Author: Khalani
Pairing: Past Treize/Zechs (made present-tense via flashbacks)
Spoliers: Series, EW Warnings: Death themes, male/male sexual situations, foul language, grief, angst, cynicism, debatable instances of sap. Flashbacks throughout. Military-ness. Rated M for swears and dark matter.
Archive: Fanfiction.net under the name KhalaniK
Disclaimer: I don't own any part of GW. No monies have been or will be made off of this thing.
No beta, so please forgive grammar/usage/ punctuation mistakes.

Please see Limbo 1 for very important notes.

Limbo 7: You Were Never Quite The Same

The decision to open my front door and walk to Mr. Kazlauskas' cellar was not one made lightly on that particular October day. From my sitting room, I'd spent close to an hour chewing absently at my breakfast of bread with butter while watching the blustery wind violently whip at the trees and flagging vegetables outside my rental. The temptation to forgo the short journey was overpowering, and I wondered what my problem was. How was it that I had endured season after season of brutal Sancian and Russian winters without so much as a snivel of discontent, and yet I was seriously considering cloistering myself indoors because of a small wind storm?

I watched a tarp I had never seen before fly past my window. So, fine, the storm wasn't exactly small, but the principle of letting the weather dictate my schedule was more grating with every moment my mind entertained it. I muttered to myself that I was being silly and licked a spot of butter off my thumb. So long as I was not overrun by legions of rogue tarps, an image that struck me as quite hilarious, there wasn't a good reason to put my project on hold any longer than necessary. My scandalous little receiver. I suppose it was really Vadimas', but I had taken ownership of it rather soon after I cleaned up the workspace, wrote the specifications into the latest CAD program, and ordered all of the parts. My mood brightened every time I heard the rumble of the delivery truck as it rolled down the drive, bringing with it wires, tools, transistors, and other miscellany. I ordered so much that I had to get another prepaid card, so I suppose I literally did own it.

After cleaning up my plate, I put on my coat and, after a moment spent lamenting the fact that I had no hood, tied my hair back into a low ponytail. I had a damn hard enough time keeping it looking decent without courting a wind-blown rat's nest of tangles. I'd almost cut it all off the month before, the thought arising spontaneously the moment I awoke one day, lingering naggingly like a pinch at the back of my brain. I'd even gone so far as to borrow a pair of scissors from Vadimas and lock myself in his bathroom, where I stood in front of the mirror, the bulk of it held in a tight, determined fist, the decisive point of the cutting tool ghosting over the place I planned to make the cut. It felt like suicide, and, in the end, I chickened out.

How many times had Treize run his hands through my hair, the very same hair that I'd nearly cut off? I'd grown it out since I'd known him, only trimming it to keep it from becoming inconveniently long. There was a part of him there, a preference, a compliment. He marveled at it, teased me for my dedication to it, gathered it to the side to kiss the back of my neck... No. I couldn't do it and for all the wrong reasons.

Walking up the long, slow slope of the road, I faced the powerful wind head-on. It was like walking through sand, so much effort for so little progress. My eyes watered and I tucked my chin behind the upturned collar of my coat. The sky was a gloomy shade of gray, the clouds heavy and low. I thought about Germany, and my mind labored to determine exactly why. Parties in Bremen... holiday in Munich... training in Berlin... funerals in -

My breath stilled. That was it.

xxx

It was an oppressively overcast and cold day, the sky hanging so low that it weighed tangibly on the crowd of mourners gathered at Dorumer Neufeld military cemetery. Five soldiers, five headstones, five more names for Treize's list. These Specials officers, all under the age of 30, had died helping the Alliance stave off a pro-colonial rebellion in Portugal. The soldiers' mobile suits had been consumed by a spectacular fireball created when the rebels blew the reactor of a stolen Leo, setting off a chain reaction that obliterated one of the country's biggest power stations and everything else within a two kilometer radius. The three Alliance soldiers had survived because of their tactical support positions in the rear, a fact that we acknowledged with curt nods of understanding to their faces and caustic accusations of cowardice behind their backs.

At that time, the mission was the largest single loss of life in the brief history of the Specials. This death toll was so light compared to what the Corps would see after Operation Meteor, but five was considered devastating back then, as it should have been. Even one was one too many. Somewhere along the way, we lost our perspective.

I inferred that the magnitude of the Portugal Incident was the reason Treize chose to attend that particular memorial service, as professional constraints typically prevented him from doing otherwise. As a freshly minted colonel, he had assumed a staggering amount of responsibility, taking the late General Catalonia's position as official commander of the Specials, courtesy of Romefeller's enthusiastic reassurances to Marshall Noventa and the other Alliance bigwigs. They agreed only because of Treize's demonstrated dedication to R&D and Training and Indoctrination, doing work that could be easily quantified and presented as a colorful and impressive graph that went up and up and up. With this promotion, the entire world was his new jurisdiction, where he had over 38,000 Specials officers planted in over 340 Alliance bases and outposts. On the world map, his units linked together in a dense thicket of military might, all poised to mobilize within minutes of Treize's command. If the Alliance wasn't unsettled by their decision, they weren't thinking clearly.

I was there because the soldiers were attached to my unit in Braga. I hadn't led the deadly mission, but after reading a copy of the Alliance command report Treize had obtained for me, I wished once more that I had. I was appalled at the shamefully sophomoric execution of the attack, which played out with the over-compensatory carelessness of an unruly child. I'd digested the contents of the report with a hard scowl on my lips, mulling over the same tired point that such a loss of life at the hands of an incompetent tactician was completely unnecessary. I could have been there. I should have been there, and I should have been leading them.

This was my chief grievance with the Specials' supplementation of traditional Alliance units. At the beginning of the Specials/Alliance era of cooperation, and I use this term loosely because they were still believed to be two parts of the same organization, it was only under the rarest and emergent of circumstances that a mission was planned and commanded by a better trained, better equipped Specials officer. The Alliance preferred to be in control, and Treize preferred to let them believe that they were. That would change later as combat deaths increased to "unacceptable" levels, when Treize's new status would sway the Alliance towards a policy of command relinquishment - pragmatically euphemized as "reallocation. " The command assignments wouldn't begin transitioning in earnest until after that funeral, though, much too late for scores of Specials officers who died long before they should have.

We arrived separately, his rank wedging itself prominently between us. From the top of the hill, I watched him step out of his bulletproof sedan, his gloved hand waving off a young woman in a pant suit who had approached him from one of the vehicles trailing his. The look on her face was one of resigned acquiescence. I wondered what he'd denied her. As leader of the prestigious Specials Corps, he had a full detail of soldiers, security officers, and OZ-employed civilians who coordinated his every official movement. Each flight, each meeting, each handshake was painstakingly planned down to the minute - at least, as much as reason and the laws of probability allowed. There were still enough surprises to keep him entertained and his staff perpetually on the verge of nervous breakdown.

He looked sharp and commanding as he strode up the hill with long, purposeful steps that miraculously did not make him appear inappropriately self-important. He carried instead an air of calm sobriety that radiated and permeated, a trait that made him different from other commanders in that he didn't unnerve his subordinates unless he intended to. I caught his eye and he afforded me nothing more than a small nod as he fell into formation down the line next to Federation Colonel Diallo. I nodded back and tried not to look let down. This, our first meeting in months, was even more anticlimactic than I'd pessimistically predicted. I shouldn't have expected anything more than what I got, especially considering the nature of the event, but still. It hurt. Understanding it didn't make it any easier.

Dozens of soldiers and civilians formed a large semicircle around the five plots. Every soldier was decked out in winter formal dress, cloaks draped over our right shoulders, scabbards sheathed at our left hips. Such a silly accessory, really, especially at a funeral. My mask allowed me to watch Treize without drawing attention, including his, so that's exactly what I did. It was wonderful to finally see him in person, despite the tepid greeting. He looked good to me, as he always did, but by pre-promotion comparison he appeared pale, preoccupied, and encumbered. And that was only after three months. I wondered how he would look in a year, pleasantly unaware that in a year's time he would be dead.

In those days, I had frustratingly little face-time with him, if one could count vid-phone conversations as face-time. As Major Chernov's executive officer at the Braga base, I vid-phoned in once a week for command debriefings that were all business and never private, as he was always distracted by some elbow or shirt cuff in his periphery waiting to hand him something to sign or tell him something that was no doubt of crucial importance. I would have loved to admit that we had a sexy long distance relationship, but the truth was that he worked every night until he crashed, only to wake up the next morning and do it all over again. Most personal conversations took place at depressingly infrequent intervals and at odd hours of the night, when Treize was not at his finest and sometimes fell asleep mid-call, leaving me to wish in silence that I was there with him, even if it was just to watch him sleep from across the room rather than from across the continent.

Three of the five deceased soldiers were presumed actively Roman Catholic, so a priest was obtained to deliver the invocation. He then read a passage from a bible that I was entirely and unabashedly unfamiliar with, the words arcane and meaningless to me. Treize had on several occasions falsely claimed that he couldn't understand the bible unless it was read in Russian (as though anybody truly understands the bible in any language), though he probably could have at least named the book from which the passage was pulled. I know my parents would have been disappointed with my disdain of anything that functioned under the pretense of holiness. My adolescent worshipping of Treize certainly wasn't rooted in anything even remotely sacred. I'm sure they would have been pretty disappointed about that, too. I'd like to think that my mother would have understood, but I suppose I'll never know.

The priest's words were wasted on me and likely on Treize beyond some cheap nostalgic value, and I wondered if anybody was actually finding comfort in this ritualistic recitation. Did those people believe that the soldiers' deaths were meaningful, an act of their benevolent God calling them home instead an act of desperate brutality aided by grossly incapable leadership? Did they believe that it was not the intractable principles of the rebels that caused the explosion but rather the depraved hand of Satan? To me, these religious explanations were excuses, illusions, delusions, a denial of the darkness in the heart of man. I've always believed that humans are horrible enough without needing help from fabricated third parties.

A man in the crowd stared at me. He was a civilian, perhaps a family member. The look on his face was one of equal parts repulsion and perplexity, and I found it curious that so many people had identical reactions to my appearance. I should have taken pictures of all of them and pasted them together in a collage of disgust. I never had ill feelings towards these blatant gawkers, because I truly did look something like a sideshow spectacle. My helmet resembled a medieval relic, the femininity of my hair clashed confusingly with the masculine line of my jaw, and my uniform was the boldest and bloodiest shade of red conceivable. For such a solemn occasion, I wished I could have worn something less conspicuous. I felt like a distraction.

The priest finished his passage and the crowd muttered "Amen." Then the father made the expected announcement that Treize wanted to say a few words - expected because he took every opportunity he could to make the Specials look favorable, not only to the public, but to his own soldiers as well. He had to remind them why they fought and, more importantly, why they must continue to fight harder than ever. It was a most delicate task, for one wrong word could make him appear disconnected, pitying, or weak. I watched him step out of formation and move with somber grace to the front of the group. He carried himself with the gravitas of a leader who singlehandedly represent the might and solidarity of the entire Specials Corps. When exactly had that happened, anyway? He was still the same man he'd been earlier that year, wasn't he?

"Lieutenants Covas, Symanski, De Luca, Captain Jansson, and Major Chernov understood the meaning of serving in the Specials Corps. It means honing strength of character, judgment and discipline. It means giving without asking, striving without reward, and fighting with no guarantee of survival. These soldiers exemplified every ideal of the Corps in their every waking moment, and they died upholding a tradition of sacrifice for the common good."

His gaze slowly swept across the faces of each man, woman, and child at the gathering. People wanted to look at Treize Khushrenada. They wanted to look into his deep blue eyes as much as I did, and they'd all swear they saw something nobody else saw, something intended especially for them. He seemed to recognize the effect he had on people, and he rarely wasted an opportunity to leave an impression on every single person he could. I dislike using such cold terms for him, especially since I understand his true feelings on the matter, but he was working that funeral crowd harder than usual.

"The loss of a soldier in the line of duty is, of course, a mournful event. No amount of posthumous commendation can bring our friends and loved ones back. But we can honor them with our continued courage and with our will to learn from their actions. These five officers have given us the most precious give of inspiration, a gift that we must not take for granted in the days ahead."

Treize's voice had a hypnotic quality, formed in part by the gentle rolling of the faint accent he pointedly refused to correct. He was capable linguist, and I had no doubts that he could speak International Standard without the slightest hint of Russianness, but he chose not to as an act of protest against the military's pressure towards linguistic and cultural assimilation. There was also the Eurocentrism of Romefeller to contend with, an organizational bias that always thought less of the Russians, partly because of their location on the geographic fringe of Europe and partly because the land spans eleven time zones and therefore is one of the most racially and culturally diverse countries in the world. It was both too exotic and too backwater to be truly European, and, above all things, Romefeller was quintessentially, staunchly, stubbornly, traditionally European. The Khushrenada family position in the Foundation was the exception rather than the rule, a position earned by generations of unwavering loyalty - a chain that Treize would one day break amid whispers of "That's what you get from the Russians."

And Russian he was. When I was studying geography as a child, I once asked Treize where the name Khushrenada originated. "I think it migrated up from the southwest," he explained vaguely, his voice just beginning to break, as he gestured in the direction of Azerbaijan and Iran. Treize was unconcerned with the technicalities of his ethnic history. He was Russian, and a Russian is a Russian is a Russian, no matter where his great-great- grandfather came from.

Rolling 'r.' Full-throated 'l.' The crowd looked more relaxed, more at home in their pain, the weight of the sky less of a burden. I felt pride welling up in me, even though nobody knew that Treize was mine.

"These soldiers have shown us how to walk the path of righteousness. "

His eyes met mine and there was no sympathy there. I was certain that the crowd in its trance wouldn't notice, but I was more accustomed to Treize's charisma and I could see the truth. The emotion wasn't there because he kept it buried so deeply that it didn't stand a chance to surface. Not then. Not in front of those strangers. He kept it in a tight, dense ball somewhere in his chest, and there were days when he was quiet and he seemed to be looking somewhere far away or far inside, and that's when I knew it was hurting him the most. He wasn't invincible, never truly unshakable. He felt everything, internalized it, and it consumed him.

"So today, let us commit to heart and mind the virtuous deeds of these officers. Let us walk that path they braved, no matter where it leads us. This is not a task for the soldier alone. It is an imploration to all who seek a peaceful future."

He moved the toe of his right boot behind his left heel and smoothly did an about-face. There, he directed ten riflemen to perform a three-volley salute. His firm command voice cut as clearly through the gloom as the jarring crack of every shot. The crowd flinched. A woman shrouded in black began weeping.

The priest capped off the service, asking us to go with God, and then the formation fell apart as people walked to their cars or moved into small circles of conversation. The woman in black who cried during the salute began wailing next to one of the headstones. Two other similarly dressed women huddled around her, holding her, trying vainly to comfort her.

I acknowledged some of my colleagues in my accustomed spare manner as Major Chernov's husband and two daughters walked by without lifting their heads. Discomfort swelled in tune with the grim soundtrack of that woman's crying, upsetting my fellow officers with the unbridled display grief that played out before us. They shifted their weight and tried not to look, but they couldn't stop themselves, as though she was a multiple car pile-up with several casualties. Some appeared to be embarrassed for her, convinced on some cold level that she was making a fool of herself. I stared plainly because my mask made me bold.

Her pain moved me. Knowing intimately the agony of a loved one's death, I admired her precise vocalization of the sensation.

I heard Treize finish up his conversation with Symanski's parents, which they ended by thanking him. Thanking him. For what, I couldn't imagine. He walked up to me, and the small crowd of subordinates I'd been standing with dispersed in a hail of salutes and serious greetings. His uniform was covered with the tiny droplets of mist that clung to us all.

"When will you be returning to Braga?" he asked after we exchanged salutes.

"Not until tomorrow evening, sir."

"Would you join me for dinner tonight?"

Over his shoulder I saw the grieving woman being pulled to her feet by the others. Her howling had quieted to a steady cadence of sobbing.

"Of course, Your Excellency." The title had an unfamiliar taste as it rolled off my tongue. At that point in our careers, he was my commander's commander's commander's commander, which meant that I probably shouldn't even have been talking to him, let alone accepting dinner invites.

His steadily unreadable expression lightened fractionally with my agreement. "Would you like a ride to the base?"

"Thank you, sir."

The stifling rigidity between us felt like a running joke that had turned stale and obligatory. I realized the importance of giving due respect, but the sort of formality that his rank and position demanded had fractured our relationship into two enormously unequal parts: the small, subtle Treize and Milliardo and the loud, pressing Colonel Khushrenada and Captain Merquise. It seemed as though we were perpetually on duty, always apart, always just passing each other with a glance over the shoulder that was too brief to convey any yearning. Did he hate it the same way I did? I wondered if he was too busy to have an opinion on anything not work-related.

We started on the pulverized gravel path that led to the road where Treize's driver was waiting. The ocean threw out briny gusts of wind that caught our cloaks and hair and made us look dramatic. It was an unseasonably warm January day, but all things being relative, it was still freezing. Even so, we took our time walking to the car, talking quietly, catching up, relishing a few minutes of privacy.

"I think we should eat off base tonight. There is a Lebanese restaurant in the city that my personal assistant recommended. He hails from the country, so I trust his judgment."

"Personal assistant?" I felt an insidious itch under my skin, something like envy clawing at me from the inside. I was never particularly concerned with Treize's fidelity, not in any serious way. I pouted and stormed in fits of jealousy that were usually the product of something else entirely, but I didn't feel truly threatened by anybody - certainly not his personal assistant, who pissed me off simply because he got paid to spend all day with Treize.

"Lieutenant Nassef. I request a civilian, Resource Command sends me a second-year lieutenant."

"Odd that the commander of the Specials can't even choose his own PA." It was all part and parcel of the illogical bureaucratic intricacies inherent in the military. Treize could singlehandedly direct the course of the entire future but still be forced to wait two months to get budgetary approval for new carpeting in the barracks.

"I feel sorry for him, really. He must believe this assignment to be a form of punishment."

"I would think that directly serving the man who commands the entire Specials Corps would be considered something of an honor."

"He is an officer and a trained pilot. How can you think that he might enjoy keeping my datebook and making arrangements for my dry cleaning? How would you like it?"

"Right now I would demote myself to your full-time washroom attendant if it meant that I got to see you more than once every three months."

He stopped walking and I turned around to face him. I noticed the dark circles that had begun to form under his eyes. He pushed out his chin in a demonstration of mild irritation that only those heavily schooled in his mannerisms would be able to interpret correctly.

"I need you in Braga," he stated bluntly. He put his hand on his hip, a gesture that was intimidating for a reason I couldn't specify. Maybe because it reminded me of my father, which is a perverted association in more ways than one. "But, as you know, there is an open slot now."

"Chernov." A promotion. One of the only hard and fast regulations the Alliance had put on the Specials was a rank quota, creating a sharp, highly competitive bottleneck after the rank of captain. Chernov had been a captain for seven years before earning her promotion, and some suspected that the only reason she received it so quickly was because she was a woman.

"You are overdue."

As a third-year captain, I most certainly was not. "Hardly."

Treize ignored my comment. "I was going to wait to tell you tonight, but... "

"But?"

With the transitory swiftness of a passing cloud, his expression softened. "You look like you could use some good news."

Did I?

"You... "

My brow furrowed as I registered the sound of a woman's voice. Treize turned around towards the direction we were heading from and together we saw the woman in black slowly approaching, unaccompanied. One of her olive-skinned hands held tightly onto her headscarf, which was slipping back despite her effort, exposing thick black hair streaked with grey. She cringed with every step, her left foot dragging, leaving a long trail in the gravel.

"You... It's your fault," she said, her brown, mascara-stained eyes focused on Treize. She pointed a small, accusing finger at him.

A plain-clothed security agent materialized from behind a tree and moved to intercept, but Treize saw him and held out a forbidding hand. Dutifully the man stopped, but left his hand near his concealed sidearm as he kept a sharp eye on his charge.

"What is your name?" Treize asked her, the most basic question that was the least provocative. Logical. Practical. He had his voice tuned to a conciliatory frequency, one that was smooth, pleasant, a little tired, and completely contradictory to the mood I could tell he was in.

"You don't deserve to know!" she spat, one side of her mouth drooping. She stopped an arm's length away from him, putting me on edge with her close proximity. I took a step forward, flanking him defensively.

"My son, Franco, is dead because of you." She clenched the folds of her dress in her fists, diffusing angry sorrow through them. The wind took her veil and sent it flying past the security goon, who was likely wondering if he was going to have to shoot a disabled woman at a funeral.

The thin layer of tension in Treize's face dissipated as the situation clarified. "Lieutenant De Luca was a fine soldier, madam. I am deeply sorry for your loss."

"Sorry?!" I could tell she was on to him, attuned to the placating hollowness in that boxed expression of sympathy. "You bewitched him! You filled his head with philosophy and filth. He told me what you said, that death in battle is beautiful! A soldier's greatest achievement! "

I remembered that speech. Far from being Treize's mantra, he had simply said exactly what needed to be said at precisely the moment it was required. He'd been addressing a large crowd of us after a less-than-impressiv e, three-week-long war game at the European Training Center in Prague. As an official observer, he accused us of hesitation, of questioning of our instincts. Holding back. He told us that we need not fear death, that the dead would always be remembered, his own personal promise. He told us that the willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice is crucial to fighting with the entirety of one's soul. And fear of death, he said, is an idea, and like all ideas, it can be dismissed, replaced with something better, something that strengthens instead of weakens. Death, he did say, can be beautiful, but Treize always much rather preferred his soldiers alive.

She staggered forward and grabbed onto Treize's jacket with her right hand and then, with greater effort, the left. A well-used tissue dropped to the ground. She was short, the top of her head barely coming up to his chin. I wanted to stop this pitiful, horrible, heartbreaking thing, but I didn't. Because I thought she had a point. Because I thought, shamefully, that Treize might have deserved it.

"How beautiful is it, Colonel? Is this what you meant?! Are you proud? Are you happy? He was eighteen years old! My only child, barely old enough to drink a beer!" She pulled on his coat with every interrogative and pushed her fists into his chest with her exclamations.

I couldn't succinctly define the look on Treize's face. His mouth opened and I expected him to say something, but he didn't. Couldn't. His arms hung limply at his sides. He didn't resist her. He was immobilized, disarmed, and, for once, speechless. I wondered how long it had been since anybody had touched him, let alone physically assaulted him.

"You send these babies into battle, enticing them with fairy tales and fantasies of glory. And then when they die you write them off as examples and spew pretty words about the meaning of their death. So, what does it mean? What does Franco's death mean? There has to be a reason for it!"

"I-I'm so sorry."

I had never heard him stutter. Never. Not once. He'd sooner stay silent for a week than risk the damaging ambiguity of a stutter.

"And you!" She unlatched her good hand from Treize's lapel and pointed at me. The sneer on her lips melted into an uneven, trembling smile that threatened to collapse at any moment. "Franco loved you... you're just a baby, too... "

Her expression crumbled as she continued to look at me, and a stream of tears streaked down the side of her face that wasn't paralyzed. I wondered what she was thinking about as she stared. Did I remind her of Franco? Impossible.

She let go of Treize's jacket and buried her face in her hands. Her narrow shoulders shook as sobs wracked her tiny body, and she looked very small and alone until the two women from earlier dashed to her side, one holding her veil, and escorted her down the gravel path.

I had to consciously will my jaw to unclench. Just a baby, was I? Didn't she realize that Treize was only 23?

He stood absolutely still as he watched them walk to a waiting taxicab. His face was blank, which was unusual. Typically it had a modest orientation towards amusement or bemusement, arrogance or condescension.

"Are you okay?" I asked, laying a hand on his shoulder. I removed it the moment I realized what I'd done.

"I'm fine," he replied flatly. "Let's go back to the base."

In the back seat of the sedan, we sat in silence. Treize stared out of the tinted window. The countryside was glum and withered, but in another few months the rolling hills of the cemetery would be green and fresh from the winter rains.

A driver picked me up at temporary billeting at 18:30 that evening and drove me to the central command center where Treize lived and worked, the poor man. I suppose it was a fortunate arrangement, because if he had to go any farther than a few floors to get to his bed, he probably would have taken up permanent residency in his office. His private living space - generously planned for men and women with families - was two-storey penthouse, an atypically modern arrangement for such a proudly traditional base. Waiting for me at the front entrance of the building was Lieutenant Nassef, an amiable and courteous man with dark, bedroom eyes. He accompanied me to the elevator and, on the way up, enthusiastically recommended the mujadarah for dinner.

"The door is probably unlocked, sir," Nassef said when he let me out on his floor. "I'm sure that, as his friend, you know how he is about security."

As in, he wanted as little to do with it as possible. We had passed so many security checks on the way to the elevator - not to mention the biometric scan and PIN required to even get on the thing - that I supposed locking his door would have been excessive.

I knocked twice before entering the long foyer that led into the primary living area. I took my shoes off and hung my coat next to Treize's on a small waiting coat tree. I walked slowly through each of the rooms, looking for Treize but also familiarizing myself with his amenities. Large kitchen. Dining area. Two guest rooms. Bath. Half-bath. The quarters were furnished in a gaudy baroque style that the Alliance and Romefeller probably thought he would want, a style far too ostentatious for Treize's personal preference. I marveled with a small scrap of pity at how pathetically little they knew about the man at the helm of their most advanced war machine. But then, planned and accidental misinformation surrounded Treize, and living in a nightmarishly garish furniture gallery was a small price to pay for the continued confidentiality of his true feelings and intentions.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor and found him sitting at a large mahogany desk in the study, where he likely worked when he was supposed to be resting. Books filled the shelves on three walls, the Romefeller-supplied volumes with gilded binding appearing out of place among the soft-spined, well-read ones brought from home. I could make out the titles of a few of the classics of literature and philosophy, copies that I'd held in my own hands during hot summers and frigid winters.

It was dark, the only light in the room coming from the quickly receding sun in the west. Treize was hunched over the desk, the thumb and forefinger of his right hand pinched at the bridge of his nose between two closed eyes. Next to him was an empty glass of something that probably hadn't been water. I thought that he might be dozing, as he was capable of sleeping in the oddest of places and positions, a skill he'd no doubt adopted out of necessity rather than choice.

I cleared my throat.

The sound startled him and he hurriedly righted himself. He seemed to fully register my presence only after blinking a few times."That time already?"

I took off my sunglasses and watched the nuances of his facial expression as he gave me the once, twice-over. Despite his distraction, the glint in his eye reassured me that I wasn't the only one who was sick of being apart. I'd put careful consideration into my wardrobe that evening, choosing jeans that fit in just the right way, just the way I knew Treize would like them to fit. That unmistakable surge of interest from him was well worth the small fortune I'd paid for the pants, a cost that seemed ridiculous until I tried them on and saw immediately the appeal of the brand. When I paired them with a long-sleeved, black cotton shirt that fit just as well, casual in the way I preferred to be, I could admit without fear of exaggeration that I looked good.

"And you're still in your uniform," I observed. "Sort of." He had laid his coat, cloak, and cravat on a chaise lounge in the corner of the room, though "threw" seems a more accurate verb for what he'd done to them. I walked over and picked up the jacket and cloak, smoothing over the few shallow wrinkles in both with my hand, and hung them on the rack that was literally only a small step to the right of the chaise. It was unusually careless of him to do that to his uniform. It bothered me.

I heard him push out his chair and watched as he moved towards the adjoining master bedroom. He switched on a couple of lamps along the way, bathing the room in a soft light. "I'm sorry, Zechs. Do you mind waiting while I change?"

He was being unusually polite. Of course I was going to wait for him to change. I was going to try to watch him change, in fact. When he left the study, I poked around and found a decoratively concealed mini-fridge beneath one of the bookshelves. I pulled a predictable bottle of vodka from the freezer, poured approximately a double in the glass Treize had been using, and kicked it back like a shot. Then I walked to the bedroom and took a seat on the edge of the bed. He busied himself for a handful of minutes in the bathroom, running the sink, flushing the toilet, before coming back out and rummaging through his walk-in closet. I heard one boot, then the other drop heavily onto the floor as he pulled them off.

"What is the temperature? "

"Still cold, but you should be fine with your coat." I fell back on the down comforter and turned my head to watch him undress.

He took off his vest, blouse, and undershirt and threw them into the hamper, rendering himself blessedly shirtless. Without the optical illusion afforded by thick epaulets and a flattering cut of cloth, there really wasn't much to Treize. Taller and more conspicuously built, I outweighed him by at least seven or eight kilos, but he was lithe and quick, with the lean, rippling musculature of a puma. It seemed to me that he'd always been that way, though I'm sure he couldn't have been. When he stripped down to his designer briefs, I ogled his tight ass.

I hoped he would forgo the change in wardrobe and come back into the bedroom to screw me, a wish that I was on the verge of stating loudly. I don't know why I so often wanted him that way. The few brief, unintentional times I'd been physically attracted to another, I never imagined myself in the role I took with Treize. There was something deeply satisfying about being like that with him, but it wasn't something I could explain, nor something I felt I needed to explain. How is it possible to analyze something as irrational as sexual desire? What's the point?

Lying there, I remembered the first night we were together - properly, not in some cramped train compartment. I'm not sure why I was thinking about it then, because it wasn't my most successful sexual experience. I remember the wanting, more overwhelming than I'd ever felt. Nervous anticipation, my hands shaking when he told me I could do whatever I wanted to him, that it was my choice - ah, to say that to a sixteen-year- old who'd never been with anybody before... to be the sixteen-year- old who heard it, that unconditional permission to enact over a year of tormented fantasies... to touch anywhere I wanted, to kiss anywhere I wanted, to be kissed, touched, held, stroked... and he showed me what to do even though I knew from secretly reading about it, and then I pushed into him because it was mildly less intimidating than having him do it to me... and my mind was utterly blown by the feeling of it, the intensity, his heat, his smoldering sexiness... and he kissed me, still unsatisfied, after I lost it in an embarrassingly short amount of time, reassuring me that that's how it always is in the beginning... and then I sucked him off as an apology, which was the first time I heard him moan, and it was, my god, the most amazing sound I'd ever heard because I was the one who'd made him do it... and I would hear it again when he took me, some time near the end when his eyes closed and he seemed to realize the same thing I did, that we were finally an equation of perfect balance... a perfection I would come to crave every day, over and over... What insanity...

My face grew warm with such thoughts and I bit my bottom lip when he turned and showed me an even better side of him. I slid my hand over my lap and felt myself, just a little, just to feel something, if not him. I was already starting to notice the alcohol as my empty stomach let it pass freely into my system. It made me feel high, looser, braver. I saw that the Mother of God was still hanging from his neck after all those years, except that in more recent days she shared his chest with a pair of dog tags. I would have thought it a sacrilegiously humorous juxtaposition if I'd been capable of thinking about anything but sex at that moment.

When he grabbed a pair of slacks from a hangar and slid them on, I felt immediate aggravation, and when he put on a dark green button-down shirt that brought out the red in his hair, I was certain that he wasn't going to give me anything that night except casual company.

"So... that's it?"

He stepped out of the closet, tucking in his shirt and zipping up his pants as he walked. "What do you mean, 'that's it'?" He stopped by the side of the bed and looked down at me, and his expression froze when he swiftly grasped the meaning of my comment.

"Jesus, Milliardo... "

Being the pervert I was, looking in all the places I shouldn't have been, I perceived his reaction quite clearly. I doubt there was much he could have done for it. After all, it was no accident that I was lying prostrate on the bed, flush-faced and so obviously, shamelessly wanting, my hair splayed out against the dark hue of his comforter... There was a strong part of me that wanted to punish him for the position he was in, which had given rise to the recent lack intimacy - physical and emotional - in our relationship. It was cruel, childish, and misdirected, but I so badly wanted him to share my displeasure.

It was cruel because I knew that his new title had him strung and paranoid, vulnerable to gossip and dangerous suppositions. He was worried about one of his staff walking in on us, which they seemed to do to him on a fairly regular basis, judging by our long distance vid-phone conversations. In those days he hadn't mastered his authority in the day-to-day workings of his life, as he'd grown accustomed over the years to having little to no privacy, the military default. He hadn't yet accepted the heady truth that he had a full staff whose sole purpose was to ensure his comfort and command readiness, meaning that he could rightly tell them to piss off whenever the fancy struck. I suppose he was still adjusting to being one of the most powerful men in the world.

It was a precarious and stressful time for him, for he had much to prove to the Alliance and Romefeller. For them, he had to be better than perfect. Better than the best. He had to be superhuman, and superhumans don't keep their male friends as lovers. They don't have lovers. They don't slip. They don't falter. And they certainly don't get pushed around by small women at funerals.

He sighed quietly and sat down on the opposite side of the bed, facing away from me. "De Luca's mother was right, you know."

I frowned, sat up on my elbows, and pushed aside my dirty thoughts and discomfort. It was surprisingly easy to do. "She was out of her mind with grief."

"She was upset, but she was not wrong." His gaze was far away, somewhere between the nightstand and the moon.

"Death is not beautiful," he continued, his voice barely audible. "It's miserable, and it rips your heart out."

I sat upright and folded my leg on the bed. I felt a sudden compulsion to reach out for him, but I didn't. It didn't feel right. Nothing about that day felt right. "If De Luca had been hit by a car, that woman would have been wailing on the side of the road, damning every vehicle that passed. She's an Italian mother. From the horror stories I've heard from Noin, what she did to you was nothing."

"I should have left him with Galanos."

"Don't." I shook my head, my bangs brushing back and forth across my face. "You can't think like that. He wanted to be in our unit. He was happy."

"That would have been you."

"Stop."

"Major Chernov took your place when your name came up on the CQ roster, isn't that right?"

"Treize, stop."

He turned his head even further away, facing the wall now, seeming either shocked or embarrassed by the words coming out of his own mouth even as they continued to flow unchecked. "I could not bear to see your name -"

"Stop it!"

He stopped. I don't know what I would have done if he hadn't. Nothing he was saying made any sense in the context of the friend I thought I knew, the one who would never stoop to doubt himself openly or plainly state his fear for my safety, his fondness of me, his love... I scrambled to bring the conversation back to something more familiar, light banter, a confrontation, maybe even an argument. We excelled at all equally.

"I'm not going to let some ham-fisted Alliance idiot get me killed, but if you don't do something about them soon, today won't be the last funeral like this."

"I know that." His voice sounded subdued, its usual self-assured clearness dampened, like we were talking through a layer of glass

"I need command authority. All of us do. And yes, it could have been me on that mission. But I also could have been leading them and I would have done it right."

"I know."

"So fix it."

"Giving me orders now?" It was a disinterested observation, a bland acknowledgement my tiresome insubordination.

"You shouldn't have to be ordered to do what you promised."

"It is not that simple."

It seemed simple enough to me. For years I thought Treize's single ambition was to overthrow the Alliance, if only for the sake of ridding the world of ill-trained, morally-misguided thugs who routinely preemptively invaded autonomous countries as a sort of sport. I watched him deftly scale the chain of command, every promotion bringing him closer to that key position where, with the right planning, OZ would emerge from the shadows topple the Federation handily. Our units were in place. We had the best suits, the best intelligence, the best soldiers, the tightest, most loyal network. I expected him to have done something already, and yet, everything I waged my vengeful hopes on had seemed to fall out of Treize's favor, overtaken in priority by his redoubled efforts to negotiate the towering echelons of the Romefeller hierarchy. I didn't see the connection. I didn't understand why his momentum had slowed to what appeared to be nothing. His impassioned talk of revolution had ceased, transmuted into pokerfaced politicking with dukes and viscounts.

"I'm sick of watching soldiers die because of them, Treize. Sick."

"And you think I am not?"

"That was the seventh funeral I've been to this year. What one was it for you?"

"I was not aware that it was a competition. "

"Well, maybe we should start one, because you need to get your head out of your paperwork once and a while to see what your leisurely diplomatic fondlings are costing your soldiers."

He snorted. "Simply because you have never been diplomatic in your life doesn't mean that it is not a necessary skill."

"I'm not denying its necessity! I'm saying that you've grown rather fond of it, wouldn't you say? Since when are you a career politician? That uniform you wore today belongs to a soldier. That's your job, your first and last responsibility. You're wasting time and energy screwing around, glad-handing with Romefeller instead of putting the Alliance where it belongs. And I know you have 'plans,' wonderful plans, sweeping, magnificent plans - "

He snapped his head around and glared at me, each word carefully measured and cut with biting condescension. "You don't even understand what you're talking about."

"The hell I don't! I understand enough. I understand that your soldiers - your own soldiers in the organization you built - are dying for nothing while you sit here in Bremen, wining and dining and scheming about whatever it is that's suddenly so very bloody important. And you know what? Congratulations! You're right, as usual. I don't know what you're planning, because you never tell me a goddamn thing anymore!"

I laughed dryly and continued. "But then, why should you? Who the hell am I? Just another one of thousands, I suppose, flung halfway across the continent in a sector that went nearly six months without a single whisper of action until three days ago – oh, but now you're making me the senior officer there! What a generous consolation! I guess I should be thanking you, just like Symanski's parents did. But you know I won't."

I was spinning, my mouth spouting jumbled, enraged confusion faster than my brain could organize and censor it, burning through a backlog of longing and frustration that had been accumulating for the better part of ten months. "And why should I? Because you're afraid of having me here? Afraid of what they'll say? Afraid I'll cramp your Romefeller social schedule? I won't. Throw your soul under Duke Dermail's boots, if you think it will make your dreams come true, I won't say another word about it. But since you refuse to tell me what's going on, at least let me be here with you while you drive yourself into the ground!"

He didn't say anything. Only stared. Injured. I'd crossed the line, though I'm not sure exactly where – I'd said so many offensive things that it was impossible to determine what part had hurt him the most. I felt hot, and everything but the space between us seemed unbearably close and small. That fucking awful chandelier hanging in the center of the room was like a blazing sun throwing harsh, glaring light on my insensitivity and deplorable lack of self-control.

I looked down at the tight fistful of comforter in my right hand. "What are you doing here, Treize?" I was talking to myself, wondering aloud, too ashamed to ask him directly. "I don't understand."

He turned away again and there was a painfully long span of nothing. And then, so quietly:

"I am doing the best I can. I cannot do any more than that."

Of the very few absolute truths in the universe, one is that Treize always did the best he could. He was that way since the moment I met him, and he would continue to be that way until he stumbled over the finish line with watery eyes, only then succumbing, collapsing under the weight of overwhelming agony and hope, remorse and triumph, fire and debris...

"I am promoting you because I am creating a position for you as my Second in Command here in Bremen, not so that you can take over for Major Chernov." His tone was curt, factual, unaffected, which I'm sure he realized was painful for me to hear. "Major Oswald is being transferred from Cairo to fill her position. You will proceed to Berlin for the Advanced Officer Training course starting on 28 January. Your signed orders are on my desk."

Without another word, I crawled across the bed and knelt behind him, knees astride his hips, my chest flush against his back. I wrapped my arms around him and rested my chin on his shoulder. At that moment, I didn't care about propriety or restraint or Lieutenant Nassef or Lady Une or that woman in the pant suit. I dared all of them and the whole world to walk through the door and witness what we really were: a train wreck. Not even the great love between us was enough to change hard truth of it.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. "I'm sorry..." My senses picked up faint notes of the shaving cream he had used earlier that day. It was nothing more than a popular over-the-counter formula, but on his skin, the smell made me want to push him down on the bed and press so hard against him that it hurt.

He reached up and grasped loosely onto my forearms, and when he spoke, his words seemed as much an assurance to himself as to me. "And I have not forgotten my soldiers. Never for a moment. I want you to understand that. I want you to understand that... there's a reason for all of this. All of it. Everything I do, every single day."

"I know. I know, Treize."

"I want your trust."

"I know you do."

"Do I have it?"

"Yes."

"Because if you don't trust me, I cannot be certain of anything I do."

To this day, nobody has ever paid me a higher compliment, and there was never one I was so utterly undeserving of. I tilted my head and pressed my lips to the downturned corner of his mouth. Silence filled the room as I held him, my breathing falling into a slow, steady rhythm with his.

"I believe we missed our reservation, " he noted offhandedly after a few minutes had passed.

"I'm not hungry anyway."

"I have to get out of this building." He tilted his head upwards towards the light fixture, wincing at the brightness. "Who puts a chandelier in a bedroom?"

I smiled against his cheek. "Let's just walk, then. Around the city. If your PA will give you permission."

"I have asked to be undisturbed this evening. Unless the base is burning down, Nassef is handling my calls and mail."

"Let me stay with you."

"No." He shook his head halfheartedly. "No."

"You just said you won't be disturbed. Throw me down in one of your guest rooms."

His left eyebrow arched. "You want me to throw you down in the guest room?"

"Among many other things... " I breathed in his ear, sliding my fingers down the muscular contours of his chest and abdomen. It had been so long since I'd touched him, and that small single gesture was enough to reignite every ounce of desire for him that I'd first walked into the room with. I rocked my hips forward to make sure he could feel it.

"Ah. Hm... " He ran his hands down my thighs and pressed back against me. "Only if you make that frittata in the morning. With the tomatoes."

I knew this was a false condition. I knew that he would be awake and in uniform before dawn, the first one in the office to arrive and the last one to leave. Frittata was a fantasy, a flight of domestic whimsy, a preview of what I thought would one day come to pass, our life together as normal people who ate frittata for breakfast and talked over morning coffee. No uniforms. No formations. No fighting and death. Just us.

"Do you have eggs?"

He considered the question for a moment. "No. I don't think I have tomatoes, either."

"Then surely you see the problem with this arrangement. " I began unbuttoning his shirt, and he caught my hands in his.

"I am glad you're here."

I was unspeakably relieved when I heard those words and saw the sincerity of the smile that accompanied them. He disentangled himself and stood, pulling me up with him, pulling me to him, his arms encircling my waist. In his eyes roiled an intense and improbable combination of tenderness, fire, longing, and dejection, layers of emotion that struck a certain way in a certain light, flashing, flickering, surfacing and receding. Nothing was simple with Treize. Ever. It was a lesson I relearned over and over, and somehow I was always surprised by just how complex he remained no matter how familiar we became.

"Milliardo... "

"Hm?"

He hesitated before gathering me as close as he could. My arms tightened around him and I closed my eyes when his lips brushed mine, so lightly, just barely touching. I smelled the sweet mint from his toothpaste and, faintly behind that, alcohol. "... Nothing."

He kissed me before I could question him, effectively driving away any objections that might have been stirring in my head. We stayed like that, kissing, embracing, until we forgot about the chandelier and our walk and the Alliance and Lieutenant De Luca's tiny mother.

xxx

I know there was a reason, Treize. You had to do something about the world. All of us... we all had to do something. I now realize that we took the simpler road, one traveled with comrades and bolstered by the might of expensive, intimidating weaponry and powerful politics. But there was a weakness inherent in adopting the life of a soldier, a fear of being alone, a fear of living without explicit guidance, a fear of not being remembered. Soldiers who try to go it alone are the ones who end up as dead men or deserters. Case in point, us. You wanted to be more than a soldier, and you paid for it. I wanted to be more, and everybody else paid for it.

I'm not sure that you could have been anything but what you became, as fatalistic as that sounds. Your father wrote your biography before you were even old enough to add and subtract, even if most of it was done unconsciously. Didn't you tell me that he taught you the proper way to salute when you were only five, smiling when you got it right, his top left incisor slightly crooked the way yours once was? How do you fight something like that? And after I arrived, it only got worse, didn't it? You were an obsessive boy, your face so serious in the light of that monitor in your room. What kind of child watches things like that? Horrible, violent things, the stuff of nightmares, the stuff of Sanc's downfall. You thought nobody saw you like that, but I did.

Sometimes I wish I'd never come to live with you.

In the end, we all did the best we could, didn't we? Didn't we try our hardest? Didn't we give until we were spent, only to wrench out one last shot, one last step, one last breath? And yet, somehow, we simply weren't strong enough. Was it the flaw inherent in the methodology? Did we ever stand a chance to really change the world?

I pulled down the swivel head of the stand magnifier and carefully manipulated a pair of rubber-coated tweezers around the intricate maze of the receiver's innards. It was meticulous work, attention-consuming , and wholly enjoyable. I had never embarked upon a project of quite that nature before, but Vadimas' plans were so painstakingly and precisely drawn out that the engineers in both of us conversed with ease.

I could no longer hear the ticks and thumps of various natural and manmade objects as the wind tossed them against the cellar door. Cellar door. I recalled reading that "cellar door" is one of the most phonetically pleasing compounds in the English language. I spoke the words aloud three times, rolling each syllable around in my mouth, listening to the sound of my voice as it was absorbed by the thickness of the concrete walls. Like my father's, my voice is deep and clear. Cutting. Even when innocently testing the theory of some prominent linguist of days past, it sounded like a command. How, I wondered, could anybody listen to me for any extended period of time without pulling their hair out? Treize told me that my voice was "exceedingly pleasant." Then again, he was something of an odd man with a clear bias in my favor.

There was a sudden knocking, then the familiar groaning resistance of the hinges as Vadimas threw open the door. He mumbled something in a language unfamiliar to me - something Baltic, perhaps - and then chuckled as he cautiously descended the narrow, creaking stairs.

"Ha! Looks like you've been busy," he said, greeting me with a firm pat on the shoulder.

The man was a toucher. My parents had been physically affectionate with me, but they had also made it a point that nobody else except family and close staff should touch me without explicit permission. Treize had been a toucher, too, perhaps in spite of his rigid upbringing. It would be romantic for me to say that I was immediately comfortable with my childhood friend's gestures, but that would be a lie. It took time for me to become accustomed to the brotherly touch of his hand or the occasional arm around the shoulder. Eventually I came to tolerate it, then accept it, then appreciate it, and, ultimately, crave it in a desperate, uncontrollable way.

"I'm nearly finished, but I need to order another capacitor. I..." I grasped for an appropriate French colloquialism and failed, settling for an English phrase that didn't translate as well as I would have liked. "I killed this one." I dropped the part into his waiting palm and smirked at the stunned expression on his face.

"Now, how the hell did you do that?" he asked, his bushy eyebrows rising and falling as he closely inspected the lightly scorched terminals.

"You seem shocked. Maybe impressed?"

He tossed the capacitor in the trash can on the other side of the room with a skillfulness unbefitting his age. "Something like that, young man!"

His gaze passed slowly between the 3-D CAD model and what I'd completed of the scanner. As I observed, I could see the scientist in him, a shadow of the younger man he was when he poured his talents onto the design I was realizing. Aside from the arthritis, he was a hardy old man, well-groomed, optimistic, and, unlike his carefree, ribald personality suggested, sharp as a tack.

"May I ask why you decided to work for OZ?" It had taken months, but I was finally comfortable enough to venture the question.

"For the same reason we all went to work for OZ: to become better and to do good."

Become Better and Do Good. It could have been the organization' s motto, something that's conveniently both self-serving and magnanimous. It was the golden duality that soothed our badgering consciences in times of doubt, and with creative application, it could justify practically anything.

"But it wasn't that simple, was it?" I thought about what Treize said in Bremen. Nothing was simple about what we were doing back then.

Vadimas rested his hip against the bench. One of his rough, world-weathered hands picked at a hangnail on the other. How long had it been since those hands had flexed without pain?

"Men like us, sometimes we can't see past here." He held his palm about ten centimeters from his nose. "We want to be the best and we want to do what interests us. The science and theory drive us, the thrill of creation moves our hearts, and sometimes," he paused and looked me straight in the eye, "the consequences allude us."

Tallgeese. Gundam 01. A host of first generation test suits. In my mind, there had been a fundamental disconnect between what I did on the proving grounds and the intended effects of these technologies. In every suit I only saw the benefits afforded to the pilot. Greater mobility. Faster reaction time. Increased thrust capacity. It was a game, a mental and physical challenge. A way to get approval from Treize. I doubt I thought more than a handful of times about what I was actually accomplishing: the progressive perfection of the killing machine.

"But we have to forgive ourselves. Or, at the very least, try to make up for what we've done. I live as well as I can. I farm clean, I sell my produce at a fair price, I don't eat animals. Nothing will ever make up for what I was a part of, but the day we stop trying is the day we have resigned ourselves to hell."

My first thought, predictably self-defeating, was that I'd failed beyond redemption. I'd already done what I thought was best and, ironically, my best was also my worst. Earth and space deserved better than my efforts, which, contrary to my intent, always brought great harm upon those I cared about. It was comedic in a bleak, dissatisfying sort of way.

"I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, 'You're a crazy old man! How could I ever make up for it all?' Well, start small and work from there."

Start small. I supposed that I'd already done that. I'd managed to wake up that morning. I'd patched myself together in to a semblance of the person I once was, like it or lump it. I fought the malevolent demon named Grief on a daily basis, resisting her siren song that beckoned me towards the treacherous, rocky shores of a fantasy world where my life was anything but what it actually was. That was something of a start, at least.

"You're a kind person, and I know that you didn't do what you did for yourself."

Oh, yes. How kind of me to lead the White Fang and demand the annihilation of the planet. How generous of me to lapse into a drug-induced stupor for three months and negligently avoid paying my rent. How noble of me to invade my landlord's house and raid his medicine cabinet for prescription painkillers.

"That's not true. I did it only for myself." Which wasn't quite true, either. I lowered my head and busied myself with stripping the end of a wire, my bangs to shielding me from the misplaced sympathy he was offering. "And how could you possibly think that? I've done nothing but use you since I arrived."

"Phooey! So you're selfish. Don't like it? Change it. Finish that damn scanner and listen to the world around you. There's a place for you. There's a place for all of us, but you have to want one."

That was the clincher. I had to want it, and wanting it meant that I had to convince myself that I deserved it. For an intrinsically self-loathing individual, this was a herculean task.

"And I hate to tell you, kiddo, but you're no farmer."

I looked up at him and couldn't help but smile at the frankness of his critique. "Have I been doing that badly?"

"With all the daydreaming you do out there, you'd probably go broke and starve to death."

"Oh."

The old man laughed at me, and it felt good.

[part 6] [part 8] [back to Singles a-k]