We met beneath an ancient, over grown willow that was just beginning to grow leave buds as we had previously agreed on. He awkwardly wore a grey civilian suit that was probably a decade out of style, but I complimented him on it anyway for the sake of putting his mind at ease.

He returned the favor with a smiling, hungry eyes that told me that yes, he was indeed still a man beneath that cool and controlled military exterior that he worked so hard at maintaining.

"How's Ilythia doing?" I asked when we finally had the campus behind us and the cool early spring air our only companion on the walk toward town. "You don't seem so bent out of shape about her."

"Yeah," he shrugged. "She's been acting more like herself. But I think it's more for my benefit than anything."

"Maybe that in itself is something of value.."

I offered quietly as I put my arm through his and got close.

"I guess. I'd rather she just be, you know. Normal normal. Instead of just normal for the sake of stopping me from complaining. I want to meet this boy of hers and make sure he's up to snuff."

"Normal for your sake still says a lot about her priorities. Just let her work things out by herself and she'll come around. It may not be today or tomorrow, but you'll have the old her back before long." I lied and felt a touch of guilt about it.

I was of course not sure of Altima's plans, but I knew she wanted something from the girl. Her track record was of course less than stellar when it came to humanitarian matters. So I knew whatever she wanted would be terrible and the poor girl would certainly not be her old self in the end of things.

He started talking again, but I was quickly lost in my thoughts. I was so willingly playing for Altima's team. I wondered how bad of a person it made me. I knew the stakes involved and I was still playing on the man's emotions for my own physical, emotional and functional needs and not necessarily in that order. His sister could have just as easily been my own. Was the fact that she was largely a stranger somehow make it easier for me to betray her to Altima's craziness?

I drifted back to the conversation once it meandered to the subject of his work. When the topic came up he seemed surprised that our largely one sided discussion wound up there.

"Work has been hard. But we're making some real good progress." He offered enigmatically. I imagined him pouring through records, smashing civil rights like a bull with cheap china.

"Oh?" I prodded, moving closer to him. I could feel his warmth through the cheap suit and I tried not to think about how good it felt for fear of betraying myself. "Are you coming close to wrapping things up then..?"

I trailed off on purpose, attempting to guise it was an open ended question as to whether or not he'd be departing soon. He seemed to take it that way.

"Yeah. But we're going to stick around for awhile. Things are getting pretty restless outside of the valley, you know. What with the wars and all that nastiness. People seem to think that even though the emperor is dead the rules have changed." He looked off into the woods, as if he had seen something. "We can't have anything happening to our schools. We are a nation of people. I'd prefer those people to be as educated as possible. It's why we're so successful as a nation. Not our brawn, but our brains."

It seemed a bit idealistic and preachy, but I let him have his bone. He struck me as someone who would quite easily fit alongside Gerald and Hanz in class. By the flip of a coin things could have turned out differently. At that moment I could see a longing in his eyes. He desperately wanted to be a clever, educated man. But then it was gone, replaced by discipline born on drill sergeants and fifty mile hikes in the mountains.

It didn't take much more time to reach town. We made it just in time to catch the last seats in the house just as the nickelodeon was starting. The story was so-so, but the quality of the art was splendid. It reminded me of my schooling and I realized just how much I had learned in the previous year.

I watched him throughout the show. He face was passive and unresponsive, even when the plot grew silly and comedic. When he caught me looking his tone changed and he became all smiles and laughter. This continued for the remainder of the show and afterward as we walked toward our dinner destination. He raved about the quality of the acting and the voice actors.

This in itself worried me, but I didn't want to spoil the show or the otherwise lovely walk with a confrontation.

It was over a basket of bread at my old bistro well afterward that I chose to ask about his sudden change in demeanor. He shrugged and looked away as emotion drained from his face.

"No," I persisted. "There it is again. You're not acting quite right." It felt weird calling him out on it. It wasn't something I'd normally do, but I felt compelled to figure the man out.

"I laughed when something was funny."

"No. Not quite. You laughed when you saw me watching you." I said, breaking a bread stick in two and tearing it into tiny pieces on my plate. "What's going on with you?"

He sighed and ran his hand through his hair. "I laughed when I felt like laughing. I didn't when I didn't. Why's that so hard for you to understand? Why do you need to pick a part every little thing I do? What are you looking for?"

I'm looking to figure you out, I thought to myself. So I can steer clear of you when things go sour.

His sudden defensiveness only served to further interest me. I knew something was wrong and he was hiding something. It irritated me to no end and I immediately felt like a hypocrite as I was hardly the model for truthfulness. We shared a couple of seconds of eye contact and awkward silence before we were interrupted.

"Wendy? Oh sweetheart. It's been so long!"

I half turned in my seat and spotted Lyrienne. She was a tall and slender friend from a former life. We used to trade shifts when I worked at the bistro. When I saw her approaching in her all too short uniform I immediately regretted not steering clear. She was the kind of individual that Altima would shred for breakfast. Remarkably weak and vain, but with a good heart and a little bit of smarts.

"Hi Lyra." I offered a half smile and a wave. When she was close enough she bent down and hugged me. I returned it, feeling obtuse and short.

"It's been months since I've seen your cute little pug mug around here. It hasn't been the same since you went off to school with those boys of yours." She was chipper and all bright smiles.

I smiled and nodded. "This is my date. Aeolus. He's a captain,"

"Oh, like, of a ship?"

"..in the army. He's assigned to the university."

"Well aren't you the little seductress all of a sudden! I remember you were such a shy little thing, always avoiding the boys and hiding in the back whenever you caught someone's eye. This makes at least, what? Three in the past six months?" She beamed and seemed genuinely happy for me. But that didn't really help matters.

I looked to Aeolus who was watching her calmly with a bemused look across his face. I couldn't tell if he was admiring her physical beauty or the verbal diarrhea that she was spewing. He offered a hand across the table and she took it gracefully.

"Honored." He stated before breaking the friendly embrace and looking to me as if to say something quirky.

"Yes. That's about right." I said, not inclined to provide either of them with any further details on my life. I let the conversation lapse into silence. The awkwardness of it got to her.

"Well, it was nice seeing you again! Really. You need to come back more often, we can catch up and do girly things. You know. Nails, talk about boys." She winked at Aeolus and disappeared into the bistro. No doubt in a quest to annoy and embarrass someone less deserving.

"You looked flustered." Aeolus said with a smirk on his face.

"She's embarrassing."

"I know."

"She'd always flirt with my customers."

"She seems the type."

"...and it's none of your business who I dated before you."

There was a beat and his bemused expression seemed to grow a little artificial. It was if it was there for no other reason than to be a facade or a smokescreen as to his true emotions.

"Oh, I know." He offered and let it go at that. I was left with a sudden and sinking suspicion that he perhaps knew more about me than I had originally thought.


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