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the stars are the only thing we share

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Xion was nearly dead on his feet by the end of his shift. His boss had taken advantage of the fact that he didn’t have any class that day by scheduling him to open the diner and stay til the dinner rush. It pays for school, Xion. He reminded himself. Steeling his nerves as the diner was once more flooded with people, he noted that the majority was boys in recognizable Army green uniforms. He gritted his teeth and made the rounds, weathering the the judgemental and jealous looks he received. Xion was well aware of what they were thinking. Why isn’t he going instead of me. He’d asked himself the same question a million times ever since the draft was announced. But his mother had insisted that he go to college and sent him as far from his father and his reach as possible and pulled strings with an old friend to ensure he got a job once enrolled. He was well aware of just how lucky he was, and made sure to complain as little as possible. After all, just looking around the diner proved it could always be worse.

“Good evening and welcome to Phryane’s, what can I get for you?”

The poor boy sitting in the booth looked like a deer in the headlights. He clearly hadn’t expected anyone to talk to him so soon, so Xion offered him an encouraging smile. “Promise I don’t bite. Just here to take your order.”

“Pancakes, please. And hashbrowns. A pot of coffee, too. If you can I mean.”

Xion raised an eyebrow at the boy. He was scrawny and barely looked old enough to be in his uniform. “A whole pot of coffee? You are aware this is the dinner rush right?”

That made him shrink back into himself. “Yeah I know.”

“Didn’t mean anything by it. I’ll have that out for you in a jiffy, be right back.”

Xion took the orders back to the kitchen and waited for trays to be put up. As he distributed everyone’s food, he noticed Breakfast Boy watching him when he thought he wasn’t looking. It was odd, but a little funny, so Xion gave him a little wave as he passed him again. Eventually Breakfast’s order was ready and he gingerly set down the pot of coffee and the plate in front of him.

“Thank you so much. Hey, um, would you like to sit with? I’m all alone here and it would be nice to have someone to talk with. Just for a minute or so?”

“Oh. Um. Look I’d love to, but it I sit down my manager might actually kill me and hide the body.” The boy looked crestfallen and Xion looked over his shoulder at the clock hanging above the jukebox. “But hey, my shift ends in 45 minutes. If you’d like, as soon as I get off, I’ll take you to somewhere we could really talk. You don’t leave ‘til tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, that’s right. I don’t mind waiting.”

“Super. I’ll see you in 45, coffee boy.”

“Bye.”

After that, time seemed to fly. The steady influx of business kept him on his toes, but Xion felt nothing but impatience. It seemed like the time to punch out would never come. Even Caitlyn seemed to notice, as she gave him a curious look as she handed him a plate to take to the floor. All he could do was shrug and move on. Once the time had passed, Xion happily gathered all his things and motioned to Breakfast that it was time to leave. He stopped a short, but safe, distance from the diner to wait for the other boy to join him, and once he did, they got in Xion’s run-down car.

“So what’s your name, Breakfast?”

“I’m Pera Rivers. And you are?”

“Xion Praeten. Nice to meet you.”

“Same here. So where exactly are we going?”

“Down to the lake piers. Figured if it’s your last night stateside you’d want to be somewhere nice.”

“You sure this old clunker is gonna get us there?” There was a teasing lilt to Pera’s voice now that the shyness had melted away.

“What do you know about cars? This baby’s lasted me a long while, no need to be rude.”

“I may not know a whole lot about cars, but I know machinery. I’ve taken apart and repaired a tractor or two in my day.”

“You from the country then?”

“My family’s got a farm outside of town. I’m not quite a city slicker like you.”

“City slicker?” Xion laughed. “Why do you say that?”

“Something about you makes me think you couldn’t even handle camping for a night, let alone being on a farm.”

“You got me there. I didn’t like camping to begin with, but my brothers made it absolute torture for me. Not nature’s biggest fan by a ways. Anyway, we’re here.”

He parked a fair distance from the pier and they tumbled out of the car. Xion made sure to pull the box of leftovers Caitlyn had slipped him out of the backseat so he could finally eat. Pera was waiting for him near the end of the pier, one knee drawn up under his chin. When Xion plopped down next to him, he turned his head to the side to look at him.

“Guess they don’t let you eat at the diner then?”

“Depends on the night. But seeing as how I had plans on this particular evening, I chose not too.”

“Hope I’m not holding you up then.” He flashed him a crooked smile, and Xion felt his heart flutter for a moment. He busied himself with unpacking his food instead of responding. “You were right, by the way. This is a nice spot to be. How’d you come across it?”

 

“I was walking home from work one day and stumbled across it. It can be pretty busy in the summer, but some nights it’s still empty. Want a fry?”

“No thank you. I’m plenty full from dinner, but thank you for offering. So, you’re… you must be a student.”

And there it was.

“Yeah, I am. I moved here to go to school, I’m studying to be a historian.”

“Well it certainly is a time to be studying history.” There was that smile again. “You moved out here? Did you have any family in town?”

“No.”

“Oh.”

After a few moments of idle silence, Xion elaborated. “My family was… not the most loving or supportive. Of me or in general I suppose. I never lived up to the expectations my brothers had set, and I was already a little different, which was intolerable in my father’s eyes, so as soon as there was an opportunity, my mother got me away from the house and secured a job for me here so I could work my way through school. It was the best way to escape my father and the draft.”

“That’s… I’m sorry Xion.”

He shrugged and finished his dinner. “It is what it is.”

“I don’t know what I would’ve done without the support of my family. Especially my siblings. We’ve always been close-knit. I dunno. I would’ve been devastated if they didn’t accept me.”

“Do you have siblings then?”

“Yeah thr- two.” Pera noticeably tripped over the words, a pained grimace sliding quickly over his features before being replaced with practiced stoicism. “My sister Irene and then Phoenix.”

Xion’s eyebrows furrowed. “Is Phoenix your brother?”

“No.”

“You have two sisters then?”

“No.”

“I don’t-”

“I don’t, um, I don’t have any brothers. Phoenix is just my sibling. ”

“I didn’t realize that was an option. That’s… interesting?”

“Why, ‘cause we’re not in some big city or something? You’re not some closed minded jerk are you?”

“What? No!”

“Good. Because I might have to fight you, and you’re too pretty for that.”

Xion’s face flamed. “You think I’m pretty?”

“Oh goodness I shouldn’t have said that I’m sorry, I’ll just go. Thanks for the ride and-” Xion clasped one of Pera’s before he could get up and run off. Both boys froze at the sudden contact and Pera locked eyes with Xion.

“Please don’t go?” Hesitantly, Pera settled back down onto the pier, hand still being held. “I think you’re pretty too.”

Then Pera was blushing too and they both looked away. “The sunset is beautiful, with how it blends into the lake and everything.”

“Yeah I think so too. It’s the main reason I like to come out here after work. It’s so peacefully looking.” Xion looked back at Pera, watched him drink in the beauty of the setting sun. His heart ached at way the dying light caught in Pera’s curls. “So, how long are you supposed to be gone, anyway?”

That got him a deep sigh in response. “They say a year. Might be more, depending. I didn’t want to go if I could help it, but they pulled my name so what could I do?”

“I shouldn’t have- Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about your farm. You’ve got to have some entertaining stories there.”

At the invitation, Pera launched into an animated story of the escapades he and his neighbors got up to, including the story of how they accidentally stole a pig they affectionately named “Oinkers.” He told stories about summer days spent in the creek near his house and the barnyard cat who always seemed to be having kittens but since they kept rodents out of the feed, it was never too much of a problem. It was nearly eight o'clock before either of them realized how dark it had gotten. With great reluctance they piled back into Xion’s car and sat in silence for a moment.

“Pera-” “Xion-”

“Oh, sorry, you first.” “Oh geez you can go.”

They laughed sheepishly and Pera started to speak again. “Would it be alright if I wrote you letters while I’m gone? This was real nice and-”

“Yeah I’d like that a lot.” Xion said with a smile. “Let me write down the address for you.” He pulled a napkin and pen out of the center console and scribbled down his address on it for Pera.

“Thank you. Oh, um, you had something you wanted to say, didn’t you?”

“Yeah. Um. I’m just gonna, um…” Xion leaned in and quickly pecked Pera on the cheek before drawing away quickly. In the few moments between, his head raced with anxiety and uncertainties. What if he doesn’t reciprocate what if he didn’t want that what if he tells someone what if-

Pera gently pulled Xion’s face back towards his, breaking the litany of thoughts threatening to overtake him.

“Is this okay, Xion?”

Throat dry, he could only nod slightly as his eyes flicked from Pera’s lips to his eyes. Before he could hesitate any more, Xion closed the gap. They kissed like they had talked; easy and light and with a nervous energy underlying it all. The few thoughts Xion could pull together all led to one conclusion. Kissing Pera felt like sunlight. It was all the wonder of the sunset they’d just watched wrapped into this fleeting moment of contact and it was wonderful.

“...Wow.”

“We’ll have to do that again in a year.” Xion laughed at that and carded a hand through Pera’s hair.

“Or we could do it again right now and in a year.”

“You drive a hard bargain, but I think it could be arranged.”

Xion wasn’t sure who was smiling more when their lips met again.

Eventually Pera convinced Xion that yes he really did have to go report to base and they drove there with great reluctance. He pulled up a few yards short of the entrance and put the car in park before looking at Pera, drinking in the sight of him.

“Don’t forget my letters, soldier boy.”

“I could never. Got your letter right here with me.” Pera ducked in for one last kiss before finally resigning himself to getting out of the car. “God, I wish you’d moved here sooner.”

“Me too.” Xion said softly. “See you in a year?”

“See you in a year.”

And with that, Pera got out of the car and walked away. Before he completely vanished from Xion’s line of sight, he turned back and gave a sweet little wave that made his heart flutter, and Xion waved back, hoping he could see it.

---

X,
You wouldn’t believe it here. Cali is amazing. It’s september now and still warm out, but I know the leaves are already starting to fall back home. Hope you’re keeping warm. Boot camp is interesting to say the least, but not much harder than wrestling a greased pig. How’s school going? Learn any interesting new history facts? I’d write more, but if I do I might have to do more pushups. No thanks. Has it been a year yet? Feels like it.

Write again soon, don’t forget to wear a scarf.
Pera

Breakfast Boy,
Someone came in the other day and ordered breakfast for dinner, which made me think of you. Dorro (one of Caitlyn’s friends) has taken up knitting for some reason and has supplied her and the rest of us with enough clothes to make it through even the worst winter. In short I definitely have a scarf to wear once the weather necessitates. Of course the sun is still shining where you are. ☀

Classes are going well, of course, however one of my professors is extremely…dry. To say the least. The less said the better honestly. Now the effects of liquor on the rise of the Roaring Twenties is demanding to be written.

Has it been a year yet?
-X

P.S.
Find enclosed 1 (one) fall leaf just to let you know what you’re missing

X,

Thanks for the leaf, it’s been tucked away for safekeeping (here’s hoping i don’t lose it). Sorry for the late reply, they’ve been running us ragged. noway! You know Dorro? He’s one of the neighbor boys who helped in the Pig Heist! Shouldn’t really be surprised though, small towns and all. Never woulda thought he’d be a knitting guy though. Tell him to send something my way, and that i said to stay out of trouble. He won’t listen but its the thought that counts, right? I might be the one who needs a hat though. They made me cut my hair, and boy are my ears chilly. Good thing it’s so sunny here still :) You should name the breakfast for dinner special after me if I’m so linked to it. Make sure to send my portion of the end come to my folks in order to finance my fancy travel lifestyle.

Found these and thought of you. Apparently they’re called california poppies. Phoenix could probably tell you more about them, but I just thought they were pretty. Have three (3)

Has it been a year yet?
Pera

Never one for flowers or things like that, Xion wasn’t quite sure what to do with the delicate orange blossoms at first. They remained in their envelop carefully tucked away in the false bottom of his desk drawer with the other letters where his nosey, and frankly obnoxious, roommate wouldn’t find them. While Xion was fairly certain they were “batting for the same team,” he knew his roommate wouldn’t hesitate to exploit the letters and hold them over Xion. Best they stay hidden away for now, he decided as he worked his way through writing an English paper. He was supposed to be analyzing something by Walt Whitman, but he had neither the desire nor the energy to even feign interest in the subject material. Boredly glancing over at the stack of textbooks looming on his desk, Xion had an idea.

He retrieved the flowers Pera had sent him and carefully arranged them on a piece of paper before covering them in more paper and sliding them under the stack. That would keep them safely hidden and allow Xion to keep ahold of them for much longer than anticipated. With that taken care of, Xion decided to start a new letter.

Sunshine,
if you were here i think i’d bring you flowers i’ve never cared about flowers before but Thank you for the flowers, I’m trying to save them so I can have at least 1 (one) bit of color in the upcoming winter. I am unsurprised that Dorro would help steal a pig, he’s got deep pockets and itchy fingers…. I can’t believe you cut your hair, this is a tragedy. A crime against mankind. I wish I could actually see this for myself, but I suppose I’ll just have to settle for vivid imagination. Phryane is in charge of all meal names and specials; I’ll put in a good word with her though but no promises.

Halloween is soon, and my roommate has been stockpiling liquor in our room for weeks. I’m hoping the RA doesn’t drop by for a surprise inspection before then or else I run the risk of getting kicked out for not reporting him. Somehow I don’t think “I’m fairly certain that he would absolute stab me and leave me to die in a ditch” would qualify as a proper defense in this case. Don’t even know where to begin if that happened so wish me luck. Sidenote: I detest Walt Whitman.

Has it been a year yet?
-X

X,
one of the boys has a polaroid, so please find attactched 1 (one) photograph documenting my shame. they’re all teasing me about my girl back home now, but what do they know right. Hope halloween passed without trouble and also that he didn’t stab you? i have to admit im getting homesick at this point, we always did hayrides and corn mazes for the local kids on the farm. wonder how it all went this year.

Sunshine, huh? i like that one, better than breakfast boy anyway. speaking of, if anyone can convince something of someone, its you. ♥ expect longer delays now that we’re Officially shipping out. i won’t lie to you, i’m scared to go, but the sooner we leave the sooner we’ll be back i guess? or at least thats what i’ll be telling myself to try and stay positive.

has it been a year yet?

Sunshine,

That’s a truly horrendous haircut, but I think you pull it off rather well all things considered. If I could I would keep it my wallet. Wish I could. Tell them the only girl for you back home is Oinkers. i haven’t prayed since i left home i’ll be praying for you i know this is stupid but I’m sure you’ll be back before you know it, and besides you have a troop of people around you to keep you safe. If anyone can make the best of a bad situation, it’s you. The delay just means I’ll be able to send you twice as many letters while I’m waiting. Halloween went fine, or at least it did on my end. But I was hopefulconcerned that Haldir (the roommate) might actually be dead as he was missing all weekend. Unfortunately He showed up Monday though.

I’m thinking of you stay safe

Has it been a year yet?
-X

Letters didn’t come for a while after that. True to his word, Xion maintained a steady schedule of sending them out, keeping Pera updated on the goings-on of town, the diner, the restaurant and everything in-between. For the first time since moving, though, he felt slightly out of sync. He was… lonely. And he was sure that his few friends noticed. Suddenly Caitlyn was forcibly bringing him along to the roller rink or the movies with her friends instead of just politely inviting him. Usually Dorro and Rina accompanied them on these outings, and soon after two of Rina’s friends joined them. With Sirena and Joshra added in, Caitlyn joked that they could have a bowling league, but apparently Rina didn’t think she was joking as she set the group up in late November.

Their antics helped keep Xion’s mind from constantly fretting about Pera. Over the duration of figurative radio silence, he’d had time to analyze his feelings for the other boy and realized that his initial crush had bloomed into something heavy and real. The fact that there was a very real chance that he would never get a chance to tell Pera any of it hovered in the back of his mind, an uninvited guest poisoning his thoughts. He was also worried about what war would do to Pera. He’d heard enough about the horrors of what was happening from different veterans who’d come back to know that the gentle summer boy who’d kissed him in the car might not make it. The fear had been enough to take up praying for Pera’s safety, even though he’d never had much faith to begin with and certainly hadn’t done so since fleeing his family. He wasn’t sure it would even matter at this point, but anything was better than nothing.

The next letter arrived as Xion frantically studied for his upcoming finals. Once he noticed it was in his box (along with a box the had no return address but he assumed was from his mother), he could barely contain himself. Waiting to open it till he was safe in his room was a struggle, and even then he walked at a pace just under running. Once there, he collapsed onto his bed and ripped open the envelope.

Poppy,
remember when i said i didn’t have any brothers? that wasn’t quite true. i used to have an older brother named daryl, and i miss him every day. he got killed a couple years back and it nearly tore our family appart. all i can think about is how much it would destroy my folks if i died here. its hell out here, babe, and im so worried i wont- well. ive seen horrors. im sorry i dont want to bum you out of make you worry about me. im so

your letters keep me grounded though. thank you for reminding me what i have to come back to. its nice to be reminded that theres something outside of all of this. rina is probably cheating by the way.

do youi keep thinking about the pier, and that sunset. its one of my favorite memories and every time things get bad i just remember that and the car ride afterwards.

-Xion subconsciously ghosted his fingers over his lips like he could recreate the feeling of the kiss-

that was the most beautiful sunset ive ever seen. havent seen another one like it since, not even in california. god i wish- well, i wish a lot of things, doesnt really matter much in the end does it? i think i might be in love with you Poppy. big mushy feelings type of love. its not fair to you i know, what with things the way they are, but its true. i wish i could be there to tell you in person but thisll just have to do for now. i love you so much my heart aches, and im scared i wont get to tell you.

i hate to do this again, but this will be the last letter for a while. moving into some dicey territory and we cant send any mail. dont worry about me everything will be fine, i just know it. It’ll be a year soon enough.

Your Sunset,
Pera

Xion read the letter several times over before gently folding it and placing it with the rest of them. He noted with vague detachment that his hands were shaking. There were so many conflicting feelings and thoughts racing around his head that he didn’t know which ones to shove away for later and which ones to dissect. He loves me back he loves me too he loves me was the one circulating the most. Relief and anxiety warred at each other as he sat back on his bed. At least he no longer had to worry about whether or not Pera reciprocated his newer feelings, but he still had no way to respond and tell Pera he felt the same. Not to mention the fact that he was going somewhere so hazardous he couldn’t wright mail filled Xion with dread. That meant the situation would be even more hazardous and there was an even greater chance of-
He abruptly cut that train of thought before it could continue any further. There were other things in the letter that he had no clue how to address, like Pera’s brother and all the fear and pain still associated with him. There was so much in the letter and it was frustrating to not be able to craft a response that was certain to get through. He had to wonder if Pera didn’t plan it like that; one last act of impulsivity before effectively disappearing for an unknown amount of time. Xion smiled wryly at the idea. It certainly was clever.

He got up and scribbled a single line on a piece of paper, then sealed it up and took it down to the mailboxes to ship off.

---

Two weeks later, Xion was busy packing up a suitcase of things to take off campus with him over the holidays. After realizing that he wouldn’t be permitted to remain on campus over the break, he’d scrambled for living accommodations. Going home was so out of the realm of possibility that he’d asked around the bowling group as soon as he’d heard the news. Caitlyn and Dorro both seemed to be crashing at a friend called Torrvic’s place (the third member of the Pig Heist, he’d since found out) but between them and Torrvic’s young twins, he simply didn’t have the room for Pera. Sirena and Joshra were flying to Chicago to spend the holidays with Sirena’s grandfather and her apartment was being used by someone else. Luckily though Rina was more than happy to let him camp in the spare room of the apartment she shared with her cousin.

Once he finally packed all the clothes he would need and a few books, Xion felt ready to go. Before he finally zipped his suitcase, though, he hesitated and pulled the letters out from their secret compartment and carefully hid them in a shirt at the bottom of the case. Finally feeling ready to go, Xion hefted his suitcase down the stairs and stopped at the front counter to pick any mail he might have before he left. Out of the three envelopes he retrieved, only one caught his eye. Familiar stationary with a large angry “RETURN TO SENDER” stamped on the back side. A bit desperate, Xion opened it, only for a slip of paper to fall on the floor. With a sigh he picked it up and read it despite already knowing what it said. I think the sunset too.

Feeling a little dejected, Xion shoved all the letters in his coat pocket and braved the cold and snow that whipped him in the face as he looked for Rina’s car. Eventually he spotted it and waved her down, thankful that he wouldn’t have to endure the biting cold for longer than necessary. He tossed his suitcase in the back and climbed in after it. Rina turned around to smile at him. Next to her, an imposing-looking man who really couldn’t be much older than either of them examined Xion through the rearview mirror. Xion gave a hesitant wave so that he could see but was only acknowledged with a small smirk.

“Thanks again for letting me crash with you Rina. You’re doing me a huge favor, you have no idea.”

 

“Don’t worry about it, I’m happy to help. And don’t mind Aramil, he’s kind of a doofus even when he’s trying to be cool.”

Xion laughed as Aramil’s expression morphed from indifference to indignation. “Hey! I’ll have you know I’m plenty cool!”

“He tripped over his own feet and fell into a snowbank when we got into the car today.”

“Wha-hey! No need to be telling everyone and their mothers about that, okay. Besides, you’ve done plenty of ridiculous shit too. One time she-”

As he launched into a tirade about all the “uncool” things Rina had done, Xion looked out the window, still smiling. Maybe everything really will be fine. The returned letter still weighed down his pocket like lead.

---

Barely a week after New Years, everything came crashing down.

Xion was working a lot more in light of the break and weather conditions being what they were (terrible). Nobody wanted to be outside, and that meant more people taking shelter in the blessed warmth of the diner. It was somewhere in between breakfast and lunch, and even Phryane herself had graced the diner with her presence in a rare moment of… something.

He was in the middle of helping the busboy clear plates and collect tips when the bell overhood the door rang and he looked up to see a person completely bundled head to toe in snow gear walk in hesitantly. Xion could relate, as he knew from first experience earlier in the day that the weather was atrocious that day.

“Hey there and welcome to Phryanes! Seat yourself and I’ll be with you in just a moment!”

They just nodded and found a booth in a corner of the restaurant while Xion finished up what he was doing. After he went back to the booth and was met with a shockingly familiar sight. For a moment, he thought Pera was looking up at him, but a second glance revealed that they were probably one of his siblings, not actually Pera.

“Um, hi! What can I get for you?”

“Xion, right? I’m Phoenix.”

“Yes, I’m Xion. What can I do for you?”

They breathed deeply for a minute before giving him a soft, watery smile. “You might want to sit down for a minute.”

“I’m legally not allowed to-”

“Trust me, kid.”

Hesitantly, Xion sat across from them and set down the coffee pot he’d carried over to fill their mug, checking anxiously to ensure Phryane wasn’t watching him.

“I don’t know how to do this so I’ll just, um, well, Pera is dead.”

Everything came to a screeching halt around him as he tried to process the words.

“I’m- what?”

It can’t be true it just can’t he was fine he said not to worry.

“He and three other people were sent on a scouting mission and best they can tell none of them survived. They found the bodies of two of them and enough to imply that the, Pera and whoever was with him are dead. They, they found his dog tags?” And at that, they reached into a pocket and brought out a chain with two tags and dropped them on the table.

Suddenly, Xion couldn’t breathe. His heart was in his throat as his trembling hands reached for the tags. “Pera Rivers” was engraved so deeply in the metal that it was impossible to lie to himself about reality. Phoenix gently curled his fingers around them and then patted the top of his hand lightly.

“I don’t know if he told you or not but he told us about you in a few of his letters. Not too many details, don’t you worry none, just enough to give us a sense of who you are. And if you really are all he thought you were, I’m-” Their voice cracked and they had to clear their throat before continuing. “Well I’m glad he met you. And here, I have these for you too.” They produced a bundle of letters from another pocket and Xion hurriedly snatched them and hid them in his apron pocket.

“We have a lot of things to remember him by, but I thought you’d appreciate something physical, too.”

Xion could feel his eyes burning, tears threatening to spill over if he just so much as moved the wrong way. He hastily yanked his hand out of Phoenix’s and rubbed the tears away. He didn’t trust himself to speak for a while, so they sat there in heavy silence while the diner bustled around them.

“Thank you. I know these can’t be easy for you, for your family to give these to a complete stranger. Thanks for-” His throat clogged up again. “-shit. Shit. This is so fucked up. You came in the middle of the winter to tell me this and you don’t even know me and- let me get you some coffee.”

He abruptly stood up and retreated into the kitchen and grab the coffee pot and a mug and returned to the booth, pointedly ignoring Caitlyn’s questioning glance. He poured the cup for Phoenix and gestured for them to take it. They chose to look him in the eye instead, ignoring the drink entirely.

“Xion… if you ever want to talk…or whatever please look me up. You shouldn’t have to be alone in this.”

The expression in their eyes was so genuine and open; it reminded him so much of the way Pera had looked at him and he had to look away. Instead, he firmly pushed the mug into Phoenix’s hands.

“Thank you, I really mean it. But I think I have to go now. The coffee is on the house and if anyone asks about it tell them I gave the okay. Thank you for bringing me the news. And the other things.”

“Of course kiddo. Don’t hesitate, our door will always be open to you.”

“I don’t deserve that. I mean all I did was write some letters. I don’t-”

“I hope you come find us when you’re ready.”

“Me too.”

Xion nearly tripped over his own feet trying to get out of the booth. He felt like he was in a daze, so out of the moment that he didn’t even register that it was his hand knocking on Phryane’s office door. The woman looked at him with well-practiced disdain as he fumbled over some half-baked begging to be let off for the day. There was a pregnant pause before she tilted her head forward slightly.

“You can go, Xion. I expect you to kick whatever it is that’s got you like this soon though. This is a business, afterall, and you’re a favorite of a lot of the regulars.”

“You’re just gonna let me go?” To say that Xion was surprised was an understatement.

“This is the first time since you started working her that you have ever asked me for anything. Obviously something big is happening, and besides you don’t like you’re gonna be able to survive another 5 minutes, let alone a shift. I’m not a heartless bitch- wait, yes I am- but even I know when to give some leeway. Now get out of my office, I’m a busy woman.”

The bus ride back to Rina’s was one of the longest ordeals of his life and he had no clue how he held himself together among the apathetic crowd. He opened the door to find Aramil on the couch looking very surprised to see him. It was understandable, he had no reason to expect Xion wouldn’t be finishing his shift.

“Xion what are-”

He blew past the other man to the spare room and tiredly removed his work apron and pulled out the dog tags. Finally alone, he curled in on himself and let himself be washed away by the emotions he’d been damming up for the last hour. He cried until he felt his heart break in two and then kept crying. It felt like he would drown the whole world before he would ever dry up.

But he did.

Rina knocked hesitantly at the door later in the day, but didn’t get an answer, so she left him alone, and that suited him just fine. He didn’t move off the bed at all the next day, and he could only assume that at some point he slept through it, because it seemed like he just...blinked from one part of the day to the next without noticing or caring. Rina invaded his room around evening time and put a bowl of soup on the nightstand.

“Aramil said you might be sick, and I haven’t seen you all day, so I made you soup! Hope you feel better soon, dude.”

After she left, Xion eyed the soup with foggy disinterest. Objectively he knew he needed to eat but he couldn’t even summon the energy to sit up, let alone eat, so he went back to sleep. When he woke up again, the bowl was still there, but the soup was ice cold. With a shrug, Xion choked it down and then slept more. This pattern went on for several more days until he dragged himself out of bed to take a shower. He startled the cousins when the door opened. The card house they’d been intensely focusing on came collapsing down after Aramil jolted the table in shock. Suddenly, Xion was self-aware of just how much like death he looked. He gave an exhausted wave and shuffled to the bathroom and showered. The hot water helped him feel a little more human, and when he finally got out, he felt slightly more capable of facing the... day? He had no clue what time it was, let alone the date.

He got dressed and, with a moment’s hesitation, slipped Pera’s tags on and tucked them under his shirt. Afterwards, he shuffled into Rina’s kitchen, where she and Aramil had begun to reattempt their masterpiece.

“Is there any coffee?” He croaked. His voice was rusty and harsh from disuse.

“Oh yeah! There’s some in the pot still I think.”

“Thanks.” He poured himself a cup under the watchful eyes of his temporary roommates.

He watched Aramil not-so-subtly elbow Rina in the ribs and pointedly look between her and Xion several times til she got the hint.

“Soooo… Xion. Wanna talk about whatever’s bothering you? Because at first I thought you were just sick but you seem… something’s obviously not right.”

“I got some bad news and took it hard. Don’t worry about me, really. Sorry for causing you to worry. Thanks for making sure I ate, too.”

“Yeah anytime, bud. Just don’t forget that we’re your friends. We’re here to help you when you need it.”

“Mm.”

Xion shuffled back to his room with the coffee and opened one of the books he brought with him. He pointedly did not look at the bundle of letters peaking out of an apron pocket.

---

After the initial shock, Xion soon settled into the same steady schedule of school and work and nothing else. Once break ended, he returned to the dorms without problems or fanfare and engaged in even more study. He never had the energy to anything outside his usual roster of constant work, and that caused his friends to worry. There was nearly always someone in the diner aside from Caitlyn making sure Xion was eating, or more often, sleeping properly, and occasionally try and drag him out with them once everyone was back in town. While he appreciated the thought, didn’t go with them.

He found himself briefly recalling Phoenix’s invitation to talk once he was ready, but he didn’t think he could ever go to Pera’s home and speak with his family. What could I even say? Hi nice to meet you I kissed your son once and sent him letters please rehash the trauma of losing him. Absolutely not. Better to just keep on. He spent all of February holed up in his room when he wasn’t in class, to the point where even his roommate noticed something was off.

“Whatever happened to your little group of friends that you used to spend time with? They were… quaint. Don’t tell me you’ve had a row.”

“No we’re not fighting, I just don’t have time to go out right now.”

“Ugh.”

Once spring started clearing away some of the snow, Xion began walking to work again, instead of taking the bus. One of those days, he saw Caitlyn studying on the back stoop of the door and he sat with her, knocking a knee against hers in friendship. Although it was a far cry from actual repaving of friendship, it was a start.

 

“I’m not avoiding you guys because I don’t like you anymore or anything, and I’m sorry if it feels like I am.” He stated. “Please tell the others that I’m working through some things at the moment and I just need time.”

“You wanna ta-”

“Please don’t ask if I want to talk about it, because I don’t. Everyone wants to talk and that’s not what I need. I’ve got to do this by myself, but please tell everyone I’m fine.”

“You don’t seem fine, but okay, I’ll trust you. I let them know.”

“Thanks Caitlyn.”

---

The full arrival of spring was almost too much for Xion to bear. The warm sunny days only made him think of Pera more, and even the new blossoms had had him absentmindedly wondering which ones Pera would like before reality slapped him across the face with a cold hand. He retreated further into himself, which he knew wasn’t healthy, but he couldn’t even bring himself to care enough to change. One day in late April, Phryane stuck him on the night because the usual waiter had gotten sick out of nowhere.

“And besides, it’s not like you have anything better to do. I know you’re basically a hermit now, so consider this a therapeutic attempt to get you back in the real world.” She’d flashed that smile that was sweet as honey (but sharp as a razor) and Xion had had no choice but to agree without complaint. And it wasn’t like she was wrong, either.

So he found himself on the dinner shift with the jukebox filling the spaces in between chatter and the sounds of forks hitting plates. With everyone happily taken care of, Xion ducked into the kitchen for a moment to say hi to Caitlyn.

“Got a song you want me to put on the jukebox for you?”

“Hey, Xion.” She smiled widely at him while expertly flipping a burger. “Put on that Tom Jones song for me would you?”

“No problem. Hey,” he steeled himself before finishing the question. “Any chance the gang is going out to do something later this week?”

He didn’t even think it humanly possible, but Caitlyn’s smile got even bigger. “We’re going down to the roller rink I think. I’ll let you know what time?”

“That’d be great, Caitlyn.” The bell over the door chimed and he sighed before straightening himself out. “Well, duty calls. See you later.”

He walked over to the newly occupied booth, notebook already out and pen ready. “Welcome to Phryane’s, what can I do ya for?” He didn’t even bother looking up.

“Well I heard your breakfast for dinner option was pretty good, but it’s been a minute since I’ve had it. Nearly a year, now that I think about it.”

The pen fell out of Xion’s hand and crashed to the floor.