The sun had begun to sink below the horizon, and the forest was riddled with shadows. This was no place for a half-blind man to play at target practice.

Neil adjusted the sights on his M24.

His position was good. Here, at the top of a small cliff, he could see for nearly two kilometers. Enough time had passed that he no longer felt the gravel dig into his elbows, and he did not long to stand and stretch his legs. Neil was maybe, probably, certainly going to score a bulls-eye this time, poor depth perception be damned, unless-

"Lockon Stratos."

Unless he was interrupted right when he was about to pull the trigger, his hand shook, and the weather-vane atop Wang Liu Mei's boathouse slipped neatly out of his crosshairs.

"Oh, for Ch-" No, no, no. Dial it back, shut it down. Be a nice guy.

Neil pasted on a grin. It was a little uneven, and brittle around the edges, but with this lot he'd never had to work too hard to hide the cracks in his armor. Most of them were barely out of primary school when it came to social skills.

"Hey, Tieria. Out for a walk?"

Tieria crossed his arms. It was hard to see his expression, looming in the half-light, but Neil figured he was making his I'm-not-impressed face. A few months ago Neil might have found that amusing. "Hiding out here with your guns all day is not productive. Stop avoiding me."

Neil's smile didn't falter. If anything, he made a point of amping it up. His posture was open and genial. His teeth were white and sharp.

"I'm not avoiding you."

"I had the authority to lock you in your quarters. I was following protocol. You're not going to be combat-ready until your regeneration treatments are complete," Tieria said, ignoring Neil's blatant lie. "And even if it was selfish of me, I won't apologize for saving your life."

iThen maybe you should apologize for getting Setsuna and Allelujah killed, or arrested, or disappeared, or whatever the fuck happened to them, because I wasn't there to put things right./i Neil was tempted to say. iMaybe you should beg forgiveness for stealing my fucking SHOT, you plastic, prettyboy son-of-a-bitch. None of us would be here if you'd let me do my job./i

It had been four months since the disastrous battle against Alvatore, where poor little Feldt Grace had gone charging off in the GN Arms while Lasse Aeon took over the Dynames. Eighteen weeks of rage and frustration coiling in Neil's gut, the cords lashing tighter with every missed shot and every mindless hour beneath the regeneration scanners.

The once-and-future sniper hauled himself up, so that he was sitting cross-legged.


Tieria tossed him a shiny, heavy something. It took Neil a moment to realize that he'd just been given a six-pack of Guinness with a green bow on it. The metal cans were slightly cold.

It was so bizarre -- Tieria, buying him beer -- that Neil momentarily forgot he was supposed to be pissed off.

Oh, god. This was his life now. Tieria was full of rebuilding plans, and playing (in his own awkward way) at being everyone's big brother. Meanwhile he, Neil, was complaining about professionalism and stalking off to be alone with his weapons at all hours. Christ.

"You bought me an... Irish stereotype?"

He couldn't help the incredulous grimace. That happened all on its own.

"Yes." Tieria sounded inordinately proud of his peace offering. "I did demographic research. This is the most appropriate ritual gift for a male of your age, health, relationship status, and ethnic background."

Neil shook his head. "You're really something else."

Tieria took off his jacket, laid it down on the ground beside Neil, and then sat down so that his legs were dangling off the side of the cliff. It made sense that he was concerned about his trousers. That shade of lilac had to be mail-order only.

"If you think I'm leaving you by yourself with several units of alcohol and a loaded military-grade firearm, then you are sorely mistaken."

"Okay." Neil passed Tieria a can, which was to say that he passed Tieria a challenge. Tieria smiled that funny little smile of his, and held the beer close to his chest, like had had no intention of opening the thing but he was prepared to humor Neil for as long as necessary. These days it felt as though Tieria was constantly in the periphery of Neil's vision; fussing and hovering as much as he could, without actually getting in Neil's way. It had been driving Neil up the wall. He'd assumed it was Tieria's means of coping with the loss of their comrades.

Except now, in the fading sunlight, Tieria was lit up like Christmas morning, all aglow with expectations.

Oh, fucking hell. Neil realized. Fuck me. I am an idiot.

It wasn't fair. He was still mad, wasn't he? What was he meant to think? He wasn't supposed to have to deal with someone being... this. Neil'd never planned on living to see twenty-five.

"What are you staring at?"

"Nothing," Neil fibbed.

Tieria leaned in, slightly, so that their shoulders brushed together.

"Happy birthday, Lockon Stratos."

Neil popped the tab on his Guinness, and did not shift away.