Chapter 1: A New Task
Inigo woke up to the sun shining through the canvas of the tent’s walls, just diffused enough to be pleasant. A catlike stretch helped rouse him more as he sat up to start the day while outside the birds’ loud squawks and the gentle rumble of the river provided a backdrop for the muffled voices of his companions waiting outside. He shouted out to them that he was awake and got an ‘about time’ in return. He pulled on his nice set of clothes, the pseudo-armor that provided the perfect balance of movement to protection, and grabbed the sword and buckler before pulling on his boots. A quick run of his hands through his hair told him all he needed to know on that front: tousled.
“Hurry up already.” Severa’s voice called through to him. “You better not be fussing with your hair or some shit, Inigo.”
Ugh she was good. “I’m not!” but he tried to tame his bangs into the style that let him sweep potential suitors off their feet anyways. Never knew when love might strike. He pushed himself up and went to the tent flap, swinging it open grandly. “Keeping a lady waiting is a surefire way to pique her interest, don’t you know?” She opened her mouth to retort but he smiled and cut her off. “Or is that only pretty ladies? I can’t remember.”
“Oh shove it up your ass, Inigo.”
Owain, standing tall next to her, laughed supportively. “Inigo! My dear friend, the effect of your dashing entrance was not lost on me. With practice, your timing will become most excellent! Perhaps we could consult some tomes on this matter.”
“Pah, nonsense. This?” He gestured at himself. “Already amazing.” At that, the three started walking automatically over to the makeshift kitchen as Owain kept up a rapport about the benefits of a heroic entrance to even the most mundane of quests. Inigo and Severa -- both used to this -- dutifully prepared some eggs and bread over the small fire burner, interjecting a thought or two as Owain shifted his focus to the use of props.
“... the effect of the tent flap, billowing to the side, your arm outstretched. It is a striking image! You must choose a name for this technique.”
Inigo smiled fondly at him. “I’ll think on it. Here, start eating so we can actually head out on time for once.” With Owain quieted, the conversation lulled into idle chat about their new camp.
Although they hadn’t been here long they had already found ways to keep busy, Inigo mused. A few weeks felt more like a lifetime away from the Shepherds’ army; Lucina had suggested leaving to the group of future travelers as whispers of unease, a sense that they did not belong, and a general feeling of aimlessness set in after Grima’s defeat. Her thought was to take their group and form a new settlement, carve out a new life where the confusion and pain of their past timelines was irrelevant. He was just happy that his two closest friends had decided to stay. Cynthia and Noire had become inseparable during the conflict and had happily tagged along now, as had Kjelle, who’s protective instincts over the group had never wavered. Gerome -- curiously -- had quietly followed as well.
Now though, settled in this small camp of makeshift tents, life was quiet and strange. The absence of others who had elected to not follow, Laruent, Yarne, Morgan, Brady, even Nah, hit everyone hard. Especially Luci. He’d spent a few nights insuring her that she was making a good decision. The others would be okay, they were with their families again. They had won. They could all move forward again.
He realized he’d just been moving bits of egg around his plate. Severa had one of her looks leveled at him, the type that let him know that she really did care, even if her words or tone of voice never matched the expression. His cheery facade slipped up, the roguish smile found its home back on his face. “So, what are your plans for today?” he asked the two.
“Today I embark on a journey to the farm of Avran, to assist in their search for an escaped goat! Truly, it will be a daunting task, but I -- Owain -- am uniquely qualified! For I am blessed with the dark magic of perception. I will surely locate all signs of this goat and repair his home in record time. If I am to be successful, the great Jon Avran has promised me a reward.”
Owain’s optimism was always rather infectious. “Cool. I’m sure you’ll find the hell out of that goat. How ‘bout you, Sev?”
“Hmm. Today Kjelle has a training session planned up near the mountains. Lucina will also be there, so I’m sure it will be particularly effective today.” She stared straight at him. “We could always use someone to even out the numbers for duels.”
He gave her a nervous chuckle in return instead, his hand rubbing the back of his neck. “Me? As nice as it would be to be beaten to a pulp by three beautiful women, I’ll have to pass today.”
“You don’t have plans, though.”
He did not. It was rather depressing, actually. He wanted to be contributing more to camp, as they all pooled their earnings together for supplies and future savings. A response didn’t come to mind quick enough so Severa bailed him out.
“That’s alright. Lucina always goes soft on you anyway.” Her plate was clear, and she made to clean up, grabbing the boys’ empty plates as well. “You let me know if you need an invitation anywhere, okay?” Her look at him was earnest and supportive rather than pitying.
“Thanks Sev.” She rolled her eyes at the abbreviation.
Owain bade farewell before setting out for the road as Severa gathered up the dishes and headed towards the riverside to clean them. Inigo sat for a moment longer at the bench, picking at the splintered edges of the wooden boards before standing up, stretching, and looking back towards the meagre rows of tents.
He heard bustling from inside Lucina’s tent and decided to head in. He had nothing to lose in catching her before she would head out for training, it might have been his one chance to get hold of her today. “Hey Luci.” His voice singsong, before opening the flap. “How’s the fairest maiden in camp faring?”
“Oh Inigo, don’t flirt with your sister,” she blushed slightly anyway as she smiled at him, “You surely know better.”
“But how else would you know of your beauty, grace, or power if not from me?” His face cracked into a big smile though. “Besides, it’s good practice for when I do finally meet the one.”
She was putting on her full armor, carefully strapping on every plate and pulling up the well-worn and often repaired boots she couldn’t seem to live without. He looked around and picked up a glove from her desk. The Falchion was never found far from her, and sure enough, he spotted it on the cot beside her. “Every ‘one’ you meet is the one.”
He acted taken-aback. “Luci -- I cannot help if every maiden I set my eyes on is lovely in her own way!” She took the glove from him and he put the now empty hand over his chest. “You wound me. I cannot be held back from beauty.”
With an eyeroll, she smiled fondly at him. “Uhhuh. Anyways, I am glad you are here Inigo, I have a job for you.”
A mock bow. “Anything for you, my queen.”
“Oh stop. It’s an important one. Hand me that other glove, will you? Thanks. So, we haven’t been here long but I’ve been making a big effort to keep in touch with everyone. It’s an important task if this settlement is to work.” He nodded and took a seat in the chair at her well-worn desk. Papers covered every inch of it, but somehow they still looked organized. “For the most part checking in with everyone has been going well, you know, I try to plan events to where I spend a bit of time with each person. Everyone’s happiness and safety has been my top priority as we move forward.”
“But I’ve had trouble communicating with Noire and Gerome. Noire is just so,” she searched for the right word as she fastened her cape around her shoulders. “Shy. We were not very close before traveling here either, but I hope to change that. Gerome is different. He takes orders well, his loyalty is impressive, and I don’t have to worry about his safety. He’s strong. But he’s just never around. I can’t ever tell how he’s feeling .” Her hands wrung together and her eyes met Inigo’s. “You’re on good terms with them.”
“Well, I’d say more like neutral…”
“That’s enough. Maybe you could get a hold of them more easily than me.” She hit him with the big, sparkling eyes that always worked on him. “We’re family. But to them, I am a leader. Perhaps it changes how they interact with me.”
He was starting to see where she was going with this. “So you want me to try getting them to open up instead.”
A big smile. “Yes! Exactly. Since you would be approaching purely as a friend I am hoping that they’ll be more cooperative.”
“I dunno Luci. Noire sure. But Gerome? I don’t think I’ve seen him once since we’ve moved here.”
Her smile dimmed. “I know. I think that they are the hardest on themselves and I fear its effects during this stressful change.” She sighs before perking up. “Oh! I have notes --” She stood and pushed him aside from her desk.
“Here.” She thrust a small stack of papers into his chest. “This is something Robin does. I thought it was rather clever. I’ve written down notes on each of our group in order to find patterns in their behavior, this way I can tell when they’re not feeling up to par or need something, anyway, you know.” They stood together as Inigo helplessly clutched the notes.
“Well, I’m sure these will help. Hopefully.”
She put her hands on his shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes. The Brand shone out, a bright blue. Her gaze had always been intense. “Inigo. I appreciate you staying with me through all this. My efforts apply to you as well. You’ll tell me if you’re feeling down too, right?”
This was one lie he could tell her a thousand times over if he had to. “Of course.” He smiled and pulled her in for a close hug. “You better get going off to training, gotta keep in tip-top shape for Kjelle.” He winked and was rewarded with a deep blush.
“A-ah, you’re right. I will leave immediately.” She rushed out of the tent in an embarrassed whirl. The Falchion rested on her cot. He laughed.
“Don’t forget your sword!”
With camp empty, it was the perfect time to wander the surrounding meadows. He strolled through the tall, billowing grasses and gave a glance over the notes Lucina had given him. The pages were packed full of neatly written text, perfect lines and margins across the pages despite the lack of guiding marks. Perfect, as everything she did. Inigo couldn’t help but be a little jealous of his sister, I mean, who wouldn’t be, right? She’d always been incredible and strong; it was just made worse by the fact that she was exceptionally kind and loving as well. Now though, he thought proudly, she has something that she actually needs my help with. Something she couldn’t do.
A nearby grasshopper startled from its refuge somewhere near his feet, and he can’t help but sigh. Maybe this was exactly what he’d needed. He’d just felt … lost. Their lives had been overshadowed by carnage, loss, and war for so long that now that the conflict had met its end he couldn’t help but feel exhausted. He flopped down on his back in the grass, flattening out an area beneath him. Clouds rolled by overhead, disgustingly pleasant looking. All this ‘nice’ felt wrong. This wasn’t a world he knew. None of them were even able to leave camp unarmed, himself included, as they were so accustomed to danger. His blade was strapped to his side, his shield to his shoulder. As always. He hardly even noticed them anymore, they were just a natural part of the outfit. Being without them would be wrong, he thought.
That’s why Lucina has led us down this path, a part of him says. She knows this feeling too. We all do. “Right again, Luci.”
Metsa Forest loomed up somewhere behind him, the rustling of the pine trees casted a relaxing atmosphere in the meadows around him. The forest was part of the reason why they had chosen this plot to settle in the first place; Noire’s excitement as she showed the group the variety of mushrooms and their properties was rather contagious. Not to mention the amount of berries, lumber, and animals they had all eyed as well. He was just happy there was a river nearby. Finally, his hair and skin could be clean again. However, despite Noire’s initial excitement, Lucina said she’d been distant. Inigo flipped through the notes, mostly bland information about who was working where, until he came to a page dedicated solely to Noire. Lucina’s handwriting was neat and slightly girlish, with big, clear letters that were much easier to read than the notes or plans Robin and Laurent would write. At least there was that. He started to read.
~ Good archer, but lacking in confidence. Weak hand to hand, but surprisingly quick witted if pushed. If her strength builds she could be great in combat, but she seems unenthusiastic about fighting these days.
~ Personality seems to go through switches? She snaps into an angry, loud version of herself, a confident one. Otherwise she’s always so timid and hard to talk to.
~ She is surprisingly kind. It look a lot of patience to teach Kjelle and I which mushrooms are toxic and which are okay to eat. Some are toxic but are good to sell to potion masters. Her knowledge is surprising but helpful.
~ I see her a lot with Cynthia! Perhaps they are friends?
~ Her favorite food is a type of mushroom here, but she is also fond of berry pastries.
~ Noire and Cynthia work down at Ann’s tavern together. They bring in good profits and give a large percentage to the group fund.
~ Noire seems to be avoiding me lately. Neither she nor Cynthia join us for training anymore, but Cynthia is always happy to chat so I worry not for her. They still work together, so I wonder if she’s got something bothering her.
~ I have learned that she is often in poor health. This explains her poor stamina for combat. I will relent from pressuring her to join training sessions and perhaps speak to some experts in town for any solutions that may help her day to day.
~ I sometimes catch Noire caring for Asteria in the mornings rather than Cynthia. I thought pegasi were picky about who they let around them, but Asteria seems okay with her. Maybe we could obtain one for her to tame.
~ I now only see Noire as she comes and goes from work.
Lucina sounded rather upset by the end, and it wasn’t lost on Inigo how the notes shifted from war and combat focused to more domestic issues. These entries were surprisingly diary-like too, and it was nice to have his sister’s goodwill towards the group so clearly written out. It brought a sense of warmth to his chest as it’d been a dream they’ve shared for a long time: to be able to relax and live without fear. He mused that Noire would probably be pretty easy to get a hold of, at least for him -- a regular client down at the tavern they worked at. He’d just need to ask her what was up. Gerome however … He flipped to his page in the notes.
~ Rides a wyvern and wields an axe. Is one of our most adept fighters. I never have to worry about him in a fight. He is painfully independent and standoffish.
~ Lent me the mask for my early travels. I have noticed he will not help unless asked directly.
~ Does not eat with others. Kjelle and I kept careful inventory for a few days and noted that some extra servings are being eaten -- hopefully by him.
~ I don’t think he has any friends. He was not close to Cherche either. He’s quiet.
~ No one has seen him without armor or mask since we were small children. Cherche was one of the first deaths, perhaps it hit him hard.
~ I have not seen him coming or going from camp lately. I am unsure to what he gets up to, but he occasionally leaves me large sums of money for the camp fund. Our theory is that he is doing high-paying mercenary work with the wyvern.
~ I am unsure why he has chosen to stay with us at all. He is the only one of our generation who did not wish to travel back to this time, but it seems he does not wish to be left completely alone. He is difficult to work with.
Inigo noted that this entry is short. It didn’t delve any deeper into his personality and there were few clues as to where Inigo should start. Skimming through some of the other pages of notes revealed insights about the dynamics of their group that Lucina had astutely seen and recorded. She was working hard to be a good leader for everyone and he couldn’t help but smile sappily to himself over her. He sat up suddenly, sending some nearby birds flapping frantically into the air. Perhaps walking would help him think.
Inigo relented that even he who flirted regularly with everyone in the army and continued to do so here, had never really spent any time with Gerome. He found himself unable to name anything beyond what Lucina had written in her entry on the masked rider other than perhaps that Gerome had almost no social tact; he’d seen him one morning, gave a cheery greeting, but the masked jerk had simply ignored him completely. Not even a look! He wasn’t upset about it or anything.
“Uuuugh.” He groaned out to the empty field. If the guy wanted to be left alone then they should just not even bother. Then again … it was important to stick together. Luci wrote that he did contribute to camp, and gods forbid she lose her sense of hope. For her, he’d try. He decided to go to Noire to start, since she was easier in about every single way. He brushed the bits of grass off his pants before starting a casual stroll down the road to Ann’s tavern.
Inigo had been at his usual stool in the tavern, chatting up some young peasant girls doing some traveling while the weather was still nice. He was alone, but hadn’t been completely rejected or turned away yet. So it was a win.
“Haley!” A gesture to the lovely lady running the bar earned him an eyeroll, but she walked over anyway. “Let’s get a round -- on me -- for my beautiful friends here.” They giggled on cue and he hit them with a toothy grin. “Gotta show them how hospitable we are around here. Get us something that matches the lovely golden hair of this lass here.” Haley-Ann looked at the group, unimpressed, but turned to get the ale anyways. He’d lasted only a single night of flirting with her before she turned him down and crushed any future hopes of a relationship with some biting remarks. It’d earned Severa’s respect until she’d had to be the one to deal with drunk-and-crying Inigo.
The girls were pleasant company, harmless and naive, but as soon as the sun began to dip behind the trees, they left him alone at the bar without a second thought. Not so much as a kiss goodbye even. He sighed.
“This one’s free, Inigo.” Haley filled up his glass with ale once more and gave him a pitying glance before tending to a new customer down the bar.
Halfway through his new glass he was starting to feel the effects calm his feelings and he slid back into his confident, charming self. At least he thought so. He finally turned to scan through the rest of the tavern for the first time in a few hours. Small vases were at the center of each table, simple ceramic ones, and they were each filled with a few cut flowers that provided vivid bursts of color to the otherwise plainly decorated space. The atmosphere was subdued but warm, it was partly why Inigo liked it here. At one of those small round tables he spotted Cynthia and Noire. Their hair was both tied up, and he could tell they had been working outside that day due to the dirt on their clothes.
If he listened carefully, he could hear Cynthia describing one of the flowers at their table to Noire. She spun it into an Owain-worthy tale of its conception and her quest to obtain it -- it must have been related to one of her jobs in the flower fields Margie-Ann was famous for. Noire looked remarkably relaxed. She had a smile that was soft rather than timid or crazy and her posture was confident as she looked Cynthia in the eye, listening carefully.
Inigo grabbed his drink and left the bar. On the way over, he plucked a flower from the vase of an empty table and put it in the empty hand behind his back. He sauntered up to Cynthia and Noire’s table, setting his drink down and leaning in a bit. Noire immediately reverted to her usual, more shy look and her posture slumped down. Cynthia turned her ever-present smile on him.
“Inigo! Hey there, we didn’t see you.”
“No worries, I know it’s hard to look away from beautiful maidens such as yourselves.” He took the flower -- some orange one -- and presented it to Noire as he spoke. The practiced, roguish smirk found its way onto his face.
Her face twitched. “A-ah, Inigo, t-that was … terrible! What the hell do you want, anyway?”
Cynthia’s smile didn’t falter as she took the flower from Inigo and put it in the vase on their table, fussing over it briefly to fit it into the arrangement. “Why don’t you have a seat?” She gestured to the extra chair and he thanked her before leaning forward and resting his chin on his clasped hands.
“So, really, how are the two fairest maidens of camp faring this evening?”
They chatted idly about their day. Well, mostly he just chatted with Cynthia, who went out of her way to include Noire into their conversation. She was always agreeable and he did genuinely enjoy her company, even if she never commented on his attempts at flirtation. The tavern filled up more at this hour, and soon it was louder and bustling with farmhands and traveling nobles alike, drawn to the humble atmosphere this place put off.
“Okay, enough, Inigo.” Noire cut off their small talk, her brows furrowed. “What do you really want? If you’re looking for a lay you can look elsewhere. I just want to spend a quiet evening with Cynthia, so cut to the chase already!”
Ah. He made an effort to not be hurt, she probably didn’t mean it, so he brushed it off. He’d heard worse, anyway. “Well, you know how Luci and Kjelle have been planning out some construction for our camp soon, right?” He waited for their nods before continuing. “You guys have been big contributors to the camp funds and Luci asked me to get some opinions on the process. Like, if you guys are going to stay, what you want to see in camp, you know, that sort of thing.” He took a sip of ale and waited for their answers.
“Y-you want m-my opinion?” Noire asked, looking between the two. Of course, Inigo replied as Cynthia smiled pleasantly at her and, giving an encouraging nod, reached across the table for Noire’s hand. They grabbed hold and shared a moment of eye contact. “W-well… We’d like to live together.” She paused a moment, her face bright red. “U-uhm, if Lucina will let us, o-of course.”
Oh… oh ! He laughed. It seemed they didn’t know about Lucina and Kjelle’s painfully suppressed friendship . Noire glared and he changed it into a cough. “I highly doubt Lucina would be upset by that. I’ll let her know first thing!” The girls relaxed.
“It would be nice to have a place to keep Asteria, too. Maybe a few pens for future pegasi if we can afford it. No pressure. And I know Noire would appreciate an archery target somewhere too,” Cynthia chimed in helpfully.
“Okay, excellent. I’ll relay that up to the boss.”
“A-ah, Inigo. I-if you could…” He swiveled to look over at Noire. “Um, maybe try not to tell everybody yet, please. M-maybe just Lucina, for now.”
He got it. Only Severa knew of his rare trysts with some of the handsome mercenaries on the road, he wouldn’t want to tell Lucina either, even if she wouldn’t truly care. “I get it. I promise you two, I’ll keep it on the down-low.” He couldn’t help but wink. He was pleasantly buzzed, after all. These two would need to be moved immediately from the ‘flirt’ list to the ‘flattery’ list. Another task. That reminded him:
“Hey, do either of you lovebirds know how to get a hold of Gerome? Seen him at all? I sure haven’t. I need to ask him about camp too.”
Cynthia frowned then answered, “No, sorry Inigo, I don’t think either of us really see him. I know he spends a lot of time with his wyvern, but we’re gone from camp a lot so we can’t really help you there.” Noire nodded.
“Ahhh, it’s alright.” Inigo leaned back in his chair. He’d run out of ale. “He’s pretty antisocial, huh.” He got empathetic nods from the two in return. Sighing, “Luci’s fussing over how distant he is. I guess it’s more noticeable now that we’re not in the big army anymore. Anyway, I’ll try and get a hold of him. You two beauties just stay here looking gorgeous.” The roguish smile returned and Noire blushed. “That reminds me. Try to check in with Luci more, okay Noire? She worries and it would do wonders for her if you could just let her know you’re alright. But really. I’m happy for you two. Thanks for chatting with me tonight.” He pushed back from the table to stand up, wavering only slightly as his head rushed.
Cynthia beamed at him, and Noire just blushed down at the table. “Of course, Inigo! Next time don’t move the flowers around, okay? Noire and I work hard on those. Let us know if you need anything else for the camp! Take care of yourself out there.
The rest of the evening was just a downward spiral of failure. His efforts to get with a beautiful farmhand girl were a complete and utter failure. She had warm chestnut-brown hair with deep brown eyes, her skin was tanned and her frame was strong. Her laugh was magnetic, it echoed around the tavern, friends or strangers alike flocked to her -- Inigo included. All it took was one misstep, a clumsy effort at complimenting her hair, for her to push him away and storm off. He sniffled.
“I think dirt’s’nice… Oh bleh, Miss I dun-wanna be compared to dirt, whodoya think you are…” Some letters got drawn out or slurred as he staggered home, mumbling to himself to fill the silence. “ I think dirt’s rather nice, thank you. It… it grows nice things. Like flowers. Maidens’r suppost’a love flowers.” He stopped to wipe at his nose and eyes. “Ssstupid.” He kicked a small rock off the side of the road. Maybe he could find some booze back at camp. Doubtful though.
He was sick of being the failed flirt. With Cynthia and Noire hitched and the others in camp more akin to family than friend he didn’t have a lot of options there. Everyone else seemed happy though. “But not me .” Another rock got catapulted away. “Stupid stupid.” Why isn’t my life moving forward, he wondered sadly to himself. Everyone had been working really hard, but here he was, spending a day moping and trying to flirt his way into being important to somebody . Anybody, he was getting desperate.
Lucina had given him a chance, though, he reminded himself. She was perceptive. There was probably a page of notes all about him. He’d love for somebody to ask him what he needed, what he wanted to see in camp, in his future that he actually had some influence over for once. I was that today, for Noire. Maybe Cynthia too. It was a nice thought.
He looked up at the stars. “I wanna be that for everybody. I dun hafta be Inigo-the-loser who just flirts’is way through life.” He thought that this was a rather romantic moment, the sky a blanket of lights above him; it’d have been nice to share it with the earthy-haired lady from the tavern. Whatever. “I can be better.” Tomorrow he’ll ask Lucina for more responsibility helping people out. A deep sense, a need, to keep this forged out family they have together happy and safe, had taken root. He snorted, thinking that this desire must run in the family. Sometimes all it took was the support of one person to change everything for the better. He thought briefly to Severa, who had stayed by his side through battles and nights on the town alike, pulling him out of the dirt and keeping him from wallowing in his tears by scolding and teasing him until he couldn’t remember what he was sad about. “I will be that for others too.”
He spied a good kicking rock, but spared it this time. He was Better Inigo, now.
The edges of camp were brightly illuminated under the night sky as he approached, shuffling along in no particular hurry. It was nice out, and he didn’t even need to cry into Severa’s arms to cheer himself up this evening. He walked up the small path into their camp, the back of his friends’ tents and the equipment storage shed visible only by their outlines. No one had a lit candle, everyone asleep by now. It was rather late. He let out a deep sigh, stretching his arms above his head. Straight to bed for him. The closer he got though, the more he heard odd rumblings and noise from the equipment storage up on the right. There was no food kept in there, he thought quickly, so it was unlikely to be a wild animal digging through the crates. Then again … the noises sound like they were made by something big. It was definitely not a small critter, at least. Maybe it was thieves. Everybody else was clearly asleep after all, looking over he could see that the campfire had long been extinguished, with only small embers glowing beneath the charred logs. As quietly as he could, he drew his sword from its sheath, keeping it low as to avoid casting a glint and giving himself away.
He neared the shed, focusing hard to keep his footing steady and quiet. The shed was one of their more permanent structures, built of cheap wooden boards, and he could see a very faint light shine through the slats. That was all the information he got, however, since the gaps were too small to see through. So, it wasn’t an animal, at least. That might make it worse though, he thought sadly. Should he wake someone else up? It was a logical thought, one Lucina would have. He was out to prove himself worthy and valuable though, so he pressed on. People always underestimated him in combat anyways. He had this.
There were two doors, and he approached the closer one. It was shut and he did his best to open it quietly and peer in for a closer look. Inside was a lone figure, clearly male, clad in full armor, his hair brushed back -- “Gerome?” Inigo blurted out. Shit. A chat filter was never a strong suit of his.
The figure, presumably Gerome, snapped his head over to where Inigo was crouched and there was a deep, inhuman growl. Inigo’s chest went cold. Was he a werewolf or something, he wondered briefly before maybe-Gerome turned to the looming darkness of the second doorway and muttered something. The growl ceased. Inigo looked and realized only now that the door was in fact open, just that it was full of … something. Blocked.
Maybe-Gerome turned back to Inigo for good this time. “Mmm,” Gerome nodded. So it was him. Inigo’s eyes adjusted a bit, without the moonlight it was actually darker in here with a candle than it was outside. Now he could make out Gerome more clearly. He wasn’t really sure how to interact with him, Luci’s notes hadn’t had any tips for this and he wasn’t expecting to find him so quickly.
Gerome hadn’t spoken. Neither had he, Inigo realized. “Uhm,” he started eloquently. Gerome had put the candle high up on one of the closed crates of supplies, training equipment most likely. There was another crate open before him full of leather scraps, used for repairing equipment as needed. “Whatcha lookin’ for?” He took this chance to put his blade away, feeling a bit embarrassed about it now and he hoped that he didn’t ruin his chance at a first impression like normal. There hadn’t been an answer yet. “Need any help?” he prompted. The pause was awkward but Inigo worked overtime to hold his chatter back. Standoffish, rarely seen, quiet was how Lucina had described him. Give him a second.
He’d had plenty of seconds, though. Gerome had been holding a leather scrap in a gloved hand for some time now and had ceased all other action. Rather than explaining himself or continuing whatever it was he was doing, he shifted his weight between his feet -- nervously? angrily? -- while looking directly at Inigo. At least, he imagined it was direct. More likely he was staring at the floor, or out the door Inigo stood in front of. The expressionless eyes of the mask are all that stared out and they were not exactly helpful.
He remembered Owain talking for days about the mysterious powers of the mask in one of their rare glimpses of Gerome. “Surely it is to hold back a dark power! My friend, you cannot possibly underestimate the aura that a well-worn mask exudes. Strike fear into the hearts of your enemies! Does he not make a striking figure upon that dragon?” On and on. This was who Owain idolized? A silent, shuffling guy no taller than himself, he realized, now that they were face to face. Some mystery warrior. Inigo thought hopelessly for a moment that he was not set out for this task of unification he had just put himself up to. Lucina would have known how to put Gerome at ease by now, say something inspirational no doubt. Owain’s ability to ensure others that they were not the craziest or most outlandish in a room by holding the honor himself would have been fabulous right about now. Surely a rant about his mask and black armor. Inigo fought down his smile, now that would definitely damage his first impression here.
He cleared his throat to fill the silence. In return was a huge huff of air, flickering the candle so that a set of yellow eyes, big ones, in the darkness by the second door, caught the light. Inigo startled slightly, sobering up even more now, and did a quick check out of his periphery to ensure that the door he was in was open and clear. Rides a wyvern . Duh. Ugh, Inigo. He tried to visibly relax himself, but he had never been any good with animals -- mounts in particular. Not even horses liked him, let alone this flying-demon-dragon creature. The wyvern rested his (Its? Her? He wasn’t sure how to tell, truthfully) chin gently upon the rider’s shoulder and it chuffed air again, less indignant this time, into Gerome’s face.
He visibly relaxed and looked back at Inigo, who with all the grace and tact he could muster blurts out, “You brought your wyvern into here?” No response, the yellow eyes even seemed to glare at him. Shit. “Uh, I mean, I won’t tell anybody, I think that’s great!” He threw a hand up to rub the back of his neck, a habit. Lucina had pointed out that it was his ‘tell.’
“You always do that when you mess up.”
She laughs. “Yeah, when you fumble a pick-up line or give some awful compliment. Even you know it was bad and sure enough, up goes your hand.” She smiles fondly at him, trying to stifle her laughter.
Inigo had always thought that funny, but now, when he had this one chance it wasn’t as cheery a thought. He shoved his hands down into his pockets instead. Earnest. He could do earnest. Gerome was staring, probably perplexed as to why Inigo was still standing there, ranting. “I mean, I’m not a snitch. Everybody would probably be excited to see it anyways. Wyverns are cool in my book.” That was a lie. He was terrified of them and liked his feet on the ground, where they belonged. “Adds to your whole handsome, mysterious warrior vibe. Well uh, at least maybe handsome. Nobody really knows for sure.”
He laughed nervously, this was turning out to be a disaster. He definitely needed to be sober for this. “Does … it? Have a name?”
Gerome set down the leather piece he’d been clutching onto this entire time -- finally -- but didn’t make any notion of speaking or moving closer. Rather, it seemed like he was leaning and trying to creep out past the wyvern the longer Inigo stood in the shed. The wyvern wasn’t budging though. Inigo thought briefly he may start crying again. Noire had been surprisingly easy to talk to thanks to Cynthia, this was just unfair. What he had really wanted out of this night was to go crash in his tent and sleep off his pleasant evening with Noire and Cynthia and his not-so-pleasant evening of rejection by Miss Dirt-Hair. Not deal with captain antisocial here.
“Minerva.” Gerome’s voice was scratchy, dry, and rather void of expression. An answer was an answer, however, and Inigo smiled at this, simply unable to help it. He poured his very soul into this smile and beamed it out, one part pumped to tell Owain that he had finally gotten their mysterious comrade to speak and another part excited over anything resembling progress.
“Awesome! A beautiful name for a beautiful lady.” He threw a wink at the wyvern and gave her his best flirty grin, quickly covering up the earnest smile from seconds ago. “Were you and this fine woman looking for something in particular? It is just, so late and so dark, is it important?” Inigo ranted on a bit more, the process of talking calming his nerves. This wasn’t so bad, he could do this. “I mean, if you need leather goods there’s always the bazaar up in Kartul, I’m sure there’s something there, they have everything there...” He fell back into it. Gerome didn’t seem any more relaxed and Minerva still hovered close to him, unmoved from the doorway, but she at least didn’t seem agitated, her eyes just stared into him.
“...Even the ladies there are nice, but they all know me and my reputation these days, so can’t exactly just waltz in there, you know?” He chuckled, the polite chuckle he reserved for suitors and strangers, not the goofy laugh that made Severa’s smile crinkle her eyes. “Have you ever been to the bazaar? You could spend a whole day there just looking at different kinds of cheese, I swear. What did you need anyway?”
He looked to the crate Gerome hadn’t moved from. “Leather? Leather… they’ve definitely got leather goods, tons of ‘em.” Inigo lapsed into silence, his hands had come out of his pockets to gesture around as he spoke, but they now froze mid-air. Gerome seemed uncomfortable still and wasn’t exactly giving him a lot to work with. Too many questions? It had been a lot of questions, and now Inigo couldn’t help but feel defeated.
“Well,” he tried one more time, a final plea. “If you need some help, just let me know, alright? I’m trying to… everyone needs… anyway. You know where to find me.” He attempted to sound cheery at the end, like his mother always managed.
Silence. Gerome was still frozen in place, looking at him. Inigo slumped a bit and bade the two shadowy figures goodnight, giving them a small salute before he turned and exited out the door, closing it without waiting for a reply. He walked around the shed’s side up to the row of darkened tents. Minerva was easier to see here in the moonlight. She had only her head stuck in the shed, still with Gerome. She was huge up close and Inigo marveled briefly at the thought of fighting from that. With an axe no less. Her massive wings were folded in tight, her muscled body coated in glossy black scales that rivaled Gerome’s armor, and her clawed feet clenched at the dirt beneath her. He could hear her making noise and breathing again inside, but there was no murmuring back.
“Talks more than he does,” he mumbled to himself as he opened the flap to his tent. Owain’s snoring was audible through the canvas wall, but he was worn out by this point and by the time he had his boots, sword, and other heavy gear from the day off he was about ready to pass out. He threw his head back onto the pillow with a content ‘umph’ and fell asleep.
Chapter 2: Conversation with Minerva I
Gerome speaks to the only being he finds he can: his wyvern.
Gerome POV, sort of an accessory to the previous chapter.
Gerome waited until the heavy footsteps quieted to finally relax. He set down whatever leather scrap he’d been working through his fingers and kept his eyes down. What had Inigo wanted, anyway? He wasn’t sure. It was difficult to follow all the questions and ranting once Inigo had got going, and he’d only managed to pick up some bits and pieces of the onslaught. His head felt foggy and throbbed angrily. It would be best to move on quickly from thinking about that mess.
Annoyed, he tried again to get past Minerva who just huffed at him stubbornly. Everybody was being too confusing tonight. He needed to leave before somebody else came to gawk at him. Taking care, he extinguished the candle then looked to the other door and made to step out that way, left foot first.
As soon as it hit the ground, however, his knee protested and buckled slightly, sending his arm out at a nearby crate to steady himself. He cursed. Minerva made a low whine.
Stubborn creature. “Just sore. It will be fine.” Gerome had learned long ago that denial was a surprisingly effective strategy to overcome pain. It was something that had gotten him through some tough times and he saw no reason to stop now. He exited the second door and shut it quietly. There wasn’t a latch or a lock, they had spent very little on this camp. Minerva, as careful as she could be, slowly backed her head out of the doorway, managing to avoid catching her horns on the frame. Gerome closed that door as well, getting more used to walking on his battered knee. Just had to loosen it up.
Minerva, her head freed, now sent him her most powerful gaze: a combination of concern, disappointment, and love. It reminded him of his mother. It was a dirty trick and she knew it though, so he frowned at her before relenting slightly.
“I am injured yes. But injuries heal. You should not waste energy on worry.” In fact, he had been injured pretty thoroughly. Battered from head to toe, it had been hard to fly back into camp. It wasn’t a feeling he’d experienced since some of the harder fights against the Risen, but then they’d had healers and staves at the ready. Now though… his head pounded, his torso protested with every movement or breath, and walking on his leg felt simply awful. The joint had been dislocated, but popping it back in was simple enough to do right away. He knew Minerva could tell he wasn’t up to par, though, and it was a feeling he hated. She had taken command in leading them back to camp afterwards.
He had been more worried about her than himself. When prompted, she had assured him her body had no damage, which had helped to relax him from the conflict some hours before. Adrenaline wore off fast, however, and he had settled from fight-or-flight into pain and worry. Looking now, in the moonlight, he could see the damage to the saddle more clearly. Expensive damage. There hadn’t been leather pieces big or strong enough in the crate to fix the damage: a stirrup ripped from one side had taken a lot of material with it.
Minerva hummed at him, gently touching his face with her nose. He’d been standing frozen at her side for some time.
“Inigo saw us.” Irksome.
He got a hum in return.
“I don’t know what he wanted.”
An inquisitive chirp.
“I don’t want to talk to him.” That one earned him another look . He ignored this one and set out back towards his tent. She dutifully walked on his left, letting him lean on her as they went. They stopped together just outside his tent. Sleep was unlikely to bless him in spades tonight, not after today’s events, and he felt raw around the edges at having been spotted so weak. He turned and led Minerva to the small roof built for her to sleep under nearby instead.
She laid down, taking a moment to get comfortable amongst the old hay as Gerome shakily loosened the straps holding on the half-torn saddle. He wanted to depart first thing at dawn, so leaving it on was easiest. She lifted a wing up, staring at him intensely. This, he could agree to. He settled in next to her as she tucked her wing in around him, nearly completely obscuring him from view. Armor would stay on. Safe. Minerva’s scales were always pleasantly warm and had never failed to bring him a comfort he could not explain to anyone.
Maybe she would like comfort too. He could try. “Your saddle. We’ll fix it.”
A deep hum vibrated from within her and she moved to curl her head and tail around closer.
“I know.” He paused a moment to think. “Inigo said the bazaar. It’s in town.” They were both quiet, she knew to let him gather his thoughts rather than interrupt. “I do not want to go without you.” There was no way they’d be happy about Minerva prancing through the streets. People rarely were happy to see her anywhere, in fact.
A chirp, hesitant but hopeful.
She was smart. “Asking him… He said he knew where to go.” He struggled a bit. “I cannot read him. It is … infuriating.” It went unmentioned how he couldn’t read anyone very well for that matter. “I do not wish to interact with others, here.”
Minvera gave a deep chirp, proudly.
Damn her. “He could talk to the merchants. It is true.” Perhaps it was better to chance speaking to one in order to avoid speaking to many. “Mmmfh,” is all he decided to say to that as he settled in on an attempt to let sleep reach him.
Chapter 3: Forging Ahead
Inigo & Gerome go to the bazaar.
The birds sang beautifully outside, fluttered around and he could hear the gang outside chatting and mingling as they got ready for the day ahead. It was all painfully delightful -- emphasis on the pain. He sighed deeply and shoved his face into his pillow, milking the last few seconds of peace before having to face the outside world. He felt stupid. Talking, well, trying to talk to Gerome, had made him feel like an idiot. “Ugh.”
Leave it to sort-of-tall, dark, and mysterious to make him play the part of the fool. Whatever. At least his hangover wasn’t so bad, he thought as he finally pushed himself up, there was always a silver lining. A stretch and a deep exhale as he sat up did wonders to get him going.
“Inigo-!” Owain’s voice calls out to him. “My friend, I hope you emerge soon, I await your entrance with an eager heart!” Severa’s muffled voice was unintelligible but he imagined that it wasn’t exactly a pleasant agreement. They start bickering lightly.
“At least they’re predictable…” he muttered to himself as he pulled together his outfit from its scattered places around the tent. “Gods forbid Gerome actually answer a question…”
He was still muttering as he exited the tent, fixing his hair as he went and donning the belt that held his trusty blade.
“My comrade, if I must be honest, today’s entrance lacks your usual grandeur. Are you perhaps not feeling up to par?” Owain’s face and voice were so earnest that Inigo couldn’t bear to lie to him.
“A-ah, ahah, yes,” he faltered. “Last night didn’t exactly go … as planned.”
Severa’s eyes narrowed. “What, some whore turn you down again?”
“Severa!” Owain gasps at her. “That is no way to refer to one who has captured our companion’s heart! He cannot help but wish to open his soul for any takers, we must show support in these trying times.” He seemed serious by the end and the hints of a smile appeared on Inigo’s face.
“Okay, well, first off thank you Owain.” That earned him a smile and thumbs up, so he continued, “And second off, Severa.” Their eyes met. “Sort of, yes.” Her mouth opened, likely to say some version of ‘I knew it’ or ‘what were you thinking’ but he cut her off before she could. “But also! It’s something else. Why don’t we grab breakfast first? Walk and talk, you know.” They set out.
Owain told of his epic quest to retrieve Bruce the Bold -- the goat, apparently -- and the trials he had faced along the way while Severa and Inigo dutifully prepared a humble meal for the three of them. There were still eggs today, so things were looking up already. Usually Kjelle demolished their protein supplies after training days, so it seemed she was trying to break the habit. Maybe Luci had explained budgeting to her. Everything together, they managed to guide Owain to their usual table to sit just as he wrapped up the tale.
“...and so, with that, Bruce the Bold, his silver coat brushed clean from his day’s adventures, was home happily in his repaired pen, to remain for many to enjoy the fruits of his labor for years to come!” Owain delivered a final grin, arms outstretched in triumph.
Inigo was sure to give plenty of compliments to this tale, which made Owain’s smile radiate such pride that he noticed even Severa couldn’t resist a private smile of her own. Speaking of. “Severa! My red-haired beauty,” he smiled at her annoyed expression. “How about your day?”
“Fine.” Fantastic! It must have been a good one for such high praise from her. “Inigo,” she leaned forward, serious, “tell us about your day. You were upset this morning and I need to know if I’ve gotta keep you out of taverns for a bit.”
He laughed nervously and threw his hand up to his neck. “Nah, I mean well, there was this lovely brown-haired lady, but that one was my fault I suppose. But okay!” He leaned in, happy to include his friends in his new task. “Luci gave me a new job yesterday, after I left you two from breakfast.”
Owain smiled through his mouthful of eggs. “A task from the queen herself, fantastic!”
“I mean, I’m her brother so technically also royalty so it’s whatever, but yes!” He found a moment of clarity and dug through his pockets to find the folded up notes from yesterday. The advantages of wearing the same clothes day to day were not lost on him. Triumphantly, he put them on the table. “I have been tasked with improving communication around camp, particularly with…” A quick look around the area told him that it was all clear. “Noire and Gerome.”
Severa’s eyebrows raised. No denying her interest, now. “Why those two?” Owain made to respond as well, but all he could get out was a sputtering mouthful of food. Inigo and Severa had long finished their meals during the tale of Bruce the Bold so they gave him a look then continued.
“Well, she pointed out that they’re not around as much, so she asked me to go talk to them and make sure they’re alright. You know, like they’re not sad or angry about having chosen to stay with the group. She sort of implied that the responses would be more honest if a friend approached them rather than a leader. I think it’s silly, Luci’s so easy to talk to, but anyway.” He paused a moment to regather his thoughts. “I met with Noire and Cynthia yesterday, apparently they work down at Ann’s together, it was nice to catch up with them. I swear, that tavern is just a magnet for lovely young ladies. One of the best places yet.”
Severa sighed. “Your job? What did they say, Inigo. About camp.”
“Oh! Right. Well, they uhm-” he cut himself off quickly. Noire hadn’t wanted him to tell anybody but Luci yet. “They said they’re totally fine! That they… should probably room together since their schedules and lifestyles overlap so much. I told Noire that Luci was sorta worried about her, but I think she’s just really shy. Especially with leader types.”
Severa gave a knowing nod in return. “Roommates, huh.” It wasn’t so much a question as it was a statement. Inigo didn’t know what she meant by it.
“Uh, yeah.” A thoughtful hum is all he got in return so they lapsed into a comfortable silence. Owain had finally finished demolishing his breakfast, so he excitedly chimed back in.
“Inigo! This is a wonderful quest -- and what progress you have already found! I admire your dedication, you wasted no time on setting out. Gerome will surely be a challenge to track down! If you require any assistance, I would be happy to lend you my aid, for I, Owain, have bested the trial of Bruce the Bold and am now most excellent at finding those who do not wish to be found!”
Inigo gave a laugh. “Owain, I appreciate it a lot. But I uh, already found him. Last night.”
Owain’s face was comically impressed. “What? My friend --”
Inigo cut him off before he could get going again while Severa listened thoughtfully. “I know. I came back pretty late last night, and the stars were beautiful so I took my time, and I was maybe a little drunk.” The last part came out rushed and he cleared his throat before starting in on telling them about his encounter with Gerome. He made sure to provide Owain with some extra details that he could remember about the armor and the wyvern. He ate it up.
“Your description paints the picture of an admirable warrior! So, tell me, did you manage to converse with this mysterious comrade of ours?”
“Well… he didn’t talk much. At all, really. All I found out was that the wyvern’s name is Minerva. I asked him a bunch of other stuff too, but he didn’t talk at all. I think he was looking for something but,” he shrugged, “didn’t tell me what.”
Severa picked up immediately on his disappointment. “Inigo, Luci gave you this job for a reason. It’s something she couldn’t do, of course it was going to be challenging.” She waited for his reluctant agreement before continuing. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to be a part of this, you know, all this camp and ‘new life’ shit we’re doing here. If that stoic jerk doesn’t want to be involved with us in this process then that’s his problem.”
That didn’t sit well with Inigo, truthfully. “Well, I’d like it if as many of us as possible could all stay together, look out for one another, you know…” His hands wrung together nervously. “I guess if Gerome wants to leave we can’t exactly stop him, but it’d at least be nice to hear it from him.”
Owain and Severa nodded. Their maturity always surprised him. Especially when Owain chimed in with, “Inigo, I say give it one more try. If Gerome still refuses to communicate then you will inform Lucina of that choice, and his inaction will speak for an answer, thus completing your quest.”
“You’re right. I’ll give it another shot. It’s worth a try.” More determined now than he’d been this morning, face in pillow and upset, he smiled at them. “So, you two,” he unfolded the notes to a blank page and brought out the pencil. “What were you guys thinking for camp?”
The meadows never failed to calm his mood, and wandering through them brought him a peace of mind that only nature itself could bring. He found himself in the same place as yesterday, the smushed-down spot of grass still somewhat noticeable. The thought of failing to get through to Gerome bothered him, but why? Maybe he was just being too sensitive. He’d been scolded by many people in his life for getting too upset over trivial matters, perhaps this was just another one of those.
Clouds passed by overhead, the only indication of time passing as he reclined among the tall grasses. Some time alone would do him well after he had already spent a good chunk of his day searching around camp for Gerome or Minerva. How a pitch-black wyvern and her masked rider were able to disappear into a day as bright as this one befuddled him to no end. Luci hadn’t been in camp either, so he left Noire’s page of notes in her tent, hoping that she’d get the gist of his success from the few tidbits he had penciled onto the back.
The peace of his thinking spot was quickly dispelled when he heard noises nearby; somebody or something brushing through the grasses, each footstep crunching the stems of the mature grass blades as they approached. He sat up to look around. He rubbed at his eyes and did a double-take.
“Gerome?” Sure enough, there he was. Inigo wasn’t sure of the last time anybody had spotted the rider during the day since the war. The black armor made a stark contrast to the environment here, like an ink splotch among the landscape. Gerome stopped at this, but Inigo noted how he didn’t seem surprised or shocked like he had last night; so he had been trying to be found, then. Inigo wasn’t sure how to act, so he defaulted to the normal, flirtatious personality he put on for strangers before he could think better. “Still wearing your mask I see. Gotta keep that mysterious aura up, huh?”
Gerome clenched his hands into fists and frowned every so slightly. A reaction was a reaction, Inigo supposed. “Uh, soo… w-what’s up?”
Inigo got a small shrug in return.
“Uhhuh… okay. Cool, good, wouldn’t wanna be too busy, right?” He tacked on a half-hearted chuckle. “So, where’s Minerva? You two are normally, like, together? At least, I don’t think you two are often seen apart. That’s cool though! It’s good to have a beautiful woman around.” He tried smiling but it didn’t come out very earnest. Better than nothing.
“Her saddle broke.”
Words! Progress! Inigo felt a little giddy and a lot relieved. “Okay!” That was perhaps too excited for something breaking. “Uh, I mean, okay. I’m sorry to hear that.” He paused for a moment before prompting Gerome again. “So, is that why you were looking through storage last night?”
A nod. After a pause where Inigo exhibited admirable patience Gerome responded with, “The stirrup… snapped off.”
Inigo considered crying with relief. He didn’t know what a stirrup was though, so, “The stirrup! Ah, of course. A crucial component That’s…” They shared a blank stare. Stupid mask. Seemed Gerome would not help him out so he added quietly, “I don’t really know what that is.”
“For feet. To stay in the saddle.”
“Y-yes, ah, you see, normally I imagine it where the hero rides in on their steed, sweeps me off my feet, so I don’t even have to even think about the horse or the saddle or anything, and then …” He cleared his throat slightly. “Anyway. Yeah. So… you couldn’t find what you needed?”
To Inigo’s delight, Gerome completely disregarded the first part. Bless his attitude. “Need a specific piece. And cut.”
“Hmm. Okay that’s trickier, true. What about the Avrans? They’ve got lots of cows over there, surely there’s leather around somewhere.”
Gerome now, Inigo noted, was quietly going over the straps on his armor, checking and then rechecking over his gauntlets, his cravat, his collar. Wherever his hands wandered was fidgeted with while Inigo talked -- or attempted -- to talk to him. Maybe some Lucina-style teasing would work in getting his attention? “So, is that a no go? What’s going on behind that mask over there, huh? I mean, I’m a good guy, I know most of the ladies in a few mile radius would disagree but…” He winked. “I disagree back! They’re powerless in the face of my glory.”
Gerome seemed disgruntled, but an emotion counted as progress. “Not Avran farm. Need a craftsman.”
Inigo counted himself among the honored few to have heard at least a few sentences out of this guy, so he kept his response cheery and optimistic, trying to be encouraging. Being exceptionally extroverted in the face of his antisocial demeanor seemed to be working out well. He could do that. “Okay cool!” He stood up, brushing grass bits off his clothes, then put his hands on his hips and stared squarely at Gerome. “The only place that I know of a master leather craftsman is…” He made a mock trumpet noise. “The Bazaar!”
No excitement was returned.
“Well, I mean, it’ll be a bit pricey of course, but it’s worth it to craft a gift worthy of a lady as fine as Ms. Minerva. Why don’t we go together? I’m assuming you haven’t been yet.”
A reluctant shake of his head, no.
“It’ll be fun! Kartul is great. They’ve got everything, I swear. Let’s go now! There’s normally somebody in camp that orders a cart somewhere, we can hitch a ride.” He started walking past Gerome, didn’t turn to follow right away so Inigo looked back. Gerome was staring off towards the forest where the leaves at the edge rustled. “Um. Do you not want to go?”
Gerome’s hands found their way back up to his elbows, checking around the edges of the pauldrons. He hummed, but didn’t add any further words. Frustrating. Inigo made an effort to follow his gaze, maybe he saw something? Sure enough, behind the rustling forest edge loomed a shadow, darker than other spots at the tree line. A sad whine rode across the wind to them. “Minerva?”
“Wow,” he whistled, “She longs for you even though you’re still in sight. You two are pretty close, huh?”
That was a fast response. Inigo was a bit surprised, but he made a mental reminder to write down later that the key to getting Gerome to talk was to make it about the damn wyvern. He decided to take a risk. “I bet she’d like that saddle fixed.”
Gerome turned and Inigo swore he could feel the glare from behind the mask.
“C’mon, it’ll be a sweet gift for her. Distance makes the heart grow fonder, right? Let’s go to the bazaar, get what you need, then you can come right back. It’ll be a heartfelt reunion.”
Gerome didn’t respond, but he did turn and made to walk along with Inigo; everything about his posture screamed ‘uncomfortable’ at Inigo, which in turn made him hyper-aware of his own actions. What was the proper distance to stand at? Would being too far make him think Inigo didn’t want to do this or would being too close make him mad? Maybe he was overthinking this. He focused in on Gerome instead.
Who was… limping? Clearly limping, now that Inigo watched carefully. His steps were uneven, but it seemed like he was doing his best to disguise the fact. That made him a bit upset but then again, Gerome hadn’t mentioned anything and seemed to be functioning at (his) normal level, so Inigo didn’t bring it up. Gerome had seemed standoffish yesterday, sure, but not injured. The silence grew to be too much for him, however, and his need to talk took over. Perhaps he could recount Owain’s tale of Bruce the Bold while they walked back to camp. “So-!”
Inigo noted that the closer they got to camp, the further they got from Minerva, and the more uncomfortable Gerome became. They stopped at the entrance to camp where the small path behind Inigo’s row of tents collided with the pathway to the nearby road. The limping didn’t seem to be getting worse and for all Inigo knew he could just have a blister or something, but then again, he wasn’t about to make his limping companion walk all the way into Kartul. Besides, the guy was a mounted fighter, he was probably allergic to walking. Hah.
“Hey, why don’t you wait here a sec? I’ll go butter someone up and get us a ride into town.”
Gerome nodded then sat, leaning against one of the trees marking the entrance. Inigo swore he could feel the masked gaze beaming into his back as he walked off. Maybe it was just nerves. There weren’t a lot of people left in camp by this point, most off for the day, but Lucina and Cynthia were chatting along happily at one of the tables. He waved.
The two girls turned their heads, smiling as they recognized him and waved back. “Inigo, hey! What’s up? We were just chatting about some plans,” Lucina told him cheerily.
Cynthia nodded. “I thought about what you said, and I realized we hadn’t caught up in a while! It’s been really nice. Asteria likes having a day out to play too.” She gestured over to river’s shores where the pegasus occupied itself stomping its hooves and splashing about in the shallows.
“That’s great. I’m happy I was able to bring two people together, it’s,” he sniffled dramatically, “a beautiful thing indeed.” They spent a few minutes chatting before Inigo remembered what he had been trying to do in the first place.
“On the topic of catching up with people, I’m trying to do that with Gerome. Sort of, right now.”
Lucina beamed at him. “Really, Inigo? That’s fantastic. I knew you were perfect for the job.” Cynthia nodded in agreement.
“As much as I enjoy getting praise from beautiful women, I’m sort of on a time crunch right now. We need to get to the Bazaar. As soon as possible.”
“What’s wrong? Is it an emergency?”
He smiled reassuringly, he hadn’t meant to make it sound like that. “No no, it’s not like that. Just, you know, he’s hard to get a hold of and today he actually approached me so I’m trying to be Better Inigo right now. Oh, and it’d be better if we didn’t have to walk.”
Lucina calmed and Cynthia nodded thoughtfully. “Of course! How noble of you. Why don’t I fly over to Avran farm and ask Libba for a ride into town? I’ve been meaning to take a casual flight with Asteria today anyway.”
“That’d be perfect, Cynthia. Thanks.” She stood up, said a pleasant farewell to the two siblings before getting the pegasus out of the water and into the air.
“She’ll be quick, you better go get ready. Do you have everything you need?”
“Oh Luci, ever the worrywart. Part of your charm.”
Lucina gave him an embarrassed smile, tucking a strand of hair up behind her ear. “You know I can’t help it. Here,” she reached into one of the pouches strapped to her outfit today, something more casual than her usual armor. It was a fair sum of coins from her personal stash. “Take this with you. I know your eye wanders, so try to keep it to merchandise today.” She must have known that Inigo’s personal funds were pretty low compared to the others; he hadn’t been tagging along on mercenary jobs with her and Kjelle for a while.
Inigo balked. “Luci, you don’t have to do that.” He pushed the coins back towards her.
She gave him a smile still, but her eyes were sharp. He knew she’d already won, but let her say her piece. “Inigo. I asked you only yesterday for help with something I’ve been trying weeks to do, and it’s taken you less than twenty-four hours to get in contact with both people. I insist you take this and enjoy yourself today.” She leaned back, leaving the coins out, and crossed her arms. “Even if you don’t spend it all today, you keep this. Consider it a reward for a job well done.”
Inigo reached to pocket the coins. He always got a bit teary when Lucina gave a heartfelt speech. “Luci…”
“Besides,” she clasped his hand from across the table. “I don’t know what I’d do without my beloved brother.”
“Okay, really, don’t make me cry before I go deal with mister allergic-to-feelings today.” He squeezed her hand back anyway, eyes watering, before they split and he headed back towards Gerome.
Lucina had been right, Cynthia was pretty fast, and sure enough a rickety cart came bumping along the road in record time. An older farmhand, one Inigo hadn’t met yet, waved at the pair as he neared their camp. “Inigo and friend, right? Good’ta hear! Hop on in, mind the cargo, we’re headin’ straight in’ta Kartul.” The cart was full of glass milk jugs, so he squeezed in awkwardly next to Gerome who was busy radiating an aura of hatred and I-don’t-want-to-be-here. Inigo was careful so that he made zero contact with his touchy, armored companion, but the task proved quite difficult as the cart took off down the bumpy country road.
The driver made idle chat as they went along. He was a social fellow, and Inigo appreciated this man who broke up the silence between himself and his travel companion. Gerome wasn’t exactly one for small talk, it seemed.
“Winter’s comin’ up now, lads, that camp seemed like a stiff breeze could topple everything y’all’ve got up there.” The tanned man let out a bark of laughter and Inigo chuckled politely. “Y’all gonna get ready for winter? The trees’ll start turnin’ soon, and once that’s over it’ll be too cold to want’a do any kind’a real work.”
Inigo looked to Gerome for a moment, but he was simply staring out the back of the cart, silent. “Yeah, we’ll get there. Sure right now even the nights are a bit chilly, but our uh, leader, has a lot of big plans coming up. Until we get our gear though, these hands are gonna be ice cubes.” He wiggled his fingers for effect.
Another hearty laugh. “Excellent to hear, son. Say, here’s a tip: get yerself a fire goin’ and put some nice, smooth rocks near it. Warm ‘em up, put ‘em in yer pockets, and it’ll warm up those ice cubes of yers on a short walk outside.” The man’s wrinkled eyes formed a quick, crazed wink and Inigo had a brief moment of terror as the cart driver cackled; if that was what winks felt like to look at, then no wonder he got turned down all the time. He made a mental note to stop winking at people.
Eventually, Inigo let the driver fall into chatting about the farmlands they passed by while the bottles rattled loudly around them, and soon the driver talked only to the mule that led their cart, ignoring the extra passengers. Gerome seemed unhappy. Inigo swore that his frown was at least two degrees more frowned, and he had pressed himself into the corner of the cart as far as he could get. He hadn’t uttered a single word during the ride so far. Inigo made a few efforts to strike up a conversation, all of which were unsuccessful as Gerome simply ignored him, sparing him only a slow glance with each effort.
Inigo let out a deep sigh just as the cart’s wheel slipped into a divot. The bump sent everything in the cart -- Inigo and Gerome included -- dropping a few inches through the air, only to land with a noisy crash. Inigo heard Gerome let out something akin to a gasp and a wince, his hands clenched into the wood of the cart. Before Inigo could voice his concern, the driver let out a loud ‘whoa’ and turned to apologize to his passengers.
“Sorry there, lads! Everything lookin’ okay back there?”
“Yes sir! Everything seems fine back here, only a couple fell over. Just a heads up next time would be nice!”
The driver turns back to the front. “You got it. My apologies. I swear… if Marc dunn’t get someone ta fix this section of road…” his voice faded into an angry mumble before he started sweet talking the mule -- Betsy, apparently -- apologizing for his novice-level steering mistake.
Inigo turned back to Gerome, who seemed to have recovered himself and was again leaning back casually in his corner after reorganizing some of the bottles around his feet. “You okay?” He kept his voice low.
Gerome either said something too quietly to hear, or just grunted at him, but did nothing beyond that.
“Mmmm’kay.” Inigo turned to look around for a distraction. The bottles were all labeled with different names and addresses and he read each one absentmindedly as he resituated them back up. Judging by the increase in traffic, they were almost in town by now; people were walking along the side of the road and they passed by other carts; a few even chimed in with greetings, which the driver returned full-heartedly. He sighed. It was gonna be a long day if Gerome kept up this silent approach with him.
Thankfully, the cart soon pulled to a stop just outside Kartul’s massive brick walls. The rider turned back to let the two know of their arrival and to not-so-subtly kick them out of the cart. “Now I’ve got lots’a deliveries to make, so you two are on yer own here. I’ma head back just before dusk, so meet Betsy and I right here,” he pointed down for good measure, “and I’ll take y’all back too.”
Inigo left first and turned to extend his hand out to help Gerome down, a gesture that went ignored immediately. Brushing it off, Inigo gave his affirmation and waved the cheery, tan man off. Gerome stood next to him, looking up at the South-West Gate in front of them while people bustled about their day around them.
“So.” Inigo started. Gerome looked over. The masked getup was already garnering some attention, with many of the passerby whispering as they walked past the pair. He wasn’t carrying his axe, but he still looked ominous. Inigo supposed that he wasn’t helping by carrying a clearly visible sword. “Let’s head on in.” He made an effort to smile, but Gerome just hummed and watched the crowd. Long day ahead indeed.
They walked through town with little fanfare. People were mostly walking through or to somewhere rather than milling about, so there was little fuss over the two warrior-looking fellows. Or rather, a mysterious masked warrior and some dude with a sword, Inigo thought sourly. He didn’t let it bother him, though, and explained many of the buildings around them to Gerome, who didn’t seem very interested but tolerated his chatter rather well. Inigo could describe most of them based on where he had been turned down; they passed the fountain of ‘ew, don’t kiss me!’ and the cafe of ‘fuck off, creep’ on the road up to the Bazaar. Gerome didn’t exactly smile, but he wasn’t frowning quite as intensely has he had been on the cart ride.
The East Gate opened up into the bustling Bazaar to their left; long rows of canvas tents and carts supplying food vendors covered a space almost too big to believe. Kartul’s economic power within the region was centered here, where master craftsmen and street chefs combined to make an unusually intimate trading experience. Customers apparently enjoyed getting to see who was making their wares, added to the whole experience somehow. Inigo had learned to not ask questions about where supplies came from for a few (admittedly rough) years, and didn’t find himself caring quite as much as the nobles who lived here. The socializing to be had, however… that he enjoyed.
“Come on!” He sent a toothy grin over to Gerome who looked rather horrified at the sight of the crammed together crowds. His mouth even hung open a bit. “It’ll be fine, stick by me,” he winked, “I’ll charm our way through.” He set off over to the first row, Gerome trailing just behind, still a bit gimpy.
“So. I think the good leather guy is somewhere…” he trailed off, looking towards the middle of the Bazaar. “...leftish? Maybe? I dunno, here I’ll ask somebody.” He grabbed the closest nice-looking lady, a middle aged woman with a basket full of vegetables, who blushed and smiled at all of Inigo’s flattery before giving them directions.
They set out. Luckily he’d asked, seemed this guy was more right-ish. Groups of young girls giggled as they passed, and Inigo found himself throwing out looks and smiles way more often than usual. “Gerome. I think you are the best wingman ever.”
Gerome just frowned at him -- quite noticeably this time. “I am no such thing.”
“You totally are! Look at all the attention we garner together! Mostly you garner it, but I still get to soak it up. We should hang out more often, man.”
“I do not want attention.”
Inigo shrugged. “Too bad I guess, see that group of girls up there? They’ll totally watch us as we pass, watch.” Sure enough, their eyes followed them as they walked past and rounded the row of tents.
Gerome’s hands were stiffly down at his sides and his movement seemed awkward. Maybe he should try to reassure him? “Hey, relax. We’ll get what you need then chill out until we get back to Betsy.” He threw a grin, his own hands clasping up behind his head in a relaxed stretch.
Inigo didn’t get a response, but that was okay as they soon neared their desired craftsman. The guy better be all he was cracked up to be. There were no customers at this booth, a more permanent structure made of wood and metal fasteners. Fancy. They came to a stop and the craftsman briefly looked up from his work, some sort of belt, smiled, and looked back down.
Nothing. Inigo elbowed Gerome a little, who winced. That made Inigo frown, but Gerome hurriedly spoke for them. “Hello.”
The craftsman looked back up. “Hello there, how can I help you two?”
Gerome didn’t speak further and the craftsman frowned slightly. Inigo jutted in, “Uh, hey! So my comrade here is a mounted fighter and um, something happened to the saddle. The… stirrup! Was damaged pretty recently so he hasn’t been able to ride. You know how it is.” He smiled as pleasantly as he could to the balding, older man.
“Ah I see. I’ve done some saddle work before, it’s true, but it’s normally custom orders so I don’t have anything in stock.”
Gerome shifted his weight to the right, and while it seemed to Inigo that he was making face-to-face contact he could have been looking anywhere in the realm of the craftsman thanks to the mask. “It’s not a normal saddle.”
“Hmm. Okay then, what’s special about it?”
Inigo cut in again. “It’s for his wyvern! She’s a lovely lass, to him at least.”
The man’s eyebrows shot up, impressed. “A wyvern, eh? Don’t see a lot of those these days.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully, work forgotten. “You said the stirrup? Is it like one on a horse’s saddle or no?”
Gerome shook his head. Inigo couldn’t help him with that. Luckily the craftsman was patient, and eventually had coaxed out a description of the components he needed made, made a diagram with measurements on a piece of paper, and was wrapping up. Inigo was impressed by Gerome’s exact knowledge of Minerva’s size; he’d simply held up his hands to show the size of each component which the man had then measured. Handy.
“Excellent. So, you want all this… full-grain… stained black… extra scraps...” Inigo stood on the tips of his toes to see over the counter, spying that the man was doing some price calculations. The numbers looked big and Inigo paled. “Okay, your total, here.” He handed over the paper to Gerome who scanned it over, nodded, and pulled out a well-worn coin wallet and handed nearly all of the money inside of it over.
“Thank you. It’ll be ready in a few days. You come on back to pick it up, alright?”
“When? A few days. Try next week. You can’t rush these things.”
Gerome frowned and seemed like he was about to attempt to rush it, but Inigo spoke up, hoping to keep this exchange pleasant for all parties. “Thank you!” He said pointedly, putting his hand on Gerome’s shoulder, who brushed it off almost immediately. “We really appreciate it. I’m sure she’ll love the new parts!” He waved and put his hand back, guiding Gerome away from the booth.
His hand was brushed off again. Gerome still looked unhappy. Now that they were back out in the rows again, onlookers’ attention was turned back on them, and people brushed by gossiping in hushed whispers. Inigo picked up some of it as they walked along slowly, to nowhere in particular. Some of it was nice, but most of it was just intrusive questioning or opinions. Gerome’s posture was rigid and he seemed at high-alert. It was even more obvious when a few other shoppers passed by too closely, brushing shoulders with the armored mystery man or poking at the cape as they went. They still had some time to kill however, so perhaps a distraction was in order.
“Hey, how about we go visit some of our neighbors? I know some farmhands from nearby that run booths or stalls here. Let’s go see what they’ve got.” Inigo led them off and Gerome followed dutifully, mostly on autopilot.
Inigo’s luck hadn’t been great today. Haley-Ann’s flower cart here was doing good business, and she chatted pleasantly up until Inigo’s first attempt at flattery at which point she shut him down hard enough that even Gerome gave Inigo what could have been a concerned look. The pun involving the flower had been great, he’d sniffled dramatically, why couldn’t she just love him? It was attempt number one of the day, so he didn’t let himself get too beat up about it. Well, until he was turned down at every tent, cart, or stall he tried. Each shopkeep just rolled their eyes and told him to move on, and by the time they had walked down just one row Inigo was nearly in tears. He griped to Gerome about his woe until a trio of young kids started giggling and burst up in front of them. The stocky one spoke first.
“You two! Are you guys soldiers?”
Inigo laughed politely while Gerome deadpan-stared at the small humans.
“Not quite! But we’re pretty close. Powerful mercenaries from a world far away,” he said dramatically. Inigo leaned forward to stare down at them. Snot-nosed brats. Their clothes were dirty, knees and shoes scuffed from lots of active play. They gave a chorus of ‘cools!’ and generally awe-filled noises. Inigo basked in it for a moment. It was nice to feel cool. But then the kids got a little too excited about seeing the duo.
“So your sword is real. Lemme see!” The taller kid grabbed for the handle and Inigo pushed him off. While keeping hand on the tall kid’s forehead, preventing him from running forward, he looked over to Gerome who was faring worse. Stocky-brat and snotty-brat were both clamouring to get at Gerome’s armor, their attack focused on his mask and cape.
“H-hey-!” Inigo grabbed the back of snotty-brat’s shirt and pulled him back from Gerome, who had frozen up. “Don’t do that.” Gerome pushed stocky-brat back, not enough to push him down, luckily. People had already stopped to stare at the commotion, they didn’t need the crowd to be angry at them .
They managed to get the brats off, and Gerome brushed and checked over his armor while Inigo lectured the trio on proper manners. To their credit, they seemed embarrassed and thoroughly guilty -- snotty-brat even started sniffling while they rang out a chorus of apologies.
“Run along, now.” Inigo turned to Gerome, grabbed him by the shoulder, and dragged them down a less busy pathway through some tents as he smiled apologetically at the few onlookers. “Whew, kids, right?” Inigo tried to diffuse the coiled up anger he saw in Gerome now.
He got a sigh in return.
“Mmmhm. Let’s go find some food. It should be this way anyways.” This day was turning out to be sort of a bust in terms of reaching through to Gerome. Inigo looked down at his feet rather than eyeing the bustling crowds for anybody that stood out. Watching their feet, he noticed that Gerome was still limping -- worse, even, than he had been in the morning. The sight was upsetting, but he did not want to push to try and visit an apothecary or clinic to see if he needed any help. They’d been walking all day, hopefully it would be better after a break.
A whiff of something delicious reached him, and Inigo found himself drawn almost automatically towards one of the food vendors. He didn’t care what it was, it smelled amazing. He ordered the large size and forked over a few of the coins Lucina had given him. In return, he was handed a paper packet holding some potato pieces that had been fried fully in oil; there was a dill sauce put in one corner of the packet and a few toothpicks tucked in near the edge. Handy. Gerome hadn’t stopped with him, he realized in a brief panic, but fortunately he was easy to spot among the crowd. The reddish hair and black armor did wonders for spotting him here.
“Wait up!” For the first time, Inigo found himself following Gerome. They moved in silence, Inigo not eating the snack quite yet. “Where are we going?” he tried.
Gerome didn’t respond, but Inigo soon found themselves back at the East Gate and out of the Bazaar. Resolutely, Gerome entered the gate and just inside took a hard right. The pathway didn’t continue through along this side so there was no traffic, no more bustling crowd. He sat down without a word to Inigo, his armor making a noticeable ‘clunk’ as he leaned up against the brick wall and stretched his left leg out in front. The right curled up towards him to the degree his armor allowed. Then, his hands started their routine check, passing over his face to check the mask, pulling at its fastenings. This continued as he checked over the rest of his armor, prodding and fidgeting until he seemed satisfied and his hands came to rest on his curled up knee with a quiet sigh.
In the meantime, Inigo had sat down just to the left, clutching at the snack he had bought, not quite ready to eat it until the other seemed more relaxed. It felt, wrong, somehow. The feeling in the pit of his stomach hadn’t gone away. Guilt?
They didn’t talk. Inigo decided that perhaps this was not the time to babble in order to diffuse the heavy air. Sure it calmed him down, but it didn’t seem to do the same for his companion, who perhaps just needed some quiet. They sat for a bit, side by side, Gerome’s hands finally coming to rest in his lap, the bent up leg uncurling and relaxing slightly. Inigo had never seen or even imagined the revered wyvern knight like this before. It was different. Earnest, but in a way that was different from Lucina or Owain’s earnestness. More vulnerable.
He seemed calmer. Good. Inigo decided maybe now he could babble a bit, but found that no words came to him. ‘That was a lot, eh?’ No. ‘Rough one, huh.’ No. Inigo tried again, not wanting to come off as patronizing or too aloof.
Gerome tensed back up a bit, his posture seemed a bit defeated compared to how he normally held himself. “I -” he started. Silent. “I just -” he snapped his mouth shut again, searching for the right words. Inigo understood and didn’t push it. “I don’t want to be here. Right now.” He fell silent again, this time for good it seemed. His voice was quiet, and mostly expressionless, but Inigo swore there was a tinge of sadness there.
The feeling surged back forward, almost nauseating. Definitely guilt. Should he try for comfort? He decided maybe just a topic change would work better. “Hey it’s alright. We got the thing you needed, it’ll be ready in a couple of days, Minerva will be ecstatic I’m sure. That lady won’t be able to keep off’a ya. Buying new clothes is a sure way to a woman’s heart.” He winked, then flustered slightly remembering the driver from earlier. “Er, so I’ve heard, at least.”
Now he needed the topic change, quick. “Look, here, you gotta try some of these, they’re great.” He held out the potato snack towards Gerome, who said nothing in response, but he did look over more. Progress. Inigo took one toothpick and offered the other out to Gerome, who took it slowly. “See, I got two! There’s plenty here for both of us.” He stabbed and ate a piece, but kept talking through it anyway. “Sough guouud.”
He let out a deep, content sigh and leaned back all while subtly extending out the paper cone holding the rest of the potatoes. Masterclass skills. It worked too, as Gerome soon took a piece, eating it with much less fanfare. By golly, he was human, and the thought made Inigo give out one of his beam-smiles. They sat together eating the rest of the snack slowly while Inigo blabbed and gossiped about the people walking through the nearby gate.
Chapter 4: Conversation with Minerva II
Gerome talks at his wyvern.
The second that the infernal cart ride dropped them off near camp, Gerome walked off towards Metsa Forest. He heard Inigo give a sad-sounding goodbye at his back but didn’t bother returning it. The sun had long since dipped behind the tall trees, and it was quickly becoming darker, the bugs quieting. After the noise and bustle of the day, it was a welcome change.
He stumbled slightly over a dirt mound and cursed. He hated this. His leg, which had been relatively fine this morning, now protested with each step and his vision flickered around the edges, even blurring if he let it take root too long. Blinking in an effort to clear his eyes, he set back out towards the forest. At least he hadn’t fallen.
“Minerva!” His voice was never loud, even when shouting, but she shouldn’t be far enough for him to have to whistle. Sure enough, a happy gurgle sounded out from the shadowy trees, a flicker of flame briefly lighting up the wyvern’s face. She had stayed at the edge all day, it seemed. Seeing her brought him a sense of relief and he hastened along a bit, just as much as his uneven gait allowed.
She pushed through the brush to meet him out in the meadows and Gerome let out a content sigh, shaky. His injuries seemed worse than they had when he first got them, and she definitely noticed. Her eyes narrowed as she scanned him, up and down. She huffed, sitting down stubbornly.
“I know. My injuries are…” He paused. He supposed he could admit this to Minerva, of anyone. “They have been bothering me. Today.”
“I cannot. I do not possess any magical energy for a staff. And… I do not have anything more helpful than bandages.” He sighed and leaned up and into her flank. The damaged saddle had been removed that morning, it was not even fit for flying it had turned out, and the core of it remained in his tent. He knew that it was nice for her to relax for a bit anyways.
“I did not like being away today.”
She agreed, but he wasn’t sure if she got just how much he didn’t like it.
“Truly. I was… not up to par, without you.” He spoke softly now, into her side, unable to look even her in the eyes. She folded him in with her wing slightly. It was nice. “I find myself utterly panicked without you. It was not always so bad but now.” He paused, pressing his cheek against her side. “I find you are the one constant in this world that… I cannot cope without.”
Minerva let out a deep, worried noise.
“I know. This talk is unusual.” He stepped back slightly and she turned to face him. His head felt stuffed full of cotton and his entire body ached. Maybe he should not have spent the entire day walking or sitting in that bumpy cart. Although the mule had been rather sweet looking.
She bumped her nose into his face, cutting off his thoughts, and let out a question-chirp.
“Inigo’s company was tolerable. Helpful.” He had been a bit more than that, but Gerome could not spare any more energy trying to sort out interpreting the actions or feelings of others. That he was through with. For tonight, at least.
A pleased snort. She then crouched low, leaning her neck down as she did when he called for her to fly. It would be nice to not walk for a bit. He climbed up, his coordination was slightly off and without the straps it was easy to nearly topple over, but he managed to situate himself between her wings.
“You are hungry.”
She agreed. But whined once more.
He could push through. “I will be fine. Let us go find you something.”
Too loyal and too hungry to protest further, they headed out towards the mountains in hopes of finding a wild goat for her to devour. Gerome let her take the lead and simply held on, hurting but happy to not have to navigate anything remotely related to feelings or social activities for the rest of the day.
Chapter 5: Metsa Meeting
Inigo makes progress.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Inigo let out a large yawn, rubbing at his eyes sleepily in an attempt to wake up. His first coherent thoughts centered on Gerome. From potato snack to cart ride to camp, Gerome had remained completely silent and withdrawn and Inigo would be lying if he didn’t admit that he was at least a little bit worried. He hadn’t tried to push his luck, however, so he’d just done the small talk and chatting on their way back for him, a gesture that he hoped hadn’t gone unnoticed. He had, however, as he bade Gerome a weak goodbye as he stalked off out of camp, pledged to check in with him tomorrow. So, today, now.
Inigo pulled on his clothes, different ones today, something loose and casual. He still took the sword though. No getting crazy. He exited the tent only to find that he had actually beat Owain and Severa up this morning, so he took great pleasure in complaining loudly outside their tents for them to get ready faster.
“Keep your morning excitement to yourself, Inigo.” Severa groused at his pleasant smile.
“Good morning, sweetheart. Seems you got enough beauty-rest to go around.” He mock bowed at her, a gentleman’s maneuver.
She rolled his eyes just as Owain’s voice, muffled by his tent shouted out. “Look here!” They quieted and stared dutifully just as he burst forth from the tent, his arm extended outwards with a dramatic flare. His other hand came to cover his eyes as he crouched in an action pose for a moment to let his clothes and the tent flap flutter in the breeze. Inigo and Severa shared a brief look of solidarity.
Owain looked up, breathing in deeply, before giving a great grin and thumbs up to his audience. “Inigo! You have truly inspired me. Tell me my friends, what did you think of this new move? I call it: Dark Hero Bursts into Action! What do you think of the name? I have many more options in the works --”
Severa chuckled but Inigo gave a more pleasant laugh. “Owain, it was great, truly only one as powerful as yourself could have expanded upon my day-starting move in such a way.” Owain stood out of his pose, pure joy seemed to radiate off of him.
“Excellent! I spent much of the evening practicing in hopes to bring such inspiration to your hearts.” He had the decency to blush with a tinge of embarrassment. Severa teased and poked at him as they walked over to the eating area together, their easy back and forth a welcome change from the difficulties of socializing with the antisocial Gerome yesterday.
As they approached, Lucina and Kjelle look up from their table, the larger one close to the river. She waved them over. “Hey you three -- great timing. Kjelle is teaching me how to clean and cook fish right now. You can help me judge the results.”
Severa frowned. Lucina’s status as the camp’s worst cook was renown. “It’s a bit early for fish, no?”
“Nonsense!” Kjelle barked out. She seemed in a good mood. “The nutritional benefits of this breakfast far outweigh those of our normal grains. Besides, Lucina has been making excellent progress already. Her abilities with a knife are commendable.”
Lucina blushed and Inigo looked over their table with a grimace. Fish guts, bones, and scales covered most of the available surface along with a few mangled filets sitting in a pile in a cleaner corner. “Inigo, you’re an excellent cook, why don’t you start frying some up while we get the rest of the fish ready?”
He cracked his knuckles. “Only if you clean up this disaster zone a bit first.”
Kjelle defended the mess slightly. “This will make mighty fine fertilizer to sell to our neighbors -- don’t brush it onto the ground quite yet, Owain, here get this bag-!”
The scent of cooked fish, fried in oil with salt and herbs over a small fire Kjelle put together attracted the other camp residents. Noire and Cynthia had happily joined in for a bit before heading out for work, and now the rest of them ate together, listening to Owain tell a largely fictitious account of how he learned to wield a sword. Soon, however, Lucina got back to business and she cleared off an area in front of her to bring out her notes and pencil.
“Lucina -- dare you pen down these dark tales? I am unsure if that paper could contain their power. My tomes are surely more up to the task.”
She smiled pleasantly. “No, cousin. I thought that this was perhaps a good time to catch you guys up on our plans.” She explained how Kjelle and herself had been budgeting and planning to build more permanent structures for their settlement since everybody seemed alright with living here. “Does anybody have any suggestions? I’d like to hear from everyone. I spoke with Cynthia yesterday about this too.” Her hand stayed at the ready, pencil touching a blank area of the page.
Owain spoke up first. “Might I suggest a space similar to this one now? I have rather enjoyed having everyone gather to tell epic renditions of our journeys. An audience is an impressive beast!” He got a bit less outlandish and added, “Also I believe it would do well for morale.”
“For once I think Owain’s idea is sound,” Severa agreed. “It’d be nice to have a place to gossip around the fire.” Lucina wrote it down, nodding. “Also… oh I’ll let you catch up.”
Lucina smiled after finishing a few notes. “Thanks. Go ahead.”
“Also I think we need a crafting space to maintain gear and equipment, you know, like a barn. It’d be nice to have a wardrobe again.” Her voice sounds wistful and Inigo can’t help but agree with the sentiment. To his surprise, almost everybody nodded in agreement -- even Kjelle.
“An increase in clothing would prevent our armor from wearing out so quickly. Perhaps we could even have more than one set.” She sounded excited at that prospect.
Inigo chimed in, “We should also start preparing for winter, and uh, our new stuff needs to be warm. I’ve heard that it’s colder here than Ylisse.” Many others let out agreements, nodding and the like and Lucina pens in that note with a star next to it.
“Right. This is a good start, we need to keep our goals practical and small for right now.” She looked up to smile at everyone gathered. “Alright guys, feel free to head out if you wanted. Inigo, can we chat for a bit?” She stood and gestured for him to follow her to her tent, notes in hand.
They entered together, Inigo babbling absentmindedly about yesterday’s cart rides and the rather interesting driver they’d had. She nodded along, pulling out the desk chair for Inigo while she sat on her cot, legs pulled up close to her. It was nice to be so relaxed. He looked at her expectantly once he got situated.
“So, tomorrow Kjelle and I are planning on going to a lumber mill we found. It’s down past Metsa Forest, it’ll be a few days trip so we’ve been trying to get together all the information we need. I’m sure they’ll help us with the supplies we’ll need from them… we’ve been saving up a lot of funds just for this. We’re planning on some small cabins” She smiled. “I’m pretty excited, actually.”
“That’s great! I’m excited too. Finally, a place to call our own.”
“Indeed. I got the notes you left the other day. So the plan right now is to bunk up Noire and Cynthia,” she looked up at him briefly for confirmation and he nodded. “Okay good. Cynthia wanted a stall for Asteria and Severa a barn or something, I don’t think we have those funds right now. So perhaps we’ll just spruce up the existing stall.” She tapped the pencil thoughtfully against the paper as she read down the list. “I was hoping Owain and Severa would be okay together for now. With time we can either expand their cabin or build another small one.”
“I bet they’ll be okay. I can double check for you later.”
“I’d appreciate that. And um, me and Kjelle are going to room together.” Her blush reached up to her ears.
“Luci,” his voice singsong, “that’s lovely! Have there been any… changes, in your friendship?”
Her blush deepened. “Ah- ahem. Um. We may be slightly more than friends these days.”
He beamed at her and gushed his joy for them, ranting about what a fine pairing they made, so determined, so powerful, what destiny before she cut him off.
“Inigo! Goodness.” She laughed, her smile the purest it had been in years. He wondered briefly if Kjelle made her smile like that too. She better, lest she face the wrath of Inigo’s brotherly fury. He gave that a second thought. Kjelle could probably walk through a full winter storm completely unruffled, so she’d probably be able to tolerate Inigo’s ire. His jealousy over her driven nature didn’t fade, however, and he found himself dreaming of a life where he had somebody to protect with all his heart as well. Someone who protected him back. Someone with beautiful hair, stunning eyes, skin like...
“Does that sound okay with you?”
She rolled her eyes. “I have you roomed with Gerome right now. Like I said… not a lot of budget right now.” She seemed unsure. “Would you perhaps like to live with Owain and Severa instead? Gerome could always live alone. Or we could build the barn instead of a fourth cabin… How was he? You took off together yesterday, right?”
“Yeah. You weren’t kidding when you wrote that he was antisocial. Wow.” He paused then added, reluctantly. “He was hurt, I think. Seemed a bit gimpy and extra grumpy, I’m not sure why.”
A thoughtful hum. “Well… he is our main source of income, actually. He brings in either big game for food and skin supplies or large sums of money. Somehow.”
“Do you think he was in a hunting accident? Does he go with the wyverrn or something?”
“They’re always together.” She smiled ruefully. “I think he does some dangerous mercenary work. Not like the stuff Kjelle and I do around here, stuff farther away. I’ve heard from clients that outlaws often ransack farms or homesteads out past the forest and some days I see him and Minerva fly off pretty early in that direction.”
“Oh,” was all Inigo could find to say. Now the guilt from dragging him around the busy Bazaar yesterday came back. He knew all too well how much it sucked to be forced into action with injuries -- no matter how insignificant they were.
Lucina didn’t seem to pick up on Inigo’s mood as she continued, “Yeah, we’ve mostly just been doing protection details for travelers or the large estates near town, nothing crazy since we’re on foot.” She leaned forward slightly, hands clasping in her serious gesture. “Anyways. What about you?”
He flustered slightly. “What do you mean what about me?” He didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about himself.
“Exactly what I said, Inigo.” They were silent a moment. “Are you going to stay with us or leave to find somewhere else?”
“O-of course I’m staying, Luci! I don’t know where else I’d even go. Besides, I -” She stayed quiet now, letting him figure out the words he was looking for. Inigo had been one of the last to show up in this time, having stayed behind to help run operations in Lucina’s absence. Only Gerome had traveled through after him. Watching everyone dear to him, the only survivors he knew of left, step through a portal to an unknown fate had been one of the hardest times of his life. He wasn’t about to step away from everyone now. Not after everything. “I don’t want to lose everyone again.” He admitted quietly.
They made eye contact, a rare moment of seriousness for them. “I know,” she responded softly before beckoning him to sit next to her on the cot. They held each other tightly, clutching on, faces buried in each other’s shoulder. Some birds chirped outside, the river audible once more. He took a deep breath before pushing back, his eyes watery. Ugh. Her’s were too, though, and they both let out a short laugh at their faces.
“Ugh, sorry Luci. You always know how to get right at the core of things, huh.”
She let out another laugh, rubbing at her eyes and they sat like that a moment longer. “I’ll mark you down for a cabin with Owain and Severa for now.”
“Alright.” He handed over the few pages of notes he still had, some information on Gerome and Minerva. “I shoulda given this to you last night, but.” He shrugged.
“All good, Inigo.”
“I’ll go find Gerome and ask him what he’s thinking. About cabins and such.”
She smiled again, their moment of grief nearly erased from their faces. She brushed her hair back, fussing with it slightly. “Yes, please assure him that everybody would be quite happy if he stayed. Take some medical supplies. They’re in the crate on the far right in the shed.”
He put back on his own facade before exiting her tent, and with a roguish smile replied, “You’re a real smart cookie, sure know how to win ‘em over. I’ll see you around, Luci.”
Inigo was getting a bit desperate. Gerome was just gone, it seemed. He’d check all over camp. His tent was empty, Minerva’s shelter was empty and looked unused too. The medical supplies were contained in a small field kit so at least they were pretty easy to carry around; he’d added a few small fruits to the pack as well since Gerome had missed out on fish breakfast. He was now wandering the meadow, the thinking meadow he dubbed it affectionately, near the forest’s edge. This was where Gerome had approached him yesterday, and now that Inigo thought about it, looking up with a realization, Gerome had definitely approached from the side of the forest rather than camp. Minerva had been among the trees as well. He walked closer.
Neither were there, but sure enough he spotted a pathway entering the woods. Someone had hacked away at much of the brush and some of the grasses were singed from flames. Definitely screamed ‘wyvern trail,’ even more so when he spotted huge, clawed footprints in some soft moss just a bit into the trees. They looked relatively fresh so he pressed onwards.
The trail was quite easy to follow and soon, the forest opened up more. There was less underbrush, thorns, or thickets to claw around and the trees towered overhead, casting a pleasant filtered shade over the area. Moss covered the ground rather than mud or grass, and small critters chirped or scampered around as Inigo passed by. Soon, up ahead, he heard the gentle sound of water, some geese honking at one another: surely signs of some sort of body of water. A pond, perhaps? Inigo was starting to enjoy this walk, regardless of whether he ended up finding Gerome or not. Owain would enjoy this trail, surely dubbing it mysterious and powerful.
Through the upcoming trees he spotted the glimmering blue shades of water. As he rounded the last trunk, the forest opened up to a small clearing around the rocky shores of what appeared to be a river. The water was moving so slowly and quietly, however, that it could have been easily mistaken for a pond or lake. Nearby geese honked angrily as he burst through, stepping noisily onto the rocks, and flapped up into the air and away.
Looking left, he felt his whole body sigh with relief as he spotted Minerva by the river’s edge. Peering more closely he could spot Gerome leaning up against her side, gently shielded from the sun by Minerva’s leathery wing. His axe was strapped onto her but Inigo noted that there weren’t any other strappings or gear resembling a saddle on her back. Gerome was, asleep? Inigo thought as he fully entered the clearing. Minerva turned to eye him. She followed his every movement as he walked up a bit closer, rocks shifting underneath noisily. He gave her a shaky smile and focused hard on his posture to make it seem relaxed and unthreatening, hitching the bag of supplies he brought along up a bit higher on his shoulder. Casually. This was just a casual encounter. The wyvern was much scarier when her master was so off-guard; there were no friendly chirps for just him.
Gerome was definitely asleep. Minerva was careful to not jostle him awake as she watched Inigo approach. Maybe he should just set the stuff down and try to get a hold of him later. Or should he wake him up? Gerome would probably get mad if he learned Inigo sat here while he slept. But then again…
Minerva decided for him, cutting the train of thoughts off short, by chuffing and rustling Gerome slightly. He woke immediately, head snapping over to Inigo quickly. The result was a sharp flinch and wince before he settled back into Minerva’s side, slumping slightly and turning away from Inigo. Apparently he still slept in his full armor and mask, something Inigo found odd.
“Um, hi, sorry to wake you up.”
Gerome didn’t turn back. “Leave.”
Well this was off to a great start. “So uh, I’m not gonna do that, I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for a while, you know.” He didn’t get a response so, boldly, he walked closer. Minerva didn’t seem bothered, just watched him boredly while Gerome turned to look at him again.
“Well, we’re doing a lot of planning up in camp together right now before all this beautiful weather goes away. Can’t exactly frolic around in the dead of winter can we. So Luci has been organizing to build some cabins up soon; she’s going tomorrow, actually.” He took the opportunity to sit down near Gerome who was still cradled by Minerva. So not too near, lest Minerva disapprove of his presence. “U-uhm.” His nerves always reared their ugly head in conversations without flirting, and conversations with Gerome were turning out to be the driest ones yet. “S-so, we’ve been getting everybody organized. It’s pretty tricky work, but kinda fun at the same time.”
Gerome still didn’t respond. Maybe he really didn’t care, but then again... “I heard that you’ve been working really hard for the camp funds.” Gerome froze at that, pointedly looking out over the water. “It’s uh, really nice of you. To do that. It’s probably a big part of the reason we’re able to afford all these plans and stuff soon. So, thanks, Gerome.”
Minerva seemed pleased. She rustled Gerome again, gave a happy gurgle and let out a small lick of flame. Inigo didn’t speak wyvern (did anyone?) but at least she appreciated the praise. Just how smart was this thing? Maybe she deserved some love too.
“Uhm, you too, Minerva! I bet you help him out a bunch, huh.”
He got an even happier sounding gurgle noise. It’d be cute if he wasn’t terrified of her.
At that, Gerome looked towards his direction before speaking out very quietly. “She says thanks.”
Inigo gave her a toothy smile. “You’re welcome, honey.” He swore she smiled back.
Gerome did his armor check routine again, hands starting up at the fastenings to his mask. Maybe that was a tell when he got flustered, or something he did after just waking up. Inigo would maybe never find the answer. Inigo forced himself to be unaffected by the aura of don’t-ever-talk-to-me the other put off and asked, “Hey, is it alright if I blab at you about our camp plans?”
He got a shrug. Good enough.
Gerome relaxed a bit while Inigo talked; he told him all about how awesome he thought his sister was lately, her budding love with Kjelle, Noire and Cynthia’s work down at Ann’s farm, and all sorts of talk he’d heard. He told him about who was going to live with who before moving into dreaming about having a small amount of normalcy again. A house. He figured this was as good a time as any to start the questioning.
“What’s your plan?” Gerome looked over and Inigo continued. “You know, for like, living in camp. Err, the cabins, moving forward.”
A bit of a pause while he thought over his answer and word choice carefully. “I understand. It is… fine that everyone is moving out.”
Inigo sputtered. “N-no! What living arrangement do you want? You’re on the plan sheet right now. I promise -- I saw it. Your cabin and stuff? Anything for Minerva, that sort of thing.”
Gerome actually seemed surprised, but he didn’t answer. Rather, he sat still and his hands found their way back up to the armor’s straps on his elbows. They stay quiet for a bit.
“Um, well, you still have a bit of time to think about it. ‘Till the end of the night, really. Luci and Kjelle head out in the morning to get the supplies. We’re planning on chopping down some small trees to help out in the next few days, everybody is gonna pitch in.” He rambled on a bit longer before falling silent again.
“Want me to stay?” Gerome asked quietly in that hoarse-sounding voice of his.
“Of course! You’re part of the group, the gang, duh. Everybody needs our resident mystery man around.”
He shook his head slightly. “No. You. Do you want me to stay?” Inigo looked over to notice that Gerome was facing him slightly more than before. What was he supposed to say to that? That was one hell of a direct question. Honesty was key with this guy, it seemed.
“Uh, yeah. I do.”
Gerome nodded, looking away again. “You’ve asked others already?”
“Yep.” Lucina counted as others, surely.
“They… also want the same?”
Inigo hadn’t realized quite how isolated from the others Gerome was until just recently, and a new odd, twisting feeling rose within his chest. Sadness, perhaps. “Of course. Like I said, everybody is interested in you, this is a great chance for us to really get to know each other, relax after…” The years of conflict, the loss of their entire world, and the years of conflict in a desperate hope to prevent that devastation for others. He wasn’t sure how to sum it up. Gerome had been there through it all, though. “You know. The world we came from.” Inigo shifted in place. The rocky shore wasn’t exactly comfortable, and either was this conversation all of a sudden. “We were the last part of the group through the portal to here. Maybe that doesn’t really mean a lot,” he laughed sadly, “but it’s been bothering me. We had to watch Lucina, Severa, Owain… everyone, really, go through to this world. I didn’t even know if they’d make it, but it wasn’t like we had much of a choice. That world was beyond saving.”
Gerome wasn’t looking at him, but he could tell he was listening. Minerva too, for that matter. “I got here and was just,” he shook his head, “so overjoyed that everyone was here. Our parents were alive and we could help them this time, it was perfect -- but totally strange seeing them so young.” Another laugh, a sad little one. “We all worked really hard -- together -- to our strengths for this opportunity. I don’t -- I really don’t want to lose anyone else.”
He thought to Brady, Nah, the bunch who had decided to not follow Lucina, for the first time. They had wanted to carve out a life somewhere new, anonymous. No longer a warrior burdened with changing the tides of fate. Just a child living with their parents, or travelers in a more peaceful world. Inigo let out a shaky sigh and rubbed at his eyes. Apparently his fate was to be a giant baby in front of Gerome. He wished suddenly and sharply that the other was not wearing his mask. Maybe he had feelings too. It would have been nice to share them. Instead of dwelling on that he put back on his sociable front.
“Besides, we can’t be without an air of mystery. As strong as Kjelle really is, she doesn’t have the same threatening aura that you and Minerva do. I swear, you two just emanate power. You make a fantastic wingman - hah - both literally and out on the town with me. We should go hang out sometime, if you want.” He spoke about nonsense until he calmed back down, his sorrow buried under his carefully rebuilt life. Gerome was still quiet, but he was looking down now rather than out and away. Inigo asked softly, just one more time, “You’ll stay?”
A nod, his hands automatically checking over his gauntlets. Inigo wondered if Gerome even realized that he was doing that.
“I -” Gerome started before cutting himself off. Inigo channeled his inner-Lucina; wait, look encouraging, be patient. He didn’t have her aura, the sheer amount of hope and inspiration she exuded had always been ridiculous but maybe he had a tiny piece of that aura in his blood. He hoped it was enough.
“I feel similarly. To you.”
Inigo smiled. One of his great, big beam-smiles. It made Gerome’s hands raise up to his face to check over his mask while he turned away towards Minerva, who made a happy, deep humming noise at the two.
They sat together like that for a bit, watching animals slowly some back around to the riverbank now that Inigo wasn’t stomping around the shore, noisy and visibly out of place. He mentioned details about how Noire and Cynthia were going to eventually build some stalls for pegasi, and how Severa seemed interested in fashioning some clothes for everyone, and how excited and proud he was of his friends. During a swooping gesture he made while talking about his friendship, his hand bumped into the bag he had set down long ago now. It made a clunk.
“Oh yeah -” he exclaimed before reaching over to the bag to pull out the supplies he’d brought before whipping back to face Gerome. Since Brady had left, these medical field-kits were the best they could do. “You’re hurt.” Inigo made his face as stern as it got, which admittedly didn’t even hold a candle to Severa’s or Gerome’s, but hopefully it was effective enough.
Gerome was facing him, calculating. “A bit,” he confessed eventually.
So much progress! He wished he’d tried to get to know Gerome earlier in their lives, maybe he would have been less… this. Unreachable. He decided to take some initiative. It was never too late. “Um, so. Do you want some help patching up? I don’t need to know what happened or anything, if it’s embarrassing or something.” He chuckled. “I mean, I know about embarrassing injuries, I’m basically the king of that. I won’t tell anybody either -- these lips? Sealed.” He made a motion with his hand across his mouth. He faced Gerome more head-on now, curling his fingers tighter around the field-kit.
Minerva seemed to have tuned back in and she flexed her side just enough to bump Gerome, who frowned in return. He was outnumbered, now. Inigo whined slightly now, desperate. “Come on, I’m really good at this. Promise.”
Gerome shifted, slowly extending his left leg out in front of himself; he cringed slightly as the joints flexed out, something Inigo picked up on. “Bandaged already,” he replied, but he didn’t exactly decline. Stubborn though. Prideful. That was okay.
“It may need a bit more than that, here.” Shuffling through the kit produced a salve, which Inigo showed to Gerome before explaining, “this is supposed to ease pain and swelling where applied. Put this on, redo the bandages, and you’ll feel a lot better.” Gerome seemed uncomfortable but Minerva stared holes into him. “See? Even Minerva is team ‘let Inigo check it out.’” He sent Gerome his most irritatingly charming smile, knowing that this salve was his ticket to success. It was something that you had to go into town to get, a premium product, and Inigo recalled just how well their visit to town went yesterday.
Gerome relented and started unfastening the heavily armored boot. Slowly. Inigo waited very patiently, watching carefully for any clues to what sort of injury he had. Gerome’s pants were rather ornate near the top at the thighs, but they were a layer worn over a simple, skin-tight one that ran from his knees down over his feet, Inigo observed. It had been patched too, on the outside of his knee and down his calf with careful, even stitches. Looked pretty recent.
Delicately, Gerome found whatever fastener kept the two pieces to his garments attached and then rolled down the skin-tight portion. True to his word, there were bandages around his knee, but he had bled through them and they didn’t look super fresh anymore. Looked dirt-free at least. Well, it’d have been weird if they weren’t given the amount of clothing he was wearing at all times. Gerome stopped and looked over at Inigo who blinked back.
“Oh -- uhm.” He hovered awkwardly, shifting onto his knees and leaning in a bit to gesture his hands towards Gerome’s leg. “Can I..?” Nothing. “I’ll just, unwrap it, okay?” Nothing. Frustrating, but Inigo didn’t let it show. “Tell me if it hurts, but I’ll be super careful, alright?”
Gerome gave a half shrug. He supposed that was as close as he was getting to an answer so he started in on the work. They were disposable bandages, he realized quickly, not the more expensive fabric ones. Cheaper, lighter to carry in a pack, and also way easier to remove.
“Do you have a knife?”
Gerome reached behind him to some hidden belt or strap somewhere on his armor and brought back a small utility blade that he handed -- handle first -- over to Inigo. “Sharp.”
“Thanks, I’ll be careful, gentleman’s promise.” He couldn’t help but wink. Gerome just frowned at him, so Inigo got right to work and made a large vertical cut through the bandages. Underneath was so bruised and bloody-looking that it took Inigo a second to tell what was going on. “Gods, Gerome - what happened?”
Even though he had been working carefully before, he now channeled all his energy into trying to remove the bandages without touching the damaged skin beneath. Impossible, but worth a shot. It looked like a blunt injury; there was some skin torn and cut in a few places near the center of it all, but several other spots were bruised so badly that they were staying a deep, painful-looking red. The bruise extended as far as he could see up or down Gerome’s leg, showcasing a variety of colors. Dried blood covered some of the skin, but it honestly was not a huge amount, Inigo noted, relieved. Didn’t make this any better though, it would definitely be sore for a while as it healed. It seemed like something managed to hit under the armored plate normally covering his knee, or maybe it just rattled it hard enough that the armor didn’t even matter?
Gerome hadn’t spoken up at all, so Inigo pressed the question again. “Can you tell me anything about what happened?” He kept working while he waited. The old bandages were all off now, and he took a small cloth from the field-kit, walked to the nearby river, wet it then wrung out the extra water before crouching back down next to Gerome. Minerva watched carefully with each step.
Gerome hadn’t flinched, cringed, or so much as moved since they’d started. He finally answered though. “Got hit.”
Inigo gave him a deadpan stare. It was hard to have much impact when the mask obscured so much. Nonetheless. “Okay, yes.”
“A mace.” They’re both quiet for a moment. Inigo’s tactic seemed to be working. “Hit at the plates’ joint. Got through.”
“Okay, I see, makes sense. Thanks uhm, for telling me. That helps a lot.”
Gerome was looking over at Minerva now; the wyvern had quietly wrapped her long, dangerous-looking tail around the pair protectively. If Gerome was finding comfort in the presence of this flying death monster then Inigo would just have to continue trying his best to appreciate the damn thing. He refocused. “Okay, I’m just gonna clean off the blood, it’ll hurt a bit, but I’ll be careful -”
“Get on with it.”
“Right, um, okay.”
One clean, salve-covered and wrapped-up leg later, Inigo sat back. Thankfully nothing was broken or dislocated, seemed the armor had taken the brunt of the blow. No longer focused, Inigo sank back into his thoughts and, gods, his feelings . He had always hated how emotional or weak he seemed in the face of Lucina, Severa, Kjelle -- anyone, really. Even Cynthia could maintain her pleasant disposition even with faced with anger or hatred. It was just… upsetting, that this had happened to one of the group. A friend. Who was probably out fighting alone, getting hit by maces of all things, when there wasn’t even a war to fight anymore. Luci had mentioned that Gerome brought in money, likely through mercenary work. She apparently wasn’t exaggerating when she said the jobs were particularly dangerous when compared to the casual, slow-paced work the others found nearby.
The guilt Inigo harbored from not working as of late resurged with a vengeance. Normally he’d just open his stream of consciousness and talk until he lost track of which emotion he had been feeling in the first place, but now he feared his voice wavering. Or his hands shaking. And gods damn it his eyes were watering now.
He turned his face away from Gerome and started packing the supplies back into the bag, trying his hardest to ignore the burning stares of the pair behind him. Damn wyvern. Stupid, masked Gerome.
Putting away the repacked medical kit, his hands found one of the small citrus fruits he had brought along as well. Deep breath. Positivity, smile. “Hey.” His voice wavered only a bit, that was fine, so he continued on. “I brought this for you too. Gotta eat healthy, especially with that leg. Strong guy like you can’t be slacking off for too long.” For good measure, he slapped on a charming smile while offering out the fruit.
Gerome was frowning. There were no signs of movement to either put back on the armored boot nor to take the fruit. “You are upset.”
Just as he got his composure together too. His eyes threatened to spill over again. “Just a bit, it’s alright really, I’m just,” the sad laugh again, “emotional.”
“You were okay, before.” Gerome was still frowning, a bit more noticeably now, and he sat up a bit straighter.
Inigo sputtered, “Before? Before what?” His mind raced to times way before, before any of the war or the attacks from the Risen started, the loss of his parents, the --
“Today. You were… content. Before meeting with me.”
“Oh, yeah, um. I suppose that’s true, but it’s not like how you’re thinking, I promise.” The citrus fruit was quickly forgotten as Inigo threw it haphazardly back down so his hands could fly upwards in an attempt at a reassuring gesture. Gerome didn’t look convinced, so he continued, “I just don’t like seeing my friends get hurt, that’s all. Today’s just brought up a lot of unpleasant memories, you know.”
Gerome’s frown may be permanent. “Yes. But you have seen injuries before.” He seemed hesitant, but kept going nonetheless. “I do not understand.”
“Why not? I’m allowed to be upset if you’re hurt,” Inigo responded indignantly.
Never had Inigo wished so strongly before that Gerome followed the normal rules of social engagement. He was just so much more blunt than anyone else he’d met, and the usual approach of ‘endless charm’ was ineffective. It was doubtful that Gerome could even tell flirting apart from normal conversation, Inigo thought bitterly. He couldn’t quite shake off his sadness however, so he tried to put it into words for the other to understand. It was the first time Gerome had asked about him , so he may as well play along.
“I’ve just been…” He slumped forward a bit, hands clasping together loosely. “What’s the right word for it, oh - lost, lately. Like everyone else in the group is so driven, they’re all rebuilding their lives together and I’m still back here playing the same old flirt.” Inigo let out a deep exhale. “I haven’t been working that much. There’s not a lot of skills I offer.”
His voice wavered now, threatening to fizzle out as tears welled up in his eyes again. “Seeing you get hurt working, supporting everyone… it reminds me that I’m just deadweight. I don’t have a role to fill. Anything I can do, someone else does better. I’m the worst swordsman in camp, even Kjelle can wield one better. Cynthia is nicer than me. Luci’s always been, just incredible; our parents’ pride and joy -- even in this world -- but I wasn’t even a good enough dancer to learn that from Mom -” A sniffle cut him off and Inigo shut his mouth.
The semi-permanent frown was still on Gerome’s face, but he seemed less agitated at least.
Tears rolled down his cheeks. “Hah, ugh, I- I’m sorry. I don’t know why I told you all that. You can just, forget about it. It’ll pass” They sat quietly, and when Inigo really focused through the ambiance of the forest and the water, he could hear Minerva’s deep breaths rumble in her chest as she inhaled. It was meditative.
“Not true,” Gerome jutted in amongst his thoughts.
Inigo responded with an eloquent, snotty: mhuh?
Gerome was back to fiddling over his gauntlets, trying to find the right words. “You are thoughtful, good with words. Well-liked. That is special.”
He couldn’t help but preen a bit, but the humble attitude his life instilled in him prevailed. “I guess. Everyone likes Luci too. And Cynthia.” He hummed. “Kjelle too. Everyone’s pretty great actually; even Severa is really sweet once you annoy her long enough.” A wistful smile broke out across his face.
“You get along with everyone.”
How does that help, Inigo thought but kept to himself. “So?” he pushed instead.
“Nobody else. You are important to everyone. It is nice, makes anywhere a home. Welcoming.” Gerome looked as if he wanted to add something, but he couldn’t seem to find the words he wanted so he clamped shut with a frown. “Can’t describe it right.” He hands checked over his mask, blocking almost all of his face from view.
Inigo was a bit flustered, both over the excitement at realizing that this may be the most anybody had ever heard out of the masked axeman, and over what was possibly one of the nicest compliments he’d gotten in ages. On paper it wasn’t super sweet, but coming from Gerome, who had never spoken up in large groups and now avoided humanity like a plague, it was very thoughtful. He didn’t want to play this one off suavely for once. “No, I think that’s a really nice thing to say.” He sniffled. “Thanks Gerome, it means a lot.” Only a last few tears made their way down his face, but they soon came to a stop as Inigo managed to compose himself. Giving it another go, he pulled the citrus out of the bag once more and offered it to Gerome.
Wordlessly, he took it and expertly removed the peel before handing half of it back. Inigo jumped back into talking about the upcoming projects in camp, his trysts, and anything he could think of as a distraction while they looked out over the water.
Inigo ran out of conversation topics quite quickly. Gerome and Minerva both were quiet today, she piped up with none of her usual odd chirps or gurgles and Gerome seemed content with letting Inigo talk himself into exhaustion as he devoured each citrus fruit Inigo handed him. He wrapped up a story about his last protection detail with Kjelle and Lucina from a couple weeks ago before lapsing into a pleasant silence.
At least, it was pleasant for maybe a minute before Inigo was itching to talk again. He found himself briefly curious as to why Gerome wore his armor and mask all the time, especially when he seemed so tired. That probably would be a tough question. There had been enough difficult conversation that afternoon so he let the thought fade. He sighed. Gerome looked over.
“Hey so, I’ll head back soon I suppose. It’d be nice to get back to camp before dark and catch up with Luci before she heads out tomorrow. Did you want to come back with me to eat dinner and stuff?” Judging by the amount of citrus peel on the ground around them, the fruits all gone, Gerome had been pretty hungry.
“Well. Okidokey then.”
Gerome let out a thoughtful sounding hum and turned back away.
“About camp... I’m not letting you leave, damn it, so you’re getting a cabin for sure, but I was wondering if you’d survive with me as a roommate? I mean -- I value privacy, we can have a system, but it’d make a lot of sense, budget-wise too, if I roomed with you instead of crashing Owain and Severa’s party.”
“I would survive, yes.”
Blunt as usual. “Good enough! We’ll give it a shot.” Inigo sent a smile to Minerva too before stage whispering, “Little does he know this roommate business is just a ploy to get to know you better. I would surely wither away without the company of a beautiful lass in my home.” A hand went up to his forehead in a dramatic gesture.
Minerva gave him a funny sounding gurgle. It could have meant anything to Inigo but Gerome’s face looked like he was almost, almost , smiling.
“Okay, you gotta tell me now. What did she say? Are my chances good with her? You’re my wingman now, you gotta let me know these things.”
Gerome just shook his head at him, the nearly-smile still there. It made Inigo’s chest squeeze happily.
“Humph. Alright then. But if I spend enough time with her eventually I’ll figure out how you understand her! Maybe then I can unlock the secrets to getting women of all sorts to fancy me.” He winked at the wyvern, mostly in an effort to get Gerome to smile. Inigo was determined now.
Minerva made some odd wyvern-y noise and Gerome turned his face away.
Inigo counted it as a smile, even if he hadn’t seen it. Next time he’d make sure that he got to be a witness to that rarity. A crow cawed overhead, making Inigo look up. The sky was beginning to warm with the first signs of sunset so he stood up, grabbing the back and slinging it back over his shoulder. He was just preparing to say his goodbyes when he was cut off by Gerome rather unexpectedly.
“Inigo. Thank you for your assistance.” Gerome was looking firmly away from Inigo, down at Minerva’s face. “My leg does seem a bit improved.”
Inigo let a pure smile take over his visage. “Hey no problem! That’s what friends are for.” There was no response so he continued. “I gotta put the supplies back just in case somebody else needs them, so let me know tomorrow if you want me to rewrap it or anything okay? Take care.” There was still no response, so he turned to head back to camp, leaving Gerome sitting with Minerva in a rather peaceful looking scene.
Inigo reached camp just as the sun dipped below the trees of the forest he left behind. It’d been a long day and he felt pretty drained on the whole ‘let’s talk about my feelings’ front. The walk back, the beautiful trail that wound around the ancient trees before opening up into the meadows, had done wonders for his mood; getting Gerome to say something nice by the end of their afternoon together had worked even better. Inigo even did a bit of whistling as he walked back. It was a skill he was honing in an attempt to impress his next love interest. Whistling was something the folks of this area liked, no? He hoped it was because he was quickly beginning to be expert-level.
Practice continued as he waltzed into camp, towards the storage shed to return the nicked supplies. Task completed he shut the door behind him. He was starting to be able to form different notes which he strung together in awkward attempts at songs.
“Who- Inigo? Are you whistling?” It was Lucina, she looked both incredulous and frazzled. Well, frazzled for her. Everything was relative after all.
He smiled at her. It was good she found him first, saved him some time. “Luci! Yes, it has worked! My efforts have lured in a fine young lady!”
Her eyes rolled. “Okay, don’t say ‘lured’ that’s creepy. Second off, I’ve been searching for you all over. Where have you been? Did you find Gerome? Are you both okay?”
Inigo had forgotten his sister’s paranoia about people leaving but before he could reassure her or answer any questions she jumped back in.
“Your eyes are red… and puffy. You’ve been crying .” Her expression shifted from worry to anger. “Did he upset you? That insensitive jerk! I’ll let him have it this time, yes, a piece of my mind is due-”
Gosh. He tried to cut her off. “Luci-”
“This isn’t the first time that he’s been a totally insensitive ass to someone, I swear-”
“Lucina!” She snapped her mouth shut. “It’s okay, it wasn’t like that okay? He was actually really nice today, in his own way. You don’t have to do anything, alright? We just chatted and I got a bit caught up in my feelings ,” he said it with a joking emphasis in an effort to make it seem less serious. “Even Minerva was charming today. We hung out for a bit, he didn’t say anything mean, I promise.”
She calmed down some, her anger fading into something more akin to embarrassment. “I still want an explanation, Inigo. You don’t just cry on command, do you?”
“Exactly. Come on, let’s go over to my tent so you can help me go over everything one more time before tomorrow.” The extra privacy of that location went unspoken and Inigo followed along loyally, his good mood from earlier still lingering despite his cry-face.
As they walk over he spotted Kjelle and Cynthia unhitching a mule from a rickety-looking cart. “Is that ours?” Kjelle was holding the lead, trying to coax the mule to follow her away from the cart while Cynthia laughed, giving out advice between giggles.
“Yep!” Lucina chirped back. “We haven’t had our own pack animals in a long time, it’ll save us a lot of trouble if we ever need to go into town or get supplies. We rely too much on Cynthia and Asteria, so it’ll be nice to have back up.” She looked over at the scene and added on a last thought. “Well, if Kjelle can ever get it to listen to her, that is.”
Inigo chuckled a bit and even Lucina couldn’t resist a smile as they entered her tent. She lit a candle while continuing, “We definitely need to build a real barn at some point, but our shanty structures will work for now. The man who sold her to us said that she’ll grow in a nice winter coat soon. Now.” She took off the Falchion and set it carefully beside her cot before sitting down. “Sit and tell me about what happened today.”
He pulled out her desk chair and sat down before starting in on the day. He described how nice the forest was, how Kjelle would surely enjoy training in the shallow waters, and how pleasant of company the vicious looking Minerva turned out to be. Inigo could never keep secrets from her, so when she pressed the topic he had no choice but to do round two of ‘everyone talk about Inigo’s feelings.’
This time, however, the quiet conversation ended in a teary hug while Lucina opened up about similar concerns. It was nice to have someone open up in return, but he couldn’t help from wondering if maybe Gerome felt the same as the two of them did now. As they embraced for the second time that day, both siblings finding comfort in the gesture once more, Inigo had a brief flicker of regret that this was a luxury that Gerome did not have. Maybe Minerva could give hugs. He wouldn’t put it past her.
My hand has been unwell so typing has been impossible. I'll post what I have written but yeah.
Chapter 6: Conversation With Minerva III
Gerome is not fond of feelings.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Gerome finished strapping his boot back on with one last gentle tug of the strap around his knee. The salve had definitely helped and a pleasant numbness settled in over the bruised area; nonetheless, putting the armor on again hurt and had taken longer than Gerome would have cared to admit. He’d had to keep the straps looser than normal due to the swelling that remained; it was unnerving and odd to be so out of sorts. His sense of wariness hadn’t gone away since he’d been injured, and it was becoming more exhausting each day. Or perhaps it was the headache that had been pounding away in his skull all day. It was hard to tell.
Minerva watched him silently, her head resting on the stones beneath her. Inigo had left some time ago, taking the chatter and liveliness with him. The forest was quieting as the birds and critters found shelter for the night. He’d been hoping that the headache would fade away after Inigo left, but that wasn’t the case. If anything, it was worse. His vision blurred if he kept his eyes open too long and blinking it away was starting to be an ineffective solution.
He let out something between a sigh and a groan, resting his head forward in his hands while his fingers found their way up into his hair to untie the mask.
Minerva made a low noise, a worried one, while she watched.
He didn’t feel much like responding. The world was much brighter now that the mask was off, but there were still issues if he kept his eyes open too long. He rubbed at them.
Minerva repeated her noise, ending with a puff of air to accent it.
That earned him an angier noise, one that would have likely sounded threatening to anybody else. He looked at her, feeling quite awful but likely looking worse now that the mask was off. Sleep had been elusive and he knew how bad the circles around his eyes could get.
“I am simply tired. Inigo has many emotions. It is exhausting to sort them out.” She looked back waiting for him to continue. “I did not manage to tell him that I… I appreciate his efforts. In talking to me.” His hands folded the mask around in his grasp. “I should not tempt Fate in such ways. But… it has been nice.” It seemed destiny that anyone he got attached to either left or perished, and he wished no such fate for any member of the remaining group at camp. It had been difficult to find the balance between complete avoidance without simply abandoning them to the wilds, but Inigo seemed determined to keep him involved. Playing along was selfish.
Perhaps he should simply cut this odd kinship off now before Inigo ended up hurt. Laurent had been so upset when Gerome told him he did not care where Laurent went after the war. Gerome hadn’t meant that it wouldn’t matter what happened to him, that he wouldn’t care , just that the decision was Laurent’s alone to make. To let nobody else hold him back from what he desired, that consulting him was not required. All that hadn’t been what he’d said though, so Laurent had left hurt. So had the Cherche of his time each time he denied her claim to be his mother. The memories left a dull ache.
Minerva seemed to have enough of his brooding as she stood up from her position curled around him and sat directly in front of him instead. Her forked tongue darted out to gently lick his face. It was a kind gesture but he couldn’t manage a smile for her. Her breath always smelled like sulfur and charcoal. Sometimes goats. It was familiar, but now it just managed to remind him how much it hurt to keep his head up or his eyes open. She gave him the Look, the one that carried the air of a parent about to get their way.
“Don’t give me that.” He crossed his arms, mask in one hand, but she persevered; her nose lowered that so that her eyes examined him even more closely. They scanned him over. She let out a low worried noise again; she knew something was wrong when the mask came off. That she could see the pain expressed on his face.
“Fine. Yes, I have a headache. My eyes hurt. My skull hurts. It will be fine.”
She disagreed and leaned forward with her nose to bonk the right side of his head, earning a flinch from her unmasked rider as she tapped the still-healing wound hidden under his hair. Observant. He hadn’t thought she noticed. He kept quiet.
Minerva sat back again, her point made.
He forced himself to his feet. “Enough of this wallowing. Let us find you a meal.”
She let out a whine. She didn’t want him to go, not in this condition.
“It was fine yesterday and it will be fine tonight.” The mask was carefully strapped back on, the pressure of it more noticeable than ever. He made to climb on and Minerva lowered her neck and held very still until he was situated. “You lead.”
Minerva led them into the air, flying slower and lower than normal, but Gerome made no comment on the gesture, simply focusing inward and pushing through.