In the Sephiroth, deep below the earth, Jade suggested that they retire for the day.
“I can keep going,” Luke said, despite the slow burn in his legs and the way his sword hand cramped. “There’s another door up ahead, if we could just clear it—“
“We should stop now so that we might accomplish something tomorrow,” Jade said. His glasses reflected the strange ribbons of light that illuminated the Sephiroth.
Luke huffed, shrugged to wipe at the sweat on his cheek, and said, “But—“
The final nail in the coffin came from Anise, of all people.
“Luke, we’re out of apple gels and everyone’s exhausted!” She gestured at the team, who were in various states of wear and tear from the day’s battles. Natalia was down to four or five arrows; Guy was covered in dirt from a fall he took; Tear looked like she might fall asleep on her feet. “You may think you can keep at it, but you’re not alone here.”
Deflating, Luke said, “You’re right. I’m sorry. We’ll stop.”
Guy clapped him on the back. “We’ll get it tomorrow when we’ve all freshened up, Luke, no worries.”
“Yeah,” said Luke. “Sorry.”
“It’s not your fault; you don’t have to apologize.”
Luke set his mouth in a frown and tried not to argue.
Anise took Luke’s arm and dragged at him. “Come on, Mr. Workaholic, I’m punching you out for the night.”
In the light of the setting sun, everything suddenly seemed much more manageable— the journey through the underground tunnels, their dwindling supply of gels, their scuffs and scrapes. The Albiore sat where they left it, and it seemed an awful lot like home.
“I feel improved already,” Natalia said, adjusting her quiver. “It is just so dreary in there, I’d almost forgotten what the sun was like.”
“Dibs on all the hot water,” Anise declared.
Noelle had a fire going and a soup simmering indefinitely. The tension of the day seemed to slough off them in an instant as they arranged themselves in the shadow of the Albiore, where the wind couldn’t blow on them.
Luke sipped at his soup without comment and scrubbed his arms and face and neck with a scalding hot towel and felt no cleaner.
“Hey Luke,” Guy approached him while the girls laid out bed rolls. He offered a hot cup of something—tea with honey or hot cocoa, something that smelled sweet—but Luke declined. The thought of drinking anything unsettled his stomach. “How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine,” he said, which is probably what he would have said if one of his arms fell off, and Guy gave him a look that said as much. So Luke said, “I’m tired, is all,” even though he was quite the opposite. In fact, he was wired with great unease.
“Yeah,” Guy said, sitting down next to him. “It was time to crash after all, huh.”
Luke hummed a response. Across camp, Anise was telling Natalia that she was taking up too much space, and Natalia was scoffing over the very idea.
“We’ve got time, you know,” Guy took a sip of his own mug. “The Outerlands aren’t going to fall immediately. You should pace yourself. You can’t do it all at once.” Luke frowned. Guy always knew what was bothering him before he even knew himself.
“I know that. I just want to do everything that I can,” Luke said. “As quickly as I can.”
Guy put a hand on Luke’s shoulder and said, “Don’t take it all on by yourself.” Then he left to help Noelle with their dishes. The hot mug sat steaming on the ground next to Luke, untouched.
The team restocked their gels, patched their clothes, retired early, and tried to sleep soundly.
Luke stared up at the sky and couldn’t feel himself getting tired. There was a knot in the muscles at the top of his spine he couldn’t work out. A restless bug fluttered in his stomach. The others, it seemed, could leave the eerie lights and the winding paths behind—the battlefield, the coppery smell of blood and sweat on metal, the adrenaline. But he couldn’t shake it off.
It was either toss and turn all night or burn off this anxiety, he determined.
He rose as quietly as he could, shimmied out of his bed roll, and shrugged his coat on, but before he could slip on his shoes and depart, Mieu stirred.
“Master?” he squeaked, and pawed at his face. “Where are you going?”
Luke put a finger over his lips and whispered, “I’m just—I’m going to train a little bit, is all.”
“Master, you should go to sleep!” Mieu exclaimed, not minding Luke’s plea for quiet in the slightest.
“I will,” Luke insisted. “When I’m tired, now shush.”
Mieu made noises of protest. “If Master’s going out, Mieu is coming, too.”
Luke groaned. He’d hoped to be alone, but if he didn’t take Mieu now, he knew the creature would wake the others. Honestly it was a wonder they weren’t all already stirring. There were light sleepers and then there was Jade. They all must have been truly exhausted, and then Luke felt bad for insisting they go just one room further, just one more battle.
“Okay, alright,” Luke relented, stooped to pick Mieu up, and perched him on his shoulder. “You can come, too, I guess. But you have to be quiet.”
Mieu radiated contentment. Luke shuffled out of the camp and stopped when he had reached the other side of the Albiore, where he could not see the fire snapping. No one came after him, and he let out the breath he’d been holding.
The night was crisp now, the moon waxing and bright. It was a bit of a trek back to the entrance to the Sephiroth, but Luke welcomed the time he had to himself, just to think, just to be alone. Sometimes he felt like there wasn’t enough space in the Albiore for the seven of them and everything in his head.
Mieu drowsed on his shoulder. Luke cupped him with a hand to make sure he didn’t fall off.
It was brighter underground than it was in the moonlight, with the bizarre floating runes to light the way. He trod on the luminescent ribbons more lightly than he would have in the daylight, tried not to peer down and wonder what lay beneath, how far there was to fall.
Mieu squeaked into his ear, “I thought you were only training, Master?”
“I am,” Luke said, and patted him reassuringly. “I’m not going to do anything reckless. I’m just going to clear a hall, maybe get us to another door.”
Mieu whined and buried himself into Luke’s collar. “I don’t like being here without everyone else.”
Luke didn’t either, but he said, “I won’t be very long.”
He dispatched a couple of monsters with little effort, a team of jerky machines that had been there since they’d been sealed centuries before. How many other forgotten spaces like this were there he wondered, littered about on the plains, these crypts no one would enter again? It was a little sad, a little mysterious. He wondered what he’d tell the rest of the team when they came back and found their progress had moved ahead, inexplicably, in the night. He began to feel little better, a little less like the jitters might eat him up. He was never the type who could reason out his worries, and this was so much better than the echo chamber in his head.
“Master,” Mieu said into his ear softly, “Please slow down.”
Luke realized he was breathing hard. The grip on his sword was trembling. “I’m just about done. Let’s get this door open and then we’ll leave. Promise.”
He went to the door and leaned on it. It opened with a rusty groan.
“See, all done, let’s wrap up here and--”
All the air went out of him.
Van, standing some thirty feet away, turned to face him. Behind him skirted Arietta the Wild, who clutched at her doll when she saw Luke. Mieu squeaked and shook at his neck. Van seemed about as surprised to find Luke here as he did Van.
Had Van and the God Generals not made it to the Sephiroth yet, either? Were they sneaking in at the dead of night to undo the Outerlands right at this moment?
Van considered Luke for a moment and then rested a hand on the sword that hung at his hip. Luke shot for his own sword behind his back, but didn’t draw. Neither of them moved. A stalemate.
Then Van said, “Just you?”
Luke found his mouth dry when he said, “The rest are just behind me.” But no one was coming and Luke knew Van knew, too.
“That’s not wise,” Van admonished him, for a moment sounding like the teacher Luke had once counted him to be. “But I suppose I shouldn’t expect much more from you.”
Luke burned, but didn’t move.
Arietta said, “Commandant, we must go.”
Van turned and continued to walk deeper into the catacombs, towards the Passage Ring.
“Wait!” Luke called out after him. “You’re just going to let me leave?”
“You make the mistake of thinking that I care what happens to you, Luke.” Van barely looked over his shoulder.
Luke moved to go after him, even though he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He couldn’t fight the Commandant on his own. He was angry at the part of him that stung at his words, too.
And then Arietta blocked his path and said, “The Commandant has things to do. I can’t let you get in the way.” Suddenly, there were two ligers flanking her. “He doesn’t care about what happens to you, but I do.”
Sweat dripped off the end of his nose and Luke wiped at his face quickly as the ligers approached. Van’s back continued to shrink as he travelled downwards, following the spiral path deeper into the Sephiroth.
“Mieu,” he whispered, and was ashamed that his voice was rough and sounded exactly as frightened as he was. He licked his lips, tried again. “Mieu, I need you to go and get the others.”
Mieu shook and said, “I’m scared, Master.”
“Me too,” he said quickly, and it surprised him how easy he surrendered it. “Me too, but you gotta—you can do it. You need to get the others.”
The nearest liger made a noise like a mean engine, and Luke brandished his sword at it. Mieu trembled at his shoulder.
“Please Mieu, go—“
Arietta made a motion out of the corner of Luke’s eye and the ligers lunged both at once. He kicked out at one in the face while the other snarled against the flat of his blade and he had no time to see if Mieu was making his getaway or not. The liger at his sword stood on its hind legs and forced its weight down onto Luke, and Luke toppled backwards as it fell on him. He hit his head on the way down but rolled sideways, kept his sword tucked into his body, and managed to scramble up and away from the maw that bent down to meet him.
When he popped back up again, the ligers had both recovered and were circling him. Arietta was gone. So was Mieu. Something in the Sephiroth hummed. Luke had blood on his hands from a wound he didn’t remember receiving.
The liger on his left went for his legs, but he leapt out of reach and slashed at the beast’s head. It howled; he thought he might have caught part of an ear. Before he could count his victory, the second liger knocked him to the ground again.
“Get—“ he grunted as he wrestled with the heavy paws and the claws attached to them, “--off of me!”
He brought the fist down several times on the beast’s face while it made to grab at his arms, his legs, his sides. Luke used the flat of his blade to push the liger’s head further away from him while he tucked his legs underneath its soft stomach and kicked with everything he had. The liger lurched off of him.
Luke was finally able to get to his feet, panting hard. The ligers each snarled and looked no worse for wear, really, except that streak of red in one’s made where Luke’d caught the ear. He couldn’t keep this up. His head rang from the fall he’d taken before and exhaustion made his movements sluggish.
He pivoted between the two advancing beasts, gripping his sword with both hands. The tighter he held it, the more it seemed to shake. The wind whipped around at his ankles and suddenly he couldn’t back up any further; he was at the edge of the path, and the fall was such a long way down, into nothingness.
The ligers rumbled. Luke grit his teeth.
One came up on his left and went for his side. Luke bent his elbow to protect himself, angled his hand so that he might have tidily slipped the point of his sword under the monster’s chin, but it changed its course at the last second and made a sloppy grab for his wrist. The teeth sank in so Luke could feel them grinding against the little bones there. He cried out, felt his grip go weak, dropped his sword.
“Ah,” he whimpered, and tried to pry the jaws from around his wrist, but it did no good. “Get—off –“
The second beast was charging for his other side now, jaws open wide, and Luke twisted to reach for his sword with his right hand. His fingertips brushed it once, twice, and then finally he managed to grab it from the ground. There was no way he could fight off the second liger with his non-dominant hand, but if he did it right, the liger’s momentum should take care of it himself. He propped the hilt of the sword against his chest and dug into the floor, and ran the sword right into the throat of the advancing liger. It gurgled once and then dropped.
Luke tried to remove the sword from its throat, but couldn’t manage it between his shaky grip and the angle the other liger had his wrist in. Its hot breath tumbled down the length of his arm, slick with blood. It held on with a bulldoggish tenacity and all of Luke’s strength seemed to be in those jaws. What could he do? Had Mieu gotten the others yet? Were they on the way?
He futilely punched at the liger’s face, its eyes and nose, but he felt the fight go out of him even as he did so. His heart seemed to be at the tip of his tongue.
The liger shifted and the paws came up to tear at him with its great claws. He’d be ripped open to bleed out, and his friends would find his body.
The wind nipped at his heels. Luke swallowed hard. Made up his mind. But it was such a long way down.
He grabbed a fistful of fur from the liger’s mane, let everything go out of his legs, and fell backwards. Because the liger had propped itself up with its hind legs, it went with him, right over the edge of the floating path.
The wind whistled around him, and on top of him the liger grunted and kicked out with its back legs, catching his ankle, his stomach, bright shocks of pain he couldn’t focus on because they were falling so unbelievably fast, tumbling over and over. Then the ground came up.
The liger was dashed against it and Luke was dashed against the liger, but was thrown over and away by the force of the landing. He slid, and then he was very still. The liger did not rise.
Everything was a numb burning from the tips of his fingers to the soles of his feet. Breathing was agony; his good wrist was bent underneath him and the one he wrested from the liger’s mouth bled freely. He felt like a canteen punched full of holes.
It was too much to lift his head, so he lay like he had landed, trying to move his fingers, his toes, to make sure they were all there. His left hand—the mauled one—was troublingly unresponsive. A tremor started in his legs and shook his whole body. Each time he blinked, Luke feared he might slip into a deep sleep.
It was difficult to determine how long he laid there, curling and uncurling his toes, touching his fingers together and being confused when he didn’t feel a thing.
Someone was at his shoulder, shaking him, but he was shaking so already and he was so focused on the fact that he couldn’t form a fist that he didn’t notice it immediately. He heard his name being spoken again and again.
“Luke. Luke, can you hear me? Mieu, go get Tear.”
They turned him over and everything went sharp with an agonizing clarity.
“Luke,” Guy was saying. “Talk to me.”
It was hard to see straight—everything was swimming. Luke took his good hand and tried to grab onto Guy’s shirt, but his fingers weren’t working right and he just kept bumping against Guy’s arm until Guy grabbed his hand.
“Say something,” Guy said. His voice cracked.
He wanted to say something reassuring, but then a wave of nausea came over him and he could only manage, “I feel sick.”
“Tear’s right behind me,” Guy was saying as he rubbed his back. “You just have to hold out until she gets here.”
Luke spit. He said, “I can’t feel my fingers.”
Guy pulled Luke into his lap, ran his hands up and down his arms like he was trying to warm him. “It’ll come back. You’ll be fine. You’ll be okay.”
“I’ll be okay,” Luke repeated.
“You can’t die because I have to kill you for being so stupid.”
“Not gonna die,” Luke took note, but his eyelids were so heavy.
Guy had pressed a hand to Luke’s shoulder, and was keeping a constant pressure there. Luke looked down and realized he was trying to stanch the flow of blood from a deep gouge there. He hadn’t even been aware of it. It was hard to tell if he was still shaking or Guy was.
“I don’t know what you were thinking--” Guy began, and stopped himself.
“Wasn’t,” Luke wheezed.
“You are,” Guy told him, and held him tight. “But you’re an idiot that’s alive and you better stay that way. You can’t be dumb if you’re dead.”
“Sorry,” Luke said. “I’m sorry.”
“Why did you come all by yourself? Did you think you were proving something?”
“No, no,” he said. Something burned at the back of his throat. “I couldn’t-- think. Had to-- do something. Be useful.”
Guy scowled down at him. “Your idea of being useful is seriously messed up, Luke, you didn’t need to-- didn’t I tell you it was okay to go slow?”
“Don’t listen too well,” Luke said through teeth he bared in what he hoped looked like a smile.
“You never have.”
He was suddenly feeling very fuzzy around the edges. “How come you’re so good at finding me?”
Guy snorted. “Been at it a long time, haven’t I?” Luke felt his head dipping. “Hey. Don’t nod off on me.” He shook him.
“Trying,” he mumbled. It was very cold and he was scared to close his eyes but they were heavy as anchors.
Footsteps were echoing in the empty space, and then a curtain of brown hair brushed against Luke’s nose.
“Tear,” Guy breathed.
“Where’s the worst of it?” Tear said, and this was something Luke liked about Tear, that she was always capable of handling the worst.
He thought he’d say so, too, but what came out was, “Like you,” as he gestured vaguely at her. Tear stilled his hands and looked cross.
“Wrist,” said Guy, and shifted so she could move in.
She held the mauled hand in both of hers and began to sing. The swollen flesh mended slowly, new pinkened skin knitting itself over the torn pieces. All the fingers on his hand twitched involuntarily as things repaired themselves, testing connections. It was all still numb to Luke. It felt a little like his hand was gloved and being dipped in warm water.
More footsteps, and Natalia was at his side.
“Move, Guy,” she said, not unkindly, and Guy took his hands from Luke’s shoulder so she could get at the wound there. Guy’s hands came away slick and red and he held them at either side of Luke’s head.
Luke choked on a sob as Natalia worked on his shoulder-- not because she was any less gentle than Tear, but because he’d realized when the ache went away how much pain he’d been in. Now he took shaky breaths and counted the stars he saw when his numbed nerves burned and then were immediately soothed.
“Shush,” Guy urged him, with Luke’s head in his lap. “It’ll be over soon, you’ll be okay.”
“Guy,” he said, and tried to focus his eyes by squinting. “You’ve got a girl on either side of you, did you notice that?”
“Luke, shut up.”
Luke found Guy’s knee and patted it. “Thanks, Guy.”
Tear shook her head, put her hands on Luke’s chest, and said, “This might hurt.”
She started another hymn and all the air went out of his lungs. He wheezed for breath, clutching at whomever he could find-- it might have been Tear, but just as easily could have been Guy or Natalia. Someone held him down. Someone else grabbed his hand.
Then it was over and he could breathe again. Voices swam around him, words he couldn’t quite latch onto yet. His head was ringing.
“I had to set a rib,” Tear was saying. “It might have punctured a lung.”
A voice he recognized as Anise’s said, “He doesn’t look good. Is he going to be alright?”
“Hush, Anise,” Natalia scolded.
“We’ve got most of the lacerations; he’s not bleeding anymore,” Tear said. “But we can’t do anything about the blood he’s already lost.”
“Jade,” Guy said, and motioned for the colonel to come closer. “Can we move him?”
Luke hadn’t noticed he’d arrived, and scowled when Jade leaned down over him, felt on his ribs, moved his arms and legs.
“My, my,” Jade said, prompted by the look Luke gave him. “Why the sour face? There’s nothing I can do to you that you haven’t already done to yourself.” There wasn’t any humor in his eyes, though, and when he noted Luke’s pulse his frown was deep.
“Just-- didn’t know you were here,” Luke managed.
“Thought I wouldn’t come?”
“Thought you’d be here sooner,” and Jade looked at him funny so he added, “To tell me how stupid I am.”
“You are remarkably moronic, rest assured,” Jade supplied, and patted him twice on the arm. “Let’s get you back to the Albiore so we can properly discuss.”
Agonizingly, Luke was hoisted upwards, and immediately his legs buckled. He didn’t protest when Guy picked him up and hefted him onto his back.
Suddenly he remembered what had happened on the platform above, and the man who was undoing the Passage Ring as Luke himself lay bleeding. The urgency of this news made him dizzy.
“Wait,” Luke managed, “Van’s here. Van’s—down in the Passage Ring, we gotta—”
“Let Van do what he wants,” Guy said, without mirth. “I don’t give a damn.”
“Luke,” Natalia admonished gently. “Van is not the priority at the moment. We’re going to fix what he’s here to do besides.”
Luke wanted to argue with her— of course he’d be okay, they’d already performed healing artes, what were they worried about? If Van wasn’t the priority, what was? He tried to swing himself down from Guy’s back but his arms weren’t ready to support him yet either, and he only succeeded in throwing them both off balance. Guy had to stumble to steady them.
“Stop it,” Tear snapped, putting a hand on his back. “Let it go, Luke.”
His stomach churned again, and he burned with shame, went quiet.
Guy seemed to sense the tension and gave a little chuckle. “You know,” he said, shifting Luke’s weight to the right, “this was a lot easier when you were smaller.”
“Is he heavy?” Anise asked. “We could have Tokunaga carry him.” Luke tried to kick her but only had the strength to jerk his leg in her direction.
“I think,” Guy laughed, “I’d rather do it myself.”
Anise looked put-out, and worried at the hem of her tabard.
Luke must have been drifting in and out on their way back, because they were at the Albiore much quicker than he thought they would be.
“I moved the cot out,” Noelle told them as she held the hatch open for them. “And I’m heating a kettle as we speak.”
Guy lowered Luke onto the single cot and then left to attend to something else. Everyone was doing something, quiet but stern commands being issued. Luke, slowly and with great care, took off his gloves and his coat, both of which were covered in blood that was quickly drying. Even that tired him out, made his head swim, so he laid down on the cot and tried to take long, deep breaths.
Natalia came and collected his things and asked him how he felt.
“I feel…” He thought for a while but settled on, “Okay. I’m okay.”
“That’s good,” Natalia said and then she flicked him on him the nose, hard.
“Don’t you ever pull anything like that again,” she hissed. “You very well could have died.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
Then she pulled his hand into hers. “Even a king doesn’t rule alone, Luke. You’ve got to stop thinking like his is a weight you must carry on your own.”
“I know it isn’t, I just…”
“If you need time to think, do so,” she said firmly. “If you need someone to talk to, speak with one of us. Please consider us your confidants, Luke.”
He thought about apologizing again, but Natalia looked at him so fiercely he thought that wasn’t right. So he said, “Thank you, Natalia.”
She nodded, took his bloodied coat and gloves away, brushed at her eyes when she thought he wasn’t looking.
Guy approached with a bucket of hot water and a hand towel and asked, “Can you sit up?”
Luke could, but not without stiffness. Guy knelt to scrub away at the blood that caked his hands and arms. Each time he dipped the towel back into the bucket, the water there got a little muddier.
“I think Natalia’s mad at me,” Luke muttered.
“So am I,” Guy told him. “Pretty sure we all are.”
“Oh,” said Luke, and furrowed his brow. “How do I fix it?”
Guy wiped at the blood on his knuckles and frowned. “I don’t think it’s something you can fix, Luke.”
“I really am sorry.”
“You keep saying that, and it’s part of the problem.” Luke didn’t know what to say to that.
The water in the bucket was rust-colored at this point. Luke felt sick all of a sudden, and he slid his head to Guy’s shoulder and asked if he could sleep yet. He was only barely awake when Guy said yes, probably, how did he feel? He thought he said something back but he couldn’t say what.
When Luke woke up again it was because Tear had her hand on his forehead. She wasn’t looking at him, didn’t know he was awake. Someone had tucked a pillow under his head.
Tokunaga was slumped by his arm. Idly, he picked up the stuffed creature and set it on his chest.
“Oh,” said Tear just above a whisper, “You’re awake.”
He felt heavy and his mouth was full of cotton. He didn’t feel like he could speak, so he picked up Tokunaga, thumbed the stitching and button eyes.
“I think Anise felt bad she couldn’t do anything for you,” Tear told him. “But don’t tell her I said so.”
He was about to ask what the hour was, where everyone else was, but then shut his mouth when he looked around and the answer was plain to him. Guy leaned against the foot of the cot and slept, half of a bed roll covering him. Natalia and Noelle drowsed in the navigator’s chairs. He could just make out the top of Jade’s head in the pilot’s seat. His glasses, on the dashboard, caught the morning sunlight.
Luke considered the scene: the eight of them all shoved inside the Albiore’s cockpit, sleeping in uncomfortable positions. He ran a shaky hand through his short hair.
“Sorry again for-- putting you all through this.”
Tear looked out over the slumbering heads, at the peaking sunlight, and didn’t say anything.
In the silence, Luke felt compelled to babble. “I know it was sloppy and irresponsible of me. I know I shouldn’t have tried to go at it alone. But if Van hadn’t been there-- I would have made good progress, really--”
“But he was.”
Luke looked at his hands. “Yeah, he was.”
“And that’s why you shouldn’t have gone.”
Luke worried his lip. “It would have been fine.”
Tear sighed, picked at something on the cot. “You should rest, Luke. Recover your strength. We’ll go down into the Septhiroth tomorrow.”
He shot a look at her. “Why aren’t you all going down today?”
“It was,” she said meaningfully, “a long night.”
“No, we could go down today, we could get this one done quickly, it won’t take that much time--”
“You should really take that time for yourself, Luke,” she said, and she put a hand on his shoulder. It was sore, and he winced, but tried not to let it show.
“I don’t get why you’re all hovering around here. Every minute we sit around is one more minute that Van has over us to sink everything into the Miasma! Doesn’t that mean anything?”
Tear shook her head. “Luke, enough. You’re being bull-headed. Your attitude-- it’s downright suicidal.”
He looked her in the eye and said, “It’s not about me.”
Her frown was a fierce line. “No one’s going anywhere.” She rose and left him on the cot.
Luke, feeling angry at them all for sleeping on the job, fisted his hands and glowered. They were wasting so much time agonizing over him. Now he’d gone and made everyone mad at him, to top it off.
More than anything, though, he was angry at himself. Luke frowned at the domed ceiling of the Albiore and tried to blink away with the tears he could feel pricking at the corners of his eyes.
Mieu appeared by his shoulder. He said, “I’m glad you’re alright, Master,” and Luke pet his small head while his hands trembled. “Everyone was really scared.”
The sunlight brooked in, golden and quiet. Luke listened to his friends breathe and wondered why they’d all been so concerned for him. He hooked his elbow over his eyes and felt hot tears, because it was sad, how they’d insisted that he was so important, and how hard he found it to believe them, how much he wanted to.