There were two friends who had both realised that happiness was fleeting, and the true condition of humanity was sorrow.

"If I am ever happy, truly happy," said one, "shoot me in the back of the head. I want to die happy and I don't want to leave this to chance."

The other friend nodded in agreement.

"If you will do the same for me."

# # #

It soon became a competition between them. They both understood, but neither acknowledged, the sorry lot that would await the surviving friend.

It became a race.

But happiness is never further away than when you are racing, desperately, to reach it.

And so neither friend did, until many years had passed, and their youthful agreement had long been forgotten.

# # #

The first friend, the author of their covenant, fell in love.

He fell madly, desperately in love, in the way only those who so zealously deny love's very existence can.

# # #

One night, the two friends sat up late, drinking.

"We've not had the happiest of lives, the two of us," said the second friend. "But you really seem happy. It's good to see you like this."

"Thank you," friend number one replied. "And you're right. I am happy. I'm truly happy."

As soon as he uttered those words, he remembered, and felt them his death sentence. But his friend, if he remembered too, showed no signs of doing so.

Nevertheless, his happiness was tainted. Now, around his friend, he was on his guard. He was wary.

# # #

He got over it, of course. Soon enough it became apparent that his life was not in danger. His friend was no assassin.

Whether this was through forgetfulness or a change of heart, he did not know, but he preferred to assume the latter.

He was in love. He laughed at his young self. The idea that this happiness was anything but permanent was ridiculous.

# # #

One day he broached the subject.

"You remember the pact we made?"

His friend looked at him uncomprehendingly.

"We said - we promised - that if either of us became happy, the other would kill him. So he could die happy. I want to thank you for breaking that promise."

Remembering, his friend laughed it off.

"We were young - we said a lot of foolish things. I'm glad you've found happiness - here, let's drink to it!"

# # #

Sadly, this story is just as dumbly predictable as real life. The great love of friend number one lost interest, and his heart was broken.

# # #

Pure and terrible emotion raged within him. Memories tormented him. Soon, something peculiarly bitter took seed.

# # #

And so the first friend confronted the second.

"Why didn't you keep your promise? I was happy, I was truly happy, and now I know such unhappiness as I did not even imagine could exist."

"I'm sorry," the second friend replied. He was as sad to see his friend like this as he had been glad to see him happy. He did not know what else to say.

"I accept your apology," the first friend bitterly replied. "And don't worry, I won't fail you in the same way."

# # #

The first friend stuck by his promise with a grim persistence fed by malice. Ever alert, he watched his friend for the faintest glimmer, the tiniest stirring of happiness.

Silently, he willed happiness upon him, so that he could diligently carry out his promise.

The second friend, in turn, shied away from happiness. He denied himself all pleasures. He punished himself terribly for his moments of weakness.

He became, in a word, a Catholic.

For this cowardly renunciation of happiness the first friend despised him even more. He had betrayed their young selves. He was wretched, a traitor.

"Why cling to your life if this is it?" he asked.

The second friend had no answer.

# # #

In this way the two friends grew old.

"happiness" 96L, 3697C