Before - Part II

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THE DEBRIEFING cell was cold and grey. Basil stared at the painted floor between his knees. Gwen was there with him, he could see her out of the corner of his eye, noted more than registered. But he couldn't seem to lift his head. Not for her words, not for the cup of now-stone-cold tea she'd brought in for him, not for anything.

He was angry enough to throw something — the chairs and table, maybe, only they were metal and bolted to the floor. At any rate, he was too exhausted to move, to put furious thought into violent action.

His throat was killing him. He wanted water, or something, he wasn't sure. Maybe orange juice. That would make the pain worse, wouldn't it? Fill the small cuts in the soft tissue of his throat with an acidic bite. Yeah, that could be good; make the pain on the outside match what was eating him to pieces on the inside.

Gwen had suggested they "talk about it" well into their first hour. How long ago that was now, Basil didn't know. He hadn't replied. It hurt to reply. He just sat there with his forehead on the edge of the table, hunched over his own brown-purple hands, staring at the painted floor.

Who the hell paints a concrete floor, anyway?

His brain said: seals in dust lessens airflow deadens echo and the travel of sound easier to clean, and he shook his head. All the little fragments of thoughts scattered out of his ears like pepper from a mill. He went back to being empty.

Alone.

Basil shifted his eyes to his hands. Palm up on his thighs, curled slightly. He looked like he was trying to catch words, the same strange non-verbal gesture that Kalp did to indicate that he was listening, paying attention, focused. The same way Kalp used to.

Hell.

Basil quickly turned his hands over.

Some of his own blood was mingled with...with his. Basil had cut himself with his own fingernails while making a fist, impotent in the black void that was the back of the SUV. Yesterday he would have been worried about cross contamination, his blood mingling with another species', but now all he could think was yes, inside me, he's safe there, yes.

Gwen sat down beside him. He knew it was Gwen, would know even if he was deaf and blindfolded. Even if he'd had all his senses deprived, taken, he'd know Gwen. The skin on his face tried to crawl away from her, goosebumping painfully.

"Basil," she said softly, and then her fingers were curled into his palm, soft and surprisingly cool. She clucked her tongue once, the tip of her own nails tracing the punctures his had made. "Oh, Basil," she said again, and this time it sounded like a pet name, like a soft and meaningful "sweetie" or "baby." But Gwen had never really indulged in pet names, and Basil had felt stupid calling her "pumpkin" when the most she ever called him was "Baz." So, no pet names for them. Sometimes he called her "colonialist," but that was when they were teasing.

Now she made his name sound...what? Like it was the name of a moping child, or a pouting lover. Like he was foolish. Condescending.

Basil straightened and yanked his hands out of her grip. He turned his face away. He didn't want her to see how chapped his upper lip was, how swollen his eyes were. He could see how miserable he looked in the specialty glass that made up an entire wall.

Stuck on the mirror side for once, Basil thought. Self-pity turned to anger. I didn't do anything wrong! It wasn't me!

Something soft and wet and warm touched the side of one of Basil's knuckles, and he looked down. Gwen had one of her hands in his palm, a wet washcloth cutting a peach slash through the rusty burgundy that was flaking off of his skin.

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