It starts out slowly, to the east. Just a shift in the sky, reaching up from far behind the mountains, spreading lines of a deeper blue. If he keeps sitting there, and he will, it will shift further, the blue mingling with an ever-growing haze that wavers into a softer shade of golden-green, like a transparent curtain, before it all goes tipping and spilling over into a harsh, rich crimson, flooding the valley with a blood-red dawn.
Testament checks his footing, pulls himself up that last bit of the way so he can lean against the branches, turn his face towards the rising sun. Here, in the heart of the woods, where the trees stand almost bark to bark, boughs curling together so tightly that he could walk across the canopy like a carpet, nary a light reaches down beneath the leaves, giving the forest floor an air of perpetual gloom. He likes it that way, much prefers not to see what lies beyond, the vastness of a world that has lost its meaning. Dawn is the only time he allows himself to do so, to climb to the top of the highest tree and watch the night turn into day. To ascertain, in the manner of someone who has been asleep for too long, that everything is still in place, the Earth is still turning, and it will be another quiet day in the below.
In the moments he retained from another time, dawn was a relief, an end to the grip of primal fear that took a hold of men when they were lying in a pitch-black hole, clutching at what may well have been twigs for all the good they were going to do, listening to the staccato of their own breaths in the darkness and praying that they would remain the only ones. Dawn was something to be greeted, celebrated even, a joyous kind of collective relief sweeping through the ditch at something that should have been a matter of course, but wasn't. He remembers different dawns, long ones, gray ones, brilliantly piercing ones, and he remembers thinking them beautiful in the way an amnesiac knows that a portrait of a person used to mean something, but now...
Now they are all the same.
Dizzy would laugh, were she with him.
Dangle her feet and twitter her protest as she points, eagerly, here and there and every which way — that cloud wasn't there yesterday, and neither was this one, besides, the sky is more pink today, and look, look, the owls are coming home, hello, Mr. Owl! — to prove him wrong. She isn't here now, stopped coming along some time ago, perhaps driven away by his silence, perhaps too aware that it's useless, that there is something in him that can never agree with her.
Always too perceptive, that child, so tender-hearted that she doesn't even have to pry, to pluck the thoughts directly from his mind.
Testament can feel it sometimes, when he is trying to teach and she knows he isn't teaching her all there is, the impatient pin-pricks in the back of his mind like a pair of tweezers trying to lift a lid, but letting go before they can get a good hold. She doesn't know, though, seems scarcely even aware, and he hasn't told her.
At first, he didn't because she was too small, a pitiful thing barely taller than his knee that followed wherever he went, a hand fisted in the hem of his clothes — hardly what Justice would have wanted her to be, could have meant for her to be. Testament can only guess how she would have turned out with more time in the vat, with Justice there to make adjustments, to measure, judge and compare the developments against a template only she knew. No way for him to tell what is right and what isn't, and for the most part, he found himself a tad more preoccupied with the things he could see, the tricks of the eye that would seem less and less like tricks, the ones that would send faces rippling across those tiny wings; just there and gone again, a pair of smirking grotesqueries.
Now, he doesn't tell her because whatever was meant to kick in and turn her from this soft little girl into the ruler of the Gears hasn't kicked in, and it is all too easy to picture the abject horror on her face, the wide, fearful eyes as she shrinks away from herself, lips fluttering no no no in a soundless plea that wouldn't change anything. It is foolish, he knows, to want to spare her the pain of her existence, to think he can, but at the same time... what good is there in telling the truth? He can't even help her to control it, can't do anything other than shrug and stare helplessly at the difference between what she is, and what she was meant to be.
Better to be grateful for every moment that keeps her from wondering.
It wouldn't do for Dizzy to start looking at dawns the way he does, to see the sun rise over an unresolved past and set over an endless future, with no hope of beginning to unravel the web of regrets and lift from it the one moment where it all went wrong. Better that she feel the distance between them, the barrier that keeps him from seeing the world her way, and recoil from it.
The sun is almost fully out now, withdrawing the last patches of fire-glow from the trees, its warmth slowly turning towards autumn. A cool wind picks up, tugging at his hair and shaking the treetops. He listens for a while, picking out the scents and sounds that tell tales of distant happenings. The harvest has begun on the mountainsides, carrying the smell of drying grass and smoke, which means the forest will soon find itself swarming with unwanted guests, pilfering its bounty without an ounce of self-awareness.
Shaking his head, Testament drops from his perch and down into the lower branches, to the crutch where she has built her nest. It's made like a bird's, twigs and leaves woven in a way he never taught her, and she sleeps like a bird, too, arms and legs tucked close to her body with both wings wrapped firmly around herself. One is always awake while the other plays the part of a harmless and indistinct blanket, scanning the surroundings for any signs of danger. He should feel comforted, he knows, that Justice would give her this kind of protection, and yet, he finds himself unnerved every time, for how much they are not like their owner.
The black one is unpredictable, and keeps eyeing him like a piece of meat, held in check only by the tenuous leash of Dizzy's kindness. The white one is the guardian, tugging and fussing in an odd display of motherly concern. It doesn't like him any better, all prissy flicks and wary stares, but at least, it doesn't seem to want to make a tableau out of his innards. For one reason or another, he never managed to convince either of them of his sincerity, isn't sure whether it is something he did early on, some kind of criterion he failed to fulfill, or whether they simply treat everything as a hostile presence.
He's in luck today; the white one is out for the vigil and grooming itself by using a shard of ice as a mirror, smoothing a fingertip along its feathery brow. Its mood sours when it notices his extended stare, lips pursing into a startlingly human expression of displeasure.
We will move?
It doesn't speak, never to him and not in words, but he can understand its intent anyway, learned to read its idiosyncratic gestures somewhere along the line.
Another minute passes, just so it can make clear that it isn't following any request of his but rather doing things of its own volition, before it turns, bending down to poke the black one into wakefulness. Testament drops out of sight before it can rise with all the morning cheer of an ill-tempered demon king, and settles against the trunk to wait. The wind whispers again, bringing news of the things moving along the slopes, bound for the tanglewood grove.
He wonders what Justice would think of it, her once great general lurking in the obscurity of the underbrush, ducking and dodging like a hunted deer. Laugh, probably, delighting as she did in the oddest of things, and perhaps, in another time, he would spare a laugh or two of his own — bitter, and self-mocking, and a little amused at the irony of it all — if not for the thought of his precious charge, who is just now starting to stretch the sleep from her limbs.
More whenever time allows. Expected deviation from canonical clusterfuck: moderate. Well, as moderate as things get in a reboot. XD Thoughts and comments greatly appreciated.
Chapter 2: guilt is the cause of more disorders, cont.
Testament, before he became Testament.
He once heard an old soldier say that returning from the front is like entering a different reality, some kind of sacred, pristine place forever untouched by the passing of time. The sight of the first houses in the distance - actual houses with actual roofs, curtains and flowerbeds and crisscrossing slate fences - is like a physical shock, the presence of some otherworldly atmosphere, and by the time one's feet cross the threshold between dirt road and clean-washed cobblestone, one feels like a trespasser, a disturbing element unfit to intrude upon this perfect calm.
Tetsu can't quite match the memory to a specific incident, but he thinks he might have come to understand the words all the same. Field training is nowhere near as bad as the actual front lines, where chaos and grime are constant companions, and every bit of sleep means a chance of waking up dangling out of a Gear's jaws. It's still close enough to begin to feel the disconnect, no longer entirely at ease in the gentle, structured otherworld of the barracks.
Everything is as he left it six months ago, the mess hall with its long, heavy benches arranged in exact parallel rows, the library and the peace to be found in its narrow, book-paved corridors, the training halls with the sounds of the afternoon fencing lessons just getting started — rookies, from the sounds of it, all high-pitched shouts and the inexpert clash of metal on metal, kids half his age who have yet to learn that yelling during a sword fight only leads to exhaustion. It's getting hard to remember that he used to be like that, too; not because he can't recall the humiliation of tripping over a weapon taller than he was, but because it all seems to have been happening to someone else, with himself as just a spectator, aware but separate from who he used to be at seven, or ten, or thirteen.
Pretty soon, it will be difficult to look back on his last few months here and not feel the same way.
Field training is the last stage, the final test. Those who pass pass with flying colors, or not at all. After that, there are no more exercises, no more lessons, no more pause for breath. Just him and his platoons, out there in the middle of nowhere, trying to make a difference. Trying to live up to the myriad hopes that come with being allowed to call himself one of Kliff Undersn's children.
Down the central hallway, a group of younger children pauses on their way to class to stare at him, conversation forgotten at the sight of the much-coveted uniform; white and blue, the colors of a Commander Candidate. The goal of every boy and girl in the compound, the distant prize they are all striving towards, to exchange the simple mud-colored jumpsuits of their trainee days for the radiant cloak of a true soldier, so that they might finally prove themselves worthy of the Commander's trust, repay in some small manner his kindness and his patience.
Tetsu used to be the same, trailing after the older children as they were setting out to join the front, childishly hoping for a glimpse of their secrets, a clue for what to do to be deserving of such honors. His body could never grow fast enough, his mind never quick enough to absorb all he would need to know, all it would take, nervous excitement pooling in his stomach at the thought of having a future, a destiny.
Back then, he never understood why the chosen ones would be so quiet, not harsh or unkind but with their eyes like chips of glass, gazing past the younger ones for whom they had changed from comrades to idols, looking out at something only they could see. Now that he is wearing the same uniform, he can finally see why.
What used to be a destination is only a brief stop along the way, the change of clothes but the beginning of another life. All that once was a promise so easily given - that he would prove himself, that he would do everything to make the Commander proud, and allow him to rest easier — is suddenly an uncertainty, "that" changing into "how" as easily as flipping a switch, sweeping away the self of so many years' time and replacing it with someone who might as well have been taught nothing at all.
Ahead, the cloister opens up into the inner courtyard, and Tetsu belatedly realizes that he brushed past the kids with barely a nod, too preoccupied with himself to indulge anyone. Instead, he is following the example of all the Candidates that leave for the front, making his way to the cluster of almond trees on the other side of the garden. There is a memorial board there, half-hidden between the branches, rows upon rows of glittering rectangles chiming gently in the breeze. Almost indistinguishable from the hundreds scattered across headquarters and the city, in the shadow of some church or monument, honoring the sacrifice of countless soldiers.
The only difference is to whom these tags belonged.
Slowly, Tetsu reaches out and runs one hand along the wall, fingers sifting through the sea of metal tags in an aimless caress. Ten years' worth of brilliant soldiers. Many of them he can read, and many of them he can't, the tags so notched and battered as to be almost unrecognizable, telling a story of their wearers' final moments. Between them, small plaques are nailed to the wall, spelling out the names of those which were lost along with their owners. Every once in a while, some of them go missing from the chorus, only to have a name appear in the wood in their place, etched in by an inexpert hand. Tags taken by a friend, or some half-secret beloved, to be stuffed in a pillowcase as a last echo of closeness.
He's never felt the need to take one, though he has a face to a handful of the names: mostly older boys and girls who took to looking after the new arrivals for a time, until it was their turn to join their comrades in battle. In a way, it's a comfort, more so now than ever before; he used to stand here in the shade of the trees, feel the pride and history behind that silver wall, but now there is the awareness of what each of them must have felt, those dead and those still alive and out there, who came down here to strengthen their resolve.
Not an answer to his questions, but for the moment, it is enough to feel the connection, to believe that maybe—
"There you are."
"Sir!" At another time, with another voice, he might have been better at keeping his composure, an embarrassed flush shooting up his neck at being caught unawares. "I didn't realize you were back."
"And with any luck, nobody else will for a while yet, either." The Commander grins, brushing leaves out of his hair, and Tetsu realizes he must have come the long way around, ducking through the bushes lining the opposite wall. "To think, one day, I'd have to start sneaking into my own army."
"I thought you were up in Belgium, sir?" Tetsu says, his hand still itching for the salute he isn't supposed to give. The Commander isn't one to care for formalities, unwilling to waste time with titles and ceremony, to take up any perks a common infantryman isn't entitled to. Tetsu knows as much from all the meetings he sat in on, every time the Commander started drumming his fingers when introductions took longer than the actual conference, but he still never managed to drop the "sir" in private, even though the Commander all but outright told him to. Small talk isn't his forte, never was, forever lacking the words to return a joke in kind. The Commander is one of the few who doesn't really mind.
"And not give you a proper send-off, m'boy? Not for the world. They should stand to get things done without me for a couple of days." Shaking his head, he reaches into the lapels of his coat, drawing out a crinkled manila envelope.
Orders to be read in the privacy of his own room, and Tetsu accepts them without further question, examining the splotches of ink along its surface. Probably penned during the ride here, more than enough evidence how much the Commander couldn't afford to leave, and yet...
He came... just to see me.
Still strange to be thought of as precious, even after all these years, not an obligation or a charge but someone to be valued, like the nickname for the Candidates isn't just something someone stuck on them in jest. He never found out whether the Commander used to have children of his own, but he's beginning to suspect it doesn't matter, that each of them might consider themselves one in their own right.
"Thank you, sir."
"Oh, nonsense." A quick wave. "Are you ready, then?"
"The Lieutenant General's report was favorable, sir."
"No, I meant... are you ready?"
The question throws him, the words skittering away so quickly that his jaw is left working on its own. It should be so simple to stand tall and say, "Of course, sir," even if he doesn't feel sure in any way; the response of a subordinate, a future Commander, and in battle, no one would have the time to ask, or the luxury to meditate upon an answer.
Shame, creeping past his collar and up into his cheeks, forcing his gaze downward. "I... I don't know, sir."
"That's all right."
Tetsu blinks, risking a glance at the Commander's face for any hint of sarcasm or disappointment, but finding only the same gentle, knowing face that always guided him through times of uncertainty, nudging him towards the realization that there rarely was a recipe, rarely anything that couldn't, and wouldn't, change at a moment's notice.
"No one is ever truly ready, you know."
"...Not even you, sir?"
The Commander laughs, the sound full of genuine amusement, tilting his head back to look at the sky. "Never, dear boy, never. There isn't a day when I'm not wondering whether I'm doing the right thing, or the good thing, or the sane thing. ...It's not really a comfort, is it? But that's the way it goes. The things you'll really need... are up here—" he taps his temple, followed by the spot right above his heart, "—and down there. And both of that, you've got in spades."
A pause, a small smile. "There's no expectation of mine that you have to fulfill, except one."
Clasping the envelope more firmly, Tetsu nods. He can give his word on that, the only thing he knows will never change.
"Yes, sir. I'll give it my all."
It is only much later, after countless fields have been reduced to ash, after the fall of that final bastion, after he lost his name and found a new one and once again starts to remember, that he has seen enough and done enough to understand the hint of shadow in Kliff's eyes when he embraced him on that day. To understand the pain, the hope against hope, the love he never quite knew the reason for, and realize that all along, he was promising the wrong thing.
There was only one thing he was ever asked to accomplish, and even though he has found himself still alive — inexplicably, undeservedly, for a measure of alive — the one thing he can never do is come back.
I've probably screwed up the official timeline, but I don't much care. Testament's around 17 here, Kliff's in his 40s, and Ky won't appear for another twenty years or so. Sol might, though, because I can.
Chapter 3: dying is perfectly lively
Testament meets Justice.
The first time he wakes, it is to darkness. Limbs heavy and sluggish, he spends a few moments simply trying to separate up from down, smooth stone against his fingertips, his cheek and nose, breath reflected back at him in a damp little cloud. His body knows the wake-up routine, the procedure, the only way to get back on his feet after getting knocked out on the battlefield, and surviving. Somehow, impossibly, surviving.
Slowly, he tries to angle his body, get himself in the position to quickly push himself to his feet and draw his weapon in the same movement, and finds his muscles trembling, unable to even tense enough to lift his head.
Gears have a thousand and one ways of killing a man, and poison is almost accidental, an afterthought on creatures who can disembowel their prey with a single swipe. All of them lethal even when they aren't meant to be, paralyzing lung or heart or whatever the venom gets to first, and if something hit him, he shouldn't feel like this, shouldn't feel anything at all—
The sharp little pinpricks of shame are almost gratifying, welcome proof that he isn't going mad, trapped in a poison nightmare. Embarrassing to think that he should panic, after so many years out in the field, when the Commander taught him better than that, showed him how to put calm and reason in place of fear and anger, any emotion that might hinder his ability to lead.
Never focus on what you can't do. Just concentrate on doing what you can.
Taking a breath, he almost chokes on the air, throat seizing and stuttering with the effort. Square one, gathering intel. His senses are equally slow to adjust, bright little star bursts breaking up the blackness in front of his eyes, a dizzying ringing in his ears, probably from when he hit the ground.
It shouldn't be this dark, this quiet. Even prone like this, he should be able to see something, a hint of the moon or the stars, feel the rustling of the wind in — shrubbery, there was shrubbery, enough to give them the advantage of an ambush, the underbrush open enough to see them coming, and he told Cielo to grab ten men, push on ahead to get the refugees out of the goddamn basin and into the arms of the reinforcements—
His stomach flips, the smell of his own sweat and blood suddenly too much.
They should have been back by now. Back for the rest of them, no man left behind. The entire squad is following this code of honor, the promise to at least recover the dogtags if nothing else, even against orders. There's still no sound, though, no movement, just a yawning sense of enclosure, enough to tell that wherever this is, it certainly isn't the valley.
Gears aren't in the habit of storing food. It's one of the more absurd folk tales put to rest, Gears as creatures of witchcraft, snatching infants out of cribs or lonely watchmen from the streets to feed them to their brood. If a Gear got him, he should be dead. They rarely miss the vital points, with armor little more than a suggestion, a papery layer of comfort for its wearer.
The thought lingers, nagging, spark enough for his nerves to comply, hand twitching towards the familiar cool hilt of his sword—
For a moment, his mind balks at the suggestion, convinced he has misjudged the distance for the sheer nonsensicality of the idea, his fingers jerking back up to his torso, following the lapels of his coat, the thick brass buttons, waiting for the sensation of leather and metal—
He swallows against a mouthful of bile, a sharp stab of ice in the pit of his stomach jerking him to his knees — gone, his sword is gone, not torn from him but methodically removed, his belt unbuckled and taken away — hands scrabbling across the ground in ludicrous effort, against the realization that he won't find it here.
He has no chance to grasp for calm, though, no hope of trying to summon a coherent thought in the tangle of whyhow/who/ before the gentle yellow glow descending on him registers at the edge of his vision. A second is all he has, a split second, but divided up into its infinitesimal beats it's enough to harbor all his fury, all the hatred he never knew he held.
Then, the glow is settling on his body, and unconsciousness rushes up to meet him once more.
The second time he wakes, it is to light. The glare is hovering above him, boring down into his eyes with its unnatural whiteness, rendering him as sightless as the dark. He tries to turn away, certain he will go blind if he keeps looking, and finds that he can't move, his head held fast inside a metal brace.
Reflexively, he squeezes his eyes shut to stem off the wave of fear, but his eyes are held wide open, too, lids pried apart by the pinprick of needles.
The urge to twist and yell is useless, an animal reaction to captivity, every last ounce of strength drained from his limbs, every part that could move held down by iron clamps. Half his body numb, the other half throbbing with remembered pain, but nowhere near enough to stem the tide of realization, merciless in its clarity. Pain is nothing, pain is something to work through and put behind in order to keep going, and if he ever doubted what was happening, ever found a prayer in his drug-soaked mind that started with the words, "Please, let it be Gears...", he knows better now.
At last, he knows better now. Knows what happened to his comrades, his team, and perhaps even the refugees they were meant to save — no reason to assume that any of them made it out, too much to hope that any of them didn't leave the valley at all. Not with this prison as it is, the cold expanse of the table under his back, the stink of sterility and human blood. Not his, not just his, though he can feel it trickling down his side from where They cut his arm open — must have cut his arm open — not with the echo of screams in his ears, voices so familiar that not even unconsciousness could stop them from reaching him.
He doesn't have to understand what is happening to know that it is happening.
To know that he is in the hands of his fellow man, not for ransom or concessions or the ideology of some half-mad anti-alliance province convinced it can go it alone, but because of who he is, who his father is. It doesn't make sense, nothing makes sense, but he isn't naive enough to assume anything less.
The sound of a door falling shut makes him jerk, the needles pulling back his eyelids stabbing sharply downwards. Nothing for a while, then the sound of running water, the tang of disinfectant and scrubbing.
"...hope it doesn't fail again. We're running out of transfusions for this one."
"—just had to be AB negative... don't know what the doctor's thinking..."
"Just go slow. We don't have any trial runs left."
The water turns off, footsteps approaching the butchering block. Two, five... six, a masked face bending into the light to gaze at him, goggles flashing dispassionately.
"Does he have to be awake for this?"
The squeaking of wheels, the scrub of cotton on his healthy arm, fingers squeezing to find a vein.
"Doctor wants it that way. Says it'll make the melding easier."
"You're not convinced?"
The face moves away, accompanied by the delicate plink of small instruments.
"Who am I to ask? It's not like we've got the original documents."
"Fine. At least disconnect his vocal cords, I don't want a repeat of what happened with the last one."
He doesn't even have time to wonder who it was They left for last, Seb or Kandra or even Cielo, his second-in-command, before the tip of a syringe pierces his forearm, liquid pushing its way into his bloodstream — thick, cloying, corroding his veins, searing his nerves and reducing his muscles to ash—
He bucks, helplessly, body moving with the strength of sheer terror, and the face bends back down, watching, a touch to his forehead draining even fear with its absolute finality.
"Well, here goes nothing."
It's not even the knife that undoes him, the scalpel cutting into his chest while the face above him keeps watching, but the liquid pumping its way into his heart — and then it burns, and he screams, and keeps screaming until everything inside him is gone.
The last time he wakes, it is to red. Red dripping from the machine with the many tubes, red pooling at his feet, red pulsing before his eyes in a steady beat. Tilting his head back, he spends a moment looking at the light, flashing with hypnotic rhythm.
A slight movement catches his attention, and he turns to look down the length of his own arm, past his elbow, down the inside of his wrist, to his fingers flexing into claws. The barrel next to his forearm wavers, the pale, red-splattered face within his grasp shaking too hard to aim, eyes so wide that the white eclipses almost everything, save for two tiny dots of brown. Brown, with a ring of green. Radially symmetrical.
He closes his fingers, and the throat implodes, falling inward under his palm.
A part of him recoils, shying away from the killing of another human being, but the other part of him knows it isn't true, not anymore. The old part of him is cowering, scrambling to keep up, hold on, frantically scouring for a plan, a resolution — but the new part of him knows what to do.
Someone is calling him, less voice and more pull, a hand curling fingers towards its palm in a beckoning gesture.
The old part is stalling, hesitating, asking why and how and what-is-happening-to-me, but the new part is pointing his feet towards the door, across the scattered glass, through the shreds of metal. The new part knows that if he finds the voice, everything will find its meaning.
When he comes to, really comes to, the part that is Tetsu fighting its way past fever and hallucinations to peer out of the eyes of the part that is monster, it is to a world of gray. Gray earth, gray stone, gray twisted shrubs against a gray sky, leaving him wondering whether They kept him underground forever and he woke up just in time to see the end of the world.
His body is shivering, not with the wind tugging at the tatters of the bandages he has been left with, but with a sickening, alien excitement, knowing that he's getting closer, knowing that the others are near.
He shies away from the thought, helplessly, despite knowing that it's true, knowing that it can't be. The mark against his throat flares, a star of fire lancing through his chest, denying even the illusion that whatever They did, it wasn't this. It couldn't have been this.
The him that was no longer exists, not with the thing wrapped around and twining alongside him, reaching into every fiber of his being. His being. No longer his being.
Hunching forward, he retches dryly, revulsion boiling up inside of him, and the monster takes that chance to surge forward again, picking up the pace across the jagged rocks. Barefoot, but it hardly seems to matter when he can remember himself tearing through metal bare-handed, crushing steel and flesh and lives as easily as breathing.
The thought of finding the next cliff wall is tempting in its simplicity, against the cold voice of logic that knows better than he does that it would accomplish nothing, that even if he were to tear a piece of rock free and craft it into a weapon for himself, nothing would change. This body was built to keep going until the sun comes crashing into the sea, with nothing to stop it from going wherever it will.
He's pretty sure it would have kept going even past the enormous mound of scales in its path, if he hadn't jerked back in surprise.
There is a giant head staring at him, and another, and another, a dozen eyes the size of a man regarding him with their pale flame. Even changed as he is, muscles screaming in protest, it's impossible to take years of training out of him, the twitch to a sword that no longer exists, falling into a low crouch in preparation for a roll and a defensive upward strike.
The Gears are watching, motionlessly, their flaring nostrils the only sign of a reaction. He's faced them before, swift, merciless killers, their giant reptile bodies belying their speed, muzzles filled with enough teeth to take out a whole platoon with one snap of the jaw.
They are no match for him.
The thought is staggering, enough for his knees to give out under him, sending him gracelessly into the dirt, and if he had any humor left in him, he'd have laughed. The Black Knight, falling on his ass in front of a pack of Gears. What a display.
And still, there's the thought, the icy, unwavering certainty that even in this state, he could rush up and take them down before they draw their next breath.
A rumble goes through the pack, a shiver starting at the tips of their tails, racing up their spines and all the way up to their necks, heads dipping and ducking back into the press of their massive shoulders. Slowly, very slowly, they start inching backwards, the group breaking up and moving to the sides, revealing what he couldn't see before.
There is a road leading down into a plain, as gray and bleak as anything, and at its end, ancient and fallen into ruin, the sprawling complex of a plant.
Shakily, he rises to his feet again, casting a glance back at the Gears, once again motionless and watching, their heads still held close to the ground.
The wind whips his hair into his eyes, a momentary shadow, and he knows with a terrifying, impossible certainty what it was They meant for him to do.
The complex must have been part of a research lab once, with a purpose so enormous he cannot even fathom it. Making his way through the abandoned halls, the derelict corridors, it is easy to see the immensity of the undertaking, rows upon rows of tables stretching from wall to wall, now in pieces, corridors branching into hundreds of doors and losing themselves in the gloom.
The floor is littered with the remnants of productivity, shattered glass vials, delicate chrome instruments, machines whose functions he can't even begin to guess. Blacktech, but the monster won't let him stop to look, to question, or even just find a corner somewhere to curl up in sheer exhaustion. Instead, it's leading him down, through hallway after hallway, tunnel after tunnel, refusing to consider any crossroads left or right.
The pull is almost overwhelming here, a constant pressure in the back of his mind, urging him onward fasterfasterfaster until he is very nearly running, stumbling through the maze on the last shreds of his sanity.
Ahead, the corridor is opening up, a faint glow blooming around the outline of a gateway and even as he rushes through, his body recoils, sharply enough to send him reeling backwards, caught in a limbo of absurdity.
The hall stretching out before him is filled with screens, thin, linen sheets reflecting images, so many images, pale, flickering renditions of the wasteland outside. In some, there is a hint of movement, shadowy clusters of heavy, hulking bodies, quicksilver flashes of sleek, small frames. And at the center of it all, a trunk of pipes and cables, winding down like mangrove roots towards a figure seated on a throne, more majestic and terrible than anything he ever knew.
The part of him that is still Tetsu is desperately wishing for a blade. The part of him that is entirely monster is seeking to flatten itself against the wall.
"And what if I told you there is no need for either?"
He never knew a voice could sound like that, both deep and high, quiet and deafening, encompassing all the octaves, every sound there ever was and every sound to be thereafter.
His back hits the wall, claws digging into the flat, grooveless metal. His skull feels ready to split open.
Upon her iron throne, Justice leans forward, the winged mark on her forehead shining like a crown. "If I had wanted to kill you, child, I would have done so long ago, when you were still out on the road, on your way to me."
She opens her eyes, two gleaming golden spheres, and even from a distance, their gaze is more than he can bear, revealing eternities within.
"Come closer." Her fingers are curling gracefully, an invitation that cannot be refused. "Let me see the face of the migraine that's been keeping me from sleep these past few days."
Shivering from head to toe, he steps forward, compelled by the gesture, the human in him mortified by his fear, the Gear reveling in it. There is absolutely no doubt in his mind that she could see his face just as clearly from a room away, or with the miles of rock between them.
"Naturally." A hint of amusement in her tone. "But it's been ages since I last had a visitor. This place is rather lacking in opportunities for conversation."
If he wasn't reeling before, the note of humor in that voice throws him off completely, plunging him back beneath the surface as the monster takes charge once again. Justice the myth. Justice the corruptor. Justice the locust plague, sweeping across the land to consume every last shred of integrity and light. Kliff was right when he told them to forget those stories, to see a thinker and a general behind the writhing host of beasts, but even he couldn't have guessed, couldn't have possibly imagined her capable of laughter.
"So what do we do when we find her, sir? What's the official plan?"
A sigh, the kind that made a candle flicker and bend.
"...throw everything we have at her and hope something sticks."
Only now, after all the strategy meetings, all the calculations, only now that it's taking every ounce of his strength to wrestle down the monster's urge to kneel, does he understand in full the direness of their struggle.
One hand resting beneath her chin, Justice is regarding him, eyes intent and unreadable. "...no. I'd remember something that could talk, I think. You can't be one of mine."
"Of course not!"
Even with all his breath behind it, the shout is swallowed up by its own hollowness, the tinny growl too foreign for his hand not to fly up, clutching at his throat.
Justice shakes her head, the red mane swaying like flames. "Tell me, child, do you remember who made you?"
"I..." Amazing that he can even form the words, when so much is failing him. "I don't know."
"But you do."
Humans. In a conflict that was always clear as day, Gears against humanity, the Order against Gears and reason, Kliff and him and all the other candidates against an organization permanently on the verge of collapsing in on itself, that was the one thing anyone could count on, that no matter how mad the world went, they were all on the edge of the same abyss, teetering on the brink of annihilation.
Nodding, Justice rises, plates of armor folding and bending until she is towering over him, and whatever he thought she might look like in motion, he didn't expect this unnatural grace, something so tall and imposing striding so fluidly, her feet barely echoing on the steps of the dais.
"You've seen this place." At an unseen command, the sea of screens shifts, the view switching from the badlands to various angles of the complex, some showing parts of barracks and road from on high, others showing corridors blocked by broken piping, still others panning slowly across rows of shattered vats in a glass-domed hall. "You know who built it. What it was used for."
Even with all the wild stories about the origin of the Gears, her words leave no room for questioning, no other explanation, not with his blood curdling at the memory of knives peeling the flesh from his bones, faces hovering in silhouette above him.
Moving past him, Justice turns in front of the screens, looking at him expectantly. "What if I told you that I bear humanity no ill will?"
The cynical bark never makes it past his lips, trapped in his chest by the realization that it has to be true. Even with all the best analysts, they never found a pattern, never anything that would indicate specific targets, Justice working to destroy supply routes or strongholds or trading posts, but laying waste to everything equally with little consideration to the who and where. He never believed in the fairy tales, the Sunday sermons about heavenly trials and punishments, but even so he never imagined that she might not care at all.
"What I am hunting is a disease, a virus that has spread to every last corner of civilization. Humans are simply its willing carriers, oblivious and foolish, giving it places to hide, resources to amass, puppets to control."
Swallowing, he tries to think of something to say, the conversation so far out of the realm of probability that it's difficult to remember even the simplest of questions. "What— what do you mean?"
"A plan. An ideology. Even this war was originally a part of it, before a series of... unfortunate miscalculations."
"Impossible?" A chuckle, more pitying than anything else, carrying the superiority of a sage towards an ant. "You're here, aren't you?"
The silence settles heavily around them, the view screens switching back to badland scenes one by one. In one corner, a Megadeath yawns, throwing its jaws open wide enough to see all the way into its gullet, and rolls in on itself, the great tail wrapping around its body as if for warmth. After a minute, a flock of smaller, brightly feathered creatures descends and begins wandering along the ridge of its back, pecking and scraping between its scales without fear.
He swallows again, but the lump won't budge. His nerves are burning. Her proximity is making him want to tear at his scalp.
"What's... going to happen now?"
Tilting her head to one side in mock thoughtfulness, Justice hums. "What do you think should be happening?"
That, at least, is easy to answer. "You destroy me. Control me. Whatever it is you do."
"Control you?" Lifting one hand, she runs her fingers through her hair in an almost human way. "Do you know how much it takes to control a common Gear?"
At his quiet denial, the sleeping Megadeath leaps to its feet, sending the bird Gears flapping and squawking in all directions. The giant itself remains standing still, every muscle in its body rigid and quivering, waiting for an order that doesn't come.
"After this long? Nothing at all."
The Gear relaxes, squinting into the wind in something akin to bewilderment. After a little while, it yawns again, hunkering back down to sleep.
"It's not all that hard, with a creature that simple. Food and sleep, that's all they ever think about. You, on the other hand..." Justice sighs, and he's sure that if her face were able to move, she would be frowning. "You're all metaphors and complex thoughts and a hundred billion neurons firing at once. You've got the wire-tapping, but just listening in is giving me a headache."
He blinks, stifling the sudden urge to apologize.
"It really doesn't matter. I don't expect you to follow me. Go, stay. You're free, as a Gear. If you want me to kill you, I will. Might be more merciful, all things considered."
A new jolt of pain has him doubling over, the vise inside his head twisting tighter still before the pressure drops abruptly, leaving him gasping for air.
"My, what a mess," Justice murmurs, clucking to herself. "They've certainly been winging this, haven't they. I can fix you, too, if you like."
"—reverse the process? No, that can't be done. I can only make adjustments so that the transition is less painful for you. They didn't put things in quite the right places, when they made you."
"Why...? Why would you do that?"
"Perhaps because you're kin. Perhaps because I have a lot of free time. Whichever is easier for you to accept." She shrugs, her shoulders heaving like a mountain range. "The choice is yours to make. Like I said... it really doesn't matter. To me, all is equal."
The breaking dawn is like a signal fire, a short, brilliant flare of red against the horizon, before it's swallowed up by the monotonous press of clouds. He is awake long before then, convinced that it's time for his watch, convinced he would get up, drain a mug of stale tea and show up at the lookout point to Cielo's protestations, "Really, sir, I'm fine, please go get some more rest." It gives him ample time to watch the shadows shifting along the floor, color bleeding steadily across the walls, the chunks of concrete on the floor, the cracked plaster, before draining away again.
Time to gather his thoughts, feeble though they are. Time to acknowledge that he's feeling disgusting, that past his grimy, skeletal appearance, no shower in the world could ever reach inside to clean away the true extent of the defilement. There is the fleeting wish to find some way to boil himself, coupled with the realization that he probably wouldn't feel a thing.
Time to cycle through every one of Kliff's teachings, all the advice and encouragement, all the times he had that warm, calloused hand patting his shoulder, welcoming him, guiding him. Time to feel how they've dulled, faded, the comfort of these memories filtering through a pane of soundproof glass that was never there before, no matter how hopeless his prospects.
Time to become certain that even if he'd lost it completely, he still wouldn't have been able to dream all this. To realize that, in the end, he wasn't able to make a decision. For the first time in his life, he wasn't able to to make a decision.
Instead, he just stood there, in that vast hall with all the shifting images, his mind and throat locked up like a trainee's on his first day in the field, fingers frozen on the trigger at the sight of the horde. No matter how he tried, he couldn't get his mouth to move, and eventually, Justice turned away again, ascending back onto her throne and closing her eyes to listen to some far-off echo, silent as a statue.
He wasn't sure how long he stood, watching the bane of humanity watch the world, unable to do anything, unable to even summon the will to rush at her and go out in a blaze of suicidal glory. Take down Justice, or die trying. All at once, it didn't seem to matter anymore.
So he left. Turned around and made his way back down that endless corridor, lacking purpose or direction, until he took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a derelict storage chamber, and it seemed as good a place as any to collapse in an unconscious heap.
All is equal.
Nothing in his life could have prepared him for this, the sheer indifference of it all.
Slowly, he unfurls from his position against the wall, shaking off dust and splinters of glass and ignoring the persistent pounding in his skull, ready to show him the way back to the central hall.
After that shaky bit of rest, it's easier to differentiate between several kinds of crushing nausea, the steady, irrepressible burn of smell and sight and sound, the actual screaming of his nerves, and the awful new sense that is letting him know that there are Gears everywhere, tiny unworthy creatures scurrying along the pipes and vents in the ceiling, large unworthy creatures growing miles and miles below the floor, masses of unworthiness plodding across the plain outside.
Feeling his way along the shelves, he makes it outside, tongue scratching around the inside of his mouth like a chewed-up leather belt. Faint shafts of daylight are streaking across the far side of the corridor, parts of the paneling torn down, highlighting the entrance to another chamber. He shifts, the debris crunching beneath his toes, and, after a brief pause, resumes walking for lack of a better plan.
How many Order strategists would gladly give their life, and that of a hundred battalions, for even the faintest look inside this complex. He's heard it all at the briefings, during talks with his fellow candidates, the legends, the speculations. Justice holed up in a poisonous marsh, some underground hell pit, the lost ruins of a once great city.
He's the only one who knows. The only one who can open the doors to stare at rotting vats of chemicals, the long tables with the strange metal arms creaking overhead, a canteen occupying an entire wing by itself, some ancient food display climbing across the counters and up the walls in a carpet of red-brown-green. The offices with their weighted desks, files strewn about, books and supplies quietly rotting away.
Brushing aimlessly through the crumbling memos, his fingers hit upon a wooden frame, a small yellowed picture in front, a balding man in a lab coat, his arm around a woman in a tidy suit, a little boy grinning around a bunch of flowers. He sets it back down, another stack of papers dissolving into flakes.
Lives. Lives no one ever knew about.
The next room makes no sense at first, missing the stuffy office tang and the functionality of the working tables. The floor has been cushioned, pastel-toned wallpaper blistering and peeling. Two dozen beds with the stuffing bulging out of their seams, much too small for an adult to sleep in.
Breathing heavily, he closes the door again, the existence of a nursery in such a place too much to take in. People built this. People lived here. People brought their children here every morning, kissed them goodbye and went to work raising an army of monsters.
Even in the most thunderous sermon, the Gears are the just reward for some transgression, the punishment for some long-forgotten sin. Never a product. Never a deliberate consequence.
A disease. A virus.
Looking down at his clawed hands, the flaring red patterns on his skin, he thinks he is beginning to understand.
"Who did you mean when you spoke of a virus?"
With a slow blink, the power of that golden gaze focuses on him, but this time, he manages to stand his ground. Part of him can't believe he ran back here, came barging in to demand information from the destroyer of mankind, but the rest of him is chasing answers, too close to the secret to back down.
"A man." For a moment, she seems to be looking at something far too distant to be seen. "A man who found others like him, or maybe they found him. Unfortunately, even after all this time, I still know much too little of the details, but there is one thing I do know. They seek complete reconstruction."
"Reconstruction of what?"
"The world, child."
Licking his lips, he finds them coming away dry. "How... how can you be so sure?"
"It's the reason I was born." Huffing wryly, Justice shakes her head. "And, I assume, the reason they made you. Great willpower, great intelligence — it's what you need for someone equal to myself. Your potential is... undeniable."
"You don't mean—?!"
"Yes. I daresay you were their attempt to get things back on the right track. A failure, of course, but I can't imagine what happened to you was without its merits. They never do anything unless they're sure they can profit in multiple ways."
With a shudder, he hunches forward, claws digging into his upper arms against the sheer number of possibilities. Weakening the front. Pushing reforms he opposed. Reassigning key positions. Warning Kliff. Curbing Kliff. Hurting Kliff.
Humming thoughtfully, Justice folds her hands beneath her chin. "No matter. They'll probably try again, with time. Once a suitable subject is found. Time is what they have in abundance. And fortunately, I do, too."
"You mean..." Taking a deep breath, he tries to grope for the train of thought, derailed by all the little inconsistencies sliding into place in a disturbingly intricate mosaic. They'd known his position. They'd been there for him, when no one except central command had known where he was heading, who was going with him. Central command, with its ties to the Vatican, its ties to the governing provinces, the suppliers, the trade routes.
"Things will proceed as they want, for as long as they want. And there is no reason for them stop."
Futility. A word he'd been taught to erase from his thinking, to see possibility where others saw failure, to give hope where others gave in to despair. From the very first lesson, Kliff had taught them that the war could be won if they set their minds to it, if they learned not to pay any heed to any of the small-minded talk at brass meetings, any of the voices proposing a survival of the fittest, every man for himself. Out of the many speakers he'd heard since then, few had been able to carry on with any sort of conviction, and none came close to Kliff, who had everything riding on just one card — the will of his men not to give up.
He couldn't have spoken like that if he knew, had even the slightest inkling of the reality unfolding before his son, thousands of miles and a lifetime away. An unwinnable war, staged for the benefit of a few who would never know any losses.
Closing his eyes, it's so horribly easy to think of his comrades, his men, to see Kliff's face growing old and gaunt and weary, eyes sinking further and further into their sockets as he keeps fighting, never knowing there will be no freedom.
No. No, even if Kliff knew, he would keep fighting. Sacrifice his soul to that merciless grind because the alternative meant abandoning his highest duty.
Nothing matters. All is equal.
Death would be better than this.
When he finally looks up, Justice is watching him, infinitely patient, as if she could wait a week or a year for him to speak and it would mean nothing.
"If..." His throat is closing up, the mark searing into the deepest part of him. "If this is your enemy... what would you say if I wished to fight alongside you?"
The golden gleam flickers, something like surprise lighting in her eyes. "Child, do you realize what you're asking? My path doesn't allow for any sort of compromise, or false sympathy. I can't spare those who would give shelter to the wolves, even if their intentions are pure."
"I... can't go back." It's getting hard to breathe, his voice tightening to a whisper, acid stinging in his eyes. "And I can't go forward from here, either. I can't— crawl into a hole somewhere and just watch everyone I ever knew waste their lives on a cause that doesn't exist. Forever. Until They are satisfied."
"There is that," Justice agrees quietly, folding her arms.
He swallows, tasting the contents of his own stomach, too empty to even properly dry-heave at the thought of what he is about to choose. What she once chose, an eternity before him, looking at the world and its possibilities, and deciding on eradication as the safest, sanest option.
A heartbeat. A smile under the blossoming branches, warm and gentle and sad against a glittering sea of tags.
"There's no expectation of mine that you have to fulfill, except one."
His next breath rattles down into his lungs with the force of a falling chain. "You said... you could ease the change for me. Out in the field, I don't want to hesitate, if I..."
This time, all he feels is a dull throb as she begins rifling through his mind, moving with an unexpected amount of care.
"...Yes, there it is. You understand that I cannot take your memories, at least not without causing significant damage. All I can do is interrupt your emotional responses to them, a kind of temporary cauterization." Justice pauses, and when she speaks again, there is an odd note in her voice that he can't quite identify. "Are you ready?"
Echoing a question from nearly fifteen years ago, out in the shade of the almond grove, on the day he put on his uniform for the very first time.
"My boy, no one is ever truly ready."
Squeezing his eyes shut, he gives a jerky nod, the smallest kind of damnation. "Yes. Do it."
After a short silence, her palm comes to rest against his cheek, large and wide enough to cover his entire face, and oh so very careful. He isn't sure how long they stand like this, her hand on his cheek, her eyes staring through his skin and bones and into him, and him trying not to start trembling like a leaf in the wind.
He's bracing for pain, some kind of violent intrusion, but all there finally is to it is a short snap, a thread being plucked from the fabric of his consciousness, and then, nothing but blessed darkness.
When he comes to, he is lying on a bed in someone's deserted private quarters. The sheets are smelling clean against the scent of dust and rotting furniture, though it seems absurd that anyone would bother to give them a wash.
His dirty bandages are lying in a pile on the floor, shredded clean in half though he has no memory of doing so. Gingerly, he sits up to find the constant burning sensation almost gone, his limbs oddly light and unmarked by the shifting patterns. Habitually, he brushes his bangs out of his eyes, mild annoyance welling up when his fingers get caught in a snarled mess.
He needs a bath. And a change of clothes. The inside of his mouth tastes like death and something worse.
Swinging his legs over the side of the cot, he pauses, held in place by a faint nagging sensation. He feels like he should be thinking of something, but for the moment finds it impossible to say what it could be. No matter. It will come to him.
The self that was Tetsu was always rushing, doing fifteen different things at once because he felt like they were vital, but the Gear that is Testament understands that the world moves at a different pace.
Rising, he shakes off the heaviness of sleep, and decides to go looking for a way to get clean. The niggling sensation flickers and dies, overruled by new priorities. There is a smile and the touch of a broad, gentle hand in his memory, but as with so many other things, they have lost their meaning.
Sorry for the long radio silence, 2012 is already doing its best to keep me from the keyboard. For anyone worrying about Going off the Record (there are such people?), it's being obstinate, but by no means dead. XD In the meantime, C&C is welcome.
- I'm very unfond of the whole "Testament volunteered/got brainwashed" and "Justice is evil and controls him" because I don't think it does anything for either of their characters or motivations. It's more interesting when characters play an active part in making choices, painful though they may be.
- Visual inspiration largely came from this photo series of the ruins of Prypiat, the city where the Chernobyl plant workers used to live. It's strangely compelling.
- Many thanks to Twig for being the awesome source of advice and inspiration that she is. ♥