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The Subtle Grace of Gravity

Chapter Text

It had been three months, one week, and six days since Celestial Being had retaken Veda, as humans measured time. Tieria knew this because he was human, in his own and different way.

Two weeks and one day had passed since he'd unlocked the data describing the secondary base the Innovades had kept beneath the surface of the moon. Two days after that (or one week and six days ago), he had first felt the pull of unexpectedly familiar information from the domains of Veda that mapped to that most secret base's physical location. He continued to measure time as humans did, and he had a feeling this was part of why that information was familiar.

But it was also part of the problem. A natural human mind could not have accessed Veda at all; an altered human mind could only just begin to touch it; and the mind of an Innovade who had become more human could merge with it, but would find himself fumbling in the dark as he advanced deeper into its electrons. Once, he knew, he could have learned anything from this kind of access to Veda. Now when he tried to reach for secure information, it twisted his mind in painful ways, and his mind was all he had left.

Tieria could have let it go. But there was information here that Celestial Being needed, and moreover, curiosity was a human trait. It was more than acceptable for him to keep trying. It was necessary.

It didn't help that he could feel another presence here, flickering as easily as light through the electronic passages, slipping itself through the keyholes of doors that Tieria fumbled with clumsy fingers to unlock. And thinking like that was part of the problem. He didn't need to have fingers here, or a body at all. But still he clung to it.

Five days ago, he had discovered the cloning chambers in the secret base.

They were one of only two parts of the entire complex that were directly linked to Veda. The other was a heavily protected entrance, and Tieria could not undo the codes to that. But as for the cloning chambers, Veda gave him backdoor access.

For five days, as humans measured time, Tieria had thought about what he had found. All the while the sense of familiar data tugged at him. There were important things in that base.

He funneled information to the one point he could access in the lunar complex, feeling out its digital contours even as he told it about himself, and he understood that this was the way in, and there was a reason it was so well-hidden.

Tieria gave it DNA patterns, the connections of neurons, and the codes that identified what he was now, and he waited.

Winding its easy way through Veda's electric halls, the other presence could have been laughing. You could call it cute that you want to go back.

Regene was baiting him. Whatever was down there in those secret corridors, he already knew, and watching Tieria find out would be fine entertainment.

* * *

There weren't...

(Fractured old memories of family too close to the feel of triggers under his fingers. Setsuna without a weapon in the good ones, blood and dust in the bad.)

...very many dreams.

* * *

Seven months, three weeks, and one day had passed since Celestial Being had retaken Veda, as humans measured time, and Tieria was surprised to discover that a new body was already waiting for him in the lunar complex. As he understood it from the information he could access in Veda, it should have taken just under two years. Something was different about it. As much as curiosity compelled him, he knew better than to transfer himself into the new shell before ascertaining its safety.

Regene knew. Tieria chased the glimmer of his presence through Veda until he was close enough to feel the truth of any information he imparted (and with it a carefully aimed thought: Still so clumsy even here! If you improve, you could reach out and take it).

He framed the words as if he were speaking them, although it was unnecessary. Tieria knew that he would eventually have to give up more and more of these human affectations to get further into Veda, but with everything he had lost to acquire them, he didn't want to let them go easily. "I only need to know one thing. What is different about the bodies created on the moon?"

It was a game to Regene, so he formed the words as humans did too, only more elegantly than Tieria. "You still don't understand? It's in the brain."

"The brain is lacking?"

"Only what it doesn't need."

Tieria waited for Regene to say more, but there was no more. Finally, he asked, "Is it safe?"

"Will you be able to come back intact if you enter that body? Yes."

Regene faded back away into pulses of light, but Tieria could see he hadn't been lying. He waited in the digital darkness for three more minutes, as humans measured time, and then reached out to the new form waiting on the moon.

He was himself pulses of light for a split-second longer, and then--

--his own body, feeling slightly strange, but only because he'd been away from it for so long. This was the physical shape he knew, down to the last biomechanical nanomachine. Until, just as Regene had said, it came to the inside of his skull. There wasn't enough in there to coordinate his body and support his thoughts--or there was, but it wasn't there. It was still in Veda, guiding this body like a puppet. Or was Veda a puppet, and he the master now?

Another metaphor, and at first glance a silly one--Tieria didn't really understand why puppet shows were supposed to be entertaining. But it was accurate, in this case. He thought he understood some of what the moonbase was for now. Risking Innovade bodies with such complete connections to and power over Veda out in the world at large, that would be dangerous. In all likelihood, Ribbons had been the only one. But down here, isolated, perhaps they could be of use...and now Tieria could find out just how much use he himself could be.

But there was more than just a super-connection to Veda here. From that connection, Tieria could feel the map of this place spreading out in his head. Somewhere there was something he knew; he could feel it stronger than ever, even outside of Veda (but not really outside; this was different). Finding it seemed more important even than he'd thought before.

He dressed, feeling desperately wrong in the sterile outfit of the Innovade that was provided for him in the cloning chambers. He would have to have a new Celestial Being uniform made for him here. But it could wait. Whatever the familiar thing was, he couldn't shut out its pull any longer.

Tieria wouldn't have minded the blank halls of the lunar complex once, but now they were unsettling. He had started to learn how to find clues about people in their surroundings, and only now did he realize that he missed that. There was a comfort to the way the rooms on the Ptolemaios had acquired subtle differences. He still didn't entirely understand why, but he knew it was true.

The differences here were not subtle. One room held vast arrays of electronics that even he could not identify; another, racks and racks of test tubes. A whole hall led to rooms containing data disks kept safely out of reach of Veda--and anyone else who might have access to it--until the necessary moment. But none of this was what he was looking for--or what was looking for him (and that was a human thought, irrational, as information of course could not "look" for anybody, but it felt right somehow, and Tieria accepted that for now).

He found it behind three sets of locks, each of which took him an average of fifty-seven minutes to break open. No one without this mainline to Veda could have done it at all. But somehow, there were already people behind those locks, all of them ordinary humans, and none of them awake.

Tieria moved silently through the bare room and its pillars of frozen, half-living people. There was nothing wrong with them, save their suspended animation. He recognized none of them on his own, but Veda supplied names to all--but first it supplied other names. People who were the reason these had been taken and stored here.

Lost lovers, children, partners, siblings. Where humans had seen full lives to be treasured, the Innovades had only seen levers to be used to manipulate prominent political and military figures--and anyone else that got in their way. Tieria couldn't tell how many of them were reported dead, how many said to be missing, how many, if any, known to be kept prisoner. He would have to tease the information out of Veda bit by bit; he was still too human to pull it with a thought.

But that knowledge made him wonder: was there ever a time when he would have sympathized with what Ribbons (and how many others who knew about it?) was doing here? It was a crude form of manipulation, he knew now, but subtlety wasn't really his own strong point, either. Would he have ever considered it effective enough to be justifiable?

Tieria shied away from the thought. He didn't need to ask himself what he might have done, had circumstances been different. He would plan for the victims' release later, and that would be enough. For now, there was another door at the far end of this room, and he could almost feel the mysterious-but-known dataset coalescing just beyond his reach.

He paid little attention, this time, to how long it took him to break through the security.

The room on the other side was smaller, and at first Tieria thought it had been put to the exact same purpose as the one before. But Veda told him otherwise even before he fully grasped just how it was different. It was the same purpose overall, yes, but these captives were special. More elaborate technology hummed around them--medical devices, extensive life support equipment. Some were shut off, their tasks completed, their charges returned to the same basic suspended animation as the ones in the previous room. Others were still running.

Of course, it would be easier for Ribbons to arrange for the disappearance of those already injured, even left for dead, on the battlefield. But--Veda began to fill in the blanks here--more effort was required to repair them and keep them alive. Only those with vital connections to important pieces of the plan would be salvaged. That was the language Ribbons had used to describe this.

Tieria could feel the familiar pattern almost as heat on the back of his neck. He thought he knew what it was, if he let himself realize it. In any case, the name attached was his own. This lever will bring Tieria Erde back to us.

He wondered: if he'd hesitated a little more, would they have told him? If he'd been just slightly more receptive to their ideas, would this have been produced as a lure? Why had they stopped?

Regene would know; maybe Regene was responsible. But Tieria didn't want to ask Regene. He just wanted to turn around, and--he did so, carefully facing the controls for the last of the capsules, not looking at just what it was supporting. He couldn't yet.

Finish biological repairs as necessary, yes, he did want the machine to do that. Warning: this requires full consciousness to complete.

"It's all right," Tieria said as he and Veda keyed in the necessary codes. "I'd like to see full consciousness, after all."

Lights flashed across the capsule's display. Even with all the power of Veda behind him, Tieria found himself struggling to comprehend them. It wasn't that they were that complicated. But his mind was moving in skips and jumps, unable to stay put in the present, racing ahead into the future or back into the past, afraid of what was happening, exulting in it--

There was, perhaps, a glitch in the new body's special brain. Regene could have been wrong.

The lights on the display blinked out, one by one, and the doors to the pod slowly peeled away. Tieria moved before he thought he'd made the decision to move, catching Lockon with both hands digging a little too much into his shoulders. More glitches; his control over this body was faulty as well. He would fix that, somehow, when he could move away from here.

Perhaps his perception had errors, too. For a split-second, as Lockon blinked uncomprehendingly, trying to adjust enough to the light to see where he was and who held him, Tieria thought he saw disappointment mixed in with the confusion on his face.

Veda offered him no model to explain that.

* * *

Reality came back too slowly for Lockon. A small room, glaringly artificial and unadorned, where he lay on a bed with no blanket. A screen on one wall, with Tieria standing in front of it as colors shifted across its surface. None of it seemed very believable.

There was something about accepting death that made it a lot harder to acknowledge life again afterwards--the thought flickered through his mind and was gone. He couldn't quite manage to examine it too closely now. It didn't matter, anyway; it was hard to believe anything here did. Probably he was still dreaming, his dying brain piecing together its last fragmented thoughts into a strange hallucination.

This didn't make a whole lot of sense, since Lockon had never seen a place like this before, but the idea that it was after, that the battle was over and he'd lived...that just didn't work at all.

Lockon sat up. He wasn't wearing anything other than a loose pair of white pants, which made it all the easier to see the unfamiliar scars on his body. What did that mean, when you dreamed up new scars? Not that it really mattered.

"Lockon." It was Tieria, of course. "You shouldn't move. Veda informs me that sudden fatigue is a common symptom of this regenerative process. You'll hurt yourself if you're caught unaware." There was something odd about his voice--it was still Tieria, without a doubt, but under the shakiness he sounded almost gentle.

Lockon smiled at him. Even in whatever limbo this was, it seemed wrong to show anything but a kind face to Tieria. Even if it was all an illusion (it had to be, somehow, but it wasn't really his style to devote a lot of thought to just how). "It's all right. I just wanted to have a look around."

"There isn't much to see," Tieria said. "And you will not leave this room to see more until I've contacted the Ptolemaios to inform them of--the situation." His voice caught in an extraordinary way there; Lockon blinked in surprise. He sounded vulnerable, openly so. Was this the Tieria he'd hoped to help create instead of the one he'd actually known?

The idea of this actually being the future, the place where that Tieria could naturally exist, felt like the wrong shape in his head. He shied away from it. If this was the future, he wouldn't be here. That was fact, like the sun being hot and the world being broken. But whatever this Tieria was, he was still looking to Lockon for an answer now.

"Why don't you fill me in later?" Lockon said. "I have a feeling I'm not thinking straight right now."

"Of course. As I said, this specific regenerative process has side effects." Tieria hesitated, lifted a hand, then pulled it away. "It's efficient, but crude. Why they felt the need to allow injuries they could have healed entirely with more energy to simply scar over, I don't understand."

Lockon reached out to take hold of Tieria's arm, only to realize too late that his own hand was ungloved. What kind of dying vision wouldn't let him keep his gloves? But he felt Tieria tense up, then relax as if by instinct, at his touch. That was the important thing. "It doesn't bother me," he said. "Scars like this look cool, right?"

Tieria stared at him. "That's absurd, Lockon." His voice caught again on the name, and his gaze lingered somewhere on Lockon's face for a moment, then shifted too quickly away.

Lockon frowned, letting go of Tieria's arm and raising his hand to the place Tieria had been looking. His fingers settled on a web of scarring extending from his brow almost to his cheekbone. Oh. Yes. "I'm more worried about not having...any clothes..." He sagged back down onto one elbow, trying to stay even a little upright.

Tieria's attention snapped back to him, his eyes suddenly full of incomprehensible guilt, as if he could have done anything. "I told you about the side effects."

"You did," Lockon agreed, slowly letting himself drop back down onto the bed. "It was a good warning."

"Lockon..."

He didn't know if Tieria said anything after that, because consciousness left him for a little while. He found himself thinking what a relief this was. Whatever that dream had been, it hadn't felt right. He wanted to let go of it now.

The hint of voices reached him, and Lockon abruptly realized that if he could think at all, even enough to be glad the strange vision was over, it wasn't over after all. He was awake again, and somehow, not dead yet.

"--else know yet, Tieria?" Sumeragi's voice, sounding some weird combination of shellshocked and excited. Lockon wondered what it was that had shaken her so much.

"This location is secure enough that it was difficult even establishing communications with you," Tieria said. He sounded a little calmer now, but there was still something different about his voice. "There's no danger of that. It will be difficult enough allowing additional access to the complex. I should eventually be able to open the outer doors at will. For now, I expect I can reprogram it to allow an additional person in with every twenty-four-hour cycle."

"Only one?" Sumeragi sounded oddly worried about that. Lockon couldn't figure out why, nor could he pin down the reason behind the long pause that followed. They could decide more easily than that who would be the first through the doors of wherever this was.

A new voice spoke up. "You should get ready to go when we get there, Setsuna." Only it wasn't a new voice at all. It was an old one.

Lockon almost laughed at how out of place it was. But that was a comfort in a way. If his brain couldn't even keep his memories of Celestial Being separate from his memories of his brother anymore, this bizarre interlude was probably almost over. He lapsed easily back into sleep.

When he woke up again, he was starting to become more frustrated than confused. His head felt less fuzzy, his body less awkward, but the whole situation was no less ridiculous. Tieria still stood at the screen, concentrating on something on the other side of it, and he was still here himself. It felt even less right than before.

Tieria looked away from the screen and back at Lockon the moment he sat up again. He hesitated, then walked over to him in careful, measured steps and held out a hand. There was a black cloth in it. Lockon focused a little. It was a new eyepatch. "If you need anything else," Tieria said. "Tell me."

"Thanks, Tieria," Lockon said, reaching out to take it. "But I don't know what else I should need right now. Give me a little while."

Tieria looked down. "The Ptolemaios has just arrived. If the reprogramming worked, Setsuna should be here in a few minutes." He was struggling to say whatever came next. Finally, he said, "I'll leave you until then, and go to meet him." He lifted his head with obvious determination and, before he could reconsider, turned and left the room.

Lockon lay back down, staring blankly up at the ceiling. It wasn't getting any less vivid, even though he was sure it all should be fading by now. He no longer felt the downward pull of unconsciousness, and that worried him for some reason he couldn't pin down. He slid the eyepatch between his fingers, wishing Tieria had gotten him new gloves instead. Somehow actually putting the patch on seemed like an acknowledgment of something he wasn't too happy about, but he couldn't see what else to do with it, so he sat up again and started to put it back in place.

He heard the door open, glimpsed the distribution of light and shadow shifting just enough to tell him that someone had come in. For now he finished putting the eyepatch back on, then looked up, already opening his mouth to reassure Tieria.

It wasn't Tieria. Setsuna looked back at him, and Lockon realized several related things all at once.

The first was that he was older. At least twenty--no, more than that. The second was that there was actual emotion in his eyes, and the third was that he was smiling.

"Lockon Stratos," he said.

Lockon understood the fourth thing then: this was real. He was alive.

* * *

The narrow halls of the lunar complex had not felt so empty when Tieria had first walked through them a few hours ago, and that had been when he hadn't known there were others there. They had only felt sterile then. Now, knowing that Lockon waited in one plain room along the corridors like any other, it seemed intolerable to Tieria that he should be out here alone. He told himself that if anything happened, Setsuna would be able to help Lockon. It was a logical thought, and for some reason it did nothing to comfort him.

He stopped, finally. Instead of continuing to pace on needlessly, he reached out with a thought and summoned a communications screen to the wall next to him. Tieria knew that to the others it seemed he was mastering the capabilities of this new body and the secrets of Veda at a rapid pace, but he could just barely feel how much still lay ahead of him. This was only the start.

The blank metal surface shimmered slightly, then projected a screen two centimeters out from the wall. Though that had been easy enough, Tieria had to concentrate for a moment to establish the link to the Ptolemaios, waiting outside on the surface of the moon. He would establish a timeframe for the updates that would allow the ship's crew members to travel freely into and out of the moonbase, and then he would go back to see if Setsuna was done speaking with Lockon yet--

The grey screen resolved into the bridge of the Ptolemaios. "Tieria?" Feldt said. "Do you...have you made any progress?"

Somehow, the fact that it was Feldt threw his plans off kilter. It took him a moment to gather himself for a reply. "Not yet, but there may be a chance," he said. "I expected to have to suppress multiple alarms when Setsuna entered, but the security system recognizes and allows him as an Innovator. However, I don't expect to be able to get the doors open again for some time."

He and Feldt had worked together to open the doors in the first place. For him, it had been a fluid matter of rearranging electrons and bits inside Veda--not easy, but at least graceful. But through Veda's connections he could sense that her task was more awkward, could feel the uneven way she deciphered and then entered the corresponding codes as he transmitted the raw information he had pried from Veda's grasp. Were those without this connection to Veda (humans, he would have thought once, but he was human too, so normal humans perhaps, or those who weren't Innovades) always so clumsy, viewed from the other side? Or was there something tripping up Feldt's calm?

"I'd like to help," she said, with a hesitant smile. "Would you tell me if there's anything I can do?"

"I'll grant you as much access as is possible," he said. Reaching into Veda with a thought, he sought out Feldt's biometrics where they were stored on the Ptolemaios and introduced them to the moonbase's system. He could see some doors opening for her, but others remained shut, some of them even to him. Tieria knew that if he could stop seeing them as doors instead of simply access points, he'd be able to unlock more of them, but that was how it was.

He returned to the analog world in time to see Feldt giving him a slightly unsettled look. Blinking, he made a note to himself to be more careful about his connection to Veda in the future; it must have looked disturbing to others when he retreated back along it. "It's done," he said. "You should be able to reach the first few levels of data now, and there may be some ways to influence the physical access there."

"I'll try," Feldt said. She was hesitating again, and Tieria couldn't figure out why. After a moment, she spoke. "Thank you, Tieria."

He found himself swallowing against a lump in his throat. That didn't make sense; he wasn't sad. Even now, after everything he'd been through and everything he'd learned, some things about humanity--his own and that of others--still baffled him. "I understand why you'd want to help, Feldt. I won't turn it down."

"Of course," she said, looking away quickly. "I didn't mean that you would--"

She broke off, and he realized that there were tears in her eyes. "Feldt, are you..." He searched for the right word, but couldn't quite find it, so he settled on: "Are you hurt?"

Feldt blinked furiously and lifted her head to look straight at him once more. "No..." She was smiling again. "Tieria, people can cry when they're happy too. I didn't learn that until today."

"It's a basic fact of biology," he said. "Tears relieve stress, both positive and negative." No, that wasn't the right thing to say and he knew it. "I'm happy, too." That was better. "I'm grateful we could work together on this." That wasn't quite perfect, but it was better than Tears relieve stress.

"I am, too," Feldt said. "Let's do it again. When you find out how to control the doors better."

Tieria started to reply, but then stopped as his connection sent him a new alert. The other two current occupants of the complex were on the move. He said instead, "Yes. I'm sorry, this requires my attention now," and ended the communication.

Guided by Veda, it didn't take him long to find Setsuna and Lockon. They were both wearing Celestial Being uniforms, although Lockon was still adjusting the jacket on his.

"You should have told me you were bringing uniforms," Tieria said. "If you had, I would have asked for one."

Setsuna nodded. "Next time."

Feeling oddly defensive, Tieria added, "And any unexpected matter could have set off the security systems. You should be more careful." He lowered his gaze. "I will make sure to warn any future visitors of this."

"Hey, Setsuna," Lockon said as he finished adjusting the jacket. "Where's this one from? The fit is...almost perfect..." He trailed off, his gaze going distant.

"It's a spare," Setsuna said. "It belongs to--"

"I get it," Lockon said, his expression clouding.

Tieria felt his stomach twisting up. Lockon wasn't supposed to wear that expression. He was supposed to be happy now. They'd won, and he was alive, and they'd all done everything they could to live up to him. But--

Then Lockon's hand was on his shoulder. "Don't look like that, Tieria," he said. "I was just confused for a minute there."

A sudden ache of deferred longing ran through him. The last time Lockon had touched him like that, it had been little more than a nuisance, something strange and irrelevant. But since then, Tieria had spent almost six years wanting to feel that hand on his shoulder again.

"You shouldn't be up and moving," he said. "You should rest."

"I'll rest when I'm on the Ptolemy."

"What?" Tieria regretted the word immediately; there was no need to say it. He knew what Lockon meant. But somehow he couldn't keep himself from asking.

"I'm leaving with Setsuna," he said. "Don't get too worked up--we'll be back when you figure out how to open this place up to more people." He glanced at Setsuna. "Right?"

Setsuna nodded again. "It's necessary to update Lockon on everything that has happened in the past five years and nine months, approximately." He stopped and smiled tentatively. "It's easier if as many of us as possible are there. We'll establish a link from here to the Ptolemy for you, if it's possible."

"I understand," Tieria said, and he did, of course. But somehow he felt disappointed anyway. "Then...I will see you when I next contact the Ptolemy."

He knew he should have been working on the program that controlled the main doors, but somehow he couldn't keep himself from staring after Lockon as he followed Setsuna down the corridor and away. He almost managed to force himself to look away as they approached a corner--but then, as Setsuna went ahead, Lockon turned and looked back. He lifted a hand to wave, and he smiled.

For some reason, Tieria had trouble focusing on his connection to Veda. In this body, it should have been easy.

* * *

There was too much to absorb.

Lockon had sat through the recounting of the last six years as calmly as he could. In some places, that wasn't very calmly. He'd held in the outbursts of rage, shock, and guilt as well as he could, but he knew that here and there he'd slipped enough for his brother, at least, to see the cracks. He was afraid Setsuna could too, but he put that thought from his mind as quickly as he could.

When Setsuna had mentioned just who had razed Azadistan, Lockon had actually lost control. He was halfway out of his seat before Lyle grabbed his arm and said, "He's dead now, so you can sit back down."

He'd kept better control of himself when Lyle talked about the woman he'd loved and how she'd died, but it had hurt in a way that Lockon had never wanted to hurt again (he thought, briefly, that if he wanted to hurt like that again, he'd go back to being Neil Dylandy instead of Lockon Stratos, and he had no intention of doing that). That had taken him by surprise.

They'd left him alone in the empty room he'd been given, afterwards. Something felt wrong about that. They drifted back to their tasks, and all he could do was go over what he'd learned in his head and try to find a place for himself in it. After a little while, he gave up and went to sleep.

Waking brought a perverse kind of relief. Tieria had sent him information on the side effects of the regenerative process that had kept him alive for all that time he'd missed, and one of them was a lot of stiffness and sore muscles after first sleeping. Sure enough, he ached. It was a welcome distraction from the turmoil in his head.

Or it would have been, except that while he was asleep, Feldt had had painkillers sent to his room. She'd read up on the side effects too. Lockon made a note to thank her, and he took the drugs, since there was really no excuse for him not to. He didn't have a reason to let himself keep hurting this time, after all. There was nothing he needed to be alert and aware for--everything was taken care of without him.

In any case, these were high-quality medicines, and the sedative effect wore off long before the analgesic effect did. Once again Lockon found himself alone in a room that wasn't really his, and now he was looking at recordings as they scrolled across a screen. Dozens of battles he hadn't been able to take part in--how many more people would have survived if he'd been there? How much pain could he have spared Lyle? Why was he here now, when there was nothing more he could do?

A more recent memory came to his mind uncalled for: his last look back down the corridors of the place he'd been kept for the past five years, now with Tieria guarding their secrets. He'd recalled the image a few times since leaving there, even though he couldn't quite say why. There was something about the look on Tieria's face as Lockon turned back for a last look at him. No one here looked at him with that kind of earnest, oblivious need. Not even Feldt; after five years, the way she looked at him was simpler, easier to deal with, more understandable. He didn't mind that--it was a relief. It was true that something about the way Setsuna looked at him, like he understood, was upsetting. But at least Setsuna gave him some space.

It was a good thing, he told himself, that he was away from the lunar complex--even if there had been something appealing as well as worrying about the way Tieria had looked at him.

He shook his head and turned back to the computer. It offered to play him Cherudim's recording of the fight with Arche Gundam. Lockon shut it off, feeling suddenly sick--with what, he wasn't sure. He knew better than to blame the painkillers he'd taken, but he didn't want to think too much about what it really was. Instead, he checked up on the locations of everyone on board. It wasn't a feature he'd used a lot in the past, but then, his brother hadn't been on the ship in the past.

Now he was in the hangar, checking up on Cherudim. Lockon made his way down there.

It was familiar enough to be unsettling. All the Gundams had been repaired as much as possible since the last battle with the Innovators and A-LAWS. If he looked away from GN-Archer and 0-Raiser, and squinted a little, it was easy to pretend these were the Gundams he knew, and all he needed to do was wait until the next battle and he could take his place in combat again. Except he knew that really, he didn't want there to be another battle. He wanted it to be over, and it was, as much as it ever would be--but he was still here. He started to feel a little sick again at the idea. Maybe he should try to blame the painkillers after all, he thought.

There was movement, over near Cherudim. Lockon quickly slipped behind a bank of consoles and watched. This, at least, was familiar, maybe the most familiar thing here: watching his brother from a safely obscured vantage point.

But it was also unsettling. Lyle seemed entirely too comfortable with the Gundam. Like he belonged with it. Lockon thought of the statistics he'd read earlier, the ones detailing his brother's performance in combat. His accuracy rating--78%, 79%, 79%, 78%, 80% and then the sudden inexplicable jump, at the end: 91%, 93%, 96%, 97%, 99%. Better than Lockon had ever been (and he had a sneaking suspicion that now, even with time and practice, he'd be lucky to reach 75%).

Lyle pushed away from the Gundam, and then he stopped. He sighed and said, "If you want, Neil, we can talk."

The sound of his real name was alien. Lyle had used it once earlier, while explaining about Anew, but it still sounded weird to Lockon's ears. He said nothing. He didn't think he'd given his position away, after all. Lyle was probably just guessing, although it wasn't like him to be so forthright about it--probably. For all the information he'd amassed from watching his brother over the years, it had still been a long time, even without counting that missing time, since Lockon had spoken to him.

Lyle glanced around a moment longer, then made his way to another bank of consoles and called up one of the largest screens. Lockon could see most of it clearly from his position.

"I'm going to show you something," Lyle said, and he keyed in a request. He was asking the computer for the location of Lockon Stratos.

The screen flashed and threw up an answer: Lockon Stratos is using Computer 7E, surrounding Cherudim Gundam. It blinked, as if uncertain, and then added, Lockon Stratos is near Computer 5D, not in use, near Cherudim Gundam. It had given Lyle's location first.

"This is going to take a while to sort out," Lyle said. "Hey, Neil. Are you really going to walk away?"

As a matter of fact, Lockon was walking away, but being called on it so directly stalled him. He found himself turning around to face his brother.

"There's probably a lot you want to know," Lyle said, "that we didn't really talk about before."

Lockon still wanted to walk away. Barring that, he wanted to say something inconsequential and push the topic further and further away from himself. He looked at the expression on his brother's face, and he realized he wasn't going to get the chance to do either. He looked for a middle ground, but it wasn't coming.

Instead he said, "Tell me about Setsuna, and how he's changed."

Chapter Text

As he further mapped the lunar complex, Tieria could feel his need for his new physical form lessening.

He had required this body to make some of the arrangements for the captives, as the injured ones were not directly connected to Veda even within the moonbase. But that had been only a few gestures. He took care of the details of their health from a distance, and back on the Ptolemaios, Sumeragi handled the political ramifications of their release. As Tieria understood it, she had managed to cut some sort of deal that would lessen official pursuit of Celestial Being and allow them advance warning of most approaches.

With that arranged, and most of the moonbase opened up, Tieria could accomplish just about all he needed from within Veda. There were caches of important data that he couldn't open up with fumbling human fingers, and the complex had machines that would take care of his body indefinitely while he slipped back into the heart of the computer. Somehow, he found himself regretting this.

But it was necessary; he knew that now it was only a matter of time before he unlocked secrets that could help not just the others in Celestial Being, but humanity as a whole. He wanted that enough to ignore little things like the irrational desire to feel solid physical boundaries around him once more.

Somehow, though, the pursuit of Veda's secrets had been easier before he knew that Lockon was alive.

He slipped, now and then. But for a while, it wasn't so bad.

That didn't last. Tieria was assembling just the right collection of prime numbers that would let him into a file about the biological processes used to differentiate Innovades when he really slipped. He could have stopped himself, he knew; but he'd let his mind wander, and when it had wandered to Lockon, he hadn't bothered to rein it in quite as much as he otherwise would have. So instead of selecting the right number, he unthinkingly seized on Lockon's date of birth instead. The systems around him crackled unpleasantly with the error, and Tieria, fighting down a sudden burst of shame at his mistake, started to brace himself for the coming ejection.

But he was too deep in to merely be thrown out of that area of data--instead, he felt a security alert snap into place. Gleaming and impenetrable electronic walls flew up around him, boxing him in, and began to push him further down into the depths of the database, away from the areas he knew and the areas he wanted to reach.

At the corner of his awareness, he felt the pattern of light that was Regene flicker away in irritation at his clumsiness. Tieria resisted the urge to call out to him for help. He had been investigating Veda for months now; he could do this himself.

But the digital territory around him grew less familiar, and he began to feel like he was decohering.

A flash of impatience above: Regene. A sliver of a crack opened in Tieria's cage. You should learn to do this yourself. What would you do without me, Tieria? And he waited, expectant, as if that little opening was enough.

"It's too small," Tieria said. "I won't be able to fit through that."

He felt another wave of exasperation from above, and then, through the crack, he glimpsed Regene shaping himself into a faintly human form. "Are you really still thinking of it as a physical opening in a solid cage?"

Tieria stretched out his hands into the electronic aether. They looked translucent to him in the glow that his mind saw the information within Veda as. He was half-aware that they weren't really there, and if he shifted his awareness a little bit, they faded into nothing--but the walls around him still seemed solid.

"I still see it that way," he said.

"That's why you're trapped," Regene says. "It doesn't have to be that way." And then he was gone, leaving only the too-narrow opening at the top of the cage.

One last parting shot: Humanity isn't always a bad thing, Tieria, but there's a time and a place for it. This isn't either.

Tieria sensed that he could break through these walls--that they didn't have to be walls. But he'd have to let go of something to do that. Maybe his connection to the new body waiting for him; maybe his ability to use any body at all for some time. Maybe it would be something more, and when he went back to that body he wouldn't understand why it mattered anymore. That was the worst thought of all. But he didn't have a lot of choice. His surroundings were increasingly unfamiliar, and he felt less and less confident of his ability to find his way back to the analog world. If he adjusted his viewpoint a little, he could see the edges of himself flickering and fading out. But it was getting harder to adjust that viewpoint.

His clothes, which weren't really clothes, were dissolving into data, leaving him bare to his hostile surroundings. He was less sure why this was bad than he had been a few moments ago, or even why he was thinking of "his hostile surroundings" when that attributed unnecessary physical and intentional features to Veda.

But then there was something beyond the tiny fracture in the cage Regene had made. A voice.

"I'm at the limits of my access, but I've finally established a connection. Tieria...he should be there. Tieria?"

That was his name, wasn't it? And the voice sounded faintly familiar. He wasn't sure why it mattered, though.

"Tieria, would you please respond? This is Feldt Grace on the Ptolemy. Your connection to us was broken." There was a pause; he didn't know how long. Time was something humans measured. "Ms. Sumeragi, something is very wrong."

Another voice: "He still isn't responding." This one was also dimly familiar, but more importantly, it sent ripples of recognition through Veda. Innovator. That was interesting, but it was getting harder to care even about that.

"Here, Setsuna. Let me try."

There was no echo of Innovation in this voice; it was that of a normal human and should have been meaningless to the information that was Tieria Erde. But it was only then that he remembered that he was Tieria Erde, and he was, in his own way, human.

"Tieria, are you there?"

That same voice. Tieria felt himself resolving again, saw the solidity of the cage around him return even as the crack in it widened. Regene may have made the gap, but this voice was prying it open.

"Lockon Stratos," Tieria said, and he threw himself free of the trap.

Information blurred around him as he wound his way back to the surface, which wasn't really a surface at all. He hesitated; there was so much he could learn here in these depths of Veda he hadn't managed to access before, even if he had to risk himself again. He reached his consciousness back out along the open communications channels to contact the Ptolemaios.

"I am here. I'll explain the situation to you shortly."

"We'll keep the channel open until then," came a new voice. Sumeragi, this time.

And this voice was Feldt again. "Setsuna, did you want to say something? You looked--"

"I'm fine. I thought I saw something in the connection for a moment."

"I'm not sure what you mean. How could you..." Feldt was still talking, but Tieria was abruptly distracted. When Setsuna had spoken across the channel, the digital landscape around him had shifted and changed, responding to his voice in a way that it didn't respond even to Tieria himself. He could sense, at the edge of his awareness, a path opening through the data, and it was leading somewhere entirely new--a place that not even Ribbons, with his everpresent tendrils of influence, had touched.

"Setsuna," he said. "You did see something. Speak again."

"Ah," Setsuna said. "What do you need me to say, Tieria?"

The path flowed open entirely, and Tieria understood that it was all right that he saw it as a path. The fact that Ribbons never would have had only made it harder for him to see. "That was enough," he said. "The system has keys I was unaware of. You were one of them, or rather, the first true Innovator was." He found himself following the new trail at what would have been quite a rapid speed had he really been moving at all, and then he was out of it, into a strange and unexplored part of Veda.

"Well, I'm not surprised," Lockon began, back on the Ptolemaios, and Tieria found in himself the last part of the key he needed to enter this area.

He said, "I have some information I need to share with all of you."

* * *

The Tieria on the screen before them was not one Lockon had seen before. It was a little unsettling.

"That is why the lunar complex was built to begin with," he was saying. "It was never Ribbons Almark's creation." His mouth only sometimes moved when he spoke. At other times, the words came directly from the computers around them, while Tieria's expression remained distant, as if he were still half stuck in Veda. His eyes glowed with unnatural color. Lockon had never seen him like this, and as curious as he sometimes found himself about Tieria's strangeness, he wasn't sure he entirely wanted to. He neither looked nor sounded very human at the moment, and it was too easy to worry that this state could creep back over him permanently again.

"But what exactly does it have to do with Jupiter?" That was Lyle's voice, cutting through Lockon's thoughts as simply as a knife. "I'm not sure you really explained, Tieria."

There was still no visible expression on Tieria's face. "This was part of Aeolia Schoenberg's plan from the start. The moonbase would serve as a waystation to store the information gleaned from the discoveries on Jupiter, while allowing humans to process and study that information under the guidance of the Innovades. New technologies could be tested here safely, and new discoveries would be made with Veda's help."

"Why didn't we learn about this before?" Sumeragi asked.

"When Ribbons Almark discovered the lunar complex, he realized that, like the Gundams, it was one part of the plan that he could not fully control. So he sabotaged it, sealing off what areas he could not repurpose for his own plans and deleting or corrupting all the information about it. But Aeolia Schoenberg had anticipated this possibility and built a trap door into Veda: backups that would remain hidden and unalterable until triggered by the first true Innovator."

"Setsuna," Lockon said. He looked over to Setsuna and was even more unsettled to realize that he couldn't read his expression. It was something new to him, and his eyes weren't even lit up with that strange glow right now.

"Yes," Tieria said. "There is a great deal of work to be done before the moonbase can be returned to its intended purpose."

"We'll return to the moon right away," Sumeragi said.

But Tieria cut her off; he shook his head slightly, and when he spoke, it came from his own mouth first. "No. You need to proceed to Jupiter immediately. I will take on the task of restoring the moonbase."

Sumeragi hesitated, and Lockon took advantage of the moment to speak up. There was something he felt the need to say. Instinct told him he had an opening here that he shouldn't let go. He couldn't go to Jupiter, and this was his chance to find a better place for himself. "Hey, hey, I don't know if the rest of you guys noticed, but Tieria seemed pretty serious when he mentioned the security alert that caught him earlier. You almost got hurt there, didn't you?"

Tieria paused, and Lockon was relieved to note that he seemed to be mostly out of Veda now. He had expressions again, and Lockon could read them. After a moment, he went on to say reluctantly, "Yes. I had some assistance, but without your contact at that time..."

He trailed off, and Lockon was at once gratified to be able to understand why and what it meant once more, and alarmed at the seriousness of the situation. Tieria hadn't almost been hurt; he'd nearly been killed.

"You need some help," he said.

"It is true," Tieria said cautiously, "that according to the new data, the moonbase isn't meant to be handled by a single person. There are systems to monitor the Innovade who runs it from without, and physical defenses in case a threat approaches from without--the full complex is too large to be hidden as well as the scaled-down version."

And that was where it clicked. Lockon could say it outright now: "It sounds like we can't all go to Jupiter."

He didn't realize that Lyle, behind him and off to his right, had moved until his voice came from closer than it had before. "And somehow it has to be you who stays, Neil?"

"It makes the most sense," Lockon said, but he had a sudden awful feeling: Lyle knew why he wanted to stay. Somehow, Lyle knew that the thought of going with them to the future that waited for them farther out in the solar system left his brother absolutely cold.

"Lockon--" Tieria began, and then he stopped. There was no question as to which of them he was addressing; it was all in the tone of his voice.

Lockon couldn't articulate even to himself why he couldn't go to Jupiter with them, not entirely. All he could tell himself was that they were going to the future that they had fought so hard for, and he didn't belong there. But he could stay back here and protect Tieria. That felt almost right.

Lyle was still looking at him with a very unimpressed expression. Lockon felt--no, Neil felt, and that was the problem with being where Lyle could see him and talk to him--he felt suddenly very sure that if he took any longer to make his decision, Lyle would make every effort to talk him out of it, and he would understand the why of it even better than Neil himself.

So Lockon smiled and said, "I'll come back to the moonbase, Tieria. I'm a little out of the loop when it comes to things like Jupiter, but I think I can handle this." He reached out to the screen below Tieria's, where he'd called up information on the lunar complex's defenses. It took him only a few seconds to find what he'd been looking for. "Hey, the defense system has a sniping mode."

"And you have one eye," Lyle said, impatience starting to edge into his voice. "So I'm not sure it matters. Are you really going to do this?"

"Lockon," Sumeragi began, and then she fell silent; maybe she couldn't decide which of them she meant to address. Setsuna remained quiet and calm, though, and that was a little unsettling. He was watching them both as if he understood what they were trying to say to each other better than they did.

"That's where I'm needed," Lockon said. "You can handle things here while I'm gone. Right, Lyle?"

"It's a long way to Jupiter, Neil," Lyle said. "Soon you won't be able to come back here just to follow me around the ship and go through my things when I'm not looking."

"He wouldn't..." Feldt began, but then she stopped, looking down.

Lockon straightened up and reached a hand out to rest on Feldt's head for a moment. "It's all right," he said. "You're still the one who does the best job of using the access Tieria gave us to Veda. So you'll be in touch with us all the time." That he was all right with, but he hoped she wouldn't let Lyle use the channel too much. Maybe not Setsuna, either. He glanced back at the others, but couldn't quite bring himself to meet those two gazes. So he simply said, "I'm going to get ready. You heard Tieria, didn't you? The rest of you should get ready to go to Jupiter as soon as possible. That means dropping me off at the moonbase now." Without bothering to see how they responded to that, he turned and headed down the corridor.

He'd made it a fair way from the bridge when he heard a voice behind him. "Lockon Stratos." It was Setsuna.

Lockon paused for a moment. He could dismiss Setsuna and keep going. But now that he had the chance, he realized he didn't want to. Instead, he said, "Thank you."

"For what?" The blank look on Setsuna's face wasn't entirely familiar, but it was more so than a lot of his expressions had been lately. That was another thing Lockon was grateful for.

"For still calling me that," he said. "That's not what you came to talk about, though, so let's not get into it right now. What's up, Setsuna?"

The casualness in his voice felt hollow even to Lockon himself, but Setsuna gave no sign that he'd recognized that. "You don't have to stay with Tieria," he said. "There is always another way."

"I know," Lockon said.

Setsuna nodded, as if he'd expected to hear that. For a moment, Lockon thought he could make out his expression again, and it was sad. Then the moment was gone, and he was earnest and reserved once more. "All right."

But Lockon found that he couldn't quite turn away again so easily. Instead, he said, "I'd like it if you stayed in touch, Setsuna. Tieria will be able to maintain a channel to the Ptolemy, right? There shouldn't be a problem."

Setsuna nodded again. "I will do that."

As he turned away again, Lockon had the feeling that Setsuna was still watching. He wasn't really sure how he felt about that. But he knew that back on the moon, Tieria was waiting for him with that strange look of longing on his face. It would be better to be there after all.

* * *

The patterns of information from Veda played out across the inside of Tieria's eyelids, but he could not summon the will to immerse himself fully. A peculiar feeling centered right below his ribs fastened his mind to his body, and sometimes he had trouble remembering to breathe.

Tieria checked Lockon's estimated time of arrival again. Four hours, twenty-two minutes. Margin of error: twelve minutes. He attempted to narrow that further, but found himself unable to concentrate on the mathematics. Instead, he accessed the sensors Veda could tap into on the Ptolemaios and surveyed the information they provided him about Lockon.

His temperature and pulse were both normal for a resting state. There was nothing more Tieria could do with that information, and he still had difficulty focusing on anything else. He could have opened communications to the rest of the Ptolemy, could have asked them why Lockon chose to come here when he had so many other options now. But he was afraid, irrationally, that if he asked, it wouldn't be true anymore. Instead, Tieria summoned a video feed of the room Lockon was napping in and watched him. The way he breathed was more compelling than it should have been.

* * *

Lockon didn't really want to wear the uniform. He liked the idea of it, to be sure, and it had made him smile when he'd heard that Tieria had designed it. But he couldn't quite shake a lingering unease over the knowledge that it was his brother's spare. That brought up too many thoughts that he didn't want to deal with, that it would be much easier not to deal with. Especially now that he didn't need to. That was another reason it was good he was staying behind--he had so many things to think over now; he'd only hold them back.

Actually, he didn't really plan on thinking them over. He didn't need to confront his own problems to help Tieria. The point stood, though. He was uncomfortable fighting or whatever it was they were doing now side by side with his brother, so he should get out of the way.

But still, Tieria had designed the uniform. It was only fair that he wear it when he went to meet Tieria again.

It would be wrong to say he left the others behind on the Ptolemy without a backwards glance. Lockon was good at backwards glances, after all. But he didn't dwell on it, either. He gave Feldt a hug, told Setsuna to keep in touch, and exchanged awkward glances with Lyle. Then he passed through the complicated gates, opening and closing in a strange sequence, into the lunar complex. Tieria was waiting.

Lockon drifted to a halt as the last set of doors closed behind him, still accustoming himself to the weird part-gravity of the moon. It shouldn't be so hard, since his body, at least, had spent the last five years here, but it was still strange. Maybe he just didn't adjust well sometimes.

He could adjust well to some things, though. He lifted a hand to greet Tieria. "Yo. You didn't have to come all this way to meet me, Tieria."

"I did," Tieria said. "I've reordered the layout to bring it closer to its original position since you were last here. I won't let you get lost."

Lockon smiled and started to follow Tieria as he headed down the halls. "You're redecorating?"

"Rearranging," Tieria corrected. Then he hesitated, slowing down and finally stopping. "Lockon, should I be redecorating as well?"

"Only if you want to," Lockon said. "I wish I could help, since I spent so long here, after all, but I don't really know what sort of color scheme fits the moon."

"You're teasing," Tieria said.

"A little."

"Lockon--" Tieria paused, his words catching and halting.

Lockon found himself leaning forward a little, more curious than he'd realized about whatever it was that affected Tieria so much. Seeing him like this was still odd, but it was one of the nicer things about having woken up in this future. There were other nice things, he knew, if only he could appreciate them; but he couldn't, and it was better if he kept his distance from things like that. Things like his brother with a new resolve, risking himself for the sake of the future. Things like--no, he did want to see more of Setsuna as he was now. But not just yet. Right now, he could do more good supporting Tieria.

"What is it?" he asked.

"Lockon," Tieria said, softening rather than steeling himself, "I missed you."

Lockon blinked. It wasn't what he'd expected. "Tieria...?" But even if he didn't understand it, he knew already that Tieria wasn't just talking about the time he'd been away from the moonbase, with the Ptolemy. That much was obvious.

"They were difficult," Tieria said. "Those years without you."

This, at least, he knew how to handle. "But you didn't just make it through them," Lockon said. "You rebuilt Celestial Being, and you changed the world. It's too bad you had to miss me, but you did pretty well for all that." There was something else he could say, he thought--he could say that he was proud of Tieria. It was true, but this didn't seem like quite the right time for it. He was no longer sure how Tieria would react.

Tieria was silent for a while. He started to move forward again. Eventually, he said, "I'm glad that you're here now."

Lockon laughed. "I'm glad that I'm here too." It was the natural thing to say, and it was true that he was touched and a little charmed by what Tieria had told him, but he felt a little bad about it, too, because it wasn't that far off from a lie.

* * *

Lockon had been back at the moonbase for three days when Tieria first noticed the unauthorized change in Veda's processor allocation.

He had, of course, given Lockon access to the parts of the complex that unaltered humans could use. It was a limited access, but that was simply because of his capabilities. Tieria would have trusted him with any level of access; in fact, for some reason the idea of Lockon being able to enter Veda with him was far more appealing than it should have been. But that couldn't happen.

Still, right now Lockon's assigned duties were merely watching for security alerts, monitoring Tieria while he was in Veda, reviewing potentially valuable security footage the Innovades had stored in Veda, and keeping himself entertained (Tieria had been very firm about this last one). Whatever he had done with his new access fell under none of those categories. Tieria couldn't imagine that it was anything dangerous or inadvisable. At most, it would seem frivolous to him at first, until Lockon found a way to explain why it was important. But he still had to investigate the matter. It was possible there were unintended consequences of Lockon's new programming that Tieria would need to fix.

When he discovered this, it was late in the artificial day he had arranged prior to Lockon's return--almost past midnight. Tieria reached out to Veda to receive an update on Lockon's status; if he was asleep, this would wait until the designated morning. But he was not asleep. He had turned off most of the lights, but remained awake and alert and was even still using one of the computers. Tieria made his way to Lockon's recently assigned quarters and keyed open the door.

He realized his mistake immediately. It had been so long since he'd had to live with other people that he'd forgotten: it was both sensible and polite to alert them to one's presence before entering their rooms. Lockon was there, just as he'd read from the monitors; all lights except the one by his bed were off, and he was studying a small computer in his hands. He was wearing nothing but a pair of shorts (underwear of some kind, Tieria presumed, although his data told him that Lockon normally wore a different type, so maybe these were only for sleeping in) and his gloves.

Somehow, though, that wasn't what made him seem most naked. Instead, what struck Tieria most was that Lockon wasn't smiling. He wasn't focusing too intently to smile, either, or puzzled by something, or faintly exasperated. His expression was simply blank, the corners of his mouth turned just slightly down as if he'd forgotten to pull them into the right place. He had his left side to Tieria, and no emotion showed around his eye save for a faint weariness.

For a split-second, Tieria stopped and stared, disconcerted. In all of the memories that he'd clung to over the years, Lockon had some expression. Usually he was smiling. This sight hit him out of nowhere, but even as he realized why it was so wrong, other memories stirred faintly at the back of his mind.

And then it was gone, because Lockon had noticed Tieria's arrival. He turned off the computer, dropped it on the bed, and turned to face Tieria, expression returning to his face. He looked startled. "Tieria? Is something wrong?"

"I apologize," Tieria said. "I forgot to warn you I was coming."

"It's all right," Lockon said. "You're a little out of practice at that sort of thing, aren't you? You'll remember next time."

"Of course," Tieria said. Lockon was still looking at him; he had to explain why he was here, even if he wanted to hesitate and delay rather than pry into Lockon's personal matters. And there was no doubt this was a personal matter. He hesitated just a little more, then forced himself to continue. "Lockon, you made a change to the programmed surveillance of the Ptolemaios."

"Ah--" Lockon gave a guilty start, then a sheepish smile. "I should have known you'd notice that, huh."

"I need to notice such things," Tieria said. "Veda is my responsibility now, as is the care of Celestial Being."

Something about Lockon's expression changed. It softened; he was smiling in a gentler way now. Tieria realized that he liked to look at that smile--even if he had to see the network of scars where Lockon's right eye should have been in order to do so. There were other scars, too: long crisscrossing burns across his chest, vanishing beneath fabric at his hips, and long-healed puncture wounds and skin torn right open. How much lethal damage had been healed, all for the off chance, later discarded, of using Lockon like a piece of bait to lure Tieria back to the fold? How much of that damage was Tieria's own fault in the first place?

But it was all right that he had to see layer after layer of his own guilt laid bare like that, so long as he could see that smile as well.

"When you put it like that," Lockon said, "it's obviously your duty. I'm the one who's prying."

"The feed to the lunar complex," Tieria said. "You've rerouted a portion of it to your monitors--" He hesitated, suddenly realizing that he didn't have a good way to say what was coming next. He didn't have the right names. It still seemed deeply improper to say, The video from Lyle Dylandy's quarters, but of course he couldn't say, The video from Lockon Stratos's quarters (as if he'd ever liked saying that in the first place; he'd gotten used to the face when he realized how different the expressions were, but the name was a different story). Lockon Stratos was right here in front of him, as he should have been long ago. After a little while, he said, "The video from your brother's quarters."

"Do you need me to change that?" Lockon asked quietly.

Tieria couldn't tell what emotion lay behind that question. Lockon was so good at expressing what he felt; why not this time? "Why was it done?"

Another inscrutable moment passed in silence. Lockon frowned a little, and it seemed somehow to be more at himself than at anyone else. After a little while, he said, "Tieria, you were fighting to protect people, right? These past few years."

"Yes," Tieria said. "Setsuna F. Seiei. Mileina Vashti. Ian Vashti, Linda Vashti. Feldt Grace. Lasse Aeon. Sumeragi Lee Noriega. Allelujah Haptism. Even your brother. And everyone they fought to protect, as well." He watched Lockon's expression as he spoke, and he was gratified to see him start to smile again.

"You didn't want to know more about how they were doing?"

"I trusted them to tell me what I needed to know," Tieria said. "But there was another I did want to learn--" Out of nowhere his body betrayed him: his throat closed up, suddenly thick with the need to cry. Lockon was here, but Tieria had not been the one to save him. He hardly deserved to be in Lockon's presence. And after all that guilt, Lockon was still a mystery to him, a conflicting and confusing knot of warm feelings in the midst of this cool calm world.

"Tieria!" Lockon was up on his feet in an instant, taking hold of Tieria's hands in his own (so warm, even through the gloves) and holding him steady. "That was a stupid question of me to ask you. I'm sorry."

The ability to breathe returned to Tieria. He took advantage of it. "No," he said, after he had air again. "I understand, now, why you did it."

Lockon was silent, but his hands were still on Tieria's. For no reason he could determine, Tieria wanted them to stay that way. Finally, he said, "You're not going to change it back?"

"I will change it," Tieria said. "As it is now, the programming is--" He hesitated, not wanting to insult Lockon's abilities, but he had no other way to phrase it. "Inept. It will be noticed eventually. Probably soon. I'll refine it so that not even Haro will detect it."

"You're going to help me spy on my brother?" Lockon said, letting go of Tieria's hands at last (and too soon).

"If that's what you want," Tieria said. There was something off about this; why didn't Lockon simply spend time talking to his brother, if he wanted to learn about him so much? But it was Lockon. He had his reasons. He always did.

"Thanks, Tieria," Lockon said. He smiled, and then it didn't matter whether or not he had his reasons. It only mattered that he was smiling.

Chapter Text

The problem was that he didn't know what Tieria was anymore.

The thought came to Lockon one day as he was going through security footage Tieria had uncovered of social functions that Ribbons Almark had used to disguise the Innovades' true business. He had been in the lunar complex over two months now, and this was one of the more entertaining tasks he'd been set so far. Tieria, even as improved as he was, would never have caught the intriguing little subtleties that flashed between two people in the corner of a party, would never have been able to tell which exchange was perfectly ordinary and which indicated that those two people might be worth looking into. Most of the other things Lockon had to look through could have been done by Tieria, had he not been busy in Veda.

This wasn't to say that he was bored. So long as he didn't let himself think too much, Lockon could be entertained enough by the recordings from the Ptolemy and, live, Tieria's little quirks to forget the empty ache that bothered him in the quieter moments. It had been easier six years ago (six years that felt like less than three months to him) with Celestial Being, but then he had had a reason for being alive; the ache had been there, but focused, razor-sharp, easy to transform into something useful. Here--

--and that was what he meant by so long as he didn't let himself think too much. He'd been much better at that before.

It was in trying to get away from that thought that he stumbled upon this one: he didn't know what Tieria was anymore, and that was what made it difficult to rely upon his otherwise endearing quirks to amuse and distract.

Of course, this had nothing to do with Tieria's physical status. He actually knew more about that than he ever had, but it didn't matter; it never had. Whether he'd been born in a test tube or next door ten minutes out of Dublin, Tieria was still Tieria, and it didn't bother Lockon. The problem was that he didn't know what Tieria should be to him.

He remembered, now, that it had always been that way. Setsuna had been willing to accept that Lockon would treat him as a little brother, and to try his best to play that role because no one had ever treated him that way before--even if deep down they'd both known there was more to it than that. Allelujah, Sumeragi, so many of the others--they had known they were teammates and never tried to push for more or less. Feldt...it was easy to tell what she wanted, what she needed, and what the difference between the two was. Tieria--

Tieria had not wanted to be a teammate; he hadn't wanted to be anything to the rest of them. And yet Lockon couldn't ignore him, because he was a teammate, and even if Tieria himself didn't understand the reasons he resisted human contact, Lockon could tell them easily enough, and that was rather charming. Also, though he didn't like to remember it, because if he turned his back long enough, Tieria would be there saying something Lockon had not realized he'd known or understood, while never himself realizing why it was important.

It had been easier only briefly, after Lockon had lost his eye, but even then Tieria had been just shy of cooperative. Lockon could still remember finding the door out from his room locked when he tried it. He'd known even then the changes Tieria was going through and been pleased with them, but it had seemed beyond strange that he would go that far to protect Lockon. It hadn't occurred to the others that he'd need that kind of protection--they knew that wasn't the way things were supposed to be.

Tieria hadn't been good at knowing the way things were supposed to be, when it came to people. He was better now for the most part, and sometimes that made things easier, but...

It was a little bit like Tieria was a sheet of glass. From most angles, Lockon could see right through him. He was charmingly fragile, although less so now, and he couldn't hide anything. But then there were angles where he was like that same sheet of glass turned sidelong. In the wrong light he was almost invisible, and Lockon couldn't even see him sneaking up, much less see through him.

Lockon sighed, exasperated with himself--he was letting himself get carried off by these thoughts again. He was sure it hadn't always been so hard to keep his mind from wandering places it didn't need to go. Back then, there was always another mission to prepare for, or something he could do for Setsuna or the rest of the crew. When that failed, he would go home for a while, and remember--but he never had to spend too long there before there was something else for him to do back in Celestial Being.

There were things for him to do here, too, of course, but he knew he'd still be here after they were done. Maybe later, he would ask Tieria if there was anything more he could do. For now, he cycled the computer on to the next set of recordings.

This sequence didn't look like anything more important than the others--another party where the elite behind A-LAWS had mingled. Lockon still had a little trouble with that knowledge. The descriptions he'd heard of A-LAWS had left him clenching his fists, but there was no longer anywhere for him to direct that anger. It was an unbalancing feeling, like constantly trying to sit in an uneven chair. He checked the tags on the video and was gratified to discover a distraction: these scenes had been hidden behind more encryption than the others, which meant they were more important. He'd have to pay extra attention to catch whatever had happened.

By now he knew most of the regulars who'd appeared at these events. He'd already known Wang Liu Mei beforehand, of course, and Ribbons himself had been easy to pick out of the crowd. It also hadn't taken Lockon long to learn to recognize Homer Katagiri. In this one, his nephew was there as well--according to Sumeragi he was an ally now, but often best dealt with by people other than her. Lockon hadn't questioned her about that; it sounded like something that should stay private, and he'd always been good about letting Sumeragi keep her privacy.

There were a few new faces at this occasion. Lockon focused on them for now, trying to make out what was hidden between the lines in their conversations. He wasn't getting anywhere, so he switched to another group. Which was how he found the unexpected thing.

"Tieria?!"

He barely realized he'd spoken aloud until a wall next to him flickered, became a communications screen. "I'll be there immediately, Lockon. You can explain the problem when I arrive."

"That's not--" Lockon started to protest, but he cut himself off when the screen vanished again. Tieria was on his way already--and to tell the truth, Lockon didn't really mind. He started to grin; the expression felt strange on him, alone in the room. But he was looking forward to talking with Tieria about this.

Tieria strode in at a rapid pace. "If there's immediate danger, we should--" He stopped, realizing that Lockon was still relaxed and unconcerned. He paused, uncertain, not quite annoyed (Lockon hadn't seen him truly annoyed in some time). "Lockon, why did you call me here?"

The thought occurred to Lockon: once, Tieria wouldn't have asked. He'd have simply assumed Lockon had no valid reason and proceeded to scold him. Now he sounded genuinely curious. "Actually," Lockon said, "I didn't call you. I'm glad you're here, though. I wanted to ask why you stopped wearing that dress. It looked good on you!"

Tieria stared at him for a long moment. Then he said, "There's no point to this."

"What?" Lockon was still grinning. For all that Tieria tried to keep himself composed, he was obviously baffled and at least a little flustered. It wasn't a bad sort of flustered, though--it was the kind he could learn from.

"I've changed over the past several years," Tieria said, "but I still lack understanding of the humor in that attire. It was necessary for the mission. The world has long assumed that the Gundam Meisters are male. Presenting myself as female made it easier to go unrecognized."

"People get really caught up on things like gender and sex," Lockon said. He was a little surprised that nobody had tried to explain it in simple terms for Tieria. Or was it that they hadn't realized he was asking? He could be awfully indirect about these things. "We forget that they're not really that important. So it's funny when someone mixes them up, and reminds us."

"I see," Tieria said slowly. He didn't really, but Lockon was sure he'd work it out sooner or later now that he'd been started on the right path. "Lockon, this recording--"

"I don't need to look at all of it," Lockon said. "Now that I know you were there."

"No," Tieria said quickly. "Nothing I did there is anything I am ashamed of. You should continue watching. There may be details I was too busy to notice at the time." But there was more color than usual in his cheeks. He must have realized it, too, because he said, "If there isn't any emergency after all, I should return to my tasks."

He was all right with Lockon seeing whatever it was he had done at Ribbons's party, Lockon realized, but not with being there at the time. He nodded. "All right, Tieria. If you've got anything else for me to look at, just pass it along."

Tieria nodded curtly and left the room too quickly.

Lockon stared after him for a moment, his smile fading back to neutral. Then he turned back to the recording and let it continue. The sight of Ribbons dancing with Tieria was discomfiting, but he watched anyway. As much as it bothered him that Tieria had been in such a vulnerable position, and Lockon himself had been utterly unable to help watch over him, he knew now that it had all turned out all right. He shouldn't let the past bother him so much.

But then, that had always been true.

He stopped, faintly dismayed, as Ribbons and Tieria left the semi-public ballroom and with it the sphere of the recording. He checked the other vantage points of the security cameras at the event, but only got as far as Ribbons's personal room before he ran out of footage. He would have let it go, but--

Lockon thought of what Tieria had just told him. Nothing I did there is anything I am ashamed of. For Tieria, that was perilously close to saying he was proud of doing something. Curiosity twinged at him. He wanted to know what Tieria would be proud of himself for.

It wasn't easy to cut a path through what he could touch of Veda in search of the missing footage. It would have been much quicker if he'd had Haro, but, he reminded himself, he no longer had any need for Haro, and his brother still did. It was funny, though: Lockon was surprised he could make it through at all. He knew his path through the encryption would be painfully obvious to Tieria and anyone else who knew the first thing about computer security, but still, he got through. It was as if the parts of Veda that Tieria had already explored yielded more readily than they should have to Lockon's access.

Veda wasn't an ordinary computer, Lockon thought, so maybe it just had quirks like that.

After a little while, he finally found the rest of the recording, and he watched it. As he'd expected, it cleared some things up. Ribbons had forced Tieria to choose between his first purpose as an extension of Veda, and his new purpose as a member of Celestial Being. Tieria had every reason to be proud of choosing right. It was funny, but not entirely unexpected, that he'd blush about this but remain unfazed by jokes about him in a dress. But some things still confused Lockon.

--you let that man too far into your heart. That Lockon Stratos. A foolish human who placed revenge for his family over the mission--

He didn't really get why that was when Tieria had finally turned on Ribbons.

* * *

It was entirely natural that Lockon should need to spend time on Earth periodically. In fact, Tieria encouraged it. He didn't want to see Lockon grow restless and unhappy in the lunar complex. Tieria could not leave himself--he hadn't yet figured out how to sustain this body away from the moonbase--but he nevertheless arranged for Lockon to do so.

"Setsuna wants me to meet with Queen Marina Ismail of Azadistan," Lockon had said. "And I want to help Feldt and Allelujah find out a little more about where they're from."

Tieria had listened, and he had wondered why Lockon had explained the week each in Europe and Central Asia and the Middle East (and Tieria worried about this, uncertainly, and resolved to keep watch on him via satellite), but not the two in Ireland. Was it because he thought it was obvious? Perhaps that was it; after all, it was a human thing to want to go home. But the other Lockon--Lyle Dylandy--his brother had once said to Setsuna when he didn't realize Tieria was listening in, "I have no home anymore." How was it that this Lockon was so different when they shared the same past?

He didn't ask. There were still things that froze in his throat before he could say them to Lockon. And then Lockon left, and Tieria was alone in the lunar complex again.

Tieria had spent over five years utterly without Lockon, and he had survived. Five weeks, he told himself, would be nothing. But it wasn't, and the moonbase felt absurdly large and empty without Lockon's presence.

He absorbed himself in his work within Veda when he could. But when he did that, he noticed the gaps where he would have received information from Lockon. He missed the feel of the connections Lockon would make, even though rationally he knew there was nothing exceptional about them. Lockon was an unaltered human, and he could only connect to Veda like anyone else. Tieria still missed him, still felt the worry that this time Lockon would be gone for good tense up even his virtual form.

Tieria found himself pacing the halls of the complex in his physical form instead.

It was beginning to look more like what it had been intended to be: a place for people to live and work while preparing for humanity's future. When Ribbons had left it, it had been cool and sterile, all its rooms devoted to strictly utilitarian purposes. The Innovators' ship Celestial Being could be provisioned and decorated as they liked, but this place was to be kept a secret, and to adorn it would only be engaging in unnecessary humanity. Tieria had made little effort to change this at first, but when Lockon had arrived, the need to do so had become paramount. Lockon was not just an expert in the things that made someone human--he was used to them.

Tieria passed through what had once been a room housing banks of monitors. Now only one row of them was left, devoted to communication with the Ptolemaios and the rest of the world (although there was nowhere else yet this place would contact, save for Lockon, wherever he was); the rest of the room was a lounge. Someday new members of Celestial Being--perhaps even public ones, after a day when they could reveal themselves--would gather here and talk about their day of work. But if he had to admit it to himself, Tieria hadn't made it for them. They were a distant goal. Lockon was the immediate force pulling him onwards, guiding him along his path.

Two of the non-descript bedrooms had been converted into one kitchen, for making as good a use as was possible of the food they could keep here. Others were still bedrooms, but slightly less non-descript as Lockon made observations on what sort of thing humans liked in their quarters, and as Tieria remembered things he'd noticed in the quarters aboard the Ptolemaios. A room that had stored sensitive data downloaded from Veda into physical form was now a communal eating area. The thought had once crossed Tieria's mind: he would like to arrange the schedule so that he could share a meal there with Lockon more often.

He realized where he was headed long before he reached his destination, but he still found it peculiar that his feet seemed to have made the choice to go there without consulting his conscious brain. Nevertheless, he let them take him there: the room he'd assigned to Lockon upon his arrival. Tieria had no reason to be there now, and he knew that instead of dwelling there he should return to his duties in Veda, but he still opened the door and let himself in.

Tieria sat down on the bed and wondered why he'd come here. It wasn't as if being in the room where Lockon slept during his time at the lunar complex brought him any closer. Somehow, though, there was a comfort to it.

Yet there was also a troubling disquiet. He thought of Lockon sitting here with that blank gaze, and he remembered. Years ago, he had used Veda to watch over the crew of the Ptolemaios, but without any of the care or kindness he tried to impart to it now. He'd seen Lockon looking like that sometimes back then, too. Worse, he'd seen Lockon with anger wiping out his casual poise. The first time Tieria had seen that, he'd been smug: so you're as fallible and misguided by your passions as the rest of them. The memory hurt.

And then at the end--

--I appreciate your concern, but right now I will fight!

Tieria had spent five years worrying over Lockon's last words to him, wondering what he could have said in response, if only he'd been a little quicker, to bring him back. Eventually he had convinced himself that there was something he could have said, something he could have done--but with Lockon here again, he couldn't believe that any longer. It was in the way Lockon smiled when Tieria spoke of humanity's future, the way Lockon didn't smile when he was alone, the way Lockon cast his gaze down in rueful contemplation. Tieria could not say what any of those meant individually, but he knew what they meant all together: there was nothing he could have done to stop Lockon, back then. And that meant that there was nothing he could do, when it came down to that, to protect Lockon now.

The force of the realization laid him low. Tieria found himself curled up on Lockon's bed, shaking slightly. But against all expectations, he felt himself begin to calm. He didn't know just what it was, and for a little while, he was baffled. Then it came to him--although the knowledge only left him more confused.

The pillows, the neat blanket, the bedsheets: they all smelled of Lockon. Tieria had trouble pinpointing all the specific components--faint sweat, soap, those were obvious, but what else? He couldn't come up with any answers, but he still wanted to keep lying there, surrounded by this tangible proof of Lockon's realness. That was another thing he couldn't comprehend: why something as simple and mundane as what Lockon smelled like made him feel so happy. His belly felt warm, his pulse raced even as he relaxed, his eyes blurred with tears. Was he ill? That shouldn't have been possible, in this setting.

For some reason, although he was somewhat alarmed, Tieria was not afraid. In fact, for no rational reason at all, he felt some of the fears about Lockon's safety that lay coiled in his gut begin to fade. He knew he should have gone back to Veda and continued his work--but instead, he relaxed, and he drifted quietly off to sleep with his head on Lockon's pillow.

* * *

Tieria had assured him that it was part of some larger project, but for now, Lockon was content to use the Celestial Being Menae I in a slight modification on its purpose as a two-person stealth transport. Despite the political deals Sumeragi had cut, Celestial Being was still too high-profile for him to travel openly. So, alone in a two-person vehicle, Lockon used the Menae to get himself from place to place on Earth. It was no Gundam, but it would do for this purpose.

Thinking too long of that led him to another thought: he would not pilot a Gundam again, but other people would. Including his brother--

But following that thought too far into his head led him back to things like his mistakes and his real name. That was fine when he was in Ireland watching the people and places, because that was what those times were for, but here, as he guided the Menae into Azadistan, that was the last kind of thought he wanted to be having.

It had been a little easier in Kazakhstan, even when he saw Allelujah and met Marie. He could focus then on glossing over and filling in the awkwardness of five years past. But even with them, there were still gaps he didn't know how to bridge. Sometimes, Allelujah had mentioned something Lockon had said, only to have to back up and explain that he meant the other one. Lockon Stratos was no longer Neil Dylandy to Allelujah, and to Marie Perfacy he never had been. In some ways, it was easier for Neil to be Lockon again once he was away from them.

But in other ways, it was harder, because now he was approaching Azadistan. He wouldn't have come here of his own will, but Setsuna wanted it of him, and it was the least he could do. It would have been different if it were a mission--there wouldn't have been anything awkward about it at all, except perhaps for something at the back of his brain being more alert than usual. It had been like that, over five years ago when he'd come here with Setsuna. Had that been when Setsuna had met this Marina Ismail? Why was she important to him?

Lockon pushed the thoughts away for now. All he was here to do was meet someone; there wasn't anything difficult about that. There were some political maneuverings to be made--it would be too risky to get close to the palace, and Lyle had sent very firm word that he was not to go into any bases maintained by Katharon. Marina herself had arranged for the meeting to take place somewhere politically neutral, although Lockon didn't know just where that was.

As it turned out, it was a nondescript building on the outskirts of the capital--situated, Lockon noticed, on a side street where the city's violence was unlikely to spill over. Lockon wondered if that was deliberate. He made his way to the door and knocked. It swung open, and for a moment he was disoriented: there was no one there. Then he looked down, and a small child blinked up at him.

Lockon crouched a little, trying to be as non-threatening as possible. "Hey," he said, lifting a hand in friendly greeting. "Could I talk to an adult?" The natural thing to do would be to ask for the kid's parents, but he had a sudden feeling that he shouldn't do that here. He hoped he was wrong about why.

The boy continued to stare up at him.

"You don't know English, do you?" Lockon gave him an apologetic smile; he was pretty sure that could carry through languages. "Come to think of it, I should have learned a little Arabic a long time ago." As it happened, he had known a little, at one point, but it was all about violence--nothing he could say to a child (and he had never bothered learning any Kurdish in the first place). "I'll just wait here for now."

It was several minutes before an adult showed up; throughout this time, the child patiently and loyally kept his place at the door and watched Lockon carefully. Occasionally, Lockon broke the silence to speak to him; so long as he used a cheerful tone, it would be less awkward that way, even if the kid didn't understand anything he said.

Finally, a woman made her way out of the hallway and into the entranceway. "I'm sorry I took so long," she said in English. "The orphanage is understaffed; I was helping."

Lockon wished he hadn't been right about what this place was, but he said nothing as she knelt to speak to the boy in Arabic. Instead, he studied her for a moment, wondered at the gentleness of her face--and then realized something.

"Princess Marina Ismail," he said as she rose back to her feet. "No, Queen now, right? I should have known right away."

"It doesn't upset me," she said, smiling at him. "I don't need to be the queen when I'm here, but only someone who cares for these children."

He met her smile with one of his own, although he had the feeling hers was more genuine. "I understand that point of view."

Her smile softened. "Do you?" She hesitated, then said, "Are you Setsuna's friend?"

Lockon grinned. "Do a lot of other confused foreigners show up here? Yeah, I'm Setsuna's friend." It felt like a strange way to describe himself, but he wasn't Setsuna's teammate anymore either, so it would have to do.

"He told me you'd be coming," Marina said, "but he said you'd introduce yourself."

Lockon found himself wishing she hadn't said that, because now he knew why Setsuna had told her that to begin with. This was a chance for him. It was too bad, then, that only one name felt easy to give her, and in this place, somehow he didn't have the heart to make the hard choice. "I'm Lockon Stratos," he said. "You might have met someone else who looked like me with that name when you were with Setsuna."

She blinked, but nodded. "Then why don't you come inside, Lockon?" She stepped back and gestured for him to follow.

He didn't particularly want to, Lockon realized. But that was his problem, and it wasn't right to make it hers as well. So he stepped through the doorway and into the narrow hall of the orphanage. It wasn't quite wide enough for the two of them to walk side by side, so he followed her instead.

She glanced back as she led him deeper into the building. "You've fought a lot," she said quietly. "Like Setsuna."

"Not like Setsuna," Lockon said. "He always went about it a little differently. But you're right about one part. I have fought a lot, in the past." She was looking at the scars, he realized. Even aside from the obvious, there were a few faint ones on his face, and the edges of burn scars showed past his collar and his short sleeves. "It's not what you think," he said. "These are mostly from just one battle. I shouldn't even have survived it."

Marina turned back to look at him wide-eyed. "You shouldn't say such a thing," she said. "Everyone who lived should have lived, and many who died should have lived as well."

"Ah," he said. He blinked. "That isn't what I meant." He wondered if it was a language problem; she spoke it well enough, but English wasn't her first language, after all. "It's just really surprising that I'm still alive."

She relaxed a little. "I see." She reached out to open a door. "This is the common room; we can rest for a while in here, and I can watch the children as well."

Lockon started to open his mouth to object, unsure how much he wanted to be in a room full of these children, but she was already opening the door. It was just as well, though. She was obviously most comfortable around these orphans. Instead of protesting, he followed her into the room, smiling at the children in return to their curious glances.

Marina sat down on a somewhat threadbare couch and gestured hopefully for Lockon to join her. He sat down, looking at her curiously, both because it was best to look at someone while talking to them and because he didn't really want to have to look at the kids. She didn't seem to pick up on his second reason. "Lockon," she said, "how do you know Setsuna?"

"We fought together," Lockon said. "Six years ago, now."

"In Celestial Being," Marina said quietly. Lockon gave a small start, and she looked down. "They didn't tell you that I knew."

"I could have guessed," Lockon said. "It's just surprising to hear it so openly."

"There isn't anyone here who'll tell," Marina said.

"I know," he said. "I'm not worried about it." But he was studying her more closely now, trying to think how Setsuna knew her. She was definitely older than him--from the lines around her eyes, he thought as much as ten or twelve years, but there was also something younger there that made Lockon wonder if she wasn't younger than he was. Still older than Setsuna, in any case. Lockon briefly wondered if Setsuna had a thing for older women, then dismissed the thought before it hurt his brain too much. He couldn't conceive of Setsuna feeling that way about anyone, much less this gentle-eyed queen surrounded by children.

While he was thinking, Marina had turned away to speak to a couple of the children--maybe seven years old, in the middle of the age range that Lockon could see represented. Now she straightened back up to look at him again. "Setsuna sent me a message to tell me you'd be coming," she said.

"That was a good idea," Lockon said. She was working her way up to something. He wasn't sure he wanted to know what it was.

"He doesn't contact me that way very often," she said. "He's still learning, how to reach out to people like that. I hope you'll keep in touch with him, Lockon."

He smiled. "I will." There was another subtext there that she hadn't voiced: you must be important to him. He thought for a moment about whether or not to address it, then decided he owed her that much, after she'd gone to this effort for him. "When he was new to Celestial Being," he said, "I took care of him and made friends with him when no one else was up to it. I guess it stuck with him over the years."

"I'm glad he had someone like you there for him," Marina said. She opened her mouth to speak again, but then she stopped, looking at something just in front of Lockon.

He turned, only to find a small child, no more than four years old, staring up at him. "Yo," he said, lifting a hand to wave at the girl.

"Oh," Marina said. "That's Kalila. She came here just last year, after one of the most recent outbreaks of violence in the outskirts..."

Lockon smiled, first at Marina to cut her off before she went into more detail, and then down at the little girl herself. "She's probably just curious what a guy like me is doing here," he said. He was a little curious about that himself. But then Kalila was holding her small arms out to him. He blinked down at her.

"I think she wants to be picked up," Marina said, looking at him hopefully.

There was nothing else he could do about it. Lockon rose to his feet, then crouched long enough to scoop the girl up and hold her out overhead. She giggled without a shadow of restraint; apparently that was what she'd wanted, even though it was him. He couldn't quite pin down why that was so wrong. Lockon put her back down, then dropped back onto the couch with a wince that he didn't even try to cover up.

"Are you all right?" Marina asked.

"I've been traveling a lot," he said. "Is there anywhere I could sit down by myself for a while? I'll feel better once I've done that."

"Of course," she said. She showed him into a nearby room, obviously intended as some caretaker's bedroom, but currently quite empty--this place was understaffed, she'd said. Lockon was momentarily grateful as he sank down onto the plain bed alone. As Marina stepped out into the hallway and shut the door, he glanced around reflexively to determine if there were any security devices, but of course there weren't. The wallpaper was peeling. This place could hardly afford sophisticated surveillance equipment.

Reassured in that aspect at least, Lockon bent so that his head was almost between his knees and stayed there for several minutes, his hands around his face, his good eye closed.

The truth was, he was glad that Setsuna and the others had changed the world enough for their own satisfaction, had changed themselves so that they no longer demanded that it be fixed in an impossible way, but Lockon (Neil, after all) hadn't. He still knew that the world was skewed and broken. He still felt it that way whenever he dreamed. But these children didn't know that, despite everything they'd been through.

Finally, he sat up and took the computer that Tieria had specially keyed to the moonbase's frequency out of his pocket. He turned it on and opened a channel back there. Tieria's face appeared on the screen almost before he was done.

"Lockon," he said. "Is something wrong?"

"I'm fine, Tieria," Lockon said, and it was strange to see how much Tieria relaxed as he said that. "But I think I've had a change of plans."

"Explain."

"I'm going to be coming back tomorrow," he said, "instead of in a week. Is that all right?"

"It's not a problem," Tieria said. "But--are you sure? My schedule won't free you again for some months."

Lockon felt, obscurely, like he was disappointing someone, but it certainly wasn't Tieria. "I'm sure," he said. "It's best this way."

Tieria nodded, and then he smiled a little. Even now, the expression still managed to surprise and please Lockon a bit. "Then I'll look forward to seeing you soon." He hesitated a moment longer, "If there's nothing else--"

"No, everything's fine," Lockon said. "I'll see you then." And he cut the connection.

For a little while after that, he stood staring at the blank screen, wondering. Tieria was so genuinely pleased to be seeing him again soon. Now more than ever, Lockon had trouble wrapping his brain around that idea. So he didn't. Instead, he just got up and prepared to tell Marina Ismail about his change of plans.

Chapter Text

Once Lockon was back, things began to settle, strangely, into routine once more. Tieria occasionally found himself opening his mouth to tell Lockon how much he'd missed him, but then the moment passed, and he'd still said nothing. After a while, it grew too late to say such a thing without seeming strange. Tieria didn't wish to bother Lockon like that, so at that point, he let it go.

Tieria had found a new cache of data on how to restore the Endymion, the moonbase's support ship. He absorbed himself in that, although he was oddly reluctant to leave Lockon alone for long. He comforted himself by passing the task of connecting the newly downloaded schematics to physical structures within the lunar complex to Lockon. That way, he had an excuse to watch him. It felt odd to come up with excuses and know they were excuses. Although he was human, he was also an Innovade; surely excuses were a human thing he could do without.

Lockon also had his standard duties of monitoring nearby space for enemies passing dangerously close. In the nearly six months since Lockon had arrived at the complex, no such danger had presented itself. In its current state, the moonbase hid itself too well. So Tieria was quite startled when he received an urgent message from Lockon on that duty.

"Tieria. Wake up now."

It was funny, how Lockon referred to emerging from Veda as "waking up." Tieria normally took the time to be pleasantly perplexed by that, but now he was too alarmed. He downloaded himself back into his physical body in just under five seconds--a record speed, and that after he'd spent almost a full second checking to make sure he hadn't left anything behind. He got up immediately and started for Lockon's location, near the newly unearthed docking bay of the base.

As he ran, he opened a channel to Lockon. "What is it?"

Lockon's tone was more serious than usual. In fact, it had been a long time since Tieria had heard him being this serious. "There's a contingent of ships headed our way. They have A-LAWS insignia."

"Impossible," Tieria said. "A-LAWS disbanded over a year ago." But he was already reaching into Veda for information, and to his dismay, he found it in less than a second. "No. They will be one of what is estimated to be seven splinter groups determined to carry out A-LAWS' original mission of unification and suppression despite lack of official support. Only two of these splinter groups are large enough to pose a significant--"

He reached the docking bay. It was still strewn with debris from the excavation that had revealed it. Lockon's duties there had been cleaning that up, and he had only just started. Two of the six Menae had been refurbished enough to be moved in, and they were the only clean things in the great echoing chambers. The two of them, and Lockon.

It took Tieria a long baffled moment to realize what Lockon was doing. He was currently inputting the code to prepare the first Menae for launch.

"Lockon!" Tieria launched himself across the floor, the low gravity of the moon doing nothing to slow him in his approach to Lockon. "What are you doing?"

The door of the Menae opened, and Lockon stepped halfway in. "They're close enough that they've already made us out, Tieria. They won't leave without doing some damage. I'm going to lead them away as far as I can. You should seal off this place as well as you can, then retreat into Veda and cut all connections with here. You'll be safe there, and you can start rebuilding the base again once this group is taken care of."

Tieria felt his chest go indescribably tight. Breathing was difficult. "Lockon." He reached out and grabbed hold of Lockon's wrist. He realized (with, somewhere inside, an apologetic start) that he was holding him hard enough to bruise.

"Hey!" Lockon tried to shake him free. "Let go of me, Tieria. It'll be all right; I'll lose them once they're far enough away and go to ground on Earth for a while. I'll contact you as soon as I can."

Once Tieria would have trusted him. But he was long past that point. Now he knew that Lockon was lying. "There's no chance," he said. "They'll kill you or capture you, torture you, and then kill you."

"Ah," Lockon said. "You don't have to be so blunt about it." He leaned forward a little to touch Tieria's shoulder. "It's possible. But your access to Veda and the information here is more important. It's all right. I can make that choice."

It was like Tieria had feared: there was nothing he could do to protect Lockon now. Numbing hysteria rose up in him, and he wasn't sure he could even try to stop it. And then there was a distraction. At the edge of his awareness in Veda, he felt the heat of a message being transmitted openly across nearby channels.

"They're sending a broadcast," he said. He couldn't say anything else. He was too frozen to even pick up the communication. His mind raced for ways to stop Lockon, to keep him here and safe, but he came up with nothing.

Lockon glanced at him, taking all of that in with a look (doing with one eye what Tieria would not have been able to do with two) and yet somehow not understanding that he needed to stop what he was doing. "Put it through," he said firmly. "But don't answer."

"Of course," Tieria said. He connected the message to the docking bay's audio, while simultaneously transforming the clearest wall of the huge chamber into a screen showing the approaching ships (two) and mobile suits (five, all GN-XIII units that appeared to have some more recent modifications).

"--the rightful remaining command of A-LAWS ordering you to surrender. We have received information indicating that Celestial Being is hiding in this location. You are surrounded. This is the rightful remaining command of A-LAWS ordering you to surrender. We have received information indicating that Celestial Being is hiding in this location. You are surrounded. This is the rightful remaining command..."

"That doesn't tell us anything we didn't already know," Lockon said. He swung the rest of the way inside the Menae. "I noticed something, Tieria. When you launch from the docking bay, it sends you out at an angle that's at odds with the rest of the base. If I launch now, it'll misguide them. It'll be easy to lead them away."

"No," Tieria said. "I won't let you do it." But his voice faltered at the end and he was sure there were tears in his eyes, tears Lockon couldn't see because he was already examining the Menae's controls to take stock of its limited weaponry.

Lockon's voice was a little rueful, but mostly, it was serenely determined. "You are technically in charge here. So you're going to have to mark me up for insubordination when this is over."

"That isn't what matters," Tieria said. "Lockon, I--" He stopped there. Something entirely unexpected was happening on the screen displayed in front of them. Suddenly cutting off the A-LAWS forces was one of the newest GN-XIV units. It moved in great, irrational, wasteful swoops and bounds, as if piloted by someone more interested in showing off than actually defeating foes.

Inside the Menae, Lockon paused. "What happened?"

He got his answer as a new communication came over the audio. "On orders from Colonel Mannequin, I won't ever let you through!"

Lockon poked his head back out of the little ship. "Colonel who? Isn't she a general?"

"Yes," Tieria said, grateful that Lockon had emerged even that little bit. Maybe he could be talked out of this yet. "This man is clearly not entirely rational. Notice his piloting style--" And there Tieria cut off, because that piloting style was familiar. Without access to Veda, he wouldn't have been able to identify it specifically, but his connection swiftly matched the style and provided him not only with a name, but all the previous battles this Patrick Colasour Mannequin had engaged in. Tieria froze in place.

"It's a little familiar, isn't it?" Lockon said. "I can't help but wonder if we've fought that guy before."

"It's not relevant right now," Tieria managed to say. "He'll take care of the situation. We should seek shelter further inside the moonbase. Both of us."

On the screen in front of them, two of the modified GN-XIII units cornered Colasour's GN-XIV and blasted an ugly hole in its shoulder. He was still talking to them over the open channel, indignant now. "Who told you you could defeat me? I'm the Immortal Colasour, now called Patrick Mannequin in honor of the Colonel's beautiful kiss! I'll hold my ground for as long as she tells me to."

Another voice, this time from the A-LAWS contingent: "One new mobile suit piloted by a joke isn't going to stop us from eradicating Celestial Being."

"It's like I said," Lockon said. "I have to go out there. Sorry, Tieria." He started to get back in the Menae.

Tieria cried out, embarrassing himself with his own inarticulateness, and reached for Lockon's hand. He missed it by a matter of centimeters, and then Lockon was inside the Menae, starting up its controls. Though he'd heard the cry, he hadn't even seen Tieria reaching for him; that was on his blind side.

A new voice lit up the network of communications unraveling far above their heads. "This is Brigadier General Kati Mannequin. We may lack the force here and now to finally round up you and your outlaws for good, but we can stop your current attack."

Lockon stopped, the controls falling into inactivity once more beneath his hands. Tieria turned back to the screen. A new ship was approaching the A-LAWS forces, with two GN-XIV units flanking it. Like she had said, it wasn't enough to completely defeat the two ships and five upgraded GN-XIII mobile suits, but it was enough to severely damage them. An already unsupported force couldn't afford to risk that.

One of the voices from the A-LAWS communications shot back to Mannequin over the open channel, "Celestial Being are far more outlaws than we are, General."

"If Celestial Being were here, you might have an argument," Mannequin said. "But even so, I wouldn't cooperate with you. It's your choice. Get out now, or we can engage in combat."

Lockon finally emerged from the Menae, and in his immense wash of relief, Tieria almost missed what was happening on the screen: the A-LAWS contingent was withdrawing. As they went, the general's husband followed them in his GN-XIV until they were past her forces, then rejoined them.

Tieria watched in silence, Lockon at his side and also unspeaking, until the A-LAWS splinter group had vanished from view. Then he reached out with his mind to turn off the screen. It had barely flipped off when a new message pinged his consciousness, and this one was directed specifically at them.

"General Mannequin is contacting us," Tieria said. "Lockon--"

Lockon laid a hand on Tieria's shoulder, and Tieria could not even begin to express how grateful he was for it. But still, a spark of anger kindled in him, much to his surprise. How dare Lockon be so willing to throw his life away again, only to act like nothing had happened? He didn't even seem to be aware of how badly he'd upset Tieria. "I'd like to hear it," Lockon said. "Put her through."

"Of course," Tieria said, and he connected the audio--but not the video. There was some information they didn't need to share.

Mannequin was brusque and entirely to the point. "I've been assured that the work you're doing there is scientific and not military in nature." Her voice was grudging, as if she didn't approve of what she herself was doing. "Prove me wrong, Celestial Being, and I will destroy you more thoroughly than that sorry band of reactionaries could have managed."

"Don't worry about it," Lockon said. Tieria started as he realized Lockon was actually responding, then set the words to transmit anyway. "We're pretty harmless here, so we shouldn't give you any reason to hurt us. Thanks for saving us instead."

She made an impatient noise. "It wasn't for you. If Kujou hadn't..." She trailed off. Then she said, "See to it you don't give me that reason. Mannequin out."

* * *

Lockon realized, as he made his way back towards the common areas of the base, that his wrist hurt. It took him a little while to remember why. In fact, he only remembered when it occurred to him that he could hear Tieria's quiet footsteps following his.

Ah. Tieria's hand on his wrist, that broken look in his eyes. He hadn't given himself the time to be surprised in the heat of the moment, but now he could feel it catching up with him. Tieria had seemed so changed over the years, and Lockon had been pleased about that--had been proud of him, even. Now that Tieria had Veda back, there was no reason for him to still cling to Lockon and the ideals he'd passed on to him, and yet he remained human in his own way. But after all this, he should no longer need to be so dependent on Lockon.

It worried Lockon, that neediness and dependence. Tieria should be beyond that. He should leave this place, he realized, and let Tieria grow out of it. But the idea emerged from him only with great reluctance. He gave a rueful little chuckle. He had to admit it: he enjoyed the way Tieria depended on him, even if it was wrong.

At that sound, Tieria fell into place beside him. "Lockon."

"Sorry about that, Tieria," Lockon said. "I might have made it a little more stressful on you than it needed to be."

"Yes," Tieria said, flushing hot in the cheeks. "You did."

"You need to know, though," Lockon said. "Sometimes I'll have to put myself at risk, even now."

"I know," Tieria said. "But I don't want you to. Lockon--"

Lockon stopped. The hallway suddenly felt narrower to him, with the two of them standing there beside each other in it, even though it was the same size as it had been yesterday. The open space that had been transformed into a common area lay only a few meters up ahead. He wished they'd made it there before Tieria had spoken to him in that tone of voice. But all he said was, "What's wrong, Tieria?"

"There were other things we could have tried," Tieria said. "You've said yourself that the lunar complex has defense systems. We could have used them while sending a distress signal and resolved the political situation later."

Lockon frowned. "That would've been too much of a risk to Celestial Being. But it's good that you're thinking of these--"

"The other plan was too much of a risk to you," Tieria said sharply. He took a deep breath (and Lockon was startled to note that he seemed to tremble a little as he did so). "You're too important to me to allow you to risk yourself so carelessly."

Lockon startled. Of course it made sense for Tieria to say such a thing, but somehow, the words were strange to hear. After a moment, he decided that it was because he still had trouble accepting the ways Tieria had not changed. He was still clingy, still at least a little dependent, and Lockon would have to learn to accept that and work to change it only slowly. "Tieria," he said. "I didn't mean to upset you so much, but--" Where was the 'but'? What could he say to make it better? It was more difficult than usual, somehow. "Sometimes it isn't careless, it's necessary."

If he had startled before, he almost jumped now, because suddenly Tieria had curled a hand around his wrist--the other one this time. He took another deep breath, this time without trembling. With obvious effort, he said, "No. In this matter, your judgment is flawed."

Lockon blinked.

Tieria continued, his grip on Lockon's wrist stiff, his whole body rigid as he steeled himself. "I don't question your judgment in other matters, but in regards to your own life, you are--" He choked a little. "You are unfit to make that decision."

It wasn't exactly a regression. It obviously took Tieria intense effort to scold him so (and it was scolding, Lockon realized now). The person who might have said those words carelessly and dismissively was long gone. But Lockon still didn't understand why he felt such a need to say them at all.

Tieria turned, still holding Lockon's wrist (was he bruising by now?), and took a fumbling step closer to him. "I wasn't certain, at first, if this was the case. But your actions just now have proven a hypothesis I created only reluctantly."

"You made a hypothesis about me?" Lockon said. He wasn't quite reeling; he knew that so long as Tieria was looking at him so intensely, he would stay stable. There was something grounding about having that desperate look fixed on him, even as there was something unsettling about it. He didn't entirely understand either part. But still, he wasn't sure what to do. His mind raced as he stalled for time, searching for something he could say or do to reassure Tieria.

"Yes," Tieria said. "I believe you place too low a value on your own life."

A fleeting thought: Of course I do. That's the point. My life hasn't been valuable in a long time. Not since I had more family than my brother to protect. Then it was gone, because he couldn't afford to think that way around Tieria. He had to be what Tieria needed of him. He sighed. "Tieria, you can't start policing how I think about my life. Learning to let go is also part of being human."

Tieria caught his breath. "I thought I had let go," he said. "As much as I could. I had vowed to live on, no matter how much it hurt without you. But now that you're here--" He tipped his head back to look up at Lockon. His eyes were so bright, Lockon realized with a start; almost as if he was about to cry. Reflexively, he leaned in closer, wanting to do something to make sure the tears didn't start.

Tieria leaned closer as well, as if he wanted to hear what Lockon was saying--and then he was moving closer still, and now, still moving on reflex, Lockon matched that closeness, and Tieria--

Tieria kissed him. The way he pressed his mouth to Lockon's was hopelessly awkward, like he'd read about the gesture but didn't understand the kind of pressure you were supposed to apply, the subtle motions you were supposed to make. Without thinking, Lockon kissed back, trying to show him the right way to do it. Tieria's mouth still felt stiff and strange against his own.

Then the reality of the situation caught up with him. He was kissing Tieria. Something, somewhere had gone very wrong. His initial impulse, when kissed, was to kiss back, but now his better judgment had set in. This was a mistake. He started to pull away.

And Tieria's hand was on his back, pulling him closer. Suddenly, where before he'd been instinctively awkward and stiff, Tieria was kissing back fervently. He was still awkward, of course, but he was eager. Lockon was taken aback, so he kept kissing, trying to reason it out before he stopped. Well, Tieria had been more than a little upset. Maybe clinging like this was just his natural reaction, as much as anything was natural with him.

In the end, it was Tieria who broke the kiss, but not for several more seconds. He stared up at Lockon with wide eyes for a long moment. Lockon said nothing. Once again, Tieria had him unsure how to respond. That was happening more often lately.

Tieria solved the problem for him. He released Lockon's wrist and turned away. He was blushing.

"Tieria--" Lockon grinned at him. "It's all right. We both got worked up and started acting irrationally. It happens sometimes, when you put two people in one place for long enough. It's nothing to be embarrassed about."

"Of course," Tieria said curtly. "Lockon, I won't press you on this subject any longer." He turned and strode away, and it was only when he'd turned a bend in the corridor that Lockon remembered what "this subject" was. Then he was relieved. He really hadn't wanted to talk to Tieria about it any longer. In fact, he was a little relieved that Tieria was leaving, period. Somewhere in the back of his head something was trying to connect. He wasn't sure he wanted to see where it led.

* * *

For the next three days, Tieria felt as if he could not catch his breath.

Performing his duties in Veda was all but out of the question. He fumbled his way through a single layer of encryption, nearly botching it in the process as he thought of the feel of Lockon's lips when he should have been thinking only of pure numbers. Then, knowing he had set a goal of decrypting and inspecting seven separate encodings for this twenty-four hour period, he gave up. It was useless.

He drifted in the digital ether. Nearby, he could feel Regene's amusement lapping at him like waves: mocking digital laughter. He was surprised Regene was not more disappointed in him than amused, considering how badly he'd allowed humanity to compromise him here. But the other Innovade (the one who was not human as well) gave him no explanation, although he could surely feel the direction of Tieria's thoughts.

Tieria let his work pile up, and instead he considered what to do about Lockon. A little research into unlocked sections of data on Innovade biochemistry had explained to him what had happened. It was far easier, when creating an Innovade, to include in them all the neurological and hormonal systems that existed in normal humans and simply switch the unnecessary complexes off than to remove them entirely. In combination combat/espionage models such as himself, the system that prompted sexual desire and the ensuing romantic feelings was by default switched off.

Somehow, Lockon had switched it on.

This was a problem. Lockon had said, We both got worked up and started acting irrationally. But a single moment like that in the midst of a stressful and adrenaline-filled situation was nothing compared to the feelings that ran through Tieria now, that had run through him almost since Lockon had first come to the lunar complex. It seemed absurd now that it had taken him so long to realize it.

Are you going to tell him? wondered Regene somewhere. Tieria could feel him smiling. Or are you going to play more games? Humans can be entertaining when they do that, but you should be above it.

Tieria refused to respond directly, but he knew that Regene was right, even if only accidentally. He couldn't keep this a secret now that he knew, because he would never get anything done. He had to do something about it. He just wasn't sure what it was he wanted to do.

He stayed in Veda for as long as he could, and he drifted. When he left to take care of physical matters, he avoided Lockon, although it made him ache to do so. Even inside Veda, his mind kept returning to the way Lockon's mouth had felt on his, and how much, to his shock, he had liked it. Tieria wanted more, and he wanted to do something that Lockon would like just as much. He knew a little about the rituals of romance, gleaned from stray conversations with the rest of Celestial Being, but it was all distant secondhand knowledge. Studious research turned up little more of use. The custom of dating was dependent on location, and Tieria could not leave the moonbase in this body. There were chances to gain food from Earth, or synthesize their own, but to waste resources on flowers would have been unjustifiable. And after all that, it always led to the same thing.

Tieria decided to dispense with the preliminaries.

Chapter Text

It was becoming more difficult to contact the Ptolemy immediately. The actual time lag between messages sent by the best technological means at their disposal, Tieria explained, was still only a few minutes, and somehow, he could communicate with Setsuna without any delay at all (Lockon had not asked for details on that). But the technicalities of the orbits of both Earth and Moon, as well as the need to maintain some secrecy, meant that in practice, the only way to contact the crew of the Ptolemy instantly was through Tieria and Setsuna's link. None of them were entirely comfortable using that to transmit routine messages--at least, not yet.

So it was only now, several weeks after the fact, that Lockon was receiving reactions from the Ptolemy to the report he'd sent them on his trip back to Earth. He'd made sure to include what he'd learned for Feldt's sake, and a note on how Allelujah and Marie were faring. Only out of obligation to Setsuna had he said anything about Marina--that even though his time with her had been cut short, he thought she was a very kind woman and Setsuna was lucky to have met her.

Lockon smiled at Setsuna and Feldt's replies, but he stopped, frowning, when he came to the note Lyle had left for him.

I thought running away was my tactic, Neil. Are you taking over for me now that I can't do it anymore?

He didn't entirely get the meaning, but he got enough of it to be uncomfortable. Lockon sent an alert to Tieria about the messages, although surely he'd gotten them himself as well, and moved them off the computer screen. He started to turn to another monitor, but then he stopped, because standing in the doorway of the combination lounge/communications room was Tieria himself.

Tieria had been busy the past week with his work in Veda, and in all honesty, Lockon was still a bit relieved about it. When he thought about Tieria, he could feel a switch trying to turn on somewhere in his mind (or maybe somewhere else). He didn't want to follow that to its logical conclusion. But now he was standing there in the entrance, his shoulders held stiffly, his chin up.

"Lockon Stratos," he said, "remove your pants."

The command was so sincere, and Lockon so glad to hear that kind of confidence in Tieria's voice without any of the contempt that had accompanied it years ago, that he'd undone the first two buttons on his pants before his brain ground to a halt. "What?"

Suddenly Tieria was hesitant again. He was blushing now. "If you wish to," he said in a smaller voice. Whatever effort he'd put into the confidence of his last words, it had been spent now. He was fumbling. "I wouldn't force anything such as this on you, Lockon."

Lockon's brain started working again, but now it had new information that dismayed him. "This isn't necessary," he said. "The kiss was just an accident. You don't have to take it any further if you don't want to."

"Many human things are not, strictly speaking, necessary," Tieria said. "But I do want to."

The thought passed through Lockon's head that he kind of wanted to, too. There it was, what he'd been refusing to face since that kiss. If he let himself, he could find Tieria attractive (and how long had that been the case? Was it just because he'd been here alone with him for so long?). There was a switch threatening to turn itself on in his head, just like he'd feared, and it was getting harder to stop it.

He suppressed it one more time. "This isn't a good idea. I didn't even know you could feel that way, or I wouldn't have led you on."

Tieria flushed. "Lockon, you didn't lead me on. I led myself to this conclusion. You kissed me, and it felt good. I want to go further."

"You don't--" Lockon stopped. "Hey, hey, I didn't kiss you, Tieria. It was the other way around."

Tieria blinked at him. "I wouldn't have initiated such a thing. I recall that you leaned forward and kissed me."

Come to think of it, Lockon recalled that he had leaned forward as Tieria had. "It's like I said, then. We both made a mistake."

"It doesn't have to be a mistake." Tieria hesitated, then reached out to put a hand on Lockon's chest, just below one shoulder. It was, Lockon realized, the first time Tieria had deliberately touched him for anything other than practical reasons: even those grips on his wrist a week ago had been intended to catch his attention and stop him from turning away. Tieria moved a little closer, then laid his head on Lockon's shoulder. "I like this," he murmured.

It was so much harder to say no to Tieria when he was like this than Lockon would have wanted it to be. But then, he wouldn't have thought about this at all until now. Even over the past week, since that kiss, he'd been refusing to think about it. Tieria couldn't have feelings like that, and he definitely couldn't have feelings like that for him.

But he did, and somehow that made him attractive in and of itself. He wanted Lockon, and it wouldn't be difficult for Lockon to want him back.

But it wouldn't be right, either. Lockon couldn't bring himself to push Tieria away entirely, but he tipped Tieria's head back, away from his shoulder. "You should think this over, Tieria. It's not really a good idea."

"I have thought it over," Tieria said. "I'd still like to do this to you."

Lockon paused. "You mean with me," he said.

"That's only one way of looking at it," Tieria said. "We would need to start with me performing the acts on you, rather than the other way around, or a combination of both."

"That's just not right," Lockon said without even thinking. "There's no reason you can't take part too--if we were going to do this, I mean."

"Lockon," Tieria said. "I'm not ready."

"Then you definitely shouldn't be doing this," Lockon said. "Don't feel pressured into it, just because we kissed once."

"That's not what I meant," Tieria said, shaking his head. Lockon could feel Tieria's hair brush against his face. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation. "This is very new to me. The feeling of being kissed alone was intense. Having more sexual actions done to me would be overwhelming. I'd like to take this in steps."

Lockon caught his breath.

"Lockon?" Tieria said tentatively, starting to lift a hand to his face, then pulling it away, obviously unsure of what boundaries he should respect now. "What's wrong?"

He would have to be so gentle with someone like that, Lockon thought. The slightest touch at the wrong time could send him over the edge. What sort of sounds would he make? How would he move?

"Ah," Tieria said, still pressed hesitantly against him. He sounded strangely pleased. "You are interested."

That was when Lockon realized he was getting hard. Tieria was right: Lockon couldn't protest that he wasn't interested, now. Tieria wanted it, and he wanted it, and--and it would change everything, but it was too late to stop that now. Lockon reached up with both hands and cupped Tieria's face. "You're sure?"

"I'm completely certain," Tieria said. "I haven't been able to think of anything else all week. This is what I want to do."

"In that case," Lockon said, "we really should get started." He let go of Tieria's face and took hold of his hands instead, but only to move them to where his pants were still half-open. Those hands trembled a little within his, and Lockon realized he was almost fully erect already. Maybe it really had just been too long. That had been a bad idea--he should have found someone during his vacation on Earth.

Tieria took a deep breath, then pulled down first Lockon's pants, then his underwear in quick succession. Carefully, he lowered himself to his knees.

Lockon stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Hey, Tieria," he said. "First things first." He pulled him back up, then leaned closer to start kissing him.

Tieria broke away after a moment, reluctantly. "We've already done this," he said. "We should move on."

"That's just not true," Lockon said. "There's no such thing as kissing too much before going further. If you like it, we can do more of it. That goes for anything, you know." This wasn't so bad, Lockon realized. In some ways, it made things simpler. He'd wondered what Tieria was to him; now he could think, Tieria is my lover, and leave it at that. He had a role to play now. It would be easier.

(But even though it would change everything, some things it wouldn't change at all. Tieria would still be either transparent or, more rarely, an utter mystery to him--nothing in between.)

Tieria hesitated, his cheek pressed up against Lockon's. "No," he finally said. "I'd like to kiss you in other places too." He was breathing hard, and he trembled with every exhale, but Lockon still couldn't feel if he was hard yet or not. He supposed it was a good thing, if Tieria wasn't ready for more than this.

But whether he was ready or not, Tieria was continuing. He moved away from Lockon's face, hesitantly kissing his collarbone, then finally sinking down until he was on his knees. This time, Lockon tensed a little, but didn't stop him. It might have been a bad idea, but he wanted to feel what Tieria could give him too much now.

Tieria paused for a moment longer, his eyes half-closing, and then Lockon got his wish. Tieria leaned forward to awkwardly touch his tongue to the head of Lockon's cock.

Lockon struggled not to burst out laughing. Tieria felt the way his body trembled with the effort and looked up, flushing darker red. "Lockon, am I doing something wrong?"

Lockon reached down to stroke gloved fingers along the line of Tieria's jaw. "It's all right to go a little faster. You won't hurt me, I promise."

"Understood," Tieria said. He took a deep breath, then leaned forward, mouth open, and took far too much of Lockon's length into his mouth.

Lockon couldn't suppress a short gasp, and he hurriedly pulled back and pushed Tieria away. "Hey! Be careful. You'll hurt yourself."

Tieria blinked up at him. Then he frowned with impatience. "Lockon, I am in enough control of this body to deactivate the gag reflex as necessary. You needn't worry about that."

Still, when he started again, he was more hesitant, and it was plainly evident to Lockon that he'd never done anything like this before. His teeth were out, stroking over him just short of painfully, and he moved his tongue and lips only erratically. For a little while, Lockon couldn't understand why; then he reached down and touched Tieria's cheek, curiously, and felt him trembling still more at the touch. He really was almost overwhelmed just by this.

It would be impossible, of course, to tell Tieria just how attractive his fumbling lack of experience was. So Lockon only shivered a little bit himself and carefully pushed further into Tieria's mouth. Tieria didn't seem fazed by it; in fact, he gave a little sigh of pleasure around Lockon's cock and slowly licked the shaft. There was no rhythm to his motions, only uncertain eagerness, but that just made it better.

Lockon found himself slowly pouring Tieria's hair through his fingers, then resting the back of his hands on Tieria's temples. Even through his gloves, he could feel the way Tieria shook at his touch, and he could definitely feel how Tieria sucked at him harder with every shiver. Lockon suppressed a flicker of irritation--he'd never liked this as much as most men did; he hated feeling like he was the only one getting pleasure. For the first time, that clearly wasn't the case...but he still wished he could be face to face with Tieria, holding him close, kissing the top of his head. That would be much more appropriate.

Except it wouldn't, because it was Tieria, and all of this was inappropriate--but it was too late for that, too late to stop and think, Why am I doing this? He could already feel himself starting to thrust nearly involuntarily into Tieria's mouth, that awkward space between his bared teeth, and oh, the sounds Tieria was making as he did so--

Lockon came almost unexpectedly, although at least it wasn't quite as unexpected as the whole event had been.

He leaned back against the wall, his good eye closing; he was suddenly exhausted, emotionally as well as physically. Somewhere he felt Tieria carefully pulling his pants up again, pausing to lay his head against Lockon's stomach, and then getting to his feet. But for once in his life, Lockon didn't know what he could say to Tieria now if he were to speak. After a long moment of contemplation, he decided on, "That was good, Tieria. You--"

But when he opened his eye, Tieria was already gone. It had been too much for him after all.

* * *

Tieria recovered in fits and starts over the next week, and as he did, he prepared. He still couldn't spend much time accomplishing anything in Veda. This bothered him; hadn't that been the main reason he'd done such a thing with Lockon in the first place? To clear his mind, so that he could return to his work.

No, he couldn't pretend that was the reason anymore. He had approached Lockon in that way because he had wanted him, sexually as well as emotionally and practically. Now that he'd had Lockon, a little bit, as one said of sexual matters, he was happy. The memory of how it had felt to move his mouth over Lockon in such a way still made heat spark in strange places on his body, especially as he prepared to do more.

He attempted to go about his business as much as possible, but Lockon wasn't making it easy to avoid him this time. He'd be right there outside the data storage room as Tieria was emerging to return to the pod where he connected to Veda, and he'd be in the lounge exactly when Tieria needed to pass through it.

Lockon smiled when his presence flustered Tieria--and he offered tips and suggestions.

"The sex isn't really the point of dates," Lockon said. "Most dates, at least. Spending time with someone you like is important too."

"We spent time together--before," Tieria said. "Before we kissed."

"It's different when you call it a date," Lockon said.

"I don't understand," Tieria said. There was so much about this aspect of humanity that he didn't understand.

Lockon hesitated, then reached out to clasp a hand to Tieria's head. He still had his gloves on, but the warmth came through to Tieria anyway, and he felt it spread through his body. "It's okay," he said. "Everyone has trouble understanding this part of life."

"You don't," Tieria said.

Lockon gave him a strange little smile. Tieria could not figure out what it meant.

Later, Tieria asked, "How could we have a date here, Lockon? Even natural meals are difficult to procure."

"Well, we could..." Lockon paused. "Give me a little while to think about it. I'll come up with something."

The next day, Lockon suggested that they watch movies together.

"I fail to see the point," Tieria said, "but if you believe it to be proper, we will do it."

Tieria later learned that the movie Lockon transferred onto the communications screen was known as a "buddy cop film." He found much of the humor incomprehensible and the police force situations presented highly unrealistic even from his limited knowledge of such things. But Lockon laughed at it, and that was more than enough; and as Tieria felt himself nestling against Lockon's shoulder, he didn't care what the movie was.

* * *

It had been a strange couple of weeks.

It was taking Lockon a while to adjust to seeing Tieria like this. It was fun, in a way. There was something satisfying about the way Tieria blushed, and he did it so often now. There was something charming about going through the motions of romance with him--even if Lockon still hadn't figured out what to do about dates. He was sure he was onto something with the movie idea, but Tieria hadn't been interested in any of the movies they'd tried so far. Lockon was doing some research into film history to try to find one that would pique Tieria's interest. There'd been some movies about robots dealing with human emotions back in the early twenty-first century; he thought those might be good.

Tieria hadn't yet suggested anything more sexual to Lockon, and Lockon was grateful for that. If Tieria wanted to try out romance, Lockon would help him, but sex might be taking it too far. Maybe after the last time, he'd decided that it wasn't really to his taste. That seemed likely; Lockon still had trouble conceiving of Tieria as a sexual being.

(But the noises he'd made at the back of his throat as Lockon had pushed into his mouth, trying to stay gentle--)

It had been two weeks since that first time when Lockon heard the door to his quarters chime at him as he was getting ready to sleep. He'd taken his shirt off, but not his pants or his eyepatch; he wondered briefly if he should put the shirt back on before answering the door. It wouldn't have occurred to him to wonder, a few months ago. What state Tieria saw him in didn't matter--except maybe for the eyepatch. Now he wasn't sure.

In the end, he decided not to bother with a shirt, and he went over to open the door for Tieria. "I knew you'd learn to warn me first before--" He cut off, staring at Tieria.

Tieria took a deep breath. "Lockon, I'm ready now. I've taken the necessary steps to prepare myself. I know that we are both free of any sexually communicable diseases, or I would not have done as much as I already have." He held up a packet and looked at Lockon with a very serious face. "I have acquired lubricant."

It looked like Tieria wasn't done with sex after all. "Tieria," Lockon said, "that's not a very romantic date."

Tieria frowned up at him. "I'm still new to the concept of dating and romance, Lockon. Please allow me some margin for error."

It was hard not to let his resolve soften a little at something like that. Lockon felt his mouth tug into a smile. "It's not an error exactly, but I'm not sure this is a good idea."

"We've watched two movies together," Tieria said, "and been taking our meals together for four days." He paused, his eyes drifting down to Lockon's bare chest. His cheeks reddened a little. "I am still interested in you and attracted to you. Is there something more that we should do first?"

"No," Lockon said. "But maybe we should do less. This might not work out too well, Tieria."

"Lockon..." Tieria struggled for words. Lockon wanted to help him find them, but for once he had no idea what they were going to be. "It is unusual to 'break up with' me after such a short time. Have I done something wrong?"

Lockon couldn't help it--he reached out to touch Tieria's shoulder, then his neck. Tieria shivered--that was predictable by now. "I'm not breaking up with you," he said. "I wouldn't do that. I just think it might be a good idea to stay where we are for a while, and take this slowly."

"I don't entirely understand," Tieria confessed. "But it doesn't matter so much, what we do when. So long as I am with you."

Lockon seized on the opportunity. "You won't always be."

"I know," Tieria said. There were so many emotions on his face, in his eyes, as he said that. He looked on the verge of stumbling or flinching. They did not fade, but instead of turning away, he smiled tentatively. "So I would like to do what I can, while we are together."

Lockon opened his mouth to refuse him once more--but then he stopped. There was something about that smile that arrested him. The thought came to him: He would never have that expression if not for me. I made that smile. I'm obliged to keep looking after it. It didn't feel like an obligation. It felt like an opportunity. Interest stirred in him, however bad an idea it was.

"Lockon?" Tieria must have seen some change in his expression, because now he was looking at him curiously. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No," Lockon said. He lifted a hand to stroke Tieria's cheek. It was a gesture he'd grown fond of recently. It seemed not so far from the old touches of their relationship--but far enough to satisfy Tieria's new urges, and maybe his own as well. "Tieria, if you need me to stop at any time, just say so."

"Lockon, you're--" Tieria swallowed hard. "I won't want you to stop."

"Just in case," Lockon said. He took both of Tieria's bare hands in his own gloved ones and pulled him into the room. The door closed automatically. It didn't matter, here in the moonbase, but it made it all seem more final. Lockon rested his hands on Tieria's hips and pulled him forward for a kiss.

They hadn't kissed more than a few times, so far. Tieria still shivered every time. This time, with Tieria warm and eager against his bare chest, Lockon felt himself respond. He kissed the crook of his neck, moving slowly, trying to understand why he was doing this, failing. All he knew was that he liked the way Tieria leaned his cheek against the waves of his hair. Tieria was leaning on his right side, so he couldn't see much of him, but he could hear the involuntary little noise of contentment he made.

He wanted to tell himself that he didn't know how to feel about the way Tieria clung to him, his fingers tightening almost painfully on Lockon's bare sides. But it was too obvious, even to himself, that he liked it. Tieria clung. It was proof that Lockon still had someone to take care of.

"This is just the start, Tieria," he said. "Before you get too comfortable, we should get your clothes off." Tieria was in his Celestial Being uniform. Lockon gently pulled Tieria's hands away from him, pushed off his jacket, and took hold of the zipper.

Tieria froze.

"Hey, hey," Lockon said. "You've even got an undershirt on under this, so relax a little." Before Tieria could tense up more, he unzipped the overshirt entirely, slipped it off Tieria's arms, and pulled Tieria tight against him. He stroked Tieria's hair soothingly, trying to relax him, and now for the first time he could feel Tieria going hard against him. Tieria shuddered in his arms, and Lockon kissed him on the mouth, then up his cheek until he reached his ear. He tongued the earlobe curiously, then nibbled at it a little.

Then Tieria pulled back a little. "Lockon," he said, puzzled curiosity in his voice. "Why would you do that?" He lifted a hand to his ear, still wet from Lockon's tongue. "That is not an erogenous zone."

"That doesn't mean I can't kiss it," Lockon said. "If you don't like it, though, I'll stop. That's the important thing."

"I don't know," Tieria said softly. He reached out tentatively to touch Lockon's face, stroking the same places Lockon had kissed on Tieria: his mouth, his cheek, his ear. He took Lockon's hands in his, hesitated, then started to pull off the gloves.

Lockon flinched back a little. He knew, immediately, that it was a silly thing to balk at. Tieria had already touched him in more intimate places. For that matter, Tieria had already touched his bare hands, back when Lockon had first woken up here on the moonbase. But that had been an accident. Somehow, it was different now.

It was too late, anyway. At his flinch, Tieria had backed off, and instead of tugging at Lockon's gloves, he was undoing his own pants. Lockon reached out and touched Tieria's shoulder, studying with a new gaze how he looked. The undershirt of his uniform clung tight to his slender frame, and Lockon felt desire rising in him, too, as he pulled that off over Tieria's head.

"Tieria," he murmured as he braced himself against the wall and kissed a path down Tieria's ribs to his belly. "You really are pretty."

Tieria was shivering. "It never occurred to me before."

Lockon sighed against Tieria's stomach. Ruefully, he admitted, "Me, either. This is the first time."

* * *

It seemed absurd to Tieria that at such a vital time--his first mutual sexual encounter with Lockon--he should be struggling to remember the proper order of events. If anything, his mind and his memory should be clearer and crisper now. But somewhere in between Lockon's mouth resting against the curve of his ribs and the two of them sinking down onto the bed, he'd lost track of it all. It was a blur of warmth and excitement. Lockon's hands were warm even through the gloves. Tieria wanted to know what they'd feel like pressed bare against his body, touching him in places he'd never thought of anyone touching before, but after the way Lockon had reacted to Tieria starting to take the gloves off, he didn't dare ask.

Tieria checked the pillows on the bed. "Lockon, are you certain this will be enough for comfort?"

Lockon patted the bed. "Don't worry. With the pillows and all, this is the most comfortable bed I've ever done it in." He hesitated a moment, then lifted his hands. "It's all right, Tieria, I can take the gloves off--"

"There's no need," Tieria said quickly. He found himself fumbling with the packet of lubricant. "I can apply the lubricant. I've practiced."

"All right," Lockon said. "I'll practice kissing you while you do that." He leaned forward and took hold of Tieria's face in his hands before pulling him close.

In the grip of that, Tieria struggled to remember himself. He'd said that he would apply the lube and ready himself, so haltingly, he did, though it felt almost as strange to touch himself in such a way as it would have to let Lockon do the same. No, that wasn't true. Lockon's fingers making him slick, slipping inside him--that would be natural. It was only being touched that way by anyone else that would be strange and wrong. He didn't know how he knew this, but he did.

"Are you ready?" Lockon murmured against his mouth.

"One moment," Tieria said. He pushed Lockon down against the pillows (pausing first to check that there were enough of them and they would be soft enough) and moved to straddle him. But he moved too fast; his knees bumped against the headboard of the bed. "Lockon--"

"Are you all right?"

"I am fine." But Tieria's face was hot, and he knew it was red. He didn't know how he managed to have enough blood to rush to his face like that when so much of it was poised between his hips, filling his cock. "Lockon, this is absurd. I don't understand."

Lockon propped himself up a little. His breath, as he drew it in, was shallow and quick; he was trying to control himself. Tieria ached at the realization that he'd made Lockon feel that way. "What don't you understand, Tieria? We can stop now, if you want."

"No!" Tieria couldn't quite hold back his alarm at the prospect. "No, I don't wish to stop. But...I don't understand how the survival of the human race can rest upon such a ridiculous activity."

Lockon grinned; Tieria caught his breath at the sight. He didn't have much time to marvel at it, though, because Lockon cupped him from behind and lifted him closer to his mouth, so he could lick Tieria's cock in quick, darting strokes. Tieria couldn't help himself. He cried out.

"I think you'll understand soon," Lockon said. He took Tieria in both hands now and pulled him more open, then guided him slowly down until he was poised, kneeling, over where Lockon's length waited for him.

Tieria wriggled out of his grasp. "I believe I can handle it from here," he said, and closing his eyes, he pressed himself down onto Lockon, slowly and with great determination pushing their bodies together.

It was a terribly alien feeling. Tieria froze with the head of Lockon's cock just slipped into him, trying to sort out the sudden rush of conflicting emotions: the feel of sensitive nerves sending signals of pleasure to his brain, the uncomfortable shock of someone else being inside him where no one else ever should be, the sudden welcome knowledge that he was this close to Lockon, that the two of them were physically connected now. He made an incoherent little noise of surprise, dismay, and desire all rolled up into one tiny moan.

Then both of Lockon's hands were on his hips, firm within the gloves. "Tieria, relax. We can stop any time you want."

"I've already told you," Tieria said. "I don't wish to stop. I was only--" He shivered a little, and then more as he felt the way Lockon moved inside him at the motion. He pushed down harder. "This is still very new to me. But...it feels good."

"It had better!" Lockon said. "I'm doing my best." He rocked his hips forward a little bit, and Tieria stifled a gasp as he felt Lockon's cock slide a little farther inside him. It was the strangest sensation, this fullness, but far from objectionable. He tipped his head back a little, trying to steady himself, and that was when he felt Lockon's mouth on his throat, Lockon's fingers lightly touching his cock.

Tieria had to remind himself to breathe. He was in mid-breath when Lockon once more moved his hands to Tieria's hips and pushed him down. Tieria found himself crying out again, but this time with words. No, a name. "Lockon! Lockon--"

Lockon kissed his jaw. "Are you all right?" He moved one hand to the small of Tieria's back and stroked him slowly. The other hand he began to wrap around Tieria's cock.

Tieria shivered more. "I'm fine. As it turns out, my research was correct. It is normal to call out your partner's name during intercourse." He hesitated. "Or at least, it is something I do. I don't know if it's normal."

Lockon laughed quietly. Tieria pressed against him and choked back a moan at the sensations from that. "It's normal, Tieria." His voice wavered a little as Tieria leaned up against him, then actually trailed off as Tieria clung tightly to his shoulders (were his fingernails leaving little red marks there? That would be unacceptable; reluctantly, Tieria loosened his grip). "But you shouldn't worry so much about what's normal. Just think about what you like." He leaned down a little (the feeling of his hair brushing against Tieria's face even as he pushed into him below--for a moment Tieria couldn't even think) and nipped at Tieria's ear again. "Decided whether you like that yet?"

"Yes." Tieria was surprised he could still speak. "I like everything you do to me, Lockon."

"Huh?" Lockon frowned a little, and Tieria pulled back a bit in turn, stopping only because the sensation of Lockon moving slowly out of him was too much. "That's not very helpful."

"I'm sorry," Tieria said. "It's all I can think of."

Something shifted in Lockon's expression--gentled, perhaps. "It's all right," he said. "I'll figure it out."

Only a moment later, Tieria realized that Lockon had synchronized his movements perfectly: his hand on Tieria's hip, his hand on Tieria's cock, his own hips rolling forward as he thrust up into Tieria. How was he so good at that? Was this normal for sexual activity? Lockon was so gentle, so considerate and measured in his actions, while Tieria himself was half-mad with desire and halting with inexperience. Would any other sexual partner be so calm and in control? No--it was irrelevant, in any case, because Tieria had no intention of opening himself up like this to anyone else. There was no reason. Lockon was everything he wanted.

Lockon's breath was coming faster now, Tieria noted; he must be close to orgasm. Tieria realized that he was, too, and he began to move in time with Lockon's urgings, struggling to keep up with the rhythm. It wasn't easy--Lockon was so much more adept than he was, so much more sure of himself, and at times Tieria wanted to just give up and let him take control. But he couldn't--he had to make sure he did his part. He moved forward and back, up and down, and he felt something extraordinary building in him.

Tieria drew in a shuddering gasp. "Lockon--Lockon, I--" He couldn't hold on any longer. He grabbed Lockon's shoulders and buried his face in the crook of his neck, finally letting go of himself as he did, and--

His mind went blank.

The digital landscape of Veda assembled itself around him. He was still watching the room his body was in, Lockon's bedroom, but he wasn't there. Whatever had just happened to his body, it had exceeded his solo computing power.

"Of course it was too much for you," Regene said impatiently from somewhere nearby. "This type of biological terminal was never meant for sexual purposes. Ribbons modified his more extensively than you did yours before attempting those activities. But you couldn't wait, could you?"

"Regene," Tieria said. He started to form words to speak to him, but he was distracted. Time was moving so slowly back in the analog world; it had been only fractions of a second, and Lockon hadn't yet noticed Tieria was somehow gone from his body. He was caught in the middle of his climax; his head tipped back, the hand that had been on Tieria's hip moved to the top of his head. Somehow, Lockon looked even more beautiful like that than he normally did.

"You're preoccupied with that man again," Regene said. "This has gone so much farther than I ever expected it to."

"Than you ever expected it to...?" Tieria turned to glare at Regene, forgetting that neither of them were actually there. Regene had not formed himself a visible body; he was simply a glittering collection of data points. For a moment, those points of information seemed somehow exasperated; then they formed into a body, smooth and naked. "Regene Regetta. How long have you been observing us?"

"This whole time, of course," Regene said. "Why do you think I saved your Lockon Stratos in the first place?"

Tieria couldn't speak. He felt his hold on his digital form dissolving, his hands and arms beginning to fade out into pixels. He struggled to keep himself together.

"Why react like that, Tieria?" Regene said. "You didn't really think it was Ribbons, did you?"

Tieria managed to pull himself together enough to speak, although his hands were still only light. "I did. I was under the impression that the people thus contained were to be used to ensure loyalty."

"Ribbons had no need for your loyalty," Regene said. "You weren't even supposed to survive past the transfer of Veda to his control. It took me some time to convince him not to throw this Lockon back into space. Fortunately, I had him put into treatment immediately upon finding him, or he would have been long dead."

Back in Lockon's quarters, Lockon had finally (after a full second) realized that Tieria was not there in his body. He seemed concerned. Tieria could not let himself be distracted by that. He struggled to process the new information from Regene. "Why?"

"I didn't understand why he was so important to you," Regene said. "But I thought it might be amusing to find out by reintroducing the two of you."

Tieria could only repeat his words. "Amusing?"

"Of course," Regene said. "He's been a far better toy than I ever expected."

Tieria realized in a microsecond that he'd reformed his digital form entirely. He knew of only one way to react to that statement, of course. He lifted a hand and slapped Regene, hard.

There was no sound when his hand connected with Regene's face. Regene stared at him unbelievingly for an instant, then quietly exploded into electrons and bits. What was that? he asked from his new lack of presence. Aren't you grateful I brought your Lockon back to you?

"Yes," Tieria admitted. He couldn't lie about such a thing. "But you will never refer to him as a toy again, Regene Regetta. He is a human being, and an important one to me."

I still don't understand why, Regene told him, but Tieria wasn't paying attention to him any longer. Outside of Veda, Lockon had now grown alarmed. He was (from Tieria's perspective, so very slowly) shaking Tieria lightly by the shoulders, speaking to him, trying to wake him up. It was important that Tieria return to him. He searched through his digital proximity and found the connection to his body, then funneled himself back through it--

"--you there? Tieria! Wake up!"

He was back in bed with Lockon, suddenly so close to him again. They were both softening now, no longer fit for sexual activity, but still the closeness made Tieria feel somehow warm. "There was a momentary glitch," Tieria said. "The sensation of orgasm overwhelmed my connection to Veda and separated me from my body."

"Oh," Lockon said. He glanced down at his lap. "Then you did come. I wasn't sure--there wasn't enough..."

"This body lacks some of the sexual function of a normal human body," Tieria said. "However, I still feel the sensations, so it's enough." He paused. "Lockon..."

Lockon had relaxed a little at Tieria's admission. "What is it, Tieria?"

"People actually use that word that way, then," Tieria said. "'Come.'"

"Well, of course," Lockon said. "What did you think we said?"

"It seemed unlikely," Tieria said. "It could be a very confusing usage."

"Don't worry," Lockon said. "You learn to tell whether you're coming or going."

Tieria blinked.

Lockon laughed. "It was a joke," he said. He stroked Tieria's hair. "Are you feeling all right?"

"Yes," Tieria murmured. He nestled against Lockon once more. "Yes, I am."

Chapter Text

The way Tieria snuggled up to him was strange to Lockon. He'd shared a bed with cuddlers before--that was the sort of woman he tended to attract--but they'd kept at least a little distance from him. After all, no matter how affectionate they were, it had been only a one-night stand. That was how he worked. It had never been a good idea to get attached to people. There'd been that one woman at the Celestial Being safehouse who he'd slept with a few times over the years, but she had grown more distant from him as time went on, not less.

There'd been that one young man who'd been so very straightforward, but hiding need under his bluntness, and he'd clung, but he hadn't snuggled like Tieria did. Lockon had agreed to a night with him so long as he didn't mind humoring an inexperienced straight boy; he hadn't minded. Lockon was glad, now, that he'd had at least that much experience with men, because it had made it easier to know what to do with Tieria.

But what Tieria was doing was new. He left barely any space for Lockon to breathe. His chin rested up against Lockon's collarbone, his mouth pressed into the crook of his neck, one hand curled around Lockon's shoulder. He was asleep by now, and he still clung like that. It wasn't exactly objectionable. Lockon realized that the last time he'd had sex with someone he actually cared about had been as a teenager, and even then, he'd lost touch with her soon after and been relieved about it. He should have been worried about what was to come of what he'd done, what he'd now continue doing with Tieria. But he was oddly content. It felt right somehow, to be held onto like this. To know that he was filling a need that ran beyond the physical.

Tieria continued to cling in his sleep, but Lockon did not sleep himself. After a while, he realized that he needed to get up to go to the bathroom. This was going to be a problem.

He waited for a while, but Tieria didn't move. Finally, Lockon gave up on the hope that Tieria would let go of him and began to slowly ease himself away. In his sleep, Tieria made an incoherent little noise of dismay, and Lockon quickly reached up to stroke his hair some more--the gesture seemed to relax him enough while he was awake. It worked this time, too. Tieria sighed a little in his sleep and loosened his hold, and Lockon managed to roll out of his grasp and rise to his feet.

But then he looked back at Tieria, sprawled so awkwardly on the bed, and he stopped. For a moment, he forgot what he was going to do. He could only think about how charming it was to see Tieria so open but at the same time still hesitant, curled in on himself even in his sleep. At Lockon's departure from the bed, Tieria had folded his arms over his chest as if to protect his heart. It was adorable--and that was a strange word to apply to Tieria, but also a perfect one.

There was something else, too. With Tieria all around him in the systems of the lunar base, it was easy to forget that he was still vulnerable. In some ways, he still needed protection. Looking at him now, it was impossible to forget that. Lockon couldn't quite stop the sudden wash of relief that passed over him at the realization. Relief, and something else--but what was it? It was the same thing he'd felt when he'd first noticed Tieria softening on that island years ago (though he still had trouble accepting that it was years ago), the same thing he'd felt when he'd woken up wounded after taking that blow for Tieria. It felt right to be protecting Tieria, but he couldn't say just how or why.

Lockon still needed to use the bathroom. That was why he'd gotten up in the first place. He made his way around their discarded clothes (thinking that he might as well leave them that way, so that Tieria had something simple to focus his attention on in the morning), pausing only to first peel off his gloves and toss them into the laundry chute, then to take off his eyepatch and drop it on the dresser. He went through the motions while doing his best not to think too much, but it was difficult: his mind kept returning, with some bafflement, to that image of Tieria half-sprawled, half-curled on the bed like a puzzle piece that Lockon couldn't find a place for.

He was washing his hands when something strange occurred to him. Most of the people he'd slept with before, he'd used a false name with--not even his codename, just a false one. They'd been quiet, or they'd cried out that name during sex. There had been a couple of girls before Celestial Being who'd been all too happy to call out his real name, but even then he hadn't entirely been comfortable with that. Then there was that one woman who'd maintained a safe house--he'd introduced himself to her as Lockon, but when they'd tumbled into bed together she'd informed him in no uncertain tones that she wouldn't be calling out that name in the throes of passion. He hadn't really understood why, but he'd accepted her decision.

Tieria was the first person to call that name out like that. The thought made Lockon smile, although he couldn't say why. He stepped out of the bathroom and looked over to the bed again. Tieria had barely moved--he'd just shifted his head so that it was where Lockon's had been on the pillows. There was a little smile on his face. With some bemusement, Lockon realized that he could keep looking at that little smile. He could think, I made that smile, again if he wanted, but whether or not he did, he could keep looking. It was some strange sentimental thing.

He only looked away when he noticed that the laundry chute was only half-closed; it had gotten stuck again. He reached out and nudged it shut. That was one of the bugs that had yet to be worked out about the moonbase. Some of the pneumatic tubing systems stuck more often than was expected, Tieria had told him. This would need to be fixed before more people could settle into the base and begin sorting the data from Veda and the new information that would come back from Jupiter.

Lockon took out a clean pair of gloves from a drawer and pulled them on. He looked back at the now-closed laundry chute, then at Tieria on the bed, and he thought that he didn't mind waiting a while longer for those things to be fixed. Until then, he had a purpose here with Tieria.

* * *

Tieria woke up with a start. He hadn't slept much lately--most of the time his body needed to rest, he spent in Veda--and the sensation of waking itself was strange. What was stranger than that was that he was naked. When he had slept, he'd always worn a pair of pajamas modeled after his uniform. Waking up with nothing but the thin blankets on his body was a sensation he hadn't experienced before.

He knew why he was experiencing it now, of course--the memories of the previous night refused to leave his thoughts. He didn't mind. They were good memories. But there was a problem now that dragged him out of his half-waking, half-dreaming state of reminiscence back to full wakefulness. It was this: the other half of the bed was empty. It was barely even warm--Lockon had been away for several minutes now. Tieria sat upright immediately, quite alert despite his naked state, sweeping his gaze across the room for Lockon.

He relaxed only when he caught sight of Lockon standing before the mirror in the alcove that led to the bathroom. He was still naked too, save for the towel slung across his hips. As Tieria watched, he absently discarded the towel on the counter with one hand and raked his other hand through his wet hair. That was the only reason he'd left the bed: to shower. Tieria relaxed a little more.

But he could only relax so much. Lockon had his back to Tieria, and that exposed a series of scars that Tieria had thoroughly observed only through cameras before, never in person. A long and nasty burn scar, punctuated here and there with the remains of old puncture wounds, ran all the way across Lockon's back diagonally. Tieria clutched at his restraint, forcing himself to resist the urge to let his eyes blur with tears. There was no need. After a moment, the urge passed. Instead, Tieria found himself simply staring at the shape of Lockon's bare form seen from behind, the lines and curves of muscle. Even with those scars, it was the body underneath them that kept his attention. Tieria had no idea why. His own body was merely a shell, and Lockon's body was just a battered housing that had mercifully held together against all odds. It was the man woven into the fabric of that body that was important, and yet Tieria continued to stare.

Finally, Tieria managed to tear his eyes away in order to sit up and look around. He frowned slightly at the sight of the clothes the two of them had been wearing the previous night still scattered across the floor. Still holding himself a little strangely in his unfamiliar nakedness, he got up and began to gather the clothes.

"You know," Lockon said from over by the mirror, "you can keep looking if you want."

Tieria frowned down at Lockon's pants as he folded them. "What?"

"You were staring at my butt," Lockon said. Even though Tieria still wasn't good at reading the tones of voices, he could hear the grin in Lockon's words. "I don't mind, you know! Did you have a good time?"

Embarrassment, Tieria knew, was a strange and useless emotion. All the same, he wasn't sure which to be more embarrassed about: the blood that rushed to his face or the blood that began to gather lower in his body. He stood up, setting the folded pants down on top of the nearby dresser. "There was no reason for me to be looking in the first place."

Lockon laughed, and Tieria felt himself heat up further. He opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn't think of what he should say in response to that laughter. "Lockon..." He'd been saying that so much, lately. Sometimes it seemed like the only thing he could say.

"It's all right." Then Lockon's hand was on his shoulder; Lockon had made his way over from the alcove. Tieria held back a gasp. It was such a normal gesture for Lockon to make, and he'd done it plenty of times before, but somehow it was different when they were both naked. Tieria wasn't entirely sure why, but he knew it felt good. Acting on an instinct he hadn't known he had, he leaned back into Lockon, pressing the side of his face against Lockon's throat.

Lockon slid his other hand around to rest on Tieria's belly, right below this body's purely decorative navel. He had his gloves back on. Tieria couldn't see, but he hoped Lockon had his eyepatch back on, too. "I forgot to say good morning," Lockon said. "I guess I'm still a little out of sorts after last night."

"Did I do something wrong?" Tieria asked, struggling to keep a sudden note of alarm out of his voice and probably failing.

"No." Lockon laughed a little, more quietly this time, and Tieria felt more of those startling physical feelings rise in him at the tremors of Lockon's body behind him. He still wasn't used to this, and he still reacted intensely to everything Lockon did to him. "You were fine, Tieria. Besides, you're just starting at this sort of thing, so you shouldn't worry so much about how good you are at it."

"It's only natural," Tieria said, "that I should want to improve my skill."

"I'd rather you just enjoyed yourself," Lockon said. "Nobody's perfect at this, after all, so don't try so hard."

"You are," Tieria said quietly, shifting so that he could feel Lockon's pulse against his temple.

"What?"

"You are perfect during sexual activity," Tieria said. "There's nothing more I could ask for from you."

"Ah," Lockon said. "That's not really true." He sounded a little subdued; Tieria wondered what troubled him. "I'm glad you like it, though."

Tieria gave a slight start as Lockon lifted his hand from Tieria's shoulder to stroke his hair. Did Lockon not realize what a response his every touch drew from Tieria, or was he doing it intentionally? "Lockon, if you keep touching me like this, I'll soon be fully erect."

"You don't have to say it like that!" Lockon said.

"Nevertheless," Tieria said. "It's true."

"I know," Lockon said. "I owe you something."

"Lockon, you don't--ah!" Tieria tumbled; Lockon had pushed him. He landed on the bed, flailing. He sat up just in time to see Lockon kneel next to him on the edge of the bed--he did have his eyepatch back on, Tieria noted with some relief. "What was that for?" Tieria demanded.

Lockon grinned at him, and Tieria felt another of those peculiar emotions he'd been experiencing lately: a sensation as if something were melting inside him. "I do owe you something. You never gave me a chance to do this for you!" Before Tieria could say anything else, Lockon ducked his head and planted a kiss at the top of each of Tieria's thighs.

Tieria gave a shameful little squeak. Then he couldn't even think of making any more noise, because Lockon had lowered his head to Tieria's lap and pulled the head of his cock into his mouth. In the sudden silence, as Lockon gently licked at him, Tieria realized there were tears at the corners of his eyes. The contact had been too sudden, and he hadn't had the chance to prepare himself this time. There had only been Lockon's grin, and then Lockon's mouth wet around him. And now there was more of it; Lockon drew him in deeper in slow and measured motions.

By the time Tieria managed to find a few scraps of his voice, Lockon had taken just over half of his length into his mouth and was sucking at him in long, lingering pulls, his tongue moving at the head. "Ah--" Tieria fumbled for something to say. Only one thing came to mind. "I'm sorry..."

Lockon stopped; Tieria could just make out his frown. Then he pulled away, slowly, releasing Tieria in increments. Tieria felt suddenly cold; he wanted Lockon's mouth back on him. "What do you mean, Tieria? You don't have anything to be sorry about."

"I didn't realize," Tieria said. "Until you began to do this to me. I was unaware of how poorly I performed when I did it to you."

Lockon stared at him.

"I apologize," Tieria said. "I'll practice more before I try--"

Lockon cut him off, putting an arm around him and pulling him close. He nuzzled against Tieria's shoulder. "Don't say that. Don't say anything like that! I liked the way you did it, Tieria."

"I don't understand," Tieria murmured.

"It's all right," Lockon said. "You don't have to. Just relax and don't worry about skill too much. You'll get better with time, and I'll like all your efforts. I promise."

Lockon promised, so Tieria accepted that promise without hesitation. "All right," he said.

"Good," Lockon said. He let go of Tieria and kissed him lower on his chest now, then lower, then on his stomach, and then he had his mouth poised between Tieria's legs again. He licked little circles all around Tieria's shaft, and Tieria made little moans, getting higher in pitch until finally, when Tieria thought he couldn't make any more sound, Lockon took Tieria's length back into his mouth and drew on it again. This time, Tieria managed only to gasp.

He regained enough control of his own body to lift a hand and hesitantly lay it on Lockon's head. As strange as this scene was, it was also perfect. Lockon's head was on Tieria's lap, and Tieria's fingers ran through his hair, stroking him, petting him, holding him close. Tieria closed his eyes to force the tears away, then opened them again. Lockon still knelt at his side, head still on his lap. It was still perfect.

Now that he'd had the experience, Tieria recognized the signals as climax approached. Certain circuits in his brain began to disconnect; certain connections in his spine prepared to uncouple to protect him from the flood of sensation. The room around him blurred faintly as his brain struggled to decide how to perceive it. Tieria fought those urges and clutched more tightly at Lockon, one hand on his head and the other on his shoulder.

Lockon pulled back from him until his lips were just resting against Tieria's cock. "Hey," he said softly. "Don't take it so seriously. Relax, all right?" He pressed both hands, still gloved, to Tieria's hips, pinning him gently against the pillows. Then he sucked Tieria's length back into his mouth and drew at him hard.

Relax--

Lockon had told him to, so Tieria did. He fell back against the pillows, giving in to the guidance of Lockon's hands on his hips. His brain stopped trying to disengage, and this time, though his surroundings flickered a little, his mind stayed put. Even so, he couldn't begin to describe the feeling. All he knew was that he didn't try to stop the tears from stinging at the corners of his eyes this time. "Lockon," he finally said, because yet again, it was the only thing he could say.

After a few moments, Lockon leaned over him. "I hope you're not still worried about who's good at what," he said.

Tieria reached up to touch his hair again. "Somewhat," he admitted. "But I will learn."

* * *

After a while, Lockon got up and left the room to make breakfast. It seemed like the natural thing to do. Tieria was dozing again, although Lockon had needed to encourage him to relax a few times first. Even so, Lockon wanted some space to himself for a while. They were out of prepared breakfasts, so the kitchen was the obvious choice. It still showed some signs of its origin as two small personal quarters--a mirror in an odd place here, two doors where only one might have been needed there--but that gave it character, and in a place like this, that was important.

"A place like this" meant a lot of things, Lockon had come to learn. It wasn't just that the laundry chutes stuck sometimes, or that every so often Tieria would inform him of an entirely new layer to the base that now needed restoring. It also meant something more relevant to breakfast: they had to be careful about food. Tieria had told him recently that they would soon be able to increase the space dedicated to hydroponics, but even that could only grow so many things. They had to choose carefully what to import from Earth and how to preserve it. Some of the networks Celestial Being had used to acquire food and supplies remained available to them, but that didn't solve everything.

Lockon usually found himself resorting to rations made from nutrients produced in the lunar complex, rather than dipping into their stores of imports from Earth, save for during the meals he'd been taking with Tieria lately. But he'd mentioned recently that he wouldn't mind cooking for the two of them. He thought now was the time to make good on that implicit promise. That was another thing he could teach Tieria: making sure your partner had breakfast ready for them after a night in bed together.

And if he let himself idle for too long, he'd start thinking too much about just what that meant.

Lockon got out the frying pan, the partially blunted safety knives, and some of the synthetic cooking oil produced on the base. Then he rummaged around in the food storage until he'd found what he was looking for and pulled it out. Then he stopped, one potato in each hand. Something was wrong. It took him a moment to figure out what it was.

These were real potatoes, grown in real dirt, not whatever could have been made in the hydroponics level of the moonbase. Tieria had had them imported from Earth. Why would he waste some of their precious import quota on potatoes when they could be grown right here? True, the ones grown in the hydroponics level would look a little funny, and they wouldn't be as good, but...they'd be adequate.

A worrying thought occurred to him. Lockon tried to remember if he'd told Tieria that he liked to cook with potatoes. Had Tieria taken one little comment like that as a reason to have potatoes shipped to them all the way from Earth? As a matter of fact, he didn't think he'd even told Tieria anything like that. He cast back in his memory--

Ah. Back in Celestial Being, he'd sometimes gotten the chance to cook for the rest of the crew during their stays on Earth. He'd usually preferred something with potatoes. But that didn't make things better, because it meant that Tieria had held such a trivial detail in his memory for six years and then used it now. It meant that a long-ago habit was enough to make Tieria go out of his way to arrange things in Lockon's favor.

It meant that Tieria was looking out for him far too much. That wasn't right. It wasn't right for Tieria to be so attached. Lockon was supposed to be the one who looked out for people; he was supposed to recall habits and quirks and use them as best he could to make someone a better member of the team. That was what he'd done, with Tieria. It was just what he did. That had been his contribution to the team, back when he was part of the team. Why was Tieria now doing so much for him? It wasn't the way things should be.

Lockon put the potatoes down on the counter.

Tieria feeling so much for him wasn't the way things should be, either. The idea was completely bizarre to Lockon. He wasn't someone that people fell for in that way: he was just a guide who helped them along. Lockon let out a shaky breath and glanced around him to make sure that Tieria hadn't arrived yet. Then he propped his elbows on the counter and buried his head in his hands, trying to find some stability. Trying to find a place in all of this that made sense, a place he could properly guide Tieria from, because what else could he do now?

He wasn't given much time to search for it before he heard a voice behind him. "Lockon, are you all right?"

With a small start, he turned to see that a screen had formed on the wall, from which Tieria looked out at him, openly concerned; he was still naked, at least from the waist up, but his hair was wet now. Lockon blinked once, then realized where he'd gone wrong. He'd thought he was in private, but there was nowhere in the moonbase that Tieria couldn't see with a thought.

"I'm fine, Tieria," he said. The sudden panic of facing Tieria's feelings for him and whatever they might signify was gone now that he was actually talking to Tieria. It would come back later, he thought, although probably not for a while, now that he remembered how often Tieria was watching him. "I'm going to make something called hash browns for breakfast. It looks like we've got all the ingredients for it. You know, we almost have too many ingredients for it. You didn't need to have potatoes imported up here--we can grow them ourselves."

"Need is not my only motivator in regards to you, Lockon," Tieria said. He hesitated; his expression softened. "I want you to be comfortable here."

Lockon resisted the urge to smile gently at that, even though it was his first impulse. He really was glad to see Tieria making that expression and even more glad to see him caring about someone that way. The fact that it was Lockon he cared about so much, though, still felt hollow. Lockon picked up a spatula and tapped it warningly on the wall. "Don't go too far out of your way to make people comfortable just yet! We still have a lot to cover. When the tubing systems don't stick anymore, we can talk about what food makes people comfortable." People. Not him. He had to make sure Tieria knew that there would be other people on the moonbase eventually.

Tieria took a moment to reply, looking startled--but not, Lockon noted with some relief, hurt. Then he said, "Of course. I'll be in for breakfast shortly." The screen faded from the wall.

Lockon turned his attention to dicing, pressing, and frying the potatoes with yet more relief. He'd rather be talking to Tieria about easy, comfortable things, such as how he could learn to appreciate movies or music, but until he could get back to that point, preparing food was another way to distract himself, even if it wasn't as effective. Besides, it gave him time to think about how he could teach Tieria how to appreciate food. That was something he hadn't learned in all the years Lockon had been...gone (asleep? Unaware? Dead? No, gone was the best way to describe it): that food could be fun as well as nourishing. Nobody had thought to teach him, and he'd been too busy learning what to do with his new emotions to consider little things like his sense of taste. It was time to fix that.

Tieria arrived only minutes later; he must have spared no time for anything but drying his hair and putting on clothes. Lockon was still frying the hash browns. Tieria announced his presence with slow, uncertain footfalls: the approach of someone still assimulating just what had happened last night. Lockon smiled at the frying pan, then turned to gesture at Tieria. "Why don't you go get the common area ready? We can eat in there."

"I'll do that," Tieria said. Then he paused, coming closer to peer over Lockon's shoulder. "Lockon...do you want me to get more materials for you? I believe we have some wheat flour in another storage space. There is a more native dish called a 'boxty'--"

Lockon lifted a hand to touch Tieria's shoulder. "I know. But I can survive on food other than what gets served at pubs in my home country. I did all right on the Ptolemy for years, didn't I? I'll be fine. Besides, these are good too." He finished the last hash brown and flipped it onto a plate with the others. "Here, Tieria. Why don't you take this into the lounge and get it set up there while I clean up in here?"

Tieria looked at him for a long moment, his eyes very wide and serious. Then he nodded quietly, took the plate, and left. Lockon stifled a sigh as Tieria walked out the door; there was too much chance Tieria would see it anyway. But with Tieria out of the kitchen, Lockon couldn't avoid thinking about what he'd said. Had he really been researching traditional Irish foods for Lockon's sake? Fortunately, it was impossible to take that seriously enough to worry about it. Lockon grinned as he finished cleaning, then headed out and made for the common area.

He stopped in the entrance as he got there.

Tieria was sitting at one of the tables, busily cutting up a plate of hash browns. That wasn't the problem. If Tieria wanted to cut his meal into very small pieces, that was fine with Lockon, although of course he'd explain to Tieria that you didn't need to cut hash browns up so much. In this case, though, Tieria had already cut up one plate. He was working on the other one now.

He was cutting up Lockon's food for him.

"Tieria," Lockon said, finally finding it in him to walk forward toward the table. "You don't have to do that. Really!"

Tieria didn't even look up. He continued cutting. "You cooked the meal. I will finish the preparations."

"I can eat it without you cutting it up first," Lockon said. "It's not that hard."

Tieria hesitated. "You're sure? Lockon, I wish to make things as convenient and safe as possible for you."

"I'm sure," Lockon said. He knew he had something more to say, but at that moment, all words deserted him. Instead, he found himself looking down at Tieria, looking into his earnest eyes, struggling to deal with what he saw in them. This was wrong, he knew then. It wasn't right for him to be this close to Tieria. Here was someone who felt for him things that Lockon could never feel in return. He shouldn't be encouraging that.

"Lockon?" Tieria asked tentatively. "Are you all right?"

But he couldn't walk away from it, either. Lockon sat down. "I'm fine," he said. "Let's eat."

* * *

It seemed impossible to Tieria that he would find a routine again, that things would return to normal. The ways he had touched Lockon, the places Lockon had touched him, all of that meant that nothing could be the same again. He no longer had a baseline from which to draw his future behavior. True, he had accepted that he must change to meet the future, and he had been glad to do so, but this wasn't a future he'd expected at all.

It was better.

Tieria had no way to describe how good it felt to be at Lockon's side. And he was at Lockon's side--he had his duties in Veda, but he found that it wasn't so hard to accomplish them anymore, knowing that Lockon would be waiting for him when he emerged. It did not occur to him, at first, to arrange Lockon's duties so that their free time coincided. Initially, it had seemed more sensible to have one of them working while the other was resting (although Tieria needed far less rest than a normal human). But Lockon began quietly rearranging his own schedule so that it matched with Tieria's, and somehow, this pleased Tieria. Not just the knowledge that he'd see Lockon more, but the clean digital sight of their time matching up, like a signature of their togetherness. Lockon was with him. Why this gave him such joy, Tieria didn't know. All he really wanted, after all, was to learn what Lockon could teach him about humanity--things like this proved he still had much to learn--and to make sure that Lockon was safe--and preferably happy, although Tieria had no idea how to do that at all. Why did it matter, whether or not he was close to Lockon?

But it did. The closer Tieria was to Lockon, the more full of warmth and light he felt. He accepted these feelings happily, even if he didn't entirely understand them.

Tieria didn't ask for sex again, not yet. He wasn't sure he could handle the feeling again so soon. As contemptible as the other things he'd said had been, on one matter Regene had been right: Tieria's body was not yet optimized for sexual activity. That wasn't the whole reason he didn't pursue it further just yet, though. There was something else: with Lockon, he didn't need it. Just touching him was enough.

So when Tieria next began coming to Lockon's quarters at the moonbase's assigned night time, he came in his nightwear, a simple sleeping gown. Lockon laughed at it; he didn't see the point of such garments here with no one but them. It wasn't surprising; he still only wore underwear to sleep.

Tieria flushed at the question, then steadied himself. "It's only proper."

"Proper?" Lockon wondered--he was pushing Tieria to explain himself, Tieria realized.

It was all right, though. He was beginning to realize that he could do that. "It makes me more comfortable," he said.

Lockon accepted that answer with one of those impossibly warm smiles, and once again, Tieria felt that strange sensation of warmth tight around his stomach.

Tieria didn't need to sleep at all. In fact, he should have been spending that time in Veda while his physical body rested. But there was something irresistible in the notion of spending it dozing off at Lockon's side. He still tried to set aside most nights for his duties in Veda, while allowing himself to spend them in Lockon's bed as a special reward. It grew more difficult as he went on.

He also found himself drifting closer to Lockon. On the first night he came to Lockon's bed in his nightwear, he rested his head against Lockon's shoulder and breathed in the unexpectedly comforting scent of him, but didn't let himself draw too much closer than that. He was relieved, then, that he'd seen to it Lockon had a large bed in the first place, firmly believing that he should have at least some luxuries in the then-austere environment of the lunar complex.

But the second time Tieria slept there, when he opened his eyes in the morning to find Lockon stirring next to him, he realized he'd unconsciously nestled up to Lockon's side, both hands clutching at one of his arms, his face in the crook of Lockon's neck. He'd pulled back in alarm, but Lockon had only laughed and touched his cheek.

The third time--

Tieria had gone to sleep next to Lockon, the same as the previous two times. In the middle of the night, he woke up with a start. It took him a moment to realize why: Lockon had moved slightly in his sleep. At that point, Tieria had been close enough to him, wrapped up against him with his hands pressed to his bare belly and his head nestled against his chest, that the small gesture had awoken him.

He sat up, blinking. A part of him resisted the separation from Lockon, the sudden absence of his warmth. But he was still right there, so it wasn't so bad after all.

Lockon did not turn off the lights completely in his room when he slept; he merely dimmed them, leaving a faint glow at the edge of the room. Tieria hadn't understood why, at first, but now, looking at Lockon sprawled out there, he knew. Lockon looked amazing in the soft greys of human night vision, as he always did, no matter what color Tieria saw him in. But it was the motion of his chest that captivated Tieria. Even as the faint light gleamed off painful old scars that made something twinge unpleasantly in Tieria's heart, something about that rise and fall of Lockon's breathing made Tieria indescribably happy. Just looking at him there in the dim light made Tieria smile. He couldn't quite help himself--he reached out to stroke Lockon's face. He was tentative at first, but then his fingers slipped to Lockon's pulse, then to his shoulders, shying away from the scars to finally rest gently on his heart.

Tieria could feel it beating. Before he knew what was happening, he was sighing with the joy of it. "Lockon," he said quietly, even though he knew he should stay mute and let Lockon sleep. It just felt right to say his name.

But he jumped a little with guilt when Lockon stirred beneath his hand, blinked, and opened his good eye. He wasn't wearing his eyepatch, but somehow, with the beat of his heart beneath Tieria's fingers, that didn't seem so bad for once. "Something wrong, Tieria?"

"No," Tieria said. "Nothing is wrong. Everything's right." He couldn't bring himself to say anything more. All he could do was sit there with his hand over Lockon's heart.

Lockon looked up at him for a long moment, a distant, puzzled expression on his face. Tieria didn't know what to say in response to it, so he was glad when Lockon spoke first, with a grin suddenly overtaking that strange lost expression. "If you're turned on, I can do something about that."

"That's not it," Tieria said. If he let himself touch Lockon in just the right way, of course, he knew it wouldn't take long for him to be crying out with need. But he didn't want that, right now. He just wanted to look at Lockon there and feel how warm he was.

"If you're sure," Lockon said.

"I am," Tieria said. After a reluctant moment, he lay back down at Lockon's side. This time, he rested his head over Lockon's heart. It would be easy to fall asleep again, like this. "Let's go back to sleep."

Chapter Text

At first, Tieria had told Lockon ahead of time on the nights he would be coming to share his bed. It would be a brief mention at their shared meal time, and then Tieria would be at his room later that night. Later, Tieria had stopped warning Lockon. Instead, he only mentioned it beforehand on nights when he wouldn't be coming to bed with Lockon.

Somehow, Lockon had been a little alarmed when he'd first noticed this. It made the whole thing seem way too permanent. Every time Tieria lay down next to him, Lockon had to resist the unfair urge to remind him that this might be the last time. They might have to stop tomorrow. Lockon didn't know why they might have to stop--only that the idea of this stretching on into the future was strange and uncomfortable to him. He didn't handle relationships that way; it just wasn't right or fair.

There were three things that stopped him from voicing that.

One was the realization that every time Tieria showed up, he did it within two minutes of the stroke of ten by the time he'd set up on the moonbase. For some reason, it entertained Lockon far too much that even as he grew more human, Tieria had kept peculiar habits like his exactness. The other reason was simpler: though it had been over two weeks since the last time, Tieria hadn't tried to initiate anything more than cuddling since then. Lockon wasn't sure what to think about that, but at least it let him avoid thinking too much about how he'd enjoyed the previous time. Tieria's awkwardness hadn't lost its charm.

The third thing was more dangerous. He liked Tieria's appearances at "approximately ten o'clock, with a very small margin of error," as he had described them. He liked not having to think about anything but how to best please Tieria. He liked it when Tieria snuggled up to him. He liked feeling the soft warmth of Tieria's body through his nightshirt against his own bare scarred skin, a positive reminder that he was needed here no matter what.

So the next time things changed, it didn't take Lockon long to notice something was up. Tieria didn't arrive until almost ten minutes after ten o'clock. Lockon wasn't exactly worried--Tieria hadn't been spending as much time in Veda lately, so it was unlikely that he'd run into something dangerous there, as he once had. But Lockon was a bit puzzled.

He got part of the answer when Tieria did show up. Tieria held himself a little more awkwardly than usual, a little stiffly, and Lockon immediately thought of the first time Tieria had come to his bed. Tieria was going to want to do more than cuddle tonight. The thought of turning him away crossed Lockon's mind and then left it in a fraction of a second. He was already too committed to this, whatever that entailed.

"Lockon," Tieria said as he settled down on the bed next to him. "I have something to talk to you about." His voice was more earnest than anxious, but there was a little of that there too, and Lockon smiled and set a hand on his shoulder. He felt Tieria relax beneath that hand.

"Well, there's nothing you can't talk to me about," Lockon said. He lifted his hand to stroke Tieria's cheek again, brushing his hair away from his face. For a moment, he caught himself enjoying it too much: the almost shy way Tieria looked at him, the contrast of violet and pink and red on his face in the soft light. A smile was tugging at his mouth, Lockon realized--and not the right kind, either. It was an amused smile, not a supportive one. He pushed it back in the right direction. Tieria had something he needed to discuss, and Lockon would hear him out. He couldn't make this about himself.

"Before we do anything tonight--" Tieria hesitated, then reached out to clasp Lockon's gloved hands in his own bare ones. "I would like to do something tonight, Lockon. But before then, I need to explain some things about Innovade biological and sexual distinctions to you."

It seemed like a strange topic for Tieria to bring up; Lockon looked at him curiously. "You could always send me the files, right? I'd read them."

"I want to explain this to you in person," Tieria said.

"I'll listen," Lockon said. It seemed like that would be the most important thing tonight, even if Tieria wanted more afterwards. His priorities weren't the same as most people's--and that was one of the things that made him interesting.

(Even if some of those priorities were just plain wrong, Lockon thought. He knew he himself was far too high in them.)

"There are numerous different models of Innovades," Tieria began. "The ones we fought in Celestial Being were primarily combat types. Those that I have sent to mingle with human society through Veda are espionage types."

"You've told me that much," Lockon said. "Why are you bringing it up now, Tieria?" Maybe he'd been wrong, and Tieria wasn't interested in sex tonight after all (a surprisingly disappointing thought)--just coming clean with some revelation of his past. Lockon could handle that, too.

"Things have changed," Tieria said.

He spoke the words with such a straight face, as if genuinely oblivious to all the ways they could be applied. Lockon couldn't help it; he laughed.

Tieria did that blush of his--one of those expressions Lockon was glad he'd gotten the chance to see. "Did I say something wrong?"

"No," Lockon said. "You said something really true, that's all. Things have changed. The world is different, and I'm alive." It still felt strange to admit either one of those.

Tieria smiled. It wasn't that small, gentle, close-mouthed smile that had first charmed Lockon so much, but something bigger and broader, something extraordinarily human and almost disconcertingly like a grin. "Yes. The world is better. But you being alive isn't a change--that is only how things should be."

Lockon realized, too late, that he had no way of reacting to that smile. The little one was easy--a touch to Tieria's cheek, a stroke of his hair would suffice. This one, and the words that accompanied it, left him at a loss. So he hurried back to the previous subject. "What is it about the Innovade types that's different, Tieria?"

Tieria returned with him, obligingly. The closeness of the two of them on the bed was, if not quite forgotten, momentarily pushed into the background. "It is a difference that could be seen with my original body: primarily a combat model, but also designed to match more closely with the human physical body, in all physical ways, if not necessarily mental ones as well."

It took Lockon a moment to grasp what Tieria meant, but then he nodded. "It didn't matter to you, but you were physically male from the start."

"It was something like that," Tieria said. "A more advanced form of this type of Innovade could be seen in Anew Returner."

Something in Lockon froze.

"She had the capacity to be both an espionage model and a combat model," Tieria continued, as Lockon hurried to cover up his initial reaction to the mention of the woman his brother had loved. "However, she was both mentally and physically--"

There was only so much covering up he could do. So long as he looked attentive, though, it would be all right. Lockon gave up trying to keep his thoughts on Tieria's words for now. The mention of Anew Returner tore at his mind. How had he managed not to think about her all this time? He'd seen her grave when he'd visited Earth, and that had been troubling, but somehow the thought of her had stayed in the background since he'd returned. Since he and Tieria had kissed.

That wasn't right. Lyle couldn't do something like that--she would be in his thoughts at all times, haunting him. Driving him. Just as thoughts of Lyle had driven Neil, just as thoughts of the rest of his family had haunted him. They all still did, of course. He wasn't so fortunate as to have changed like the others. Now he had to add Anew to the people he'd lost, even if Neil wasn't the one who had lost her. If he had been there, if he hadn't been trapped on the moon doing nothing but staying alive, maybe he could have changed things. Maybe he could have saved her and granted Lyle the new and restored life he should have had.

Now, instead, it was Neil who had that life. Lyle was in Celestial Being, alone and forever grieving, and Neil was in a place that could be a home, with a lover at his side. This wasn't how things were supposed to be at all.

Somewhere in the distance, a few feet away from him on the bed, Tieria was still talking. "Ribbons was the first to make that change, for the sake of his manipulations of Alejandro Corner. However, he maintained only one configuration. I wish to try--"

Neil still couldn't focus. He wished he could; listening to Tieria, being with Tieria, would make him Lockon again, and that would be easier. But it would also be wrong. It was Lyle who was meant to have this strange, boundary-crossing love. How could Neil possibly be here, with an Innovade turned human at his side, when Lyle had lost one he'd needed so much more? It was just more proof that the world was still broken and wrong.

Lockon realized, too late, that he'd moved his hands to his face and was cradling it, struggling not to physically shake. Tieria might not have been that perceptive when it came to social cues, but he could pick that one up well enough. His hands clutched now at Lockon's shoulder. "Lockon, are you all right? If something is hurting you, I can--"

"I'm fine," Lockon murmured. He didn't even begin to explain what he'd been thinking to Tieria. How could he? For Tieria, what they were doing was right--Tieria was learning how to love, and that was the most human thing of all. He'd chosen the wrong person to do it with, but Lockon would still try his best.

"Does it upset you that much, knowing this about me?" Tieria said softly. "I can undo the alterations."

"You didn't do anything wrong," Lockon assured him. "One of my old injuries flared up for a moment, that's all." He disliked lying so blatantly to Tieria, but there was nothing else for it. "It's fine now."

Tieria reached up, hesitantly, to touch first Lockon's face, then his bare chest, his gaze tracing all the scars there. "Are you sure?"

Lockon had only one answer to that. He took Tieria's chin in his hands and pulled him close for a long kiss, guiding him there as anywhere else. By this point, anything physical Tieria wanted tonight hardly seemed so bad. In fact, Lockon ached for it. If he couldn't fix any of the things he'd once set out to change, at least he could satisfy Tieria. He pressed his mouth to Tieria's, and Tieria all but melted across the distance between them, snuggling up to him as close as he could with his nightshirt obscuring his frame.

Lockon pulled away long enough to laugh. This close, he could only see the right half of Tieria's mouth curve up in a puzzled smile. "You're impossible to seduce," Lockon said.

"I don't understand," Tieria said. "I'm very easy for you to seduce, Lockon."

Some jokes still missed the mark with him. That was all right; it attracted Lockon more. "You get into it before I've even started seducing! Well, that's part of the fun, so don't worry about it." He reached out to undo the zipper on Tieria's nightshirt. The boxers he slept in himself were already getting a little tight against his own rising hardness, but he could wait until Tieria was ready. "You should get up," he said. "Let's not get all tangled up just trying to get your clothes off."

Tieria was all too quick to rise to his feet and begin to pull the nightshirt over his head. As he did so, Lockon reached out to slip a hand between Tieria's legs to cup him there, all the while meeting his awkward, anxious gaze with a reassuring smile.

He would have noticed what was different sooner if he'd been looking where he was reaching, but he wasn't. So when his hand met nothing between Tieria's legs, he gave a sudden start, and his fingers pressed more tightly against Tieria as he moved. Lockon realized immediately it wasn't nothing there--it was just an entirely different set of equipment. His fingers slid around soft folds; one slipped into a very wet cleft.

Lockon couldn't quite contain his surprise. He pulled his hand back and sat straight up, blinking, as Tieria finished pulling off his nightshirt and neatly laid it to the side.

"Did I do it wrong?" Tieria asked with some alarm. "I checked myself against several examples of the female anatomy before making any changes, but it's still possible..." He trailed off, staring worriedly at Lockon's blank expression.

Lockon wiped his now-wet glove off on the bedsheets. Too late, he realized this must have been the revelation Tieria had been explaining to him when he'd spaced out to worry about his brother. He certainly hadn't been expecting this kind of surprise, but it was clear now: in his new body, Tieria could change in more ways than one. "No," he said. The fingers of his right glove were still a little sticky. Curious to see just what reaction it would get from Tieria, Lockon lifted them to his mouth and sucked on one, then two, tasting leather and a strange new something that was still Tieria, as ever. Tieria's eyes widened. "You're perfect."

"Good," Tieria said. "That's what I was aiming for."

Lockon wondered if "perfect" was too much to tell him, if maybe it would make him rest too easy in other, more important matters that he still had to improve in. But the idea seemed a little ridiculous even to him. Just because Tieria could get female genitalia right didn't mean he'd stop trying at anything else. He knew better than that.

Tieria hesitated, now standing naked before him. "It's strange," he said.

Lockon stood up long enough to strip out of his boxers. Tieria, in turn, sank down onto the bed. "What is?"

"I thought it would feel more normal this way," Tieria said, "as this configuration matches in structure the original reproductive intent of the sexual act." He didn't look any more comfortable, though, as he folded his arms awkwardly across his chest. "But I still feel strange and nervous. There's nothing more normal about this after all."

Lockon reached out to turn Tieria's face left and right, stroking gently along his chin. More than ever, he was acutely aware of how different what Tieria felt for him was from what he felt for Tieria--but still he was starting to ache with desire for that hesitating, awkward form. He was mostly erect now, but Tieria was still looking at his face. "I told you once," Lockon said. "I guess it's all right if I tell you again. You shouldn't worry about normal." He knelt on the bed to one side of Tieria's legs and pushed him gently into the pillows. "Just do what feels good, and make sure you tell me what that is as we go."

"I don't need to tell you," Tieria said. He swallowed, his throat fluttering so much with the gesture that Lockon had to lean down to kiss it. "You always know what to do to make me feel good. It isn't always that way, is it?"

Lockon didn't answer. He didn't know what to say to that. Besides, now, as he rubbed his cheek against Tieria's neck and collarbone, he could feel Tieria starting to spread his legs. Lockon rolled over until he was poised between them. He was hard enough, now: Tieria's words as much as the touching had made sure of that. "Are you ready, Tieria?"

Tieria didn't say anything, but he nodded. Lockon kissed him quickly, reassuringly, then started to press into him, as slowly as he could manage.

And then too many things happened in too little time:

Lockon couldn't go slowly. Tieria was too warm-wet-tight around him, genuinely perfect in a way Lockon hadn't even suspected when he'd said it. Lockon slid into him so easily despite that intense tightness; he simply fit too well.

The expression on Tieria's face melted from uncertainty to a startled bliss just as perfect as he felt down below. It hadn't been that way the first time. He'd been halting, still a little guarded even then, cautious when experimenting with something new. Now he was purely open, and it hit Lockon so clearly that he'd been the one to do that, that he'd made Tieria feel so good--

Lockon had meant to keep his own noises to soft sighs and murmurs. He'd been good at it before, and it had seemed to please Tieria, to give him a feeling of approval. This time, the feeling of Tieria around his cock combined too quickly with the sight of that joy on his face, and Lockon cried out in a low and breathy moan.

And then--

Tieria's eyes snapped back open, his expression changing. He grabbed hold of Lockon by the shoulders and pushed him sharply until they'd both tumbled over, Tieria now on top, the both of them still breathing hard, still staring at each other. But now Tieria's expression was full of concern.

"Lockon," he said. "Did I hurt you?"

For a moment, Lockon couldn't speak. He was still too gripped by lust, by the feeling between his legs and the memory of that look on Tieria's face. Then something occurred to him: Tieria must have deliberately constructed his new genitalia to fit Lockon so perfectly. The thought was more than a little unsettling, and with that, Lockon's desire cooled enough for him to respond. He laughed, and Tieria shivered predictably at the feelings from that motion. "That's not it at all. You felt so good to me, Tieria. That's all that happened."

Tieria smiled again. It was that strangely attractive closed-mouthed expression again, but wider this time, a little less controlled. "Then let's continue," he said. "But I'll stay on top now, if that's all right."

"I don't mind," Lockon said. He shifted his hands to Tieria's hips and rocked him gently back and forth, feeling him shake a little each time, watching his expression shift closer to ecstasy again.

Tieria moaned a little. It wasn't a higher register than Lockon had heard out of him before, but somehow now Lockon noticed the range of the pitch more, and he wondered. But still: no matter what they did in bed, Tieria was Tieria.

And there were other things about him that made Lockon more curious. "You like it on top, huh?" he said.

"Yes," Tieria said. He traced his hands down Lockon's chest, trying at first to avoid the scars, then giving up. "I believe it allows us both the best balance of control. And..." He hesitated, started to look away, then found he couldn't do it.

Lockon smiled up at him. "What else?"

"I enjoy watching over you this way," Tieria said. His voice was very small, a blush high on his cheeks. "I feel...as if I can protect you. I don't entirely understand it."

Lockon wrapped his arms around Tieria and thrust up into him, eliciting a moan that went even higher this time, became a squeak. "You don't have to understand these things, Tieria," he said. He meant to say more, but then Tieria clasped tight around him and it was almost too much. Lockon snapped his head back against the pillows and dragged in a surprised breath at the feeling.

When he opened his good eye again, he could see Tieria smiling again, and this time it was almost a grin. He didn't have the control anymore to make it less. And that did nothing to dampen Lockon's desire. He leaned up to kiss Tieria, and as he did, he pulled their bodies tightly together.

Tieria still shook a little with every thrust Lockon made into him. Like so much else, that only made it better. It was hard to settle into a rhythm with Tieria inadvertently teasing him like that, but Lockon tried his best, and it didn't take long before he felt Tieria clutch and release around him, gasping with the rush of his climax.

Lockon nuzzled at his jaw and cheek and did his best to abandon his own control, until Tieria was moaning with complete abandon himself and Lockon couldn't hold back any longer, he came with a wrenching gasp--

--but it was all right, because Tieria was nuzzling into him so contentedly. Lockon smiled and stroked his hair.

But he lay awake for a long while after Tieria had fallen asleep at his side, troubled by something he couldn't quite pinpoint. When he thought about it too hard, all that came to mind was the thought of his brother alone, and an ensuing stab of guilt.

* * *

Tieria had dreams that night for the first time that he could remember. Some of them were frightening visions of Lockon being torn away from him again, but even those weren't so bad, because he could wake and find Lockon at his side. Reality would always be better than dreams, that way.

He did not think to question why, each time he woke, Lockon was so quickly and thoroughly awake to comfort him. It was hard to think about details like that when he was this close to Lockon.

* * *

Lockon was not by nature a particularly curious man; he left the poking and prying at ideas and the nature of the world to his brother. But he couldn't deny that sometimes, people intrigued him. More and more, he had to admit that Tieria was one of those cases--maybe the ultimate case. He wouldn't have done half the things he'd already done with Tieria if Tieria didn't fascinate him more than a little. Of course, there was more to it than a distant curiosity, but the point remained: Lockon really wanted to know why Tieria had decided to switch around what was between his legs.

He couldn't exactly ask outright, though--in all likelihood, Tieria had already explained his reasons back when he'd explained just what it was he'd done, and Lockon hadn't been paying attention. He couldn't bring himself to regret that; it was good that he'd remembered to dwell on his brother's loss for a little while. Still, it made things inconvenient.

Fortunately, Tieria brought the subject up a few nights later at dinner.

"I've chosen to keep this configuration for now," he said, gesturing down at his body with his free hand. "After trying sexual activity both ways, I've decided I prefer this."

Lockon decided not to tell Tieria that this wasn't really dinner table conversation. After all, nothing they did up here was normal, and Tieria's strangeness was part of his charm. Actually, it brought a smile to his face. So instead he asked, "Why's that, Tieria?" The smile faded fast. He was a little worried that it was just an attempt to cater to his own preferences. The truth was that he did find it easier this way, just because he had more relevant experience, but the idea that Tieria would make such a choice based on that alone was more than enough of a turn-off to make up for that.

"The enjoyability of the sex aside," Tieria said (and Lockon relaxed; the way Tieria said that made it perfectly clear that wasn't the main factor in his decision), "I feel more comfortable this way."

"You sure?" Lockon asked. "Your original body was male, after all."

"Yes, but I wasn't especially attached to it," Tieria said. "I found the arrangement of the genitalia awkward. This way is more streamlined and compact, and it feels safer."

"If that's what works for you, it's fine," Lockon said.

But Tieria was still hesitating a little, as he so often did these days. "It's not a usual state," he said. "Most men have those awkward external genitalia, despite a more compact upper body, and most women have ungainly curves. I've seen some of the technology Sumeragi Lee Noriega uses to prevent back pain," he added. "It's inconvenient."

Lockon laughed. "Well, Ms. Sumeragi's a special case. So are you."

"Yes," Tieria said. "Historically, that part of humanity that falls between the two standard sexes has been treated with hostility." He frowned, and Lockon could sense that his real concern was coming up next. "At best, they...we have often been regarded warily."

"I don't know a whole lot about that," Lockon said. "You should talk to my brother about it if you're curious. He took a lot of sociology and history courses in university." Lockon had kept close tabs on how his brother had done at university. He'd been paying for it, so it had been easy to get the records.

Another one of those moments that Lockon had been seeing more frequently lately passed: Tieria steeled himself as if preparing to say something a little too bold for him normally. "I'm uninterested in what the new Lockon Stratos, pilot of Cherudim Gundam, has to say about my sex," he said. "I only care what you think, Lockon. You're the one I sleep next to at night, now. You're the only one I wish to touch in these ways." For all the firmness in his voice, he still looked vulnerable, and Lockon was reminded too easily of just why he'd gone so far with Tieria. "Does it bother you?"

Lockon blinked. He had trouble believing that had worried Tieria. After all, it was an insignificant thing. He'd long ago accepted that Tieria wasn't like most people, in body or in mind. So long as he learned to be human, what did it mattered if he was a slightly quirky human in some ways? Lockon regained his composure and smiled. "No. I like you whatever parts you've got, Tieria," he said. "Or we'd never have gotten this far."

Tieria visibly relaxed, a smile gentling his face. "'This far,'" he mused. "Lockon, just what does that mean?"

Lockon suppressed a wince; he'd slipped up. He hadn't meant to introduce that subject to the conversation. He sought around for an escape. "Well, sleeping with each other, for one," he said. "Hey, hey, just where did you sleep before you started sharing my bed? I don't remember seeing a room for you. Just your Veda terminal."

Tieria nodded. "I rarely slept, before now. It wasn't necessary; my body could be fully recharged while I attended to my tasks in Veda. I need no interruptions in my digital consciousness."

"Huh?" Even if it didn't really matter to him, Lockon sometimes forgot just how strange Tieria could be. "Then why do you do it? With me, I mean."

"I don't know," Tieria confessed. "I only know that I like resting at your side." He'd finished eating by now, and he set down his fork to reach across the table and touch Lockon's face gently. "You're warm, and the sound and motion of your breath comforts me."

Once again, they were poised on that shaky territory that Lockon didn't know how to deal with. He liked that he comforted Tieria so much just by breathing. The knowledge was a warmth of its own, especially in the coldness that he'd been carrying inside since he'd woken up in the world Celestial Being had changed (no, longer than that--but that was another thought that he shouldn't linger on too long, at least not here in Tieria's presence). But all he felt seemed inadequate compared to that kind of devotion. "Hey," he said. "If you've been spending all this time you used to spend in Veda sleeping with me, isn't that throwing you off schedule? You've still got a lot of data to sort through."

Tieria paused, but after a moment he admitted, "Yes. At this point, I'm approximately three weeks behind schedule."

Lockon frowned a little and tapped the table. "I think," he said, "I need another vacation."

* * *

Tieria made the preparations for Lockon's departure as before, of course. There were now four functional Menae transport vessels, and two of them had been completely restored. The Endymion's own full systems were not yet operational, meaning that it couldn't yet be used to bring a full crew up to the moonbase. Tieria was guiltily grateful for that, even though he knew he should not be, just as he should not spend so much time in Lockon's bed. But the feeling was still there. Perhaps it was a human thing, and therefore all right. He could ask Lockon to be sure--but for once, he didn't want to.

He also didn't want Lockon to leave, but he could hardly say that. Lockon had decided to take his vacation, and that was his right. In fact, physically he needed the time on Earth. He was still entirely human in a way Tieria never would be. Tieria found that he didn't mind so much anymore. He had done well saving his comrades as an Innovade, and if he could have these feelings for Lockon, then he was human enough.

When all the necessary arrangements were done, there was still one last arrangement that, although unnecessary, was something Tieria wanted to do. Lockon had tried to discourage him from coming to his bed ever since he'd found out that it reduced Tieria's time in Veda, and Tieria had reluctantly obliged him. This time, however, he refused to stay away.

He sat down on the bed next to Lockon before Lockon could stop him. "This is your last night here before you leave for Earth," he said.

"Don't worry about it," Lockon said. "I'll be back in less than a month. You have plenty to do before then to make sure you're all caught up with your schedule." But he smiled and leaned in to press his nose to Tieria's cheek. He'd been making gestures like that a lot lately; apparently that was how one acted in a romantic relationship. This time, Tieria did his best to reciprocate, reaching up to stroke Lockon's hair. After a moment, Lockon pulled away. "You'll be fine," he said.

"I know," Tieria said, although he wasn't certain at all that he'd be fine. It had been difficult enough going without Lockon the last time he'd left for Earth, and that had been before everything had changed. "But I want to spend this last night with you."

"Hey, now, don't think of it as a 'last night,'" Lockon said, reaching up with one gloved hand to muss Tieria's hair. He hesitated for a moment, and Tieria couldn't tell if something was bothering him or not. In any case, he went on too quickly for Tieria to ask about it. "But I guess it's all right. You can stay."

Tieria hesitated, then reached for Lockon's face. "I'd like to do more than just stay," he said. "I'd like to--" He stopped.

A slow smile curved up Lockon's mouth, and Tieria felt desire gathering in him already. "We can, if you want to," he said.

"First," Tieria said, "I'd like to know what to call it."

Lockon blinked. "Huh?"

"There are so many words in so many languages for the sexual act," Tieria said. "But I haven't yet decided which one we should choose."

That prompted laughter from Lockon. "It's all right, Tieria," he said. "We don't have to pick just one. It's like you said: there are a lot of words."

"I'd rather not use the more vulgar ones," Tieria said. "They feel inappropriate."

"I wasn't going to use those, either," Lockon said. "They're just not right for you."

Tieria opened his mouth. He wanted to ask if they could say make love--it was a strange and irrational term, and it pleased him in the places he was human. But he couldn't bring himself to ask directly. That felt inappropriate, too. So, hesitantly, he said, "I think we should abandon the term 'intercourse,' but I'm not sure what we should move on to...I have heard of 'making love.'"

Something flickered across Lockon's face. Tieria was getting a little better at reading him, and he realized quickly that he'd said something wrong. He started to draw back in instinctive shame, but Lockon caught him by the arm and pulled him close again. "It's all right," he said. "Why don't we just say 'have sex'? It's easier that way."

Tieria nodded. "It describes the act well enough." He was a little disappointed, but it was hard to stay disappointed for long. Especially when Lockon kissed him and began to take off his nightshirt. As always, Tieria melted into his arms, and it didn't matter what they called what they did.

Chapter Text

Lockon did not bother scheduling a trip to Azadistan this time. He'd received word from a pair called Shirin Bakhtiar and Klaus Grad, briefly home in Azadistan from what were apparently important political travels, that Lyle had finally suggested they meet him--or rather, that he meet them. That didn't seem like a good idea. As a matter of fact, he met only briefly with Allelujah and Marie in Kazakhstan as well. There was a reason for this, though.

"Lockon," Allelujah had told him as he made his way out of the Menae and started across the clearing towards them. "Marie suggested something I think would make things easier."

Marie clasped Allelujah's hand, and reached out to take Lockon's. "We'd like to start calling you by your real name."

She smiled at him, and he had the sense that somehow, even though she barely knew him, she knew a little of what that would have meant. She was trying to help. But although he couldn't have told her why, he couldn't let her help that way.

"That sounds like a good idea," he said; it would be disrespectful to their relationship, their apparent friendship with his brother to deny them this.

But he quietly revised his plans and cut short his time with them.

He spent a couple of weeks not truly on vacation, but actually checking old Celestial Being safe houses to see how many were still in operation and could potentially be used as terrestrial points of contact for the lunar complex. At each one, he reported his findings to Tieria, and Tieria was almost alarmingly grateful to hear from him.

The rest of his time, that which really was free to him, he spent at home, as usual. It would have been wonderful to see his town, his city, his country looking brighter than ever in the aftermath of Celestial Being's fight, but something was missing.

There's no place for you to return to, a distant awareness murmured at the back of his mind. You need to make yourself a new place instead. Can you even do that?

Fortunately, he was able to ignore that thought. Knowing that he had Tieria to return to back up on the moon, it was easy for now.

* * *

It should have been easier to wait for Lockon's return this time--he was gone for only a little over three weeks. Instead, Tieria found that it was harder. He didn't question that too much, though; he'd long since learned that "should have" played little role in how he felt about Lockon. Now, he only struggled to deal with the loneliness and the worry. Mercifully, his work in Veda provided a respite, and Lockon opened communications with him often.

Nevertheless, when the time came for Lockon's Menae to return to the lunar complex's hangar (now cleared of debris, and perfectly suitable for Lockon to land in), Tieria found he was shaking a little. He checked and rechecked the commands he'd given the docking mechanisms, and he checked all that against the trajectory of the Menae and how it interacted with the Menae's stealth fields. Then he reviewed all of that again. In the end, after he'd done it three times in three minutes from within Veda, he felt it was enough. He felt warm even though temperature was nonexistent within this digital landscape. He watched the Menae dock, and satisfaction came to him, as pure as anything else he'd experienced so far with Lockon. He'd helped protect Lockon in a potentially dangerous situation (after all, the moonbase's transportation protocols were not yet entirely intact), and because of that help, Lockon was safe once more. It was all he had ever wanted.

I don't understand you anymore, came the murmured thought from Regene. Is this what you believe you're meant to do?

"Yes," Tieria said as he prepared to funnel himself back into his body. Suddenly he wanted to be at Lockon's physical location as soon as possible. "I will protect him, as I protect all of humanity. But he is special."

Your human emotions and beliefs are so--

Tieria did not hear just what Regene thought of his human emotions and beliefs. He had downloaded himself into his body again and was on his way to meet Lockon.

* * *

He had almost reached the common area before Lockon saw Tieria racing toward him. In all fairness, it wouldn't have been "racing" in anyone else. He wasn't running; that probably hadn't even occurred to him. Even after all this time in some human body or another, he still used his tentatively and lightly (like someone made out in space would) unless in dire situations. It was one of the things that made him--

Cute?

We'll go with "interesting," Lockon thought.

Tieria moved down the hall in long strides, both feet leaving the ground each time he stepped forward. Lockon smiled. Tieria made the awkwardness of the moon's low gravity look graceful, even if he'd never understand why.

Well, there was only one thing to do now, in a situation like this. Lockon tossed his traveler's bag to the floor, vaulted over the back of a sofa, and completely ruined the grace of Tieria's latest stride by catching him in midair and bearing them both against a wall. "Yo," he said, grinning.

"There was no need for you to do that," Tieria said. He was flushed now, maybe with the effort of his near-run to greet Lockon, maybe simply because Lockon was nearby. Lockon still didn't really get how his mere presence could send Tieria into a blush like that sometimes, but he was long past minding. He'd admit this much to himself: that was cute.

"It was fun," Lockon said. "I'm sure you've learned about that by now. I got the chance to talk with Mileina Vashti while I was on the Ptolemy--if she didn't teach you a few things about fun, something's really wrong."

"You could have been hurt," Tieria said, looking up at him earnestly now.

"But I wasn't," Lockon said, and he felt Tieria relax. There wasn't much that was different after all: Tieria was still intent on protecting him, and Tieria was still awkward. Maybe they were both a little awkward. Lockon took comfort in that. Too much else had changed, but he could still guide Tieria, even if there was a more physical component to their relationship now (and something else, but Lockon was pretty good at not dwelling on that).

"I've made sure your quarters are still in proper shape for you," Tieria said. "For us."

Coming from anyone else, that would have been an invitation. Lockon wondered briefly if he should mention that and tease Tieria about it. He decided against it; he knew full well it was just Tieria imparting information to him, quite innocently. There were plenty of other things he could be teased about, anyway. "I hope you didn't spend too much time on that," he said, giving Tieria's shoulder a squeeze. "You're a busy computer consciousness, not a cleaning service."

"Of course not. I--" Tieria stopped. Then he smiled a little. "Lockon, you're teasing me."

"It still takes you a bit to catch on," Lockon said, "but you're getting faster."

There was something Tieria had been meaning to say since he'd met Lockon here, and suddenly, Lockon realized it was about to be said. He knew what it was.

"Lockon..." Tieria leaned his head on Lockon's shoulder. "Even though it was little more than three weeks, I missed you very much."

Lockon had been right about what it was. But somehow the way Tieria said it was unexpected. There was so much softness in his voice, and the look on his face was so peaceful and content. "That's normal," he said. "Since you like being with me. I'm back for a while now."

"Good," Tieria said. He hesitated for a moment, then slipped his arms around Lockon's back and pressed himself tightly against Lockon's body. He gave a little shiver as he aligned his cheek with Lockon's pulse. "I don't want to be parted from you again."

"You did fine for five years without me," Lockon said. It was more than a bit alarming when Tieria got like this.

"In those years, it hurt too often," Tieria said. "With all we've done, it would hurt more if I were to lose you again."

This had been what Lockon was afraid of. He was encouraging Tieria's dependence at a time when Tieria should have broken free from it. But somehow, he couldn't bring himself to push Tieria away. Instead, he just said, "Tieria, this isn't healthy."

Tieria smiled a little. "I'm fully aware. However, I'm not very concerned." He paused, then pointed out, "You like it."

Lockon opened his mouth to object, but Tieria clearly misread his intentions, because instead of letting him speak, he kissed Lockon. That was when Lockon realized he'd been getting hard ever since Tieria had pressed against him so intently, and more when Tieria had spoken to him in that yearning tone of voice. He let the kiss play out instead of breaking it for Tieria's own good. Then he said, "I shouldn't. But we've all got our issues."

"Yours don't bother me," Tieria said. "Should we return to your quarters and have sex?"

Lockon answered with a kiss, and once again, it surprised him how much he responded.

* * *

They stumbled all the way back to Lockon's quarters, because they kissed all the way there, as well. Tieria thought it was an impractical method of traveling at any time, but his research had shown that sometimes, that was how the prelude to sex took place, so he didn't object. In any case, as inefficient as it was, it still felt wonderful.

"You're acting a little rushed," Lockon said as they tumbled into his room. "Want to stop and take off our clothes sensibly?"

"The alternative would--" Tieria frowned a little. "Tearing off each other's clothes in a fit of passion. I see. I don't object to that, but take care not to damage the outfits." The truth was, he quite wanted to try it. He demonstrated this by shoving Lockon's vest off of him and fumbling eagerly at the catch of his pants.

Lockon's breath quickened against Tieria's cheek, and for a moment, Tieria slowed; the feel of Lockon breathing against him was so amazing. Then Lockon was pulling off Tieria's jacket and unzipping his shirt and Tieria couldn't think anymore. All he could do was pull frantically at Lockon's pants and kiss his neck and jaw and mouth. Protecting Lockon was the most satisfying thing he could do for him, it was true, but somehow this threw him into more of a frenzy, and for all that he normally preferred to be in control of himself, with Lockon he didn't mind.

Then his own pants were off, then his underwear, and both he and Lockon were breathing fast now as Lockon pinned him lightly to the bed. Somehow, in just a few minutes, they'd both managed to shed all their clothes in this utterly disorganized fashion--except for three things. Tieria still had his glasses on, and Lockon still wore his gloves and his eyepatch.

Lockon reached out to pluck Tieria's glasses from his face and lay them carefully next to the bed. As he drew his hand back to touch Tieria's face, Tieria grabbed his wrist, stopping him. "Wait, Lockon," he said. "There's one other thing."

"What's that?" The sight of Lockon stretched out over him, naked and ready, almost made Tieria forget what it was.

But then he remembered. "Your gloves," he said. "I'd like to do this without them, this time."

"Do you need me to do a better job with my hands?" Lockon asked.

"It's not that," Tieria said. "What you do, with your hands and all the rest of your body, is always enough." He hesitated. "I'd simply like to feel you everywhere."

Lockon gazed down at him for what seemed like such a long time. Tieria could tell less than ever what was going through his head. Finally, he leaned down to kiss Tieria's forehead, just above the bridge of his nose. Tieria felt Lockon's hardness brush against his thighs as he leaned like that, and he bit back a moan.

"All right," Lockon said. "It's only fair." With an oddly rueful smile, he pulled his gloves off and left them on the nightstand next to Tieria's glasses.

Tieria reached up to try to catch Lockon's hands in his own, but Lockon moved too fast, and before Tieria could say or do anything, Lockon's hands were pressed around his chin. They were so warm, and somehow barely scarred at all. He couldn't stop himself from sighing at the sensation. He was still in mid-exhale when Lockon slid into him.

This sensation elicited an outright cry from Tieria. It was so strange and so right all at once, and it had been since the very first time. The way his own opening, slick and ready, parted to let Lockon fill it so perfectly: Tieria couldn't help but love it even if such things had never been part of what he was originally intended to do.

Lockon kissed him slowly, running his newly-bare hands through Tieria's hair. "Hey, Tieria," he said. His chest and stomach moved slightly against Tieria's body as he spoke, and Tieria absorbed himself in the feeling so much he almost missed Lockon's words. "You're not trying to stop yourself, are you? From making noises like that."

"A little," Tieria said. "It seems improper. You're mostly quiet during sex, except when you need to say--ahh." Lockon had thrust into him, gently but still enough to make Tieria's mind freeze up for a second. He reoriented himself. "Except when you need to say something. I thought it might disrupt your concentration."

Lockon was kissing him again, this time all over his face, leaving warm wet marks when he pulled his mouth away. "Don't worry about it. It feels good and it sounds good. Just enjoy yourself."

Tieria found himself arching up a little against Lockon, trembling as his body lifted easily from the bed. Neither of them weighed much here, but Lockon still felt heavy on him and inside him in such a good way. "Then I don't need to restrain myself."

"No," Lockon said, nuzzling against his cheek. "That's part of the point, Tieria. Let go and do what feels good."

"All right," Tieria said, but his voice was a whisper. He wasn't sure what would feel good; in this state, everything did. After a moment's thought, he lifted his spread legs and twined them tightly around the firm line of Lockon's legs settled between them. It felt like a good idea, to surround and hold Lockon as thoroughly as he could. He tightened himself around Lockon within him, and Lockon gasped just a little. Tieria reciprocated with a glad little moan of his own.

"That's good," Lockon whispered. His hands slid to Tieria's shoulders, then off them to settle to either side of him. "You can keep making those noises."

Tieria moved his own hands until they were settled around Lockon's, then held on tightly. He was holding Lockon in more ways than one. He liked that. "Do you like it when I do?"

Lockon thrust into him again. "Yeah. Yeah, I do." And another thrust--

"Lockon! Aah. Do you like it when I say your name like that?" Tieria was having trouble remembering what he was supposed to do now; all he could feel was Lockon moving.

"Yeah." Lockon's hair was brushing against Tieria's face now, just a little damp with sweat, and a tiny part of Tieria noted that Lockon wasn't as carefully controlled as he might usually be. The rest of Tieria was too entranced by him to care. "Yeah. I like that a lot."

Another stroke inside Tieria. With another cry, he tightened his grip on Lockon's hands and pressed himself ever more tightly against his body. Lockon began to rub against him as well as thrust, and in seconds, Tieria was coming, as that inconvenient word went. He gave up his control, because Lockon had said it was all right for him to do so, and moaned helplessly.

Lockon slowed for a few moments, giving Tieria time to recuperate, kissing him in the meanwhile. He started to lift a hand to stroke him, but Tieria was holding it too tightly, so Lockon gave up and just rubbed his cheek against Tieria's. Then he began to thrust again.

This time Tieria couldn't restrain himself at all. He clutched more tightly at Lockon's hands and pressed up against him, hard. Lockon outright shuddered at that, and soon he was moving faster inside Tieria, and Tieria was at another climax, and in the midst of that he felt Lockon gasp a little and relax against him--

Tieria sighed and sank down into the bed, happy that Lockon had reached his own climax too. He felt Lockon pull out of and roll off him, but he didn't care just yet; he still felt warm. It was only a minute later, when he turned to cuddle against Lockon and found no one there in the bed with him, that he realized something was wrong.

He blinked and sat up, forcing himself to come fully to his senses. Lockon wasn't lying next to him; he was sitting at the edge of the bed, staring down at his hands as he turned them over and over. Tieria gave him a puzzled stare. He had that blank look on his face, the one Tieria had tried to avoid seeing since the first time he'd caught Lockon with it. "Lockon...? What's--"

He was going to ask, What's wrong, but then he saw it. Scratched into the back of Lockon's hands were bright red marks, some half-moons and others shallow gouges, where Tieria had dug his fingers in. A few of them were actually bleeding.

Tieria stiffened at the sight. His vision blurred a little (with tears or simply with emotion, he wasn't sure), and those marks on Lockon's hands seemed to melt together with the rest of his scars. All of them Tieria's fault. None of them would be there if he'd been more careful, some time or another.

Lockon caught him as he was about to crumple. "Don't worry about it, Tieria," he said, smiling in his most reassuring manner.

"But I was the one who told you to take off your gloves," Tieria said. "And I know you wear them to protect your hands, so--"

"I wore them to protect my hands for pulling the trigger," he said. "But I don't need to do that any longer. So it's all right." He stood up. "I'm going to go and wash up, though. There's no sense bleeding on things, even if I'm only bleeding a little bit."

Tieria could only watch him go, his throat suddenly too tight to let him speak. He had more to say to Lockon, he knew. But for now, he would ensure his fingernails were filed down better. He could not risk hurting Lockon again, even if it was only a little bit.

* * *

There was a problem with the bathroom in Lockon's quarters. It was simple enough: there was a mirror in front of the faucets.

Lockon had never been bothered by this before. He'd grown used to seeing the scars on himself. None of them really mattered. They seemed natural, even. Outward proof that he was just as damaged as he knew he was inside. Of course, he couldn't say a thing like that to Tieria, who would never understand. Certainly he couldn't say it to Setsuna, who now would, or worse yet, to Lyle, who just might.

But right now, it wasn't pleasant to see himself looking so broken. He'd taken his eyepatch off as soon as Tieria couldn't see him anymore, and now when he looked in the mirror, all he could see was that network of scarring where his right eye once was, like something that had shattered. He barely paid attention to washing off the faint stinging scratches on the back of his hands.

What he'd said had been true. There was no reason for him to worry about his hands anymore. His ability as a sniper was already permanently impaired. It wasn't just the missing eye, either. He hid it well from Tieria and any others who might worry about him (although in the case of Tieria, he doubted he'd have been able to hide it without the low gravity to lessen the effects), but the truth was there was only so much that the lunar complex's superb healing centers could fix. Where he'd been burned, his body was stiffer than where it had been before he'd woken up to find himself here. Often, he woke up with once-crushed ribs aching fiercely.

Right now, and for as long as he could imagine, Lockon--whether he called himself Neil Dylandy or Lockon Stratos--was no good for protecting anyone. It was pointless to worry about his hands at a time like this. He couldn't snipe; he definitely couldn't fight in any other way.

And the only other thing he'd lived for was his vengeance. That had already been taken--he'd thought, when he was dying, by himself, but in the end it had been by the last person who should have done it. He'd meant to shelter Lyle from such things, but now his brother had as much blood on his hands as he did himself--and he was alone. It wasn't right. Nothing in this world was right to him, and that proved, as it had six years ago, that he had no business being here. He could not change where the others had, and what purpose did he serve like this?

Old anger and despair threatened to uncoil within him from their safe spot at the center of his heart. If he wasn't careful, he'd do something stupid and pointless like punching the mirror, just to make it stop. He knew better than that. Lockon had always known how to properly compartmentalize the rage and grief when he'd fought with Celestial Being. He'd just have to find new ways of doing it now. Turning his thoughts firmly back to the present as much as he ever could, he turned off the water and started to look back down at his hands.

That was when movement in the mirror caught his attention, and he turned to see Tieria approaching. He was still mostly naked, but not quite comfortable with that yet, he'd thrown the jacket of his uniform back on. Normally, that would have made Lockon grin, but now, he could barely muster up a flicker of a smile. "Tieria?"

"Lockon," Tieria said. "Are you all right?"

"I'm fine," Lockon said. "You really didn't hurt me. They're barely scratches." It was true; they were nothing compared to all the damage that had already been done to him by his own inevitable choices. They were just a reminder he hadn't wanted.

"You wouldn't wear those gloves," Tieria said, "if the slightest injury to your hands didn't bother you."

"It's like I told you," Lockon said. "I only kept my hands safe like that for pulling the trigger as a sniper. That's not something I'm much good for anymore."

Tieria frowned. "It isn't like that."

"Huh?"

And here, suddenly, Tieria stepped forward and held out his hands. "May I?" he asked. "I'll be much more careful this time."

Too bemused to do anything else, Lockon put his still-wet hands in Tieria's. "I trust you," he said.

Tieria blinked, startled. "You--" He swallowed hard. Somehow, the words had affected him more than Lockon had realized they would. He couldn't dwell on that, though, because Tieria was continuing to speak. "Lockon, it doesn't matter what your hands are for, or why you guard them so carefully. They are yours, and they are as important as the rest of you. And the rest of you is very important to me."

Now Lockon was the one to blink.

"It doesn't matter whether you can snipe or not," Tieria said. "You're still Lockon Stratos to me, and you will always be special. I will always be glad you are here. Not only here with me, but here in this world."

Lockon fumbled for words. "Tieria, you shouldn't..." He couldn't come up with a reason Tieria shouldn't feel that way. All his objections seemed meaningless in the face of that kind of devotion.

"I should," Tieria said. "And there's one more thing I should do."

Lockon almost, almost said, You should stop all this and have some sense, but the look in Tieria's eyes stopped him.

"Thank you, Lockon Stratos," Tieria said. "For everything you have done for me, thank you."

There was nothing at all Lockon could say to that.

Chapter Text

What would have been winter down on Earth's northern hemisphere was winding to a slow close. Humans considered it important to mark such things, but Tieria did not know how to do so, save to think: I have been with Lockon, on this station, for ten months now. We first kissed four months ago. I first shared a bed with him over three months ago. He was growing accustomed to these things: able to accept that they might not last, but that they were precious while they did. It was a strange feeling, but a satisfying one. He wondered what had changed, and he wasn't sure, but every time he tried to think about it, all he could remember was the startled look on Lockon's face in response to that Thank you, and the warm feeling it had drawn up around his chest.

Sometime when the month of February was near its end, Tieria noticed that Lockon had sent a message out toward the Ptolemaios where it traveled closer and closer to Jupiter. He could have asked Tieria to use his instantaneous connection to Setsuna through quantum brain waves, but he did not. Tieria thought he might know the reason for both the message and the need for privacy, but he kept silent on the topic for now.

* * *

For the first time since he'd come to stay in the lunar complex, Lockon really began to note the passing of time. It wasn't exactly a bad thing; it wasn't precisely a good thing either. It wasn't about the dates, either. His shared birthday was approaching; he'd sent a message to his brother about it, a cheerful happy birthday that he wasn't sure he felt. It was just what he needed to say to Lyle--but he was more aware of the gap there than before. That was part of the way he'd started to notice time. Things had changed.

The other part was all Tieria. Every day meant he had less to teach Tieria. Every day meant he had less reason for staying here, and he wasn't sure how he felt about that. There were a lot of things he no longer knew how to feel about. It had been so much easier in the past, when he'd never spared time for the thought that maybe he should feel otherwise. There'd been no need for him to feel anything, save for all that old grief and rage to drive him onwards. But now he had nothing to be driven to, and Tieria still expected him to be a whole person. No: that wasn't it. Tieria thought he was a whole person.

The thought was terrifying. At the same time, there was something compelling about it. Now that Tieria had spoken it to him in such earnest tones, he couldn't turn away from it anymore. Not unless he turned away from Tieria as well. And he didn't want to turn away from Tieria. He wanted to keep guiding him, even though now Tieria could easily be the guide himself. He wanted, selfishly, to continue being someone important to him.

He sought Tieria out when their schedules coincided. That was nothing new, he told himself. He'd been doing it before. But he'd been doing it before because it was part of teaching Tieria about romance and being with your partner. Now he just wanted to be with Tieria, even as he was a little afraid to. He wasn't sure he could handle hearing more about how important he was.

They were testing the artificial gravity the day it happened. Most parts of the moonbase would remain in lunar gravity at most hours, but for health reasons, the exercise rooms at the very least needed adjustable gravity. It was far more sophisticated than the simple low-gravity systems Lockon remembered from on board the Ptolemy. Unfortunately, that also meant they had far more potential to go wrong. When the gravity in the empty room Lockon was testing in suddenly increased, then shut off entirely, he was taken off guard.

In short, he might have flailed a bit. He'd gotten used to low gravity, and he'd always preferred some gravity. He hadn't been in zero-g for a while. So he found himself fumbling against a wall, struggling to regain his balance. That wasn't good, he realized immediately. Tieria would see.

Sure enough, in a split-second Tieria's voice sounded from all around him. "Lockon, remain calm. I'll fix the gravity immediately."

"Hey, hey, I'm calm," Lockon started to protest. It was true--he was just a little startled, that was all. "You worry too much--" And that was when the moon's gravity snapped back into place in the empty room. Lockon drifted to the floor, landing gently on his knees.

He wasn't sure how long it was before he looked up (sometimes, time still eluded him, here in this quiet place). But when he did, Tieria was standing in the doorway. "I worry exactly as much as I need to about you," he said, looking very serious. "Sometimes, it's a great deal. I was unaware you had such problems with zero gravity."

Lockon got to his feet. "It's been a while," he said. "Hey, Tieria, don't tell me you're scolding me." He didn't really think Tieria was--but these days, it was harder to be as sure as he'd once been.

"I don't mean it as an insult," Tieria said quickly. "Your situation is understandable. And--" He took a slow step closer. "It doesn't bother me, having another small way in which I may protect you."

There it was again, that strange side of Tieria that Lockon could no longer ignore. He didn't know what to say to that. He could no longer dismiss it as Tieria being mistaken in who he'd given his devotion. Tieria had been too sincere that night when he'd taken Lockon's hands in his.

Lockon had one course of action left to him: he could change the subject. "So there are still some ways I'm not so good at space," he said. "What about you, Tieria?"

"Have you forgotten?" Tieria said, tilting his head a little in surprise. "I was made for this environment."

"I'm just wondering," Lockon said, "if there's an old Earth custom or two that might still take you by surprise. You've had a while to learn, after all."

"I'm sure there are still some--" Tieria began, but he didn't get a chance to say more, because that was when Lockon put his plan into action.

It wasn't a plan, really; that was what was unusual about it. He didn't wait beforehand to let all the little calculations finish running at the back of his head: How will this affect him, or What will this teach him, or even What good will this do him. He just thought that he wanted to see Tieria's reaction, and he darted forward and started to tickle Tieria's sides.

Tieria convulsed. For a moment, Lockon almost drew back. He couldn't be sure that Tieria wouldn't be more affected than most, after all, and it could be dangerous. If sex for the first time had overloaded Tieria's brain and knocked him back into Veda, then it was just possible tickling might do something unpleasant too. Lockon paused for a second; he felt one hand instinctively lifting to Tieria's shoulder, just to make sure everything was okay.

And that was when Tieria looked up, hopelessly flushed and stifling giggles. "Lockon, is this truly necessary?" He wasn't hurt at all.

"Since it turns out you're ticklish," Lockon assured him, "it's definitely necessary to find out just how much." He started again--

--and a second later, gravity abruptly cut out again. Lockon fumbled and sent the two of them both tumbling for a wall. "Hey, hey! Did something go wrong with the systems again?"

"No," Tieria said. "The systems are in perfect condition. I was merely retaliating."

Lockon blinked. "Tieria," he said.

"What is it?" Tieria didn't turn the gravity back on, but suddenly his voice was soft, his gaze wondering.

Lockon smiled. "You've really learned a lot." And yet, he knew, there would always be something more he could teach Tieria. He might know all the important things, he might not need Lockon anymore, but until today, until just now, he'd never even been tickled. That was proof enough it wasn't so bad for Lockon to keep teaching him. Without thinking about it for once, Lockon leaned forward to kiss him.

A strange warmth followed. He thought, suddenly, that he liked this. He liked being able to just care for someone instead of having to fight. He liked how much he'd always have to teach Tieria. He liked Tieria, and he wanted to stay here with him.

Memories hit him like a physical blow, and he flinched back. Debris and dead bodies and the feeling of the world going out from under him: how could he ever walk away from that? The way his brother looked now, not happy but instead determined: how could he let himself be happy to be alive in the face of that?

"Lockon--" It was Tieria's voice, the same voice that had spoken to him of how important he was not so long ago. Lockon looked up, not comprehending the sudden urgent tone in Tieria's voice. "Are you all right?"

The gravity was on again. "I'm fine," he told Tieria, even though he wasn't, because he'd been doing that for a long time now and there was no reason to stop. "I just remembered some things, that's all." He started to pull Tieria close to him. That was one surefire way to get him to stop asking questions about whether Lockon was fine or not. This time, for once, Tieria resisted briefly, frowning a little, and with some dismay, Lockon started to let go. Then Tieria mercifully changed his mind and slid quietly into Lockon's arms. Lockon started to stroke his hair--

--and Tieria jerked away. Alarmed, Lockon let him go. "Did I do something wrong," he began, but then he stopped. Tieria's eyes glowed with that rainbow iridescence. He hadn't needed it to issue simple commands to Veda for some time now, but it was still necessary for more complex communications. "What's going on?"

"It's Setsuna," Tieria murmured, surprise evident even in the softness of his voice now. "He's contacted me. He wants to tell you something--no, the entire crew of the Ptolemaios wishes to tell you something."

Lockon stared. Theoretically, of course, he'd known it was possible, but this was the first time Setsuna had used his Innovator abilities to contact them this way. "Put him through," he said. "It must be important."

A screen flickered into existence on one of the blank walls of the room. Setsuna's face looked out of it, his eyes changed and golden. He took in the two of them standing there, still just a little too close together, without blinking, but Lockon had the sudden feeling he knew what it meant...and that he would leave it to them to tell anyone else. Lockon wasn't sure how to feel about that.

He didn't have time to wonder, either, because in a moment, Setsuna spoke. "Happy birthday, Lockon Stratos," he said. "All of us are glad you are here to see it."

* * *

Tieria and Lockon worked together to fix the last systems on the Endymion. The stealth systems had been easy enough to fix--it was the same technology that, on the Menae, had spirited Lockon around the world unseen. But somehow, the life support systems gave them trouble. They were modeled after the life support systems in the lunar complex, and Tieria still didn't entirely understand how those worked. He only knew that they allowed him and Lockon to stay there together, and he was grateful for that. He also knew that someday they'd allow an entire group of people to stay here, to form a community. He was grateful for that, too. It didn't matter that he didn't entirely understand the details, because someday he would, and even before then, he could continue helping people. For now, he helped Lockon, and together they worked to restore the moonbase to its original intentions.

Of course, Lockon knew nothing of the complex technical details of the lunar complex and its support systems. But he knew things about what would be best for the community of humans who would live here someday that still eluded Tieria. He could make suggestions about what arrangements would be best for them. In addition, he worked tirelessly on the simple tasks assigned to him while Tieria hunted through Veda for elusive data. Tieria knew something that he hadn't known before: Lockon wanted to see the lunar complex completed. He wanted that place where humanity worked together to reach the future.

But Tieria was also unsure of something he'd tried not to be unsure of before. He didn't know whether Lockon wanted to be a part of that future. It wasn't a new fear, but it was one he'd finally been able to articulate. Even as it formed itself in his head, though, he found himself with new hope. A little while after Lockon's birthday, Tieria sent a silent Thank you back along their link to Setsuna. He did not have to explain what it was for. That was a relief, since he wasn't entirely sure why he had to thank Setsuna. He only knew that Setsuna was part of the reason Lockon was changing.

And Lockon was changing. He asked Tieria questions about things he had never even mentioned before. Sometimes they were even about Lockon himself. This was new and strange, and Tieria savored it.

"Tieria," Lockon said one day as the two of them rearranged furniture in a new lounge they were creating to supplement the main common area, "have you ever wondered what I do on my time off? What I did on my time off, back when we were fighting?"

Tieria looked up from behind a chair. He had no need to be participating in this activity. He could have left the lifting to the robotic equipment of the lunar complex, and he could have left the fine adjustments to Lockon. Once, he would have. But now, he wanted to spend as much time as possible with Lockon while still working to improve the moonbase. "Are you saying it's the same thing, both then and now?"

Lockon paused. He folded his arms across the back of a sofa and grinned at Tieria. "So you do wonder."

"I always have," Tieria admitted. "I want to know more about you, Lockon."

Something strange happened to Lockon's expression. That had been occurring often these days: Lockon had been wearing expressions different than his usual ones of either easy cheer and encouragement or (in private, when he forgot Tieria could watch him) discomfiting blankness. Now he regarded Tieria with something incomprehensible glinting in his good eye. "Is it all right if I tell you this one? I'm not sure you'll like it."

Tieria gave him a confused stare. How could "like" or "dislike" enter the equation when he had a chance to learn something about Lockon? "Please tell me."

It seemed appropriate that for such a revelation, Lockon should sit down on the couch he'd been moving. But he didn't. He simply leaned forward on its back and gazed off at something somewhere past Tieria. It wasn't an expression he'd have willingly let Tieria see in the past, and as unsettling as it was, Tieria treasured it. After a few moments, Lockon spoke. "I'd go to my hometown," he said. "Sometimes I'd go to where the terrorist bombing happened. It was all cleaned up by then, with a memorial in its place. And I'd watch, and I'd remember. That's all I did." Finally, he met Tieria's gaze. "That's all I did, Tieria. I watched and remembered."

"I see," Tieria said, although he wasn't sure he did. The Lockon he had known in the past didn't seem like the sort of man who would do something like that. Surely he had interacted with the people there more--that was what he did, wasn't it? But he accepted this as he accepted all the other things he had learned about Lockon.

"Does that bother you?" Lockon asked.

"No," Tieria said. "Nothing about you bothers me. In any case, there isn't anything wrong with carrying the past with you into the future."

"You've got a point," Lockon said, but he looked sad. Tieria was beginning to be able to tell such things.

They continued to work. Lockon made sure the sofas and chairs were arranged so that people would be most comfortable in them, and Tieria checked the wiring in the walls to be sure it was thoroughly safe. He had to slip in and out of his body to do it, and it was tiring work. He could have simply gone to his access terminal to rest his body and rejuvenate his mind in Veda, and indeed, that was what he was planning to do. But instead, Lockon pulled him down onto one of the couches.

"Let's try it out ourselves," he said. "See if it's comfortable."

In what had become welcome instinct, Tieria nestled against him, pressing against his warmth. He looked up at Lockon's smile. "Is that intended to be a euphemism, Lockon?" he asked. "I'm too tired for that activity right now."

Lockon pressed his nose to Tieria's forehead, so Tieria could feel his smile. "No," he said. "I just thought we could sit here for a while."

"That's fine," Tieria said. It was more than fine; he felt warm in that peculiar way, and he welcomed it. "Lockon..."

"Hmm?"

"Thank you. For telling me a little about yourself."

Lockon stilled for a moment, then pulled slightly away. "You don't have to thank me," he said. He hesitated, then pulled Tieria back to rest against his shoulder once more. "Just let me ask you something in return."

Tieria could feel himself sliding into a light sleep as he sat this close to Lockon's warmth. He resisted. "Please ask."

Lockon spoke in conversational tones, as if his query was a simple one. "While I was gone, you and the rest of Celestial Being changed the world. How did you do it?"

It was a simple question, Tieria thought a little sleepily. Some people might consider it difficult, but he knew better. "We changed ourselves," he said. "We changed to become compatible with the future."

Lockon sighed. Tieria could just barely catch sight of his smile going strange with regret. "I was afraid of that."

"Afraid?" Tieria murmured.

"It's nothing to worry about, Tieria," Lockon said. "Thanks, though. For telling me that. For being compatible with the future."

In the glow of that gratitude, Tieria drifted into a warm doze.

* * *

As it turned out, Tieria finished off the last details that had been keeping the moonbase fit for only a skeleton crew in the middle of the night.

Lockon didn't know that at first. All he knew was that Tieria slipped into bed with him when he was already asleep, and he woke up to the faintest shifting of reduced weight on the bed.

"I apologize," Tieria said. He paused for a moment, and the lights winked on around them, casting a soft glow around the bed. "I didn't intend for you to wake." His voice was more tentative than usual--and that was easier to notice now, since there'd been more confidence in it as they'd worked together on the moonbase.

"It's all right," Lockon said. "But you should be working. We agreed on that for tonight."

Tieria hesitated in silence, and it was strange, but Lockon couldn't for the life of him predict what he was about to say. Finally, Tieria sat up in the bed. "I only intended to finish adjusting the life support systems on the Endymion," he said, "but in the process, I discovered the codes for multiple human access to Veda's ports in the lunar complex."

It seemed like Tieria needed some reassurance that he'd done the right thing. Lockon wasn't sure why, but he reached up and stroked Tieria's hair back from his face all the same. "I'm a little confused, Tieria," he said. "What does it mean, that you've done that?"

"It's done," Tieria said. "No more preparation is necessary to ready the moonbase for a full crew."

"Oh," Lockon said. Internally, he winced at the way it came out. There was something wrong and flat about it. But to him, there was also something wrong with the picture of him being here with Tieria in a crew full of members of Celestial Being, all working to achieve the best future for humanity. He'd come here to avoid being a part of that future. Soon, the moonbase itself would be somewhere he didn't belong.

"Is that all right with you, Lockon?" Tieria asked softly. There was a strange light in his eyes.

"What's with you asking me that?" Lockon laughed, then gave Tieria's shoulder a squeeze. "Of course it's all right with me! I came here to help you do this, didn't I?"

Tieria was silent. "Lockon..."

In the soft white light, Lockon looked at Tieria, and for the first time, he was struck by how similar he looked to the first day they'd met. No, not similar: the same. He had changed so much, and he was even in a different body, but he looked exactly the same. It was a wonder. He was someone and something special, and Lockon was lucky to have him.

As for Lockon--

He looked different. He was broken and scarred. He'd aged six years since that battle where he'd willingly accepted death as the price for the vengeance necessary to restore his world. But how much had he really changed? Not nearly so much as Tieria, he knew. And it wasn't fair of him to hide here from the world in Tieria's shadow while pretending not to know that.

"I'm not fine," Lockon said, for what might have been the first time in his life. "Tieria, I'm not all right."

Tieria stopped, then, and looked at him. Lockon couldn't quite tell what was in his expression for once. Was it wonderment? "I know," he said quietly. "I've had ample time to observe your behavior, and it isn't healthy. It doesn't matter to me. You're as important as ever."

"You knew?" For a moment, that was all Lockon could say. It was hard for him to conceive of Tieria seeing through him so easily--even if, he realized, it almost certainly hadn't been easy at all. It must have taken months of careful observation.

"Yes," Tieria said. "But I learned something, when we all changed in order to make a new future. I couldn't make you say it."

Lockon smiled. He had a feeling it was a strange-looking smile, not like his usual grins. He wondered if it was comforting to Tieria, or unsettling. He knew he probably shouldn't worry about that, about how he seemed to other people and whether he made them feel better or not, but he had the feeling that wasn't something he was going to change. Even in this new world, he needed to be there for people. Maybe that was all right. "You're right. I needed to be able to say it myself."

"What will you do now?" Tieria said.

"I think I should go back to Earth for a while," Lockon said. The words came out of him without his prior consent. For once he wasn't holding them back. It was a little frightening. "I need to really talk with Marina Ismail. I need to travel with Allelujah and Marie and let them call me Neil Dylandy for a while. I need to learn about an organization called Katharon and what it meant to my brother. I..." Tieria watched him. Lockon had to go on. He owed Tieria the fullness of his revelations, after all they had been and done together. "I need to open my eyes and see how the world's changed, Tieria. So that I can change to be a part of it."

Tieria reached for his face. "You're already a part of my world, Lockon," he said.

"I know," Lockon said. "Thanks, Tieria."

Tieria blinked. "It isn't anything I consciously did. You simply are."

"I still wanted to thank you," Lockon said. "I needed your help, you know. Otherwise I'd never have figured this stuff out."

The change to Tieria's face was subtle. Most people would have missed it--after all, his expression was already gentle. But Lockon could tell: he'd lit up at that. "You're welcome. I'm glad I helped you."

There was only one thing left to say about all this. "Hey," Lockon said. "What we've got here--"

"Yes?"

"It's not fair of me to expect you to wait for me," Lockon said. "I don't know how long I'll be. And..." He hesitated. There were still things he couldn't say. He couldn't make himself tell Tieria: I'll never feel the same way about you that you feel about me. It was a simple fact, but if he spoke it, he'd be acknowledging the depth of Tieria's feelings for him. And that was one of the things about this changed world that he still didn't understand. "Anyway, you can see other people if you want. It doesn't bother me, if you want to end this here."

Tieria flushed indignantly. "Lockon!"

"Huh?" It was Lockon's turn to blink.

"At this point in our relationship," Tieria said, "it would be appropriate for me to slap you for saying that." He paused and looked down at his hands. "I don't wish to, though. I only wish to wait for you."

Lockon hadn't expected to feel so relieved to hear that. "As long as you've made that choice yourself," he said.

"Yes," Tieria said. "You could say I've made it with my heart."

* * *

Lockon spent some time on Earth.

Tieria had a great deal to do in that time. After all, managing the Endymion's full crew and keeping them all on task was a challenge in its own right. He had newfound respect for Sumeragi and how she had looked after the needs of the first Ptolemaios crew, so long ago.

But he still found time to watch over Lockon. It was easy enough. There were many satellites orbiting Earth, and some of them could track very small targets indeed. All of them were vulnerable to quiet hijacking from within Veda. Tieria took advantage of this, and he watched Lockon travel across the planet, assured that he would do his best to find a way to intervene and protect Lockon if anything seemed to go wrong.

Nothing seemed to go wrong. Lockon did as he'd said he would: he saw how the people of the world had changed. Tieria did not know if Lockon himself changed. He found it hard to tell. Lockon was simply Lockon, and that would always be enough for him.

Lockon kept Tieria updated on his travels. He kept everyone updated--more and more, as time went on. Tieria understood: he wanted the people who had helped him realize he could change know that he was doing exactly that. He wanted them to know he was grateful they were there for him. Knowing that he could understand Lockon like this was an indescribable feeling to Tieria, and he treasured it.

But one day, Tieria felt the soft pressure on Veda that was a message from Lockon's special frequency, and he realized that this message was just for him. Surprised, he opened a channel.

"Yo, Tieria," Lockon said. "Do you have space for one more member of your crew at the moonbase? I think I'd like to come back."

For a moment, Tieria didn't know what to say. It wasn't that he didn't know the answer to Lockon's question. It was that there was so much else he could say with it. He wanted to thank Lockon for coming back. He wanted to ask if he could still join Lockon in bed. He wanted to point out, on the video feed, where there were tiny, almost imperceptible lines at the edge of Lockon's mouth, so that he could say how grateful he was Lockon had lived long enough for those lines to form.

But he would be able to say all that tomorrow, because Lockon was coming back. "There will always be a place for you here, Lockon Stratos," he said now instead.

"Hey," Lockon said. "About that."

"About what?"

"A lot of the people I've met with lately," Lockon said, speaking slowly now, hesitating, "they don't call me Lockon Stratos. It's too confusing, since they knew my brother. You don't have to keep calling me that, either."

"Regardless," Tieria said, "I will. You're still Lockon Stratos to me."

"And I always will be, huh?" Lockon smiled. "I think I'd like to come home as soon as possible."

"Home?" Tieria asked. He was in Veda now, so it was strange that it felt as if his heart was beating faster.

"Back to the moonbase," Lockon said. "To be with you again."