Well, here it is. Finally. Yes, I know how long I have been
promising this story. There comes a point where you have to
decide it's time to stop trying to fine tune and just let the
sucker loose. Well, I think this one has reached that stage.

An extensive Author's Afterword follows, so most of the pre-story
comments you'd expect to find here are actually way back there.
But before going any further, I do have a few things to mention:

1) This entry is the first of a sequence of three or four (I
haven't decided which) very interrelated stories. Therefore,
there will be a few threads that aren't followed up on in this
outing, but are instead meant to set up developments later on.

2) SPOILER WARNING #1. This story contains a MAJOR spoiler for
the anime OAV series Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket. If you have
not seen this series and don't want to know how it ends (it's
supposed to run on Cartoon Network sometime this year), DO NOT
the entire series for you.

3) SPOILER WARNING #2. There is also a spoiler for the end of
this year's season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. By this time
anyone who actually cares probably already knows what the spoiler
I'm talking about is, but if you still don't know and don't want
too have been forewarned.

All others, read on. The usual C&C would be much appreciated,
but flamers will get an airstrike called upon their position. If
anyone wants to MST this work, give me an email first before
going ahead; I probably won't object, but I do like to know who
I'm being mocked by. :-)



Friendly Hopes
(The Question, pt. III)
A This Time Round: To Die For fiction


Blackness. Slate-black, clear as obsidian.

The Great Beyond.

If there was one thing he really hated about the afterlife, Adric
observed, it was the fact that it always seemed to come up with
something new to make existence truly annoying to those that
chose to stick around. Or not, as the case may be.

His usual agent hadn't been there after he'd expired. Instead,
some mummified flunky of indeterminate gender and with bandages
hanging in strips (not to mention the odd bone protruding from
its shoulder) had directed him to the dead pool, where the
recently deceased were being corralled for processing. Meaning
another irritating delay while he waited to be processed out and
back to the world. And to make matters worse, the undead
underlings were agitating again, unhappy that the negotiations on
their new contract weren't going the way they wanted them to.
Ever since Jimmy Hoffa had gotten sent there, he'd heard more
than one complaining entity remark, there'd been no end of

It must be a prompting mechanism, Adric surmised to himself as he
waited in line. Meant to persuade those that can't go back that
sticking around wasn't all that great either, and maybe it was
better to just Walk Into the Light and take your chances with
whatever came next. Of course, just because you had the ability
to go back to the Land of the Living didn't always mean you had
to, as he had on more than one occasion contemplated. But yet,
he still found himself hanging on, still willing to exchange the
punch of a card for another go at life. For whatever reason.
Although lately, he'd begun to wonder what the point truly was

There was a tap at his shoulder from behind, and Adric turned to
its source.

A young man stood behind him -- about his age, maybe a year or
two older. Short, sandy hair, red jacket, beige shirt and
slacks. He had the lean, slightly haunted, sorrowed look of a
worn soldier, but otherwise didn't seem that much out of the
ordinary. He looked at Adric with curiosity, as if searching his
memory and failing to find where the Alzarian was placed. "Uh,
what's going on?" he asked, hesitantly. "Do you know what's
taking them so long to process us?"

Adric nodded, and pointed to one of the zombies whose duty it was
to corral the non-living. "Labor dispute, I should think.
They're in negotiations and the union doesn't much like how it's
going, so they've decided on a work slowdown to make their

The young man looked uncertainly at Adric, trying to determine if
the other was putting him on or not. "Labor dispute? _Here_?"

Adric nodded. "Welcome to the afterlife. Not only is it not
what you expect, but it's a lot less than you can expect."

The other young man shook his head and looked around him. "I'll
say. No clouds, no pearly gates, not even pitchforks and burning
sulphur." He sighed. "It's almost a little disappointing."

"Yes, well, perhaps that comes afterwards. If you choose not to
stick around and just walk into the Light -- like they really
want you to, but can't make you -- maybe that's what you'll find
on the other side."

"Walk into the Light?" the other asked, uncertainly.

"Yeah. It's supposed to be the entranceway for whatever happens
next. No one really knows what happens when you do it, just that
when you do you never come back. Ever. At least, if anyone
does, not with any memories." Adric smirked. "Maybe that's
where you'll find your Pearly Gate and clouds," he suggested.

"Yeah, right." The young man guffawed. "With my luck I'll get
Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here."

"Or there could just be nothing. That's another of the theories
running about around here."

"Nothing?" the young man asked, uncertainly.

"Yes, nothing." Adric reiterated. "Complete, conscious less,
_eternal_ nothing."

The young man gulped, as the realization sunk in. "Oh."

The line began to move, and the two slowly shuffled forward.

The young man nervously thrust his hand toward Adric. "Um, I
don't think I've actually introduced myself. My name is Wiseman.

Bernard Wiseman, but you can call me Bernie."

Adric took the other's hand and shook. "Adric," he said, "just
Adric. No last name."

Bernie looked at him, confused. "Huh? What do you mean by...?"

"They wouldn't give me one." Adric said, distastefully. "About
the closest they ever got was noting where I came from. Really
annoying to have to explain every time I need to get an ID card
or something."

Bernie nodded, confused, not knowing who 'they' happened to be,
but pretending to understand what it was the other was talking
about. Not that it made it any more clear.

The line stopped moving, and Bernie turned around to look in the
far reaches of the corral area, where other recently arrived
members of the newly departed set were joining the line. After a
few moments of this, he stopped with a sigh and returned to his
new found friend. "Sorry," he mumbled apologetically, "Just...
looking for someone."

"No problem." Adric nodded, not quite comprehending, but
understanding the general sentiment.

Bernie looked him over once more, with a gaze that thought he
were still uncertain about something. "Um, Adric... pardon me
for asking, but is that some kind of Zeon uniform you're

Adric gave him a short, guttural laugh as he glanced down at his
infamous yellow tunic and green-sleeved monstrosity, the blue
star still dangling from its place at the red pocket. "You know,
I never noticed it before, but I guess my outfit does look
something like a Zeon soldier's uniform. A bit on the loose
side, I suppose, but the colors are close... but no, I'm not
Zeon, not by a long shot."

"Oh." Bernie said, in a voice that didn't sound like
disappointment, but yet managed to convey some kind of regret. "I
noticed some Fed pilots elsewhere in the line, but I was hoping
to see..." He let the sentence trail off, unfinished.

"The Powers That Be like to mix groups up for processing. Don't
ask me why, they just do. Sometimes not even caring what time
periods or universes they take them from."

Bernie looked confused. "Universes?"

"Uh huh. Universes. There's more than one, you know. I take it
from your mention of the Zeon that you're from one of the
Universe Century universes, am I correct? Zeon? Federation?
Gundam Mobile Suits? That sort of thing?" Adric noted a sharp
twitch at the mention of 'Gundam', but set it aside.

"Uh, yeah." Bernie said, uncertainly.

"Ok, well over there," (Adric pointed to a group of
black-uniformed soldiers talking among themselves) "those guys
are from a similar universe to yours, but their time system
counts from something called 'After Colony' rather than your
'Universe Century'. That universe has colonies and mobile suits,
like yours, but the political situation and the principal figures
are all different."

Bernie looked at them for just a moment, then tore his eyes away.

"So, in other words, everyone here is mixed in from wherever, and
not everyone is from the same place or even time, correct?"

"More or less."

"Oh. Wonderful." Bernie said this last without the least bit of
enthusiasm for the news. "So, the odds of actually meeting
someone you know are..."

"Unless they actually came in with you, practically nil."

Bernie took that bit of news heavily, but started to examine the
young Alzarian carefully. "You seem to know quite a bit about
what goes on here." Bernie observed.

Adric shrugged. "Well, I've been hanging around for some time."
he said, vaguely. He decided at that moment not to mention the
Mortality Deferment Card in his pocket; some of the single-lifers
took exception to those lucky enough to have passes back to the
living world, and Adric's survival instincts told him fervently
that all-in-all it was better not to advertise his possession of

"So, if you're not from my universe, how come you know so much
about it?" The question was asked more with curiosity than

"Oh. Friends." Adric responded, vaguely. Blithely, he supposed
that mentioning offhand the fact that he'd occasionally played
poker at Ucchan's with Amuro Ray or Bright Noah was probably not
the best move at this moment, especially considering that he was
beginning to suspect that they and Bernie probably hadn't been on
the same side in that particular fracas.

"Must be some friends."

"You'd be surprised."

The line began to shuffle some more. And just as assuredly the
moment some space was created at line's end, more shades arrived
to take up the vacuum left behind. Bernie looked them over, but
with decidedly less enthusiasm than he had before. For a moment
he seemed to look depressed, deflated, staring intently at what
passed for floor thereabouts. Then he lifted his head.

"So, what brought you to the hereafter?" Bernie asked, in his
best small-talk voice.

Adric grimaced. "Girl trouble."

Bernie actually perked up when he heard that. "Girl trouble?"

"Uh huh." Adric said, bringing to mind the events of the final
hours of his most recent shift at This Time Round. "I sort of,
um, got in the crossfire between two equal but opposite

Bernie laughed. "Both fighting over you?"

Adric shook his head. "Well, you see, that's the funny part. I
think one was actually fighting for me, but if that were the case
I don't understand why the other even bothered."

Bernie grinned. "Perhaps because she's more interested than you

"Not this one. Trust me on this, she wouldn't care one way or
the other."

"So you say." Bernie flashed him a lopsided smirk.

The line began to move once more, and again they shuffled along.

"Did you like either of them?" Bernie asked.

Adric gulped. How to explain the intricacies of his current
personal life, he wondered, in as clear a picture as possible,
without all of the confusion. Especially his. "Err, umm,
yeah... I don't know, I guess so." he said, unconvincingly.

But something in his voice perhaps betrayed more than his answer,
because Bernie's next questions were: "Did you tell her that?
Either of them? Before you died?"

Adric shook his head glumly, but said nothing.

"Bad move." Bernie whispered.

As if to underscore something, the Zeon soldier looked back up
toward the back area, searching again in the faces of the
newcomers. The line stopped moving, and for a moment each stood
there, wrapped in their own thoughts.

"That was my mistake, you know." Bernie whispered, with
melancholy in his voice. "I never told her. Even though I'm
sure she was interested, even though I think she wanted to hear

"I'm sorry to hear that." Adric said, and found he meant it. "Was
she... a friend?"

Bernie smirked. "Technically, an enemy. A Feddie mobile suit

One of Adric's eyebrows arched. "A Fed? I thought you were..."

Bernie snorted a short, humorless laugh. "I told her I was in
the army. I just didn't tell her which one."

"Oh. That must have been... interesting." Adric said.

"'Interesting' isn't the word for it. I didn't even find out
until, um, afterwards." Bernie responded, then with an ironic
sigh, said: "She killed me."

Adric's other eyebrow shot up, but if Bernie noticed the other
young man didn't show it. "K...killed you?" the Alzarian

Bernie nodded, humorlessly. "Yeah. We ended going up against
each other, not knowing who was in the other mobile suit." He
shook his head, still unable to believe what had happened. "As
far as she knew I was just another Zack pilot, and as far as I
knew, I was just fighting a Gundam. So we blasted each other to
bits, blew our 'suits to kingdom come, and..."

"And you got killed."


"Did she...?"

Bernie shook his head. "No, thank goodness. I hung around
spectrally long enough to hear the EMS guys say she'd pull
through, then my shade got yanked and I wound up here." Pause.
"Good thing, too. I'd probably hate things even more if I had
killed her."

Adric indicated the back of the line. "Then who are you
looking..." he began, but then thought better of it. "I'm sorry,
I just assumed..." he apologized.

Bernie waved the apology aside. "Don't sweat it. Yeah, I keep
looking back there, seeing if she's right behind. I know, it's
selfish of me. I'd rather she were back out there, enjoying
everything life has to offer. Not here, not waiting around for
eternity." He sighed once more. "But that still doesn't mean I
don't keep wishing, keep hoping she'll walk through that
entranceway, just so I'll finally have a chance to say what I
wanted to back there."

Both young men stared at the floor, each lost in their separate

"Do you know what the hardest part is?" Bernie declared

"What?" Adric asked, curiously, turning again to the other.

The fair-haired boy's voice was barely a whisper now, his eyes
with a pained, far-away look on them. "She'll never know." he
said, as if it were the greatest secret ever divulged. And for
him, Adric realized, it might very well have been.

Adric stared as the young man continued.

"She'll never know." Bernie repeated. "Time will go on, and
she'll forget I even existed. She won't know that this crazy guy
who lived next door to her for a few weeks actually cared for
her, really did care. Cared enough at any rate to do what he
thought would save her, her family, her friends, regardless of
the consequences. Cared enough... to want to sacrifice his life,
so that they might have one."

Bernie coughed, but Adric continued to silently stare at him.

"She'll go on, find someone else, maybe vaguely remember that I
was there, but probably not. Not recalling, not knowing what I
did, what I was prepared to do. You know, I can take dying. I
was a mobile suit pilot, after all. A Zack pilot, cannon fodder
for the glory of Zeon. You get trained knowing that the moment
you strap yourself in, you spins the wheel and you takes your
chances. But this..." he shook his head once more, in palpable,
frustrated sorrow. "To be forgotten, to know that you probably
won't even be remembered by someone you wanted to be close to...
I think that hurts more than any of this."

Adric felt his mouth go slightly agape, but Bernie proceeded to
not notice his companion's expression.

"I just wish.... I just wish I'd had the sense to say something,
anything, when I had the chance. Nothing much, just enough to
confirm what we were both thinking. That way, at least she'd
know. I could accept that, even accept that she had no choice
but to kill me. At least that way, maybe she would think about
me from time to time, wonder what might have been. But now, now
I won't even get that."

Bernie made one last, painful, sorrowful sigh.

"I'm sorry," Bernie said finally. "I didn't mean to unload on
you like that."

Adric shuddered, as if coming out of a trance. "Um, no... No,
that's quite all right. Obviously, umm, you needed to get it off
your chest... uh..."

Bernie shrugged. "Yeah, I guess I did. I guess I did at that.
If I can't tell her, at least I can tell someone." He smirked.
"Not that it'll do any good now..."

"You never know." Adric pointed out, soothingly. "Maybe, umm,
maybe sometime she'll turn up and, umm, you can..."

"Yeah, maybe." Bernie agreed, without any real conviction. "Maybe
I will at that."

Both young men went back to staring at the thousand yards that
weren't there.

"What about you?" Bernie asked, hesitantly. "Do you regret..."

A soft, melodious voice sounded, and both young men looked up
startled, surprised. "Your punchcard, please." the voice asked,
helpfully, to Adric.

The voice belonged to a strikingly beautiful woman in a slinky,
black dress, who in turn stood before them with all of eternity
yawning behind. Both of the young men looked around, stunned,
surprised that they had somehow reached the front of the line
while deep in their conversation. But yet, there they were, the
next to be processed.

The young woman held out her hand toward Adric. The fingers were
long, almost bony, but at least they appeared to have some skin
on them. Reluctantly, Adric reached into his pocket, pulled out
the slip of paper with the almost microscopically small numbers
printed on it, and wordlessly handed it over. The woman took it
without comment, theatrically produced a hole puncher from out of
thin air, and snapped off another digit from the card. She
handed it back, and gave him a little smile as she did so. "Well,
that's that. Off you go, then."

Adric looked sheepishly at Bernie. The other young man didn't
seem too perturbed about finding out what his new friend had
possessed -- indeed, Bernie looked as if he had already guessed
what the purpose of the card was, and it's powers. But the
revelation didn't seem to faze him; if anything, it seemed to
lift the young Zeon's spirits slightly.

Adric turned to the woman. There was something, after all, that
was bothering him. "Um, just one question, please." he asked.
"Do you have any idea when He'll be back?"

"Probably later." Death said, confidently. "I understand He's
just on some business elsewhere."

Adric sighed in relief. For some reason, he felt most
uncomfortable whenever he had to deal with someone other than his
assigned agent. Considering his past experiences with temporary
stand-ins, it was no wonder. Still, this one seemed a pleasant
sort. A far cry from that last temp agent he'd had to deal with.

"Good. No disrespect, but... I sort of prefer my regular guy."

Death nodded understandingly. "Most of the repeat customers do.
I suppose when you've reached the end, its nice to see a familiar
face on the other side to help things along." The woman smiled
again. "Which reminds me. Say hello to the Doctor for me when
you get back over. He's one of my regulars."

"Will do." The Alzarian responded, nodding once more. "Thanks."
And with that, he turned again towards his new found friend. "Er,
it looks like I have to go now." Adric held out his hand. "Good

"Good luck to you too." Bernie said, taking the hand with a
thoughtful smile.

Adric nodded, let go, and regretfully turned away. But as he did
so, Bernie spoke.

"Hey, Adric!"

Adric stopped, and faced Bernie one last time. "Yeah?"

For a moment there was an insightful look on the other's face,
then he said: "Remember what I told you. Don't make the same

Adric smirked, then nodded in acknowledgment. "I'll remember."
he promised, then stepped forward into the darkness... and

Death, who had been watching the exchange intently, stood there
silently as Bernie marshaled his thoughts. When it appeared the
young man was finished, she spoke to him. "Have you decided

Bernie nodded. Somehow, he didn't need to have his options
explained to him, now. Somehow, he already knew what they were.
"I want... I want whatever comes next." he told her, firmly. "I'd
rather not stick around. I just want to move on, go with
whatever plans you have for me."

Death looked at him, coolly. "Is that your final decision?" she
asked, observing the rule even though she already knew what his
answer would be.

Bernie nodded. "Yes. Yes, it is."

A tall, bright column of light suddenly appeared behind her. With
a flourish, she stepped aside to allow him a clear path to it.

Bernie gulped, but resolutely stepped forward into the light...

No one else was there to see what happened next. Not even those
in line behind, even though the nearest still stood obliviously
directly beside him, wondering when it would be their turn. Only
Death saw, and even then only a glimpse. After this point, after
all, it wasn't any of her business.

But yet, she liked to think that she'd seen and heard correctly,
before the light faded away and took with it one Bernard Wiseman,
late of the Zeon Mobile Suit Corps. A flash of long, red hair,
followed by the startled, surprised, and distant cry of "Chris?"
in Bernie's voice, before the light faded completely.

Yes, Death thought, that would be the most appropriate. For

Part Two - Part Three - Part Four - Part Five - Part Six

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