"I can't take this child any more," Mama said, and scrubbed at the angry tears on her splotchy red cheeks. "I can't, Lena. Look – look! Finally old enough to send off to school, and this is what she did to the uniform."
Ignis, perched on the end of the sofa, didn't look, not wanting to see how disappointed Uncle Lena was.
After a long, thoughtful moment studying the wreckage, Uncle Lena said, "Well," and coughed. "I dare say I'd have been just as unhappy if you'd tried to stuff me into a checked pinafore dress." He reached over and tapped one long finger against the top of Ignis' head. "We don't destroy things, Ignis."
Ignis nodded, miserable.
His voice went low and cold. "But neither do we hit children," and his hand tilted Ignis' face up, thumb running under the hot swelling of the bruise.
"I didn't mean to," Mama said, and dropped her hands from her face to her round belly. "It was simply the very – last – straw. None of the others gives me half the trouble as this one." She took a deep breath, lower lip trembling. "And I called you because I was wrong and I'm sorry but I don't know what to do."
Uncle Lena's hands slapped his knees to the tune of Bander-over-under-snatch, the way he did when he was thinking. "Pop her things in a bag and she can come stay with me until the baby's born," he said, hands hitting left-right-left-and-snap."That'll work, won't it?"
"What about school?" Mama asked. "What'll I tell Tacitis?"
Uncle Lena waved his hand lightly through the air. "How you keep up appearances is your problem, Nin."
Mama huffed as if she was angry again, but she pushed up off the end of the divan and headed upstairs, holding her long skirts in the hand not clutching the railing.
Ignis had never been to Uncle Lena's house before. Mama had said he lived alone, but actually he had a housekeeper mornings and a cook who came in the evening and a friend named Baebio who was over all the time. Baebio was the one who saw how miserable Ignis was with the clothes Mama had packed and planned a trip to the shops, saying whatever Ignis wanted was fine.
Ignis, dazzled by the attention, tugged him down to whisper, "I want to be Uncle Lena."
"It was so adorable," Baebio said defensively when they returned, trying to explain the trousers, waistcoats, bowties, and sturdy brown leather shoes with rubber soles.
"You are too much," Uncle Lena said, shaking his head, and Ignis looked up warily from trying to figure out how to attach the braces to a pair of the new trousers. When Mama said that, it meant she was furious. But Uncle Lena just caught Baebio around the waist, waltzed him behind the sofa, and booped him on the nose before letting him go. "We have to dress for an appointment with Regis tomorrow."
"Well," Baebio said, sliding over the back of the sofa to sprawl across all the pillows, "have fun."
Ignis worried that meant that whatever was happening the next day was going to be boring and possibly bad, but instead it was just a tea party like Mama had with her friends. Uncle Lena and Regis – the King, Uncle Lena whispered – sat at a fancy round table and talked about grown-up things, while Ignis went in the corner and played with Noctis.
He was a prince, but he wasn't much different from Ignis' brothers, who were also three. He had a nice set of blocks and wooden train rails, so they built a city, and then a behemoth (Noctis) attacked. Then they made a house where the trains lived, and then Noctis got bored so Ignis read him a story from his illustrated Cosmogony. After that they were invited to the table to have cake, and Ignis helped Noctis with his fork and with basic things like saying excuse me and thank you and may I please be excused, sir?
Uncle Lena bowed low to King Regis with his hand over his heart as he said goodbye, and Ignis copied the gesture.
On the way out, Uncle Lena stopped on the fifth floor to introduce Ignis to a gray-haired woman who he said supervised the lessons here, and then then made another detour, to a training gym where men and women were running, doing flips in the air, and practicing with swords. Ignis grabbed onto Uncle Lena's hand and stared.
After a few minutes Ignis realized that one of the men spinning through the air with a sword almost his same height was Baebio.
"I want to be you, too," Ignis told him over dinner that night, keeping a fanatic grip on the breadknife.
"Just try and keep up, kiddo," he said, trying to sound tough, but the look he gave Uncle Lena was gleeful.
The next day after breakfast Uncle Lena announced that it was time to go to work, and all three of them went together in the car, with identical boxed lunches. The gray-haired teacher had seven students – eight, if Prince Noctis counted; Ignis wasn't sure, he didn't really study – who all worked on different projects and assignments, with a midmorning break for music and games. After lunch, they went to a smaller training room for sport and gymnastics (Prince Noctis fell asleep on one of the mats), and then visited a practice kitchen to make fruit and yogurt bowls for a snack. When Uncle Lena came it was already dark and Ignis was half-asleep, sitting in the library corner of the classroom with a history of Accordo.
"Sorry to be late," Uncle Lena said, swinging Ignis up to carry on his hip.
Ignis yawned, bleary-eyed and hungry. "I want to come back tomorrow. Can I?"
Half a year passed like that, and then the new baby was born. Uncle Lena drove Ignis to go see Mama, and Cato and Venny and Allo and Auro. None of them really knew what to say to each other now, though. Mama sat up in bed, haloed by pillows and holding baby Cælestis, who was bald but wore a pink cap with ribbons, and pink pajamas with white booties. Ignis gave Cælestis a map of Lucis during the reign of King Mors that had taken two weeks to copy out and color, and Mama said it was pretty but set it on the side table. Mama didn't like the way Ignis was dressed, but Uncle Lena talked about lessons with Prince Noctis and Lord Flovios' grandchildren as if their names and titles were... high-value cards, and he was trying to make a winning move.
Ignis supposed it worked, because Mama said well, if you really don't mind, and he said no, not at all, and then they got in the car and drove home again.
"If you ever miss your family and want to move back with them, you can tell me," Uncle Lena said abruptly, when they were just outside the ring road. "I'll always be your uncle and I'll always love you, no matter where you live."
For weeks afterward, Ignis thought about love, and whether it was possible to love something you didn't understand.
Baebio took them all out to see a meteor shower for Uncle Lena's birthday. Ignis overflowed with questions – what the names of the stars and constellations were, and who had named them and why, and did the Astrals really live there, and were there other worlds, and what were meteors, and could airships travel up to where they were. So many of their answers were I don't know that Ignis got frustrated, face pinching into a scowl.
"Wanting to know is maybe even more important than knowing," Baebio said, looking up at the expanse of night sky. "In the Crownsguard, some people's jobs are just knowing who to ask what questions, to get information to protect the king and make plans. I can do my job well because of their intel." He reached over and ruffled Ignis' hair, cut just like his now. "Maybe you'll be an Astraloger when you grow up."
"I'll be in the Crownsguard," Ignis corrected. That was what Ignis wanted most of all, to work with Baebio and Uncle Lena. Maybe it was good enough to want something – love or the Crownsguard – whether or not you understood it completely. Ignis had never been able to be what Mama wanted, but King Regis had said Ignis was already serving the Crown by taking good care of Prince Noctis.
And when Ignis was a little bit older, then he'd learn how to fight with swords.
"It's imperative Ignis see the Archaeans," Uncle Lena said to Baebio in the kitchen one night when Ignis was eleven going on twelve, while he was doing his homework at the dining table. He didn't mean to listen; he was trying to write a geometry proof. "Sooner rather than later."
Ignis heard the sounds of wine glasses and a cork being popped out, and stared at Angle AC. The mouth-watering smell of dinner cooking was a distraction; he'd upped his training program and was refusing to let hunger best him, but his concentration was flagging.
"Get custody first," Baebio said. "But don't tell your sister why." If Ignis leaned just a bit to the left, he could see them standing against the counter, Baebio's arm around Uncle Lena's shoulders. "So you guys talked it out? We making a man out of our boy?"
"How do people resist your charms," Uncle Lena said, voice flat and unimpressed. The glint of his glasses suggested that maybe he could see Ignis, leaning to the left. Ignis shifted back. "I wish I could make this easy for him."
"Our kid, who thrives on challenge?" Uncle Lena made a dismissive noise. "Or you mean our kid, who tied himself up in knots because he was scared to tell you he wasn't your niece after all, and you just went, very good then, I believe you, thanks for trusting me." Baebio said the last part in an exaggerated imitation of Uncle Lena's accent. "He doesn't need easy. And what he does need, he has."
"Our kid, who's decided to stave off puberty the old fashioned way," Uncle Lena said, and then he raised his voice so it carried clearly. "He needs to work on stealth, though, if he's going into the King's service." Ignis could hear his smile, but his ears still burned.
Ignis had never cared much for cosmogony or the astrals, but he knew Titan was the god of the physical body, opposing Bahamut, who ruled the soul's realm. The Archaeans at the clinic Uncle Lena took him to were cheerful and wore sand-colored tunics, and they made it clear that if Ignis was truthful with them, they would treat him with the same honesty.
In truth... he told them he just hadn't fit the way other people seemed to. He'd liked when people knew he was a boy, and because most people judged by appearances, he learned to cultivate his carefully. He'd figured out years ago that Uncle Lena and Baebio were queer, and the reason his mother had given him away was because everyone thought he was, too. He said stiffly, because he'd never had to put his feelings into words, that his awareness of who, exactly, he was had grown slowly. He'd been hampered by not knowing that people like him could exist, whose bodies mismatched their selves more with every passing year.
"We do," the woman clinician said, with an encouraging nod. "And we can help you."
She pointed out, with cheery ruthfulness, that wishful thinking and prayer didn't get anyone anywhere, and that included evading the physical changes of puberty. Titan was also god of agriculture; she used lots of metaphors about hard work and weeding and fruitful crops. But what it came down to was that if Ignis wished for the Astral's help to transition, he'd have to undergo training: monthly meetings with the Archaeans, homework assignments, and a regimen of potions. He might, she mentioned gently, decide this was not what he wanted after all – if he desired children, for example. He would have to tell Titan his decision in five years.
He didn't waver in his resolution. Gladio and his other friends in the Crownsguard teased him when he turned sixteen and the new potions regimen altered his body in the ways he'd been waiting and preparing for. They didn't know about the changes he'd worked so hard to suppress, and – he vowed – they never would. It was bad enough that Uncle Lena had witnessed him brought to enraged tears more than once.
When he was eighteen, he was formally accepted into the Crownsguard; even though he'd retired the previous year, Baebio was invited to present Ignis with his insignia and witness his oath. Ignis had become more-or-less comfortable with being taller than Uncle Lena, but there in the throne room he realized with a shock that he didn't need to look up into Baebio's eyes any more.
"We're proud of you," Baebio told him after the ceremony, clapping him on the back as Uncle Lena made his way over. "The political situation's crap and only getting worse, and Cor's got a mess on his hands with the 'glaive, but you'll keep us from being totally fucked. But first, commemorative pictures – " he reached out and pulled Lena in, grinning – "and remember to smile this time."
Ignis smiled for the second picture, but he was rolling his eyes in the first.