1. Don't Ask

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Aled Rhys slammed the door shut and flung himself into the chair in front of his desk, without even bothering to take off his uniform. It couldn't possibly be true, could it? Surely Mason had been kidding, trying to wind him up. He had to get online as soon as possible and find out for himself.

His hands were shaking as he opened his laptop and waited for it to power up.

His stupid phone had picked the worst time to go flat on him but on second thoughts, perhaps it was better to find out the truth here, in the privacy of his own bedroom, away from gloating eyes waiting to see him fall flat on his face. The Google search page opened on his screen and suddenly Aled hesitated, his hand gripping the mouse. His heart was pounding and his stomach was churning. His forehead was clammy. He felt sick, sick with dread that Mason might have—just possibly—been telling the truth. So many successes had been wound back lately, so many achievements, fought for with blood and tears, demolished in the blink of one man's eye as if they had never been.

Motionless, he stared at the screen, his mind going back to that glorious day in September 2011.

Buoyed up with exhilaration, he had walked in to the common room to find Jim Mason and Brian Gilbert mucking about, talking in high-pitched voices and prancing around the room with one hand on their hips.

"Who's a pretty boy then?" tittered Gilbert.

"Ooh I do love a man in uniform!" Mason had replied with a stupid grin.

"Knock it off, guys," Aled had said, as mildly as he could. "Some people might find that offensive. Haven't you heard? The law's been passed. Gays and lesbians are to be treated the same as everyone else."

"That's just bullshit, Lieutenant!" said Gilbert, his face reddening. "I'd like to see them try and put a gay soldier in our unit!" He smacked a fist into his palm. "They wouldn't last long, I can tell you!"

Aled had decided previously he would be wise to keep his mouth shut, wait a few weeks to let the news settle and see how the land lay, but suddenly he'd had enough.

"I've got news for you all. You've already got a gay soldier in the squad," announced Aled clearly. "I'm gay."

Aled could still remember the looks of frozen horror on his team's faces.

The words had just burst out of him of their own accord. He couldn't regret them though. All those years of lying and pretending were finally over. It was if a huge weight had been lifted. Times had changed and his men would just have to get used to it.

He came back to the present, blinking at the screen saver on his laptop. It had taken time, time and patience, but he thought he could honestly say that most of his team now couldn't care less that he was gay. With the exception of Mason. Mason had never forgiven him.

"Have you heard the news, sir?" Mason had asked him that very afternoon, a sly grin on his face. "I hear they're looking at changing the law again. They're going to ban all homosexuals from serving in the military. Bring back the good old days."

Aled had been unable to reply sensibly, gutted by the expression of gloating satisfaction on Mason's face. He had murmured something along the lines of "We'll have to see about that," before walking off.

Now he was home, in front of his computer, paralysed with dread. They couldn't really turn the clock back thirty years, could they?

He took a deep breath and rolled his shoulders. Mason had been lying, he was certain. A law like that would never get through, even if some troglodyte was talking about it.

He brought up his favourite news site.

"LGBTQ community up in arms!" screamed the headline. "Speaking at an LGBTQI rally today, Andrew Thompson, Secretary of the Rainbow Alliance, labelled the proposed 'Military Personnel Protection Bill' a blatant attack on the rights of LGBTQI citizens....

Unable to believe his eyes, Aled kept reading. "Serving personnel have the right to be protected from unwelcome advances, says Senator Vickery..."

He closed his eyes and rested his head on his hands. The same old fears and prejudices were being trotted out as if they were facts. Hadn't the world made any progress this century? Was it always going to be two steps forward and three steps back for the LGBTQI community? He didn't know whether to weep or swear.

Wasn't there somewhere in this damn world where all people were treated with respect and not discriminated against?

Abruptly he stood up and went out to the kitchen to pour himself a stiff drink. He swallowed the drink in three gulps and poured himself another. He supposed he should at least finish reading the wretched article, then search for a copy of the bill in question.

Know thy enemy and all that.

Carrying the glass, he returned to his desk and sat down. He took another gulp of whisky, put the glass down and then proceeded to knock it to the floor with his left elbow. It splashed his leg on the way down and rolled under the desk.

"Shit!" Aled swore and got down on hands and knees to search for the glass. Where had it gone? It was dark under the desk but he should have been able to feel it even if he couldn't see it. Fuck this! Aled took out his frustration by hauling the desk toward him, away from the wall into the middle of the room.

What the—?

His bedroom wall had a huge black hole right in the middle of it. Was someone spying on him now? How long had this been here? Why in heaven's name hadn't he seen it before? He glanced back at his desk and realised the bookshelf attached to the top would have hidden the hole from sight.

He stared wide-eyed at the hole in his wall. It was pitch black, no sign of light on the other side. By all rights, he should be looking into his neighbour's apartment, but he could see nothing. Nothing at all. Suddenly, he laughed at himself in shaky relief. Of course! It was a trick! Someone had painted a black circle there as a joke, a ... what did they call it? A trompe l'oeil, a French term meaning "deceive the eye."

He reached forward to tap the circle with his fingers.


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