Here's part 2 finally! Thanks to all those that left feedback from part 1!
Loonatics Unleashed are the property of WB.
Transformation – Part 2
Meanwhile, somewhere else in Acmetropolis in a tall flat residence building, Auriel Wolf is digging into a metal briefcase laid out on a table in her room. There are various unique hunting-type weapons spread out on the floor and on the desk around her. She pulls out a vial containing a dark blue fluid and raises it to her eye-level.
'Head Office isn't going to like this if they ever find out, but it may be the only way to save Tech…,' she mumbles to herself.
Another two nights later, the Loonatics (except Tech) are in the kitchen dining area. A stern-looking Tech enters and moves past his team mates wordlessly to the fringe, avoiding eye contact with any of them. Ace, Lexi, Slam and Rev look at him in a concerned manner as he snatches an energy glucose drink and wolfs it all down his throat at tremendous speed. Duck stomps over to Tech in an annoyed fashion.
'Tech! Stop hogging my liquids! You've been drinking all my energizer drinks the past three days! There's hardly any left for me!' Duck complains.
Tech swings his head to face the mallard and glares at him in a frightening manner. A low rumbling growl rises up in his throat and he bares his canine teeth at Duck. Duck, startled, takes a step back.
'Whoah! Whoah! Easy Tech! I…I was just kidding y'know!' Duck nervously laughs in an attempt to settle the coyote.
Tech still appears uncharacteristically angry, and Ace places a firm hand on his left shoulder to hold him back from seemingly pouncing on Duck.
'Tech! Calm down! What's gotten into you?!' Ace exclaims half with concern and half with surprise.
Tech abruptly halts and stares at Ace.
'Ace, I'm sorry I…didn't mean to!' Tech stutters.
'Y'know you've been acting rather strange the past few days Tech,' Ace comments, 'I mean you've been cooped up in yer lab most of the time, and you're more irritable and temperamental than usual.'
'You ain't looking too good either,' Lexi adds.
'Yehbiluragurabahja!' Slam grunts in agreement with the bunnies.
'What's bothering you?' Ace asks in concern.
'Nothing! I told you already!' Tech raises his voice in frustration, 'I just want to be left alone!'
Tech pushes his way past his concerned team mates and storms out of the kitchen dining area.
'Let-me-talk-to-him!-I'm-his-best-bud-afterall!-I'm-sure-I-can-get-him-to-open-up-with-my-infectious-good-spirits!' Rev says brightly to Ace and the others.
With that, Rev zips off to look for Tech. He knocks on the genius's lab door.
Rev is interrupted as Tech's lab door slides open for him. He cautiously peeks into the lab, finding it deserted. His eyes fall upon a rack with blood samples in test tubes on Tech's worktop desk. Curiosity drives him to investigate further and he steps in quietly on tip-toe. He looks more closely at the test tubes of blood samples, then he notices print-out sheets of Tech's blood analysis and anatomical body scan results. Picking these sheets up and speed reading them, Rev's eyes widen in shock at what he reads.
'Traces-of-drastically-increased-production-in-white-blood-cells,-residual-evidence-of-accelerated-bone-growth,-muscle-mass-enlargement-and-shifts-in-cerebral-processing! My-God!-Tech!-What's-happened-to-him?!' Rev utters in horror to himself. 'If-these-scan-results-are-correct,-he-may-be-mutating-wildly!-His-body-would-be-burning-itself-out-if-it's-undergoing-uncontrolled-metamorphic-episodes!'
Rev slaps his hands over his head in panic. 'I-gotta-tell-Ace-and-the-others!'
Rev's eyes are then drawn to an injector-launching gun and a holo-imager messaging device, lying nearby on the worktop desk as well. The gun contains dart-like injectors that are full of some kind of liquid silver.
'What's-this-for?' Rev wonders aloud inspecting the gun. 'Might-be-useful.'
He picks up the weapon and its accompanying messaging device. Then he zooms out of Tech's lab in a frantic hurry.
In his bedroom, Tech is sitting on a seat and has rolled up his sleeve to reveal his bite-marked right shoulder, which he is inspecting again. All of a sudden, his entire body is gripped by a consuming paroxysm once again. Tech clutches the sides of his body tightly in a vain attempt to try and contain the searing pain.
'Arrrgghhh! Not...ugh!...Again! Arrrggghhh!'
Tech undergoes another terrifying lycanthropic metamorphosis into his were-coyote form. His entire body enlarges, his outfit rips apart, his fur elongates and becomes thick, fangs lengthen, talons emerge from his fingers and he rises to a towering height on angled wolf-like legs. Duck casually passes by Tech's bedroom outside when he accidentally overhears Tech's cries of pain. He stops and presses his ear to Tech's bedroom door in alarm at the sounds.
'Tech?! Are you in there?!' Duck shouts through the door. 'What on Acme Earth are you doing in there?!'
To Duck's absolute shock and horror, the bedroom door is pounded loose, and it falls with a loud bang onto the floor in front of Duck as he jumps back out of the way. He looks up with a mortified expression as he sees a huge transformed were-Tech stomping out and snarling at the sight of him. Duck screams in terror and runs for his life.
Rev runs from Tech's lab right to Ace, Lexi and Slam in the living room.
Rev is abruptly interrupted by the unmistakable screams of Duck. The mallard comes rushing into the living room gasping heavily and out of breath.
'It's a vicious monster! Run for your lives!' Duck screams frantically.
'Hold on Duck. What're you screeching about?' Lexi queries.
'Our headquarters are under attack! That beast has…'
As Duck is about to warn them, the transformed were-Tech prowls into the living room on all fours. A deep, rumbling growl resonates from his thick-furred neck, his long ears flatten against his head and the furs on his back bristles as he sights the other Loonatics.
'Oh, suddenly I see what you mean Duck,' Ace sarcastically utters.
'Oh-no!-He's-changed-into-a-were-coyote!' Rev cries.
Ace and the others look at Rev in some confusion, but before they can say anything else, the were-coyote leaps at Duck.
'Yikes!' Duck squeals.
Duck teleports away just a split-second before were-Tech lands right on his spot. Lexi fires a brain-blast at were-Tech, but he reacts at lightning speed and jumps out of the way. Lexi's brain-blast strikes Duck just as he re-materialises opposite her instead, knocking him into a wall.
'Oops! Sorry Duck!' Lexi apologises immediately.
Duck sits up in a wobbly, disorientated manner. 'I can take…anything you can…throw…at me!' he slurs dizzily.
Ace fires off an optic laser blast at the were-coyote, but to his astonishment, the beast's clawed hands start glowing a bright green, and in response, a metal table nearby rises up into the air on its own, flying into the direct path of Ace's laser vision. Ace's laser blast ends up hitting and cracking the metal table instead. As this happens, were-Tech makes a dash for the window and smashes right through it. He lands on the HQs' tower-side and claws his way down to the ground below. The Loonatics look down at him with stunned expressions from the smashed hole in the window as he escapes.
'Guys!-Listen-to-me!-That-creature-is-Tech!-I-found-medical-scan-results-in-his-lab-indicating-metamorphic-transformations-he's-been-undergoing!-He-has-a-lycanthropic-infliction!-Probably-from-been-bitten-the-other-night-by-that-first-werewolf-we-encountered!' Rev frantically spills.
'That explains Tech's strange behaviour over the past few days!' Lexi realises.
'And how that were-beast levitated the metal table just now!' Ace adds.
'Oh great! Tech's turned into a wild, blood-thirsty killer now! This I don't need!' Duck exclaims. 'Can I just retire to my room while the rest of you go monster hunting?'
'NO!' the others shout in chorus to the mallard.
'I-also-found-this-weapon-and-a-messaging-device-with-it-in-Tech's-lab!' Rev informs pulling out the said injector-launching gun and device.
'Play that messaging device Rev,' Ace instructs.
Rev puts the device down on the floor and pushes a button on it. A hologram image is emitted into the air above it with a pre-recorded Tech's face being displayed. Tech's voice rings out along with the hologram recording.
'Ace, Rev, Lexi, Duck and Slam, if any of you have been snooping around my lab and found this message and my injector-launching gun, then it's probably because my worst suspicions about myself have been proven true. That I am transforming into some kind of were-coyote monstrosity. The injector-launcher gun contains highly concentrated liquid silver nitrate, which I melted down from the silver arrow we recovered from our first werewolf encounter. If I am no longer in control of myself, use it to put a stop to me! Before I seriously hurt someone! Unfortunately, I suspect the silver nitrate will put an end to me, permanently! But you must be prepared to kill me before I kill an innocent! If it comes to that, well, it's been a real honour serving as a member of the Loonatics! Thanks for everything guys! Tech E. Coyote…out.'
As the holo-message finishes, Ace and the others look down sadly to the ground, then to each other.
'Well you heard Tech. We know what we've got to do,' Ace says with sad determination, as he picks up the silver nitrate injector-launching gun from Rev. 'Rev, we need you to find him with your GPS.'
Rev looks at Ace with doubtful uncertainty before he gives in and sighs heavily, shutting his eyes. When he re-opens them, they are glowing their bright neon-red colour.
'I have a lock on him…,' Rev utters in a sombre tone and in a rare slow speech speed.
The five Loonatics make their way out of HQs on their hovering zoomatrix bikes in pursuit of Tech.
Soon they land their bikes outside a meat storage warehouse building.
'He's-in-that-meat-warehouse,' Rev confirms.
'Alright Loonatics, we're going in,' Ace states leading the way.
The five Loonatics tread quietly into the dark warehouse through a broken down door that were-Tech had crashed through some time ago. As they creep through dangling masses of beef ribcages, they keep a sharp look out for any sign of the transformed Tech. They stop as they hear the sounds of a creature ripping at and consuming meat ahead of them, and they make out the dark outline of what must be the were-coyote, Tech. Ace slowly pulls out the silver nitrate injector gun from his back and takes aim at the were-coyote.
'Sorry Tech,' he whispers as he is about to pull the gun's trigger.
Suddenly, a spinning blade emerges from somewhere in the darkness, whistling through the air and plunging right into the gun's barrel, which makes Ace drop the weapon onto the floor with a clang. Alarmed, were-Tech takes off with a snort further into shadows and disappears from the view of all. Ace and the others looks around themselves for the source of the thrown blade.
'Where did that knife come from?' Ace asks in puzzlement.
The black-clad figure of Auriel Wolf jumps down in front of the surprised Loonatics.
'Don't try to kill your comrade yet. I have something which might save him from his were-curse!' she urgently informs them.
'Umm, and who the heck are you?' Duck suspiciously asks.
'And how do you know that creature is our friend Tech?!' Lexi adds.
'I'm an acquaintance of his. My name is Auriel Wolf. I've been monitoring Tech's metamorphosis from the night he was bitten by the first werewolf you all encountered,' Auriel explains.
'Auriel?!-Tech-mentioned-you-before!-You-were-the-one-who-shot-down-that-first-werewolf-with-that-silver-arrow?!' Rev exclaims in surprise.
'Yes,' she replies.
'And you were at Acme Central Park too when Tech must've first transformed!' Ace further deduces.
'What are you? Some kind of Tech fan girl stalker?' Duck suspiciously questions again.
'Let's just say I'm well practiced at hunting supernatural threats and investigating unusual matters,' Auriel simply replies.
'Boy does Tech sure know how to pick 'em!' Duck sarcastically remarks, 'First that brainy nutcase Mallorey Mastermind and now this monster-slaying wolf lady!'
'So what's this 'thing' you say you've got that could help save Tech?' Ace queries.
'A 'potential' cure for were-lycanthropy,' Auriel answers pulling out a vial of dark blue fluid. 'It could reverse Tech's transformation and return him to normal, removing his were-infliction completely if delivered within the first week of infection. It must be administered to a victim while they are in their transformed state.'
'But?' Lexi anticipates.
'It hasn't always proven successful in trial run studies,' Auriel finishes grimly.
'Well-we're-willing-to-take-our-chances-and-try-anything-to-save-Tech!' Rev states firmly.
'I'll need to administer it into him manually through injection,' Auriel informs.
'You're kidding right?! No way can we catch Tech in his current 'bite-your-head-off' state now!' Duck exclaims in protest.
'There's-no-choice-Duck!-We-have-to-try!' Rev states firmly again.
'It won't be easy. Were-creatures have highly enhanced senses, reflexes and physical prowess and strength,' Auriel warns.
'So we need to find Tech again now,' Lexi states.
'Those affected by the were-curse need to feed regularly to sustain their accelerated lycanthropic metabolism. Tech won't have wondered too far from here,' Auriel informs.
'Okay guys, we'll split up and search for Tech again,' Ace orders. 'Rev, take Slam and Auriel and keep searching this place. Me, Lexi and Duck will go pick up a few of Tech's handy capturing 'toys' from our bikes outside. We'll come join you soon. Remember, no lethal force if you see him!'
'I'm more worried about him using 'lethal force' on us!' Duck mutters.
Ace ignores him. 'Loonatics, move out!'
The group of heroes separate and take off in opposite directions. Rev, Slam and Auriel resume their search for Tech in the warehouse. Rev jumps as he catches a fleeting glimpse of a shadowed figure dashing past some of the hanging meats ahead of him, which swing ominously in the wake of the figure as it disappears again. Rev sucks up his courage and goes to investigate the area of his sighting. He peeks around the beef ribcages cautiously. A tall shadow descends upon the unaware form of the road runner, and before Rev knows what's happening, the huge terrifying form of were-Tech is upon him. He is forced flat onto the ground by the overwhelming strength of the were-coyote and were-Tech's snarling, saliva-dripping jaws nears his face. Rev stares wide-eyed at the fearsome sight of his transformed friend, frozen to the spot with fear. Suddenly, Slam arrives and leaps to Rev's rescue. The Tasmanian devil throws his large body against the side of were-Tech, managing to knock him off of Rev. The were-coyote, infuriated, bellows and turns on Slam. Slam tornadoes over to were-Tech in a head-on charge, but were-Tech grabs one of his fists as he approaches and swings the Tasmanian into a wall hard. Auriel instantly fires an electrical net at the were-coyote, but he slices through it with his razor-sharp claws and the net remains land harmlessly at his sides on the floor. At that point, Ace, Lexi and Duck return to the scene with extra gear.
'Lexi, fire the Gluco-Gel gun!' Ace orders pointing at were-Tech.
Lexi fires a shot at were-Tech, encasing his body in a cube of the gelatinous substance.
'Got 'im!' Lexi triumphantly proclaims.
But were-Tech forces his talons upward, again slicing through his jelly-like entrapment. The Loonatics gasp in stunned astonishment.
'Duck, quick! The energy force-field!' Ace cries.
Duck tosses a miniature device at were-Tech's feet, which then emits a dome-shaped energy force-field prison around him. The were-coyote immediately starts banging wildly on the energy wall of his prison.
'Errr, you think that's gonna hold him?' Duck queries Ace uncertainly.
Were-Tech's hands begin pulsing with his activated electromagnetic powers. As this happens, the energy force-field weakens where his clawed hands make contact with the energy wall, and as his green electromagnetism spreads through it, a rift is created which he forces his way through. The enraged were-coyote approaches the other Loonatics menacingly with a rumbling growl, his eyes blazing an even more blinding green illumination.
'No way!' Ace exclaims in disbelief.
Rev nervously begins yapping in response to Ace. 'Well-as-Tech-himself-would-explain,-what-he-did-there-was-reverse-the-polarity-of-the-energy-field-with-his-electromagnetic-powers-in-order-to-cause-interference-to-the-flow-of-containment-energy-by-rechanneling-the-energized-atoms-and reorganizing-their-structures-so-that-'
'Not really necessary right now Rev!' Lexi cries at him as they all back away from the large, growling were-coyote.
Ace raises a launcher gun weapon. 'Didn't want to have to use this Tech but…'
Ace fires a few rounds of fine, needle-like blades into were-Tech's exposed top body. The were-coyote lets out a shocking roar of pain, then hunches over, only the heavy rising and falling breathing movements of his body visible. Small dribbling lines of blood leak from the numerous puncture wounds inflicted by the needle-like blades across Tech's furred chest and stomach regions.
'Stinger blades. Tech said they'd administer a non-lethal, but VERY painful dose of a venomous toxin into a target,' Ace explains to the others.
To their horror though, were-Tech begins grabbing and pulling out the embedded stinger blades and tossing them onto the floor. His clawed hands are stained with blood as they are superficially cut by the fine blades. But all the small wounds almost instantly heal up due to his molecular regeneration powers. He then unexpectedly turns away from the Loonatics and bounds on all fours for a window. He leaps up and crashes through the glass, making his escape out of the meat warehouse.
'He's getting away! We can't lose him!' Auriel cries urgently, and she runs for the doorway.
'C'mon!' Ace commands to his team, following her direction.
The Loonatics rush out of the warehouse and onto their bikes. Auriel mounts a jet-black motorbike of her own, and the group pursue the running form of Tech some distance ahead of them. They follow him as he leaps across the rooftops of Acmetropolis at an incredible animal speed.
'So-what's-our-next-course-of-action-when-we-catch-up-with-him-again?' Rev queries to Ace through a communicator in their riding helmets.
'Yeah, none of our weapons worked on him! He broke through them all!' Lexi adds.
'I ain't sure yet guys,' Ace replies uncertainly.
'I have an idea,' Auriel offers, 'The Tech we know is still in that were-coyote's body somewhere, buried, but there. I'll try to establish a psychic link with his mind and attempt communication. I've done it before briefly and I think I can do it again.'
'Ain't got too many other options. Give it a try then Auriel,' Ace replies in agreement.
Were-Tech eventually comes to a halt on a flat rooftop, panting in mild exhaustion. He lets out a long, mournful howl in the silvery illumination of a full moon looming large in the sky behind him.
'Creepy,' Duck comments at this as he and the others bring their bikes to a stop on the ground below.
'Right, do yer thing Auriel,' Ace says.
Auriel launches a grappling hook from a gun and pulls herself up to the building rooftop where Tech is. The other Loonatics fire-up their jetpacks and follow her up too. Once on the roof, Auriel cautiously maintains some measure of a safe distance from a growling were-Tech, whilst signalling to the other Loonatics to stay back with a straight arm. Ace and the others slowly arrange themselves into a circular flanking formation around Auriel and Tech. Tech eyes them warily and bares his fearsome canine teeth warningly at them, along with more rumbling growls. Auriel initiates her telepathic linking.
'Easy Tech! We're all your friends here. We mean you no harm.'
Were-Tech's glowing green eyes are fixated on Auriel as she mentally communicates with him. A slight look of confusion enters his feral facial features. Auriel riskily shortens the gap between them in slow steps.
'That's it Tech. Nothing to fear. I'm going to help you.'
'Auriel…stay away…from me,' Tech mentally replies to Auriel's mild surprise.
Suddenly Auriel's psychic link is cut off and were-Tech's feral mind resumes control again. The were-coyote throws his head backwards and lets out a terrifying roar.
'Loonatics! Group squeeze-play, now!' Ace orders.
Immediately, the Loonatics all throw themselves on the massive hulking form of were-Tech. Slam tightly locks Tech's head and neck in a lock-hold; Ace and Lexi grab a hold of Tech's arms and try to weigh them down; and Duck and Rev latch onto the sides of Tech's thick torso, pushing him down onto the ground. Were-Tech snarls viciously at them and tries to break free of their tight holds.
'Hold him! Hold him!' Ace commands as they all struggle to keep were-Tech down on the ground.
'Hurry up and inject him already wolf-lady!' Duck almost screams at Auriel.
Auriel quickly produces her were-lycanthropy antidote and transfers it into a syringe. She pushes apart some of the dark green fur on were-Tech's right arm and sinks the needle into his flesh. The dark blue antidote fluid is injected into his veins. At that point, were-Tech suddenly throws his body backward in a burst of unnatural strength and throws off his team mates. Ace and the others land with heavy thuds on the ground and groan in pain. Everyone then watches as the were-coyote's elbows and knees hit the ground, and he starts panting rapidly as if hyperventilating. A resonating screaming roar escapes his throat as his body begins to change. His whole form shrinks back to his regular size, his claws and fangs also are reduced, his anatomical frame reverts back to a more anthropological shape and his long, wild fur shortens again. In the were-coyote's place is a normal topless Tech once again. He collapses onto the ground in utter exhaustion. Ace and the others gather round his fallen form. Auriel places a hand on Tech's neck pulse-point and visually checks him over.
'He'll be alright. The antidote seems to have done its job,' Auriel informs Ace.
Ace smiles and nods at her in acknowledgement. Tech stirs from his unconsciousness, groaning softly and weakly mumbles, 'Wha...what happened?'
'A bad dream Tech, but it's all over now,' Auriel soothingly assures her old friend. She takes off her long black trench coat and drapes it over Tech's exposed top body. Then she stands up and backs away from the group to give Tech and his team mates more room.
Ace and the others help Tech sit up.
'How-you-feeling-Tech-ole'-buddy?' Rev asks in a concerned manner.
'Like I've just been hit by a 10 ton anvil. I'm aching all over!' Tech weakly croaks in response.
'C'mon, we'll get yer back to HQ for a little R & R,' Ace says.
'And a fresh new uniform set!' Lexi adds humorously, 'You can't be seen in public sporting a lady's coat!'
The Loonatics help Tech to his feet.
'Auriel, you're welcome to…,' but Ace stops when he realises that the white wolf anthro is gone.
The Loonatics glance around, but see no sign of her.
'She's vanished! Again! Hey! That's my trick! I'll sue!' Duck grudgingly complains.
'Huh, now you see her, now you don't,' Tech mumbles.
Two days later, Auriel, in a long-sleeved shoulder-bearing purple top and a long black skirt, stands outside the garden grounds of her and Tech's old school Acme College, taking in the old scene once again.
'Thought I'd find you here, haunting our old study grounds.'
'Hello Tech,' Auriel greets in an unsurprised manner at the voice coming from behind her. She doesn't turn round to visually confirm her assumption either.
'You forgot your coat the other night,' Tech says holding up her long dark trench coat.
Auriel finally turns to face him. Tech is dressed casually again as well in a short-sleeved, turquoise and white collared top and blue jeans, and he is in his natural brown furred colours as well.
'Thanks,' she replies simply taking the trench coat from his hands, but avoiding his direct gaze.
'I never got a chance to thank you for saving me,' Tech remarks.
'You don't have to. You're a good friend of mine. You would've done the same for me.'
'I'm sorry for all the trouble I must've caused you. And I hope I didn't…hurt you.'
'No, you didn't. But even if you had, it wouldn't have been your fault. You weren't yourself.'
'Maybe not.' Tech's voice falls here and Auriel regards him with some mild curiosity. 'I'm ashamed to admit it, but…a part of me actually…'liked'…being feral, wild, free…I'm used to always being so organised, civilised, rational and scientifically-minded. It just felt so…'liberating' to be free of my usual rigid mentality.'
'Understandable. You're not the only one I've encountered in the past to express such feelings associated with the transformation. It's nothing to be ashamed of Tech,' Auriel assures.
'Not the only one?' Tech inquires quizzically.
Auriel sighs before continuing with her answer. 'I work for a classified organization known as C.H.U.R.C.H., 'Conspiracy Hunters and Unusual Research Communications Headquarters'. I'm a field agent of theirs for any matters that are paranormal, conspiratorial or out of the usual investigative domain of the general police authorities. I've trailed and hunted a variety of supernatural phenomena before. You are not the first lycanthropic case I've followed.'
'Well, that explains how you 'happened' to have a cure for were-lycanthropy,' Tech sarcastically and wistfully comments.
'Consider yourself lucky Tech. My usual protocol is to avoid its usage and eliminate were-victims on sight, whoever they may be.'
'So why did you deviate from that rule for me?' Tech asks.
Auriel, as if stunned by the question, is speechless for a few seconds before she collects herself to reply him.
'It would've been a great loss to Acmetropolis to take out one of its brightest minds and greatest heroes,' Auriel replies untruthfully.
Tech gives her an unconvinced look. 'Are you sure it's just that?'
'It's doesn't matter if it is or not Tech,' Auriel quickly interjects to close the issue. She then offers a new topic instead, 'I'm afraid I'll be departing Acmetropolis tomorrow. Have to get back to head office in New Acme to report my findings and observations from this trip.'
'Sooo, no second coffee date then?' Tech queries with some disappointment in his voice.
'On my next visit. Promise!' Auriel assures Tech warmly with a wink.
She then embraces Tech in a tight hug without warning, taking Tech slightly by surprise, but then he returns her hug.
'It really was good to see you again after all these years Auriel,' Tech says with sincerity.
'And you too Tech,' Auriel returns with equal sincerity. 'Be well Tech,' she finishes, placing a tender palm to his furred cheek and regarding him closely for the last time.
'You take care of yourself,' Tech utters in a volume near to whispering.
With those final wishes, the coyote and wolf pull apart. Auriel turns away from Tech and waves a farewell to him as the length between them grows. Tech returns her wave and watches the back of her slender form until it diminishes into the distance, a thoughtful expression painting his features.