A harmonica wailed out a lonely blues lick as Zechs stepped through the door of the juke joint. The smell of stale beer and cigarettes assailed his nose as the door swung shut behind him, and he made his way past tables where mostly locals sat watching the band. Out of habit he reached to adjust his dark glasses as he eased into the dimmer interior, and instead his hand collided with the metal of his new mask. Mentally berating himself for not breaking that habit yet, his hidden eyes scanned the space, looking for a familiar form. He found who he was looking for toward the back, leaning over one of the six resident pool tables. The muscular back turned blithely toward the door as he lined up his next shot. Even in civilian clothing he cut a sharp figure that was highlighted as he straightened and passed in front of a neon sign to the other side of the table.
Zechs raised his hand to the bartender, signaling for two beers; a light ale for him and a dark stout for Treize. Why Treize preferred his beer thick enough he could chew it, Zechs never would understand. He snagged the bottles as he walked by, leaving the tab open; Treize looked like he wasn’t planning to leave any time soon. Zechs weaved through the crowd and made his way to Treize, hip coming to rest against the end of the table. Treize glanced up, flashing a grin at his partner as the cue ball clacked sharply against the red and white striped ball, sending it neatly into the pocket. The 8 ball followed quickly after, clearing the playing field.
“Playing solo?” Zechs asked, passing over the long neck bottle.
“I had a few people who were willing to play earlier, but they quit after the first two tables. I can’t imagine why,” Treize replied. He threw his head back and took a long pull that drained half of the bottle.
“Probably because they realized they were playing against a pool shark. There’s a reason no one in the wing will play you for the bar tab anymore.”
“Exactly. That’s why I always buy the first round these days,” Treize bounced the heel of the cue against the ground a few times. “Play a game or two with me?”
“Depends,” Zechs took a cue down from the wall as the other man racked the balls for the next game. “You buying the next round of beer?”
“I figured loser buys,” Treize began, then raised his hands in surrender at the glare leveled at him across the table. “Okay, you win. Yes, I’ll buy. For the rest of the night if you want. Your break.”
Another blues band followed the first, the guitarist picking rhythmic flourishes around soulful lyrics about hard love and harder life. Against this background of music the next few hours were spent in easy camaraderie for the young officers. Playful insults and jabs passed back and forth with the familiarity of years spent together at Lake Victoria base, then flying wingman for each other in the field.
Evenings like this were becoming rarer as Treize’s meteoric rise through the ranks required more and more of his time and attention. In addition to the hours put in as a pilot and commanding officer, he was spending more time playing diplomat; making connections and attending functions that would increase his influence in the right circles.
It was always apparent that, between his family name and extensive connections to both the military and the ruling classes, Treize Khushrenada was destined to be a political powerhouse. Playing politics only refined what was already ingrained in his natural demeanor and mind. Even having practically grown up with the man, Zechs was still impressed to see the effects of Treize’s powerful charisma and work ethic when it was brought to bear on the right audience. For every sweeping, effortless, televised speech that ended in standing ovations and new allies, Zechs knew there were countless hours of conferences and meetings that took place to lay the groundwork required to tip the balance in his favor. All of the increased command responsibilities and political maneuvering were requiring Treize to close ranks and play things closer to his chest, even with those he trusted. Unguarded outings when he could wear civilian clothing and verbally joust with a friend were to be savored.
As the second band finished their set, Treize returned from the bar with another round just in time to see Zechs’s shot curve to the right for the third time. “I know you’re not drunk, you’ve not put enough of a dent in my pocket for that. Why do you keep missing?”
“The damn table is uneven,” Zechs growled, leaning over and stabbing the offending spot with an accusatory finger. “The felt is worn thin too, so that doesn’t help matters.”
“Ah, that. It’s not too difficult to adjust for once you realize it’s there. Consider it like a gravity well as you dock with the larger mining asteroids, or on approach to the lunar base.”
Zechs couldn’t choke back the laugh that burst free at the comment. “Did you seriously just compare billiards to literal rocket science?”
“It’s not that much of a stretch. When you think about it, it’s all physics. Geometry, thrust force, trajectory plotting,” Treize’s tone was all pompous academy instructor, retrieving his cue from where it leaned against the wall. “Consider this. You know you’ll encounter additional resistance here,” he pointed to the dip in the table with the tip of the cue. “So to counteract that, you’ll put a little bit of English on the ball. Strike the ball on the lower right quadrant to give it counter clockwise spin. It’ll compensate for the gravity well and you’ll be able to shoot straight across.”
Zechs shook his head. “Hell, no wonder no one on the base can touch you when you play pool. They’re playing a game for fun, and you’re playing war games.” A platinum eyebrow arched in challenge. “And how, exactly, am I to know ahead of playing this particular table that there is a gravity well on the south east quadrant?”
“That, young Master Marquise, is why you do your surveillance work before you go to war,” Treize sniffed for effect, perfectly imitating the pinched tone of Instructor Reince, a little regarded linguistics tutor from their childhood who made up in arrogance what he lacked in stature and courage. He never served in any branch of the military, but fancied himself quite the historian who could have won any war at any time due to his superior tactical genius. Zechs snorted in disgust and amusement.
Unable to hold the straight face any longer, Treize cracked a wide smile of his own and laughed, his body relaxing into an easy posture as he perched on a stool, taking another swallow of his beer.
“So is that why you’re out here on the edge of nowhere, rather than going to the bars right off base? Undercover surveillance? I know it’s not for the quality of the drinks,” Zechs grimaced at the offending beer even as he took another sip.
“You don’t go to a place like this expecting champagne. Go to the opera if you want that.” At his companion’s scoff, Treize’s countenance turned inward, “I guess you could call it that. Undercover surveillance, I mean. The further from base I am, the less likely I am to be recognized. More people want my approval on their pet project and I can’t abide them trying to curry favor when I’m out of uniform. When I’m on my own time, I like to be left to myself. With some exceptions of course.” He paused and rolled the bottle between his palms. “It’s all necessary to steer the future toward the best possible course that I see. The Specials will be front and center as we usher the world into peace and if I must be that guiding hand, so be it.”
Treize set his bottle down on the table, looking earnestly into Zech’s eyes and lowering his voice. “I always lead from the front. You know I wouldn’t have it any other way. But there is a day in the near future when I’ll have to step out of my cockpit, maybe permanently. There’s another battlefield looming ahead of me. I must be the visible face for the Specials and Oz during the upcoming political maneuvers. There’s no one else I can trust in the viper den that is the Earth Sphere Alliance. But I do have someone I trust to lead my troops,” He reached out and put a hand on Zech’s arm. “When I leave the cockpit, I’ll need you to be there. Together we will lead Earth and the colonies into a glorious future.”
Zechs lowered his eyes to the hand on his arm, then to the impressive cluster of empty bottles that had precipitated this revelation. His jaw clenched and unclenched several times as he looked for the right words. “Treize, you know I can’t stay with you forever. One day I’ll have to leave, to settle my… family business. I’ll be by your side as long as I can. But the day this masks breaks, I can no longer be your friend.”
With a dismissive hand wave, Treize seemed to snap out of his reverie. “Of course. I understand about your business, and well, we’ll worry about the rest when the time comes. But. Back to the question at hand; why did I come to this bar out of all the options available? The music is much better here than anywhere close to base.” He nodded to the final band of the night where a woman had stepped up to the microphone. Almost as if it had been choreographed she began her first song of the night; a heart wrenching rendition of the blues classic ‘Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.’ Her husky voice called her audience deeper into her spell as the piano player’s fingers moved lightly up and down the keys.
Zechs listened to the first verse quietly then shrugged. “It all sounds the same to me. Loss and hardship and what woman left and took a man’s heart. Even the music sounds the same. The same chords repeated over and over, unless the musicians wander all over the place. But even then, it still ends up in the same place it started.”
With a small head shake Treize murmured, “I can see why you think that way. So did I, once. Remember when we were at Victoria and couldn’t wait to get away from the barracks? Running as hard and fast as we could to the closest bar for the most awful beer imaginable and any game that happened to be available?”
Zechs nodded, “And if I remember correctly, Otto’s favorite part of it all was karaoke.”
“Yes and god save us all from the times he tried to drag either of us up on the stage with him. Simpler times. But one night in the midst of all of that chaos, a blues band was playing. The band leader sang and played the steel guitar. If you judged his voice by classic standards, I think one of our music teachers would compare it to a cat wailing at midnight. But the passion in his voice captivated me. It was raw, passionate, and just as emotive as the most brilliant opera. So very different, but no less powerful. And I fell in love with it. All of it. The rhythm, the words, the way it seems to meander because the musicians are just enjoying themselves too damn much being in the moment to finish their song quickly. It’s all part of the experience. To paraphrase, it was once said that blues are easy to play, but hard to feel.* I bought the band’s album that night, and have collected many more albums, but you can’t compare a recording to a live performance. It’s like piloting in a simulator and on a battlefield. You can complete the same mission both times, but the real emotions are only present when you’re in the moment. That’s what I get when I come here.”
They listened the rest of the night to the band, eventually moving from the pool tables to the side of the dance floor, watching locals reeling to the music that alternated between rousing and slow couple dances. During one song, “The Call,” Treize’s face lit with excitement at a song he’d only heard previously when on a mission to the L2 cluster. “If anyone has the soul to sing blues, it’s the people who live there.”
As they walked back to base, Zechs still couldn’t say that he liked the music, but had a better understanding of it and through it, the man walking beside him. Surprisingly, he’d also learned more about playing pool as well.
“So the gravity well shot. What did you call that trick with the ball?”
“English,” Treize replied, the slightest bit of slur coloring his voice the only hint that he wasn’t completely sober. “You put a little bit of English on the ball to make it spin.”
“And what if I’d rather work on my French?” Zechs asked, easing his body up beside his partner’s.
“I thought you’d never ask.” came the reply, as Treize closed the distance between their lips.