Limbo 12/12: Eternal
This isn't a new chapter. I've simply split the first version of chapter 11 into two more digestible parts. Sorry to any who've received alerts in their boxes!
See notes and warnings from Limbo 11. This is a direct continuation of the last chapter, and it begins in the past. (But you're smart people and probably could have figured that out for yourselves!)
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?"
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."
"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.
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?"
"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."
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."
"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?"
"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?
"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…"
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.
"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.
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.
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…
"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."
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.
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 uncharacteristically 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."
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.