145 Years B.N.
Central Cavern -as its name implied- was located in the heart of Moltara, sitting snugly between the maze of tunnels above and the pits of magma below. And because of its location, it was known as Moltara's go-to rendezvous point. Whether they be individuals or entire groups, Central Cavern had always been the ideal place to meet.
It was also -as Lumin had just found out- a very easy place to lose track of someone.
The white Buzz could only imagine what the citizens thought of him as they watched him drag his feet across the ground while heaving heavy breaths. His wings were limp and even so much as the thought of taking to the air again kept them glued to his back. Lumin's legs fared little better and begged for rest as well, but he trudged forward despite their protests.
It wasn't long before he attracted the concern of the Neopets around him. Eventually, a fire Hissi approached him. Lumin recognized his face from brief encounters in the neighborhood, but was unable to attach a name to him. The same was true vice-versa, but the Hissi still delicately asked the near-stranger, "Are you alright?"
Lumin took the opportunity not to answer, but to grab a hold of his knees and catch his breath, which only served to amplify the Hissi's worry. Eventually, he responded with a question of his own, "Have you seen a glowing Buzz pass by?"
The Hissi tilted his head back in surprise. "Uh... yeah. Saw one zipping past just a little while ago," he told Lumin as he pointed towards the outskirts of the city, but at the same time he continued to eye him curiously.
Perhaps it was for the best that the Hissi stopped Lumin, as it allowed him a moment to stabilize his breathing and regain a little energy. Once his mind was able to focus on the Hissi's answer, his eyebrows knit together and a frown settled in to place. He groaned exasperatedly, "I thought so. Thank you."
Lumin began to press forward, despite the lingering complaints of his legs. But he had scarcely made a few steps before he heard the Hissi exclaim, "Oh! I remember now!" Lumin turned around to see the Hissi's face illuminate and eyes widen in a sudden revelation. "You were the one that used to go around asking about a glowing Buzz!"
Lumin's frown deepened.
"Sorry, you just took me by surprise. I knew your question sounded familiar, but it's been so long that I forgot all about it. And I guess I just assumed that everything ended up working out for you," the Hissi said in a more casual tone.
Lumin remained silent.
"But yeah, he was heading towards the outskirts. It wasn't that long ago, so you should be able to catch up quickly." The Hissi gave a small wave as he began to turn and said in a friendly tone, "Glad you finally caught up with one another!"
The Hissi continued along his way, not noticing that Lumin had neither spoken anything in return nor moved from his spot. As the seconds ticked by, he slowly began to detach from reality. He could feel his mind staring into memories of the past four years as it prepared to dive head-first into them.
Lumin took a deep breath again. Within a few moments, he returned to his senses, and his mind didn't get the chance to make the jump. He took to the air and flew towards the outskirts, all while ignoring every temptation to think about the past.
* * *
By the time Lumin passed the construction sites at the edge of the city, he traveled at a much steadier and manageable pace. He wished he could chalk his low stamina up to the fact that he was just one year shy of forty. But he could scarcely use age as an excuse when his late wife –who was a year older than him- began her day with three laps around the City of Lights while having a heavy war hammer strapped to her back. Lumin couldn't tolerate even a fraction of Ultraviolet's daily exercises, let alone rush from the light shop to Central Cavern's outskirts without feeling like his limbs and wings were about to fall off.
It wasn't any surprise as to who Flicker inherited his energy from, that was for certain. Lumin found the glowing Buzz scampering around a cluster of stalagmites, diving towards little specks of light that evaded every move he made. Despite each miss, he tried again and again with the same amount of vitality, and did so with no regards to the fact that he flew the same distance as Lumin and in a much shorter amount of time.
Flicker was so absorbed that he didn't notice that his father had arrived. Eventually, Lumin cleared his throat, and Flicker turned his head. "Pa-" he began, only to cut himself short when the lights on the ground darted even further out of his reach. "Aw, no! I almost had them!"
As Lumin walked towards Flicker, he could make out the forms of the light more clearly: tiny, colorful worms with a single antenna that glowed at the tip. As Flicker had found out the hard way, they were quick despite their lack of legs and perceptive even though their eyes were barely functional.
The worms fled within the tight confines of an especially thick grouping of stalagmites. Flicker squeezed through the gaps as far as he could, but there was no way he'd be able to come anywhere close to reaching the spot where the worms were hiding with his bulky frame.
Lumin sat down on a nearby rock and watched Flicker struggle to get a hold of the worms from the ground and then hover above the stalagmites in search of an opening – to no avail. He let out a sigh. That's no way to do it.
Though Lumin never saw Flicker pause to catch his breath, he instead heard a series of growls pass through clenched teeth. Eventually, Flicker returned to solid ground and briskly walked away from the stalagmites, kicking up sand as he went. Once he reached Lumin, he asked, "Where were you? I thought we were gonna do this together." Lumin was sure Flicker didn't intend it, but the residual frustration leaked into his words and gave them a biting edge.
"We were, but you already left while I was still getting ready," Lumin reminded him.
Lumin's shop dealt mostly with lights that were powered by oil and flame. But as of late he had begun carrying lanterns that used the glowing worms as a power source. It was an invention of his people -the Fireflies- and were widespread back in their home city. In Central Cavern, they were just beginning to rise in popularity, which meant that Lumin had to start stocking more of the worms than he used to.
The problem was that the worms were intelligent little creatures, and that any slip-up on the part of their handlers would result in them getting loose. Lumin was typically careful about those sorts of things, but it was the one time he had a lapse in attention that he ended up creating a mess to clean up.
He tried to make the best of it, though. He figured that it would give him and Flicker a chance to spend some time together without having to worry about some looming threat – whatever it may be at the given moment. However, he didn't anticipate Flicker's enthusiasm getting the best of him like it did.
Whether out of a genuine desire to move on or obliviousness over the fact that Lumin wasn't young and fit like he was, Flicker was eager to change the subject. He crossed his arms and pouted as he stated, "Well I give up anyways. They won't stay still long enough for me to catch them!"
"Of course not. Running after them will just scare them away," said Lumin. He stood up and gestured for Flicker to follow. "Come here. Let me show you something."
Lumin slowly approached the stalagmites with Flicker in tow. Flicker seemed slightly unsure and -for once- moved at a much slower speed than what Lumin meant. It still sufficed, however, and the worms didn't budge an inch as Lumin gradually came closer. Eventually, he knelt to the ground and extended his hand with his palm facing upwards. All the while, he whistled a tune that he was sure he had forgotten long ago, but surfaced to the front of his memory once the first few notes left his lips.
Flicker watched a little incredulously, but was soon taken by surprise when an orange worm came out of hiding and placed itself comfortably in Lumin's fingers. Lumin lifted his head to see the moment that Flicker's face brimmed with amazement, to which he could help but smile at. "See?"
Flicker's knees met the ground almost instantly as he was eager to copy Lumin. He made an attempt to whistle the same tune that Lumin did. However, the worms were far more reluctant to approach the same Buzz that had been chasing them just a few minutes ago. On top of that, Flicker seemed to forget how the tune went and mangled the few notes he did remember. Within seconds, the worms that were still listening crawled further into the cluster of stalagmites until they were out of sight.
Flicker's shoulders slumped as his attempt at charming the worms ended in failure. He didn't say anything, but instead crossed his legs and arms while looking off in another direction. Whatever thoughts were going through Flicker's head, Lumin was quick to stop them by saying, "Glowing worms are very particular about the tunes they respond to. Nobody gets it right on their first try. It takes a lot of practice."
Flicker was still silent. Both of them were for a while. Lumin absentmindedly stroked the orange worms' head with a single finger while he wondered what Flicker was thinking. But as much as Lumin wanted to prod him to open up, he figured it would be better if he voiced his musings on his own terms.
After a few minutes, Flicker wondered aloud, "How'd you learn to do it?"
"Hm? Ah, Fireflies have been whistling to glowing worms for as long as we've been around. When I was a child, no one taught me the songs that the other Fireflies knew, so I had to make my own. I had a lot of time to myself back then, so I had plenty of chances to practice," Lumin replied. After a moment of reminiscing, he chuckled and added, "I haven't done this in a long time. Honestly, I didn't think I'd be able to call even one of them over."
"I think it's neat," Flicker commented, as a smile spread across his face. "Do it again! Maybe you can call the other ones over too!"
As infectious as Flicker's smile was, Lumin couldn't help but crack one of his own. He humored his son and whistled the same tune from before. That time, however, was met with no success. The worm already in Lumin's hands snuggled further into his palm, but the others -wherever they were at that point- didn't respond.
Lumin gave a small sigh. "Like I said, I'm very rusty at this."
Luckily, Flicker didn't appear to be too disappointed. He glanced at the orange worm and pointed out, "Well... we got one of them, right? That's better than none."
Lumin shook his head. When Flicker raised his eyebrows in confusion, Lumin explained, "Glowing worms are very social creatures. In the wild, they live in groups, so you need to make sure that ones you keep in captivity are always with others. And the bonds they form are very tight. It'd be cruel to..."
He stopped. For the second time that day, he tried to quash his painful thoughts before they formed. But he began to realize that the longer he avoided them, the more the wound would fester and become more painful for everyone involved.
Finally, he murmured, "...separate them."
Flicker's attention was still on the glowing worm at first, but brought back to Lumin once he noticed that his father was staring at the ground in silence in one last effort to avoid the topic. Lumin tilted his head just enough to see the confusion in Flicker's face. He exhaled. There was no backing out of it now. "We need to talk... about those four years."
He didn't elaborate. There was no need to. Even Flicker, who often had difficulty picking up on subtlety and nuance, immediately knew what Lumin was talking about: The four years between their separation in the midst of fleeing their chaotic city and their reunion just a few weeks prior. It was a conversation neither had initiated up until that point, but one that was sorely needed.
Now that he knew where the conversation was going, Flicker adopted an uneasy grimace. It was a topic that he rarely spoke of; he outright admitted to Lumin recently that he was tight-lipped about it because he wished to spare the both of them pain. Although Lumin could empathize with Flicker's point of view, he also knew that they had to confront the subject eventually.
Lumin continued, "I tried looking for you. In Central Cavern, in the surrounding caves, in caves even farther away... But no matter how hard or long I looked, I couldn't find you." He hung his head even lower. "When Lampyri came to Central Cavern a year ago, she told me that you hadn't returned to the City of Lights either. After that, I... I thought you were gone."
Lumin was absolutely still. Despite every thought shouting at him to show some fortitude, his body overruled him. Thus, he was unable to lift his head and look Flicker in the eyes.
"I gave up," Lumin admitted in a choked voice. "I'm so sorry. I should never have given up."
Lumin never before felt time move as slowly as it did during those four years without Flicker. Every day, without fail, there was some kind of reminder. Sometimes it was as simple as seeing childrens' toys in the display window of a store. The worst blows came on Flicker's birthday, as year after year passed with only Lumin around to acknowledge the meaning of the day. But most of the time, it was the silence. It was the lack of Flicker's laughter and insatiable curiosity. Instead, Lumin was faced with a crushing quietness that not even two roommates could ever truly fill.
But how must Flicker have felt? How much longer and painful did their separation feel to him? Because of the curse he had since before he hatched, Flicker aged four times faster than the average Neopet. To Flicker, those four years might as well have been sixteen. And however horrible Lumin felt on his end, he had learned recently that his son was far more lonely and miserable in that time than he ever was.
Lumin conjured the strength to look into Flicker's face. He expected to see a scowl filled with shock and betrayal, or perhaps a frown of sorrow and disappointment. However, he saw none of those things. Instead, Lumin saw that the guilt in his own face had copied itself onto Flicker's, all while his hand had frozen in place as he had started to reach out to him.
"I gave up too!" Flicker said hastily. "I... I stopped looking after a while. And I forgot that I was supposed to meet you here four years ago. So because I have a bad memory and because I didn't run away from Granite sooner, this is my fa-"
"Flicker, you were a child!" Lumin interrupted. He regretted cutting him off, but he wasn't about to let him finish that sentence. When Lumin resumed, there was a painful sort of softness in his voice. "There was nothing you could have done, and nothing I -or anyone- could have expected you to do differently. And even if you were an adult at the time, it's not your responsibility to take care of me – it's mine to take care of you!
"I'm the one that should have tried harder. I should have kept looking even when things looked bleak. But I didn't. And because of that..." Lumin felt the water return to his eyes. "...I wasn't there when you needed me the most."
"You're here now."
Flicker's reply was instant. No hesitation, no time to consider his response, nothing. Lumin, however, was speechless. Utterly dumbfounded, he could not think of a single word to react with. Instead, he stared at Flicker's face, once again failing to find the emotion that he would have expected to see. When he finally regained his voice, all Lumin could manage was to say, "You're... you're not angry at me..."
Lumin's statement elicited no change in Flicker's demeanor, nor a verbal response. Lumin spoke again with a slightly stronger tone, "You have every right to be angry at me."
There were still no words from Flicker. This time, however, he began to rub his hand against the side of his arm while his eyes had a somewhat distant look to them. Lumin refrained from saying anything more for the moment to allow Flicker to think to himself in silence.
Eventually, Flicker said, "Whenever I was alone, I'd make myself feel better by thinking about you and me back in the City of Lights. And even when I started to forget about how it was back then, I still knew that I missed you. And that if I ever saw you again, that..."
Flicker paused for a moment. Although Lumin told Flicker before that he didn't need to be afraid to cry, the notion still had yet to fully sink in in all but his most vulnerable moments. His eyes remained dry, but the emotions that would have accompanied the tears became present on his face anyways. "...that I'd be so happy. And I was! I don't get it; why would I be angry?"
"Because... I..." Lumin stammered, but was once again too stunned to figure out how to respond. He recalled something Lampyri told him a few days ago; she said that Flicker didn't hold a grudge against her for failing to protect him from The Engineer. It was one thing for Lumin to hear about such a thing, but it was another to see that part of Flicker's personality for himself.
Lumin shook his head as he gave a laugh paired with a sigh. "You are an extraordinarily forgiving person, you realize that?"
Flicker furrowed his brows. He didn't seem particularly flattered by Lumin's remark, but appeared more embarrassed than upset. "Everyone's always apologizing to me..."
"Because there's a lot to be sorry about," Lumin replied. Before it even began, Flicker's life had been a parade of misfortune and unfairness, all because of the actions and failures of those around him. Though Lumin believed in giving second chances to those that were truly sorry, even he could hardly fathom being so willing to let go of bitterness to the extent Flicker had.
"But..." Lumin released another laugh. That time, he managed to form a smile to go with it. "I'm here now. You're here now. That's what matters the most."
Lumin only caught the briefest glimpse of Flicker mirroring his smile before the glowing Buzz suddenly leaned forward and hugged him. He didn't waste a second in returning it. Lumin kept the hand holding the worm slightly outstretched, but used his free arm to hold Flicker as tight as he could. He learned long ago that he could never take such moments for granted. "I love you."
"I love you too," Flicker replied.
Lumin couldn't tell how much time had passed before the two Buzzes finally broke apart. He wasn't about to complain, though; when Flicker's absence felt like an eternity, he was all the more grateful for the times when his presence felt just as long.
Once Flicker noticed Lumin's arm and the worm still curled up in his hand, he asked, "So what do we do about the others?"
"Well... I suppose we're just going to have to come back for them later. Perhaps they won't be so skittish then," Lumin replied with a slight grunt as he forced himself to stand after sitting for so long.
Lumin carried the orange worm over to the stalagmites and gently slid it off his hand and onto the ground. He could faintly see the glowing antennae of the other worms deep within the cluster of stalagmites, far out of reach for either Buzz. The orange worm sniffed the air before it suddenly began to crawl towards the other worms, reuniting with them in no time at all.
"Will they be okay out here?" Flicker questioned as he watched the worms in the distance.
"Oh, glowing worms adapt very well to the wild. They'll be just fine," Lumin chuckled. "Though I do think it'd be best not to wait too long to return them to captivity."
Flicker's head perked up slightly, but with a notable sense of eagerness. "So we can do this again some other time, right?"
"Of course," Lumin promised as his smile grew a little in size and warmth.
Lumin couldn't avoid thinking about how much of Flicker's life he missed every time he looked at him and remembered that he was just a toddler when he saw him last four years ago. And not a day went by when he wouldn't wish that the events that led up to their current situation had taken a different turn for the better. But he had begun to come to the realization that there were things about the present to appreciate, even if it hadn't turned out the way he hoped. Perhaps there was much he could learn from Flicker in that regard.
Though the past might have been gone forever, there was still the present and future waiting for them, and neither Firefly was about to waste it.