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Title: Imperfect Various Things
Fandom: Guilty Gear
Parts: One | Two | Three
Characters: Testament, Justice (and Kliff, kind of)
Rating: R
Contains: Copious amounts of backstory fixing. Violence.
Summary: Testament meets Justice.


Imperfect Various Things
Part 3



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—

Brushing fabric.

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—

Gone.

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 plink of small instruments.

"Who am I to ask? It's not like we've got the original documents."

A sigh.

"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.

Beautiful. Meaningless.

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.

Beautiful. Meaningless.

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.

The others.

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.

Fearing something.

Fearing him.

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.

"...Yes."

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.

"...Yes."

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."

"That's—"

"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."

"You could—?!"

"—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, 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.

Go, stay.

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 an empty 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.

And yet...

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."

Other merits.

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 to 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..."

"I understand."

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.






-TBC-



A/N: 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.

Notes:
- 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. ♥

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