Bag, dangling off his shoulder on its wide sturdy strap. The drab gray material slashed with stripes of high-visibility orange piping, strategically: on the back pocket, on the bottom edges, on the strap itself -- and the silver chain clipped onto the left-side buckle, wrapping twice and thrice around the blocky utility plastic and still with enough length to flutter as he moves through the thickening crowds of the midmorning.
He can still vividly call to mind the shape of the charm that used to hang on that silver chain; he knows the lines of it in his mind’s eye. Knows the surprising weight of it in his fingertips.
It used to thump him gently on the leg with every movement, and he still looks for the missing impact of it, the dense and stocky shape of the faithful little hound with its long nose and its upright ears, its tightly curled tail.
Gone, too, as gone as the one who had given him this bag in the first place, and he can’t let go of the bag, in any sense of the phrase.
He needs something with pockets so he can organize all the essentials of his life -- his reduced life -- he needs his pens, his notebooks, the slim-line tablet in its weatherbeaten leather covering, the money clip and the small case with its two pockets, all in their proper places, all easily accessed even in the dark, or even in the worst kind of stormy weather. The darkest nights.
A small case made of dark-gold leatherette. The pocket with the clear face is for his bus and rail pass.
The pocket with the opaque flap that completely shields its contents still holds -- a photograph, creased and falling to pieces at the corners.
He’s sadly, silently grateful for the flap that conceals his smile, his old smile, from view.
He needs all of these things, all the way to the photograph that he can’t even stand to look at -- and he used to carry all of them around in a soft ballistic-black briefcase -- he still remembers the high hot flush that had risen in his cheeks, all the way up to his hairline, when he’d nearly picked up some other anonymous commuter’s bag because it had been identical in every aspect to his own.
He still remembers, too, the chuckled and amused argument over -- something only a little less nondescript. The mostly sober exterior of this messenger bag, and the bright colors on the inside that -- as a bonus -- had made it so much easier to navigate and organize his things. The argument that had arisen because he’d wanted to buy the bag with his own money, and because the person he’d been arguing with had wanted to make him a present of the bag -- another way to keep him close by.
The presence of that person, the sunlight breaking onto his silver-white hair, the wind catching at his coat-hems and the cool sweet tease of his smile, of his laugh -- his fingertips smoothing over a little dog-shape --
Ignis nearly reaches out to his right and -- catches himself just in time.
No one will walk there and take his hand. No one will walk with him, footsteps matching exactly in the rhythm, in the beat of walking on this familiar curb. No one will sing, softly, just under his breath, for Ignis’s ears alone: and the last song Ignis had ever heard him sing had been something old and unforgivably upbeat, the pop-idol group that had performed it no more than a flash in a summer of crimson roses --
The words, the words rise tauntingly in his mind -- they hadn’t made sense, when he’d first heard them, and they still don’t make sense now, having heard them in that same deeply melodious voice, so far away from those of the original singers. One hundred liters of adrenaline -- for what, Ignis thinks. A positive hazard, nothing at all to energize, nothing at all to fuel the fight-or-flight response -- nothing more than an absolute recipe for disaster --
It hadn’t even helped him, on that terrible night: pinned into his seat with adrenaline rushing through his veins, along with the shaking rasping pain of impact hammering all along his nerves --
That memory, more than branded into his mind -- more than indelible in his own skin -- and now he wants to run: now he wants to flee these beautiful bright skies. The serene puffs of cloud in the sky, white and gray in turns as they float past the sun in its warmth, in its glory. Light pouring onto all the world and onto his own hunched and weary shoulders, his trembling feet. The echoes of the song, of the memories, that haunts him in the here and now.
Sudden flash of sun-flare that makes him stop, makes him shy away, hating his own weakness, and he gropes in his trouser pocket for the sunglasses that had been prescribed by one of his doctors. Medical-grade heavy tint, and his own prescription -- the world goes sepia, when he takes off his actual spectacles and fumbles the second frame and its lenses onto his face. The relentless blinding afterimages that force him to stay still where he is, until he can see again, until he can unsee --
The street corner looming before him is a street corner that’s halfway across the city from his own rooms, from the places where he’s accustomed to doing his work, and yet -- in his mind the middle of the morning is turning into the middle of the evening. Emptiness of the intersection that had been closer to home, the same intersection that had lulled him and his -- companion -- both into a sense of false security, false confidence. Waiting for the traffic lights to cycle, red to turn green so that they could get on with their evening, plans to make dinner in the warm steel of a familiar kitchen, and a special dessert to present to a beloved sister --
In his dreams, in his nightmares, in the reality of here and now: long low bleating blast of foghorns, and -- the two children clinging to the woman in the elegant black suit let go of her hands to cover their ears and wail protest. How pretty they are: the little girl in black to match her adult companion, golden ribbons wound into her dark braid; the little girl in white, her cropped red hair flying in the wind of the huge truck’s passing.
He wishes he had the excuse of their age so he could -- scream at the truck, too. Scream, and ask, “What were you thinking, what were you trying to prove, was it worth it nearly killing me?”
Was it worth it, killing him?
But of course he doesn’t say a thing.
It’s not even the right kind of truck, if he can trust his fragmented memories of -- impact, a collision that was nothing more or less than the end of his world.
And if he could only will away the tears pricking at his eyes. If he could only force himself to move past this street corner. He’s got an appointment to keep and -- all his instincts to run home are instead urging him toward that appointment, trivial though it may be --
Ping! goes his smartphone.
Dazedly he reaches for it and -- he already knows the text that blinks onto the screen. The reminder.
Time, is what he sees when he swipes the reminder away -- time, passing, and he’s lost fifteen minutes here on this sidewalk and he forces himself back into motion, into this world, and he runs past the two girls and their adult companion. Past all the others enjoying the sunshine, weak though it might be -- he’s blinded on these reflections of blaring light -- the climate control is the lesser relief, when he gains the door and stumbles on through the metal detectors.
Cool light here, nothing to harm him at all, or so he hopes. Still he keeps his sunglasses on as he reorients himself. Watches, jewelry counters, the men and women presenting pretty perfumes in elegant flasks, where he’s standing -- that means he has to find the north-side escalators and make for the first basement --
Hurrying past a small group of brightly-dressed women as they gossip on their way to -- who knows? Why are they in his way? He can barely muster the energy to offer muttered excuses.
He can barely muster the strength to figure himself out.
Why is he even hurrying? Why is this little appointment, this little unplanned expedition, so important to him?
He’s no closer to his answers by the time he dodges an oddly long line, faces in rapt attention before a till and then he only needs to turn a corner to find himself among displays of travel mugs and tumblers.
Too many bright colors, too many patterns, even when his tinted lenses mute all the hues and shades of the world, bring them all closer to monotone -- he recoils from all that visual confusion and ducks behind a set of open shelves stacked together.
Here, too, there are strangers everywhere he looks. A woman who seems to be peering intently at a lunch jar and its companion-stack of little gray bowls. Two young girls with their book bags dangling at precarious angles, whispering to each other over double-walled cups made of glass. A man missing his suit jacket and his tie, weighing two different mugs in his hands.
It’s the most contact he’s had with other people since -- since --
He nearly turns on his heel -- he’s already looking for the nearest exit, not the same escalator he’d come down to get here -- somewhere he can get out of this place, someway, as quickly and precipitously as he’d come in --
“Sorry I’m late. Not supposed to keep you waiting,” says a voice, just behind him. Low rasp, pleasantly baritone, and with that edge on the words that sounds like the speaker might be a little out of breath. “Especially since I’m the reason you have to be out here at all in the first place.”
He forces himself to take a breath, too. “I believe I chose to be here.”
“Yeah, okay, I guess you did.”
As on the first meeting, midway between the banks of a river, on an arch of concrete and paving stones: slender, short, wiry. He looks like such a young man, artless, entirely too casual, especially in his layers: a wide-necked top that seems to dangle off his shoulders, which are exposed by the tank top he’s wearing beneath.
In fact he looks like he’s been running, too, which is how they had met: there’s very little else Ignis can think of, that can explain the other man’s shorts and leggings and the oversized belt bag. The obnoxious orange of his racing flats, the searing color slashed with yellow and blue, and exacerbated by a set of dead-black shoelaces.
But then Ignis switches back to his regular frames -- and the colors of the man’s clothes seem to intensify, seem to almost hurt his eyes, so he shifts to look at that freckled face instead, the myriad of spots like star-shapes that overrun the planes of his cheeks and his forehead and his neck. That windblown hair, finger-tracks still visible in the hopelessly tousled lengths and pieces.
Those worn-in lines ground deep, radiating widely from the corners of his eyes.
And as he turns his head -- Ignis spots, once again, the flash of something very strange indeed in the change of his expression.
For a moment the man who’s summoned him here -- doesn’t even look like he belongs among these travel mugs and tumblers. Doesn’t even look like he might know what all of these everyday bits and pieces of metal and plastic and glass might be used for. Not wonder in the line of his eyebrows, but something that honestly reminds Ignis of bewilderment. Like he’s trying to hide some kind of nervousness -- and so, what about this store would make someone of that age, someone with that face, so skittish?
It’s the precise opposite of the face this man, this stranger, had worn, on that bridge.
In the faintly glowing light of almost-dawn, he had looked like he’d been searching the place so keenly, like he’d been trying to find all the signs and all the markers of a place that he actually did know, that he actually had been familiar with. Trying to determine if the familiar place was still mostly the same as when he had last seen it -- and when that had been, Ignis still has no idea, except that there’s something in the way the man carries himself that reminds him of -- old paintings, men in flowing robes and towering crown-like hats.
In the here and now, that stark contrast strikes Ignis even more clearly: how can that man on the bridge -- this man before him -- looks both so much younger and so much older all at once? Young in the sense of the plain arrangement of his features, the bare peach-fuzz on his cheeks -- and old in the sense of the time-dimmed spark in the depths of his eyes.
But this is not the place or the time for these questions that he doesn’t even know how to ask -- he doesn’t even know why he wants to ask -- and so he has to content himself with the niceties. The superficial social words, for a meeting in a very public setting.
And he hears himself say, simply: “Prompto.”
“Ignis,” is what he hears, after a moment, the edges of effort seemingly swept away.
And the smile that Prompto turns his way is small and bright and coaxing: that, at least, is familiar. “I promised I’d make things right.”
“It’s not as if you -- hurt me,” he says, but when Prompto snorts very quietly, he can’t help but want to try and smile in response. “You didn’t. Truly.”
“I inconvenienced you, didn’t I? Let’s call it that. So I’m going to make it up to you. Did you pick anything out before I got here?” Suddenly Prompto is rolling his shoulders and tossing his head, and Ignis thinks of him as nothing more or less than coming to life: the teasing tilt of his mouth, the quick restless motions of his fingertips as he skims his hands over the nearest display rack of travel mugs. He has such odd hands: some of the knuckles are slightly out of true; both thumbnails are bitten down to the quick. Scars like faded old lines, crisscrossing the backs of his hands.
And pale fingertips brushing, contrasting, past mugs in metal-sheened colors. Red and green and dark blue and rose gold.
“Tea,” Ignis hears himself saying, suddenly. “I need something to carry tea in.”
“Brew it, keep it hot, take it with you everywhere, right? I think I went past those, on my way to you. Want to see?”
Prompto is holding out a hand to him.
The instinct to tap his fingertips against that open palm, turned open and offering in his direction, is strong -- and so he gives in to it, even when he doesn’t know what it means, what it could possibly do.
Red ruddy flush rising in patches on Prompto’s skin -- whether from his run or from the sun or from some other cause, he can’t know -- and yet he feels so cool to Ignis’s hand.
He follows in Prompto’s wake -- and it is a wake, because for some reason people keep walking just out of his way, and that makes it so much easier to get around -- and they fetch up against a display of double-walled glass tea flasks. Tall thin ones, short squat ones, ones that are shaped like deep bowls.
Prompto’s hands, moving with even more animation as he takes one of the tall flasks apart. Nimble, quick motions. “Oh, that’s nice, there’s a sleeve and all so you don’t have to grab the glass itself, it doesn’t have to fall out of your hands or something. Though -- maybe a longer sling, huh? Then you can hang it from your wrist.”
“As long as I’m not startled,” he says, but only to tease.
Fortunately Prompto chuckles along, and scratches the back of his head for a moment. “As long as no one comes along and jumps you, yeah,” he says. “What is this?”
He takes the frame of steel and fine mesh from Prompto’s hand, and he turns it around and around, carefully. Thinks about the right amount of tea to put in it, according to the type of tea, according to the type of drink. “It’s an infuser, but the way it’s made,” he explains, quietly, “it doubles as a strainer, too.” He demonstrates the freely moving handle, that makes the infuser look like a very small and very pointless bucket. “Tea goes in there. Or fruits, if you cut them to the right size. You simply stick the whole thing in the mouth of the glass bottle, and let brew, or let infuse. And then you can take it out easily when it’s all done.”
“I guessed it was good for tea -- but fruits, too?” he hears Prompto ask. “I’ve never even thought about that. Good thought.”
“Flowers,” and the word had come out of him almost involuntarily: but now that it’s out in the world he wishes that he could take it back.
Stray memory, one of mourning, now: but in the memory he had been laughing, and a little bit unkindly, at a purchase from an online shop that had gone completely awry. A jar of heavy glass that had been smooth and pleasantly weighty in his hand but had contained the wrong kind of flowers -- inedible ones, in fact, or at least not ones that could be used in a drink.
Even now he can fetch back that memory-scent of wood-shavings and too-cloying dried blossoms, a strange tumble of red and gaudy-violet blooms, nothing at all like the delicate pink and the distant scents of vinegar and salt that he had shared with -- the one who had bought the flowers by mistake.
Waking from disjointed dreams to eyes on him, gently commiserating, and a hand that would press a brimming cup on him. Water, warm, tinted a soft pink; salt-crystals dissolving from where they had been clinging to the edges of delicate unfolding petals.
And it’s a different set of eyes that are peering into his, blue-violet like the hour after the sunset, when he blinks away the tears.
“Here,” and Prompto is pressing a white cloth into his hand. “You want to hold on to that for a bit?”
Ignis grits his teeth, and swipes at his eyes. “I have to stop crying; it’s -- been a while, and I still cannot seem to stop.”
“No one ever said there was a time limit on grief,” he hears Prompto say. “And if anyone ever tells you otherwise -- you tell them they’re wrong. That’s all there is to it.”
Far too vehement, for the words that no one else seems to have heard.
Far too felt.
And the lines in Prompto’s face seem to -- almost collapse, almost fall together, and -- why does he look like he’s lost so much?
He almost offers the handkerchief back.
But before he can move -- Prompto is looking up again. His smile is a little watery. “Moving on for a bit?”
And it’s the right thing to say. The right thing to do.
So he returns it. “Moving on for a bit.”
“You want that,” and he watches Prompto motion at the glass bottle he’s still holding, “or do you think they make it in a bigger size?”
Somehow, the joke comes to him so very easily. “I don’t think there’s enough tea in the world.”
And his reward is another snort, that turns into a quiet and real laugh, and Prompto seems to light up even as he pretends to swat at him. “Why did I know you were going to say something like that? You’re ridiculous.”
“So are you,” he says.
And: “I’d like this one.”
“Mm. It does look good, and you look pretty comfortable, holding on to it -- but maybe let’s get you something that’s still in its box.”
“Now you’re being ridiculous, because you know I will just open it up and investigate it again.”
“Then isn’t it better to have something no one else has -- investigated?”
Ignis lets the chuckle out, then, but he rolls his eyes in Prompto’s direction, just to be difficult.
He’s still turning his new travel mug over and over in his hands as they step up to the cashier, and he almost misses the beginning of Prompto’s question: “...after this?”
Blink. Blink. “Excuse me,” he says, quietly. “I didn’t quite catch that.”
For some reason, he’s expecting Prompto to frown, or at least look put out -- but all he gets is a patient, small shrug. “I said, I was wondering, what were you doing after this.”
He’s torn, for a moment: what does he say? Surely if it were anyone else asking, it would be so easy to say that -- he’d rather be hurrying home.
But this is Prompto, and -- he’s strange but he’s kind, too, and Ignis thinks he might be completely starved for something like kindness, or at least the type of kindness that Prompto seems to be extending towards him, so easily, so generously, even when he doesn’t know why it’s being offered in the first place.
Even if he doesn’t know why he’s being offered that kindness in the first place.
So he splits the difference, and he’s honest about it. “I think I can -- stand to be out for another few hours.”
“Good, that’s good to hear,” is the quiet response. “I’ll -- it’ll be worth it.”
He’s about to put up a protest, or at the very least let him know that he’s good company, when:
“Ignis. I -- I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
And it’s only Prompto’s gentle hand on his shoulder, propelling him away from the till and the face of the person behind it, that registers as something real.
Not even that woman’s voice is real: not even her words, or the appearance of her, when he turns and finds her standing there, no more than an arm’s-length away.
It’s -- impossible for her to still be here, and yet there she is, and the sleeves on her dark blue dress overhang her hands. She is still wearing her little square of veiling, although now it’s been folded into a flower-shape pinned onto her breast; and the black pins are still in her pale-golden hair, stuck into thorn-shapes in the braid that she wears wrapped around the top of her head.
He looks down at his own unkempt sleeves, the dark green of the broadcloth and the black of the cuffs, as if he’s seeing them for the first time.
“I had heard that you had gone home -- Luna,” he says, quietly, and he goes to her when she holds out her hands to him, palms up.
Her skin is clammy, and the wrong kind of warm.
“I did go home. Now I’m here again. Aranea is on her way back here, too.”
“Good,” he says. “You shouldn’t be left alone.”
“I don’t wish to be. But fortunately, perhaps, I am not.” Her hands squeeze around his, once, and let go. “As for you -- Ignis, I almost didn’t recognize you.”
“Must I explain myself to you on that account?” He can’t keep the pain out of his voice. He can only hope she doesn’t take it amiss -- she doesn’t even owe him that courtesy --
“No, dear. Never on that account. Or, not any more.”
And then he’s watching her extend her hand to Prompto. “Hello. You’re a friend of Ignis’s?”
“Yes,” he hears Prompto say, quietly, firmly. “Although we haven’t done a lot of meeting out in real life. I mean, we mostly do the online-friends thing.”
“He needs friends,” he hears her say. “I’m Luna. And I know that I have no right to ask, but -- could I please impose on you to care for him?”
“I’m doing the best I can.” Prompto, nodding, as serious as he’d been, as when Ignis had walked away from him and from the bridge on the morning of their first meeting. “And I’ll keep doing my best.”
Luna turns back to him and opens her arms.
He holds her, as gently as he can.
She murmurs, for his ears alone. “My brother would not have wanted you to -- fall apart like this.”
He closes his eyes tightly. Tries to speak. “And tell me, what kind of falling apart would have been acceptable? If you know what it is then I would ask you to teach me -- I sorely need it.”
She pulls away. Hurt, pooling in her eyes -- and remorse, too. “I didn’t mean it that way.”
He shakes his head. “I know you didn’t. But you appreciated my bluntness before, when it was aimed at him -- at Ravus. And now that he’s gone, that same bluntness is all I can offer you.”
“And you were being honest, and I was unkind in return. Forgive me?”
“Always, but -- ”
He turns away, then.
The resemblance between her and her brother had always been so pronounced around their eyes, and now he can’t look at her, because his mind is playing tricks on him again, and he sees Ravus, or the ghost of Ravus, in her.
Touch of her hand, again, this time to his wrist.
He’s grateful for the small sop that she extends to his mangled feelings, his mangled heart, that she doesn’t come around to insist he look her in the eyes.
“For that, too, I’m sorry, Ignis, I truly am. I will -- call you. Will that be all right?”
“Soon,” and how he manages to get that word out through the sob that he’s trying to strangle in his throat, he doesn’t know.
“Yes. Soon. Goodbye, Ignis.”
And -- eventually -- another voice. Not hers. Kinder and gentler. “Can you try to keep going?”
“I don’t know if I can,” he says, he sobs. He can feel the hot tears streaking down his face.
He had fallen to his knees next to the grave, as it was being sealed and filled in.
And he’s lost count of the nights, lost count of waking up from one restless hour of dream-wracked sleep or another. One blank hour of existence after another. Hours upon hours of loss, of the sharp-edged absence, the sharp-edged loss. The suffocating emotions that couldn’t even let him go , not even for a minute.
Now -- now, he’s not on his knees, but he can’t see through the tears, can’t see for his loss. For what was torn away from him.
There’s only enough of him left to understand the hand-shape, gentle and cool around his. Unfamiliar, but -- towing him, insistent and careful somehow. “Come on.”
Away from cash registers and lunch boxes, away from people doing their midday shopping, and every step is agony: every step is like trying to scale a mountain of razor-edged rocks along winding paths, and the air is thin, and his hands and his feet are heavy, and smell of burned copper and broken steel.
A voice, whispering to him: not even a human voice, he thinks. Just a distant kind of command, strange, sweet. “Just a little farther and we can stop. I promised you.”
“I can’t go on,” he manages to say, breathless, crushed.
“Not the first time you’ve said it, I know. Not the last time you will. But what happens to you, between the words? You say it and the world stops, your heart stops, but -- you get up enough, you get on enough, or you wouldn’t find yourself saying it again. In between the times you say it: that’s what you can’t lose sight of. The in-betweens. And maybe, in time, the in-betweens will become longer, and you’ll do so much more while they’re on you -- but every time the in-between ends and you fall again, and you say it again, then you know what to do. You’ll know what you need. Just create another in-between.”
“Not -- easy.”
A softly laughing sob, still in that unreal voice. “I know. I know it’s not. I never said grief was easy. I never said there was a time limit.”
“You keep saying that,” he says. “When did yours start? When did you start grieving?”
There’s no answer: at least, not one in words.
The first thing he hears, instead, is a very familiar sound.
Clink, clink. Cups lifted, cups put back down. The soothing clatter of teaspoons and tea-scoops.
He lifts his eyes -- dashes away his tears -- he sees tall shelves, dark-grained wood, and on them -- a dense cacophony of colors, some of them bright and some of them dulled, and the same shape, repeating. Short squat squarish, but the corners are rounded off all in the same ways. Some of the shapes are dented, and some of the shapes are a little lopsided: but somehow he finds it in himself to decipher the labels on them. One, and then another, and then another.
Steel Silk. Jasmine Golden Needle. Clouds and Fog. Jade Young Snow. Celadon Beauty. Sapphire Lantern.
“I know what your favorite is,” and -- he blinks.
That’s Prompto’s voice, speaking to him.
He’s still on the move, and he’s still following Prompto, but this time he can see where they’re going: and Prompto smiles and motions him to take one of the padded benches in a small booth. Warm light from sconces high up on the wall, casting friendly protective shadows onto the table. Polished wood, and flower-shapes scattered at random, painted in thin black outlines.
Ignis sits, and pulls a pack of tissues from a pocket in his bag, and -- cleans up. Blows his nose and blots at the corners of his eyes and wipes his spectacles. There’s nothing to be done for the tear-stains on his cuffs. He can’t fold his sleeves up yet, not for another six months.
“Thank you,” he hears Prompto say, and then -- he’s sliding into the opposite seat.
He looks a little bit worn and fragile around the edges, too.
So he passes him the tissues. “Just in case you need it.”
“What did you get?” he asks.
“Your favorite. I said,” he hears Prompto say. “Well. One of them. I was surprised they had it here; there’re some places that produce it that won’t export at all. Maybe this place has a special relationship with the makers, I don’t know. But lucky us, they have it here.”
He blinks, taken aback. “You were paying attention to me when I was -- rambling on about tea?”
A quiet chuckle is the first response he gets. “Why shouldn’t I? I’m a fan, too, even if I don’t know very much about it. I just travel and drink it where I find it or it finds me. I don’t study it like you do, and I should, so I never have to suffer drinking a bad cup.
“Which reminds me: might be in bad taste for me to do this here, but no time like the present, right?”
And Ignis watches as Prompto unbuckles his belt bag and lays it on the table between them. Zipper on the main compartment, that he opens up completely, and -- out spill several large twists of translucent paper, neatly pinched and folded closed.
“Gunpowder tea. I thought you’d want to try out something that wasn’t new,” and Prompto laughs, a little, at his own joke. “I tried to get samples that had been aged at least a decade. The flavors should be very different now. Try them -- maybe in that new tumbler of yours -- I hope you’ll like them.”
“This is -- thank you,” he says. And: “Did you keep some for yourself?”
Shrug of one wiry shoulder. “Some. There’s a fifteen-year-old one in that mix that tastes -- actually it tastes like liquor, but obviously it isn’t. Good strong stuff. I had it and -- well, I’m still thinking about it, doesn’t that tell you something?”
“It does. Which one is it?” he asks.
Prompto points to one of the smaller twists of paper.
“I’ll make sure to save it for a special occasion.” He tries on a smile, and -- to his surprise, finds that it fits, somewhat. It’s easy, at least, even if it does feel a little lopsided.
“Here you go,” says a new voice, a strange voice, and Ignis blinks and looks up at the person who’s coming up to the table. Large lacquered tray that’s left on the table, containing a squat teapot and two teacups to match, the whole thing done in dark gray and a design of yellow lines in a loose mesh-like structure.
And even as he takes a deep breath -- he can smell smoke, and dark resin, and the fragrant must of dried fruits -- and he carefully places his hand on the teapot. “Let me pour.”
“I ordered that for you, you know,” he hears Prompto say -- but he’s putting his hands ostentatiously behind his head and leaning back. “I wanted to pour and make sure you got the best of the brew.”
“You’ve done so much for me already.”
“I’m not doing anything for you.”
He blinks, lifts the teapot, pours. “Oh? Then what is this? What was earlier?”
“Just -- reaching out,” and Prompto’s voice is still light, he thinks, but a little quieter. A little more nuanced. “I can’t bear it, you see. Grief like yours. You look like you’re carrying the gods themselves around on your shoulders. Or maybe you’ve got them around your neck. Holding on to you, like this.” Hands around his own throat in a parody of being choked. “I hate seeing others suffering like that.”
Ignis tilts his head, and takes the plunge. “Like you do.”
Prompto, to his credit, doesn’t even try to pretend to look surprised.
Just his knowing dark eyes, visible over his teacup as he brings it up to his mouth, held carefully in all his fingertips. “Yeah, like I do. So what? Why shouldn’t I help?”
So Ignis repeats himself, by way of answering. “When did you start grieving.”
This time, when Prompto looks up, teacup safely out of the way -- he looks bitterly old, bitterly alone, and the curve of his mouth looks more like a snarl than anything else.
He almost feels the need to draw back, or to hide behind -- the tray, perhaps, or his own bag.
What a darkness is in Prompto’s eyes now: like the old shattered fissures of the groaning earth. Like the darkest corners and shadows of Ignis’s own nightmares, the ones that smell of heat-crazed glass and steel-edged death and road-ragged rubber.
He thinks that darkness might be -- more than half of the answer.
If the grief is old, then it must be profound, if it still haunts him in this jagged way.
And if the grief is new, then it must be something like Ignis’s own --
“How old do you think I am, Ignis?”
He hears all the words and understands them and -- he’s not expecting Prompto to just ask, and he opens and closes his mouth for a few moments, trying to muster the words. “I don’t know. I can’t tell. You look like -- you’re her age. Luna’s age. Or younger. But you only look that way, around,” and he motions to his own cheeks, his own mouth. “If I couldn’t see your eyes I would call you younger.”
“And what do my eyes tell you?”
He tells the truth, because there’s nothing else to be said over the tea, under the golden lights. “That you have years on me. Years upon years, impossible as that seems. It couldn’t possibly make sense, and yet there it is. I -- I don’t understand,” and he catches his breath, and forges on, because Prompto only keeps on looking at him with those same strange eyes. “I looked back, at the bridge, and I thought that I wasn’t supposed to.”
“Why did I look back? I don’t know,” Ignis says, knowing that he’s all but babbling now. “I needed to see if you would be all right. Why did I think I wasn’t supposed to look back? Because -- you were not the same person, when I looked back.”
Uptick in the corner of Prompto’s mouth. Not like a smile.
“That,” he mutters, feeling the words leave him, the last of the words. “You looked like that. Too many shadows in your eyes. You said I looked like I was carrying the gods on my shoulders -- so what does that make you? What weight is pressing you down? What makes you smile at me?”
The moments pass.
The tea in his cup cools.
He doesn’t know what to expect any more. He doesn’t know what to think any more. Will Prompto answer any of his questions? Will he walk away? Will he disappear, too, and leave no more than the memory of tea-scent so Ignis can remember that he was actually in the world? Leave no more than the memory of sunlight-shadows on his hands, as he stood on the bridge, trying to find --
“I’ve come a long way to find that bridge.”
Has Prompto been reading his mind?
“Funny how humans think, isn’t it?” Gone the lightly hectoring tease in his voice.
Ignis shivers, and thinks of -- the heart of an iceberg, and a seat made of ice, and a soul pinned down in that ice.
“Funny: you think that rivers would only ever stay exactly where you’d found them. How you discover them and then claim them for your own uses, for your own purposes, and then -- expect them to stay where they are. It doesn’t even make sense for you to discover a river -- it existed before you, and it will exist after you.
“But, here’s the thing about a river: it’s moving water. It has to go somewhere. It flows to other places. To other waters. I don’t know where that river is going. I don’t know where its other waters are. But I’ve been looking for that river, and that crossing over that river -- and not only that. I’ve been waiting for the right morning. The right dawn.”
“Dawn,” Ignis echoes, quietly. “We met on that bridge and the sun was already rising. You got there, you made me drop my tea, and we were only a few minutes too late.”
The sound that comes out of Prompto in return -- chills his blood yet again. A laugh that’s a sob that’s a very quiet wail. “You count that time in minutes, Ignis -- it wasn’t that. Not for me. And -- not for the one I’ve been looking for. The one I wanted to see. I -- I think I’ve lost count of the years. How, how long has it been? I think I can’t remember his face any more. I only remember, still -- his name, and the way he held my hand. And when was that? I wish I still knew. And I missed him, on that river -- and you were standing in the right spot. A few minutes too late.”
He reaches out for Prompto’s hands, but -- not to hold him fast. “When will you have a chance to see him again,” he asks, faltering, quiet.
“I don’t know. There’s no way for me to know -- I won’t know if it’s the right time, the right morning, the right dawn, until I get there and it happens when I get there. I have to keep going there. I have to keep waiting there. But -- ”
The hands in his, cold, hard, small, pulling away.
Prompto is covering his face, is shaking, and Ignis swallows his own sob and looks away.
“I can’t remember, Ignis, I can’t remember him. How can I remember him? How can I remember when I can’t even remember how long it’s been?”
“I can remember his face,” and he doesn’t know why he’s responding, but he keeps on going when Prompto doesn’t stop him, or interrupt. He can’t even turn back to look at the expression on his face. “There are too many reminders of his eyes, his smile, in my life. But I can’t remember the shape of him any more. I can’t remember if he was warm or cold when he was holding me, or when I was holding him. I’ve lost him so recently, but I feel like I’ve lost so much of him, because I can’t remember what it was like to hold him. I -- I don’t understand how that’s possible. I don’t know why I forgot that so easily.”
“What are we then?” He’s surprised again, because Prompto is answering him now. “What are we? The ones who forget. The ones who were left behind. The ones who try to remember and -- what are we, when we can’t, we can’t remember?”
“I wish I knew. And if I couldn’t find the answers for myself -- then I wish I could find them for you.”
Now that it’s his turn to be asked that question, he’s expecting to just -- shake his head and be silent.
He manages one of those things -- he shakes his head -- the words come pouring out of him, uncontrollable, his own emotions eddying in the rough currents around his heart, around his every breath. “You were kind to me on that bridge. Kind and cold. I didn’t understand how you could be those different things at the exact same time. Now -- maybe I can see it a little more clearly. I don’t know, I don’t know, I wish I could tell you, Prompto. If that’s even your true name. I want to help you, I don’t know how -- just -- I’ll stand at that river with you, if you want. Stand on that bridge and wait for you to find the person you’re missing.”
He only knows he’s not really crying any more: still, the world -- this booth in a tea shop -- remains out of focus.
All he knows is the sudden movement -- Prompto, leaving the other bench, and then crowding in next to him.
And Prompto is slender-built and wiry and small, somehow, fitting into Ignis’s side, and he holds on, letting Prompto’s quiet sobs fill up his chest and his thoughts.
“Dawn, Ignis. It has to be at dawn. I don’t know when that is. I can’t trust those -- little programs on my phone.”
“Neither can I: they are guesses,” he murmurs, quietly, looking out at the wall of tea canisters. “Often they’re good-enough guesses. I know they’re not good enough for you, though.”
By the time Prompto’s sobs have begun to subside, the tea’s gone completely cold and useless and pointless -- but he pours it out, anyway, and pushes it towards one freckled, white-knuckled fist. “You’ll need that.”
“It tastes terrible,” he hears Prompto say, after only one sip: but he finishes off that cup and then pours another, wincing as it goes down his throat. “Why are we drinking cold tea?”
“Because of our emotions.” He sighs. “Stupid things. I used to laugh at him, at that person of mine. He would complain that all his emotions got in his way. I loved him, precisely because he never hid his emotions -- or at least he would always show them to me. I learned to understand that he trusted me because he showed me how he was angry, or sad, or frustrated, and because he made it clear to me that I was not the target of those emotions.”
“Now, though,” and Prompto is sitting up, still close by. Fewer and fewer sobs laced into his words.
“Now, though, I wish I could cut out all my emotions. Another impossibility. I might as well ask for -- him to come back to me.”
“Or for mine to come back to me.”
He watches as Prompto orders a fresh pot of tea, a fresh round of cups, and this time he accepts the steaming cup when it’s passed over. This time he drinks a long bracing swallow of the fragrant drink.
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
He thinks he almost succeeds in laughing, this time, hard as the thought is, strange and distant though the laugh sounds in his own ears. “The same thing I’ve done, all these days. Try to keep breathing. Try to stay alive. What for, I truly couldn’t say, but -- I will not consider the alternative.”
“You have a nice way of putting it.” Prompto almost sounds like his own light-voiced self again. The same voice he’d had, when they’d met in the department store.
The thought strikes him as he’s pouring for Prompto: and he says, to start with, “I have an idea, but -- feel free to reject it at any time.”
“Are we meeting at the river in the morning?”
He blinks, and looks over.
Prompto is staring down at his bitten nails, his crooked fingers, splayed atop the table.
“I’ll be there,” Ignis hears himself say. “Come before dawn, just to be sure.”
“I -- I will.”
* * * *
One more coat would have probably helped, he thinks as he moves down the sidewalk, or one more pair of socks.
Anything to keep his mind distracted from -- this long day that’s turned into a long sleepless night, and now he’s out again, on the move again, into the hours toward dawn.
Early, too early, he thinks, he’s learned nothing at all from yesterday, and he still hasn’t had any sleep: and yet he thinks of dawn, and he almost thinks he’d like to -- start running now.
The river that babbles, muted, lonely in the starless night: he’s come to live with the sound of its voice, that always manages to slip in through the doors and windows of his rooms, though he lives in a seventh-floor flat that faces a courtyard and a view over other houses, blank roofs, the occasional wandering cat darting from one place to another, its tail streaming in the slight breezes. He’s come to live with the smell of its water, its flow, and today he breathes in the smell of fallen snow and ice-rimed stone, and keeps going.
One foot in front of the other, over and over again.
The breath in, matched with a breath out, over and over again.
And he’s alone, when he gets to the bridge. Empty-handed, and his mind, too, gone blank with the cold and with the hour and the long long long wait to get to this point: the brief and pointless separation from company, or at least the only company he would have been comfortable spending those silent slow moments with.
He takes a step back from the bridge’s railings, the hanging tiny teeth of ice, and fumbles for his phone: all he can see on it is the time, oversized digital display. The slow tick-over of the minutes passing.
Cold wind whistling past him, biting, and his ears hurt, his nose, his temples.
Footsteps coming up on him, and he tucks the phone away: he glances, sharply, over his shoulder, and there is the familiar presence and the familiar ghost-light in Prompto’s eyes. Piercing gaze, even when nearly all of him is swathed in dark thermal layers -- from the hat covering every strand of blond hair, to the high fur-lined collars pulled up around his ears. Every inch of him, covered in black: he almost is part of the night, too, the lingering heartless cold dark.
“Good morning,” Ignis mutters, when they’re standing side by side.
“Good morning. I was putting my jacket on when I realized I never told you what I was waiting for here.”
He shakes his head, a little. “I have gathered a few details. Dawn, and this river. You are waiting to see -- ”
“I’m waiting to meet my person,” is the quiet correction that he receives. “But it’s not just a thing for -- him and me. It’s not limited. It might be a thing for you, too.”
He feels the words like an impact against his soul. “For mortals like me, you mean.”
Quiet sound that might be a laugh or might be a sob; he can’t really tell. “What gave you the impression I was immortal? I’ll pass, too, eventually, like my person did. It just takes a long time. I don’t know if that makes me lucky, or unlucky.”
He shivers, and not just because of the cold.
“Not important,” he hears Prompto say, after only another breath that hangs visible between them, thin wisp of lost warmth. “Because look.”
He follows the line of that arm in its urgent gesture: Prompto is pointing out at the mist, gathering in the very center of the river before them, spreading left and right to cover its banks.
“I know you have questions but -- if it’s today, Ignis, then it’s almost time. That mist is -- what I have been waiting for.”
He nods. “Yes.”
“There are many worlds, and that mist contains the doors between them. And if the worlds align in the right way, then the doors can open and certain meetings can, possibly, take place.
“I have to warn you: there are rules for this.”
He clenches his hands into fists. “Tell me.”
“No matter what happens, no matter who you see coming out of that mist: don’t step off this bridge, don’t say a word, and don’t touch them back.”
“That’s not ominous,” he says, mostly to himself.
Prompto laughs, soft and bitter, next to him. “I won’t be able to help you if you break any of those rules.”
“I understand,” he says.
The mist seems to leap closer, closer, with every breath -- and now he can’t even see the homes and the buildings on either side of the river. They’re lost in the dense haze, rapidly approaching.
He doesn’t know what makes him reach out for Prompto’s hand: but he knows he can be grateful, because Prompto is already meeting him halfway, and his hand is real, and solid, in this world that is slowly vanishing from Ignis’s own sight.
Between one breath and the next: the mist is all around them, so sudden that he can’t help but feel like he needs to run, like he needs to back up a step or two or ten, and the only thing that’s keeping him in place here is Prompto.
Who, by his side, takes a very hard and very loud breath.
But there’s a step on the bridge and it’s moving towards him, and he looks --
Claps his own free hand over his mouth because he remembers, vaguely, the rule about silence, in the middle of this bridge, in the middle of this mist.
The person who is moving towards him: the tall presence of him in the world. The lean lanky grace of him. Silver-white hair in its neat tail, and the somber dark suit with the slightly-too-long tails on the jacket. The rings on his fingers in several widths of copper and black.
Peeking out of the pocket over his chest, barely visible, is the shape of a little dog, in metal: keen-pointed nose, perked ears.
The same mist that eddies around that dog-shape obscures the colors of the person’s eyes, turns his irises silver -- Ignis remembers the vividness of his particular kind of heterochromia, captured and hidden in the photograph in its little case.
Closer, closer he comes, and Ignis breathes out slowly, fearfully --
Faint tug on his other hand, the hand that he still has extended behind him, and who is holding his hand? There’s no one to see there, when he glances over. Only the mist and the strange sight of his fingertips disappearing into it.
He turns back but he can’t, he can’t speak --
“It’s all right,” he hears Ravus whisper. “I know you won’t be able to talk. I know you won’t be able to come with me. I am -- where I am, now, and you are where you are, and I can’t bear the thought of you following me. Maybe someday, maybe sometime, we’ll get a chance to be together again. But right now, right now, I never said goodbye and neither did you -- but how were we to know? How could we have said things we didn’t even stop to think about? Not important, though. I still won’t say goodbye. I’ll say, until we meet again: and when that happens, in this life or in another life, I want you to have so many stories to tell me, do you understand? I want to hear about all the things you’ll do, all the places you’ll go.”
It’s the most he’s ever heard him say, in life and in -- death. All these words, all in one breath.
Ravus is smiling, sad and wistful and sweet, coming closer.
Ignis nearly steps back but -- no, here, Ravus is making contact now.
Is pressing a kiss to his forehead.
“I can feel how sad you are,” he hears Ravus say, quiet and gentle and so, so strangely understanding. “I can feel every moment of your grief. You don’t have to let it all go all at once. You can let it go a little at a time. But -- between those moments of grief, please won’t you live? Live for yourself, or live for others. Live, while you’re letting go of the grief. That’s how you remember me. That’s how you honor the memory I leave to you.
“Until we meet again, Ignis.”
He’s shaking, he’s rooted to the spot, he’s weeping --
The mist is flowing past him, and he can hear -- the sounds of a river, flowing past in its subdued currents, cold-slow, passing on and away to other waters.
Ravus closes his eyes, and smiles, and -- unravels, like water, like mist, swept away from him.
And on his own cheek Ignis can feel the warmth of a sunrise: the world turning rosy-gold. The trees and their bare branches, the streetlamps, the windows of the houses all around. The shapes of the cars parked on the side-streets.
Weight, bearing him down, and he looks to the side -- hears the sounds of quiet weeping, harsh loud breaths and a language he can’t understand.
He does the only thing he can think of: which is pull on Prompto’s hand, and turn him, and gather him into his arms.
They’re casting long shadows past the bridge and its railings when Prompto finally looks up, and swipes his sleeve over his eyes.
Prompto’s eyes have gone completely black, iris and pupil, and only a thin rim remains of the blue-violet.
“Maybe I’ll wear -- a thing like yours,” he hears Prompto say, as he gestures to his face. “The thing you had yesterday.”
“It would look good on you,” Ignis offers, with a small nod -- along with a different pack of tissues.
“He said so, too. My person. He said I could maybe get away with it now. You human beings wear strange things.”
“Do we?” Ignis thinks about it, but only for a moment.
“Your sleeves. You could get them fixed so they don’t -- look too long, and cover your hands.”
“This isn’t a costume,” he says, gently. “It’s a ritual, where Luna and I come from. We do it because we’re in mourning. I’ll -- fix it in a few more months.”
Blink, blink, of those otherworldly eyes. “I’m sorry. I saw it with my own eyes and I didn’t understand, I didn’t know.”
“That’s why it’s all right.”
Hands in his pockets again: he’s cold, even with the sun fully risen and its rays hitting his face.
Warm as that one last kiss Ravus had given him.
Before he can think about turning for home -- Prompto catches at his hand again, and he turns. “Yes?”
Eyes, lines, freckles, Prompto: another contradiction in him, in his hesitant words. “Can I see you again? I -- now that I’ve got what I came for, I have no idea where to go next. I don’t know where to go, and I don’t know if I can stay. But you have tea.”
“Some of which you gave me,” and he can’t quite laugh, or smile, but there’s a little less sorrow clawing at his mind, at his heart. “But -- I’m sure I can find something I can share with you; there are so many kinds of tea in this world, and some of them you know, or you’ve found. Some of them I know of, and I have them at home.”
“That sounds good: home.”
“I hope you find yours,” he says, gently. “Or maybe you can make a new one.”
“Good idea,” he hears Prompto say. “But if I make one here -- I don’t actually know if you’ll mind seeing me around.”
He shakes his head. “I would not mind it at all. I would not mind you at all.”
“Really? You wouldn’t?”
For the first time he sees a blush rise in Prompto’s cheeks.
“My, my person,” he hears Prompto say. “He said he thought I needed to find someone like you, to stay with.”
“That was kind of him,” he says, as gently as he can. “I wish I could thank him.”
“Me too. I couldn’t.”
He nods, and offers his hand in turn. “I remember. But -- let me say, you would be more than welcome here. Not just in this place. Not just on this bridge. You’ll only have to ask for me and when I can, if I can make myself go, then I’ll go. Then I’ll be with you.”
“I want to keep meeting you,” he hears Prompto say. “Whenever you can.”
So he smiles. “I think I can manage that.”