, as if hearing something. They held their breath. But there was nothing. "Oh, god." Guzma's head wobbled; he brought his hands to his face, running his fingers into its recessed features. He couldn't stop breathing like a maniac―it made him dizzy. For a long moment, Daturo sank into frantic thought. A loose plan formed in his brain, enough to make him say, "Guzma. This is what we'll do. You're gonna get in the car―" "No―" "You're gonna get in the car, and I'm going to get you someplace safe." A moment of desperation cracked through Guzma's sobs. He started to stumble away, in an attempt to make a break for it. But Daturo grabbed him by the arm again, making him fumble to his knees; he pulled him up, forcing him to stand facing him. "Hey! Stop! Listen to me! What are you running for? Have I ever hurt you?" 'Hurt.' Guzma thinks about fists that beat and clobber―palms that bruise―feet that kick. "No," he admitted. "Haven't I always done what I promised?" When Guzma hesitated, Daturo reached out and squeezed his shoulders, almost painfully. The touch made Guzma lean back―then forward―then back again, teetering on an edge of something. His sobbing started again, harsh and debilitating, causing him to convulse. Guzma gripped his aching head, crushing it between his arms until it felt ready to burst open. "Haven't I always looked out for you? Been a friend to you? That's why you called me, isn't it?" When Daturo received no answer, he sighed and wrapped his arms about Guzma's seizing body. One arm folded across Guzma's back, just below his tense shoulder blades, pressing down firmly to suppress his shaking; the other arm clutched a hand at the back of Guzma's bobbing head, pressing and nestling it just below his chin. "Shh. Hey. Goose. Buddy. It'll be okay." Guzma felt sick all over again, and the arms about him squeezed the spasms, swayed him gently. Cold passed over him, causing shudders, and in his diminishing strength, he lifted his hands and clawed his fingers into Daturo's uniform to keep upright. His tears moistened Daturo's shirt. The tips of his sneakers rubbed and dug into the dirt. Over the windless air, a distant siren let out a wail. "Goose. We gotta go now." Finally spent of his weeping, Guzma lifted his head, with eyes filmy and red, and looked up past Daturo's shoulder and into the night beyond the shade of trees. The sky rent open, black as filth, the moon a dewy eyeball that shed its pale sneer on them. He couldn't breathe, and a cloud twisted into a face of pain, its jaw unhinged in the form of a silent, gaping scream.