After reading the letter from his father (in his head this was capitalized and underlined: The Letter, like The Ending of the World) Iyan's first thought was to crawl into bed and hide under the covers; the second was to throw up in the dorm room's itty-bitty sink, but that would clog the drain and make his situation even more impossible to ignore. His third thought was to leave before his roommate returned from class and made an explanation for his leaving necessary.
He wasn't really planning to pack everything up in one go, but the room was small and almost completely lacking in storage space and it gave him something to think about that wasn't his father's closing ultimatum. Clean clothes and dirty linens mixed in with his (expensive) school texts and the one family picture he'd hung on the wall. The spoon and chipped bowl he used when making oatmeal in the pocket kitchen down the hall. Three and (nearly) a half years of his life fitted (forced) into two old milk-crates, a laundry bag, and an old army satchel (all he had of his father's father's father). And then he was out on the busy sidewalk, bags and boxes and heartache and all, no destination in mind beyond out.
A few people on the busy sidewalk might have given him funny looks, but he was distraught, and in the city you could get funny looks just for existing, so he didn't notice. Besides, his neatly-packed life began to get heavy much more quickly than expected (if he'd been capable of forming expectations); a handy distraction from his new woes, but liable to turn into yet another problem if he didn't come up with a destination soon. And it was cold. His burden kept most of him warm, but his nose and fingers and toes had all gone quite numb (and his arms gone quite exhausted and beginning to cramp) by the time he realized that he'd wound up in front of the building where his cousin lived, and he could perhaps go up and make plans where it was warm(er) and safe from unwanted pity. Abirel, bless him greatly, wouldn't recognize the emotion even if it was pinned and labeled for him.
...Which was true for several other emotions as well and occasionally proved inconvenient (or unpleasant), but wasn't likely to be applicable to current circumstances. Also, the crates were getting very heavy and Iyan's face seemed to have more or less frozen solid.
Ringing the bell took some maneuvering, as he was afraid to put down the crates in case he wasn't able to pick them up again, but eventually he managed to snag the correct bell-pull with two fingers and was rewarded by the sound of a window scraping open above him. "It's me!" Iyan called up, trying to sound as he usually did when dropping by for a casual visit. Nothing wrong, nothing out of the ordinary. "Come down and let me in, would you?"
"Since you ask so politely," his cousin shouted back, their voices echoing together between the high houses lining the narrow street like ripples in a shallow pond. The window shut with a bang and the rattle of glass panes and Iyan tried to prop himself up against the stair railing in such a way that he wouldn't get knocked over when the door opened--or drop anything in the meantime.
He'd nearly dropped everything at least four times (and the crates alone several more than that) by the time Abirel finally appeared, and when Abirel took hold of his elbow to pull him through the door-wards, Iyan took the opportunity to shove the crates at him.
"Gifts, cousin?" Abirel asked, chin hooked over the edge of the top crate, in that tone of voice that meant he was either joking or completely serious; Iyan guessed wrong half the time, but he was too distracted at the moment by his body's complaints to notice anything except all the stairs he would have to climb before being able to sit down. "You really needn't have."
"That's good, because I didn't," Iyan said, trying and mostly failing to flex his near-frozen fingers, and followed him up all forty-seven stairs--counting them served as an ready distraction from how his legs and and arms and back all felt weak as water.
The apartment door was open when Iyan finally arrived there; these door wards knew him, for Abirel made and maintained them, and he stepped through unaided. Or stumbled, rather, which he wondered at as he caught himself against the friendly doorframe. His burden hadn't been light, and the weather was bitterly cold, but he had borne worse with less weariness--though always in company.
"Is ought awry, cousin?" When Iyan only blinked at the question in silent startlement, Abirel frowned at him, taking his arm to guide him inside, as he had below. "I had thought my wards better managed than to deny you."
For an instant, Iyan seemed to feel the magic set in the doorframe curl and twist in unhappy protest; his imagining only, perhaps, but he was still raw from his father's latter and could not allow even this small injustice to pass unanswered. "It's only my own fatigue that seeks to deny me. You should trust your workings better."
"For they will serve me better if I do?" Abirel sounded amused, though when Iyan looked up at his face, his expression sat grave as ever. "I don't think they could."
"No?" Iyan collapsed onto the sitting room's threadbare sofa with relief akin to despair. "I suppose that's well."
He couldn't burden his cousin by staying here, but he had nowhere else to go onc ehe'd returned to the college to hand in his dorm key and sign whatever papers they might have for him, to formalize his removal from the student roles.
"Maybe so, but I think you're not." A cup of something steaming was thrust at Iyan's face; he took it reflexively, drinking from it before he realized it was a) hot enough to peel the skin from the inside of his mouth and throat, b) the sort of very black tea he normally couldn't stomach, and c) had already been half-consumed before he'd started in on it.
But it gave him something to hold onto, so he attempted a smile up at his cousin, who was standing uncomfortably close, shins nearly against Iyan's knees. "Thank you," Iyan said, gesturing at the cup. "Though truly, I am well." 'As might be expected in the circumstances,' he finished in the silence of his own head, so that his spoken words might be true. "I've had a letter from my father." By now his fingers had mostly thawed, so he needed only two attempts to extricate the somewhat crumpled letter from his pocket. Some part of him, more alert than the rest, warned that giving Abirel anything, particularly personal things such as this, was dangerous, but Iyan was weary and heartsick and loved his cousin dearly--not quite the same as trusting him, but near enough for this instance. Abirel liked to fix things; often his idea of 'fixed' didn't match anyone elses', but Iyan at the moment had nothing beyond what he'd carried to this place and whatever aid Abirel could lend him. (And perhaps his family; Iyan's uncle and aunt and his aunt's father had seemed to like him when the families had visited together, and there were worse trades than printing....)
At this point Abirel interrupted his thoughts by plucking the slightly-cooled cup from his hands and emptying it in one long swallow, ducking into the sleeping room to resumably leave it in the tiny wash basin there. He re-emerged with hat and coat and scarf on, pulling Iyan off the sofa and out the door before he could ask what was going on.
"We're going to see the registrar," Abirel announced, all but floating down the stairs at a speed that left Iyan breathless in his wake. "And a few other people, and--if all goes as planned--my least favorite professor from second year."
The door and wards locked shut behind them as they tumbled into the street, metal and wood and magic melding into a single, unbreakable barrier. And then Abirel was away, running like a sprinter left behind at a rice, with Iyan wheezing a long and growing ways after--but bemused, not irritated, for they'd run this way many times as children, and while Abirel had speed, he'd never learned to pace himself. Even tired as he was, Iyan would catch himself long before they reached the college offices--and lap him too, if they'd been on an actual race course.
Both were breathless but laughing when they finally stumbled to a half beside the great stone lion that guarded the main college entrance, with its high pillars and carved wooden doors; and Iyan rejoiced to see them, for he had forgotten why they'd come. Forgotten, until as they began to walk up the worn steps, he put his hands in his pockets to warm and and felt the letter. At that touch, all his joy turned to biting grief; he had not realized until that moment how much he loved the place.
The doors seemed reluctant to open, as though they knew already that he no longer belong there, and without the presence of his cousin, he might have simply turned around again and left; although, as with his first flight, he would have had no destination in mind. Or much else either, beside the pain of his heart.
'A little longer yet,' he thought at the door's latch and hinges. 'I'm not quite cast forth.' Perhaps he was persuasive, or perhaps the wood was merely swollen with the icy rain they'd had that morning.
Inside, Abirel strode down corridors and up stairs and past many doors--each less impressive than the previous--until they stopped before one labele 'scholarships & grants'. Abirel knocked on this; the finished was cracked and buckling, and if not for the small hand-written paper label, Iyan would have expected it to conceal a broom closet, not an office.
"I thought we were going to the registrar's," Iyan hissed in Abirel's ear as someone within intoned 'Enter'. The door hid all but the bones of the words, but Iyan thought he caught a hint of annoyance.
"Did I say that's what we were doing?" Abirel asked, eyebrow raised, the corners of the mouth curled close and secretive. He reached for the door latch, but Iyan caught at his shoulder in fear or dis-ease. "Trust me, cousin," he said, and opened the door.
The office was all old wood and untidy heaps of paper, with a large and ancient desk in the center of the room. The woman sitting at it had hair like silver and worn as some antique oak, so that she fit her surroundings perfectly; if not for the gleam of her hair, Iyan might have missed her presence entirely.
"Abirel," the woman said, tone so very dry that Iyan could get nothing from it. "And who have you brought with you? I hope you're not here to moon over my desk again. The last time proved most inconvenient." Iyan found himsef very grateful that her attention stayed fixed on Abirel--as it should. Iyan was mere bystander, or perhaps hostage.
"Did it?" Abirel smiled at her, sitting uninvited in the lone unoccupied chair; Iyan had to fight the urge to crouch behind him, as if he were some inconvenient shield against the world. "I am dreadfully sorry, then. Although I'm in no position to make guarantees, I shall endeavor to avoid similar behavior in the future." Long acquaintance had taught Iyan to translate that as 'Perhaps I'll start writing love poems to it and post them in place you'd rather I didn't.' It was almost enough to make Iyan feel guilty about whatever it was Abirel had planned, although he didn't know and wold rather not guess.
But the woman laughed. "I always forget between visits how much fun you are. But you didn't answer my question." She waved a hand at Iyan. "Who's your companion?"
"My cousin, Iyan. And I think the two of you can solve each other's problems." He caught at Iyan's cuff and dragged him around the chair and toward the desk. "Show her the letter," he said, an order in all but force; under other circumstances, Iyan might have commented, in laughter or warning as warrented. But showing the letter meant not having to explain it out loud, so he dug the letter out of his pocket and passed it across the desk, smoothing the creases as best he could--though a small, defiant part of him wished to crumple the whole thing into a ball and toss it into the room's wood stove.
The woman took it from him without comment and read it at least twice, eyebrows going up a little further each time. Finally, just as Iyan was beginning to feel the need to say something--or clear his throat or fidget--she set it down and placed one hand over the text as if to block it from her sight. "Very plainly stated," she said. "And quite thorough." She looked at Iyan intently for a moment as if awaiting a reponse, but Iyan had none and so remained silent. After a very long, uncomfortable while, she sighed and slid the letter back toward him. "This is not the first such thing that's been brought to me, and I fear it won't be the last. I'll tell you the same thing I've told all the others: your father is a fool, and his family twice so for following him in this. I hope your mother's family is less so?"
But Iyan had no answer to this, other than to look to his cousin.
Abirel glanced up from his study of the desk's carvings. "What, foolish? No, we're even more so, I suspect, though not in this regard. We'll take him if they don't want him, but I didn't bring him here to have his family changed on the roll."
"It isn't?" Had he been slightly less in shock, Iyan might have noticed the woman's half-smile, which suggested this conversation was not without precedent. But he was still reeling from Abirel's casual and complete claiming of him--to match his father's family's disowning. He supposed gratitude should be in order, but mostly he just felt disoriented, as though the ground kept changing the shape beneath his feet.
"No, I brought him here to solve two problems at once. Iyan needs a job--we'll take him in, but we can't pay his way--and you need an assistant for that ... project Professor Oranibin wrangled funds for."
"I see." The woman's eyes were unreadable, but her mouth suggested amusement. "Does Iyan know about this?"
"Yes," Abirel said. "He's standing next to me, isn't he?"
Iyan wanted to point out that the question was really whether he had known prior to entering this room, but he'd learned long ago not to bother with that kind of correction with his cousin.
"Universal compendium of everything," Iyan kept repeating to himself, trying to make the words mean something smaller. "I just signed away the rest of my life, didn't I." His thumb had mostly stopped bleeding, but the pain from pressing on the wound seemed to help the world stay stable around him, so he kept doing it.
"At least you won't have to worry about room and board." Gone was Abirel's giddiness from their trip over, replaced by a detached sobriety that couldn't be wholly trusted. Though from the twitch of Abirel's fingers against the air as he walked, 's hadn't been wrong to accuse him of being a tad overfond of her desk. It made Iyan wonder (as he had many times in the course of their intersecting, intertwined lives) just how the world appeared to his cousin and those like him, who saw the imprint of years and usages of things made by the hand of man.
"I suppose it's better than running away to start a duck farm."
[I started this reboot for the 'urban fantasy' issue of imaginarybeasts, but stopped because I didn't know what happened next. This is one that will be finished someday. Someday soon, I hope. The name change (Ian -> Iyan; Gabriel -> Abirel) is because this is now set a handful or two of generations down from the Project of DOOOOoooOOOom.]