"Doing anything for the holidays, sir?"
Nichol paused in the middle of fixing his jacket collar. Even though it was asked out of courtesy, something about the young woman's question threw him for a loop.
"Just work," he said.
"Do you think someone might use the fifth anniversary as an excuse to start some trouble?"
"Ah, no. That isn't exactly it," he said, expecting to leave it at that. By the patient look on her face, he surmised he would not be able to. "I just like to keep myself busy on Christmas Eve is all. It prevents me from . . ." He resisted the strong urge to say, drinking myself into a stupor. "Dwelling."
"Oh," the young woman said embarrassedly. "Sorry, sir. I understand completely—although I'm sorry to say I can't speak from experience."
He made as though to leave, but something lingered in her face that stopped him. "Yes? Is there anything else before I go? Because you can call the office if it doesn't come to you—"
She shook her head, smiling. "No, it's not that . . . You don't remember me, do you, sir?"
For the first time since his arrival, he made an effort to look her over carefully. But despite his best efforts, he could not match a memory with her features. The regulation Preventer uniform recalled too many people to filter through.
She shrugged. "Maybe not."
It was his turn to wait for her to continue.
"I had signed up to be a Taurus pilot when you were overseeing the program on Barge," she said, blushing slightly. "But you failed me before I could get to the second phase of testing."
"Did I?" He regarded her for a moment before answering: "It was probably one of my better decisions at that time."
He left her to ponder his meaning. The two of them exchanged stock blessings, and he departed the secured area of the Preventers' office that was tucked into a corner of Ptolemaeus City's commercial spaceport. Unclipping the laminated clearance badge from his lapel, he put it in the pocket in the lining of his suit jacket, and blended in with the civilian crowd.
The port was loud and bustling with travelers, coming and going down the polished granite floors of the corridors, coming to the Moon or departing for some other colony or Earth. For the holidays or for the anniversary of the end of the war, or, like him, for business. With luggage or children in tow, coats over their arms, they minded their own business, like thousands of galaxies passing through each other without touching.
He stopped by a coffee kiosk and ordered a drip. While he waited for a fresh pot to brew, he watched a sphere-wide news station playing on a large television screen. Over the echoing din of port traffic, he could hardly make out a word, although it was not as though he were trying to. Two drinks were called, one of which was his own. He reached for his cup at the same time as the other customer reached for his.
"Excuse me," the person said in a small voice.
A tone of voice that didn't want to call attention to itself, yet—maybe for just that reason—it made Nichol pause.
It might have been some sort of premonition that made him hesitate before he turned to look at the person who had spoken—a reluctance to find that his fears were realized, and the memory that suddenly surfaced in his mind had been made flesh. When he did turn, he saw the voice belonged to a tall young man with a narrow, boyish face, his brown hair in the brushed-forward style from that memory, though short enough now to reveal the green eyes that had once hidden underneath.
Nichol knitted his brows at the recognition. "Barton?" he said, as though he even needed to ascertain the young man's identity. "What are you doing here?"
The other raised his cup slightly. He gave Nichol an ungenuine smile. "Coffee. What does it look like?"
"You know that's not what I meant."
"I had some vacation time. I thought I'd take it here. I've never been to the Moon for pleasure."
It went without saying that if a person wanted to enjoy himself, the Moon was one of the best places to do it. Tourism and recreation were the lifeblood of its economy, a future potential realized even before the first mines and experimental farms were constructed on its surface. For a normal person, that would have been reason enough. But Trowa Barton was not a normal person.
They took seats across from each other at a small table near the kiosk. Though neither seemed very enthusiastic about doing so, they fell into it as though under some tacitly agreed upon pretense of courtesy.
"For how long?"
"Until the first week of the new year, perhaps." Trowa made a motion of shrinking his shoulders that was not quite a shrug. "I haven't really decided yet."
It was still more than two weeks from Christmas Eve. "That's a long vacation."
"Yeah. But like I said, I had some vacation time."
They fell into an awkward silence, each drinking his coffee and staring obstinately over the other's shoulder.
"What are you doing here?" Trowa asked suddenly, meeting his eyes. He didn't pretend to be interested, as though realizing he would have failed if he tried.
"Preventer business," Nichol said. "Making sure the ports are prepared for all the baggage that comes with holiday traffic—literally and metaphorically speaking. You know the routine. This twenty-fourth will be the fifth anniversary of Mariemaia's invasion of Earth. Not that we suspect anyone will try anything, but . . ."
"I understand." Trowa spoke as though to himself. "You have one of two options: Either it's so sacred a date no organization will ever book it for their coup and go down in the books as the most callous bastards of all time, or they'll see at as the perfect opportunity."
Nichol nodded vaguely. "Not very helpful, is it?"
"I heard you got promoted last year. Are you the head of lunar operations yet?"
"Didn't Une tell you?" Nichol did not bother to hide his growing impatience. "They put me in charge of the Ptolemaeus District. You think they'd give an ex-Special that much responsibility?"
Trowa didn't answer. "Why aren't you wearing your Preventer jacket?" he said instead. "Or a name tag with the insignia on it or something?"
"I've got it right here if I need it." Nichol patted the jacket's breast pocket from the outside. He suspected Trowa was trying to feel him out, and he didn't like being felt out. Not by anyone, but especially not by him. "Why, would you rather I be parading my position around in public?"
"Are you embarrassed to?"
"I just don't want to stand out like a sore thumb is all."
"Of course." Trowa nodded slowly. "Camouflage."
That was the closest either of them would get to the past.
At the side of the lap pool at the Ptolemaeus Estrella, Trowa tucked stray hairs under his swimming cap and dove into the water.
The hotel pool was nearly empty at this time of day. Some other tourists sat relaxing in lounge chairs beside the free-swim pool, where some children played. He could hear their voices muffled under the water, then clear as day as he came up for a breath, then muffled again—like ducking in and out of deep space. This switch in the eardrum became a regular tempo as he swam his laps, following the black parallel lines that marked the bottom of the pool. He felt he could do a million in this gravity.
When he was sure he had done enough, he took off the cap and laid his head back in the water. He felt weightless as he looked up at the glass ceiling of the building, towering far above him. Behind it the sky was lavender and dotted with the impressions of stars, and the sun appeared small as it shone through the layers of artificial atmosphere. Toward the edge, almost cut off by the rise of a skyscraper, the thin crescent of the waning Earth could barely be seen. Like the white of a fingernail.
He quickly calculated the day in his head, deciding it must have been the fifth or sixth day of "daytime." He thought ambivalently how it must be a difficult schedule to get used to.
When he returned to his room, the light on the portable computer was blinking a patient red, indicating he had received mail while he was out. He pressed the button and went to the kitchen to fill the kettle with water for coffee. An automated voice gave him the local time of reception.
"Hey, Trowa," the message started. "It's me."
He recognized that voice as Quatre's without needing to see the screen. Though it had gradually deepened each year over the last five years, that voice was still somehow the same.
"Looks like I missed you. Wufei told me you were on vacation, so I guess you're probably out doing something fun at the moment. Not that it really matters . . ." An awkward pause. "I know it's a little early, but I thought I'd just drop you a line and wish you happy anniversary. Oh, and happy holidays, as well. Hard to believe another year's gone by already, isn't it? Another year without seeing each other—face to face, I mean; not like this. Makes it seem like a million years ago we said we'd always keep in touch. To think there was a time we thought the war would make us into some kind of band of brothers. We thought those bonds would last forever, didn't we?"
He sighed as Trowa put the pot on a hotplate and plugged the cord into the electrical outlet.
"Maybe they were only make believe," Quatre continued in a smaller voice, as though speaking to himself. And, after all, he was; when they spoke in realtime, which was not often these days, he was never so honest as this.
As though catching himself at just that, he cleared his throat. "Well, enjoy your time off. Can't say you didn't earn it. Call me back when you get a chance. . . . Or not."
The mail ended. The hotel room was silent, the water not yet boiling.
Trowa let out his breath, only then realizing he had been tensing his stomach muscles involuntarily.
It was a few days later that Nichol had that nagging feeling again: the feeling that if he had done just one thing differently—if he had delayed his stop by the coffee kiosk at the spaceport by a few minutes, perhaps using the restroom first, or wrapped up the meeting earlier—if he had so much as gotten up on the other side of the bed that morning he might have missed Trowa Barton completely.
The young man in question raised his hand in a half-assed salute when Nichol walked into the office. "Morning, Boss," he said. The incongruity of the likes of him trying to make cheerful made the gesture seem absurd.
Nichol shook himself out of his stare just before he tipped his paper coffee cup too far.
"What's he doing here?" he asked the secretary.
"He just showed up saying he was 'reporting for duty,'" the man said slowly.
Trowa unfolded himself limberly from the swivel chair he was sitting in. "I was bored hanging out at the hotel and I thought your people could use some extra help," he said by way of explanation. "Someone who knows how things are done around here. What with the holidays, you must be somewhat strapped for busy-bodies."
"He has a point, sir," the secretary said, raising his eyebrows behind his glasses.
When Nichol said nothing, Trowa regarded him with a look one might have called pleading—if it didn't have the stink of a put-on facade.
"I can monitor the coffee pot, make sure it doesn't get too low," Trowa said, counting things off as he thought of them. "Or stale, for that matter. Make copies, donut runs, order lunch, any of the typical office lady stuff. You must have some pencils that need to be sharpened—"
"Stop." Nichol close his eyes and rubbed his brow for a second. Was it too much to ask for Trowa to be gone when he opened his eyes again? "How did you get in here?"
"I showed my badge at the front desk."
"Aren't you on vacation?"
"Fine. Have it your way," Nichol said, making for his office. "There are some reports that still need to be filed away. They can wait until after the holidays, but since you seem so eager to have at it—"
"Already one step ahead of you, Boss." Trowa lifted a small stack of files from the vacant desk behind which he had been seated.
Stepping into this office, Nichol had the premonition of a migraine. However, he told himself, as long as the work load kept the two of them out of each other's way, the day was sure to be through before he knew it. In fact, he soon became so absorbed he almost forgot Trowa was there, until he stepped out to find a handful of the office's female employees clustered around one of the copy machines.
Sure enough, closer inspection showed Trowa had opened it up and laid its parts out on the floor. He had both hands currently far up into its guts and was at the same time giving a running commentary on copier maintenance to the women who would never remember any of it.
"Barton, what are you doing?" Nichol said as he approached, easing himself between two women with folders clutched to their chests.
"The paper feed got jammed," Trowa said into the machine. "Happens all the time. I'll have it fixed in a few minutes."
"You have to take the whole machine apart to fix the paper feed?"
Seeming to finally catch the irritation in his voice, Trowa looked up.
Nichol crossed his arms. "We have people whose job it is to fix the machines, you know."
"I thought I'd save you the trouble of calling the repair man."
"Oh, no trouble at all. It's only his business."
The secretary calling his name saved Nichol from having to hear the response. He held the receiver away from his ear, his hand over the mouthpiece as he told Nichol, "It's the Director, sir. From Earth. Shall I transfer her?"
Nichol nodded once, stepping back into his office to press the button and make the connection. Une's picture appeared on the screen, going silent as he grabbed the receiver and held it to his ear. "This is Nichol," he answered as he stepped toward the cracked door again. "Sorry to keep you waiting, ma'am. What can I—"
She cut him off with a question that made the corner of his mouth turn up.
"Yes, he's here. . . ." He turned his back to the door. "Well, he came in this morning begging for work, and I didn't think it would hurt anything to give him some of the extra load. But if I may say, you've got him pegged pretty well . . . No." Nichol frowned suddenly. "He didn't tell me that. . . . Yes, ma'am. I will do that right away."
He ended the connection, replacing the receiver in its cradle.
Somehow, Trowa guessed what was coming without needing to be told. He even seemed to have expected it. "I'm busted, aren't I?"
"Yeah," said Nichol. "Let's get something to eat."
"Why didn't you tell me your vacation was mandatory?"
They were seated at a table inside the cafeteria. The daylight that was at its peak filtered in through the glass atrium; tree ferns rose up from the planters, lending the otherwise immaculately pastel area a tropical feel. Sandwiches sat before both of them, unwrapped but otherwise hardly touched.
"I didn't think it was relevant to the conversation we were having at the time," Trowa answered. The strange cheerfulness in his manner that had irritated Nichol in the office was gone. "Plus, I didn't see how it was any of your business."
"You just wanted to be able to sneak into work."
Trowa shrugged. "Is that a crime?"
"You defied a direct order from Une. No, it isn't a crime, but it doesn't show a lot of respect, either."
Choosing not to give an answer—or, perhaps, not able to find an appropriate one—Trowa looked away and at the ferns.
"How do you get something like mandatory vacation, anyway?" Nichol asked him, gentler this time. He picked up his sandwich as he did so, as though intending to take a bite but never actually doing so.
"You have to be a workaholic," Trowa answered simply.
"People who sleep think that just because they don't see you doing it you must be running yourself into the ground, so they give it to you telling you it's for your own health and sanity. They don't understand that your health and your sanity are your work."
"Well, they say admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery."
"Admitting you have a problem doesn't do jack shit to solve it, though. And, anyway, who said anything about that being a problem?"
Nichol couldn't help a small smile. "Spoken like an MS pilot."
In a way, the words had just slipped out; but Nichol instantly regretted them. He saw the muscles in Trowa's jaw clench and expected some sort of sarcastic response. That, at least, was what he would have given any stranger who said the same thing to him. Maybe it wasn't as sensitive a subject for Trowa—maybe Trowa wasn't as worried about what people would think when they learned about that part of his past—but he expected something.
"Don't pretend you're not in the same boat," Trowa said.
"And what boat is that?"
"Are you working on Christmas Eve?"
Nichol found he had nothing to say, and suddenly what vestige he had of an appetite was gone.
"You can stay until five," he acquiesced. "Then I don't want to see you around here for at least several days. Got it?"
At last a genuine smile pulled at Trowa's lips. "Yeah. . . . Thanks."
Nichol shook his head. "Don't thank me. I'm not doing this out of the generosity of my heart, or the holiday spirit, or any of that crap. I need you to get up there and fix that damn copier you disemboweled."
Trowa lowered his eyes, trying to hide the smile as it turned into a grin. "Right away, Boss."
"And stop calling me Boss."
It was a little after five when Nichol looked up from his paperwork at the clock. Somehow he had let the time get away from him, relying on his stomach to bring him back to the physical world. It growled, reminding him he had ended up skipping lunch, while the pale sunlight of the lunar afternoon drifting through the blinds told him nothing.
On some whimsical notion that even he did not understand, he considered asking Trowa if he wanted to join him for a quick dinner or a drink somewhere. He could put up with the other's company, he convinced himself, if it eased some of the loneliness that must have been responsible for driving Trowa here.
When Nichol stepped outside his office, however, he found Trowa had already gone, true to his word.
It was an alien thing for Trowa, the restless feeling of boredom. For the first time in years he found himself without a pile of work in front of him, and he didn't know what to do. Lost somewhere in the back of his mind, he was sure, were plans he had made should he ever take some time off, but they failed to come to the surface now, like the lyrics of a song that elude the tongue no matter how many times you hum the melody. He had learned early in his life that work was the best distraction, but over time it had become a habit. Now even the things he had once needed distraction from were gone, and there was nothing but a wearying ennui to take their place.
As the date neared Christmas Eve, the hotel gradually filled up. The poolside and the gym were no longer places to go to escape the press of people, and he thought he might go mad staying cooped up in his room, staring at the generic wallpaper. There was no one in particular he wanted to contact, only the many he wished to avoid, and he couldn't remember the last time a novel or television serial had caught his interest.
The Earth waxed, the sun slipped lower on the horizon every day until it finally went down behind the tops of the skyscrapers, and Ptolemaeus's night colors came out. From the windows of the lounge at the top of the hotel, far above the city streets, the populated areas of the crater formed a spider web of sparkling silver light, whose longest threads disappeared over the edges, where glass-covered highways led cars and buses and trains across the inhospitable wasteland to the next outpost of civilization. In the near vicinity, colorful neon signs pointed out restaurants and fancy boutiques that catered to the crowd of tourists who had the cash to secure a place on the moon in the busiest travel season. There were films to take in, and live music at quaint bistros with not-so-quaint prices. He briefly entertained the idea of visiting an amusement park, where the moon's lesser gravity allowed for thrill rides that were otherwise impossible on Earth; but he thought better of it. Those were places for families and couples and gaggles of teenage friends. Going alone would be, in a word, ridiculous.
Instead, he bought a ticket to the aerospace history museum. He spent the better part of a day wandering around its buildings studying the displays that chronicled the history of flight and space exploration, from wooden replicas of biplanes to the first rockets into space, and from the International Space Station to the first permanent space colony, reading the plaques through to the end until they all started to run together, losing himself in the awesome dreams and passion and failures of the pioneers of space travel and development. There was a time told of here, an optimistic time almost incomprehensible, when just getting off the ground was a miracle, let alone escaping the atmosphere. It took quite a leap of the imagination to appreciate the present as much as the curators seemed to want one to.
The children who attended did not seem to get it. They seemed more interested in the robotics exhibits and the simulation of a trip to Jupiter the recorded narration claimed could take place as early as AC 216. Trowa smiled as he watched them from a bench, even though he could not claim to remember what that age was like himself; and wondered if their parents and grandparents who had been dragged along, and who stared nostalgically at travel posters from a distant, more romantic era, despaired at the children's seeming lack of attention, and doubted whether the dreams represented in this temple of human perseverance would live on into the next generation, just as every generation that came before them surely did.
The cafe was nearly empty when Trowa went in for a cup of coffee and a sandwich. Perhaps because of that, someone in the kitchen had turned the radio to a brassy Latin station. It didn't seem to fit with the pompous mood of the museum floor outside, but Trowa could not have cared less, as he pored over the pages of a thick but engaging piece of nonfiction on the Gemini and Apollo missions he had purchased in the adjacent gift store.
There was half of a battle-scarred Leo posted near the exit almost as an afterthought. Whether it had been retrieved from an actual battlefield damaged—the lunar surface was surely littered with the skeletons of mobile suits such as this one—or had been carefully made to look that way, it was impossible to tell from where he stood. The plaque beside it warned of the dangers and abuses of technology that inevitably followed the glory. After all, it was still so soon after the war. Perhaps in five, ten years a more thorough exhibit would take a less pedantic stance, once the wounds of war had been given time to heal properly. Perhaps it would even make mention of Heavyarms.
Trowa was surprised to find he felt nothing at that thought. No chill down his spine, no rush through his bloodstream, and no offense. He had once been on the other side of that cold, lifeless gaze—perhaps even in this very suit—and yet he felt no connection to it. Nothing whatsoever.
For some reason, that did not seem right. It was exactly how he had felt years ago when, confused and amnesiac, he looked upon Heavyarms for the first time once again.
He stopped by the hotel bar on his way back to the room for a drink. He didn't count how many he actually had.
It was late when Nichol heard a rapping at his office door, though the darkness of the fourteen-day-long night that lay over the city outside his window was no indication of it. He only knew how late it was when he looked up at the knock and his eyes glanced at the clock above the door before he said, "Come in."
It was Trowa, bundled in a wool coat and scarf despite the warmth of the building. He seemed smaller than usual, and it felt to Nichol like more than the two weeks it was since they last had a chance to say more than a few words to one another. Even though in the time since he had caught a glimpse of Trowa once or twice around the office, flashing smiles at fellow employees the sincerity of which Nichol couldn't for the life of him judge, those glimpses seemed to him to be little more than mirages—or like the blip on the upper corner of the last frame of an old reel of film, they were so transient.
Now Trowa was standing in his office not as a Preventer or a gundam pilot, but a young man enjoying his holiday and carrying a small bag from a local shop, the festive design on the side reminding all it passed of the holiday season; and for a moment Nichol dreaded that Trowa might have, on some insane whim, bought him a gift. Christmas was only a couple days away. He feared that he might become indebted.
"Barton. What can I do for you?"
"I hope I'm not bothering you," Trowa said in that way of his that indicated he didn't actually feel his words. "I figured you might still be working at this hour, and since I was in the area, picking up something for a friend back on Earth . . ." He indicated the bag.
"A little late for a Christmas present, isn't it?"
"That's all right. She doesn't celebrate it. . . ." As though he needed to validate his excuse to Nichol, he took an item out of the bag and hefted it in his hand. "She's sort of a rare coffee enthusiast, so I figured it can't get any rarer than the Moon. Ultra-shade grown—"
"In the constant filtered and artificial sunlight, right. What they don't tell you in the shop is that it's really the combination of native volcanic soil and the one-sixth Earth gravity that allows the beans to grow so fat and hold their flavor so well. . . ."
Nichol noticed Trowa staring at him curiously, a crooked half-smile on his lips.
He changed course. He made a show of putting aside the report he was working on. "So, to what do I owe this visit? I thought you were desperate for work but I haven't seen you around the office lately."
"Did you miss me?"
"More like I was concerned you'd fallen out of the crater or something. But you must be keeping yourself busy."
"Not really, but I thought I should lay low for a while. I wouldn't want to arouse any suspicion. But alas, to my constant chagrin, boredom seems to be an art form I have yet to master."
"As opposed to sarcasm."
"Yes, but you know what they say about practice."
There was humor under his matter-of-fact manner Nichol could appreciate, but neither of them laughed. Instead an awkward silence descended that Trowa seemed all too eager to break.
"Tomorrow is Christmas Eve."
"So it is."
"I don't suppose I need to remind you it also marks the end of the war."
Did he really think Nichol would have forgotten? "What about it?"
"Are you going to be working all that night, too?"
Nichol narrowed his eyes. "How is it any business of yours if I am?"
"Point taken. It's just that I don't really have anything planned except drinking myself into a stupor, and I'd prefer to avoid that if I can help it. So, out of a concern for my health and sanity, I thought I'd check and see if you would have dinner with me tomorrow night."
"Barton, are you asking me out on a date?"
"Don't get your hopes up."
The dryness of his riposte amused Nichol, though his face did not show it.
"What did you have in mind?" he said.
Trowa tossed out the name of a five-star restaurant Nichol had never been to, but he recognized the name immediately. "Eight o'clock. I could come here after work and we could walk over or take a tram, or you can meet me there. Whatever you're more comfortable with."
"You've been thinking about this," Nichol said.
"I made reservations."
"So I can't say no?"
"No. In case you said yes."
Largely on principle, it annoyed Nichol that the other had planned it all out to such an extent he felt pressured to accept, but he already recognized the eager, internal tug to. It was an alien feeling and it unnerved him; but he rationalized that away as well, telling himself that at least together they could check one another's alcohol intake. Would it really be so bad to spend the evening with someone he once considered an enemy? With the war's close, they had more in common than not. Perhaps that was what unnerved him most.
When a long moment had gone by and he had said nothing, Trowa backed toward the door. "I'll let you think about it," he said.
He was already half out of the office when he turned and said, as though the thought had just struck him: "But just in case I don't see you, happy anniversary."
It seemed to Nichol like a contradiction of terms. By the expression on Trowa's face that lingered in Nichol's memory, it seemed it did to him as well.
"Ritzy place," Nichol remarked when he reached Trowa's table at just past eight the next evening.
He decided it was worth coming just to see the momentary look of surprise on Trowa's face.
"I'm glad you decided to make it." Trowa stood as though to shake his hand, but instead simply waited for Nichol to take his own chair. "I guess I can retract the Scrooge comment now."
"What are you talking about? You never called me that."
"I didn't? Oh. Who was I saying that to, then? . . ." Trowa said in that flat way of his that made it impossible to tell whether he was making a joke. Nichol shot him a reprimanding look as they settled in.
In his fashionable dark shirt—no doubt purchased at one of Ptolemaeus's boutiques—and no tie, Trowa had come more casual than Nichol had expected; and he felt childish and over-dressed in comparison, with a thin sweater pulled over a silk tie and blue oxford that one of his female coworkers had called adorable. (Nichol wondered if that wasn't just a euphemism for foppish. Or priggish, for that matter.)
The sixteen-year-old Trowa of his memory suddenly seemed so immature and immaterial, even though the personality that showed through the leaner, grown-up face had not changed except in context. Unlike that time, however, Nichol was in a position to realize—not without an unwelcome pang of self-consciousness—that the thorn in his side Trowa Barton had grown up into an attractive young man. Was this what the Colonel Une he had served under had seen beneath the unfeeling voice and dorky haircut, that would have made her trust a gundam pilot and a traitor?
But those days were long over. And instead of the appropriate course for battle, it was a trendy restaurant Trowa was talking about when he said, "I hope the place is satisfactory. It came highly recommended by an old friend so I thought I'd try it out."
—Though it seemed to Nichol there wasn't much difference between the two in Trowa's mind.
"Try it out? You don't 'try out' a five-star restaurant in downtown Ptolemaeus on Christmas Eve. Which friend was that? The girlfriend?"
"She's not my girlfriend. And, no, he happens to be an old war buddy. A Winner."
There was something incongruous about the words "war" and "buddy" coming together out of Trowa's mouth, and Nichol wasn't sure which was more unsettling: that or that Trowa was on familiar terms with a member of the Winner family.
One thing that old family name did explain, however, was the choice of establishment: The seat Trowa had reserved was a choice one—he might have even called it strategic: an intimate table beside the window that looked down on Ptolemaeus's main thoroughfare. The colorful signs of the bustling shopping district and the lights that wrapped about the trees and lampposts for the holidays glittered below them, the eternal stars of space and the just-past-full Earth above them. "I'm surprised you could get a seat like this on such short notice," Nichol said. "Your Winner friend owed you a favor, I take it?"
"I'm not so plebeian as to ask him." Trowa shot him a wry smile, and once again Nichol could no longer tell if he were serious. "It doesn't hurt to throw the words 'Preventer business' around a little, though."
Seeing the second party had arrived, a waiter approached their table, asking if he could get them something to drink. "What do you recommend here for wine?" Nichol asked him, reaching for the list and making a concerted effort to ignore the prices.
"We have a pinot blanc de noir from one-nine-five that I think you'd find to be an interesting and unique choice if you're looking for something along the lines of a champagne," the man started in a proscribed manner. "It has a pleasant, crisp texture, and you'll note the date—"
"Some would say a little too crisp," Trowa interjected as apathetically as if he were discussing the viability of a battle strategy, and for a moment it took Nichol back. "Isn't that vintage abnormally dry even for its class? It seems to me the significance of the year is the only redeeming quality."
Seeing the waiter falter for a moment, Nichol said quickly, "What do you have that's local?"
The man seemed to recover a bit at that. "Well, if you're in the mood for something a bit darker and smoother, we have a Cabernet from Grimaldi on special—"
"And still not worth the price," said Trowa. "The blackberry aroma is overpowering, and unless you like that sort of thing it tends to make the whole palette too smoky and bitter. Must be something in the light allowance. Safer to stick with a Hipparchus burgundy; at least you know what you're getting."
The waiter appeared to be losing patience rather quickly. Feeling a bit sorry for the man, Nichol said: "You have eggnog? I'll take one with vodka, whatever kind you got."
Trowa shot him a betrayed look.
The waiter, on the other hand, let out a breath of relief. "Certainly." His voice hardened when he asked Trowa, "And you, sir?"
"Give me a bottle of the one-nine-five blanc de noir."
When the man had left—and all too eagerly—Trowa clasped his hands on the table in front of him and smiled vaguely. In the silence, classical music drifting quietly from the speakers and the sounds of others dining settled in around them.
"Nice to see you haven't changed," Nichol said.
"What?" Trowa raised his brows but did not seem the least bit ignorant. "My concerns were valid."
"That may be, but you've always had a knack for pushing people's buttons."
"Especially mine. But I could never figure out if it were intentional or not."
Trowa just shrugged, and Nichol switched gears.
"I'm surprised you know so much about local agriculture. You have been keeping yourself busy."
"Only if you count trips to the bar. And what about yourself? That spiel about coffee earlier was well rehearsed. What exactly did you do after the war?"
Nichol smiled. "Not what you're thinking. I guess you could say horticulture used to be somewhat of a hobby of mine. A long time ago," he admitted, and prayed Trowa didn't press the subject any further.
He didn't. He said, "I wouldn't have guessed it," and left it at that.
After a little while, Nichol decided it was time for a change of subject. He cleared his throat. "So, how's the Director, last time you saw her? —Thank you," he said as the waiter returned with their drinks and asked if they were ready to order. Nichol told him: "I'll have the ahi, rare."
"Excellent choice. . . ." This time the waiter merely turned silently toward Trowa.
"I'll take the pork roast, no gravy on the potatoes, and a side salad of mixed greens. Dry, please."
Nichol couldn't help himself. "Are you sure? You do know real beef and pork have to be imported from Earth, right? I just thought you might like to know in case you have a problem with the packing process sucking out the flavor, or anything else your taste buds might be sensitive to."
He didn't look up to see the man's face, but the waiter's stifled cough gave away his trouble.
"That's thoughtful of you," Trowa deadpanned. "But it all tastes the same to me."
The smile dropped from Nichol's face.
Trowa handed over his menu to the waiter, who poured him a glass of champagne and departed.
When he was out of earshot, Trowa raised his eyebrows and his glass. "Touche. We'll have to leave our server a generous tip."
"As I was saying," Nichol said with a small cough of his own, "about the Director. You're still working under her at the main office in Brussels, correct?"
For some reason Nichol didn't understand, Trowa looked momentarily perplexed. "You mean Une? Yeah, she's doing well." He smiled to himself. "Very well. I thought you two kept in touch fairly often, though."
"Once upon a time. With our new positions, however, it's increasingly harder to find time for personal correspondence." As professional as that was, Nichol thought but dared not say out loud. "I try to stay abreast of matters in Brussels, but these last few months have been rough. The point is, I owe her a lot. It was Une who convinced me to sign on with the Preventers. I was doubtful they would hire an ex-Special, especially someone with my history of fuck-ups—"
"Near fuck-ups," Trowa corrected him. "You were lucky."
"Yeah. Lucky you were there to save my ass, you mean," Nichol slurred before taking a swig of the eggnog.
"And anyway, we've all made plenty of those and it didn't stop us from getting the badge."
Nichol wondered if by "us" he meant the other gundam pilots.
"The point is, she took a chance, and gave me that push I needed to take one on myself."
"Was she also the one who pushed you into space?"
Quite abruptly, it seemed, the topic had grown restricting. "In a manner of speaking, I guess. Hence my interest in her well-being."
He managed to hit the conversation back in Trowa's court, but the news from Brussels seemed strained and vague until somehow Trowa got to talking about his experiences in the lunar office. As he rattled off employee's names and problems, Nichol grew increasingly certain of two things: that he hadn't been the only target of Trowa's charm, though he seemed to do a better job of resisting it; and that he really didn't know his employees as well as he should, which was embarrassing.
It was at about the point Trowa was reiterating a conversation he had had with Nichol's secretary about his wife's pregnancy that Nichol felt he had to stop him. "Wait a minute. Harold told you his wife is expecting?"
"When are they expecting? Sometime around the end of April, I think he said." At Nichol's muttered "Jesus Christ" and hand to his forehead, Trowa started in earnest. "Don't tell me this is the first you've heard of it. I'm going to have to retract my retraction—"
"No! God, no, I'm not that bad. I just forgot until you said something. . . ." Which was just as bad. Nichol cringed. "How the hell do you know all this stuff anyway? You just met these people."
"All I had to do was listen. I've been told I have a memory like a sponge as well, but that's not really that important. The fact is, people are dying to tell a new face about their work and their families . . ." Trowa leaned forward, still incredulous. "Don't you ever talk to your subordinates, Nichol?"
"Of course, I talk to them! Just not about anything personal—"
"And I'm the one who gets sent on mandatory vacation," Trowa laughed.
Which took Nichol aback so that he forgot to be offended. He wasn't sure how he had come to the conclusion, but he realized he had been sure laughter was not something Trowa Barton actually did.
Eventually their food came, and they fell into relative silence as they ate, the sounds of knives and forks enough conversation between them, until the eggnog was gone and they split what was left of the champagne.
"Nice music," Nichol said at one point, before he chased down a bite of ahi with a swig of wine.
"Prelude to Wagner's Parsifal," Trowa supplied.
"Great. Another young fool on a quest for self-discovery."
"You know Parsifal?"
"I was being sarcastic." Taking another sip for good measure, Nichol returned the glass. "On both accounts. I'm not illiterate, you know, despite this meathead exterior. . . ."
"I never got that impression."
"I don't know why everyone expects him to be searching for anything, though. Parsifal, I mean."
Perhaps it was the way Trowa had completely ignored Nichol's own attempt at self-deprecating humor, or the particular way he made that observation that left Nichol unsure of what to say in response. Even he had to agree that, lately, it hit a little too close to home. For that matter, it always had.
"Do you celebrate Christmas?" Trowa asked him suddenly.
Nichol started. "Don't you usually start a question like that with, 'Can I ask you a personal question?'"
"Why would it be personal?"
Nichol let out a small sigh. Why, indeed. "It's too commercial," he said instead. "A holiday you spend with friends or lovers, and I don't have time for any of those. In any case, I'm Orthodox. Well," he amended, "my family was. I haven't been practicing since . . . I can't even remember. But Christmas was never a big deal at home. Not as big as Easter, anyway."
"What about yourself?" It was more out of reciprocity than curiosity, a filler question before he took another bite. "You never struck me as a particularly religious person."
Come to think of it, he didn't strike Nichol as much of anything, but Nichol was very far from figuring him out.
Trowa shrugged indifferently. "I never really had a family, just people here and there who were like fathers and like brothers to me, so I can't boast belonging to any faith by default. Cathrine—the girl I bought the coffee for—she likes to believe I might be her long lost baby brother, as improbable as that is, and she's Jewish so . . ." He shrugged again. "Maybe I am too."
"And here you are having the pork."
Trowa bowed his head slightly, as though opening himself up to divine punishment, and cut himself another bite. "I don't have any way of knowing one way or the other."
Maybe it was the dim, unfaithful lighting that was to blame, but sitting across from him, Nichol couldn't tell if Trowa found that fact a relief or a deprivation; his face was a blank mask.
"Have you two ever considered getting a test?"
"To find out if we're related? I doubt either of us wants very much to consider the results, whatever they might be. Some questions are better left unanswered."
"Huh. I thought Barton was an English name."
"It is. However, it's not actually mine."
"Oh. Right. I forgot."
Some part of him recoiled at a memory retrieved at the reminder. The cold interior of the Fortress Barge, the smell of the new varnish and upholstery in the furnished offices which for a moment overpowered the aromas of a red wine sauce and rosemary from Trowa's plate—the smell he connected with the sixteen-year-old Trowa of his memory, an impostor in the hunter green uniform of an OZ officer. But that Trowa was gone, he reminded himself.
Nichol scooped up rice pilaf onto his fork deftly, but his eyes watched the new Trowa, whose way of cutting his asparagus, raising it to his mouth, and pulling it off his fork had a precise casualness about it that did not fit the gravity of their line of conversation. It was perfectly in line with the old Trowa, who stared him down knowing Nichol had figured him out and not caring—as though challenging Nichol to defy Une and take him out. Yet, somehow, at the same time it was the action of a different person, an acquaintance he had first met at a coffee kiosk in the spaceport.
He didn't realize he had been watching Trowa eat until the other said as though something had been left without clarification: "It isn't that I'm not religious. I just haven't found a place to put it yet."
He might as well have been talking about displaying a piece of art. Nichol snorted, causing Trowa to look up.
"Nothing. You know, they say there are three subjects that are taboo to discuss, and you've just brought up number two—"
"Did you grow up on the Moon?"
"And there's number three." Nichol regarded him in disbelief for a moment before answering: "Yeah. Yeah, I grew up on the Moon."
"Grimaldi," Nichol said with a hard edge, remembering the Cabernet comment. "My father had something of a bioengineering project going with a couple of partners from college. They grew wheat, corn, rice, those sorts of things. Not enough to live by, but the important part was always the patents. Hell," he chuckled, "I would probably still be driving a tractor for a living if it weren't for the UES—"
He trailed off, squinting at his plate and a tough bit of meat that was being suddenly and particularly stubborn.
"Did they die?"
Nichol didn't answer. "Why do you say that?"
"Earlier you said your family was Orthodox. I was just curious." Looking vaguely ashamed—as ashamed as it was possible for Trowa to look—he amended: "In any case, it sounds nice."
"Yeah? Call me crazy but I don't have any urge to go back to that kind of life."
"That's not what I meant."
"Well, do me a favor and don't ask about it again."
Out of a sudden spark of maliciousness, Nichol thought of asking Trowa about his childhood as payback. But as Trowa turned once again to his food, eyes resolutely downcast as though in reverence for the death of the subject, Nichol dropped it.
In that moment he decided he would insist they split the bill. Even if he had to fight for it. Anything but owe Trowa.
"So, tell me about this girl who's not your girlfriend," he started again afresh after some minutes had passed: "Cathrine, you said her name was? How did you two meet?"
A timid smile slowly blossomed on Trowa's lips, and he put his fork down and patted the corner of his mouth with his napkin before reaching for his wine glass. This was going to take a while. Strangely enough, Nichol couldn't wait. He only had to listen.
"Well, she had grown up in a traveling circus, which just happened to be looking for new talent when I arrived on Earth . . ."
The air on the street carried a chill, even though there was no particular reason for it to in the climate-controlled Ptolemaeus crater. One would suspect that there were patches here and there that maintained the tropical heat and humidity that was essential for the survival of transplanted palm trees and sun-worshipers; but the shopping arcades and thoroughfares were a different story. Perhaps there was a psychological reason for the cold weather other than seasonal appropriateness, to better lure shoppers and diners inside out of it, and to cultivate their appetites.
Having eaten his fill himself, Nichol scrunched his shoulders against the breeze he hadn't remembered being so piercing on the way up. "Did someone turn down the thermostat?" he joked awkwardly, flatly, suddenly unsure of what to say outside the confines of the restaurant and the context it provided.
If Trowa heard, he pretended not to. He wrapped his scarf securely about his neck and turned to Nichol. "What do you want to do now?"
He asked as though Nichol had a choice. Strangely enough, going home did not occur to him as an option. It was not that he thought it rude; such things as propriety did not apply to him and Trowa and never had. For some inexplicable reason, he found that the last thing he wanted now was to return to his apartment.
Where there was no one waiting for him, no one to keep him from his memories.
Ironic he would find comfort in the company of another veteran mobile suit pilot. Perhaps it was the knowledge that Trowa had been lost far longer than he had that drew him to the young man he once considered his enemy—the knowledge that Nichol's service, at least, had been a choice. Trowa made his own troubles seem petty in comparison.
That was what he had told himself, at least. It was how he justified the resentment he had once felt in Trowa's presence fizzling into a strange indifference, at worst a mild pity and, at best, mild curiosity. The better Nichol got to know him, the harder it was to delude himself. They really weren't so different. And Trowa wasn't really such an ass.
Noting his indecision—reading his mind, more like—Trowa said: "I don't know about you, but my eyes were bigger than my stomach. What do you say to walking some of dinner off?"
The cheery facade from that first day at the office, now so transparent, was back. But Nichol refused to acknowledge it as such. "Why not."
They wandered the shopping arcades for a while, looking at the decorated storefronts without any interest, making comments behind which there was no feeling. The civil tone of their banter, the reciprocity, was enough, even when it was strained.
Giant screens mounted on the sides of skyscrapers played fast, colorful advertisements and music videos and news stories. Naturally, as many concerned the war's anniversary as they concerned the holiday season, yet on that Trowa remained silent, face a blank as he stared up lost in thought, and Nichol pretended not to notice. A crowd had gathered on the sidewalk before the entrance to one such arcade, and as they crossed the scramble crosswalk, the two moved naturally toward it to see what had caused the commotion. A small choir was singing "A Spotless Rose."
It was nothing nostalgic nor sentimental, only the eerie harmonies the singers created when they sang the line "Its fairest bud unfolds to light" that made a small shiver run up Nichol's spine and remind him of the cold—of the artificial winter of the dome as well as of the vacuum above it. He glanced at Trowa, intending to make some comment, but thought better of it when he caught sight of Trowa's expression.
The young man's eyes, muted in the dim light of the street lamps, seemed inexplicably sad as they watched the performers. No, on second thought, not sad. Perhaps it was fairer to say there was in them and in his slightly furrowed brows a look of indignation, even offense that not even all of Nichol's cynicism and obstinacy over dinner had managed to produce.
He leaned toward Nichol after the number and said lowly, "Can we go?"
Nichol shrugged. "Sure. Where?"
"I don't care," Trowa said. "Anywhere but here."
They slipped out of the crowd, and in short order were standing outside of the Estrella hotel. Naturally, when Trowa suggested they go up Nichol had his misgivings.
The young man's smile returned, but with none of the falseness of before. "I assure you," he said, "my intentions are entirely honorable. Unless you count drinking as a vice, in which case they are utterly unforgivable."
"I think I'd do better with a cup of coffee before I have to be getting home."
Trowa shook his head at that poor attempt at an excuse to cut and run, saying quickly: "Have you ever been to the lounge on the top floor?"
"Ah . . . no."
"You've been living in Ptolemaeus how long and you've never seen it?" Trowa bowed as he opened the door for Nichol, his free hand inviting him into the warm interior, and Nichol suddenly didn't find Trowa's revelation over dinner about working as a clown in a circus for his cover that laughable anymore. "It's the best view in the city," Trowa promised, and once again Nichol gave in.
Behind the glass roof under which they sat, far above the city, the emerald and sapphire ball that was the Earth shone more radiantly and closer than anywhere else in Ptolemaeus. Colonies in the L2 cluster glinted like tiny silver washers suspended in the air. Precipitation was falling from the dome in the form of snow, produced, no doubt, just for this occasion, reminding them it had snowed that night five years ago. The snow and the falling Serpent mobile suits—there had been little difference, little to separate the drifting of snowflakes from that of the ash made by Mariemaia's "Christmas presents." Nichol had not been there that day, but he had experienced it nonetheless just as though he had, when the guilt that had possessed him the year before upon skipping out on the final battle in space faded and coalesced into that first desire to become a Preventer.
Somehow he had been able to avoid those painful memories dredged up by the anniversary all day; now, under that hanging sphere, the lazy sound of a lounge band on the air and a tumbler of whiskey in his hands instead of the cup of coffee that should have been, they returned full force and he and Trowa did not balk from them. With a carelessness that probably should have been cause for worry, they laughed darkly over reminiscences of the past decade's various sins—absurdities like OZ's brand of peace for the colonies and the debate over manned versus unmanned murder machines and their idealistic adolescent selves, all of which they had once believed in to varying degrees.
Trowa's company that had been so hard to classify abruptly became at once Nichol's support, and his envy. Unlike himself, the gundams had been in the thick of it. Unlike himself, they had won peace.
"'What bitter wrong can the earth do to us,'" Trowa said of a sudden, breaking their sacred silence, "'that we should not long be here contented?'"
Nichol missed that particular reference and said nothing.
"According to the aerospace museum here, the pioneers of space development who settled in Ptolemaeus prized it for its location. Because the Moon is face-locked with the Earth, the Earth never changes the position it has in the sky in each respective place. Ptolemaeus, however, was unique in that the Earth was always at the zenith, and therefore it didn't take much to reassure a homesick laborer she was still there, waiting for him. All he had to do was look up."
There was something dreamy in Trowa's tone of voice that irritated Nichol. He muttered, "Speak for yourself."
Trowa, who had been leaning back to gaze at the Earth, sat up to look at Nichol. "Sorry?"
"You sound like one of those homesick laborers yourself, pining for the Earth. But you've only been here a couple weeks. This is a holiday for you. What would you know about the Moon, Trowa?"
He was being harsh, Nichol knew, not bothering to hide the resentment that inexplicably prickled him; but Trowa's face showed no hurt. Only slight surprise, that Nichol had bothered to use his first name.
Nichol's gaze went to the swirl of amber in his glass. "Maybe it does serve to remind us where we come from, what we've left behind. But maybe that was the whole point. Through perseverance and ingenuity, humans have progressed to the point they can support themselves, without the uncertainties of plate tectonics and weather patterns. The Colonies may be fragile, too, but at least the residents know they are in control of their own destiny." He raised the glass to his lips, pausing as though steeling himself for a drink. "I couldn't stand that god-awful place. It was bad here, too, but . . . The Earth rejected me long ago."
He felt Trowa's gaze on him a moment more, watching Nichol drink, before the young man once again tipped his head back.
"No," he said, and Nichol was not longer certain they were even talking about the same thing. "She doesn't reject us. It's the other way around. She doesn't know how, and that's her greatest fault. She just keeps pulling us back down, no matter what we do."
It was Nichol's turn to look at him curiously as he went on—quite candidly as long as his eyes were set on the sky:
"I thought about going back to the circus for a little while instead of coming here—about being a part of Cathrine's act again. Seeing the lions again. It gave me a chance to work with my hands, and that's what I'm used to—what I was doing since before I could even remember. Honestly, I don't think I was ever so happy as when I had my hands deep inside a mobile suit. As long as I didn't think about the people my machines would kill or maim or orphan, I was happy.
"The fact of the matter is, there are some things one just can't do as a Preventer. It's despicable of me, I know, but sometimes I almost wish someone would start something again—not a war, of course, but some conflict. That, at least, is a context I can understand. There would be problems that needed solving, and I would be worth something again. . . . At least, that's what I think until I remind myself that the last thing I would wish on anyone is that through my actions I should make them just like me."
In the quiet that descended, the singer of the band slurred the words to "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" Nichol caught himself staring at the blinking lights of a sign outside the window. "I know. It's like what some people say, about how their worst fears are of becoming their fathers."
Trowa opened his mouth to say something, perhaps to disagree, but thought better of it.
And Nichol found himself standing with one foot on top of the uncrossable line.
"I think it's time we both called it a night," he said, setting his glass not quite empty on the coffee table and rising. "Can I pay your cab fare—"
"That won't be necessary." Trowa shrugged the offer off. "My room is downstairs."
"What, you mean here? You booked a room in the Estrella, for all this time, on your government salary?"
Trowa smiled timidly. "Yeah. But like I said, I had some vacation saved up, and I don't exactly live within my means normally—more like well below—so it evens out."
That at least was something Nichol could relate to: his own ethic was not so different. "I hope you got your money's worth."
"Would you like to come down and see the room for yourself?"
It was a comfortably-sized room, sparsely furnished but still ample of space. A kitchenette with a bar, bed, television-carrying armoire and small dining set all managed to fit comfortably into one long room, at the end of which was a floor-to-ceiling window that looked down on the city. Somehow it managed to look larger than Nichol's apartment. "Not bad," he said, but didn't sound like he really meant it.
Trowa snorted as he closed the door behind them and scooted past Nichol, removing his coat and scarf in the process and throwing them over the back of a bar stool. "It works."
"Well, it is a little smaller than I imagined a room in this place would be."
"I noticed elbow room seems to be a luxury here. Ironic developers would feel a need to conserve space when they're surrounded by it. Whereas everything is so big on Earth where room is limited. It's kind of counterintuitive."
"It makes perfect sense to me. The cost of living doesn't necessarily reflect that, though, I'll admit."
Slipping behind the bar into the kitchenette, Trowa chuckled. "No need to tell me twice. Can I fix you a cup of coffee before you go, take some of the buzz off?"
He was smiling again. Only this time there was nothing put-on about it. The reserved yet expectant, sad-looking common denominator that all the other facades boiled down to reached his eyes and stayed there unwavering and unassuming. For a moment Nichol hovered in indecision, torn between removing his own coat and getting comfortable and fleeing from that smile. His "Sure. Why not," more or less slipped out.
While Trowa filled the electric kettle with water, Nichol excused himself to use the restroom (which, again, he found to be larger than his own). He was washing his hands when Trowa called from the living area, "I hope you don't mind instant. I'm afraid my own tastes aren't as tasteful as Cathrine's."
"That's fine," Nichol replied to his own reflection. He had to wonder if his features always appeared so tired as they did in Trowa's bathroom mirror.
He emerged and Trowa handed him a mug. "Thanks," he said, raising it slightly in some semblance of a toast. It smelled like instant as well, cheap and bitter, but that was the last of Nichol's cares. Leaning one elbow on the end of the bar, Trowa raised his own mug to his lips. "Happy anniversary," he said before he tipped it back.
Nichol nodded vaguely. "Come to think of it, it hasn't been so bad. I guess I should thank you for inviting me out with you. I actually enjoyed myself tonight."
Trowa raised his brows, pretending to be surprised. "You didn't think you would?"
Downing half his cup regardless of how it burned his tongue, Nichol placed his mug on the bar. He raked a hand through his hair.
"To be honest, I didn't know how I would feel."
"To be honest, I wasn't sure you would come."
"Neither was I. But as it turns out, I'm glad I did. At least, I think I am. I'm not feeling a whole lot of pain right now."
Trowa stifled a laugh against the rim of his mug.
"That champagne wasn't so bad after all."
"No. No, I guess it wasn't."
Nichol felt like he had wanted to say more, but whatever it was slipped from his mind and he found himself staring at Trowa instead, struck once again by the difference of this older version that somehow he had come to know and like so well, against his best efforts, over the course of a single night. What strange spell had possessed him that his defenses could have dropped so easily? The booze or Trowa's charm, false as it was—or something else entirely?
Trowa gave him an uneasy look at the silence, his fingers pausing in the middle of pulling at the button of his shirt collar. He smiled crookedly. "I guess this is the part where you kiss me goodnight."
"Yeah, I guess it is." Nichol didn't know himself what possessed him to say it, but his sarcasm had abandoned him.
Trowa's smile, unsteady to begin with, fell from his lips.
"I was being facetious."
Yet Nichol found the space separating them shrinking rapidly, as though something were pushing him toward Trowa—whom he half expected to move away and stop him, since he was mysteriously lacking that will power himself. Trowa did not.
Their lips met in an awkward semblance of a kiss that, at first, neither quite knew what to do with. This is insane, insane, Nichol's conscience screamed, but Trowa's skin was so warm and soft and not alien, not at all like he expected, that it was damn near impossible to listen and not kiss him in earnest. It had been too long. Through his eyelashes he saw Trowa's eyes close; and the air left Nichol's cheek cold as Trowa inhaled through his nose and tilted his head and opened his mouth. He grabbed the back of Nichol's neck roughly, his fingers twisting in the dark curls, nails grazing his scalp, pulling Nichol possessively against him. The low groan Trowa made as he exhaled affected Nichol like he never thought it could.
Perhaps that was why it seemed so sudden when that same hand that held him to Trowa pulled him abruptly away. "This is a bad idea," Trowa breathed.
"Probably," Nichol muttered, himself breathless, against the other's mouth, "but I don't hear you complaining."
Trowa put an arm against Nichol's chest and there was nothing warm in his touch. "I am. You're making a poor decision, and if I have to save you from it again, so be it. You're not interested in me."
"Suddenly you know so well what my interests are—"
"You hate me. I'm a traitor and you don't trust traitors. Remember?"
If there had been any question that the moment had passed between them, the chill in Trowa's tone of voice answered it conclusively. Nichol backed away. After all they had opened up to one another that evening, even when it was against both of their better judgments, it all became meaningless in an instant—a single moment that brought them right back to Barge.
"Do you make it a hobby to remember everything people say," Nichol said, "just so you can remind them at the worst moment possible? Yes, I hated you six years ago, when I was young and foolish."
"And now you're, what, older and wiser?"
"This is different," Nichol growled.
"No it's not. I'm still a traitor." Trowa looked down at his arm that still separated them. "And you still don't know what you're doing."
"I don't have to take this shit from you, of all people. I may have had a little much to drink, and I'll admit I was as surprised as you were I did that, but I'd hope that I at least have the presence of mind to make sure that if I didn't want to do something, I wouldn't do it."
"And my point is you wouldn't have, if you only knew what I did."
Nichol raised his voice. "Know what you did? Do I have to remind you, we were in the war together. For chrissakes, we were mobile suit pilots together. We were there! Who would know any better?"
"I'm not talking about then," Trowa said through gritted teeth, in an uncharacteristic lapse in self-restraint. He collected himself. "I'm not talking about then," he repeated measuredly, "I'm talking about Une."
Nichol started at the mention of her name. He knew in the back of his mind that he was feeding right into Trowa's plans by pressing the issue, but he did regardless. He couldn't help himself. "What about Une?"
The pained smile that slowly formed on Trowa's lips said enough.
The words would hardly come out. They seemed so blasphemous. "You had an affair . . ."
"To put it lightly." Trowa shrugged slightly—in that smug, mock-innocent manner of his that Nichol hated. "It was really more of a fling, to tell the truth, it wouldn't have worked out, but it was intense while it lasted. I guess working in such close quarters all the time, things get to a point the tension is too great. It just . . . boils over."
Nichol grabbed his shirt in both hands and shoved him against the bar, knocking over Trowa's cup of coffee in the process. Trowa winced as the mug rolled and fell off the edge of the counter.
"You son of a bitch!" Nichol said. "If this is one of your sick jokes—"
Trowa's voice was remarkably calm as he said, "You already know the answer to that, though. Why do you think I came to the Moon for my vacation?"
"I don't believe you."
"You don't have to. Your believing me doesn't change anything." Trowa held his eyes as he looked up at Nichol, not bothering to remove the other's hands from his person. As though he knew he deserved their wrath. "Une's an adult, Nichol. She can think for herself. You were attracted to her on Barge. Anyone with eyes could see that. I know it's been a while but by your reaction I would say your feelings haven't abated that much."
"Shut your goddamn face, Barton, I swear—"
"Or what? What are you going to do about it?"
What indeed. The muscles of Nichol's jaw hurt from the force of clenching them, his hands that gripped the fabric of Trowa's shirt trembling with the urge to hit him Nichol could barely contain. In defense of Une's honor. In retaliation for his injury. Out of the pure distaste he had thought buried for six years. Amazing how quickly and effortlessly Trowa could bring it all back, as fresh as the day he stopped Nichol from making the biggest mistake of his career. That was what he excelled at. The impostor in the OZ uniform had not been so false after all. Nichol would have been justified in punching his lights out.
It was the look in Trowa's eyes that stopped him, however—the defiant look that begged Nichol to do just that. Even though Nichol would have been able to say later that he had been asking for it. Yet as much as it riled him, there was something behind that challenging stare of a boy who had given up on life and been passed by by death. Nichol wondered in passing if the same look came into his eyes when he faced his Cathrine's knives. What great sins made Trowa think he was so unique he deserved to throw it all away so easily? What made him think he mattered so much he had the right to treat himself so trivially?
His anger had not died away—he still felt it burning in his face and armpits—but Nichol loosened his grip on Trowa's shirt. Far be it for him to add to the young man's reckless sense of self-worthlessness, and give him the satisfaction.
Trowa looked perplexed. Because this wasn't how his game was played? "Nichol—"
Nichol did not allow him to finish. He punched him.
Trowa reeled slightly where he stood and his fingers went gingerly to the left side of his face. He didn't say a word, just stood that way for a long moment as though someone had hit a pause button. Nichol winced himself and his right hand shook; it had been a long time since he had thrown a punch. He hadn't even given thought to the possibility he might have hurt Trowa more than he intended, and almost asked the young man if he was all right.
Before he could, Trowa looked up at him in shock. This time, without question, it was sincere. "Did you just hit me in cold-blood?"
"Yeah, so that maybe you could learn by it. You know . . . I'm not really that surprised by the whole thing. But, for God's sake, why did you have to tell me about it? For her sake, Barton," Nichol said, "think about that." He forced a laugh. "You know, I really thought you were better than that. I really thought you had changed."
"That's where you went wrong."
Trowa tried to revive that smug smile, but it wouldn't return, and he succeeded only in looking pathetic. Just a hollow facade.
"I did, did I?" Nichol said.
He picked up his coat from the barstool and left before he could give Trowa a chance to respond and change Nichol's mind. He was pretty sure Trowa wouldn't have tried to anyway.
He didn't have a chance to see the other calmly set about cleaning up the spilled coffee after he had gone as though nothing had happened. He was too preoccupied with making it to the elevator before he lost his cool in front of any passing stranger.
It was only when the mirrored steel doors had closed and the change in gravity pulled up on his stomach that he put his fingers to his brow and closed his eyes, and tried to keep his gorge from rising.
The light in the small apartment came on the minute Nichol opened the door. He did not bother flipping the switch and was enveloped by the dark again when he closed the door behind him, locked the dead bolt, and threw his key on the end table beside the sofa. His coat followed soon after, landing on the davenport, before he started in on his tie on his way to the kitchen.
The small apartment was not completely dark. The dim sunlamps mounted above a case of shelves on one wall provided ample light for him to see his way around. They stayed on for the fourteen days straight the sun was down, his one financial vice, for the sake of the rag-tag collection of plants that competed for space beneath them.
The constant hum of those lights that sat just above the lowest threshold of human hearing told his body it was home and could finally relax as he poured himself a glass of water from the tap and swallowed a couple of aspirin. The remainder of the water got split among the plants that needed it the most on the way back to the living room.
Nichol dropped himself down in the sofa and turned on the television. A sphere-wide station was covering an event taking place on Earth to mark the fifth anniversary of Mariemaia's invasion, and the subsequent second end of the war. He told himself he might see the Director—no, Une if he watched long enough; but at the same time he knew that probability was next to none. Though his eyes were fixed on the screen, the famous faces and the music and solemn pageantry did not quite make it to his brain.
There was no more room with the memory of his last conversation with Trowa that evening cramming it, playing itself over and over again so that he might catch his mistakes from repeated viewings. Just in case he missed them the first time around, or the tenth. He didn't know why he had kissed Trowa Barton anyway. It was a stupid thing to do, not at all like him. But even then, had it been so terrible a crime as to warrant that confession? There was no other reason Nichol could think of for Trowa to tell him about himself and Une except out of spite; and if that were the case, Nichol had no choice but to hate him in retaliation.
Which, unfortunately, was easier said than done.
He tried, but all he felt was a deep emptiness like a black hole in the pit of his stomach that no clear emotions would come back up out of. Somewhere inside—in his gut perhaps—he must have known any relationship with Une beyond the professional one they had would not have worked out. He could hate Trowa all he liked, he could envy him for gaining that one thing that Nichol never could, that one thing he had always hoped for, but the fact remained: he could win Une's trust—that was within his power—but winning her affection was something neither he nor any other second-party had control over.
Still, it had been a fond dream.
At some point during the program, trying to recall her face, he fell asleep.
He dreamed he was back on Earth—Earth as he remembered it when he and his compatriots had escaped from Barge, and had finally touched down on the tarmac. He had had to adjust himself to the greater gravity then; but it was something else that made his legs sluggish and drag each time he went to take a step, while the tall grass at the edge of the tarmac bent light as a feather on the breeze. He found himself in the shadow of towering ruins made of the rumpled corpses of ships and mobile suits and sheets of metal leaning haphazardly together.
"You're not too good at this forgive and forget thing, are you? But you'll get over it. Flying Aries ain't like dusting crops, my good friend."
He turned toward the sound of the voice. "Shut up, Walker. Did you just get back?" As could only happen in dreams, there was nothing at all ridiculous or illogical about asking that question of his deceased friend. In the relative time of the subconscious, they were back on maneuvers with the Middle East Aries Troops.
Walker walked backwards with his hands in his pockets as he talked, and the bright sunlight threw his shadow long and skinny and alien across the dust. "They say this new suit's a real killer . . ."
His lips continued to move, but the words that came out of them fizzled into static and were carried away in the thick air. Nichol strained to hear. "What? Speak louder." His old friend smiled; but when he opened his mouth to repeat himself, Nichol noticed that his eyes were green under slender arched brows, and the lips that mouthed the words were suddenly boyish and bowed and inherently more somber than Walker's had ever been. Had they been like that the whole time?
Strangely, he was sad to see their owner retreat.
He woke suddenly to the grounding sounds of the television program invading his inner ear, head throbbing, a bad taste in his mouth.
There was something Quatre had said to him once, in one of his rare fits of candidness since the end of the war. It was also one of the few times he allowed himself to criticize another person to his face. He said that Trowa had a self-defeating personality, a rampant stubbornness, and an infantile fear of weakness that made him push away anyone who came too close to discovering his real self. (Coming from Quatre, that was saying a lot.) He said Trowa probably didn't know what that was himself, and he would end up alone if he weren't careful, as though that were something Trowa had ever wanted to prevent. And he said that none of the other three would ever tell him themselves because they knew they would have come off as hypocrites.
Apparently Quatre did not share their reluctance.
"You know what your problem is?" The pity in Quatre's eyes had hurt him worse than any words. "You're afraid that one day someone is going to come along who can save you. Like that's the worst thing that could happen. I just . . . don't understand that."
"It's not that I'm afraid. I don't deserve it."
"Okay. Whatever. Keep telling yourself that."
Looking back, he recognized that part in their conversation as the moment Quatre gave up on him. Until that point, both of them had thought the closeness they had formed during the violence and chaos of 195 was incorruptible, when in reality it was more fragile than either had realized. The difference between them was that Trowa saw something like that as more trouble than it was worth.
The turning point for Une had been more or less identical, although perhaps her feminine nature endowed her with more patience than even his bighearted Quatre could muster up. With others, it had been a diplomatic agreement to disagree.
Now Trowa wondered whether he had already missed that chance with Nichol, before they had even begun to form something to tear down.
He thought about that as he watched the twenty-four hour news programs on the television with the volume turned off, slouched against the bed's headboard, attempting in vain to follow the ups and downs of stocks and the latest headlines. Why he let it preoccupy and trouble his mind was beyond him. It hurt nothing if Nichol hated him. He had hated Trowa long before he ever showed up on the Moon. After this week, he would return to Earth and they would never have to see each other again.
Then why did it pain him every time he re-examined their conversation the other night? Because up until that kiss he had been enjoying himself?
Trowa sighed and ran a hand through his hair, leaning his elbow on his bent knee. There were no two ways about it. He fucked up. He just couldn't figure out where.
The chirruping of the video phone hurt Trowa's eardrums when it wrecked his perfect silence. He roused himself from the bed, shaking off his sluggishness as he was so used to doing, and recognized Nichol's office number. He depressed the answer button. "Yeah."
The casualness of his answer seemed to take Nichol momentarily aback. "Oh. Barton," his tinny voice said. "I didn't wake you, did I?"
Trowa glanced at the dark outside. "It's two in the afternoon," he said.
"Eh, right. You just sound tired. . . . Anyway, I wanted to apologize about the other night—"
Trowa sighed. "Don't bother. Really. We were both intoxicated and I had it coming. I've survived a lot worse."
"I was talking about the other thing."
"Oh." He absently scratched the tiny cut Nichol's blow had left on his cheek, wishing it had only been that. "Why?"
"Why am I apologizing?"
At Trowa's encouraging nod, Nichol suddenly looked nervous and shifted in his chair. "Never mind. I'm calling with a peace offering."
Trowa leaned forward. For once, he was unsure of the direction in which Nichol was going. "After everything I said, I thought you wouldn't want anything to do with me."
Nichol smiled. "That's what you were counting on, wasn't it?"
Trowa's pulse quickened. He wasn't used to feeling cornered. "What do you want?"
"What are you doing New Year's Eve?"
"There you two are! We've been looking all over for you."
Nichol groaned as the voice of the self-dubbed office mom interrupted their conversation, and Trowa trailed off to flash the middle-aged woman a smile. "Happy New Year, Mrs S," he said.
It made her grin like a schoolgirl. "Oh, happy New Year to you to, Trowa. Nichol." She handed each of them a flute of champagne as she observed with a coy look, "Don't you two look comfy over here all by yourselves."
Nichol cleared his throat and made a concerted effort to ignore Trowa's shy smile. "What's going on?"
"The countdown is set to begin in about five minutes," Mrs S said. "I thought I'd better give you a heads up. In case you two young gentlemen want to . . . mingle before it starts."
So some single female employees would get stuck by them when it struck midnight, in other words. Nichol wondered which ones put her up to coming over. He raised his glass. "Thanks," he said.
She seemed to miss his sarcasm. But, then again: "You might want to get some of the goodies before they're all gone."
"Only if I can have some more of yours," said Trowa.
Mrs S's eyes went wide in mock shock. "Tro-wa, not now. My husband's here."
"What? I was talking about your gingersnaps." A rakish smile appeared on his face and he couldn't help himself: "That is what the young kids are calling them these days, isn't it?"
Mrs S blushed furiously and he dodged a playful backhanded slap to the stomach. "Why, you . . ." As she searched for the appropriate variation of "cad," another female employee waved her over, and she excused herself to join the others, wagging her finger at Nichol. "You better keep a close watch on this little rapscallion, Nichol."
"Oh, no need to worry about that." When she had gone, he muttered, "You're incorrigible."
Trowa said over the lip of his glass. "Just a little bit of harmless conversation."
"Right. And wipe that grin off your face. Careful you don't incur the wrath of any jealous husbands after tonight—although, knowing you, you're probably one of those who get off on that sort of thing. . . ."
The grin remained stubbornly fixed on Trowa's lips despite his best efforts, making it difficult enough to drink as it was; but he nearly lost it at Nichol's last words.
"Hey. The champagne is for midnight," Nichol chided him, but after some consideration mumbled something about inane traditions and up-ended his own glass.
The two of them stood apart from the crowd of fellow Preventers and clerks who were gathered to ring in the new year, and Nichol had to admit: it was comfy in their corner. It was a lonely position he held as a district manager, and there was no one else here who could truly understand that—nor respect that, for that matter—but Trowa. They didn't have to like each other; that was enough.
The sky outside the window by which they stood was pale green with the sunrise even though the time was almost twelve midnight, the sun hidden behind the tops of the skyscrapers; but the third-quarter Earth was in the same position as always. In a few minutes, the Prime Meridian would pass directly above them, and when it did 202 would officially begin on the Moon.
"Don't worry. I won't be staying long enough to start any trouble," Trowa said, suddenly sober, and it gave Nichol pause. "Hey, don't leave me alone now. At least stay for the countdown—"
"I don't mean the party. I mean Ptolemaeus. I think I've probably overstayed my welcome, so it's decided. I'm catching the first shuttle back to Earth on the third."
"The third of January?" Nichol knitted his eyebrows. He wasn't sure why he found it so hard to believe.
"Well, it's just that it's awfully sudden is all. You've already made the arrangements and everything?"
When Trowa tightened his lips together and said nothing, Nichol lowered his voice. "This isn't about the anniversary, is it? Because of all the childish things—"
"It has nothing to do with that."
"Right," Nichol snorted. "I forgot who I was talking to. You gundam pilots never run away from your problems—"
"I'm not running away," Trowa enunciated; and it seemed to Nichol that it was sheer self-restraint that kept him from gritting his teeth as he did so. "I'm eager to return to work. I've been away long enough and dumped enough of my money into the lunar economy, and furthermore I must have quite a pile of work waiting on my desk by now to catch up on.
"Besides," he added as he held his champagne glass before his lips, "not everything is about you."
Nichol nodded to himself, unconvinced. And he was to suppose that confrontation in Trowa's hotel room on Christmas Eve had nothing to do with him either? "And nothing I can say will make you change your mind?"
"You tell me. If you're so determined, I guess I can't stop you from leaving, even if it does strike me as escapist."
He wasn't sure where the sudden idea came from, whether it had been floating around in his subconscious, growing in some pocket of comfort he hadn't allowed himself to recognize; but the words were out of his mouth before Nichol could take them back. "How about if I offered you a job? Would you stay then?"
Trowa looked genuinely surprised. "In Ptolemaeus?"
"Or on the Moon in general. I know the cost of living is a little higher but, hey, so is the pay. It would be a step up from what you're doing now."
The more logical it sounded to Nichol's own ears, the more thankful he was for Trowa's hesitation.
"I don't know. I like what I do."
"Yeah. I can see that. That's why Une sent you here."
Trowa apparently had some retort he was itching to make, but as soon as he opened his mouth a cheer rose up from the other employees who gathered around a television, the volume of which someone was turning up as they called for calm. The countdown was beginning. The broadcast showed the mammoth lighted counter that had been set up downtown; from this angle, it was barely visible down the street if Nichol and Trowa strained their necks. There was a massive shuffling as married employees returned to their spouses and the single ones situated themselves next to one another—or away from one another, as the case may be—and the few who were still empty-handed hurried to grab champagne flutes from the buffet table. Silence descended abruptly, only to be replaced by the group chanting as one along with the television: "Ten! Nine! Eight! . . ."
Standing apart and unnoticed, Nichol and Trowa refrained from counting down with them. With each number lower, Trowa's shoulders seemed to relax more and more. He leaned slightly in Nichol's direction to say, "Another year almost down. Only sixty-seven left to go. Average, anyway."
"Sixty-four on the Moon," Nichol added.
"Really?" Trowa raised his eyebrows.
"Yeah. It's some gravity thing. All the more incentive to stay, huh?"
"I'd never get the hang of this lunar daytime, though," Trowa managed to squeeze in before the office erupted in cheers of "Happy New Year!" and noise-makers honking and cranking, and the other sounds of frivolity as couples embraced and kissed and friends and coworkers laughed and patted one another on the back.
With perfunctory timing, a band on the broadcast started up a number at the exact moment the cheers began to lose their momentum; and the party-goers predictably joined in with their glasses raised high: "Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . ."
"You know, you're a rare bird, Barton," Nichol said, still thinking about Trowa's last comment as he turned. "I don't think I'll ever figure you out."
Trowa flashed a smile, but it was rather muted.
"That's all right," he said. "I've never been able to figure myself out either."
"Which is still more than I can say for this song." Nichol groaned. "Why does everyone have to sing this song year after year?" He raised his glass to take another swig of champagne, but found it empty from when the clock struck midnight. "You can't even understand the words—and I'm half convinced that that's the whole point."
For the first time since Mrs S had interrupted them, Trowa turned to look at him. "What's not to understand?"
Before Nichol could formulate an answer, he was singing along with the rest:
We twa hae paidl'd in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine
But seas between us braid hae roar'd
Sin auld lang syne
And ther's a hand my trusty friend
And gie's a hand o thine
We'll tak a cup o kindness yet
For auld lang syne
Perhaps it was because of his proximity his low, timid voice drowned out the voices of all the rest in Nichol's ears, and he felt the blood vessels in his face and armpits open up in embarrassment as he listened. It wasn't that Trowa's singing was poor, though it was far from perfect. Nichol had harbored no speculation as to what Trowa's singing voice would have been like. Just like the young man's laugh, he had been hard-pressed to believe Trowa even had it in him to carry a tune.
Yet he managed, and somehow the meaning of the words was not such a mystery anymore. They still hardly sounded like English to Nichol, but the intimacy in them impressed him as though hearing them for the first time. That was what had embarrassed him. It was the humbling feeling of being proven wrong—once again, as the case may be where Trowa was concerned. This time, however, as Trowa fixed his green eyes on him, Nichol found he welcomed that feeling as he rarely did.
It was the closest thing to an apology he could expect. And, for now at least, it would have to do in place of an answer to his proposal.
"For auld lang syne, my dear/ For auld lang syne/ We'll tak a cup o kindness yet/ For auld lang syne."