Ike said the pack of beast laguz they had seen howling at the moon was “charming.” Soren thought that was surely a joke. But as he watched his face chewing slowly on barley in the firelight, he came to realize that he was completely serious. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise; jokes from Ike had always been a rare commodity.
“I think we’re making good time,” Ike said between bites. “Just two more days to Zarzi. No need for horses, just like I thought.”
Soren rustled. “It’s not like I wanted to go on horseback. I just said it would be faster. That’s just a fact.”
Ike smiled ruefully. “Fact. Right, I know.” Soren didn’t like the implication in his face or his voice. But it was too late to argue.
“I’m not hungry,” he growled, and dropped the wooden bowl in the fire. Ike watched it crumble into ash for a moment before his eyes turned to Soren’s shadowed shape, retreating into the tent.
“You’re gonna regret this in the morning!” he bellowed. But Soren’s face was already dug into the pillow, his ears surrounded by the woolen sleeping bag. He was retreating into his dreams as fast he could manage, away from this sickeningly hot country.
Soren did regret it in the morning. His stomach churned in hunger as they trotted down the rough-shod path to the next settlement, growing in intensity with each step. He glanced at Ike beside him, pumping his arms by his sides as he went. They were huge, and they connected to a blocky torso and roughly hewn head that matched perfectly with them.
He gulped and kept running. Envy was for the weak, he thought. A longtime mantra, and days rarely went by that he didn’t repeat it.
They stopped for a rest at a sloping palm tree to the right of the path. Ike flicked a trail of sweat off his forehead and took a swig from his canteen. Soren sat on the ground, head between his knees.
“Take a sip,” Ike muttered, holding the canteen out to him. Soren peeked up, bangs matted with sweat.
“Lie. Bigger lie than last night.”
With a groan, Soren jolted up and snatched the container away. He wolfed down three or four gulps and splashed a little on his face for good measure. Ike chuckled wryly.
“Don’t waste it.” Soren stopped at that, gasping as he held the canteen back to him. Ike slung it back around his shoulder, watching him carefully. Soren knew it, and detested it.
“You know, we can just hang out here for a little while…”
“No. I’m fine,” he hissed between pants. “I’ve marched through a lot worse than this.”
“Been a while since either of us marched, though.”
Soren’s glare was enough to stop the conversation. Ike held his hands up in defeat, and off they went running again. They came skidding to a stop three minutes later as Soren bent over with a cramped stomach.
It was luck that they had pattered down the road a quarter-mile and discovered a traveler eating an early lunch. He invited them over with a nonchalant wave and a knowing look. Soren’s instincts told him not to take his food, but beside Ike his instincts tended to fail him anyway.
“Your friend not well?” the tiger laguz asked, passing Soren a cupful of stew. Ike shook his head no.
“Just hunger. We should have packed more food. Rookie mistake.”
Soren narrowed his eyes. He covered for him so he wouldn’t look foolish, taking the blame for poor preparation. The perfect friend, the protective lover. His hands were clenched firmly inside his sleeves.
“We really appreciate it. I don’t know how to pay you back…” Ike scratched the back of his head sheepishly.
“No payback. Your face is well known here,” the traveler replied. His face was beaming with quiet pride. “Those of us who know would never turn down the Radiant Hero and his friends.”
Ike scoffed and shook his head again. “I’m not radiant nor a hero. But thank you.”
He was the biggest hero Soren knew, and in the high noon sunlight he looked as radiant as any sight he knew. His knuckles grew white and he swallowed hard.
“This is very good,” he whispered. The laguz’s smile grew bigger.
“You haven’t had to stop for a while,” Ike observed as they jogged. Soren glanced over at him caustically, but the look on his face betrayed his inner thoughts: he was right.
“Got a second wind,” he huffed back. There was silence for the next half-hour stretch before the deep orange sky encouraged them to stop. Ike rolled the humble olive green tent out and began propping it up.
“We’ll probably be there by sundown tomorrow. I know a cut through the Rizean Woods that could save an hour but it’s not worth it. Rough folks out there.” Ike tended to speak as he worked, probably for the sake of saving time. He was naturally efficient like that.
Soren’s efficiency was pre-planned hours or days ahead of time. If he ever did something effectively, it was the result of a carefully expended effort that Ike hadn’t given to something since his earliest days of sword training. Soren knew all of this, assuredly, and they were the thoughts his brain fed him as he watched Ike plant stakes and mumble about the westerly wind that implied good weather tomorrow.
“Wait,” he said. Ike stopped and gave him his attention. “I’ve never heard you predict the weather based off the wind. How could you even tell it was westward?”
“Easy. I watched the direction your hair blew in,” he answered, nonchalant as could be. Then he returned to his tent, and Soren was left standing alone, charmed and near-blushing, with mouth agape in the Gallian sunset. Effortless, easy, as always.
Zarzi loomed over the tops of the trees, its bulky stone buildings framed by intense shade. The dimming sun always had this effect, making landscapes strangely dark and dramatic yet full of light. Soren hated it. Light and darkness should keep their distance.
“The palace is right up ahead,” Ike said cheerfully, finally slowing to a stroll as they neared the city gates. “Just hope old man Caineghis isn’t out on some expedition.”
Soren nodded, tensing up as the guards at each side of the gates caught sight of them. They assumed battle-ready stances for a split second before recognizing Ike and relaxing. “Hail, Radiant Hero! You are always welcome in Zarzi!” They waved them in with firm smiles, welcoming yet somehow distant. Soren walked briskly, Ike now hurrying to keep pace with him.
“You’ve become a superstar,” Soren grumbled. Ike rose an eyebrow and looked down the road, pursing his lips.
“Not like I wanna be,” he said in a plain, small voice. Soren did not look at him to check, but he was sure his face was now tinged with regret. He’d screwed up again, saying the wrong thing thoughtlessly. He needed his hours of preparation to keep this from happening.
“Hero!” “Hail, Ike!” “Awooooo!” Cries like this peppered their walk down the dusty main road of Zarzi, and with each one Soren’s shoulders slumped further. After the sixth or seventh Ike put an arm around him. He would have fought it normally, but it slowed the greetings, so he relented.
“Ha! Love to hear Ranulf is well,” Caineghis said. “He’s a wily one. Never had a doubt he’d be successful with his diplomat work.”
“I didn’t, either,” Ike said, with the self-assured endorsement that only a close friend could give to another person. He had given it to Soren as well, many more times than he felt he deserved. He sat at Ike’s side and watched their conversation.
“I have to say, though, I am surprised that you’re the one that came down this way to tell me all this,” Caineghis said, crossing his arms. “Ranulf couldn’t make time to go see his own king, on his last legs before Skrimir takes the reins?”
“Oh, he’ll be along eventually. Too busy right now, making the rounds in Begnion. Besides, I had another reason for coming.”
“Another reason, hm?” Caineghis’s honey-gold eyes turned on Soren now. He blanched a bit under their gaze. “What about you, Sir Soren? Is it your reason, too? Or do you have your own?”
“No. I’m just a second pair of eyes,” he said coolly. A ghost of a frown crossed Caineghis’s face, but it disappeared before taking shape. He nodded in understanding.
“And I hate traveling alone,” Ike added. Caineghis seemed to take more kindly to this explanation, and he smiled as he nodded.
“Right. Not a weakness at all, my boy. Many great men feel the same way.” Soren looked at the back wall thoughtfully. Many great men…
Ike stretched his arms out like he was ready to fly. The pair stood at a grassy peak behind Zarzi’s fortress walls, overlooking the distant crags of Goldoa. There was a still, haunting beauty about the sight to Soren, framed by the moonlight. Goldoa was still intense and foreboding from a distance, but the tiniest of lights could be seen peppered on the mountaintops. Activity was emerging in a newly opened nation, and a re-energized people with it.
“It’s still too hot out here,” Soren muttered. Ike burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Soren asked with a frown. Ike turned to show his bright, clear smile.
“It’s just way too like you to say that.” He held an inviting hand out, and without thinking, Soren took it and stepped closer to the edge of the cliff. They stood side by side, eyes poring over the Goldoan mountains.
“Should we go there next?” Ike asked, half-serious.
“Do I get a choice in the matter?”
A chuckle. “Maybe you do and maybe you don’t.”
Silence followed. Soren’s hair and robes made him a black specter in the night, and he felt the part. He wrung his hands uncomfortably.
“Soren. Something’s been wrong this whole trip. Maybe longer than that.” Ike drew a little closer, just barely, but Soren felt how private the conversation had grown with that movement. “Talk to me.”
He did not want to talk, not in the slightest, but he would be lying to himself if he said Ike wouldn’t pull it out of him anyway. He stammered before speaking.
“I… well. It’s just like King Caineghis said. What’s my reason for being here? Why do I go places like this with you? ‘I hate traveling alone…’ bullshit.” The word came out more harshly than Soren intended. Ike didn't wince.
“You could go anywhere you want by yourself just fine. We don’t need to be joined at the hip every hour of the day. So I guess this whole time I’ve just felt…” The sentence gave out beneath its own weight.
“Pointless?” Ike suggested.
Ike turned a little to look directly in his eyes. Soren was taken aback, but met his gaze nervously. The hard lines of Ike’s face softened into curves.
“I was telling the truth. I do hate traveling alone. That’s why I always need you.”
Soren felt the back of his hand being cupped. “Westerly wind? That was bullshit. I read it in your guide on weather conditions. Spent two weeks reading that big fat tome before we left.”
“If you’re trying to flatter me, it’s not—”
“Ah ah.” Soren stopped frustratedly. “Who taught me about keeping your eyes peeled when you’re on the road? Who taught me about the standard look-over you do and first question you ask when you meet a traveler? Who taught me about how to keep your stance peaceful while being ready to fight on a second’s notice? Who taught me to—”
“You would know all that anyway!” Soren shouted and took a step back. Ike’s eyes fluttered in surprise. “If not me, someone else! It’s by chance you even met me! The only reason I’m alive is because I… I…”
Soren stumbled to his knees, rubbing his eyes. No tears, but the beginnings of them pushed angrily against his eyes. Ike sat down beside him.
“Who cares if it was by chance? I’d roll the dice again and again to meet you.”
A few tears fell, and then no more words were spoken. None were needed. They settled against the closest tree to the cliff and watched the flickering fires in the peaks of Goldoa wane. As the final dragon family cut out the lights for bed, Soren settled his head on Ike’s shoulder.
“I was thinking… maybe you could, uh… teach me some workout regimens. This trip has got me thinking…”
“No. I like you without muscles.”
Soren sputtered, but no anger came with it; just surprise. Ike laughed and held him closer. He always did things effortlessly, but now Soren realized how much he loved it.