Author: Khalani
Pairing: Past Treize/Zechs, Zechs/Noin, Zechs/OMC (Bear with me on this)
Spoliers: Series, EW, Episode Zero
Warnings: Death themes, male/male and male/female sexual situations, suggestions, and sensuality, foul language, grief, angst, cynicism, debatable instances of sap. Big time original character-ness. Rated M for swears and darkness
Disclaimer: I don't own any part of GW. No monies have been or will be made off of this thing.

Please see Limbo 1 for important notes! Note the pairings. They're different for this chapter.

This is the end, beautiful friends. Sorry for the delay! New job = more money, but much less time. This chapter alternates mostly from past to present. There aren't any convoluted flashbacks within flashbacks or anything, so I don't think you'll have any trouble figuring it out.

I want to express the most sincere gratitude to everyone who has commented and reviewed over the months. I especially want to thank LH, Karina, and TB for being especially supportive. Without your commentary, thoughtful reflections, and your own wonderful stories, Limbo would have been a mega piece of shit. I'm serious. The version I was ready to post on this list so many months ago was a pathetic shell of what it's become. You've kept me challenged, kept me to a high standard of quality, and, most importantly, you've kept me motivated. I can't thank you enough.

I hope you enjoy!

Limbo 11: Eternal

Forty-five minutes later, Tallgeese and I were hurling down the runway on the back of a low-orbital launch vehicle. Above us, there was a clearing, a part in the cloud cover through which all I could see were stars. Faster and faster we went, gaining organ-smashing speed in order to climb the launch spire. The stars were fixed, constant, and watchful, their calm presence like a benediction...

+

I slammed the door of the jeep behind me and immediately headed towards the open field to the west of the house. I distantly registered the sound of Treize's door closing, his steps across the graveled drive, silencing in the grass as he followed. As I walked, I loosened my bowtie. Pulled it off. Let it drop onto the ground. One by one, in between long, irritated steps, I yanked off my shoes, then socks, leaving them behind me in a trail of graduated relief. As I started up the hill, a large, grassy mound that offered a beautiful view of the surrounding forest, I unclipped my cummerbund, useless, idiotic accessory, wadded it up, and threw it.

"What time is this thing supposed to start?" I grumbled when I crested the hill and looked up at the sky, which was a cloudless, shimmering smear of blinking stars. It was a new moon, and Moscow was far to the east, the distant city lights far away, another land, another world.

Treize stopped short of me. I heard him loosening, divesting, placing things in neat piles, the jangle of cufflinks falling into his pocket.

"Between two and three."

We'd already been to Moscow and back for a joint Romefeller/Federati on event, the purpose of which was not precisely clear to me. To celebrate victory, Treize had said. What victory? The promise of victory? Why not? Since when did Romefeller need an excuse to throw a party? We decided to fly back to the estate for the night instead of holing up at one of the hotels for the frank, uncomplicated purpose of sleeping together, an opportunity we took whenever we could, though I hardly felt like sleeping with him after the miserable time I'd had. What a farce. What a pitiful joke.

I shrugged out of my jacket and spread it out on the ground. I fumbled my cufflinks off and handed them back to Treize. They were his anyway.

I wasn't drunk enough. I wondered how I'd had so much to drink at the party and yet still hadn't gotten completely blitzed.

"We should have brought that vodka."

Treize removed his coat as well and laid it beside mine. "So we could get pissed and pass out before the shower even started?"

"Sure, why not?"

Treize turned and faced me. If there'd been more light, I would have seen the brush of red on his cheeks, a flush that had made him look healthy and virile, cheerfully glowing on the dance floor. He was many drinks from drunk, but his fair skin colored easily, giving him away. He'd flown his jet and driven the jeep all the way home without the slightest sway of intoxication, something I wouldn't have been able to accomplish gracefully in my state, though I probably wouldn't have crashed and killed us both.

"You're in a mood tonight."

"No shit."

He sat down on one of the jackets, mine, I think, though I was more than a little distracted.

"Was it that horrible?" There was a twang of teasing in his voice, goading, subtly sniping.

I shoved my sleeves up my forearms. "It was worse."

"I do not see how it could have been so terrible. You hardly said a word to anybody."

"No, I could barely get in edgewise over your posturing."

He laughed dryly. His attention to me was light, condescending, purposefully so. He looked out at the endless spread of trees that appeared like a black sea below the luminosity of the sky.

"Don't pretend that you had any interest at all in conversing with them. You were bent on hating that party from the moment I told you about it."

"Come on, Treize," I said, my words both exasperation and plea. "I can't stand that stuff and you know it. Why do you have to drag me with you anyway?"

"Because the Foundation is interested in you."

"I don't know why."

"Truly?" I practically heard his left eyebrow rising. Always the left. He'd tried once to retrain to the right side, but the unavoidable peripheral contortion of the rest of his face made the endeavor short-lived. Why he cared so much about it, I never understood. Probably one more thing he tried just to try it, to see if he could be expressively ambidextrous.

"You seemed to be having a fine enough time," I spat. "You worked the entire crowd."

"Yes, I suppose you had a fantastic view of it from the balcony."

I smiled smugly. "It was quite nice, actually."

No small-talk, no pandering, no glad-handing. That's what the balcony meant to me. I'd seen Treize's face drop when I excused myself from a charmless conversation with Duke Dermail's wife, Treize's great aunt or something. He had to have known that I'd be up there for the rest of the evening. He had to have known...

"They were asking about you, you know," Treize stated. His fingers picked at the grass, tearing up individual blades carelessly. "Half of my conversations revolved around your recent successes. The other half were my conjuring excuses about why you weren't available to talk with them."

"Must be hard to be a handler when your prized pony is uncooperative. "

"Sometimes I cannot believe that anybody expected you to grow up to be a politician."

"Oh, fuck you." I clenched my teeth as the slow, hours-long simmer of anger in my belly surged to a white-hot boil.

"And perhaps the most trying aspect of this is that you are perfectly capable of being pleasant and diplomatic. You simply choose not to. Why is that?" He craned his head back and finally looked up at me. "Do you enjoy playing the role of the dark loner, skulking around in the rafters?"

"And didn't you just look lovely with Eva Septem!" I crowed, clasping my hands together in a blatantly theatrical display that very poorly concealed my disgust. "What a handsome pair!"

The son of a bitch laughed again. "Of course you bring this up."

"I don't think I've ever seen you look so charming. Or charmed."

"She was attempting to irritate her father," he explained as he returned his focus to the scenery, his tone weary, softly aggravated. "What better way than to ask me to dance?"

"How magnanimous of you!" I was fuming at this point, hands in tight fists at my side. "You certainly played the part convincingly enough. I thought you were going to throw down and screw right there!"

"You are being completely ridiculous."

"You saved that asshole's life!"

"What is it that you want?"

"You should bill him for your physical therapy."

"You want something. You want to say something. Say it."

"No!" I despised it when he pinned me right to the point, threw me into a corner and talked down to me until I gave in. I sure as hell wasn't going to give him the satisfaction that night. "I don't have anything to say."

"What do you want?" He was looking up at me again, face blank, neither interested nor disinterested. Just like the person I always wanted to be, that I could never be. Cold. So, so cold.

"Why do you think I want anything?"

"I know you. You get like this, like a child who won't do anything but flail about until somebody figures out what the problem is." He sighed very quietly. "I'm not in the mood for charades."

Like it was all a game. My outrage. My jealousy. My desire for affection. My hatred of our situation, our class, his position, my "successes." He was lucky I'd gone to the balcony. If I hadn't, I think I would have done something embarrassing. I might have grabbed him by the lapels and kissed him right there, in front of everybody, just to let them know that he was mine, that they should stop fantasizing about him as their husband, son-in-law, friend, or whatever other foolish notions they had rattling around behind their eyeballs. Mine. Back the fuck off, you sycophantic fucks, you ugly little cunts, Eva-fucking- bitch-Septem. This one's mine.

"You know what I want? I want you to blow me."

His laughter was tightly strung, distinctly lacking the amusement of earlier in the conversation. "Is that it?"

"I want you to put my cock in your mouth and suck it."

"So, that's what this is about?"

"Of course it isn't! But you asked me what I want. That's it."

He lifted his hand and pressed it to the crotch of my pants. "You don't feel like you want it."

I scowled. "I'm not a fucking robot."

There was a pause. Treize took one last look out over the landscape, as though it was the last time he'd ever see it, before he pushed himself up and into a kneeling position in front of me. I cleared my throat and was mildly surprised that he was actually going to do it. He put his hands on my hips then slid them together to meet in the middle. He hadn't touched me all night. Not in the plane from the Continent. Not at the party. Not even a friendly, chummy, purely hetero touch. Not in the plane to the adjacent town. Not in the jeep. I'd wanted it so badly, for him to want it, to make a move. He didn't, though. He made me fight for it. Ask for it. Demand it. Why? I couldn't break through the why of it.

He pulled at my shirt, lifted it, touched his lips just above the waistband of my pants. I shuddered. His movements were passionless. Mechanical. I closed my eyes and pretended that he was excited about it, that he wanted to suck me off. I was quite good at fooling myself, for by the time he had my pants unzipped, I was absolutely ready for it. I choked back a moan when he took me in his mouth, which I imagined he was enjoying even though he probably wasn't. He was good. Proficient. He knew how I liked it... When I threw my head back, overwhelmed by the sensation, I opened my eyes. It was then that I could see the first brilliant streams of light as they streaked across the web of constellations.

"Stop... stop it." I put my hands on Treize's head, urging him to stop. He did.

"This isn't right..." I whispered.

+

Tallgeese and I passed through the soft, blue halo of the thermosphere together. Like every time, I was speechless. We detached and inertia took us further and further from Earth. The familiar calm before battle washed over me, warm like euphoria but exhilarating, even jubilant. I felt the surge of life in my veins and an intense feeling of protectiveness. Course set, I gripped the thrusters and took a deep breath. In a limitlessly expansive moment, every cell in my body resonated with every warrior in history.

It would be the last battle I would fight.

There was something so sad about watching Tallgeese go back into the hangar when it was all over. But then, it might have been the combat high I was coming down off of. I wonder if I wasn't remorseful about a phase of my life coming to a close with those rolling, shell-proof hangar doors. It's difficult to discern emotion from physiology sometimes. One could argue that they're the same.

The neighbor's dog is in my garden again. Sniffing around. Damn it. I think I'm getting carpal tunnel, and now I have to go to work.

I stop typing. Page 2,973, paragraph three. Nothing is in order. It's a mess. It's what happened yesterday before what happened when I was four. It's last week before last year. But the order of events doesn't matter. It's that I'm capturing and documenting them as soon as humanly possible.

I rise, walk to the window, and pound on it. The dog starts, legs outspread, its dumb, vacant face frozen. I pound again and yell to it that I'm going to... to what? Kill it? Chase after it? All options are ludicrous. I suppose the proper thing would be to build a fence, though I don't know why I should have to ruin my view because my neighbor is too big of a prick to build one for himself. Maybe I'll write an angry letter. Or maybe not. I'm not the type of neighbor who writes letters. Maybe I'll just grumble about it for a few minutes and forget about it until the next time it happens, per usual.

It's 8:45. Typically I roll into work at around 9:30, which is typically before Soren shows up. Soren the night owl is pleasantly liberal about start and end times. He's a quality-not- quantity type of supervisor. We work well together in a practical arrangement. Yes. Practical.

I wear what I want to work, another one of Soren's dictates offered under the general assumption that I wouldn't show up in something like leather pants. We do work at the Ministry of Culture, which calls for a modest level of propriety, though we're not under the thumb of any ministers or image-wary political types. Most of the other employees in the building wear suits and ties, blouses and skirts or primly-pressed slacks. At first I felt awkward in jeans, but nobody who's anybody seems to care one bit about what I wear.

It's because I'm still the prince to many of them, even though there's no crown anymore, no monarchy, no class-based political system at all to speak of. Just as Sanc has reabsorbed me, tacitly and with few demands, most of its people have come to a sort of settlement with my coming back home. Sancians, ever-practical, ever-sensible, don't cling to grudges for long. And now that I work for the government, rebuilding my country's heritage, even the last furious few have calmed to a sour, quiet agreement. Because of New Port's strict laws designed to keep the paparazzi out of everyone's faces, the dirt about me on the nets has trickled to an infrequent drip. I still receive the occasional hate letter or death threat, and some fuck face knocked my mailbox over a few months ago. Aside from that, my life in Sanc has been... quiet.

I walk to the kitchen, grab a wrapped loaf of zucchini bread from the counter, and put it in my bag. The vegetable is overrunning my plot, so I've had little choice but to harvest as much of it as possible and use it in any way I can. I've had quite my fill, so I've resorted to gifting it to the few people who won't laugh at or flat-out reject something from me. I got the seeds from Vadimas, that and a bunch of other things he gave me: his old papers, many of the salvageable things in his cellar, vestiges of his bygone OZ career. I've kept in touch with him ever since leaving him, calling him from Mars, then from Brussels, and now from New Port. He's one of my few friends, and I'm glad that older age hasn't tempered his lucidity or feistiness in the least. As equal parts homage and personal wish, I had a small building constructed on the south end of my property, my workshop, a place where I go to tinker with aircraft simulations and broken electronics when I feel I need serious distraction, which these days is rather more often than I'd like to admit.

I pause at the refrigerator and straighten out a photo of the Burkina Faso savannah. Every centimeter of the front side of my fridge is covered with photographs I've taken, arranged in a collage and suspended by strong magnets. There are no other pictures in the entire house, and I'm still not certain why I've kept it that way. Most are shots of scenery and things, with some discernable faces snug in between: a few of my sister, a couple of Noin, three of Dorothy, one of Une, two of Vadimas, one of the Project Mars team. They overlap thickly. It had started with one, a picture of my house on the first day I moved in, and then one by one they multiplied with every trip, every get-together, and every sifted-through box. Sometimes I'll come to the kitchen to find that one's fallen onto the floor, revealing another beneath it, and I'll wonder why I buried that one in the first place. I should rearrange them some time.

It's late summer. Beautiful. Warm at night, warm during the day, never too hot because of the cooling costal breeze. I decide to take my motorcycle into the city, a bike that's faster and more expensive than I probably need. I've gotten it up to 185 kph, and I think it could go faster if I wasn't such a wimp about it. I suppose I'm getting old. This is the year I've officially outlived Treize -- numerically speaking. One could guess that it wasn't the best of birthdays.

In the garage, I tighten my bag across my back and bundle my hair in a ponytail. For an unprompted moment, I think (as I often do) about Noin, who is probably on her way back to Earth for furlough. There's a wry smile on my lips. Somehow, I don't think I'll be hearing from her...

+

I closed the door behind me when I entered Noin's temporary office, which earned me an uneasy look from her. I doubt she knew what to expect from me considering the direction we'd gone in since we first left Earth in 197. Now that we were back and ready to return to the project for our second tour, I was sure she was living in a state of constant uncertainty about me. It was like having to tiptoe around a half-domesticated animal, poised to run, poised to stay. I didn't envy her.

"What's up, Zechs?" It was a question, not a greeting. She glanced down and busied herself gathering up a small stack of information pads on her desk that didn't particularly require gathering.

The first time I tried to form the words, I only swallowed. When they finally came out, they crackled and tried to crawl back down my throat."I'm not going back with you."

She paused, and one of her hands pressed down on the desk as if to steady her, though she was never one to be taken completely off guard. When she looked up at me, one side of her mouth was curled up in an odd semblance of a smile.

"You know, I think I knew that."

"I'm sorry."

I leaned back heavily against the wall, feeling my energy sapping away, being sucked into the pores of the drywall behind me. I'd been dreading telling her for nearly a week, and that was after having spent an additional week prior changing my mind repeatedly about the matter. Mars was busy, serious work interwoven at random intervals with triumph and massive failure, grinning camaraderie and vicious bickering. It was a cramped tangle of emotions caked with ubiquitous red dirt. It was exciting. It was boring. And, in the end, I couldn't bear to leave Earth again. It would have been formulaic to say "It's not you, it's me," but that was basically the truth of things.

"Don't be," she replied. Her effort to put on a good face was obvious in the way the easy dismissal on her lips contrasted with the disappointment in her eyes.

"How did you know?" I asked.

"Your hair," she observed, perceptive as always. "You haven't cut it."

I'd cut it off, all of it, during my first week on the Martian outpost. It hadn't been a matter of symbolism so much as a matter of glaringly obvious necessity. There had been very little water, and the rations of dry shampoo had been pitifully small. I'd walked straight into a losing battle with basic hygiene, and I would be damned if I was going to keep a nasty fall of dirty, unkempt hair for two years straight. It'd been shocking, though the double-PhD geologist who'd "seen it done enough times" at his cousin's barber shop did an admirable job with it. Such an odd sensation, running my hand up the back of my head and feeling so little. I couldn't count how many times Noin had caught me doing it, smiling, shaking her head. It had been a swift adjustment, one not nearly as complicated as I'd imagined it would be. And, contrary to what certain appalled individuals seemed inclined to think, it really did grow back.

"I'm sorry about everything."

"I just said that you don't have to be." Her voice was soft, understanding in the way that a mother is understanding when her child wets the bed. It made me feel immature and incapable of coping. Which I was.

Noin had grown to like my hair. I'd grown to like her. We'd worked well together, like we always had. She'd been easy to talk to, unwaveringly stable, quiet and talkative at all the right moments. She'd kissed me for the first time after Dr. Vasquez broke out a bottle of tequila for his birthday. She hadn't been drunk, just braver, and I'd kissed her in return.

She sank into a high-backed executive's chair that Une had cast off after finding it lumpy. "May I ask why?"

"It's too far."

There was a pause, and her lips thinned before she quietly uttered, "From him?" (Bingo again. Bingo, bingo, bingo. You win the jackpot, Lucy. But then, you always could see clean through me.) "I thought you liked that about Mars."

I liked the way she tasted. I liked the way she looked walking around my small quarters in nothing but her panties and issue tank top. I liked the way she looked naked, beneath me. A brave, hopeful part of me wanted to cling to that like, to hold it close, to kindle it into something deeper, something lasting, something solid and sustainable. Could I have loved her the way I love Treize? No. And why not? Was it her? No. It wasn't her. She's lovely. She's sweet and whip-smart. I got along with her better than I got along with Treize. So, what was it? What was the crux?

The answer is that there is no answer - no particularly good one, anyway. Not one that has ever made itself apparent to me. Should I look harder for it? Probably. But I won't. I won't because it's easier this way. Better this way.

"It's just too far," I repeated resignedly.

That was the answer I settled with. Part truth. Part excuse. I felt disconnected saying those words, deciding our relationship with them. Disembodied. Sterilized. Like somebody was saying them for me, lifting away my burden, keeping me in good faith with a man who was dead.

"It's been three years, Zechs. It's natural to lose some things."

"Those 'things' are all I have left of him."

Treize left me nothing, as in, no thing. The house had been picked bare by the scavenging herd that passed for his relatives, the household staff paid off, property sold. All of that history pulled apart, stripped away, and taken or auctioned off. Everything. Total liquidation. It tortured me that he did that, because it felt like a punishment. Dorothy had been foolishly optimistic enough in 196 to collect my things before the rest of the family got to them, and incidental among these items were things once belonging to Treize, things that had ended up in my possession for various reasons: a graphing calculator for Lake Victoria classes, a few books that I'd borrowed and never returned, a couple of obscurities, a compass with a broken face, a disk filled with simulation programs he'd written, a stopwatch for fuck knows what.

What he did intentionally leave me was all the money I'd ever need, a sum comparable to the trust fund he left the daughter I knew he knew he had. The rest of the profits from his assets and from the sale of hordes of stocks and bonds I hadn't know him to possess funneled directly into the Sancian National Reconstruction Fund as an anonymous donation. Such an elegant orchestration of posthumous instructions for somebody who'd planned on growing old with me. I'd smiled about the donation, though, with watery eyes and no bitterness. What a tremendous gift to me. Because it was for me. That I know in my heart.

It was on Mars that I'd started to forget. Conversations Treize and I'd had that had been so clear in my memory blurred over, their endings ambiguous, their emotional intonations dulled. Crucial words dropped out of recollection, meanings completely obscured. What had he given me for my twelfth birthday? My God, the panic that had ensued when I couldn't remember that basic fact had been crippling. On Mars, there had been nothing to tie me back to him, a perfect place to re-start one's life, it could be argued. But that wasn't what I wanted. I didn't want to forget a single thing, let lapse a single anniversary or birthday. What did I have but my memories? A calculator? A stopwatch? A compass that didn't even work? All useless shit without a context to connect them to. What I told Noin wasn't entirely a lie. Mars took me too far from him. She took me too far from him.

Her attention floated to a shelf that held a dress-right- dress line of field manuals that had become obsolete the year prior, and that strange smile was back. "I thought this might actually work." There was no self-pity there, only a simple acknowledgment of futility. Futility.

"I wanted it to."

I think I really did.

Her deep violet gaze locked on mine, and in it was comprehension of everything that I couldn't grasp about what was happening to me. In that moment, in the barest infancy of our break-up, I felt the first pang of regret.

"I guess it takes more than wanting, doesn't it?"

+

The ride into the city is spectacular no matter the season, a long, curving, scenic road through the foothills within which the city nests. It passes by the forest that I used to run around in as a kid, the same forest that forms the western border of my property. I purchased my home last year, after I left Brussels, after I decided it was finally time to come home. I felt a silly sense of disloyalty towards Russia, which had been home to me for thirteen years, but there was nothing left for me there. I used to wonder why Treize wrote such cruel instructions in his will. I now think it's because he didn't want me languishing there, and I can't say for certain that I wouldn't have. With the option entirely removed, all my reasons for not returning to Sanc seemed flimsy and disgustingly self-pitying.

I spent one lost year in Brussels, after Noin left and before moving to New Port. It was an eleven-month blur, a rush of fleet-building, bureaucratic arm-wrestling, regret, recruitment shortages, and financial frustrations. Une had me assigned in a consulting role for the aerospace engineering department. Who should we contract out to? What are our fleet priorities? What contingencies are we least prepared for? They were all important questions, though none were especially stimulating to me. Where was my sense of urgency? Of responsibility? Of duty? Who would save the world if not us?

I wasn't feeling it. I dragged myself into work every day, worked to the point of exhaustion, and crawled back to the officer barracks to try to break apart the reasons why I felt like nothing had changed, like I hadn't moved on at all since France. Even with the passage of four years, nothing seemed clearer. There had been no great revelation of purpose. I was floating, dissociated, stuck.

I should probably wear a helmet. The law says I don't have to, so I don't. I let the speedometer creep higher than the police would appreciate. It's nowhere near 185 kph, but it doesn't have to be. I already feel the exhilaration of the morning.

+

My eyes flickered and strained against the blinding light of a cloudy winter day streaming in from a source I couldn't pinpoint. I knew it was cloudy because it'd been cloudy every single day that month, a thick, downy blanket thrown over the ESUN capitol. The blotted sun seemed everywhere, right in front of my face, or was it just the hallway lights? I couldn't even tell. It was all horrible.

In front of me, a staircase descended to the landing. Below my cheek, cold, thinly carpeted floor. I lay there, blinking, marveling at the continuation of the spinning sensation that had settled me there in the first place. How many hours had it been? Not enough, I judged from the taste in my mouth. I felt sick, but I was too dizzy to get up and try to make myself throw up, which was typically my first step in massive hangover recovery. I don't know if it actually speeded the process, but it always made me feel just a little better, a small improvement that made the day just a little more bearable.

Tap. Tap. I raised my head. Slowly. Slowly. I vaguely remembered sitting down on the stairs earlier, just to take a rest, because, holy shit, the staircase was so long. It appeared that I'd sat -- just for a minute! -- and promptly proceeded to keel over. Blood rushed to my brain, and I pressed my palms to my temples and resisted the groan reflex.

"Not a very comfortable place to spend the night, hm?"

I turned my head. Slowly. Slowly. "No."

My sister was already dressed for the day. A long skirt. High boots. Dark leggings. Winter white sweater. Very chic. Her golden hair, like our mother's, fell over her shoulder when she tilted her head with a restrained smile.

"How long have you been sitting there?"

"Hmm... almost an hour. I wanted to make sure you were all right."

That was quite sweet of her, though I didn't thank her right at that moment, defaulting instead to gravelly crabbiness.

"You could have woken me."

"You looked peaceful." Her gentle teasing reminded me of Treize.

"Right. I think you want me to learn something from this."

"I'm not that naive, Milliardo."

She threaded her fingers together on her lap and fidgeted with the ring she wore on her left middle finger. A gift from her father, the last one she would receive from him. She hadn't grown much at all since fifteen, remaining steadfastly, endearingly petite. I wondered where she'd gotten it from, then remembered my mother's tiny sister.

"You should start writing it down," she said in a barely-controlled rush.

I dropped my hands and submitted myself to the inevitable, throbbing pain. "Write down what?"

"Anything. Everything. I've been thinking about what you said to me last night, that you couldn't remember what happened."

I did not stifle my groan. "I talked about that?"

"Yes. You don't have to be embarrassed. You didn't mention anything specific. You told me that it bothered you very much." She paused and her eyes flitted across my face, collecting, analyzing, and evaluating my reception to her. "Perhaps if you start writing, a journal - not even anything that formal - it might jog your memory. Then you can reread it, and you won't have to worry about forgetting, because you will always be able to look back on it and remember. Something special, something private, something meant only for you."

I turned away then, feeling blindsided by the knowledge of my own drunken forthrightness. I didn't want her to know what a fucking mess I was then, especially then. I didn't want her to know about anything having to do with Treize. She had her own mind about him, who he was, what he did, though I never asked her what that mind was.

"I don't want to forget." I listened to myself with disdain and disbelief. Even still, I couldn't stop myself. "I can't forget. Because if I did..."

"You might feel like it never happened at all?"

I put on what I thought might be my poker face and refused any further admissions. I realized then that I'd probably told her all about it, specifics included, in the midst of my semi-annual bender, even though she would continue to insist the contrary with unerring diplomacy.

She laid her small hand on my shoulder and leaned in to kiss my brow. "I understand. Consider my suggestion. Now, you should probably get showered and dressed. My mother will be here shortly, and then we can open presents."

+

I always park at the back of the lot. I feel lazy sitting at a desk all day, even though I still run every morning and am not a kilogram heavier than I was at twenty - he healthy part of twenty, that is. On the way to the east entrance, I'm flanked by the Minister of Culture herself, a woman old enough to be my grandmother and sharp enough to convince everybody that she's benign. She greets me by linking her arm in mine and insisting that I attend an exhibit of newly-restored Afghan pottery and at the National Museum.

"I'll have Olena bring two tickets to your office. Be sure Doctor Aleandaris gets one, " she smoothly orders. "I enjoy his company. You're lucky to work with someone like him."

Soren will ask me to go with him, and I'm going to say no. No, sorry, Soren, I'm busy. With friends. From out of town. He'll be good-naturedly understanding of it, just as he was when I weaseled out of an invite to a Plonski reading two weeks ago. And like three weeks ago, when there was a Persian film festival that we had free tickets to. Friends. From out of town. "Wow," he'd remarked honestly, "you've really got some social life. Makes me seem like a hermit."

I am lucky to work with somebody like him. But it's work. He's my colleague. Before that, I was his student, and, for a brief intermission, I suppose we were friends, weren't we? And I suppose it wasn't entirely brief...

+

"Why are you here?"

Excellent question, Mr. Aleandaris. I'd asked myself the same more times than I could recall.

"Why not?"

His hair is blonde. Dirty blonde. Messy dirty blonde. Charming messy dirty blonde.

"Come on. That's a terrible answer. And the wrong one, I suspect."

The man can call bullshit from a mile away, as he demonstrated daily in his European Literature class. He is especially adept at calling my bullshit. I wondered once if it was just me. Then I realized that it was just him.

"I like books. I want to have an academic discussion about them."

I wanted to get out of the house. I wanted to interact with other human beings. I wanted to feel like I was moving in some direction. Any direction. The university seemed neutral, a hub of mature, adult interactions. Enrolling in a class had been a frightening move culminating from a truthful assessment of my life situation. The diagnosis: Stuck. Again. Just like in Brussels. Stuck between the past and the future. Stuck between memories and plans. I had one of those cinematic "What would Treize want me to do?" moments. His answer: Do something, preferably something you love. If not that, something at least not self-destructive. Okay, Treize, I'll bite. Though how that had resulted in my standing in an empty lecture hall in the heat of Mr. Aleandaris' scrutiny wasn't entirely clear.

"Okay, fine. I like books, too. But why are you here? You have a degree, don't you?"

It's odd when everybody knows your biography. It's odder when your professor uses your own biography against you.

"I haven't taken a literature class before."

His eyes are green. Bright green. And on that particular day, they looked up at me through the type of rectangular thick-framed glasses that go in and out of fashion with the tides. They suit him. They wouldn't suit just anybody. It's his face. It's something about the shape of his face.

"I bet you've already read most of the books on the syllabus."

"Why would you say that?"

I felt a deep imbalance with him then. This feeling was part blow-back from his intensity, his crackling energy that moves like a static charge from him to everyone else. It cuts through sputtering, faulty logic like a knife. It breathes profound depth into the seemingly plainest of storylines and makes Dante's Inferno sound like a sexy place to go. It's sharp and dynamic. Intimidating.

"Your arguments for Fabrizio and Brutus have been very compelling, if incendiary. And whether you've read this stuff before or not, it's clear that your reasoning is far above your peers'. You should be in a graduate class."

"I'm not pursuing a degree."

His expression was cryptic. "Well, there's a bit more to my inquiry, actually."

I stared levelly. I could be cool with him, sub-zero, halt the reciprocating cycle of his current, gain some ground on him, if only a little. I wondered then why exactly I was trying so hard.

He perched on the corner of the table that he never sat at while teaching, too busy writing excitedly on the board or navigating the rows of the small lecture hall, pointing his dry-erase marker at people who gave him either excellent answers or terrible ones. Even recitations were conducted in a state of motion befitting the content, with a pleasing voice in the mid-tenor register that was filled to the point of saturation with infectious ardor.

"You make the other students uneasy. They don't want to argue with Milliardo Peacecraft. Or Zechs Merquise, for that matter. And those who do want to argue with you don't want to do so over literature. They need to feel free to speak up, because this stuff's hard enough for most of them. You're looking for an intelligent, lively discussion. They're looking to squeak by."

"I see."

And I did. When I spoke in class, there was rarely any follow-up except from Mr. Aleandaris. Whenever my arguments took full, forceful root, the girl I sat next to would grip the sides of her desk like she was about to be sucked out of it. I frightened her. How sick.

Mr. Aleandaris opened a beat-up leather briefcase and slid in a stack of unused handouts. He pulled at the crooked knot of his tie with fidgety irritation. It had been crooked the whole class, just as it had been the day before and the day before, as though he'd put it on as an afterthought -- or had left it skewed on purpose.

"I'm not trying to kick you out of here," he stated.

"It sounds like that's exactly what you're doing."

He closed the two latches on his briefcase and looked up at me with a closed-mouth smile as crooked as his neckwear.

"Look, these kids don't know what they want to do with themselves. The overwhelming majority are here because it's a requirement. This is bread and butter. That's why I'm teaching it and not a professor."

"You're not a professor?"

He snorted back a laugh.

"No. I'm a graduate student." He hoisted his briefcase over his shoulder, elbow jutting in the air at my eye level. "You wanna talk books? You wanna move past Shakespeare and Hugo? Then you should come to my book group. It's not a group per se, just me and my colleague, Liese. She teaches two sections of this class. We get together every Thursday and talk Murakami, Camus, Bajek. She's interesting. You might like her." He paused, cocked his head, and grinned. "And that's assuming you can stomach me, now that I've probably completely offended you."

I adjusted the strap of my bag across my chest, pretending to be momentarily occupied with it as I processed his offer. "You want me to drop, though."

"Thursday, six o'clock at Athenos on Helgar and Bolio. Or stay. You can't do both, ethics and all. The decision is ultimately yours." Through the window of the door, he made a hand-waving 'move-it' gesture to the huddle of students gathered outside, waiting for their section to start. He grasped the handle and was about to turn it when he paused once more and looked back at me.

"And if you do show up on Thursday, you can call me Soren."

+

As predicted, I arrive before Soren does. Out of my bag I pull the loaf of zucchini bread I promised him and set it on his desk. Our office is a converted library, and, as such, it is naturally well-lit and comfortable. The ministry had to do very little to accommodate Soren's project, as the room was already furnished and stocked with native Sancian literature. They simply added two large, antique desks, chairs, and a pair of laptops and called it a department.

I sit at my desk for a few minutes, gazing out the window that offers an unobstructed view of the bay. I am lucky. I'm doing something with my days, something productive, something important. But something bothers me still, picks at the back of my brain no matter where I am. Picks at my brain? Poor choice of words. It bludgeons me over the head.

I think it's Soren.

+

Liese, whose birth name, I later learned, is Ye-Kyi, opened her mouth in a wide statement of incredulity. She flipped it into a broad, white smile and looked to the hanging light fixture above us, palms to the heavens in an plea for divine assistance, and then laid into me again.

"I don't think I'll ever convince you that Bajek is a realist! I can't believe that you don't see it!"

"I understand your point," I admitted, employing the rules of polite debate, "but I disagree completely. He doesn't write love as an abstraction. He writes it as an organic experience. He's about love. He's a romantic."

"You're a romantic!" She clapped her hands together with an unselfconscious laugh that filled the entire second floor of the dimly-lit establishment. "This is what we needed, Soren! A romantic."

"I told you," Soren said from behind a cup of what must have been, at that point, cold coffee. He made a sour face and slid the mug towards the middle of the table where the rest of our used drink ware sat.

"You're fun!" Liese exclaimed, patting my arm. A row of thin, circular bracelets jangled on her thick wrist. Liese's pretty, dark-featured, part of the second generation of the Burmese immigrants that arrived eighty years before the occupation as a response to the Federation incursion in their homeland. The irony isn't at all amusing, even to me. "Has anybody ever told you?"

I blushed at that. Very faintly, but definitely. "Not quite like that, no."

"I hope you come back next week," she said to me. "I'm itching to dig into some de Espronceda. Then Soren and I will be the ones on the defense!" She collected a stack of papers she'd been marking bloody with a red pen when I'd arrived. "I've got to go." She waved the pile over her head and made an exasperated face. "Papers, papers! You have papers, too!" she exclaimed, thrusting them in Soren's direction.

"I'm hoping that I'll go home to find that somebody's broken into my apartment and graded them for me."

"Maybe they'll finish your dissertation, while they're at it."

His mouth fell open. "What dissertation? "

"I think the working title is something like 'Manifestations of Sancian Ethnic Tensions in Post-Occupation Literature.' " She beamed at him, then at me. "Good bye, good bye, gentlemen! Don't stay up too late!" she sang as she descended the staircase, still waving her papers overhead.

I nodded and wished her good luck. Soren waved from the elbow until she was completely out of sight, then he folded his hands on the table and lifted his blonde-brown brows until they disappeared under the disheveled mess of his bangs.

I stared at him for a few seconds. When he didn't say anything, didn't do anything but smile pleasantly back at me, I looked around the room. Athenos Coffee House has a theme: revolution. Its décor is a hodgepodge of ill-matched tables, chairs, couches, and bookshelves, many clearly used, most aesthetically ill-preserved. The windows are covered with a sort of coating, a murky grey color, like a permanent smoke stain. The lighting is low, but not uncomfortably so. It seems to be modeled after someone's vision of a underground revolutionary hideout, where sharp minds go to talk about forbidden politics, literature, and how to overthrow The Man. On the walls are pictures of various revolutionaries and revolutions, mostly photographs, some artistic depictions. It's not exactly warm, but it feels like everybody in the room is a part of something exclusive and secret. It's intimate. And at that moment, in the quiet between us and the din of other, livelier conversations, it felt a little too intimate for me.

"I should go."

His brows dropped again. "Really?"

"It seems that you have work to do," I explained, though he didn't appear to have brought any with him.

"What else is new?" He shrugged, sat back in his chair, and dug his chin into the high neck of his brown wool jumper. "This is my time. I bust my butt all week to have one night without work, so, if you need to go, by all means. But don't feel like you have to."

His expression was open, receptive, welcoming. Unobtrusively imploring. His eyes met mine without apprehension. I tried to remember how these things went -- small talk, introductory conversations. I thought then that perhaps I should have taken greater advantage of those miserable Romefeller events.

"Are you from New Port?" I asked. Not bad. B-grade. Maybe.

"Nope, I'm a wild mountain hick. Kheval province."

Kheval. My fingers pressed into the worn arms of the velvet-upholstered, stuffed chair I sat in. Something like excitement tugged in my chest.

"That's where my mother's from."

"Yeah, she's pretty much the one thing we have to claim. You've been, right?"

"A long time ago."

"Oh, you have to go back this time of year. Beautiful. Of course, I counted down the days and minutes to my secondary graduation so I could get the hell out of there and come to the city, but I visit my mother once a month..."

+

He arrives at 9:45. I hear him coming from down the hall. He has a certain step, firm, but clipped with a bounce, like he could effortlessly bound off in a wild sprint if necessity or whim should call for it. He greets me brightly when he walks in. I wonder why he still wears a wrinkled button-down shirt even though he's not teaching anymore. It's not that wrinkly. Just a little. He just doesn't care. I like that.

That's my problem, really. I like a lot about Soren. And I hate that fact.

"Oh my God!" he exclaims, holding up the loaf of bread he found on his desk. "You made this?"

I nod. He grins.

"I can't believe you baked this."

"What's so incredible about it?" I ask.

I hate that I'm drawn into everything he says.

He holds the bread in one hand and shakes his other open hand at it as if to say, 'This, this, this!'

"I could never do this."

I hate that he's so genuine.

"It's not hard," I say. "All you have to do is follow the directions."

I hate that I want to invite him to my house to bake zucchini bread.

"Well, sure, but it can't just come out this well every time. I mean..." he pauses and shakes his hand at it again, "this is Bora Hermano beautiful. This looks like something out of one of her books."

I hate that I find him absolutely adorable.

"You haven't even tried it yet," I warn. "You might hate it."

Like I hate the way I feel about you.

He sets the bread on his desk, opens the plastic bag, and pulls out the end piece.

"This is the best piece. I can tell." He's right. He takes a bite. He rolls his eyes back and makes an 'mmmm' sound. He chews with them closed for a few moments, and then says, "I think I encouraged you into the wrong line of work, my friend."

His eyes open, and there's something so familiar there. I don't like it.

In fact, I hate it.

+

It was another late night at Athenos. Liese had already left, claiming homework corrections and an upcoming exam, leaving Soren and me to talk. It was our fifth group meeting, and we'd just finished a heated discussion about whether or not Franz Kafka was an existentialist. The week prior, Soren had loaded me up with scholarly analyses of the movement so that I'd be up to speed, so by the start of the evening, I felt without doubt that Kafka was indeed an existentialist. Liese backed me. Soren vehemently denied it. I don't think he necessarily agreed with his own stance, but rather had assumed the opposing argument for the sake of keeping our meeting from turning into a boring sequence of affirming statements. "What," he'd said, "is the fun of that? Might as well form a Kafka fan club and beat off all over his picture." I'd been surprised and unexpectedly amused by his comment. It was the first time I'd laughed in, wow, almost forever.

"You're not intimidated by me," I said. "You and Liese."

Soren leaned forward and rested his chin in his hand, eyelashes fluttering in confusion over my statement. "Why would we be intimidated by you?"

"I can think of a few reasons." I slouched back and crossed my arms over my chest. "I tend to make people feel uncomfortable. Most do a decent job of tucking it back, but I can see it. It's more of a feeling, really."

"Okay," he replied, slapping his palms down on the table, "you wanna know why Liese and some others and I don't seem to have a problem?" His eyes tracked up to the right as he organized his thoughts, then fixated straight on me. Without the buffer of his glasses, his stare is penetrating and pinning, like a toxic paralytic. "So, okay, there are two types of people in Sanc today - this is the big sociological brouhaha right now. The ethnic stuff? North and South? That's old news. The split now is between the people who stayed and the people who fled."

The people who fled. That included me, didn't it? Though I hadn't wittingly, intentionally fled, I'd stayed fled even when the opportunity to return had arisen. I shifted uneasily. This was not the topic I wanted to discuss. It was something I hadn't forged peace with, something I'd stowed away for convenience ever since talking about it with Treize in India. I told myself that I'd get to it during one session or another of psychological housekeeping, but I wasn't ever good at keeping those sorts of promises to myself.

"Do you have any idea how many people left after the invasion? More than half of the population of New Port. A fourth of the rest of the population. Gone." The fingers of his left hand touched together and then blossomed into a wide five. "Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, France, Morocco, Poland, America, Canada, Belgium, they all raised their quotas that year. Quietly, of course, so that the Feds didn't get all in a tizzy. That's a lot of people, you know?"

As he spoke, Soren's hands lent visuals footnotes to his words, pointing, wagging, clenching and fanning. He was effusing. Alight. Brimming. I nodded at his interrogatory inflection, which seemed to recharge him and send him blazing to his next point.

"I bet that over half of my freshmen weren't even born in Sanc. They were born somewhere else. And their parents bottle-fed them stories about the good old days, what a country, Sanc, we'll go back when the occupation's over. And then, when these people moved back, their kids are repatriated, they find the place is a..." His lips pressed together and his gesticulation suspended for a few heartbeats. "A... bleeding mess. The parents are disappointed, but they don't want to admit it. The Sanc of their childhoods doesn't exist anymore, ripped out from under them in their absence, and they can't move past it. Those are the people who'll give you funny looks. Because they're disillusioned. Detached. They don't know how to process it. It's like a glitch that keeps catching for them. Sanc. The war. You. The ESUN. The Mariemeia thing. They're still working it out." He pointed in a discreet circle around the room. "That's most people in the world, probably. Dull-eyed, dazed."

I nodded again, feeling not unlike the description he left his latest point with. I hadn't thought about them, the ones who'd left with such grand notions of return, only to find their once-pristine homeland battle-scarred and jaded. Coming home to the half-razed mess of the Federation and Romefeller incursions must have been devastating. Those people had wanted nothing more than to lay low until the Federation collapsed, and when the world continued to burn even after the Federation's dissolution, I can only imagine the compounding of their disbelief.

"And then," Soren said with dramatic stress, "there are those of us who stayed, either by choice or by force, a different kind of animal totally. Liese? Her family was in the city the whole time. She saw some shit, excuse me, that you wouldn't believe." He shrugged. "Or maybe you would." (I would.) "My father was hauled off after a patrol found that we were aiding refugees, sheltering them while they moved from house to house towards the border. Even after he was taken away, though, my mother still kept doing it - because who would suspect that somebody would be so stupid, right?"

"I'm sorry about your father," I managed, though it was admittedly an automatic expression.

He waved me off. "He got out, eventually. He's living in, what, Tunisia? Yeah, Tunisia. Anyway, we had this shed in the back, big storage shed, and one evening -- I was seven, I think -- my mother handed me a basket of bread and preserves and said, 'Take this to the shed, honey,' and I said, 'You want me to throw all this in the garbage?' and she rolled her eyes and said, 'Just take it out, already!' So I did, and when I opened the shed, there were eight people in there, huddled together because it was freezing, a whole family, hanging out in our shed, right next to the garbage can." He shook his head. "It was unreal."

"Your mother was courageous."

Soren smirked as he held his palms out and raised and lowered them like an unbalanced scale. "Courageous, stupid, let's call it both. Remember the March 195 riots?"

"Yes."

I'd watched them with Treize when I was supposed to have been having a good time. They'd ruined my evening. And the next day. And several days after. They'd haunted me periodically over the years, dropping into my consciousness usually as part of an untidy package of past events that fueled lonely, sleepless nights of recrimination and self-loathing.

"You see this picture?" He pointed to a framed magazine cover over his head. "Look carefully."

It was a head-on photograph of a mob of people, hot with passion, most of whom wore bandanas over the lower halves of their faces to fend off the CS gas and conceal their identities. The photo centered on the two people at the front of the crowd, a male and a female, their right fists in the air, brows furrowed in righteous indignation. The male, very young, had blood running down the left side of his face from a cut on his forehead. The crowd behind them was electric with anger, something that could be felt even through the two-dimensional medium of a photograph. It lived and breathed, reached out and smacked. It was no wonder that the picture had won the Di Fusco prize for journalism.

I looked carefully, searching for a small detail in a throng, and all at once it hit me, those bright green eyes, red and puffy from irritation, right in front of my face. Right up front. They were so obvious to me then that I wondered how I'd ever missed them. When I looked back at Soren, he was holding up his bangs, revealing the wound that had move millions, a small scar that, like most head injuries, had bled like a cut twice its size. He held his index finger in front of his lips, which were pursed, as in 'Shh, don't tell anybody that I'm secretly a Sancian icon.'

I felt my mouth open, but I controlled it before it became an idiotic gape. I bit down on the inside of my lower lip as if to keep it from happening again.

"It's incredible how many people I meet who say that they recognize me, but they don't know from where. I usually shrug and say something stupid or cute. But these people," he emphasized, pointing again to the picture above, this time with both hands, "we are the people who stayed. We've seen everything. We've done everything. We've justified everything. We have no right to condemn someone like you, only doing what you thought was right, what you thought needed to be done."

He must have seen the doubt in my face, because he slid up to the front of his chair and curled his fingers around the circular edge of the coffee table that separated us.

"You think the resistance didn't kill some soldiers? Sure they did. Maybe not intentionally, but maybe it was intentional. We know what it's like to be driven to the edge. We are deeply connected to everything that has happened since the Feds landed, not just in Sanc, but in the entire world sphere. We get the war on a level that most don't, if you believe that there's anything to get. And we relate to you, even if you won't let yourself relate to us."

He reigned himself back then, folded his legs up on the chair and sat cross-legged. He's small. Smaller than me, a little smaller than Treize, and compact, spring-loaded as though at any moment he could fly across the room and rouse some unsuspecting sleepy student into a state of academic mania by way of osmotic energy transfer.

His next words were uttered pointedly, slowly, with clear, explicit intonation and word choice.

"What you did? What we did? It's the same. We're the same."

There was a long pause while he awaited my reaction with straight, unflinching face. When I stayed quiet, chewing my lip in earnest, and not because I wanted to, the corners of his mouth curved into a small smile.

"You look weirded out. You don't believe me."

"I think the comparison's a stretch," I muttered at last.

"Think what you want. But honestly think about it, at the very least."

+

Why do I hate these things?

I tilt my head to the side discretely and look past the monitor of my laptop. Across the room, Soren is typing furiously. His face is serious in his concentration. With his glasses, he looks very, very serious. Like Treize. God damn myself, why can't I stop doing that? Soren and Treize are nothing alike. Treize was obsessive. Soren is... also obsessive. Stop it. This will not be a line-by-line comparison. Just fucking stop it. Don't even go there. There's no comparison. No reason for it.

I turn back to the biography I'm working on for Jenn Polaria. Poet. Born in AC 101, New Port City. The daughter of educators, Polaria... met a nice boy, and she wasn't at all afraid to let herself feel things for him. Things. Why can't I just say it? Because I hate this topic. I wish it would just go away.

I go back to staring at him.

Soren would argue that Treize was a realist. Treize would argue himself a romantic. I think Soren would be closer to correct, even despite Treize's inclinations towards blanket expressions of love for broad concepts like 'human nature' and 'spirit.' Soren would also say he was a deluded megalomaniac for believing that his death was the inevitable event that would change history -- which, conversely, could be argued as a romantic notion. Treize would say that Soren is hard, lacking faith in people and in the rise of good above all other elements. Though, to Soren's credit and the credit of all Sancians who stayed through the occupation, the Federation never gave anybody here a reason to have a surplus of faith in anything but the pervading might of irony.

He suddenly stops typing. He glances up. Catches me. His expression softens, lightens. He always seems happy to see me. He's not that way with everybody. I've watched. I watch him. Like this. I turn back to my work and pretend that I'm not infatuated.

+

"Thanks for coming tonight, even though Soren's out of commission, poor thing."

It was late spring. Chilly at night, mild in the day. My favorite time of year. My plants were going crazy in my garden, and I was feeling -- I almost couldn't believe it -- optimistic. I think it was the air. The lilies. The baby rabbits that I wanted to dislike for trying to murder my vegetables but couldn't because they were fuzzy and small.

"You said he had a headache?"

"Migraine. He completely shuts down. No noise, no light, no interaction, no nothing. They don't happen often, but when they do, they're debilitating. I don't even offer to bring him anything anymore, 'cause he's pretty well useless even to figure out if he needs something."

Despite the late hour, the streets of the art district were bustling. A few people stared at me when they walked by, a few others awkwardly averted their gazes. Most didn't care because most were young, self-absorbed, self-labeled liberals and progressives, people unconcerned by that old hat, Milliardo Peacecraft or whatever the hell he wanted to call himself. Please. That's so 195.

"Is he part Swede?" I asked.

"Why?" She silently retracted her question by touching her hand to my shoulder in acknowledgment. "The name, right? His father was a professor up north. Philosophy. He, as Soren put it to me once, 'had a hard-on for Kierkegaard, the most miserable, nit-witted philosopher in the last three hundred years.'" She laughed again. It was clearer in that moment more than most that she adored him. "He's Sancian, though. Old, old Sancian. Before Sanc was Sanc Sancian."

"I don't come here for him," I blurted out, realizing immediately that I'd just lied. The fact that it was a lie scared the hell out of me until I justified it by telling myself that Soren was my friend and that friends enjoy spending time together. There was nothing wrong with having a friend. Nothing wrong with wanting to see that friend. I wondered when I'd gotten so paranoid about friendship, and in a shadowy corner of my mind, I thought about Treize.

"Of course not," she placated. "You seem to get on well, is all."

"I suppose."

"He lives up there." Liese pointed a short, ringed finger up at a tall apartment building to our left. "5F. That corner unit. You can see the window's blacked out. The building has no elevator. Can you picture him dragging his bicycle up all those stairs?" She laughed again. "He's nuts."

I gazed up as we walked by, imagined Soren in there, hands clenched to his head, probably wishing he were dead at the moment. I felt bad for him. "This is an expensive neighborhood. "

"He spends most of his graduate stipend on his studio. I tease him about eating nothing but nasty nutrition bars, but that's how he saves money. 'Keeps you alive,' he says. What it also does is keep him skinny."

I shrugged one shoulder. It was practical. He had priorities, he sacrificed for them. I didn't know what else she expected him to do.

"He's brilliant, you know." Her voice dropped to a serious register, her instructor's tone that was years away from the twittering jingle of her twenty-something vernacular. "He really is. He's only 22 and already defending his dissertation later this month. He's been published more times than his advisor, which, as you can imagine, fuels some ire between them. The university wants him to stay on. Cambridge wants him, so does Berlin, Yale, Preventers Academy, of all places, and I can't even remember where else. They've been soliciting him for the past two years."

"Hm." I played coolly through my surprise and wondered offhandedly why she was being so sober about it, why she was telling me at all, as though it made any difference, as though I would like him more for being a genius. Though I've always been drawn to their company...

She sighed dreamily and once more donned her crown of buoyant twinkling. "But his heart is in Sanc. He won't move anywhere else. He's got it bad for this place, no matter what happens..."

+

Why do I hate these things?

Soren stands, closes his laptop, makes a soft sound in the back of his throat as he stretches. He rakes his hand through his hair, and it sticks up oddly for a minute until gravity pulls it slowly back down over his forehead. He's put in a seven hour day, which may not seem a great deal, but the man works with the most precisely calibrated economy.

He holds in his left hand a thin envelope containing tickets to the Afghan pottery exhibit. He smacks it lightly against his opposite palm. He glances over at me. He's going to ask me to go with him. He's going to ask me, and I'm going to tell him no.

No, not even that. I want this to stop. The solicitations. The wishful looks. Why do I hate these things? Because if I didn't, that would mean... what? What would that mean? Whatever it would mean, I'm certain that it's not good. How convoluted can I make this?

It's a feeling. There's no reasoning that can tear through the bullshit on this one. My feelings for him feel like betrayal. They feel like something I shouldn't have. Why wasn't it this way with Noin? Maybe because I knew from the start that it wouldn't last with her, if only because of a deep commitment to Project Mars that I did not share. But this... Soren... This is too much for me.

I am going to make this stop. Right now.

+

I looked at my watch. 17:30. I was alone at a table for three, waiting. Drinkless. Waiting for Soren, who had messaged me and asked me to meet him early. He was late. I would have been irritated if not for his cross-city bicycle commute from the campus to Athenos. I'd spent the day in my yard, digging around, fussing pointlessly with an already well-managed garden. It'd seemed too beautiful to be inside, though I hadn't felt much like doing anything at all. That was most days. Slow, directionless, repetitive. Discontent, but not urgently so. Despairing, but very, very quietly. Where had spring's optimism gone off to? Blown away with the June breeze, maybe. Flimsy thing, optimism.

At 17:34, he bounded up the stairs, two at a time, stopped at the landing, smiled when he spotted me, and slid into the chair next to me. He held up a stapled packet of papers in his hand and shook them in the air. A bead of sweat trickled down from his right sideburn.

"I got it," he stated.

"Got what?"

He exhaled sharply as if frustrated with his inability to catch his breath. "Last year I applied for a post-doctorate grant from the Ministry of Culture. Wrote this hundred-page proposal, submitted a dozen recommendations, the whole shebang." He waved his papers again and paused, looking at me, the curve of his mouth asymmetrical, his eyes keen. "They gave it to me. One of two. They..." Soren covered his mouth with his fingers as he scanned over the cover sheet of the packet. "I can't believe they actually did." I leaned closer to him, trying to get a peek at what he was holding. He smelled good. "What is it? Your proposal."

He flattened the papers down on the table. "I proposed the development of a national literary database for Sancian authors and literature. An official record of authorship, timelines, movements, you know, everything. For academics and the general public."

"Congratulations, " I offered sincerely. There was very little that was perfunctory between us at that point. He'd made it clear that he'd rather me be in a foul, spitting grump, if that's how I felt, rather than sporting a veneer of pleasantry -- like I was ever good at those. "It seems somewhat odd that they didn't have anything like that before."

"They have their priorities up their what's-its. Something to do with trying to rebuild the country. I dunno. They're giving me a budget for myself and one other researcher. And if, after the two-year trial, they like what they see, they might allot for more."

I absently ran my thumb up one thick corner of the packet a few times before catching myself. "You don't want to teach?"

His immediate reply was a hard, sarcastic laugh. "Oh, hell no. No, no. I know, ridiculous, isn't it? Why get a PhD in literature if you don't want to teach, right? No, this," he said, referring to the paper between us with the pat of his hand, "this is what I want to do."

He has the slim, delicate hands of a pianist, smooth, the kind that have never been calloused from gripping mobile suit thrusters, the kind that can write wickedly intelligent dissertations and well-crafted proposals for desperately needed cultural revitalization projects. They're unlike any hands I've ever known.

"This is important," he continued. "More important than telling eighteen-year- olds how to decipher simile from metaphor. Plus, my advisor keeps telling me I have to straighten out if I want to teach. You know." He paused and pulled on his wrinkled button-down shirt and ruffled his adolescently careless hair. "Grow up."

"I thought it was professorial to sever relations with one's iron," I deadpanned.

"You'd think, with all the tenured slobs at that school."

In the back of the room, a man rose from his chair and packed up his things to leave. I only noticed because he looked incredible. Tall. Striking. Thick, black hair, steely grey eyes. Stuck in that exotic place between handsome and beautiful. As he approached us on the way to the stairway, his eyes targeted on Soren. Glared. The pleasing lines of his face contorted into an ugly sneer as he passed, which Soren caught and responded to with a 10,000 kilowatt grin that made him look approximately ten years old.

"Good Christ," Soren mumbled as the man descended the stairs.

I tried not to appear too interested in the interaction I'd just witnessed, but it wasn't every day that somebody sneered at Soren. Sneered! "What's that guy's problem?"

"Just me."

"What, did you tell him that his favorite writer was a hack?"

Soren's laugh was a pinch on the edgy side. "You took it much better than he did! But no." He shook his head. "No, it's a bit more complicated than that."

There was a long pause during which he did not seem to be thinking of what next to tell me. "That's it?" I complained. "You're really going to leave it at 'No, it's a bit more complicated than that'? And you said my answers were terrible."

He puffed out his left cheek and thwacked his finger against it for a few moments before continuing. "You know the adage about opposites attracting? Well, that's pretty much all they do."

"Ah."

Oh. Shit. was my real sentiment. As in, 'Oh, shit... what?' What? Why was it even an issue? It wasn't. It was nothing. It was smaller than nothing. It was a negative inversion of nothing to me.

"The man is inclined to dramatics. Extreme dramatics. Tantrums. Preposterous threats. 'I'm going to kill myself if you don't put your shirts in the hamper!' That kind of bullshit." His posture righted and he held his palms out to me in a gesture of self-defense. "I'm not a slob. I'm not. The floor was not littered with clothes. I'm talking about one shirt draped over a chair. One shirt. 'This is why you look like a vagrant! Why don't you hang your things where they belong?!'"

" 'Vagrant' is a bit harsh," I noted, thoroughly distracted by the revelation that Soren had been in an intimate relationship with a man. A very attractive man. A very attractive man with whom he'd been so serious that they'd lived together. Argued. Vacationed. Screwed...

"Oh, I know." He scoffed and rolled his eyes. "See, I can't get upset about that stuff. I don't get upset about much at all, actually. It's not worth it." He pantomimed holding something to his eye. "Everything passes through the lens of the occupation for me. I mean it. If people aren't banging on my door, Gestapo-style, then I'm not stressing, I'm not freaking, I'm not stirring shit. Life's too short. My favorite cliché." He stopped himself with a self-effacing smile. "I'm sure you don't care about any of this."

Wrong. "It's fine."

"So," he redirected, "what, exactly, do you do?"

"What do you mean?"

"With your free time. Do you work?"

"Not anymore, no." It wasn't a fact I was at all pleased with. I'd always worked, ever since I entered the academy at eleven. "I resigned from the Preventers last year."

"Why?"

"I wanted to be here."

"The branch office is ten blocks that way." He pointed over his shoulder, to the south. "So, really. Why?"

There was no pause for consideration. "I was sick of preventing. Sick of looking at all the ugly. Sick of the same people. Sick of the attachments. I'm done with it."

Sick of the reminders. Sick of the Gundam pilots. Sick of Treize's former adjunct. Sick of the fuck-up I'd made with Noin. The only think I hadn't been sick of was the state of constant busyness the job thrust me into. Without that, I didn't exactly know what to do with myself.

"Okay, you don't work, so what do you do all day?"

"Read. Write. Think." Very exciting, Zechs. "That's about it. And I have a garden." Oh, and a garden! How fascinating!

In spite of my self-criticisms, Soren's face had brightened considerably as I scrolled through the sum of my existence. "What do you write?"

"It's personal."

"All right." His fingers tapped a quick rhythm on the table, and he seemed on the edge of saying something for quite some time before it finally came out.

"Do you want to work for me?"

It was my turn to pause. I didn't tap. I held my breath.

"Work for you."

"That second position. Research. I think you'd be good for it."

I folded my arms over my stomach. "I'm hardly qualified."

"Qualified?" His eyes focused confrontationally. "I'm hiring. I choose the qualifications. I'm not looking for an expert literary analyst. If I wanted that, I'd ask Liese."

"If you're not looking for somebody who knows literature, then what are you looking for?" I asked, trying to phrase it in a way that highlighted the inherent illogicality of his offer.

"I'm looking for somebody who gets it, who... would slit their wrists for this place. This country. This stuff," he said, snatching the papers off of the table and shaking them in my face, "Sanc's literature, this stuff is just as important, if not more so, than the national historical archives. This is the blood and guts of Sanc. This is the real people's history of everything. This." He looked at the iron-grip he had on his proposal, and he seemed to conclude in that moment that he'd extended his fervor a bit too far. He put the papers back down and laid his hands on his lap. "Very few people understand this."

"And you think I do."

"You're telling me you don't?" Like a pendulum's swing, he was back in the arms of whatever muse drove his passions. "You? The romantic? Come on, Mika, this is exactly you."

My jaw clenched, and I was suddenly on some unwelcome defensive. "What did you just call me?"

Rhetorical question, of course. What he'd just called me was a very familiar Sancian diminutive that not even my parents had used for me. Only Relena ever had, as an infant, and only because my name is an unreasonable mouthful.

Soren's face flushed with embarrassment, though, true to form, he didn't back down or look away. "Sorry. It just flew out."

I didn't stay angry, if anger was even the right name for the emotion. I think the real feeling was more closely related to gob-smacked shock. "No, it's all right. It's just that nobody calls me that. Ever."

"I have a lazy tongue, if you can't tell."

"I know. I read your publications. Your writing is menacingly eloquent. I had to get out a dictionary."

"Whatever," he dismissed. "Do you want the job or not? I want you for it."

Did I want to do something besides mope around my house? Did I want to work on a project that was vitally important to reviving the cultural spirit of my homeland? Did I want to work with the ever-fascinating, bullshit-calling, intellectually- stimulating, remarkably-easy- to-get-along- with Soren Aleandaris?

"Yes."

"I have to warn you, though. The pay is shit."

"It's not an issue."

"I figured." There was a touch of uncertainty on the corner of his lips that I hoped wasn't a factor of regret over the job offer. "So, you'll really do it?"

"I said yes, didn't I?"

"Good." He smiled widely then, all traces of doubt absent as though they'd never been there. "Great. And 'menacingly eloquent'? You realize that that itself is menacingly eloquent."

I shrugged with a smirk. "Whatever."

+

I'm going to stop this. I'm going to do the most self-defeating thing I've done since letting myself become addicted to Tetracontin. Why am I doing this? I ask this even as I plot how best to sour the potential that exists between us. I wonder how I should do it. I could be blunt and ruin our working relationship, too, but that would be unwise. I do enjoy my job, and I would like to keep doing it, please. I could be subtle. I really can be subtle, despite what some might be inclined to believe, and Soren's clever enough to catch it, but I need to be clear. Clear. I want this to stop, Soren. Stop asking me to spend time with you. Why? Because I desperately want to take you up on all your offers, and more, and I can't handle that.

There has to be a measure of tact in the delivery. Something that says, "Thanks, truly, but no thanks," something that...

I'm thinking like Treize. Did he think this way when dealing with me? How to temper his words? How to choose the correct intonation? Or was he such an expert at manipulation that these factors converged effortlessly?

I'm going to shoot from the hip with this one. Anything. Just say it. Get it over with. He's about to open his mouth. Do it. Do it now.

"Do you think I owe you something?" I ask, relieved that I didn't blurt out something along the lines of 'I had a raunchy dream about you last week, and now I really, really want to fuck you, among many other things, and I can't stop thinking about it, and I want to know all about you, I want to kiss you every time you walk up to my desk, and I want to tell you about my life, everything, because I think you'll get it, even though I thought there was only one other person in the world capable of understanding, ' et cetera, et cetera.

He cocks his head to the side and pouts out his lower lip. "What do you mean?"

"You get me a job here. Then you start asking me to do things with you. Do you think it's because I owe you a favor?" Oh, this is interesting. From what twisted part of my mind did I pull this?

"Wha-? No!" He looks appalled. He touches the envelope to his chest, over his heart. "That's not it at all. What kind of person do you think I am?" When I don't answer immediately, he shakes his head at me, his eyebrows drawn together as he no doubt wonders where exactly this came from. "What a weird thing to think."

"Is it?" Just keep going.

"Yes! God," he exclaims as the implication of my comment sinks in. He lifts the fingers of his right hand to his temple momentarily before planting them on his hip. "You think I got you a job in exchange for something? Honestly, what kind of person does that in real life? I'm not some Mafioso or whoever the hell else does things like that."

I knew this would feel horrible...

"I can't believe you would even say that," he concludes quietly.

...and I should have known that it would be a hundred times worse than my worst expectations.

"You're protesting too much," I throw in, because why not?

"You know what, Hamlet, this conversation is bullshit." He yanks his bag from where it's slung over his chair and throws it over his shoulder and across his torso. "I'm not going to argue the validity of your absurd notions of human dynamics."

"Are you trying to get me to go on a date with me?" On this point, I'm genuinely curious, even though I already know.

"No," he says with a dark laugh, "not anymore. Don't worry."

"Really?" Do I have to sound so disappointed?

"Really. I'm going home. You've already worn me out, and we haven't even left work yet."

In a silence pregnant with innuendo, he crosses the room and sets the tickets for the pottery exhibit on my desk.

"You should take your friend from out of town." He looks tired, even though he's smiling now. Tired of me, probably. Treize got that look sometimes. Now I know why. I truly do deserve it.

I keep my eyes directed but unfocused on Jenn Polaria's face. I don't say anything. I hope, at least, that I appear mildly hurt, because I certainly feel that way.

He knocks once on the corner of my desk and turns to leave. "I'll see you tomorrow." At the door, he pauses and says over his shoulder, "Thanks again for the bread."

When he's gone, I wait ten or so emotionless minutes until I figure he's gone downstairs, unchained his bicycle from the rack out front, the only one ever there, and started on his way back to his apartment. Then I rise, grab my things, and take a convoluted series of turns down certain hallways and stairways that will get me to the exit without encountering anybody.

The ride out of the city goes by unnoticed. When I press my heel to the kickstand of my motorcycle, it occurs to me that I have no idea how I even got home. It doesn't matter. I'm here. Like always, I feel a distant sense of gratitude when I discover that that nobody's thrown a rock through one of my windows.

I let my things drop to the floor as I walk inside, slip out of my shoes, and, I don't know why, but I head straight to the kitchen. Am I hungry? No. Am I thirsty? No, unless it's for something hard and inebriating, which I don't dabble with anymore due to a series of unmentionable pratfalls in the past year-and-a-half.

I stop in front of the refrigerator, a man-sized wall of history. My history. A record of my life. A noticeably skewed record, conspicuously missing, oh, the first twenty years. Why? I know why, but I don't say it. I try not to even think it, because every time I do, I feel like I'm sliding backwards - not even treading water, but rather getting sucked into the fatal mouth of a riptide. Pictures and pictures. Places I've enjoyed. People I love. And yet, there's one very important face missing.

I lean against the counter and let my knees become jelly. I sink to the floor. The refrigerator towers over me now. I don't look at this part very often. Thailand. Peru. The lounge of my sister's palatial, government-mandated home in Brussels. A tree. Presents. A couple are for me from her. A couple are for her from me. There's some for her mother, a couple for Pagan, who still folds himself subtly into many aspects of Relena's life. Christmas. This started with Christmas, didn't it? Everything. This descent. This mourning. This chapter of my life. I stretch my foot out and touch Seoul Olympic Stadium with my big toe. I tilt it, tilt it, until it's canted all wrong and about to fall off. Below it, I find Treize.

I lied to him when I said I wanted a picture of him in front of that fertility statue in Rishikesh. The truth is that I wanted a photo only of him looking anything but collected. He doesn't look embarrassed, but he doesn't bear much resemblance to the soldier too worldly for the color on his cheeks. He looks young, twenty-three years young, and the look he's giving me is one of... what? It's something I can't place. Or maybe I can. It's the look Soren gave me today after taking a bite of my zucchini bread. Even forging this comparison, the title of the look is unclear to me.

What is it?

+

"Is this what you wanted?" Treize asked against my mouth.

"Yes. Why were you being like that?"

He locked his elbows so that he was hovering over me. "I suppose I was trying... I wanted to see what it would be like. If we stopped doing this."

"Why?" I didn't frown.

"It would be much easier, wouldn't it?"

Of course it would have been. The vast bulk of our complications came from our physical attraction to each other. That was the part that could get us demoted. That was the part that made being away exponentially more difficult. That was the part that had me coiled up and seething earlier that night. He wanted to see what it would be like to undo Us.

"So, how was it for you?" I asked.

He lowered himself back down, holding some of his weight on his forearms, the rest bearing comfortably on me.

"It didn't help that you were the sole topic of conversation, but even out there, dancing with a perfectly beautiful young woman, talking with her about her studies, her vacation to Barbados, all I could think was..."

"What?"

His gaze passed thoughtfully over my face as he considered it. "That you were watching me, burning with jealousy, getting drunk to cope... That your tuxedo fit you so well, that you looked cool and dangerous with your aviators instead of that damn mask." His eyes narrowed. "Sexy. That we were coming home tonight, that I would get to be like this with you..." He paused, took a breath, and brushed his lips against my cheek. "And I hated myself for having so little self-control that I couldn't even fake it for one evening. But that is how it is. With you."

I kissed him. I was satisfied with that.

His hips pressed down against mine. We were still more dressed than not, which was fine with me. I didn't want sex - at least, not right in that moment. Not ten minutes into the future, he'd be on his knees, my legs wrapped around him, both of us naked, balancing for a long moment on that lip-biting brink between sex and not sex, but right then I wanted something different. Something more. I wanted to be closer than that. I wanted to feel his body on mine, his hands on me, unclouded by the feral, a genuine expression. Why? I still couldn't break through the why of it.

Our lips parted. I held his head between my hands, kissed his jaw, looked past his left ear and up at the sky. "You're missing the shower." I whispered. "The stars... they're amazing."

"I will tell you about stars, Milliardo." He pushed himself lower, down my body, nuzzling my neck, licking at my throat. "Would you like to know?"

"Yes..." I pulled on the cotton fabric at the small of his back, untucking his shirt, and touched his bare skin. He was warm. Treize was always so warm.

"You are made from the same stuff as them." I felt his fingers pass lightly over my nipple, down my chest. He slowly unbuttoned the few remaining buttons of my dress shirt. "As am I."

I sighed and arched against him as dozens of meteoroids burned off in the atmosphere, bleeding brilliance from the friction, leaving behind trails of pure light.

"We are elements from a massive nuclear furnace, strung together so fantastically. " His mouth was on my collar, sucking, nipping, his breath hot. His fingers dipped into my tuxedo trousers, through the fly that I'd left open earlier.

"Treize..."

"Nothing created, nothing destroyed. Only different. Why do we feel loss for what is gone when everything is..."

He paused and lifted his head. He removed his hand from my pants and shifted, directly over me as he'd been before, face to face with me, smiling softly, eyes bright and searching mine. I pulled him close, wrapped my arms tightly around him. He pressed his face into the crook of my neck and reached up to cup my cheek. When he spoke, I could hear the smile still in his voice.

"You and I... we are eternal."

+

I love you, Treize. I always will. There will never be anyone who matches you, and nobody can ever take your place.

And that's okay.

That's okay.

It's okay.

It's okay.

I've heard of people having divine revelations. A part in the clouds, ethereal light shining down in thick beams, a voice, comfort. Purpose imbued. Batteries recharged. The world forever different. I'm not inclined towards divinity, but in this moment, sitting on my kitchen floor, staring at a picture of the only person I ever thought I'd be in love with, the relief that washes over me feels like some holy ablution.

It's okay.

I fold my legs in, push myself into a crouch, and extract Treize's picture from its position in the matrix. I stand, grab a spare magnet from the side of the fridge, and affix the photo at eye level. I don't try to squeeze it in somewhere. I don't show any mercy for Piazza San Marco as I bury it beneath something far more important, and I know that Relena will eventually get used to his close proximity. I put him where he should have been from the start. Where I can see him. Where I can look at his face every day and remember what he meant. The one. The one that got away. The one that's become something different, something eternal.

"This is okay, isn't it?" I ask him.

Of course I get no answer, but I know what it would be.

I touch his cheek with my fingertip. A small part of me feels like crying, an automatic response that isn't uncommon when I think about Treize and very rarely culminates in tears. But I don't have time to linger. I let my hand fall back to my side and leave the kitchen, my modern kitchen with my dark, marble countertops. I walk back to the foyer and slip my shoes back on. When I open the door, the pitch black of night hits me like a wall, and I wonder how long I was sitting, blanked-out, reminiscing. It doesn't matter. I check my watch. 21:24. Not too late by a long shot.

My drive to the city is preternaturally clear. And I feel pretty good about myself until I hit the city proper, when I realize that I'll be in the art district in approximately three and a half minutes. I'm nervous all of a sudden, and mutant Chernobyl butterflies are hacking at the lining of my stomach when I pull into a parking spot that seems too good to be coincidental, right smack in front of Soren's apartment building. I pull up on the parking brake, crane my neck, and see his unit lit up. I remember what Liese said. Corner unit 5F. Can you imagine him carrying his bike up five flights of stairs? Yes, Liese, I can, because Soren's like that. He wouldn't be Soren without such trivia.

There's a call box at the front door. I scroll down to 'Aleandaris, S' and stare at it. For a heart-stopping moment, I consider turning around and leaving - leaving the city, leaving Sanc, leaving Earth, getting a job on an anonymous freighter that will take me as far from this doorway as the limitations of human technology will allow. But it's only a moment of cowardice, and I recover. I press it. The buzzing noise is weak, sleepy-sounding, and as I wait, I wonder if it even works until...

"Yes?"

"It's Milliardo," I say, and as soon as I say it, I wish I'd added something like 'May I come in?' or 'I'd like to talk to you.'

The pause seems to extend for an hour and finally ceases with "Come on up."

The building is old, historical, crammed with studios and one-bedroom flats. Like most of the surviving high rises in the art district, it's a haven for supported students, moderately successful writers and artists, and a random assortment of nuclear families and aging bohemian types. It's maintained to the point of functionality but never to the point of true renovation. I climb four flights of creaking stairs, narrow stairs in claustrophobically narrow stairways that really would be a whoreson bitch to drag a bicycle up. On the fifth floor, I take a lucky left and find his unit at the end of the hall. Standing at his door, I clench both hands into fists and release them with a long exhalation. I knock and then, suddenly, he's right there.

"Hello," he says suspiciously. He's not wearing his glasses.

"I want to talk to you." I'm surprised when my voice resounds with calm and confidence.

"I have a phone, you know," he remarks, leaning against the doorjamb. "You could have called."

"I wanted to talk to you in person."

"Okay."

He turns abruptly and leaves the door open behind him as he reenters his apartment. I follow and close it behind me. My heart is pounding.

His apartment is a studio, small, modestly furnished. There is no evidence of the disregard of cleanliness that Tall, Black-Haired, and Grey-Eyed allegedly accused Soren of. No clothes strewn on floor, not even draped on one of the two chairs that sit at a small table that seems to do double duty as a desk. To my left, leaning against one of his many bookshelves, is his bike. There's a futon in couch-configuration against one wall, and most other wall space is covered with more shelves that don't seem capable of accommodating even one more book. He has two windows leading to a fire escape, the humble urban porch, both with decent views of the street below, and there are doors leading to what I assume are a kitchenette and bathroom.

While he has his back to me, I glance over at the table. Lying half-buried under a small pile of books and MoC paperwork is a document printed on thick-stock paper, one edge bent, another corner colored with a slivered half-circle coffee stain. I turn my head to the side to read it. Something Something confer the degree of Doctorate of Philosophy in Literature to Soren R. Aleandaris, something, something, this twenty-first day of May in the year After Colony 201. I pull the diploma out. He turns when he hears me digging through his things.

"Shouldn't you put this someplace more important?" I ask, holding it up.

"Why? It's just a piece of paper." He moves closer and takes it from me. "But you're right. I should probably file it or something." He points to a small filing box on top of the nearest book shelf and sets the paper back on the table. Soren then squares his shoulders and faces me head-on. He seems relaxed enough, but it could just be what he's wearing.

"Why are you here?"

I snort. "I feel like you just asked me that question."

"Five months ago," he notes. Has it already been five months? Has it only been five months?

"I want to apologize."

He smiles coolly. "Hey, look, I get it. I'm not a kid." I never thought he was. "I was taking a chance anyway, going off of rumors that probably aren't even true - "

"They're true," I state plainly. At this point in my life, I'm thoroughly done with feeling like Treize and I did something wrong. We didn't. I'm not ashamed of what we were, but only, perhaps, ashamed of the way I treated him...

Soren looks at me in open-mouthed silence. He's wearing sweatpants, the university's seal on the upper left thigh, and an olive green t-shirt that fits him very well.

"...Really?" he says finally.

"Yes."

He crosses his arms and shrugs. "Well, that doesn't mean anything except what it literally means, but..." He pauses and looks to the floor. When his eyes meet mine again, there's sympathy there that I've never seen from him. "That's really sad, then. What happened with you two."

"Yes. It is." I welcome his assessment. It's validating. I also welcome his compassion, because it feels honest, completely untainted. Good.

"You don't really think that about me, do you?" he asks, shifting his weight to his right leg. "That I asked you to work for me with the expectation that you owed me something."

"No." I shake my head. "I don't think that."

"Because it's not true." His arms fall back to his sides as his momentary lapse in self-certainty dissipates. "You really are perfect for the job. You're very smart. And I like working with you. I like talking to you. I like your perspective. "

"Is that all?"

So many pauses from him tonight. This one's not the longest, but it's certainly the heaviest. "Of course it's not. I thought I made that pretty clear."

It seems cheesy, even while I'm acting on it, but I consider that an invite. The first step I take towards him is terrifying, but as I close in, I feel that terror becoming something else. I put my hands on his shoulders. They're firm, a little bony, and fearless. His mild expression urges me on in a silent dare. I dare you to do it, Milliardo Peacecraft.

I'm feeling bold now. His breathing quickens, and I want him. When I kiss him, it feels one-sided for a second or two, but then he starts kissing back, kissing me like he means it. I touch his neck, his face. It's been so long since I've touched someone like this, and, God, I've missed it. He tastes like toothpaste and smells like soap. Good things. Clean things. Fresh things. I feel his hands on my chest. He inhales sharply through his nose and, for a frantic moment, he grabs my shirt tight in his fists and presses himself to me before flattening his palms and then pushing me away.

He laughs breathlessly. "Okay, um, I think you should go now."

I frown as a crowded stream of possible reasons floods my brain. "Why?"

"See," he begins, then hesitates, then resumes, "I'm not that kind of boy."

I'm confused. It must be obvious, because he smiles and rushes to clarify.

"Oh, I'm that kind of boy, but, ah, I don't like to screw around before the first date." He shrugs, and his smile goes lopsided. "I'm a little old-fashioned about these things."

"So you want me to go," I restate. I resist the urge to cross my arms over my chest. I'm not going to pout and sulk like a brat. I'm through with that part of myself.

"Yeah, I think so." He drags his fingernails across his scalp in an uncharacteristicall y nervous gesture. "But I'll see you tomorrow. And maybe later this week we can, you know, do something proper together. Go to dinner. A film. A gallery." As soon as his hands slide into the pockets of his sweatpants, they're back out and at his sides again. "You know, normal things."

I feel one side of my mouth quirk up. "Normal things."

"Yes. Normal things. You're overdue for some of that, I think."

I don't say anything to that, but he's hit the mark with a master's precision. He slinks around me and pulls open the door to let me out. One thing I never have to worry about with Soren is indecisiveness. He wants me out, and there's no wishy-washy ambiguity about it. I take the direction and step into the hallway. He pulls the door half-closed, wedges himself in the space between, and seems barely capable of containing himself as he sends me on my way.

"So, um..." He's grinning now. "Good night, and I will, ah, see you tomorrow!"

I lean down and kiss him so quickly that he can't avoid it. He blinks stupidly when I pull back, turn, and walk towards the stairwell. He stifles a laugh and closes the door. As I start down the stairs, my ears pick up a muffled "Oh my God..." that is of unmistakable Soren Aleandaris origin.

I walk in a pleasant daze until I hit the cool night air and my phone buzzes in my pocket. When I pick it up, it's Soren.

"Hey, so, there's this Afghan pottery exhibit opening this weekend."

I stop, turn, look up, and see him standing on the fire escape outside his unit.

"I've heard of it," I reply.

"We should go. Together."

"It's funny you should say that, because I actually have two tickets. VIP. Very fancy."

"Ugh, I hate that word. It means I have to look presentable. "

"You're a department head. You need to get used to these things."

"Yeah, yeah. Okay."

"So, it's a date."

"Yes. Definitely."

We say our goodbyes again, and I watch him slip back into his apartment and close the window behind him. Overhead, even through the ambient light from the city, I can see the stars. A piece of wreckage, stirred from orbit by a passing shuttle or sweeper team, burns up, painting light across the sky.

I think of Treize, and I'm smiling.

+

The End.

[part 10] [back to Singles a-k]