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Dec 16, 2018 1:39 PM
A Val and a Mica.
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"I wasn't planning on it unless you need me to stop distracting you."

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"Please, please don't, it would be worse, I couldn't think when I wasn't able to come find you--"

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"Okay, see, that really makes me think your problem is you don't have any friends. And maybe you're sort of running on reserves but I don't think people can do that forever."

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"I need this," he says, his voice hollow. "I need this job, and I need to be perfect at it, and I can't let anything get in my way. If I fuck up..."

He doesn't want to think about it. There are reasons no one leaves the Guard. Reasons no one dies but as a hero.

"All I've ever had is the respect I've fought to earn. I can't stop fighting for it just because I like your attention better. The city's respect will stay as long as I stay someone they can respect."

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"Then keep fighting for it! We're not even spending that much of our time together, just how distracted are you when you're not with me?"

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"It's not the distraction." You make me want to stop fighting. Stop having to fight.

"It's like I've been living on bread and water and then you brought me a feast. Like I've spent my life chasing vague flickers in the dark and you showed me the sun. And I wonder what I'm doing all this for, why I'm--why I scramble to keep my place when the only reward is a lit match and another day of the same, if I could instead come sit by your fire. Be warm for real and never burn my fingers. It scares me," he admits. "I'm scared."

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"People can live on bread and water and keep going okay for a while and then they get sick. Maybe you were just close to falling apart. Later when you're not starving you won't feel... greedy, I guess. Probably. I don't know, I'm just guessing."

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"I don't want to go back to bread and water," he whispers. "But I'm--I'm Commander Erol Kamis. It's who I am. I can't put myself over the city. I can't stop..."

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"Even you need food."

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He reaches gently for Val's cheek. "I'm here until I die, Val. It's bread and water or death. Maybe it's not enough now but it was enough when I was starving, when I would have--done anything for a scrap of attention. It's too late for anything better."

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"You're where? The Guard? Can't you be in the Guard and make a friend?"

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It's better not to. It's better not to care about people. They're dangerous. They make you inefficient. They'll try to turn you to their own.

"The Commander of the Guard." He's not just a Guard. He's not just a subordinate trusted with a sensitive experiment. He's not just the one who stares at pages and pages and pages and turns them into schedules that keep the city patrolled and safe. He's all of these, and more, and there is always more to do. The schedule shows him as putting in almost half the time he really does. He eats in small moments between tasks. He sleeps only as much as necessary. Before Val the only breaks he took were short, and he'd meant for it to be short with Val, too.

A friend is just a security risk. Just a potential hazard, a unnecessary variable. One more thing that needs his time.

"I shouldn't have let you fuck me. Baron Praxis was right, paying attention to anything but my work and the city is a weakness. My slipping up could cost lives. Slowing down could be the difference between victory and defeat--someone close enough to talk to can learn secrets and destroy everything--questioning orders causes chaos and chaos brings down armies--" These aren't his words. They spill out of him in a panic of shame and guilt and terror. He's shaking again. Another sign of weakness. Another symptom to prune away so the city doesn't fall.

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"Okay. I'll treasure the memories and let you get back to work."

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"Val--"

Nothing makes sense anymore. He can't even make sense of the things that not so long ago were perfectly clear.

"I don't want you to go."

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"Okay." Val stays right where he is. He's pretty sure he's just ripped the band-aid off something, not made it actually worse, but even so Erol is right about how dangerous it is for him not to be in top form. So. Maybe if Erol was going to last to the end of the war like that then Val has just doomed the city.

Nah. They were losing anyway. Everyone was already doomed. Now everyone is just as doomed as they were before. It probably doesn't matter what Erol does.

Val examines the secret room because he sure isn't going to look at Erol right now.

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At first glance, it's nothing special, but each detail teases at a story, a history, no longer knowable. A small patch of wall covered in handwritten notes, almost completely scratched out beyond recognition. Smudged fingerprints in the long-dried paint. Pieces from games, scattered cards, handfuls of tokens, some familiar and some strange.

"Things aren't getting better, are they?" Erol says distantly.

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"Before I joined the Guard someone told me to make sure I pray and relax enough. They were worried the stress would give me a heart attack in twenty or thirty years. I laughed until I cried."

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Erol has no idea what to make of that.

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"I was agreeing with you, I guess."

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Deep inside Erol a door comes unstuck, some strange incomprehensible wind knocking it loose. It is a key for the lock. It is a knife for the rope. It is passwords whispered in ears and a scream to shatter glass. Past the halls and halls of doors the wind pushes at like dominoes, there is a simple box with a simple latch containing nothing but a simple question. This question been silent as death for so long it should itself be dead, but it comes now to life and beats itself against the box like a heart. It flees when the latch snaps, and in its eagerness to escape, it jumps out of Erol's throat.

"What if this is wrong?"

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"What if what's wrong?"

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"The Baron made a deal with the metal heads," his mouth says, and his head is so light he would fall if he weren't already sitting.

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Everything feels unreal. Like he's floating, like he's dreaming. If this were really happening it would mean everyone was about to die and there would be nothing he or anyone else could do about it. If he were really faced with that he would probably scream. But since it's not real he can just wonder what he would do about it if it were happening and he were competent and ready to save everyone.

"What kind of deal?"

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His mouth keeps talking and he wonders with some confusion whether he should try to make it stop. "Giving them eco in exchange for the city's protection."

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"Some protection, our men are still dying. Why...? How long? How much eco?"

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