(KAI) Before you ask:
You can't call a French fry a 'French fry' in a place where there is no France.
(Cocoa is universal.)


SUFFERING YOUR PATHOS

How many years difference? Was it four, five? Maybe ten? But that wasn't the case here. Ivan celebrated his fifteenth birthday quietly, glumly, in a secluded corner of Arapellia's in New Vale, and watched other, happier, people.

He hummed, almost listlessly, and curved around the table like a cat, ears perked as his chin settled into one propped hand. Isaac and Mia. Garet, too. One by one they went filing in, and straight to the counter.

"Happy birthday to me," the blonde, petite and lonely, whispered in a sing-song, "happy birthday to me... Happy birthday to you-ou... Happy birthday to you."

The troupe seemed to order and then to band at a table far and away- or what seemed far and away from Ivan's corner in the shadow. Particularly, it was his own fault for their exclusion of him- it being difficult, of course, for one's friends to celebrate a birthday one did not inform them of.

Eventually, the waitress wandered over and offered to refill the fizzy drink he'd been nursing, as maturely as he could, and when she returned, she sat a basket of fried potato sticks down with it. "From a friend, birthday boy," she smiled.

Ivan frowned; looking around, there was no one. No one seemed to be looking for his attention and no one appeared to have just sent a basket of food at him. Curious.

Simply because... he had told no one.

He ate the food, anyway.


Mia was beautiful. Garet was handsome. Issac was gorgeous.

Ivan was... cute.


At first, the teasing and hair-ruffling had driven him crazed; he had accepted it angrily, pushed past it, and brushed it off. Ignored it entirely, or frowned his disapproval.

He was a serious child.

But Ivan came to a realization over time; if it wasn't Garet making jokes or Mia treating him so kindly as for it to be sickly, then it was Isaac ruffling his hair, pinching his cheek, and patting his shoulders. It was Isaac picking him up and swinging him around like a doll. It was Isaac.

And Isaac was gorgeous.


Of course, if Ivan got too old, the treatment would end, wouldn't it? Simply... vanish?

It was a thought.

A scary one.

Still, there was the greater part of him, despite the epiphany, that resented his situation more than had come to appreciate it. Like a scorpion, his thoughts flickered and scratched against one another, biting, stinging. It wasn't at all fair to him... as mature as he was.

Ivan settled deep into the booth and hugged the basket to his chest, eating slowly, with catsup. Mia was the mother, and Garet was the brute- kind, in his own way, but a man's man essentially. And Isaac was the hero, the kind of guy you'd lay your life down for, if he would only smile... Ivan wanted to be the one Isaac smiled at, really, but his role seemed to have fallen, irrevocably, to the child. The boy who was terribly clever, precocious and sweet, but almost helpless.

Never mind his magic, or his perseverance. Never mind his intelligence or wit. Ivan sighed. This was quickly becoming a pity party.

Worse, the chips were nearly gone.


He found himself wandering, aimlessly, through New Vale with a sense of purposelessness so profound his heart ached. The adventure was over- however shortly ago- alchemy restored, and it was already time to move on. Settle down, live until death came. Dull, but without danger and without the threat of losing your closest friends to monsters and beasts.

It wouldn't be all bad.

But it would mean... having to grow up, in a different way than he already had.

But who with? No one... no one... Sheba? No. He blushed. That seemed horribly awkward, as past crushes often do. Mia. No. An older girl who saw herself as his mother? Gods, no.

His thoughts drifted, like the clouds above him. He stretched down on the Weying Hill, and watched them, names drifting past in a surreal, dreamy sort of way. Alex? Alex had one of those names; a girl's or a boy's... A boy... Well, Alex. Too pretty- certainly too pretty for him. Felix. (He giggled.) Garet? No, Garet would only hurt him, wouldn't he? Certainly won't take him seriously... Picard? Har. Good one. Mmm... Isaac.

Isaac was nice. Nice like the grass under his cheek and the warm breeze, and the fuzzy quiet in his chest when the older boy talked. Growing up with Isaac would be good.

At least, it would make for a good dream.


"How did you find out about it?" she asked, walking hand-in-hand with him.

"A great deal of gossiping, and spreading honey. I'm surprised anyone knew at all, but apparently, Hammet and Layana knew, and Layana had a ladies' assistant, whose son lives here, and he only knew because at one time, he'd attended a party Hammet hosted for the occasion, which coincided with the birth of his little sister."

"That's... incredible," Mia's eyes went wide and cerulean, "How did you go about remembering all that?"

Isaac seemed abashed, and ducked his head. Tugging on her hand, he strode forward until they'd arrived at her new home, a joint affair in which she and Alex made comfortable arrangements, "It's... it's because it's important to me."

Mia smiled gently, pausing by the gates, "I know." The ocean-haired girl reached up, kissed Isaac's cheek and went through the white story of hanging flowers. "Be careful with him, all right?"

Isaac nodded, watching his friend, near-sister, and closest secret-keeper disappear into the painted door of her home.


"Hey, you," Isaac said softly, sitting some feet away from the other boy. Ivan's eyes were closed and dark-lashed- sooty blonde. Even breathing in a small chest. "What are you dreaming about?"

As he had hoped, there was no response. Completely oblivious to his surroundings, Ivan slept on, a little ball in the grassy shade of the Weying Tree. Stretching, Isaac slipped down, level with the younger boy's body, and stared.

He was tempted to whisper to him, still, to reach out and pet down his hair, grasp his chin closely- just see his blue, blue eyes... For a long time, now, Ivan had been the subject of many a thought in Isaac's mind, sometimes innocently, sometimes not, and his presence- secluded and defenseless- was painful to endure without action. But the hero can endure- that's what the hero does, right?

Isaac sighed lightly, shifting closer, until the edge of Ivan's green, fall cloak- somehow, cleverly, wrapped around the boy it owned- was brushing his fingertips. The boy shifted, too, murmuring a bit, and Isaac's heart skipped a beat.

"Go 'way..." Ivan's voice slipped past his petaline lips in a soft breath, and his hand jerked upward gently, touching the grass by his small, almost reddened nose.

Tears.

They slipped past, strained against clenching, fluttering eyelids. Isaac watched, fascinated and almost sick, and knew his fingers were twitching and creeping forward to help. "Please..."

They brushed across Ivan's cheek, diverting a tiny stream of teardrops and leaving them scattered. The boy's hand twitched, fell forward and onto Isaac's crooked arm. "I... saac?"

He stared openly at the bleary, dampened blue eyes, and let his hand trail unbidden onto Ivan's exposed neckline. "I see," the boy said, closing his eyes and smiling tiredly, "a dream."

"Is it a good dream?" Isaac whispered, pressing his fingers into the soft skin, pale and yielding.

Ivan smiled softly, reaching blindly and finding his leader's wrist. "Is warm... but... n'real..."

Issac winced. "I wish'd... would g'way."

Ivan yawned plainly, small teeth white and pretty and Isaac watching them all like pearls. The smaller boy rolled over, taking his cloak with him. Isaac himself rolled onto his back, settling his head on folded arms, and pondered this exchange. Above, the dark clouds of a deep night time wandered in, chargedly, and the smell of an Autumn storm caught on the last warm breeze of the day. Beside him, Ivan seemed to shiver a bit, if not from the cold.

That boy was just so damnably cute- quiet and pretty and always, reliably there. It was enough for even the most chaste to tremble. So Isaac slipped on to his side, resting his hand on the curled hip of the boy he'd been watching for longer than he knew, and pressed all up against the child's back.

Though, one could argue- Ivan wasn't really a child. He never really had been.


He woke up when the chills got bad. However, moving didn't seem to be an option he possessed; still struggling with the bizarre dreamscape of himself, Isaac, and the places and towns and inns he had seen, Ivan reached out in the dark and turned.

Twilight was creeping away, and he heard a bat screech. But those eyes, those dark, blue-shine eyes-

So he must still be dreaming.

A small whine bit at the back of his throat- a smile, childish cry and he gasped it back, clasping his hands over his mouth and waiting. Isaac watched this, a small precious thing in his heart expanding and flapping and making it difficult to breathe. "Hey," he said weakly, sitting up and touching Ivan's elbow as gently as he could manage. "Are you okay?"

His core went shaken. Here was the hero, asking after his welfare, laying by him and...

"Isaac?" he thought he might cry. It would be terrible for his image, or otherwise very good.

The young man settled into a sweet smile, perfectly ready to pounce on the other boy and make things clear as day in the darkening nightfold. "Yeah?"

No words would come.

Slowly, Isaac stood, and then stooped. Sighing, he reached for Ivan, who seemed frozen, and lifted him up, almost easily, into his arms.

"Isaac... Isaac... what's going on?" the boy's voice was laced with a hysteria most due from stress, or some pain...

Around a lump in his throat, Isaac managed to say, "I'm taking you home."


So he could not break away from that child- that child he felt destined to be. Warm in Isaac's little house, he curled against the back of the rusty red couch and fought another urge to cry. Isaac had carried him the whole way; and as he had, the dream unraveled into a vague idea of a memory, in which Ivan could recall being in this, or a similar, position. It had been wonderful, but it hadn't been real, and in the end- it vanished.

Still, when Isaac told him to stay put while he invented some hot cocoa, he could not but obey, and the warmth the house afforded him as the rain began outside was too delicious to object. Even if this role persisted. If Isaac needed it, he could be weak, and useless. A hero always needs someone to save, right?

There were those tears, again.

"Here," he said, dark blonde hair dipping into Ivan's eyesight. "Happy birthday."

His lips twitched slowly upward in a grim smile, "Thank you... how did you know?"

"Ah," Isaac seemed to laugh, settling onto the couch beside him and drawing a warm, red-flavored blanket across their laps. "I asked around."

Nervously, he set to sipping the chocolate drink, and could not meet Ivan's eyes. Suddenly, the speech of words which he had seemed to know by heart were gone entirely, as if sprung on wings of their own creation. Ivan only stared into the cocoa, "Oh."


"Look," Isaac blurted after the drawn silence, punctuated only by the crackle of sky lightning and brushed thunder, "I'm worried about you... Going off on your own, not telling us things..."

He seemed again at a loss for words, and Ivan's trembling silence did nothing to ease his concern. But when Ivan looked up at him- and even in the half-light of the fire, Isaac could see just how they glimmered and shifted in blue, "I didn't..."

Want anyone to notice I was growing older?

Want anyone to fuss over you? I would... Gladly.


But, God, it felt good. Isaac was so close, and even if he was treating him like a child... well, at least he was treating him. However, Ivan could not shake off the strange feeling something else was going on, even as he steadfastly tried to shake it off as a crazed, half-hopefulness that made him reel. Gently, Isaac lowered him into the cushions, near his shoulder, and demanded to know just what was going on.

"I'm probably... just going a little crazy," Ivan attempted a half-hearted laugh and slipped closer to the warmth Isaac's shoulder afforded.

A warm hand in his lap, touching at the knee with concern. "No, you're not."

That was the warmest voice. The voice you'd die for. Ivan's tears broke free, tracking down. "Please..." he whispered, under the storm, "stop being so nice to me... I'm not a kid... not really..."

Thunder crashed above, like an angry god, and Ivan sobbed out, desperate, and then tried to pull up, get off the couch- run away-

Isaac. Isaac's arms- there, holding him back. "Don't!" the other boy shrieked, struggling, lightning- flashed. "Just stop, I'd rather-"

There were those hysterics; but Isaac was holding on, holding on through Ivan's emotions breaking violently from the place he'd trapped them. "Ivan-"

"I'd just rather it stopped now, before I get used to it even more- before long, b-before long- I'll- Isaac, please!"

"You'll what?" the older teen demanded, collaring Ivan and dragging him up to his chest, never letting go. It was quite exasperating.

"I- I'll- Oh, God- Isaac, let me go-!" his warmth was intoxicating- a safe place he could hide in...

The tears would not abate, only poured with increasing misery as Isaac held the quieting boy into his arms. They laid there, and Ivan eventually ceased his struggle, only lay panting his short breaths onto Isaac's smooth neck. A place, which, with very little effort, could also be kissed.

"Tell me what's wrong," Isaac said- so softly, so calmly in the dark, that one could not find any trouble in the world, not with themself or the spilled cocoa on the floor.

"Isaac-" his name was a melting candy, sweet on the tongue, "Isaac, please, let me go!"

And now he was sobbing, throwing himself into one last, desperate flail to escape the perfect warmth and comfort of Isaac's arms. He failed. Trapped in a vee of space with the couch and Isaac creating the apex, Ivan gave over to resolute sobbing. The couch did not seem to mind. Isaac's arms were still wrapped around him, as much of the rest of the young man had become, as result of the frantic twisting Ivan had done. Heavily, Isaac leant his head against Ivan's shoulder, wishing it would stop convulsing, shaking, trembling, hurting.

"Ivan, is it about your birthday? About us? About Hammet? Layana? Sheba?" Isaac rambled almost desperately, holding on to the boy tightly, refusing to let go even then. "Please, whatever it is, I'll help-"

"It's you," Ivan choked it out around a desire to curl up and sink through the floor, never to be seen again.

"Me?" Isaac's confusion gave way to a deep, painful sort of hurt. After everything they had been through, after all they had done for each other...? "What... what did I do wrong?"

Maybe he was clutching, now- not so much holding... not so much.

"Wrong?" a laugh, a bitter, shocked laugh, gasped past Ivan's lips, and he clenched his fists tightly against his chest, "You're perfect, you're wonderful- you're everything I'd ever want to be...!"

"Then let me help you..." Isaac whispered, pressing his cheek against Ivan's neck, soft and damp.

"Don't... Just, when the storm is over, I- I'll go, all right? And- and we can forget about-"

"No," Isaac said firmly, "stop it."

"I don't want you to hate me...!" Ivan hiccupped a great gulp of air, his forehead scratching against the back of the couch.

"I won't hate you. I'd never hate you," Isaac, slowly, pressed a kiss against Ivan's exposed neck, where the drifting blonde hair had tangled away. "But you're worrying me."

Ivan shut his eyes tightly, the feathery touch on his skin a point of fire, as intense as thunder, "I'm sorry- I'm, I'm just a big baby, I know, I can't help it, but I'm getting older- I- I'm getting better, I am..."

"You're not, you're just Ivan," Isaac kissed his neck again, with such a tenderness, tears threatened his own eyes, even as Ivan's hiccupping sobs began to diminish. "So don't- don't think you need to change."

Ivan's heart skipped, and several beats later, he could still not quite swallow the lump in his throat, "Don't, Isaac... please don't..."

"I- I love you just the way you are, Ivan, please- let me help-"

The softest moan, a quiet plea in the dark and the thunder, "Why? Oh, God, why?"

"Ivan," he held on to him tightly, his hope flattening under the weight that his heart had become, "I'm so... so sorry."

Suddenly, fervently, with a trembling desperation, Ivan began to murmur under his breath, eyes tight. Inaudible at first, Isaac could eventually pull the words through the rain and thunder toward his hearing- "Please wake up, wake up now, please wake up, wake up now..."

"Ivan!" his voice shook- it shook like the hero's voice isn't supposed to shake- and his strong fingers bit into Ivan's shoulders as they were violently flipped over, pushed down, shaken, "Stop it, stop it, you're not dreaming again, Ivan."

He blinked large, wet blue eyes up at Isaac, the hero- his hero- and tried to believe, with everything he was, that Isaac had said 'I love you' and that it was real, and that the tired, drawn and anxious face looming over him, that belonged to the body that pinned him down on the messy couch, was truthful, and still, so still, real.

"I-Isaac?" his hands were balled against his chest again, where they make him feel marginally safer, and he remembers that is how he would sleep out in the wide, wide world, because that place was dangerous. But Isaac was... gorgeous.

And strong, and affectionate, and honest.

And he... he loves me?

"Oh, God," Ivan's chest hitched around a gasping breath and Isaac's anxiety seemed to melt, seems to be seeing the hope in Ivan's eyes, that flickers in the firelight and makes him feel larger and more important than any other person in New Vale, in the whole land.

"Ivan-"

"I love you, too," the boy blurted out, his hands reaching for the arms that pinned him down, "I- I've liked you since, since... Isaac, I thought... and I'm sorry! I'm sorry, so sorry...!"

Wildly protesting still, for the reasons that even Ivan was not entirely sure about anymore, he could not anticipate the rush of Isaac's lips on his, or the press of his chest down against his own. Ivan gasped around the kiss- it was searing; scorching against him, Isaac seemed to forcefully be telling him to be quiet. There wasn't much choice.

Slowly, Isaac's lips, hot and sweet, lifted from his and the trembling which had marked his sobbing before, now quivered through him from the contact. "There... there... I love you..." was all Isaac could manage, pulling himself next to the boy in an enveloping hug; a soft kiss to Ivan's forehead.

"I'm- I'm not, I'm not crying Isaac," Ivan shuddered, the heat of Isaac so close and touchable he felt overwhelmed. His heart pounded in his chest, and even though it seemed strange, like a child would feel, he enjoyed the kiss to his temple, too.

His vision was swimming, from the heat of the fire, and the heat of Isaac's arms, and the steady, rhythmic rain, his heart settled and yet jumped, and in a shallow breath, Ivan pressed himself against Isaac's chest desperately, "I feel so dizzy..."

"It's okay... you're tired... Shh, relax," Isaac frowned, finding this to be the exact opposite of the way he might have imagined a dramatic love confession. It was not quite as fantastic, nor as exciting- it in fact had been far more violent than he'd expected it to be, given that he'd never quite intended to let the confession happen at all. Still... If the hero always got the girl, then this was about as close to the perfect happy ending as he would ever get.

Isaac smiled, resting his forehead against Ivan's soft hair. "See? I'm real."

"Yes... yes," Ivan was touching his fingers against the older boy's collar bones, shoulders and arms; across his neck and chin and lips, lastly. "Do you..." he took a small gulp, "Do you really..."

"I love you, I love you," Isaac whispered, again and again and over, gently kissing Ivan's cheeks and lips and nose. "I really do."

The younger boy smiled softly, eyes wet and weary, as he rest his hands against Isaac's chest, "I love you, too... Isaac..."

"Yes." And Isaac firmly kissed his forehead, "Everything is going to be okay, now."

Ivan nodded, drifting easily into an oblivion of dreams and rain, and the touch of Isaac's hands, hero-safe in the storm.