C728K

Feb. 4th, 2011 12:41 pm
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Revised and properly HTML-formatted version. Might go back and private-lock the previous posts, might not. We'll see.

Title: C728K
Word count: 4,979
Warnings: aaangst, minor amount of violence
Summary: A character study.
Notes: Part IV - for those unfamiliar with Madama Butterfly, here is “Un bel dì, vedremo” and a translation.

I. Childhood

When the child entered Anchor’s refugee-citizen program, or RCP, he was designated C728K. Shortly thereafter this was lengthened to Konrad C728K.

The string of letters and numbers was intended to be only a temporary identification, which would suffice until the child was either adopted into a willing family, shuffled into foster care, or became old enough for the solitary self-support option. But a child can only be adopted by someone who both wants it and is able to care for it.

Konrad C728K displayed few, if any, of the qualities commonly found desirable in children of his age group. He was tall for his age and somewhat gawky, and his features were rough and unusually mature, making him neither endearingly cute nor endearingly ugly. He displayed a potential for athleticism, but his poor coordination and inability to cooperate with others kept him from being a contender for any team sports. He understood basic logic well enough, in the way that all children do, but facts, formulae, and academic concepts slipped from his mind as if it were a sieve, and although he spoke well and fluently, his reading scores were always abysmal, no matter how hard he tried.

Of course, Konrad C728K was hardly the only child in the RCP with these deficiencies, which was why the foster system had been developed. Konrad C728K, however, adamantly refused to submit to such care. As such, he continued to live in the government-sponsored orphanage, receiving the minimum amount of formal education that he was guaranteed by law and that was required in order to survive, until he grew to the eligible age to enter the solitary self-support program.

Because of this development, the designation “C728K” was no longer viable, and was removed from his public identification. Thus, his name became Konrad—just Konrad. Ordinarily, orphaned children in the RCP program were either adopted or put into foster care, and, if they did not remember their surnames, or never had such a thing in the first place, took on the surnames of the families who cared for them. But, since neither of these situations applied to Konrad, he had no surname of his own.

But Konrad was fine with being “just Konrad”; he had picked the name himself, and had never wanted another. That was really the only thing he had ever wanted—the freedom to do whatever he pleased with his life.

In his childish grasps at freedom, however, it appeared that the choices he made were not entirely wise.

His decision to stay in the orphanage left him with very little exposure to the outside world. He knew all the necessities that were required for the self-support program, but his social skills had been severely stunted. He had only ever spoken with the tutors, overseers, and administrators at the orphanage, never with the other children, and never in casual conversation.

And so, when the first friendly nobody on his first day of public school in his entire life asked him what he liked to do, he was left completely at a loss for words. What did he like to do? Did he like to do anything?

Because of the reputation this exchange quickly garnered, Konrad’s high school career quickly became even more of a hell than it usually was for others.


II. Maturity

However, this was the way things went for a year, at most. Despite his early difficulties, Konrad adapted to his new environment as easily as he would anywhere else, and he became used to sliding through each day with as little social interaction as possible. The only class he truly excelled in was phys-ed, since his physical capabilities continued to surpass even those of non-humans. He had grown into his body, now fit and muscular as opposed to lean and gangly, and his rough, mature features could no longer be considered unattractive. Accordingly, the girls began to take notice.

Naturally, Konrad took no notice of their taking notice, given that he had never had a reason or an interest to do so thus far in his entire life. But as his body underwent the various changes of adolescence, this oblivious attitude began to change, as well.

He was popular among the girls for his strong physique and aloof, “lone-wolf” air. But as his secret affections and physical attractions fell upon one, solely one in particular, this façade became increasingly difficult to uphold. It tore him apart, and he had no choice but to confess. He was received with a touch of surprise, but ultimately acceptance. A rendezvous was arranged, after which Konrad would never be the same.

He was taught how to kiss, to yield his lips and respond with appropriate aggression. He was shown how to touch and where, to induce the best response, and the ways he could substitute his mouth for his hands. He learned how to undress, redress, and straighten his uniform so as to look completely natural in times of hurry, how to give and receive most efficiently, and he learned of all the most sensitive spots on the body, and the best ways to pleasure them.

Konrad had previously never given much thought to the act of making love, but now that such thoughts began to consume him, he considered himself lucky to have such an experienced partner. After a certain length of time, he started to think he was truly in love.

The secret affair continued like this for the better part of Konrad’s high school days—always a secret, for neither wanted to put their reputation at risk. However, when it finally came to an end, in Konrad’s third year, it did so rather abruptly, and a touch violently.

He waits.

And waits.

And waits.

It seems like it’s already been an eternity to poor Konrad, but he doesn’t care. They had promised to meet here, and a promise was a promise, after all. He had yet to break any promise to anyone, and he’d be loath to do so now. He liked to uphold his own sense of honor, if nothing else.

A girl approaches, happily calling his name to get his attention. When Konrad looks up, he sees a man on her arm, a man his age, a man all too familiar to him.

He stands, greets them both, and strains to keep smiling as they make small talk. A plan is made. He keeps smiling, and tells the girl to go on ahead while he talks to the boy she came with. It’s important, he says. She smiles and leaves.

The other man laughs and asks him what’s wrong. The smile falls from Konrad’s face, and he asks him what he thinks he’s doing. The man laughs again. It’s just a date, isn’t it? Why does he look so upset?

The casual remark angers Konrad. He argues that he knows damn well why he looks so upset. He wants to know what the hell he’s doing with her.

The man shrugs. She’s just another girl to him. It doesn’t mean anything to him, unless she can show him a good time. That’s the point, isn’t it?

Konrad is stunned. He asks him why. How could he do something like that?

He smirks. Why? Why should he care? After all, he says to Konrad, it’s not like he ever took this seriously for a second, did he?

He laughs a third time, and turns to catch up with his girl. He cannot foresee being whipped back around to face Konrad, nor can he see the lightning-fast punch that will shatter his jaw.

By the time Konrad returned to school, gossip of the incident had spread like wildfire. The girl that had been involved was quick to tell her friends how she had been valiantly defended from that sleaze, and they were duly impressed with his chivalry. They were all so impressed that, soon enough, he was faced every day with another confession of love or admiration, and more eager questions if he had known what that sleaze was up to all along.

Of course he didn’t. He had no idea, and neither did they. He lay alone each night in his solitary flat, silently mourning for the world he had lost—the world that had abandoned him.


III. Orion

Despite the opinions of Konrad’s peers, the administration frowned heavily upon the incident, and punished him with the appropriate amount of discipline. He had already been suspended for a short time, and he was now bound to visit the victim of his wrath while he was still in the hospital. He agreed, though not without reluctance.

Medicine in Anchor was reasonably advanced. His jaw was wired shut, but it would get better. Konrad knew that much, and he felt no remorse. He stood in the hospital room for the required minimum of time, five minutes, and said nothing. There was no need. He had nothing to say to the one that had shattered his life.

As he left the hospital, however, Konrad was completely unaware of the fortune that was about to fall upon him.

“Konrad… C728K, is it?”

He stops at the voice behind him, after passing through the hospital doors. It must belong to a government official, but he doesn’t know what business they would have with him. The police decided not to charge him for the incident, and the school had already disciplined him. He can’t panic, though. He mustn’t.

He turns back. “That code is no longer a part of my name,” he says warily. “How would you know it?”

The man before him is most certainly an adult, by both his voice and the age in his eyes, but it’s difficult to tell just how old he really is. His hair is long, blond, and carelessly tied at his neck, most unlike any adult he’s ever seen, but his black clothes are befitting of a government agent. Konrad has lived in Anchor long enough to discern a non-human’s aura from that of a human, and this man is no human.

A small smile appears on his face as he steps closer to Konrad. “That’s a powerful arm you’ve got. A single blow shattered that boy’s jaw. Was that your intent?”

A pang of guilt surges throughout him. He narrows his eyes. “I didn’t think I would hurt him that badly.”

“But you did.”

“I’ve never hit anyone like that before, all right? It was an accident.”

“An accident? I find that hard to believe.”

Silence. The two exchange a long, scrutinizing stare.

“Well.” The man slides his hands into the pockets of his trench-coat. “Accident or no, you are powerful—too powerful for a human, perhaps.”

He shifts uncomfortably. It isn’t the first time he’s heard such a thing. “Yeah, what of it?”

“Tell me, Konrad—just what do you plan to do when you get out of school?”

He fidgets again. “I don’t know.”

“Your academic record isn’t very glamorous, and there isn’t much opportunity in this city for someone whose only strength is physical. Surely you have a plan, don’t you?”

How does this guy know how to get under his skin? “No—I don’t know. The counselors—they’re supposed to give me career options—”

“Or they’ll ship you off into another universe, or maybe put you to construction work or some other hard labor. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?”

Konrad hesitates. “What are you getting at?”

The man smirks. He starts to walk past Konrad, and his hand slips out of his pocket—just as he passes, he presses something into Konrad’s hand, something small and flat into a hand Konrad didn’t even know was open—and says in a low tone:

“I am giving you your future.”

He passes by. Konrad looks at the small object to find it is a card, something like a glossy business card. On one side is a vertical row of three stars, perfectly arranged; on the other is a nameless address.

Konrad turns to catch another glimpse of the man, perhaps to shout something after him—but, as he watches the man’s retreating back, and sees his blond hair shift to expose a row of black stars on the back of his neck, he finds himself entranced, powerless to say anything.

The encounter would prove to change his life.

The triple-star was a fairly innocuous image within Anchor’s borders, being the signature logo of Orion Research Facilities. But virtually every other society had long told stories of the infamous starry huntsmen—incredibly powerful, often inhuman mercenaries working under the guild of Orion. The guild was constantly in need of new troops, and had long had their eye on the one called Konrad C728K. After the black-clothed agent made the first contact, and after Konrad finally exited high school, it was only a matter of time before he found his way into their ranks.

It was rare that Orion ever hired an applicant so young, especially in human years, but his physical ability and technical skill made him more than apt for the duties he would be expected to carry out. He passed basic training with flying colors, and Auster, the senior agent who had first approached him at the hospital doors, became his mentor. Konrad couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, and, for the first time in his life, Konrad felt like he was actually good at something.


IV. Pragmatism

Under Auster’s guidance, he learned all sorts of useful maneuvers, both defensive and offensive, that basic training had never covered, and various skills to keep his cover in foreign lands, such as hiding his accent or picking up on cultural cues; he learned points on the body that could paralyze a man, whether temporarily or permanently, or, in times of necessity, kill one, and the best ways to access them. Any time new technology or weaponry passed into Konrad’s hands, Auster was always the first to show him the most efficient ways of using it; he had never had much talent for magick, but Auster managed to teach even him a few spells to get out of a tight spot.

Auster was indeed a non-human, just as Konrad had suspected, and his lifespan was much, much longer than a normal human’s; despite his relatively youthful appearance, he had lived many, many years more than anyone Konrad had ever known. He had refined tastes in things Konrad would never have given a second glance, such as art, music, and literature—although, for his sake, Konrad did make many attempts to appreciate them as well as his senior did. (The fine art and fine music didn’t turn out to be so bad, but Konrad had never quite shaken his difficulties with reading, and promptly gave up.)

He got along well enough with his fellow agents, but he never forged a connection with any of them as deep as the one he had with Auster—which was strange, since the others only spoke of him as being distant and aloof. He started to wonder if he was the only one who ever had such a connection with him. As time passed, this connection only grew deeper.

“Heh… Hard to believe it’s already been a year, huh?”

Auster laughs again and pours another glass of liquor for Konrad. They are sitting on the living room floor of Auster’s large flat, sharing a bottle of some alcohol completely unknown to Konrad. The occasion is the first anniversary of Konrad’s joining Orion; they had gone to a bar earlier that evening, but they both found the atmosphere far too raucous and retreated back here. It isn’t the first time Konrad has been in Auster’s flat, but it is the first time it has ever felt so warm and welcoming.

Of course, that may just be the alcohol in him.

“Yeah, huh… Can’t believe it…” He clinks his glass with Auster’s, but drinks it more carefully. He never expected his tolerance to be so low. An old record spins in the corner, and an elegant Italian voice floats on the air above them. “My record’s pretty good for a rookie, too. Think they’ll finally let me become a real agent?”

Vedi? È venuto!

“Pretty good?” Auster snorts. “For a rookie? Your record’s amazing. It’s a crime they haven’t promoted you to a regular agent yet.”

A tinge of warmth stirs within Konrad, even though he knows Auster isn’t exactly sober. Such blatant flattery is rare from his senior, and he’ll take it when he can get it. “Yeah. Thanks.” He hesitates, swirling his glass. “Guess that means I’ll finally get my three-star, huh?”

“Yeah, guess so.” Auster smiles slyly. “Something tells me… You’ve never gotten a tattoo before, have you?”

Konrad falters. “N—No, of course not. Why would I?”

E aspetto gran tempo…

“It’ll hurt, then, if it’s your first time.” He empties his glass and idly lolls his head to rest on his shoulder, allowing his hair to spill over his face. Konrad marvels at how the alcohol-induced flush in his face makes his hardened features seem so tender. “You’ll want to have it done where it won’t hurt so much… Maybe your arm, or the inside of your calf?”

E non mi pesa, la lunga attesa.

“Yeah, and never wear short sleeves or shorts again for the rest of my life,” Konrad replies with a sardonic tone. He has never actually liked to wear short sleeves or shorts, but finds himself forced to think of something for the sake of argument. “Besides, I already know where I want it—right here, behind my right shoulder.” He cranes his arm to point at the specified area on his back.

Auster chuckles. “You’ve really thought this out, then…” He sighs, puts his glass on the coffee table, and smiles again. “Although… I thought you’d be a bit more daring than that.”

Konrad smirks. “Like how?”

A lazy grin spreads across his face. “Like me.”

He’s drunk. He’s obviously drunk, and Konrad knows this better than anyone—he seems far too eager to show off his own three-star. Still, his mind is too muddled by the alcohol from before to think of doing anything other than indulging his senior. His smirk grows sharper. “Oh?”

Auster laughs again and scoots around so that his back is facing Konrad; his tilts his head ever-so-slightly down to his chest, shifting his hair so that the row of black stars on his neck is clearly visible.

It isn’t the first time Konrad has seen Auster’s three-star; he saw it the first day they met. But it is the first time Auster has shown it to him—in all likelihood, it could be the first time Auster has shown it to anyone.

Auster says something, but the Italian voice suddenly floods Konrad’s senses and he can no longer hear him. Auster’s collar is loose, and Konrad has never seen his neck look so bare. The senior agent’s skin has never looked so soft, nor so vulnerable.

Chi sarà? Chi sarà?

Heat rises in his belly. The sight almost beckons him.

He doesn’t give his actions another thought. It’s been too long, and he wants this too badly. He leans forward, pressing his lips against Auster’s three-star.

E come sarà giunto…

Konrad doesn’t even realize his arms are wrapped around his chest until Auster takes them in his own and softly strokes his wrists.

Che dirà? Che dirà?

“Auster?”

Before Konrad can detect even a hint of motion, Auster has him pinned to the floor.

But there is no ferocity in the movement—only the lithe, fluid grace of an expert assassin. Auster stares down at him with cold, glassy eyes.

“Call me ‘sir.’”

At first, Konrad is too startled by the sudden turnabout to move a muscle. Then he realizes that his senior has given him an order. He swallows nervously. “Y—Yes, sir.”

Auster lingers for a moment longer before swiftly getting to his feet and pacing away. His steady, decisive movements display no drunken awkwardness, and Konrad foolishly realizes that he may have fallen into another trap.

“The code. Do you remember it?”

Konrad flinches at his tone. “Which part?”

Auster does not even turn to look at him. “You should know which part, but, if need be, I’ll give you a summary: ‘under no circumstances must any active agent have any filial or other significant relations, in case of severe injury, incapacitation, or death.’” He pauses. “You and I swore to the same oath, whether it was a year old or fifty years old. There are no exceptions.”

A painful silence passes between them.

Un po’ per celia…

“Was this another one of your tests?”

Auster finally turns to look at him. To Konrad’s surprise, he almost looks wounded.

E un po’ per non morire…

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

Konrad hesitates. “But… It doesn’t have to be like that, does it?”

All signs of weakness vanish from his senior’s face. “What do you mean?”

He doesn’t want this to happen. He doesn’t want it to end like this. He doesn’t know what he wants, but he knows that if he succumbs to whatever his heart is telling him then it’ll all be over. He doesn’t know what ‘it’ is—but his fear of losing it is too great for him to take.

Konrad chews his lip and looks away thoughtfully. “Well… ‘Significant’ relations… It’s not like I’m in love with you, or anything. I just… You know…” He fidgets, doing his best to seem embarrassed when in reality he feels like he’s being crushed. “It’s been a long time.”

It feels like an eternity before Auster finally answers.

Tutto questo avverrà, te lo prometto.

“Yeah, I know the feeling.” He stretches out a hand to Konrad, still on the floor. A warm smile comes to his face. “To be honest, I was hoping for the same kind of arrangement.”

Tienti la tua paura, io con sicura fede l’aspetto.

The Italian voice soars and climaxes as Konrad takes his senior’s hand and follows him into the bedroom. It fades into silence, leaving him alone with the weight of his decision and the unbearable truth in his heart.

From that point on, the relationship between Konrad and his senior continued in this way.

Konrad was fairly sure that they had to be breaking some rule, but Auster justified their actions by saying it was simply practical: it was only natural for men to release their tensions in such a way, and he was only being responsible by keeping it within the tenets of Orion. It was a thing of pragmatism, never affection, for great affection—more importantly, love—was what determined whether a relation was significant or insignificant.

It was pragmatic. It was never love, no matter how much Konrad looked forward to the time they spent together, no matter how desolate he felt when they were apart for any great length of time. That was what Auster told him, and that was what he told himself—if he believed anything else, he felt like he would surely die.

And despite all this, he couldn’t fathom why it still felt like he was dying every day.

In his last sexual relationship, he wanted desperately to believe that he was in love and being loved. Now that he wanted desperately to believe that he was in anything but love, his mind was full of more doubt than ever before. To make things worse, the new turn in their relationship made Auster even more difficult to read.

Konrad’s thoughts were constantly consumed with his senior. He didn’t know if he had ever studied him more carefully. He watched Auster’s every movement and gave all of his words due consideration, searching for even the slightest hint that he was having the same doubts. But he found none. Auster was known for never showing such doubt, let alone any type of weakness.

Once, when Konrad had worked up enough nerve, he dared to ask if Auster had ever taken a real lover, before he joined Orion.

Auster had answered him with a long, inscrutable stare. He told him that he had never had need for such a thing, and left the matter at that.

But on the cold nights they spent in each other’s company, when Konrad was too tired, too drunk, or simply didn’t feel like going back to his own flat, Auster would sometimes hold him too close for pragmatism—and Konrad wondered if, maybe, his senior wasn’t being entirely truthful with himself, either.

This thought was all that kept Konrad’s heart from breaking entirely.


V. Strength

The years continued to pass. Konrad became more distinguished as an agent, to the point where many saw him as nearly Auster’s equal. But Auster always held the same position in Konrad’s eyes, both on duty and off, and they continued to maintain their pragmatic relationship.

Un bel dì, vedremo…

Konrad lies on the couch in Auster’s flat, resting his head in his senior’s lap while a familiar voice washes over him. He must’ve heard this aria a thousand times—it’s one of Auster’s favorites—but he doesn’t complain. It’s one of the few days they have off together, and they both need the time to wind down.

He has heard this opera many times, but he has never known the story until now. Auster narrates for him, occasionally translates a line or two, and sometimes falls silent, allowing the voices to sing for themselves.

Konrad loves to hear him speak. The deep, velvet tone of his voice keeps him rooted in awareness, aware enough to feel the emotion behind every note. It all seems more real to him than it ever has before.

“One beautiful day, we will see,” Auster echoes, “a strand of white smoke, over the far horizon of the sea…”

Konrad listens to his purr of a voice, a strange mirror to the record’s soprano. “What is she singing?”

“A dream,” he replies. “She is saying what will happen when Pinkerton finally returns for her.”

Konrad pauses. “Does he return for her?”

To that, Auster says nothing.

Konrad sighs, annoyed. Something still bothered him. “I don’t get it.”

“Hm?”

“Suzuki, and Sharpless—they’re the only ones who make any sense in this opera,” he mutters. “Why doesn’t Ciocio just listen to them? Does she really believe he’s going to come back for her?”

“Why shouldn’t she?” Auster muses. “She loves him. She doesn’t need any other reason to believe him than that.”

“How stupid.” Konrad doesn’t know if he’s ever heard anything more stupid. “She’s thrown away her entire life for this guy, who doesn’t even take the whole thing seriously. She doesn’t even know if he’ll come back at all.”

“She believes,” Auster says simply, “and for her that is enough. She’ll wait until the end of days if need be, as long as she still has faith in his return.”

Konrad frowns. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t like it. “She shouldn’t waste the rest of her life like that. She should find someone else—she should make a better life for herself.”

Auster sighs. “Like Vladimir and Estragon… As long as she waits, she is paralyzed. Her life is miserable now, but she’ll find joy when he returns. To think of doing anything else is far too frightening… So she waits.”

“But why?” It frustrates him. “Why can’t she see the situation she’s in? Can’t she just…take a risk? I mean, so what if it’s frightening? If her life will be better for it, then why can’t she move on instead of waiting all the time?”

Auster looks down at him, slightly tilting his head. “Why? Why don’t you try asking yourself that? It’s harder than you think.”

Konrad opens his mouth to argue, but falters. He thinks. The longer he thinks on it, the more he remembers—and the more he sees of himself.

“Why…”

No, he quickly tells himself, it’s impossible. He’s much stronger than that, isn’t he? He would never waste his life waiting for good fortune to come to him, instead of finding it for himself—

He stops, and realizes he is only lying to himself. Waiting is the only thing he has ever done in his entire life. He was never strong enough to do anything else.

The truth seems to crash upon him, completely overtaking his senses.

As far back as he can recall, Konrad has only cried three times in his life: the first, when he realized the nature of his first love; the second, when his relationship with his senior became one of mere pragmatism; and the third, when he finally saw himself for what he really was.

It had taken many years, but the day he finally discovered why his life had always felt so empty was one he would never forget.

Naturally it changed him, more thoroughly than any other revelation in his life ever had. He never wanted to be so weak—he had to become stronger. He resolved to always find his own fortune, or make it himself; he would never rely on any windfall ever again.

In doing so, he chose to discard his former identity: “just Konrad.” He wanted to make his newfound strength known, and to do so he could no longer be “just Konrad.” Therefore he adopted another name that he would be remembered for—and thus, “just Konrad” became forever after Konrad Sharpless.
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