It didn't take much for me to hesitantly agree without being aware of what I could really do for the situation. He beamed at me adorably, like a child being presented with a precious gift. It was cute, but a little awkward seeing a grown man so engrossed with a minor personality change in a sibling.

I wanted to return to class, but I ultimately abandoned the thought with the hopes of somehow making it up to my professor through extra credit work. I knew this wouldn't be the case, but it helped to think that my schooling hadn't become so unimportant to me that I disregarded it at the drop of a hat.

I followed Aeolus to the garrison's camp and passed row upon row of artillery. Their quiet, sleeping bulks both ominous and strangely reassuring at the same time. He warned me not to get too close to any one of them without mentioning exactly why.

He sat me down in an abandoned mess hall and promised me she'd be right out. He fidgeted and thanked me profusely. I began to wish that I had deflected his request because suddenly I felt incredibly awkward sitting there trying to seem interested in the spartan decor. I could hear the kitchen staff shouting and mucking about behind the dining area, likely busy preparing for the early end of the lunch rush that would soon begin to filter in.

It didn't take too long for her to emerge from the kitchen. She was all long blonde hair and green eyes, perhaps not much older than seventeen. Even though her smile was sincere and warm she had an air of an aristocrat. Maybe it was her posture or the elegant way she carried herself, gliding instead of walking.

She discarded her apron on the lunch table and sat in front of me.

"Hi, I'm Wendy."

I offered my best imitation of a disarming smile and we shook hands.

"Ilythia. Nice to meet you."

The start of the conversation was awkward. We both knew why I was there, but it was a pretty strange subject to just jump right into. We settled with exchanging minor personal details at first, talk of the weather we had been having and how she liked the area so far. She wound up being a talented musician and songwriter, loved early spring and found the campus "quaint."

"So, Ilythia." I started while drumming my fingers on the stamped metal mess table. "I'm sorry that this wound up being so awkward for you. It's pretty strange for me too. I'm just doing it to humor your brother. I tried to tell him that girls just need space when they're your age."

She tilted her head to one side and offered a little smile.

"Thanks. It means a lot to me. He's a really sweet guy, but sometimes he doesn't really understand the way things work. Especially with women. He likes to get all riled up and over protective. Even if everything is fine he'll find something to be worried about."

"He over compensates." I offered with a little nod, knowing the type. I had caught a glimmer of it in Aeolus, but apparently I didn't know the man well enough to see the most of it.

"A little, yeah."

"How have you been lately?"

"Great." She said, her face lightening by a couple of shades. I caught the whisper of a smile grace her lips.

"How's he taking the news?"


"That you're dating." I moved immediately to what I thought was the root of the problem. I didn't like beating around the bush. Her eyes slid from mine.

"Is it really that obvious." She stated, I didn't offer a reply. Ilythia sighed and leaned back in her seat, playing with a strand of her hair.

"I'm not acting differently, Wendy. You can tell him I said that if you want. He's acting differently. It's very frustrating. Whenever I leave camp I get interrogated, even if it's for something stupid. He wants to know every little detail and keeps harassing me to meet who I've been seeing. Oh boy, that'll go over well. Bringing the boyfriend home to meet Captain Pa Pa Aeolus.

"I wouldn't have a boyfriend for much longer, you think?"

She smiled a little with her eyes and reminded me of a little bird, happy and full of energy if a bit dim. I found myself watching her, my eyes following the lines that made up her head for sudden movement. I shook off the predatory gaze once I became aware of it.

It didn't seem to phase her.

"He makes jokes when something bothers him. I'm not sure if he's done it with you yet. I'll catch all sorts of things. 'When are you going to marry this youngun and leave your old man?' or 'Don't get yourself knocked up.' I mean. Really. I know he cares, but it's not appropriate. Even Wind is growing pretty tired with it. But he doesn't have the courage to say anything about it.

Neither do I. I guess."

She shifted her weight uncomfortably. Several soldiers were beginning to filter into the mess hall for lunch. They were milling around what I presumed would be the food line, watching us. I imagined how difficult it must be for Ilythia to follow her brother around like a puppy and deal with the stares and jeers of lonely legionnaires on a daily basis. How many noses had Aeolus broken in an effort to self reinforce his cycle of protection? How many of those had really deserved it?

I found myself staring at her too. I didn't desire her, but it was a predatory type of thing. She was an open book before me and those twisted up emotions only interested me more. It made her weak. It made her vulnerable. Of course there was no conscious thought behind it, but I instinctively stroked the fragment of Altima that lived within me and I felt my mind brush up against hers.

It was soft and supple. It felt warm. It felt safe. Like how I felt in the arms of Aeolus after the madness of my relationship with Hanz and Gerald became too much to bear.

"It's not." I said firmly, trying to ignore my involuntary efforts. More soldiers filtered in from the outside and Ilythia eyed them.

"Wendy," she said as she lowered her voice. "you've had lots of boyfriends. Right?"

"Lots? A few, I guess?"

"This is really kind of new to me. I haven't really had a boy that I've liked before now." She said with a little chuckle at her own naivety.

That explained why her brother was so over protective. He was a father figure. I remembered how my father absolutely loathed my first boyfriend.

"How many is normal it normal. To you know. Have." She asked, looking around nervously for her big brother. I knew he was watching us, but I had made certain that he wouldn't hear what we were discussing. I wasn't a spy, I was someone she could talk to.

"Throughout your life? Uh. I don't know. I've had.. six?" I offered, counting my three current boys and felt dirty and wrong.

"No," she said while shaking her head. "At the same time. You know. Have." I expected her to blush like a little girl, but she didn't. She was mature and confident in her womanly prowess. She was just curious, likely having no other civilian woman to speak with.

My eyes narrowed as a realization forced itself upon me.

"Why?" I asked, drawing it out. "How many have you Had?"

"College boys. Two of them. They're best friends, kind of like Aeolus and Wind. At first it kind of felt wrong, you know? Like I was being taken advantage of. But they're so nice, Wendy. But I don't know how normal it is. If it's weird I don't want to tell Aeolus and have him get even more jittery. You know?"

"Yeah." I offered dumbly. I asked myself whether it was possible she was the girl Altima sought to replace me with. The woman that I had raged against earlier in the week, the one whose noxious and cheap stink filled my home that one day that I enjoyed Aeolus' safe embrace in those mossy woods.

Was that why I watched her with predators eyes? Did I see what Altima instinctively sought? Her enigmatic words floated back to me as I stared at her.

My dear. Because I have something you want and you can help me get something I need.

She was still waiting for a response.

"Yes." I started. "Yes, it's very normal. Especially in college. But don't tell Aeolus." I swallowed hard. "Not yet."


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