The closer I got to the university the better I felt. The sun was slipping below the horizon when I entered the bronzed gates, painting everything in beautiful colors. I smiled when I saw people I knew from class or elsewhere. Some returned my gesture with their own and some looked at me oddly, as if I was behaving abnormally.

Of course I was, but this sort of abnormality was of the variety that I could deal with. It made me feel whole. It made me feel like a real person, made of flesh and bone instead of mad thoughts and jitters.

I spent a good part of the evening strolling around the gardens. The crowds and cliques eventually thinned out into couples hand in hand returning from town, freshmen rough housing or lone students returning from late classes.

Eventually I found myself at home. The following day was a holiday, so I laid out some of my best clothes and spent some time grooming myself. It took quite an effort as apparently my habits had suffered somewhat during my obsession.

I was proud that I only spared brief glances at the spot where my book bag was hidden beneath my bed. It felt like less of an obsession and more like a sense of curiosity. I had forgotten already how much control it had over me during the previous weeks.

I allowed myself to sleep. I dreamt of home, good food and wine.

I awoke to the afternoon and my upstairs neighbor exercising vigorously. Light was spilling into my tiny corner dorm and I had to force my eyes to focus.

After eating a sparse breakfast I dressed and left the rest of the mess behind.

I took my time getting to town. The lone cobblestone road that connected the university to the ancient hamlet was a relatively long and winding one, but a lovely walk in spring. I stopped several times to admire the mountains to the east when they poked out from the forest.

Sometime after my arrival I located Gerald and the rest of the gang milling around in town center, a lovely grassy park with fountains and manicured hedges. They were behaving beautifully, lounging in the sun and playing games. After swallowing a brief sense of nervousness I joined them.

Gerald embraced me like a brother and my uneasy feelings dissolved. I grinned and immediately became a member of the group. It felt good to be part of a crowd, instead of a lone observer or alien intruder.

The remainder of the afternoon was spent window shopping, enjoying local cuisine and playing games. It felt good to have a full stomach and feel my muscles stretch for a Frisbee or ball.

Eventually the gang dispersed. Some couples fanned off to walk alone in the historic alleyways and several small groups departed for an early supper or an evening of study.

It took some gentle maneuvering but I managed to manipulate the situation and get Gerald all to myself. I was amazed by my own courage, but I was high on my new found sense of self. He didn't seem terribly bothered by the situation either.

We were enjoying a game of cards as the sun spilled its guts on the horizon.

"You look like you're feeling better."

He said, arranging his cards for a third time. I could tell he was hoping for a winning hand so he could save face.

That wasn't going to happen, but I pretended to look a little worried at my own hand to ease his ego.

He probably didn't have the attention span to notice. But it made me feel better for him.

"Yeah. Today was a pretty big help. It took my mind off of somethings that have been bothering me."

Gerald raised a brow, inspecting me with a level of sophistication that I thought was beyond him.

"Oh? I thought you were 'sick'?"

"I was."

I reinforced my original lie rather pathetically. I couldn't even think of some sort of justification to link the two. Even he saw right through it. I put down several cards and drew from the deck.

"You didn't make eye contact with me when you first said you were sick, by the way. You just did it again."

"I hadn't noticed."

I shuffled my cards, trying to look unconcerned.

"You like to make eye contact. It makes it pretty easy to spot when you're uncomfortable or lying."

I forced myself to look at him in the eyes. It took all the strength I could muster.

"Now you're just trying to hard, Hanz."

He laughed, drew from the deck and allowed me to look away. I didn't feel hurt or cornered, just a little embarrassed. I had worked so hard to bring myself to this point, harder than he likely thought possible, and I was making a total fool of myself.

I considered telling him the truth. Not just about the enigmatic "A" or my recent obsession with old field journals, but about everything. But even in the progressive, liberal atmosphere of the university people like me were still shunned. I couldn't bear to be made a pariah after I had gained some sense of community.

"I've just had a really hard time focusing lately. In class and out. It's like my brain is full."

I met him half way with a half truth.

"Oh. Yep, I know what you mean there. Sometimes I think my head is going to explode. I never thought you'd feel the same way. You always seemed like an automaton."

He put down several miserable cards and drew from the deck. The conversation was distracting him from the game. I put down the worst cards I had to prolong our talk. I could defeat him at any time, but I preferred the intellectual sparring while we conversed. It made me feel like I had some control over the situation.

"You wouldn't believe, Gerald. You wouldn't believe. Sometimes when I'm studying I just get sucked in. I can't stop, even though my head hurts and my eyes hurt and my fingers hurt. It just gets twisted around and around.."

I flushed, "A" invading my thoughts. I imagined her writing a quip in the margin of my life, about how pedantic I was behaving.

I distracted myself by the sunlight reflecting off of his face. "A" and her arrogant, mean spirited remarks blew away.

"I know you're probably still feeling kind of shitty, but would you mind looking over my notes?"

He asked, nervously adjusting his cards.

"It's just.... sometimes they talk too fast or go beyond assignment. I know you have a lot of stuff going on, but I'd appreciate you filling in some blank spots."

He continued, omitting the fact that he was being tutored in just about every subject we shared this semester. He tried so hard at school, to be as smart as his father was, to avoid the front lines and the meat grinder that was the emperor's legion.

"Sure, Gerald. Sure."

I wanted to test my luck, but I knew that it was better if I quit while I was ahead. After I sabotaged myself deliberately in our game and hid my winning hand into the deck I made a lame excuse to return home.

He awkwardly mentioned he should pick up something to eat before leaving, conveniently avoiding a situation wherein we'd be walking together. I didn't protest. I knew he was embarrassed about admitting his inadequacies. So was I, but by my own unusual burdens.


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