It wasn't difficult to evade his questions about my unusual appearance. Thankfully Gerald remained elusive and I had always tried to be a smart dresser or else my deception would have otherwise been uncovered. So it wasn't out of the ordinary for me to beautify myself just for the sake of a quiet stroll or a lovely meal. The latter was of course true, but my meals in those days typically revolved around Gerald, Hanz or both.

I tried not to think of what the future would bring as I curled my hair into tight locks and dressed in ways that my mother would never in a million years approve of. Every fiber of my body ached as I went through the ritual of making myself the image of a woman. I knew it was immoral and emotionally negligent of me. But I couldn't stop. Something compelled me to visit the strangely disarming but otherwise ordinary man and join him in dinner and dancing.

I left with some hollow excuses of a student function and meeting with a friend, a quiet I love you and a promise of return before the evening was over. If Hanz suspected my plans were not pure he hid it well. He stretched, offered an earnest smile and looked at me with his big brown doe eyes.

It tore my heart from my chest when he said I looked beautiful and that he loved me. I knew he meant it and I hated myself for an elaborate illusion that I began imagining wherein he was not sincere.

Despite my careful attention to detail I remained early to my dinner date. I milled around, amusing myself by people watching. The bistro was thankfully not my own previous employer, but a rival across town. I was careful not to drink too much, wanting to retain control over myself in the event that serious issues made themselves known.

Throughout my entire wait I watched the crowd and listened for familiar voices. Not just those of my boys, but those of my friends from a former life, or peers that were mutual friends with Gerald or Hanz. I didn't recognize anyone.

It was hard to recognize him at first, Aeolus. He materialized from the crowd populating the cracked flagstones around the hopping outside dining area. He wore a slick suit and had since shaved his stubble and styled his hair. I must admit he cleaned up nicely and barely resembled the rough and tumble man at arms that I barely knew. We exchanged greetings, he kissed my hand like a gentleman and we were seated. I lied and said my strapless dress gave me a chill in the cool spring air, hoping for an inside seat. A nice big booth were I could hide. We received it after he tipped the maƮtre d.

I watched him with a careful eye as we made small talk and as he ordered our refreshments. Surprisingly an intellectual shone through on brief occasions, but he quickly buried the persona with faux masculinity and back peddling.

He reeled me in and I became intrigued in the man. He was altogether different out of the tin can which the empire forced him to wear, even though he tried to create the illusion he was not. I quickly came to the impression he was much smarter than he was leading on.

"So, tell me about your family." I offered after we had both loosened up on wine. He eyes faltered ever so slightly.

"I lived in Empire City, before the accident. The service had me across the world when it happened." He said, referring to the nuclear firestorm that wiped the capital from the face of the earth.

I apologized, but he continued like I hadn't.

"My mother and father were probably there when it happened. Dad was a big wig in steel. He owned a slew of mills in there. They rarely left. The engineers that I've talked with said if they were home they would have never felt a thing," he shrugged and sipped his wine.

"Just a flash and.. woosh. But that was awhile ago. My sister and best friend made it out somehow, though. My C.O. lets them tag along with our unit, so long as they pull their weight. Ilythia, that's my sis, she works in the mess hall. Wind patches up whoever scrapes their knee or falls down a flight of stairs."

"Where are they now?" I asked, trying to play on the positive rather than the holocaust that crippled much of the empire.

"They're at the base." He smiled, swirling the wine in his goblet. "They're excited for me tonight."

A crass comment materialized in my mind, something that otherwise would not have been there. But I dismissed it. Instead I blurted it out.

"I'd like to meet them."

I said it without calculation or forethought, but I didn't regret it. The man before me was interesting now, he seemed like a character in a book. He was insightful and intelligent, but desperately pretended like he wasn't half of what I suspected he really was. His past was tortured, but just enough to make him interesting.

He blushed, but our food came before he could say anything.

We ate largely in silence, only complimenting the quality of the service or food. But our eyes met far too often over the flicking candle light of the bistro. I grew uncomfortable, but strangely excited. The man seemed to embody most of the qualities present in my boys, but he didn't carry the social and mental baggage of a polygamous relationship. It didn't take much to imagine him in my bed. I felt guilty, but that only seemed to make me more interested.

Over dessert and coffee a chattiness returned to us.

"Wind, your friend from Empire City. He's what, a nurse?"

"More or less. He's apprenticed with the regiment's doctors and councilors. He's a pretty good psych too. He's already picked me apart and stored little bits of my brain on a shelf, I'm sorry to say. With little labels and everything. "Aeolus' Childhood," "Aeolus' Fear of Clowns: Explained," and so on. He's a really smart guy, you'd like him."

His eyes narrowed and smiled. I lost myself in those emerald green beauties for a split second.

"But don't talk about me. I wouldn't want him to scare you off with embarrassing stories."

I laughed and finished off my cheesecake's crust.

"Oh my, now I definitely want to meet them."

I seriously offered to split the bill, but he wouldn't hear of it. He paid it in full and tipped generously and we left the bistro with my inner waitress impressed. The walk through town to the night club he had picked out was lovely. The streets were largely empty, save for the occasional couple or group of friends.

On impulse just as the night club came into sight and its band just barely became audible I kissed him. It was soft and fleeting, but on the lips with a flick of sensuality. But there wasn't too much involvement. I smiled at him, took his hand and lead the way to the club. I didn't regret it, but it wasn't who I was. I didn't operate on impulse. I thought about every action and every word that came out of my mouth, a legacy of my childhood.

We danced to modern music. He tried his best to keep up with me, but he had never seemed to be a social creature and I accepted that. We drank in moderation, but before we were done I was warm and jolly. Outside the club in the alley it shared with an old style pub he tried to initiate a kiss, but I coolly deflected him. Through my mild intoxication I knew what would happen if it went to pass. I imagined it more vividly than I thought possible, the eager groping and the clumsy copulation. But it made me feel guilty and wrong.

He seemed confused, but I offered a peck on his cheek and a sincere squeeze of his hand.

"It's late," I shouted over the band as they were just beginning to reach the peak of a popular new piece. "I should get home and catch some sleep."

He walked me to the campus from town. The air cleared my mind, but we didn't talk much. Once we were in sight of the lights of the student dormitories I declined an escort to my building. Mostly from fear of discovery, but also to avoid another clumsy attempt at a nightcap.

So we departed. He went back to his world and I went back to mine. We didn't make any further plans, but we both knew that night was only the start of it. We were both quite confident that there would be more chances and more nights out.


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