Most of that week passed in a blur and it wasn't difficult to lose myself in the events that I had set in motion. Most of my time was spent studying what source material on The Progenitors and their queer technologies that remained free of her creeping influence. I caught vague whispers of their terrible wars with ethereal beings and their strange megaliths that populated the wastelands to the south. But nothing concrete really materialized to explain Altima's connection to the material from which she either lived in or had sprung from.

Several times I tried to speak with Hanz about his impending enrollment, the books which I pretended to lose myself in every night or how his reality was slowly changing. Once I almost spilled everything as I was overcome with a tremendous urge to confess to my relationship with the soldier and how yes, I was fully aware of the terrible beast that lurked behind his eyes and I intended to destroy it. This was of course quite the bold statement because I'd by proxy be informing her of what I intended to do. I envisioned a romantic image of myself saving the day.

But of course I lost the nerve and felt like a failure.

My grades of course suffered considerably. I failed several tests much to the dismay of my professors. Their concerns were only a distraction to me however, so I discarded their pleading like they were impatient children. I left them in my wake and provided them with only lip service, speaking vaguely of trouble at home and promise of improvement.

Throughout this time I kept a close eye on Hanz and Gerald. I truthfully feared that every evening I'd find one of them simply missing and our home ransacked. Stories of the empire causing people to "disappear" were few and easy to dismiss. But I still remained uneasy. Those few and far between stories seemed a lot more credible as they passed under scrutiny.

A couple of days prior to our scheduled date I dolled myself up and went to see Aeolus. I was growing increasingly paranoid and scatterbrained. I needed confirmation that they weren't gearing up at that very moment to storm the campus and drag Hanz and Gerald off to some untimely end.

I met the same polite, but firm woman. She had changed in the days since I had last seen her. There were bags under her eyes and the ramrod stature from which she swaggered faltered as I followed her to the barracks which housed the soldier which partially held the fate of my lovers.

An unshaven but otherwise clean Aeolus emerged and lit up when he saw my face. He looked almost as tired as the woman. We hugged.

"Is anything wrong?" He asked while looking me over. He had a ruggedness about him that I liked.

"No," I said. "I just kind of missed you. Friday seems kind of far away. Maybe we could go for a walk? I hope you have some free time?"

He mulled it over for a couple of moments.

"Yeah," he said at last. "Let's go. I can stand to take a break. It's been a long couple of days. It'd be nice to stare at something else for a change."

That struck me as interesting, but I said nothing as we struck off away from their camp. I kept our path close to the university but not too close. I didn't need a wayward peer seeing me with a third man in my life. The rumors about two were enough for a lifetime.

We chatted about my week. I asked him about why everyone seemed so tired around camp.

"Just busy is all." He said coolly with a small smile that spoke more words than he'd ever offer me.

When I asked about his friend and sister he seemed very inclined to share. Wind had gone through some sort of promotion that he was very proud of. Ilythia, his sister, had met a new friend on campus that she seemed enamored with. Apparently it was a boy of some sort. Aeolus elaborated that this gave him both pride and unease. He was very happy that she was interested in an educated man, but he had yet to meet him. There was worry that he wouldn't approve.

The conversation drifted from that to relationships. Aeolus struggled to keep up his end of the conversation and it wound up being a little one sided. They say still waters run deep and I could see that in his eyes. He was a little troubled.

It took him a good while to come to a stop and put his hand on my elbow.

"Wendy," he said. "I need to know where we stand."

"It's called dating." I offered and regretted the sarcasm instantly.

"I know. I know. But I'm no good with reading people. It's really hard for me to figure out what they're thinking. You know? Sometimes I just wish people were like machines.. acted the same every time. You can predict a machine. You can count on it to give you consistent results. Anyway.."

He trailed off. His nervousness gave him a spark of innocence that I liked. The machine analogy seemed strange, but I got the gist of what he was trying to say.

"I need to know what you think of me. Because I think I like you." He blurted out awkwardly, releasing my arm as if it was stricken with the plague. "I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable... but.."

"Aeolus, I like you too." I smiled and kissed him on the cheek.

"Oh. Then that's good."

"Yes, it's good."


He blushed and turned away, his beat red skin shining through his day old stubble. I put my hand on the side of his face like a mother would.

"You don't have to be so nervous, sweetheart." I offered. "We're both adults and I'm not going to stop liking you just because you stumble over your words a little." He was sweet and it was clear he had problems with relationships in the past. I felt bad deceiving him, but I did like him.

He smiled awkwardly and I kissed him softly on the lips. I only intended it to affirm my words, but it turned into something far more substantial. He was a man so it didn't take too long for his previous fear of touching me to dissolve. I felt his hands on my hips and back.

My heart began to flutter in my chest. Partly because of the physical attention, but also because I liked it. I liked it a lot. It felt right and secure. The time I spent with Hanz and Gerald had become intense, dangerous and strangely exciting because I knew she was watching. But with this man I knew it was just the two of us. I felt safe.

He became hesitant and started to pull away after a couple of moments with a look of nervous worry creasing the lines in his face. It was if he was asking me for permission. Are you sure?

"No," I said while my eyes bore into his. "Please don't stop."


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