Ionia - Part V: The Knight and the Dancer

The northeastern forests of Ionia were rife with wild magic unlike Kashuri's desolate prairies, filled with animals, insects, spirits and flora of varieties unimaginable to human minds. The trees were teeming with mana, housing many spirits and animals which lived harmoniously with each other. Each leaf coursed with magic, a marking of true life in Ionia's vegetation and a source of it in many of its fauna. The winds of change were light today, blowing in a cool breeze from the west, a sign of arrival in these forests, making many of the spirits and animals antsy with excitement and expectation. They almost never got visitors in these parts what with the fights between the vastaya and the humans, not even the occasional pilgrim to Hirana Monastery. Despite their misconceptions about magic, harmony and discord, many spirits still loved the humans of Ionia, helping them where they could, even battling their twisted brethren on their behalf or aiding their escapes from them. They felt sorrow for their own kind, even pity in some regard, but they knew almost instinctively and from their vast wisdom when one of their own was too far gone. Still, they did everything they could to save them. They had to try.

The winds picked up, slowly parting the clouds and revealing the great skies above the nation, many birds of all kinds flying through, descending or taking off with their currents. Freedom was intrinsic to almost every Ionian being, corporeal or spiritual, and the birds, servants of the air, reveled in their glorious gifts of being able to project that liberty with their wings. Many of them disliked making their fellow groundwalkers jealous and from time to time, descended in order to describe to them what the skies and winds felt like that day and even to ask what the ground like that same day was as well. The groundwalkers truly appreciated this small gesture of kindness, especially in these dark times, and therefore returned the favor in kind by telling them all sorts of stories they heard on the earth and beneath it. Today's story, however, was not brought to them by the birds, but by a dragoness gliding gracefully on the air currents as if dancing on the great stage of the sky. More and more clouds slowly parted, curtains to the great scene unfolding before the birds and the groundwalkers, giving them a show they would never forget. The young dragoness then descended to the forests, looking for a clearing to land on. Spotting one near a lake surrounded by red-leafed trees and fresh green grass, the beast dove down hard, eliciting a noise of surprise and fear from her back. Only then did the forest denizens notice she was carrying two figures on her back.

"Whoooo! Faster, Hu-Lin, faster!" Irelia was having the time of her life soaring through Ionia's skies, even if she was second seat and holding Garen's waist from behind, who grabbed the dragoness' feathery head protrusions tight and held on for dear life. Riding a silverwing back at home was a one-time thing for him and while he enjoyed the blue heavens of Demacia, the beast carrying him made it clear that he only tolerated the knight on its back. The young dragoness roared what passed for a laugh among dragonkind, still diving toward the clearing until she was ten centimeters off the ground. She then pulled up smoothly, maintaining her speed while circling the pond, creating a marvelous show for the spirits and animals watching although one of her fellow actors wasn't enjoying himself as much. As she gradually slowed to a halt, her lower scales touched the ground, finally allowing the two travellers on her back to touch the ground, both of them glad to have their feet on it in their own way.

"That was the most fun I've ever had in a while!" Irelia spoke through mirthy laughter, holding on to Garen's shoulder for support, the knight trying to collect himself after suffering that nosedive.

"Yeah… what she said…" He was having trouble making it sound like he meant it, his hands still gripped as if holding Hu-Lin's feathers. The dragoness for her credit did her best not to laugh at the Demacian's plight.

"A day in Ionia's skies is too much for this one, it seems. Eh, no bother. I still like him and besides, he's yet to realize he has wings of his own." Hu-Lin encircled the lake with her long body and lifted herself off the ground just enough to make it seem like she was still on it, preparing for her departure already. They had agreed that she would only take them as far as Ralin's shores, with Irelia letting her know that they'll find their way through the mountains and forests to the monastery. When asked why, though, she was strangely dodgy on the question, making up an answer about them having less of a chance of being spotted by the vastayan rebels. Still, the dragoness respected her wishes and did as she asked.

"Hirana is only a week away to the north. The snows are beginning to set since it's far up, but they shouldn't give you any trouble provided you know how to survive. Can't say the same for any vastayan rebels, though, although I don't think they come near here that often. The monastery is very well protected by the monks and their deadly martial arts." Hu-Lin explained, peaking Garen's curiosity about that last part.

"Martial arts, eh? Wonder if I could learn something…" Ever since he witnessed Xin Zhao's unique fighting style, he wanted to learn new moves and adapt them to his own combat method. Demacian strength, endurance and courage combined with Ionian skill, grace, agility and precision was an almost unbeatable combo, but he wasn't a fool. The difficulty in making all of that come together was among the highest out there. He never backed down from a worthy challenge, though. Should they admit him, he would try.

"If we can make time, maybe… But, still, our top priority should be finding you a way home." Irelia reminded him of his goal along with her own, returning the knight's focus to it and to the path ahead.

"True. We'd best hit the road, then. I assume this is where we part ways, Hu-Lin?" Garen got their things from her back as he spoke, tossing a small bag over to Irelia.

"I wish not, but if you must undertake this road by yourselves, then I shall not bar it." She leaned in closer, her nose brushing against their foreheads, a gesture of farewell and well-wishing among their kind. The dragoness then slithered higher in the air before she was above the treeline, looking down upon the travellers one last time.

"May you find your fate before it finds you!" With that farewell, she sped off back to southwest toward her own village, Garen and Irelia waving her goodbye until she was out of sight and only the clouds dotted the blue skies before turning away toward the north following a dirt road deeper into the forest, its colorful denizens already surrounding them. Garen took in the environment through all his senses, the sounds of running streams, insects and birds chirping, the air running through his skin and nostrils, all of it filling him with a sense of ease and comfort. It took him some time and a lot of effort from all parties involved, but he finally learned to be comfortable with the magic around him, eating food grown by it and even touching plants saturated with it. Maybe one day, he would even touch an animal or perhaps commune with a spirit. As it was, though, he still wasn't ready to even open his arms to it, much less accept magic as it was. His gear was fine since he could easily take it off, but anything magical he hadn't even a semblance of control over did not sit well with him. Too many risks. Too much potential danger. He sometimes wondered if Luxanna was scared of her own magic at all.

"Uh oh… What's he thinking of this time… No doubt about how his sense of justice is never wrong, blessed by the stars themselves and there's no possible way anyone could hate it. That or probably a big chocolate cake that adds some more fat around his already projecting stomach and drooping chest." Irelia thought out loud on purpose, her villainous grin challenging him to a duel of wits like their early days, a distraction he gladly welcomed.

"Not of you, that's for sure. I mean, come on, not even you can compare to that glorious dark brown melty goodness enformed like a circle and glazed with even more chocolate." He met it with gusto, making himself a bit hungry in the process but deciding to ignore it.

"Be poetic about it all you want, it's still gonna fatten you up. Garen Fatguard, the Ham of Demacia, leader of the Slobbering Vanguard!" With every word spoken, her laugh got more prevalent until she couldn't form words anymore, leaving the knight to do it for her with a peeved face.

"No wonder we're friends, then. The way all that food goes down to your waist and belly, you should be an honorary member." That one earned him a kick in the butt, making him cackle like a witch in return. The blush of rage on her face made it all worth it.

"It's muscle. It is. My weight is perfect." She hissed through gritted teeth while glaring directly forward, not wanting to see the mocking deserved grin on his face.

"Also, I am not worse than chocolate cake!" She did not believe that herself, though.

"Now that is a joke!" His evil laugh slowly became levied and heartfelt, signaling indirectly to Irelia that her plan succeeded, her rage slowly subsiding as she admired her accomplishment of once again bringing a smile to his face. She then looked away, knowing that to lose herself too long in it would mean distraction for both of them. It frightened her, honestly; the more she saw it, the more she wanted that smile to be about her homeland, everything good about it and how comfortable he was in it. She wanted it to appear when he relaxed while lying on the moving grass, caressing a wind spirit or even petting a tree stoat. She wanted it to linger the more he was here, spending time as a normal person and exploring Ionia, marveling in all it had to offer. These thoughts unfortunately caused Irelia to walk right into the one thing she was trying to avoid; as she kept thinking about the Demacian knight's expression of happiness, that buried part inside her that Akali kept digging up suddenly surfaced on its own, grabbing her ear and asking her a question, one that she avoided at all costs.

'Do you want him to look that way all the time when he's alone with you, too?'

Irelia had caused Garen pain and uncertainty before, unintentionally or otherwise. He made his feelings on magic clear and despite him tolerating it to some extent, he gave off every sign that he still wasn't ready to fully embrace it, much less accept it. Yet still, she insisted he come to Ionia to find some way through the blockade. A way that would most likely involve magic. It was part of the reason she wished for him to at least make an effort in understanding it. He was no fool and knew the situation he was in, true, but his negative experiences with magic left a scar on his mind, such things having a tremendous amount of difficulty fading. He wasn't hesitant to ask for help in that regard, but after all she put him through, Irelia felt like she was dragging him over to her side rather than helping him adjust. At the time, she thought it was just her inexperience in regards to leading, but over the course of his stay here she realized it was her selfishness. The desire to see him grow was lost down the line somewhere, replaced with a desire to see him change. Despite people's claims to the contrary, those two concepts were not the same, that stigma arising from how often they met and how often they saw eye to eye regarding humanity and perhaps even Runeterra herself… Just like her and Garen…

She was running in circles again, prompting her to stop. It was useless coming back to this only to turn around and move forward. Yet, for some reason, she wanted certainty in that feeling. She almost craved the stability of it, wanting her other emotions to dance around it, revolving perfectly in a whirlwind of happiness and understanding. It was what tainted the desire to see him return home by way of magic with the desire for him to understand it and join her in it. Her overwhelming care for him became overbearing, it seemed. She looked at him at that very moment, seeing him observe magic and Ionia from the distance he was comfortable with. He looked content, as if this was all that he needed at the moment, nothing to ruin it nor to elevate it. He looked calm. He looked…

Normal.

"Irelia?"

At the mention of her name, her focus shifted back to reality. He was looking forward, that look of content still on his face and that ever-loving smile still present.

"Yes, Garen?"

"Even though I miss our friends, it feels good to be just the two of us again."

The warmth spreading from her heart and throughout her body and soul gave her blasphemous amounts of energy and happiness, something that was starting to show on her cheeks and her shimmering crest. Taking a deep breath to steady herself, she decided to speak out of that very warmness… but in a more unserious manner.

"Oh my stars… the great and proud Garen Crownguard, esteemed leader of the Dauntless Vanguard and Demacia's most honored hero is spending his private time frolicking through Ionia's magical forests alongside *GASP*… her own war hero! One that is a mage, at that! The shock! THE SCANDAL!" Her grin of absolute mockery and unqualified mischievousness coupled with four fingers over her lips couldn't be held back no matter how hard she tried. It worked, seeing as how he made that scowl that he always did when she poked his ego or his over-the-top compliments.

"… Is this a talent of yours? You know, ruining other people's well-wishes for you?" Although he was the driest he's ever been, he still managed to come off as levied.

"Only when you're involved." She elbowed him, unable to contain the giggling any longer, all of it pouring out when his scowl got even more irked. Once it all died down, though, she put her arm around him, getting as far as his neck due to forgetting he had a pretty wide back. The rest was done by her head leaning on his shoulder.

She gathered her thoughts and tried setting them in order, having time to focus only on getting him home. And yet she could only think of how to spend the time she had with him now. Showing him the northern forests would be nice if the spirits agreed to welcome him, but he still had issues touching one. The only animal he ever touched was Hu-Lin and even that was copious amounts of persuasion, from both his friends and the dragons. The fruits he ate were fine as long as they didn't alter his physiology too much for the time he ate them or didn't have any side effects afterwards. He was slow and steady when it came to steps taken, but he always stopped right before the actual magic touched his skin or started coursing through his system. When the others insisted that it wasn't dangerous in any way, he politely turned them down, citing their understanding to help above all else as to divert the attention from the problem he still had trouble facing. For some reason, Irelia felt like she wasn't making any progress at all with him even though they've come so far together already.

Her determination flared up once more; she had to help him overcome his trauma of magic. One part reminded her it wasn't any of her business, but another wanted Garen to heal and embrace magic for what would be the first time in his life. She had to be careful with her pushes, though; one wrong step, one mistimed moment, one false word… and he would close the gates to that opportunity forever. Despite him having a strong mind when it came to combat, bravery and learning, he still had his weak spots in his loneliness and uncertainty. The more she thought about it, the more Irelia resolved herself to help him. No matter how much others tried to persuade her he was an outsider, he was still her friend… and they were the only family she had left.

Her closeness to him and his serene face ignited her courage to pursue this further. Daring was a trait of hers when it came to the wellbeing of her friends, true, but Garen was a special case; the more she spent time with him, the more Irelia felt bonded to the Demacian, a string of fate now tied around their hearts. It was tiny but strong, both of them feeling the lines it made when one of them tugged but otherwise were unaware of it at all. It was terrifying for both of them, this strange new sensation that couldn't be explained, yet they both needed it but didn't know why. Garen as always was reserved in finding out, but Irelia's curiosity was a bit stronger than his cautiousness. She wanted to find the source of that feeling as soon as possible in order to have a clearer picture about herself and him in regards to everything that's happened between them. She wanted to know the path they were on right now… which led right into the northern woods, trees rife with spirits and gentle animals of all kinds roaming in between, all of it gently finished off with the peaking sun on blue skies. Her courage suddenly exploded, giving enormous amounts of strength for what came next.

Without warning, she grabbed Garen by the hand and broke into a run toward the forest, surprising the knight with her sudden heave of might and him having no choice but to keep up with the suddenly wild woman dragging him.

"Irelia, wha-! Hey, slow down!" He tried words, but they didn't even go past her ears as she started laughing, slightly alarming the poor Demacian that this was only the beginning of whatever shenanigan she had going through her mind right now.

"Just trust me!" She was having trouble controlling herself, but luckily for her, her mirth was contagious. Several spirits appeared from behind and inside the trees, wanting to see what all the commotion was. Several silverhorns emerged from their glens, also spurred by the noise. Irelia spotted them, immediately dragging Garen over to them and stopping just three meters in front of them. The silverhorns, a mixture of a goat and deer, stared at them curiously, as if waiting on them to make the first move. On their side, Garen and Irelia stood still, Garen eyeing the creatures with amazement and restraint.

"What are they?" He asked, a signal Irelia was waiting for.

"They're called silverhorns. They are native to Ionia's forests, often congregating in glens with water and travel in groups. Their most prominent feature is their antlers; if you touch a silverhorn's antlers with your head, their soothing affectation will focus your thoughts and soothe your body. However, in order for it to work, both you and the silverhorn must trust each other." Irelia enthusiastically explained, her smile beaming and her eyes almost as bright as stars. Garen couldn't help but be taken in by her happy knowledge sharing, knowing that this is exactly what he would look like if he started explaining about the majestic silverwing raptors or the massive cragbeasts back home.

"They're very gentle and tend to avoid humans in large groups. They rely heavily on their instincts but can also think when necessary, especially when threatened." Irelia started softly but energetically, shaking his hand as if she was a child wanting to show something to someone she liked. It gave him the same feeling as Lux did when they were children, his sister's excitement when she found a strange bug or when she saw the statue of Galio for the first time giving him fond memories… and also a few worrying ones when he remembered he had to chase after her as words had no effect on her own safety self-awareness at the time.

"You sure do love talking about your homeland's fauna, huh?"

"Yep!" Her eyes somehow got sparklier, a fact that unnerved Garen slightly. Suddenly all of those encouragement speeches were coming back to bite him, or nibble him gently but imperishably in her case. He tried subtly removing his hand, but it seemed Irelia had the senses of a hawk at the time; she immediately tightened her grip and held it in place, her smile now replaced with a pout yet the sparkle in her eyes not diminished.

"Uh… Irelia, can you perhaps let me go? I don't think they-" Garen tried words, but Irelia dragged him closer to the animals, the herd itself taking a step back otherwise holding their ground. Garen began to get nervous at this point although it didn't show on his face. Deciding to ease this for what followed, Irelia directed his eyes on her.

"Watch carefully, okay? And don't run! I'm serious." She sounded like a teacher all of a sudden, all the while maintaining her energy. Before Garen could respond, she approached one of the silverhorns, the closest one and the largest, both of them identifying him as the leader. The animal stepped forth as Irelia did, both eyeing the other patiently. Garen simply observed the strange meeting under threat of getting stabbed in the butt.

The first thing Irelia did was bow deeply, patiently awaiting a reaction from the silverhorn. The goatish creature eyed her before taking a step forward and bowing back. After formalities were exchanged, Irelia gracefully edged toward the silverhorn until she was within arm's reach, extending it carefully toward its head until it was half a finger away from its horns. The silverhorn closed the distance by itself, gently nudging her hand and giving her permission to go further. Once she made sure Garen kept watching, Irelia knelt in front of the silverhorn and touched its antlers with her forehead. At first, nothing occurred, with the dancer kneeling with her head to another animal's while the knight looked on in silence. All of a sudden, however, the silverhorn's antlers began glowing with a soft silver light, as if a cold lunar beam that was trapped in them finally found freedom. It touched Irelia's head, gently wrapping around it until her mouth curved the slightest bit upward and her eyes closed. The others of its pack converged on the event, all of them encircling the duo as Irelia sat in serenity. Garen, on the other hand, still had trouble shaking the jitters of magic being performed near him. Taking a few deep breaths, he sat down as well, seeing no point in running away or fighting. He watched the event for a few minutes or what felt like such, trying to grasp what was happening; was this animal truly capable of such feats? Would the feeling afterward be real enough to make a difference? The more he thought about the more difficult it seemed to actually try it…

He caught that thought before it had a chance to escape; why was he thinking about trying it? Was it because of the situation he was in or was it because of who dragged him in it? He trusted her, but he didn't trust himself not to mess it up. He wanted a little more time, but unfortunately for him, Irelia read the previous questions on his face before the latter desire manifested and before he could react, she grabbed him yet again, pulling him closer to the silverhorn.

"Try it." The one thing he wasn't ready for had to be the one she pushed for.

"Irelia, I-I really don't think-" There was no stopping her as she shushed him with a soft finger on his lips, lightly guiding his hand until it was a finger away from the antlers of the animal.

"When you put your hand in front of their horns like this, it means you're requesting to speak to them. Just stay calm, Garen. They won't harm you. I promise." Irelia held his hand a bit longer, making sure he wouldn't yank it away. In her mind, he needed to take that next step into the world of magic, but in his mind he was content where he was, thinking there was nothing that needed to be explored further. She wouldn't have it. He had to understand.

"Let him make the next move. Patience." Still, she was gentle. Teaching wasn't a strong point of hers when it came to anything other than dancing, but she knew him well enough to handle this situation. From his end, Garen listened to her points and tried his best to follow them, awaiting the animal's next move with as little doubt as possible. The silverhorn paused for a few moments, trying to ascertain the knight's intentions, seeing no ill will but copious amounts of doubt. Wanting to ease his burden, the silverhorn approached, its antlers slowly closing the distance with Garen's palm until they finally touched. The tension eased a bit although it didn't go away, the knight now struggling to maintain the touch with as little strain as possible. Irelia said it would soothe him yet he felt nothing of the sort.

"Ok. Good progress so far. You're doing great, Garen." She encouraged him as best she could; to some, this small and insignificant praise would've rang false, but Irelia knew this was a giant step for Garen, a few more from the terrifying leap of faith that awaited him when he stood on the precipice of magic's embrace. He had to make the choice, though. All she could do was give a little nudge here and there.

"I know what you're thinking and for that to occur, you need to touch his antlers with your own head." She knew him almost too well, a fact he feared and loved at the same time. She knelt to him, both her hands on his wide shoulders, a sign of willingness to guide him or hold him back should he stumble. Garen didn't break eye contact with the silverhorn; from the moment he locked gaze with the animal, he felt a soul inside it ready and willing to help him with his issues. Although the distance between them was a mere two centimeters, Garen felt a giant canyon breaking them apart, the silverhorn standing patiently on the other end.

"Ready?" Gentle and warm like sunlight on morning dew, Irelia's voice was a welcome sound to his being, letting him know that he was in control of his actions, not anybody or anything else. The canyon suddenly narrowed, a small rumble moving the animal and the knight together until they returned to reality and the true distance between them. No turning back anymore.

Garen leaned forward slowly, edging closer to the silverhorn until his forehead touched the animal's antlers. His shoulders felt even the smallest squeeze from Irelia's soft touch given how tense he was, but that little gesture from her emboldened him, letting him know that he was on the right path. He breathed out, loosening his shoulders and hands and awaited, closing his eyes and readying his mind and body.

A few moments passed, time itself slowing down for the forests around them, the stream and leaves flowing serenely through the earth and air, rustles of the wind passing through branches and grass blades joining the melody of tranquility while the birds and spirits all around fell silent, all eyes of the forest now on the Demacian knight. Beside him, Irelia waited with bated breaths, keeping control as to not rile him on the spot and without warning. The silverhorn's antlers glowed dimly, trying to initiate the first touch of minds and magic with Garen. He, on the other hand, simply waited, lungs steadied and eyes still shut. The entire clearing and the trees closest to it awaited the moment of clarity…

… A moment that never came.

The knight and the silverhorn stood forehead to antlers for a full two minutes, neither of them moving or feeling anything from the other. Thirty more seconds and still nothing, the silence starting to make everyone a bit jittery, especially Irelia who began shuffling eyes back and forth between the two, trying to find a sign of connection for a good ten seconds before surmising what the rest of the forest did about the knight.

"… I cannot connect to it, can I?" Garen sounded strangely disappointed, prompting an immediate show of support from Irelia.

"I-It's ok, Garen. It was only the first try. You can do it. Just… just keep strong and mind open." Her words lit another spark inside him, egging him to try again. He turned to the silverhorn, the animal understanding his intent and lowering its head toward him. Forehead and antlers touched yet again, the dim silver glow signaling an attempt of bonding between them. Garen focused this time around, trying to open his thoughts to the silverhorn, the animal's antlers glowing brighter in an attempt to do the same. Another minute passed, but the previous event simply repeated. Finally opening his eyes, the knight allowed everyone to see the disappointment in his eyes and his fading hope, something he rarely lost. The silverhorn and his pack retreated slowly from him, unable to do anything anymore, the leader lowering his head as if apologizing and turning away. At his back, Irelia wanted to call out to any one of them, but the silence of powerlessness overwhelmed that desire and thus, all she could do was hold the knight until he was ready to get back to his feet.

Garen for his part simply knelt there, wondering why this failure affected him so. In all his life, he never thought he would try willingly connecting to a creature of magic mentally. The witch that dwelled in that secluded cave was another matter; he gave her something in exchange for something else, something far more important than memories; a life of a young soldier. The problem with that encounter was that she bit off far more than she could chew through the course he presented before her hungry eyes.

There were some things even magic couldn't take away. That thought solidified itself into a belief that kept him strong and always able to move forward in life. It kept his mind closed and guarded against its dangers, knowing that nothing could truly breach it as long the cracks were constantly being tended to and the foundations kept stable. Yet now, in the wake of this small yet meaningful event, he began to see exactly what the cost of such a way of life was. Seeing the end of things at the path you're currently on was surprisingly easy, despite most people saying otherwise. What he saw, however, right in this very moment, he wouldn't share with anyone. The burden was his alone to bear from that image, something the forest around him sensed as its denizens left him to his devices, spirits crawling back to their homes, animals grazing without a sound and birds flying away with a sad tale to tell while the leaves whispered it to those on the ground.

Despite all that, one person still tried shouldering it with him.

"Are… are you alright?"

Irelia never let go. It was stirring a strange mixture inside him, a sense of being dragged down while soaring above the skies lightly, a sensation of floating in place. He wasn't sure what it was as it was the first time he's ever felt this way about her.

"I'll recover. I always do." He wasn't sure how to respond either, going with the best alternative. He didn't look her in the eyes, a fact he remembered too late she could easily pick up on and worse in this situation still, call him out on.

"… You sure?"

And yet it never appeared, not even a hint. He wasn't gonna milk this blessing further, forcing himself on his feet and straightening up, his full Demacian frame stretched perfectly out and on display, even beneath all the armor covering him.

"I tried. None can say I didn't." The disappointment in his voice was buried underneath the pride and the contentment, but Irelia still caught it. The question was whether or not she should act on it, which in and of itself asked how she would go about doing it if she answered yes. Still, it was progress.

In which direction, though?

"Sorry if I pushed you too hard." She stood up as well, looking him in the eyes once more, two precious sapphires she was starting to like looking into.

"No worries, I'm used to it. It's part of your charm, after all." No forced levity in his voice, just honesty. Stretching out his neck, Garen nodded toward the forest, spotting a path through the trees.

"Do you know where that leads?" He put their focus back on their goal.

"I can ask." She motioned to one of the spirits, a squirrel with a swallow's wings running through the branches of a large star cherry tree. Irelia whistled to the spirit, the little glowy fuzzball chirping in curiosity, stopping to eye Irelia and the armored human-sized giant beside her. Although a bit wary of the knight given how its attention was not at the spectacle beforehand, the squirrel spirit still descended from the branch and scurried over to Irelia, raising itself on its hind legs and shaking its nose and mouth at her, Irelia barely containing a yelp of pure glee and joy. Bending down, she looked the spirit in the eyes, trying to establish that she was friendly and merely wanted help. After a few moments, the squirrel approached.

'Do you have any snow nuts, lady? They're my favorite!' The little spirit wasted no time asking about food. Irelia couldn't hold the giggles in any longer.

"I'm afraid not, little guy. I actually want to know where that road leads." Although Garen didn't hear the spirit, he had seen enough of Ionia to know that the spirit was communicating with Irelia through magical means, maybe a mental connection given how she could levitate her blades with just her mind. Still, speculation did him no favors as he stepped a little closer to take a glance at the creature. As he poked his head from behind Irelia's shoulders, the squirrel locked eyes with him. After a brief moment, it turned back to Irelia.

'Who is that?'

"Him? A precious friend of mine. His name is Garen and he hails from a land far from here and I seek to return him there. We're headed to Hirana Monastery. Do you know if this road leads there?" Irelia introduced Garen while repeating the question. The squirrel shifted looks between them several times, trying to size them up figuratively.

'He's… strange. I can't see his emotions. It's so weird.' It spoke to Irelia who just smiled and shrugged.

"Well, if an ancient dragon cannot pierce through his mind, you most certainly can't." She said it with such levity that it almost made all three forget that Garen was capable of doing such a strange and powerful feat. Maybe it was a Demacian thing or maybe he did subconsciously, but he was really good at it.

'Ancie-…. What… For real?' The spirit's eyes widened.

"Yep. But enough about that. No use slamming one's head against a dumb brick wall." Of course she giggled after that one.

"Hey…" The brick wall in question wasn't so dumb, though.

"Do you know where the road leads, little one?" She asked as politely as she could.

'Yep. It leads to a small secluded town just north of here. It's not on any of the maps and the inhabitants prefer it stay that way.' The squirrel nodded toward the road before answering.

"Thank you for your kindness, little one." Irelia bowed before grabbing Garen by the hand once again.

"I'm not a kid that's gonna run away on a whim, you know…" Although it was sweet, he was getting a little tired of her stringing him along like a five-year old, especially in places he could and most certainly should try to navigate on his own.

"Oh, I'm not… I-I mean, I didn't mean it that way, I just…" She suddenly became awkward, pulling her hand away and giving a reason to the knight to regret his previous words and thoughts.

"I'm sorry. I just wanted to show you around, like I- Uh… never mind." It was too late for Garen to miss it, though. Seeing her enthusiasm the first time she started pulling him and the way she expressed a desire to show him around Ionia all those weeks back made him give in. As she was scratching her head trying to think of an excuse, he tapped her shoulder, getting her undivided attention.

"Well in that case, lead the way, Miss Xan." He gestured to the road, awaiting his friend to take the lead like she always did. Irelia's eyes lit up along with her face, all of it shared with Garen through a soft glance.

"Just no more sudden pulls and drags, alright?"

"Only if you promise to listen when I provide explanations to our sights, got it?"

"Hmm… Deal." And with that, the knight and the dancer continued along the path through the forest, sightseeing as much as they could. The comfort was back, continuing as long as Irelia didn't do anything to drag Garen out of that zone. She had to remember to ease him out of it as someone like him didn't appreciate being plunged into a chaotic situation without any details or information, even if he thrived in them most of the time. From his end, Garen had to remember that this was his first time coming into contact with magic that meant him no harm. Even though he appreciated the effort from Irelia's end, the results were supposed to be his alone. Neither of them decided to rush it after what just happened; they would use the time they had with each other to get through this issue with minimal damage.

'Together.'

As they always did.

The relative peace of the forest helped immensely with that, both travelers now having clearer minds whilst the denizens now gave them a respectable distance, Garen in particular being a target of such things as they now understood he wasn't an open-minded individual, literally and not figuratively. He kept silent on the matter, thanking them with a smile and almost unnoticeable nods in their directions. Although many of the forest denizens were curious about this particular person that cannot open his mind and the magic all around him washing off of his body instead of nursing and feeding it, they still wished him no harm.

Ionia… it was still a curious land for Garen, if anything. Never in his strangest and wildest dreams did he imagine he would be travelling through it, exploring as much as he could, battling villains that barred his path and adventuring with the most interesting people he had ever met. As varied and colorful as the world they hailed from, the friends he had made on his journey were a testament to how far he had come after being torn away from Demacia and managing to survive this long. A magical blade dancer, a captain turned city mayor of a sort, a yordle, a priestess that acted far from such, an assassin with a stable mind and kind heart, an aquatic vastaya with the cheeriest and nicest soul, a lone wanderer searching for a cause to fight for, another vastaya with nine tails and a coy streak down all of them and a slightly manic yet determined hybrid of a man were most certainly not the kind of people he would consider to be even remotely associated with yet alone call close and claim to know them. But here he was, doing all of that and more, with the thought of making contact with magic itself not far behind.

Benign was not the first he would use to describe magic; discord and the like had a lot in common with it, something the stoic, unmoving, peace-loving and justice-espousing Demacian knight was not comfortable with. Only a few people saw it for what it truly was, himself included; a volatile and dangerous resource that almost had a mind of its own, drawing people in with the promise of possibilities while addicting them to its gifts until they espoused nothing but its benefits and started stating they couldn't live without it. All of that came crashing down once they lost control, just like what happened in Demacia in recent times. The one thing they feared happened; magic destroyed them all, shattering the once proud unity and peace they worked so hard on in favor of replacing it with its own. After that, as Garen predicted, their power became their own master, turning them against their fellow countrymen, everyone professing they had justice on their side while caring not for the damage they caused. Even Jarvan had succumbed to it, having implementing stricter procedures and trials for mages, the same trauma that affected Garen now having lodged itself in his head. His father was murdered by a mage, although Garen and his aunt Tianna had other suspicions. Jarvan wouldn't hear of it, however, and instituted even harsher laws against the practice of magic within Demacia, against the advice of Garen, Tianna, Garen's own father and war veteran Pieter and many of his advisors except those that sided with the Mageseekers or were working for them. It made more trouble than it fixed; distrust and dissent were higher than ever, with even their fellow non-magic countrymen and villagers losing faith in the Mageseekers' methods, despite their intentions. It made him wonder just how far magic's roots went in Demacia and how deep did they have to dig to uproot them and make his glorious kingdom safe and peaceful again. But what about the other mages in the kingdom, the ones that had no qualms with anyone and just wanted the lives that Demacia's ideals promised them, protected by everyone and protecting them in return? What about their allied kingdoms that offered them unconditional support in these uncertain times, inspired by Demacia's own ideals and by how this small, isolated nation aspired to meet them despite all others saying it was impossible? What about…

What about Lux?

He stopped right then and there. Any further and the doubts would return, bring more ruin to his mind when he needed it together now more than ever, in this land of chaos and sorcery.

And yet still, passing through calm, rustling leaves, running creeks of crystal waters, drifting petals of flowers with colors unseen caressing his skin and songs of animals with abilities and traits unheard of made him question just how chaotic Ionia truly was. Sure, there trifles here and there, but only ones caused by the inhabitants and out of misguided reasons or so he hoped. The land itself, however…

He wouldn't risk another relentless tease by his travelling companion by admitting it out loud, but deep in his heart and soul, he was truly taken with Ionia's beauty. Just a little, though. Not enough to replace Demacia with her, no sir.

All of this distracted him long enough for him to notice the large white bear approaching them at the last moment, drawing his sword with lighting speed and pointing at it.

"Garen, whoa! Easy- easy, ok? It won't harm us." Irelia was on his sword hand with her own two on the spot, barely holding the knight's single arm strength back with her entire own. Reason worked on him in these situations, however, and she immediately formed the sentences.

"That is a Season Herald, Garen. They appear at certain parts in certain times of Ionia to signal a coming change in the land. This one in particular heralds winter. See the white coat and icy claws?" She calmly explained, slowly pulling his arm down along with his sword. On its end, the Winter Herald, the bear being one of its many forms, stood there watching, awaiting the knight's response. Garen lowered his sword as soon as he heard the explanation, not taking his eyes off the beast. Now that there was no perceived threat, he observed it closely; the fur was as white as the seasonal occurrence it heralded, the claws of ice scraping the land beneath it. It radiated a chilling aura around it, waning the flowers and grass around it as if lulling them to sleep.

"What's it doing here?" The knight asked, his sword now sheathed.

"It's in the name, silly. We're at the end of autumn. Winter's turn is next." Irelia tapped him on the shoulder. Has it been that long since they last felt warmth? They had been trekking for so long that such things became a trivia. The Herald, seeing no threat to his sacred duty, descended back down on his front paws and continued down the forest, putting the trees' spirits to sleep for the coming winter while waking snowberry bushes and moonflowers for the coming long nights, yet another mystical sight for Garen to ponder and tell about back home.

"Hmm… I know animals help the flora balance itself out, but to have ones tell them winter is on its way? Peculiar…" Garen questioned the need for such things, receiving a chuckle from Irelia.

"Plants here think they know best and therefore bloom all the time and when they can, ignoring the seasons completely. It's just their thing. That's why Heralds are needed and have their place among Ionia's nature." She explained, tapping Garen on the shoulder to continue their journey.

"To have a place where you belong… It must feel wonderful." That part he understood on a personal level, following Irelia through the woods to return to his.

"What was that you said before, by the way? Plants think they know best? Sounds like pride, if you ask me." Here he was, though, having a casual conversation about flora talking and thinking and already psychoanalyzing them. Once again, Ionia's wonders were getting to him a bit more than he liked to admit.

"You'd know best about that, wouldn't you, Mister Demacia?"

"Right back at you, Miss Ionia."

The jabs being back was always a nice revert of pace between them. This time, however, something gnawed at the back of Irelia's mind, spawned from those two last words of his. Seeing as she didn't know what exactly it was and they had a lot of road to cover, she put it away for a later time although not unremembered. Right now, all they could do was enjoy the beauty and peacefulness of her homeland together… and she intended to make use of all the time they had left, no matter how short or long it was. As if hearing her heart's desire, Ionia provided the travellers with sights unseen even by Irelia; trees blooming in winter replete with silver blossoms while blades of blue grass danced swaying on the soft breeze. Flower buds waking up in the middle of the winter, already spurred to life by the Herald now turned in their direction, their petals almost pleading for a soft and delicate touch. Irelia noticed this, silently taking Garen on yet another detour, one that he was curious of this time. They stopped in front of a large tree, the ground at its roots replete with the icy blue flowers now stretched out toward the knight and the dancer. Irelia bent down and softly gave as many petals as she could the caress they wished for, the atmosphere slowly growing more and more serene with every touch. Garen observed the event closely, the magic washing off of him still, but feeling it on his skin nonetheless. It was like everything around him was connected in some way or another, as if the air was a conduit of some sort. He still had no idea how many millennia of magic Ionia had thrived under so he couldn't even begin to speculate or form an idea about it. All he could do was watch.

Irelia got up, happily moving over to another part of the bed, trying to make as many of the shy buds happy as she could. There were too many of them, however, each with their own need. She could almost hear their asks, prompting her to take off the magical copy of the gauntlet off her arm, a sign for Garen that she was either getting into it too much or that she needed help. Maybe both, especially in her case. He never thought to compare the needs of flowers with the needs of mortals, but things worked differently in Ionia. They almost seemed human in their desire to be held, something that both amazed and unnerved him. Luckily, he caught himself before he started pointlessly speculating and moved to join Irelia, who paid no attention to him at all. He looked at the flowers, all of them calmly blooming and even seeming cheerful, if such a thing was possible for plants. Then again, this was Ionia; almost anything was possible here. At that moment, an opportunity presented itself in his mind, although it required him to go out of his comfort zone again.

She made no secret of the way she wanted him to open up to magic like the rest of Ionia, but only now did he finally realize why she was so insistent. He remembered the day that started this all those few months back, specifically the moment when he said those words. Only now did he truly start to ever so slowly believe them.

Not all magic was evil.

Without her noticing, he removed his gauntlets as well, the massive Sterak's Gage from his left and his normal one from his right and knelt down. The flowers almost grew an inch as he did, turning to him longingly. He held out his hand, slowly edging toward their petals until he finally touched them as soft as he could. The delicate petals seemingly came to live from his touch, as if they were children that had just seen their parents for the first time in a long while. Irelia became aware of him in that precise moment, her face forming an expression Garen had never seen before. It was almost comparable to Lux's face when she was at her best and happiest, a small sun descended to the earth to bring joy to all.

"I, uh… Well, you looked like you needed the help so I…" He tried, but his mind no longer had the capacity to from words.

"… You… you did it." Her voice conveyed a wonder unlike any other he had heard, another thing he experienced from her for the first time.

"What? All I did was touch-"

"-Their magic petals, yes. And you did that… by yourself." Her voice was shaking with happiness so much that Garen thought her throat might explode from the strain.

"Is it really such a big deal to you, me touching magic?" He tried levying the whole thing, but as soon as he spoke the last part, all of it came crashing down on him. From the moment he had arrived here, he had adapted to the continent just enough so he could tolerate it without it influencing him too much. All he learned about it, however, was through other mouths and experiences, particularly Irelia's. This was done all on his own self. Now he knew why she acted so surprised when he befriended Nami.

"Don't even try and downplay it. I thought I pushed too much with the silverhorn and that it might be a while before you try something like that again but… I… I'm sorry, this is just…" It was her turn to lose her words, but unlike Garen, her eyes glistening with what some would call liquid pride conveyed what her voice couldn't.

"It's just a caress." He really couldn't see the big deal.

"For you. For me, it means you've taken the third step, something that's so hard to clear for people like you." She moved closer, the flowers and trees watching their every move. Once she was close enough for the hug, she wasted no time pouncing, the knight barely having time to prepare as he caught her in time.

"I'm proud of you."

Strange expression, that one. To some, it meant the world while to others it was but a hurdle they've cleared. To Garen from Irelia, it was somewhere between the two although he couldn't pinpoint whether it was an accomplishment or a relief of an obstacle overcome. He liked it when she said it to him, though.

"Couldn't have done it without you, Irelia."

"Too much modesty, Garen. Way too much." Her exasperated and almost indifferent voice made his press further.

"I'm being serious. The only reason I even considered doing this was because alone you'd have accomplished little to no progress in this task." She broke the hug though not the contact, her arms still on his.

"Wait… you did all those things… because of me?" The surprise on her face was hard to fake.

"Yes." Simple and direct, same as always. Thank the gods that part about him never changed.

"Huh… I guess something good did happen today because of me." Her voice and eyes betrayed her eroding confidence, something Garen once again took it upon himself to build up.

"Lots of good things happen because of you. Sett's off my back, Nami's safely on her way, the rest of the group is alive and I still have a head on my shoulders." She wanted to interrupt, but he predicted it, placing a finger on her mouth.

"And before you say it, yes it could've been handled better, but given the situation we were all in, I think you did the very best you could. Now… you learn from it and grow on it." Satisfied with her thoughtful expression, he got up and moved to another patch of flowers. No longer fearful of the effects, he proceeded to give them exactly what they yearned for, the entire patch coming to life with his touch.

Irelia was still kneeling in thought, the flowers curious of her. A small nudge of the wind towards the flowerbeds woke her up, the dancer walking to them and continuing her task. After twenty minutes of delicate petting, jabs at one another concerning each other's hands and fingers and a few donated petals from their 'customers', the knight and the dancer finished, standing up to admire their work. The fully bloomed flowerbeds were beautiful beyond words, the air around them now saturated with the aroma of magic, a rainless thunderstorm soaked in the cold scent of fresh snow, cherries and honey. The sparkling pale colors soothed the eyes of the travellers, both of them satisfied with their work although one more than the other.

"Well, that's done." Garen dusted his hands off, ready to continue onward. Before he could lead the way, Irelia grabbed his shoulder.

"I know it's probably folly to ask but… can you hear them?" She turned to the flowers, their petals shimmering with magic. Garen strained a bit, but heard no sound except for the ones they've been hearing before.

"I only hear the forest." He admitted.

"I know, I just… wanted to be sure. Their song is gorgeous." Irelia's crest split slowly in agreement, moving around her in a rhythm, agonizingly tempting her to dance.

"I trust you on that. I know it's not enough for you right now, but maybe one day… I'll hear it myself." It wasn't just for reassuring her. Ionia had a way of drawing out desires that weren't there before and Garen was no exception to that power.

"Whatever the case, I'm glad I helped you hear it." He motioned for her to continue on, walking four steps ahead before turning around, seeing she stopped.

"Irelia?"

"Thank you, my knight."

Those words… they were so strange to him. He was used to the affections of the noblewomen back home, but he turned down each one or never bothered to be serious. He was afraid he wouldn't have time for them if it came to that, making the phrase sound somewhat dull to his ears. And yet here and now, said by Irelia, the feeling of something worming its way from his ears to his mind and finally reaching his chest was unmistakable, almost as much as its effects on his soul. He wasn't quite used to it, however, and managed to put it under control for now until he was.

"Heh… I thought you didn't like being treated like a princess or acting like one." His comment broke her expression into a questioning one.

"What? What are you talking about?" She was genuinely confused for a moment before her widened eyes did the same for her mouth, prompting a late hand over it from her.

"… I said that out loud." The blood just launched itself from her heart straight to her face, heating her cheeks and nose up in particular, coloring them crimson while the rest of her face went light red. The happy, elevating laugh coming from the knight in question didn't help things at all.

"So you do have a soft and girly side." And that comment straight set her off.

"I do NOT! It was just a slip of the tongue! I-I'm a mature, serious and grown-up woman who does not have time for such foolishness!" If humans could produce steam fumes, Irelia was dangerously close to doing so, her arms folded and teeth gnashing at the object of both her ire and affection.

"Right, right… Well, truth and subjective opinions about girlyness aside-" He wanted to finish, but one of her blades launched itself at his face, stopping right in front of his nose and molding his face into one of awkward fear.

"Ahaha… Erm… A thousand apologies, fair, serious and iron-willed lady of war and grace. Shall we continue?" He bowed slightly and gestured to the road with both hands. Irelia's anger subsided, retracting her blade and moving up to him, unable to look him in the face with her own still burning.

"Ugh! Let's just go. And if I hear so much as a breath of 'After you, milady'…" Her head still turned away, she took her first steps on the dirt road, making sure Garen followed along from the corner of her eye.

"Would never dream of it, Miss Xan." He holstered his sword across his shoulders and trailed beside the Blade Dancer.

Neither of them brought the little detail they noticed in those four words that started this bout, although it was one particular word that tied it all together and at the same time made it rather awkward. Still, they couldn't prevent it from searing the back of their minds. Garen reserved talking about it, seeing as how Irelia was still cooling off and didn't want any jabs or questions right now. On her part, Irelia was still trying to screw her head back on again properly and appreciated his silence. Their company, however, changed all of a sudden or at least they both felt like it did. The feeling was unfamiliar to Irelia, but Garen felt it before, back at that beach when they were alone with each other and she sat close to him.

Cozy and discomforting at the same time…

Both decided it was best to deal with this sensation in private. They made sure to not stray too far from one another, though. They needed the feeling to be present for them to figure out where it came from, what it was and how to deal with it.

That, and they liked the tingling in their chest when they recalled it.


Ionia's northern reaches were starting to whiten, the snows slowly looming on the horizon. Only the winter blossoms were awake, all others now sleeping under the earth along with the trees which were now leafless trunks, their blooms feeding the ground. Along a dirt road leading through the forest, only a chill passed, reminding the animals out of their dens that winter approached and they should return to them soon. What this cold wind didn't account for, however, was bringing two souls along.

The knight and the dancer followed the road, trekking for three hours under a warm sun and chilly air that balanced each other out until they came upon a grassy clearing replete with orchids. Beyond the clearing lay a small town to which the road they followed led, the environment around it peaceful and abundant with flowers. Tall and thick trees grew around the town, all of them blooming with white petals of flowers unknown to both of them, Irelia having never been this far up north and Garen being a newcomer. A few humans wandered about the trees, harvesting crops from them or plucking petals gently.

"A town, huh? Well, I'll call it a blessing." Garen spoke the first word between them in those three silent hours. They came out a bit dazed and forced as both of them had tried swimming through their own heads and hearts, searching for clear feelings about themselves and each other, both of them going in circles and neither coming up with anything concrete.

"Yeah… Yeah, I suppose it is. Think this is gonna be our first stop, then." Irelia was also woozy with her speech, still getting her bearing after hearing Garen's voice.

"You don't know this place, I take it?" Garen asked as they both proceeded down the road, clearing the open fields step by step, the few flowers littering them strangely silent and ignorant of the travellers.

"I told you, didn't I? I've never been this far up north or to Hirana directly." Irelia repeated herself. They were both out of it, just trying to stir up the conversation and steer it to stable grounds.

"Oh right… You did say that…" First steps were always the hardest.

They walked in silence once again, both anxious to speak yet again before their heads started swimming. While searching for a conversation starter, Garen detected something amiss in the area or rather a lot of somethings.

"Irelia, do you notice anything odd about this area?" He asked just in case.

"Odd how?" She didn't notice or was ignoring it.

"There aren't any animals or spirits here of any kind. We're far out in the wilderness so I figured there'd be more of them."

She didn't pay attention to it as she was distracted with her own thoughts, but now that Garen brought it up, she felt the emptiness around what looked to be a lively town.

"You're right. Huh… didn't think you'd notice something like that with the way you usually are. Nice job." She complimented his observational skills before trying to figure out why that was so. Neither of them having enough information on the subject, they gave up after a few speculating seconds.

"I don't really know why. Maybe they don't migrate in this area? Like I said, I haven't been this far up north. We'll ask around, alright?" She picked up the pace, eager to get into a warm tub of bathwater and soap.

"If you say so." Garen simply tagged along, still suspicious of that fact. It was overwhelmed by another for the time being as he noticed more and more people approaching from all around, some in a hurry while others slowly dragging themselves through the trees.

They came in droves, passing through the trees like a stream through a rocky riverbed. The town had no walls around it, although a high number of guards with bows, crossbows and blades were posted on the large branches, their hawk-like eyes carefully scanning every single person that passed through. Some of them kept a closer eye on Garen, something he made note of while observing them back.

'They're well-trained for such a remote place. Have they been attacked recently or has it been multiple times?' His military-oriented mind couldn't help but wonder why they were so highly suspicious and hunkered down. He couldn't see them quite that well, but the trees' large branches acted as barricades, many of them moving and growing out on their own to better shield the defenders. They had lookouts on every tree on all sides, scanning passersby while others kept an eye on the harvesters and the surrounding fields.

'Almost too well-trained… Safe for Kashuri, no other place had such a high security detail, but that was because it was a major Ionia city and manufacturing zone. What's the angle on this place…' No matter how much he wanted to, he just couldn't shake the idea that this town was too fortified. A bit of it reminded him of the castles back home, overlooking the villages around and beneath them.

"Hey."

Irelia got his attention, dispelling any further thoughts in favor of the dancer.

"Yes? Did I miss something?"

"That question just confirms it. What are you thinking so hard about? Your brow is starting to furrow. Is it about Demacia again?"

She honestly didn't mind him talking about his homeland, at least from the impression he got while they conversed on their sea trip here. She even asked him several questions about it, particularly about his family, how magic was handled there and the details about it. She stopped asking after he explained what the Mageseekers were all about, calling it an abhorrent practice. She wasn't wrong, but it was a necessary one to prevent further incidents. She quite a lot liked it when he talked about his family, particularly his younger sister, although he kept the fact that she was a mage hidden. He still wasn't sure what her reaction would be if he revealed it and right now, he needed-

He wanted a friend. He didn't want to be alone.

"Sort of. The fortifications here remind me of home." Garen answered as they passed a large wooden archway. The sight was beautiful as always; the town was built entirely out of wood, or rather the more appropriate term would be grown out of them. Many gigantic trees were host to houses, establishments, shops and inns while below them three rivers converged into a massive pool of magic water, nurturing life around them. From the decorations and the business of the people below, Garen and Irelia assumed some sort of event was about to occur.

"Huh. Guess we're right on time for a celebration." Garen stated the obvious as they followed the crowds to the center of the town, many of the people dispersing to different directions while others stayed and offered a few gifts and silent prayers to the pool.

"Winter's Embrace. It's the event just before the turning of the year, two months off. I recognize the decorations." Irelia explained kneeling down with her crest lowered respectfully and clasping her hands.

"May the moon shield us in this time of sleep as our dreams either turn to reality or remain hidden forever. May the stars watch over us as we dream in this time of peace, aspiring to one day reach and touch them. And when the time comes for our eyes to open to the new world, may our glorious and loving sun gently wake us in this time of change, for nothing that lives and dreams remains the same forever. And at the turning of the age, when we finally stand again, may we move forward, always and together."

It was such a simple prayer that it almost sounded like a wish upon a star, or in this case a magical pool. Garen listened to every part, almost as if being lulled to sleep. His curiosity managed to slap him awake, though.

"That was lovely." He spoke what he felt freely.

"My o-ma used to recite that same prayer every year." She sounded a bit distant, the same as Garen when he thought about Demacia. During his time together with her, the knight noticed this one fact about her, despite her trying her very best to hide it. The pain in her voice couldn't be masked by anything no matter what she tried. She never talked about them for long and always avoided the subject whenever she started veering in that direction.

Seeing her miss her family this terribly reminded him how lucky he was to still have his own.

"What does it mean?" He did it for her this time around with his own genuine curio.

"For some, it means hope that things will be better the next year. For others death… and something new arising in their place." She got up, forcing a small smile out.

"But mostly…" She looked to the lanterns being lit, tiny windows into the Spirit World or so it was told, through which all their friends and loved ones look through. Hoping they saw only her determined and loving side, she then looked to the skies, that inviting endless blue promising her freedom. She wanted to fly out forever, free like a bird… or a dragon. It didn't matter which. She wanted to leave all her pain behind, to come to terms with her loss and to finally truly move onward to a better future. With how things were right now on Runeterra, she wondered if that day would ever come.

A shift from Garen gave that thought an answer, which in turn allowed her to give an answer to him.

"… It means renewal. A new beginning."

Content was rarely seen on her face, let alone genuine acceptance of things. But now she looked so sure of taking that step towards change for the better and it started with herself.

"Sounds peaceful." He gripped her shoulder.

"It is." She touched that same hand with her own.

They loved these moments of nothing happening. Just them and the tranquility of Runeterra. Most importantly, they loved sharing them with each other. Little by little, Irelia learned to allow herself openness with others for these moments while Garen accepted that there was peace even in magic.

Peace never truly lasted long enough to make a difference on Runeterra, though.

"Excuse me, you two."

A middle-aged voice got their attention, the knight and the dancer turning to see a young black-haired man dressed in an ornate garb with a staff. Basing on the attire, he looked like an elder but was far too young to be one upon closer inspection.

"You two aren't from around here, are you? We get many visitors this time of year, but they're usually the regulars from the surrounding villages and all the way from Kashuri." He asked with a mixture of friendliness and authority. Garen and Irelia shared a glance before turning to him.

"We aren't. My name is Irelia Xan. This is Garen Crownguard. We are travellers on our way to Hirana Monastery, where we're hoping to find a way to return him to his home." Irelia made a deep bow which Garen followed easily, already accustomed to Ionia's courtesies.

"Xan… I've heard that name somewhere…" The young elder pondered for a bit before giving up.

"Well, you hear a lot of things this far up north. That being said, strangers seem to bring some sort of change one way or another. I want to make sure it's a good one." He bowed as well before introducing himself.

"My name is Atoi. I'm the acting elder of the city of Houwa. A pleasure to welcome you two here." The young elder presented himself and his town before taking another closer look.

"Hmm… The big one doesn't look like he's from around Ionia, so I can assume you're telling the truth. I still can't put my finger on your name though, Miss Xan. It sounds very familiar." Atoi questioned himself and them at the same time.

"I'm not that important or widely known, honestly. I like to think my name is pretty common nowadays." She lied through her teeth, making Garen silently wonder why. Maybe she wanted the peace and quiet for a little while and this was the perfect opportunity.

"I see… Well, feel free to enjoy yourselves and partake in tonight's festivities. There will be a lot to see and experience so make sure you're prepared for a long night." Atoi nodded in answer and turned to leave, but was stopped by Garen.

"Wait, elder. I have a few questions about the security here. I understand there are many people present, but I have to wonder if this is recent. Have there been any attacks recently?" Garen shot straight to the point, making Irelia sigh out her frustration at him. He could be a bit overbearing with his 'soldier' part, especially when people didn't need him to be.

"Good eye, Mister Crownguard. Truth be told, we've had a few dealings with the local vastaya recently. Minor skirmishes with only serious injuries to show for them, but I felt like I needed to increase security, especially with the current event. I will protect my people and any good-willed visitors by any means necessary." His expression turned grim while his hand tightened around his staff.

"I will not lose another innocent life to those self-righteous rebels."

He had definitely faltered in that duty somewhat or at least had seen someone who did. Either way, his promise sounded a little like a threat. Seeing his guests' wary expressions, he immediately composed himself.

"I apologize. Old wounds. Please, don't mind me. My men and I will keep you all safe and comfortable." He turned to leave once more before raising a hand.

"Enjoy yourselves and find an inn quickly. They're filling up quite fast." Atoi said with merriment as he left for the highest boughs of the highest tree, the knight and the dancer waiting until he completely disappeared in its leaves.

"So… how much coin you got left on you?" Irelia broke the silence.

"Plenty. Why?" Garen moved first, trying to locate something resembling an inn.

"We're gonna need it for tonight." Irelia followed, stopping along with him to take a look at the sight in front of them.

Hundreds of visitors and even more residents populated the trees above and in front of them, their leaves having hundreds of blue hues, from pale moonlight ice to deepest ocean cerulean. In broad daylight it couldn't be seen clearly, but the sparkles of magic were there in each of their stems. Around their wide trunks, spiral stairs and bridges dotted and connected each of them, shining as if being part of the decorations themselves. The bustle only served to compound the whole thing, the people being almost as loud as Kashuri's crowds, even if they were fewer in number. All of them prepared for Winter's Embrace while new rows arrived through the archways surround the town, which was looking to be more and more like a city fortress.

The light shining through the great tree crowns put the cherry on top of the whole thing, giving Garen and Irelia yet another view to remember.

"You gotta stop bringing me to these places. I swear you're trying to make me stay forever here…" Once again, Garen's mouth got the better of him. The silence did nothing to alleviate his concern, indeed only fanning it further. He turned to her and there it was, that catty, mocking, devious and knowing smile.

"… You love Ionia." That tone both vexed and tingled him.

"… Not that much." He had no defense against it.

"Yeah you do." And she pressed on, grabbing him by the hand once again.

"Come on, Mister Demacia-but-also-loves-Ionia. Let's go find somewhere to stay." He couldn't even protest, part out of basic logic and part out of weakness. It felt nicer and nicer, though, being dragged along by her in times like this. They joined the crowds, sticking together as much as possible and keeping an eye on one another. They never let go of each other's hands; they told themselves it was not lose the other in the crowds, but they kept the 'it feels nice to hold her/his hand' part to themselves. They reached the upper levels after a few minutes, the sights of the shops, restaurants and inns dotting the skylines.

Nothing could ruin this wonderful day for them.

"… What do you mean, there aren't any more rooms?"

Except for that.

"I deeply apologize, miss, but we're fully booked at the moment." The young porter boy bowed many times to the Blade Dancer, who looked completely crestfallen and drained.

"Well, thank you for your time, young man. We'll look somewhere else. Farewell." Garen took control of the situation and bowed in return, dragging a sad and moaning Irelia out of the inn and into the outside bustle.

"Onto the next one, eh?" Unlike her, he was full of energy and ready to look for lodging, hopefully before the beginning of the setting sun.

"How are you this peppy, you smug Demacian bastard? That was our eleventh inn! Ugh! We're not gonna find any rooms at this point!" She was getting irked slowly but surely, the dragging day and bad luck getting to her bad.

"Don't give up yet. I'm sure we'll find a proper room soon enough. You know what? I feel it in my gut! Come on, Irelia! Move those famous feet of yours!" Garen tried hyping her up, hoping it would lift her spirits and get her going. All it succeeded in doing was rankle her further.

"… I will stab you and it will hurt." Despite her threat, she proceeded to follow him through the treetops and the crowds, crossing decorated walkways and sturdy wooden bridges until they came upon the next inn.

"There are plenty more inns and hotels down the treelines. One of them will have a free room." Garen's hopefulness shone with every word spoken, giving Irelia the will to go on and stop thinking about sleeping outside yet again without a bath or a soft bed.

"You- You're probably right. Ok, then! Let's get those rooms!" She used what he'd given her. No point in moping around when they could be heading toward their current goal. She had a good feeling about this all of a sudden as they walked to the next inn.

"I'm sorry, but we don't have rooms for you."

And the next.

"We're all booked. I'm terribly sorry."

And the next…

"No more rooms, you two. Sorry."

And then came the draining once again…

"We're full. Get out."

And the utter despair as they approached the last inn. Garen was still smiling for some alien reason. She started to hate it in her current state. Still, it was either following him or sleeping outside.

"This is it, huh?" He still kept his smile, even if it was laced with awkwardness.

"If they have no rooms available, can I still stab you in the buttcheek?" He hoped she was joking.

"I'd prefer it if you didn't. I like sitting down without any pain." It managed to crack his smile, but not break it completely. She took it as a victory. She needed one after the last hour's events.

"If this next doesn't have any rooms, you won't get to sit at all. In any way." With her last threat, Irelia followed Garen inside the Warm Heights Inn, a moderate establishment with plenty of rooms or so it seemed from the outside. Well lit, decorated and furnished, the travellers were pleased with the aesthetic, but they weren't the only ones.

Right at the entrance there were people already all around them, but things were settled unlike in the other inns and hotels. They took it as a good sign and approached the reception counter where a young girl no more than sixteen stood, humming a soft tune to herself. Sensing shadows on her face, she looked up to find two customers, one happy and content and the other miserable and dour.

"Oh! Sorry, I get lost in my own world sometimes. How may I help you?" She wore a beautiful cherry kimono that accented her long chestnut hair and sweet and apologetic smile.

"Greetings, young lady. We were wondering if you had a room left in your establishment." Garen wasted no time exchanging pleasantries and requests.

"Please, please, please, please…" Irelia muttered silently to herself.

"Well, you're in some sort of luck, I suppose. We have one left."

Garen's face practically became the sun while Irelia's features a darkening storm.

"Perfect! We'll take it."

"Uh, no we won't."

"What?! Why not?! You said it yourself, this is the last inn in town with any rooms available." Garen found her a bit unreasonable, fearing today might have worn her out.

"I know what I said, Garen. But there's only one left. You're gonna sleep on the floor or you gonna dump me on it?" She brought up a good point, leaving Garen to ponder a little.

"Well, if that's the case, you can have it." He offered, making her flare up.

"What?! No! I'm not leaving you outside." Him failing to add where he would find lodging made her worried.

"Uhm, excuse me, sir and madam, if I may interject…" The young concierge feared for her safety a bit with the way Irelia's crest twitched.

"Yes, what is it?" Despite her mood, Irelia calmed down enough not to scare the poor teen away.

"The room can fit both of you, but… Uh, well… I apologize, I assumed…" She turned a bit reddish with her head lowered, making both the knight and the dancer's tempers die down.

"W-We're sorry if we caused you any trouble. Me and my friend here just had a long day." Irelia swiftly apologized.

"She's usually a sweetheart, I swear! Th-this is just her in the worst mood, I promise." Garen jumped onboard that wagon faster than a spooked rabbit.

"No, no. It's not that, I mean… Well, maybe it's best if I show you both the room. You can decide for yourselves if you want it." The concierge took out a metal seal from the board behind her, Irelia already sensing the question on Garen's mind.

"It's sort of like a key. Some doors in Ionia require a touch of magic to open them." She answered as they followed the young girl through the corridors of the inn, admiring many of the colorful decorations and the occasional mural. They came to the room at last, Garen recognizing the same symbol above the room's handle. The girl simply touched it with the metal plate, both glowing soft blue before opening.

"After you." She bowed, letting them in first… and giving them enough time to take in what their lodging actually was.

A quaint, widely open and slightly ornate bedroom, replete with aromatic flowers, sparks of mana floating out from the woven wooden floor towards the equally woven ceiling, a small table with two sitting cushions placed on opposite sides and with a bouquet on it, a large open balcony sprinkled with icy blue flower petals and a grown wooden fence was the first sight they saw. Looking to their left, they saw a small, steaming and warm pool with even more colorful flowers around it, a thin wooden fence separating from the bedroom itself. The gut kicker for both of them, however, was the center of the room; a large, soft, petal-decorated double bed. Soothing atmosphere, wide open space, nearly revealing bath, low sound, decorations and furnishing for two…

Realization hit both of them, the young concierge behind them pinkish with shame at her own assumption.

"... It's a couple suite." Irelia was the first to make any sound. It was the only one she made.

"I apologize profusely. I-I saw you two and I thought you were… And you asked for a room, as in singular, so I interpreted it… like… Oh, I'm so very sorry!" Bow after bow, the teen concierge's embarrassment flew out like a gale. Seeing as how Irelia's brain had temporarily halted thought production, Garen took it upon himself to control the situation.

"I see. Well, thank you for being honest with us. If my, err… friend here comes back to us anytime soon, I'll be sure to-" The moment he placed a hand on her shoulder, she came to.

"We're taking it." She sounded almost dead, done with today's crap. Garen couldn't really blame her, but he wanted to be sure.

"Irelia, are you certain? We can work things out on how to manage the room division, but if you're uncomfortable-"

"We. Are. Taking. It." No objections, contesting or arguments worked against her anymore.

"Right, then… How much for the room?" Garen turned to the concierge.

"Fifty silver pieces per person per day, so that's one gold piece. Will you be staying the week?" The girl offered.

"Just for two days. Here's the coin. We'll let you know if there are any developments for staying longer, alright?" Garen tossed two pieces in her hand, the girl taking them with a smiling bow.

"Understood. The bathrooms are just down the hall to your left. If you return to the reception, left of it down the hall there's a restaurant and a bar. Enjoy your stay and thank you for lodging at Warm Heights." The concierge bowed in farewell and left rather quickly, leaving Garen and Irelia to make something out the uncomfortable situation they were in.

Minimal outside noise, pleasant smells, a warm inviting bath and an even more inviting soft bed. The other amenities were almost infinitesimal compared to those four.

And yet the knight and the dancer didn't know what to do any further.

"So, uh… We should take a look around, yeah?" Garen tried breaking the ice.

"What? Oh, right. Yeah… Yeah! We should." Irelia forced herself to active status, walking to the middle of the room to… do nothing once again. What was she supposed to do in this situation, pretend like this is normal? The atmosphere and the decorations all around her just screamed 'romantic evening under a lukewarm night and shining stars.'

Romance… she was terrible with the stuff. It was why she had a hard time dealing with this situation. She thanked whatever gods separated them from Akali and the nine-tails. Right as she was getting her thoughts in order, Garen started removing his armor off.

"Garen, wha-! What are you doing?!" Her voice skyrocketed.

"Taking my armor off. Yes, I have days without it off, as hard as it is to believe." Before she finished stuttering her concerns, he revealed his plain shirt and trousers underneath.

"… Oh… You have clothes on under it. Right, silly me." Her crest vibrated alarmingly, forcing her to put it down and disconnect it from her mind for a little while, the knight eyeing her worryingly.

"Irelia, are you alr-"

"I'm fine." She was most certainly not.

"You su-"

"Hundred percent." More like zero. Once again, Garen decided to drop it, although if he had to admit it to himself, he was getting a bit tired of her hiding charades.

He took a while with his armor seeing as how he had a lot of it on, but eventually he got it all, putting it in a corner along with his sword. They both sat down on the bed, backs to one another and nothing but a few decimeters and heavy silence between them.

The couple suite… it took both of them off guard and although Garen recovered fast and chalked it up to them being put in these inescapable circumstances and trying to make the best of them without compromising anything between them, Irelia had trouble adapting. A lot had been on her mind lately concerning Garen, particularly today's events. She felt herself getting more and more attached to him, but was unsure if that was a good thing. He wanted a way home and she happily obliged in helping him find it, but lately something's been getting in the way of that.

Something coming from her own being.

"You know you can talk to me about anything, right? If I can, I'll help."

How? How do you say no to that? Garen's back was no longer on her own, only his face searching hers.

Maybe he was right. There was really no reason to overthink anything. She had been under a lot of fire about him lately, but now in this moment of peace, she finally managed to find steady ground to dance on; the one he provided.

She turned, finding a look of worry and regret but eyes filled the smallest spark of hope.

"Garen, this day has been really weird."

His laugh brought all their worries crumbling down.

"Tell me about it. First I try mentally communicating with animals, then apparently flowers like my touch and now I'm sharing a couple suite with someone I never thought would even cross my path in life." His shoulders relaxed, knowing he finally got through to her.

"Me getting excited over your triumphs, finding a city that doesn't recognize me and getting mistaken for being… well, 'together' with you… I don't know how much more my brain can take." Seeing no point in holding anything back, Irelia just plopped down on the bed, sprawling herself out as much as she could. The softness did her body wonders, almost tempting her to remove all her clothes, put on some soft silky pajamas and sleep forever.

"Well, we got the whole day to ourselves. What do you wanna do?" Garen joined her, lying down far more carefully as he was larger and didn't want to damage the bed or gods forbid, launch her out of it by accident.

"If it were up to me, I'd take a long, long bath, get in some soft clothes and just-"

"-Sleep the day away, yeah I figured."

"Oh, don't get snippy with me. I need it and you know it."

"That you do."

They stared at the ceiling, admiring the intricate carved growths of the woodwork, Irelia silently commending whatever tree weaver sang to this particular part of the trunk for the relaxing sight.

"What about you, though? I feel like you need some quiet time as well." She turned to him, the thought having been on her mind for quite some time, even before they came across the dragon village. It started back in Kashuri, seeing him wound up yet determined to keep going, never giving up on his goal. It was admirable, but he sometimes forgot he was a human in need of rest, relaxation and peace.

"I'll be fine. I always am."

"You said that before."

"Because it's true."

"You sure?"

"Oh, don't you fire my own concern back at me without alleviating mine." Garen turned to her as well, face showing his slight peeve.

"What, you still think I'm not calm enough?" It infected her as well. It was strange how they had that effect on each other, something both decided to explore.

"No, I just don't like you putting me first and then forgetting about yourself."

"That's right, kettle. Talk to the pot."

"… Did you seriously just use a Demacian expression against me? I said that like two and a half months ago, back when we were certain we were going to die beside each other in Noxus."

"I'm a fast learner, huh?" She turned feisty.

"That, and a copycat. A good one, though." He matched once again.

"A compliment's a compliment, I guess."

"It's more like 'I'm-pretending-to-compliment-you-while-I'm-actually-making-fun-of-you' type of thing."

"… Asshole." A light laugh from both of them to top it off, as always.

A few moments of quiet contemplation with only the mana sparks floating beside them were shared between them, both now fully comfortable beside each other and today's events behind them.

"Garen?"

"Mmm?"

"I know I'm really late with this, but I'm glad it's just the two of us once again as well."

"Mmm."

"… Are you dozing off on me while I'm pouring my heart out to you?"

"Now you know how I feel." That earned him an attempted hit, but he blocked it easily.

"Ugh, stop swimming through my head."

"Back at ya, Xan."

Yet another moment of peace. It was so easy to forget the troubles of the world and their own like this. Garen was open to this fact and therefore savored every precious second. Irelia, on the other hand, wanted it to last forever.

"Tell me more about Demacia."

"Alright, what do you want to know?" He controlled his voice, but Irelia spotted the boyish enthusiasm.

"Hmm… Best vacation spot?"

"Cloudfield. Close to the seas, gorgeous sunset, endless green fields and calm breezes. Hmm… wonder how that little soldier-in-training is doing…" He said it out loud, encouraging Irelia's curiosity.

"What soldier?"

"Hmm? Oh, just thinking out loud."

"I'd like to hear more, then."

"Well, I met this young girl from there, one that was seeking to help in any way she could. She was spunky, brave and smart. Hmm, reminded me of my little sister, now that I think about it…" He spoke so fondly of this person, fanning Irelia's questions even more.

"What was her name?"

"Cithria. She's yea high, long chestnut hair and a sword almost as big as mine. Determined, skilled and driven. A little legend in the making, that one. Ha! On the day we met, she tried to honor me by demonstrating her own version of my spin attack. Ended up knocking five officer's helmets off their heads, three trainees running away in mortal terror and slammed General Miesar on his arse. Her embarrassed face was so adorable, I just couldn't send her off to the janitor's for her punishment, so I wavered it. Only that day, of course." He spoke in the distance, reliving the past as much as he could. His voice and face really spoke of how highly he thought of this young girl.

"She'll be great one day, believe me."

"How old is she?"

"Last I saw her, she was about fifteen."

"That young? Well, not younger than you when you began your training. I bet she'd make a great squire for you." Something in that suggestion got gears he never even felt he had working.

"Hmm… You know, I would like that. I could show her the ropes, supervise her growth, help her if she's down… my own apprentice, someone to pass my knowledge and experience on to… or someone to give my life for." That last one worried Irelia a bit.

"Hey. You make sure she comes out alive, but not at the expense of your own life. Don't you dare leave her alone after talking about her this much."

"It's a soldier's life, Irelia. Those are the risks I signed on for. Still, I won't die until she's ready. I promise you that." He looked resolute.

"Therefore, I will return home. No matter what." It was like he suddenly gained a will to live, even though he had an abundance of it. Maybe he just tapped into that endless well of hope he carried in his soul. Whatever the case, he felt another expression of gratitude was in order.

"Thanks, Irelia. I have one more reason to return to Demacia now."

"And I got one more reason to help you." She tapped his shoulder in reassurance.

"As long as you don't die, too."

"Like you said. Soldier's life."

"It's not for you, Irelia. It's not for you."

"I know… but someone's gotta do it."

"I understand that on a personal level, believe you me."

They let the thoughts hang in the air for a few moments, taking in as much advice as they could from them. They knew the weight of their responsibilities, but the fact that they knew how precious these moments of peace were made them capable of enjoying and even craving them more.

"I really do want this moment to last forever. Just me and the quiet…" Irelia sighed, knowing her dances of peace would rarely see an audience.

"One day, Irelia. One day. Just keep pushing. Never give up." If even one soul had their hope restored for a better future, then Garen would push that soul to its highest no matter what.

"It's not worth it if no one's there to enjoy them with me." She admitted. Deep down, her loneliness stemmed from the fact that she didn't want to hurt or offend anybody. She loved her people far too much to think so. Things were never that simple when it came to people in general, though. Everyone had their own idea of peace.

Sometimes, she wondered if Ionia was too fractured to fix itself fully and properly. She wondered if she even made a difference.

"Well… I'm here. If there's anything I can help with, even if it's me getting out of your way for a while, let me know." The way Garen said that, she felt rather guilty of taking advantage of his kindness. Especially in this peaceful city and in the middle of…

Winter's Embrace. Festival… decorations, souvenir shops, entertainment, good food and drinks…

She looked outside the balcony as much as she could from over Garen's head and body. A dimming orange light shining through the treetops signaled sunset, the bustle increasing even further as visitors started swarming the shops buying gifts and amenities.

Just then, the idea was born.

It was so strange for her to consider it, seeing as how she had never done this for anyone, but there it was. The real problem was Garen, though; given his current stance on this sensitive matter, would he even accept? Would he lock himself up in his head again, despite him desperately needing this? Should she risk another dent in their friendship?

And what about her? Was she ready for this? Would she mess it up and if so, could she still keep going? How would it affect them, especially his quest? Would she still have the will to stay by him afterwards without any repercussions?

Yes. Everything about the idea screamed 'YES'. She just needed the courage and she had plenty in that regard.

"Winter's Embrace is gonna start in a few hours."

At that moment, she stood up, propping herself on her arms and looking at Garen, who opened one eye to look at her. She wore such a serene expression on her face, her soft, oval, almost perfect face… It was the lights. Definitely the lights. Her eyes, however, held a question for him.

"Garen, just for tonight…" She never broke eye contact.

"Yes?"

"… Do you want go on a date with me?"

Both of his eyes opened. Rather widely, too.

"What?"

"Just you and me, as friends. Winter's Embrace happens only once a year and our luck held out this far. So, I was thinking we dress up, leave our weapons behind, go out together and enjoy ourselves. What do you say?"

There was a small amount of hesitation in that last one, but otherwise she looked calm and collected. Garen, on the other hand, was stumped. Why now? What was the reasoning behind it? He thought they were adequate here, passing the day in peace until tomorrow. Was this what she had in mind all this time or was it on impulse?

"What for? We're fine here, the room's secure, for a definition of secure in Ionia, we got all the amenities we need and we got ourselves. Besides, security out there's heavy and there are too many people. I don't know about leaving our weapons behind and I don't think I can be that comfortable without wearing any armor-" Before more was said, she shifted to a sideway sitting pose, propped herself up on one arm and put a finger on his mouth.

The way the light fell on her, the orange from the outside and the blue from the inside, made her look heavenly. Garen only noticed this once, back in Buhru on that small beach when they had time to themselves. Without his goal in sight and no one around, he often found himself thinking about her.

She was unique, even amongst all the women in his life. Almost fearless, stubborn to a fault and at the same time graceful and gorgeous, a warrior wanting to lead a normal life. Beneath it all laid a soul he wanted to swear an oath to protect, much like all of those back home. Once again, never in his wildest dreams did he think he'd want to do this for a mage. But here she was, as normal a woman as she'll ever be. There was something sublime about this whole thing, the room they were in and the situation they faced.

He found himself wanting it to continue as much as possible.

"And there it is. That right there." Irelia removed her finger, Garen suddenly and strangely feeling as if she deprived him of that soft touch.

"I can understand why you're like that. Believe me, after all we've been through together, I know you too well." She turned to the balcony, the sunset's rays feeding her body with strength.

"I can even understand why you would say no, after what you told me back in Kashuri." That distant look in her eyes… She was remembering the talk they had about how he got here in the first place.

"But… You need this, alright? I can see that, even if you can't. You can't fight for all eternity. You can't protect everyone all the time, you're not that stupid, I know you're not. I mean, you are kinda stupid, but hey, I'm not picky."

"… Thanks. You too." Sarcasm was their norm, so he was comfortable calling her out on her jabs.

"What I mean is… Why don't you start living in the world and the moments you're fighting for? Why don't you accept the fact that despite your might, fortitude and steel will, you're still human? Why don't you…"

She turned to him, her face one of compassion and content. In that moment, her eyes displayed everything she felt about him. He was honestly feeling blitzed from the sudden influx, unable to find words for what was the hundredth time with her.

"Garen, just this once… Why don't you stop being a soldier?"

He didn't notice her hand until it was right on top of his.

"Simply be a man. A normal, honest man."

A light squeeze finished her thoughts, the dancer patiently awaiting the knight's response.

Garen stared at the ceiling, lost for all eternity; he really had nothing to say, something they had both been doing a lot lately. Maybe there was a good reason for that. Maybe words were not needed anymore. Winter's Embrace seemed like a promising venue to explore, especially since he wanted to see as much of Ionia's beauties and sights as he could. And what better way to do that than with someone he trusts? Someone he called friend? Someone that was easygoing underneath her sharp façade, that didn't mind his magic-denying tendencies even though she was a mage, that understood why he was the way he was, that…

He turned to her just as the light fell dim, leaving only the floating sparks behind her to outline her form as if they were miniature stars. And just like that night in Buhru, he saw…

Irelia truly was a beautiful woman.

He turned to that accursed balcony again, pretending he was thinking about something else. He noticed it himself, no matter how many times he denied it; lately, he had been getting more and more distracted with her. Half his daily thoughts included her or something about her. And yet since Buhru and until now, none of them were about how gorgeous she was, making this whole scenario an unknown. And he hated unknowns.

The outside really was inviting in a way, but then again almost everything in Ionia was, visually at least. Underneath it all, however, lay a darkness and uncertainty that pervaded the whole land. He was strangely familiar with it and the feeling in general. After all, Demacia turned out to be not so idyllic itself. It was one of the reasons he admired Irelia and her Ionian friends; despite the chaos, they tried their best to make sense of it and help others come to terms with it as well. The way he saw it, all of Runeterra could use a little bit of hope right now, not just to beat back the darkness but to also revel in the day that came after the long night.

Maybe she was right. Maybe he did need a little time off to make sense of it all and to learn how to enjoy his victories and progress.

"Alright." He turned to her with a face of certainty and enthusiasm.

"Let's go and enjoy ourselves, although we might have to go shopping first. I don't think this inn has some spare clothes for us. Sun's not down yet so I think we got some time." Without warning, Garen was already planning their evening, getting up and walking outside the balcony to get a better look of the city.

"The crowds are getting thicker, but we can make it. Hmm, two shops on the right for garments, maybe the one three branches down for a souvenir…" He felt like talking to himself but continued on, strangely invigorated all of a sudden.

"Maybe if we split up… nah, too much of a risk, but we might-" He stopped as soon as he heard nothing behind him. He turned to see Irelia still sitting sideways on the bed.

That divine smile… His desire for making the moments they talked about last forever was rising in an alarming rate.

She got up terrifyingly gracefully, approaching him slowly until she was right in front of him, the smile rooting him in place. He wasn't quite sure if she was aware of that fact.

"Stop thinking so much. It's not like you at all. Just go at it head on, as brave as ever."

Try as he might, Garen just couldn't say no.

"But if you want a little help, I think we should do our dress ups separately, spice things up a bit and surprise the other with our choice." She looked out in thought before giving up and giggling.

"Although, you are as a subtle as a dragon's roar in an echo chamber."

Out of all the times not to be able to retort, this just had to be that one.

"Garen? You ok?"

"Huh? Oh! I'm fine, I just… spaced out."

'Don't ask why, don't ask why, don't ask why…'

"Why? What's wrong?"

'Dammit.'

"I, uh… Uhm, just thinking about what to buy is all. Too many clothes to choose from, you know how it is in Ionia. Uh, not that that's a bad thing or anything!" He stuttered, earning a raised eyebrow from her. By Targon's Peak, why did everything about her have to be perfect today?

It was the room. Had to be. It was a couple suite in Ionia, after all. Some sort of magic had to be affecting him. Yup. Definitely nothing about him at all.

"Hmmm… you sure?"

"Positive!" It was forced out and she caught it as always.

"Garen, if you don't want to, we can just stay here. I won't mind, you know that."

Her hand found his shoulder while her eyes spoke with his, trying to convey the truth. Garen thought the unease and awkwardness would increase upon further contact, but it was the opposite, soothing him back to his usual self, cooling his mind and stilling his body. She really was trying to loosen him and make him enjoy himself with no ulterior motive other than his imaginary one.

It was definitely the room, no other explanation for it.

"You want this too, don't you?" Garen thought to ask.

"I do. More than anything right now." Irelia let go of him and propped herself on the rails, looking down to the magical pool and the increasing décor.

"But I realized I can do that anytime I want to. I'd just let you know where I'm going and that I don't want to be disturbed and you'd-"

"-say 'Take your time.'"

"Exactly. But this…" She pointed to the festival below and around them.

"… This isn't meant for one person. It's for all of us." She turned to him again, filled with truth and longing.

"It's just not worth it if you aren't there with me."

Simple yet powerful. He had to agree she became better and better at adapting his own philosophy to her approaches to life, giving and taking advice. The chaos inside him subsided as his mind focused on what was ahead or in this case below.

"I'm that important to you, huh?" His chuckle meant a jest, but her sharp head turn meant she didn't take it as such.

"Of course you are!" It was a bit more forced that she meant it to be. A bit louder as well. It was so strong in making him quiet that it bounced back to her, both of them sharing a silence not knowing what to do with it yet again.

"Sorry."

Both said it at the same time. Another silence. Garen, however, got tired of the whole thing a bit faster than her.

"Oh, to the Void with this! Come on, Irelia. Let's go on that date." He said so fervently and confidently that Irelia was a bit delayed in her own outburst.

"You know what?! You're right. Let's ace this thing. I have an idea about how we should do this, too. Lend me an ear?"

"It's yours. Hit me."

"So here's what I'm thinking…"

The plan she laid out was easy to follow and gave them both enough time to complete their self-appointed tasks. They agreed to not talk about it in order to see who would surprise the other more, but they both also wanted more time to themselves. With that in mind and both of them setting out of the room and the inn, the knight and the dancer went their separate ways for the next two hours, wading through the crowds to find their chosen shops, quaint little hollows in the tree trunks that offered the finest Ionian attire for Winter's Embrace.

Once they picked out, tried out and purchased their chosen clothes, they would meet back at the inn and decide who would change first. Whoever impressed the other more would buy the food and the drinks in a fun little game to start the night off.

They both hoped not only to make a lasting impression on the other but also to get through this with no trouble whatsoever.

They hoped their luck would still hold out in that regard.

Despite knowing better, however, the knight and the dancer continued down this road, knowing that whatever came their way, as always, they would face it together.


The stars had a full view of the grand festival from between the open tree crowns, almost admiring how carefree the bustle was down on Runeterra, this little city in particular. Humans of all ends of the province gathered to celebrate the turning of the year in their own ways, shopping, feasting, drinking, playing and dancing. The magical pool in the center served as a gathering point, the best and most populated venues set around it doing their part and attracting the most attention. A large wooden gazebo was grown over the pool where the dancing, the conversations and the drinking took place, surrounded by feasting tables of all shapes and sizes. On the rim of the festivities, restaurants, food carts, souvenir displays and game colonnades pervaded, people going back and forth between them with and without food and drinks, yelling out in joy and frustration at the games and marveling at the little gifts offered to them.

The wonderful and inviting atmosphere reached up to the upper levels as well, the decorations sprawled all over the branches and the trunks as guests and visitors walked back and forth, enjoying every single festivity they could with the people they loved, some even forming new friendships while others sang drunken songs about love and moving on. Everyone was in the spirit of Winter's Embrace, the magic of the land more than helping with soothing their sorrows and igniting their hopes.

Well, all except two who were getting ready for it.

Outside the Warm Heights inn couple suite, Irelia waited patiently for Garen to change into his attire. He got here first so the honor was his, but he usually didn't take this long.

"Maybe he's having trouble putting it on. Ionian ceremonial attire is a bit over the top, I have to admit…" She spoke to herself as there was no one in the illuminated hallways and no sounds coming from inside since the room was soundproof, no prizes for guessing as to why. Her crest was inside, safely stored away in a hiding spot along with Garen's sword. She honestly never thought he was sneaky enough to hide them right above the door, but then again no thief ever looked up, especially if the light didn't fall on the metal. His armor was in plain sight, but he only needed it for comfort. He was skilled enough on his own to not rely on it all the time. She hoped they wouldn't have to.

Just then, the metal seal clicked and the wooden door opened, making her turn instantly.

Dashing, handsome and attractive; those were the first three words that came to mind when she saw Garen in his hakama. She immediately guessed he would pick a warrior's outfit, but the calm sea wave design coupled with the soothing blue and grey of the garb made him look rather dignified without standing out too much in a crowd, something she very much appreciated.

A sly little part of her head commented on the fact that this meant she wanted him all to herself tonight, forcing her to focus on who was in front of her just to drown it out.

"So… how do I look?" His tone was slightly bashful, something Irelia rarely saw out of the knight.

"Hmm… Well, if I have to say, the getup's a bit gaudy. Too much patterns, not enough color balance, flashier than fireworks, I don't know… It just screams 'Self-absorbed fighter of professed justice and style that's not actually there and he's insecure'." Irelia decided to tease the hell out of him, enjoying herself a bit too much sauntering through his embarrassment.

"Wh- Really? I-I thought it was sort of neat, but I don't know. I guess I overshot it, but I don't have anything else-" When he started stuttering for real, though, Irelia decided to call it off, placing both hands on his shoulders in placation.

"Garen."

"I just don't know if I have the time to find another." He wasn't listening.

"Garen…"

"Maybe I should put my armor on after all-"

"Garen!" She was thankful no one was around except them two or else the commotion would've drawn eyes.

"Wh-What?"

Before she answered, her right hand cupped his cheek, bringing his eyes to her own.

"You look fine. I was just messing with you the first time. In fact you look…"

He was close enough for her to get the best lookover she could ever have of him.

Clean precise shave, square jawline, brown hair combed in just the right places, two shiny sapphires looking at her emerald ones and straight line across his lips.

"… You look perfect."

Both of their mouths curved slightly upward before Irelia caught herself feeling the heat rising in her cheeks.

"Ahem! Well, I better get ready. It might take a while so you'll be patient, right?" She said as she opened the door.

"It's my MO, Irelia." He said as he propped his back to the wall on her left.

"Right. Welp, see you in a bit." She shut the door, leaving Garen to himself… before opening it slightly one more time.

"Don't you dare peek."

"Not on my life." With one final chuckle, Garen shut the door, pondering what kind of outfit she chose and what the rest of their evening would be like.

Today has been an eye opener for him in more ways than one; magic and he had finally made a good contact of a sort, letting him know that even a force of unbridled chaos such as itself knew peace and moderation. Step by step closer to understanding its intricacies and hoping to one day come to terms with it, Garen reflected on how far he'd come after his capture. The Blue Flame Isles, Bilgewater, Buhru, the shores of the First Lands, its grand forests, the Iron City of Kashuri and now its northern reaches; truly these past two months have been a wonderful ride. He almost afraid to admit he'd miss it once he returned home, if he managed to do so.

A feeling in his gut told him this was just the start, filling him with both unease and excitement. He hoped everywhere else on Runeterra was as beautiful as Ionia.

"Not telling that to her… She'd never let me hear the end of it."

And just like that, once again Garen Crownguard found himself thinking of Irelia Xan.

Her kind was rare, seeking to bring peace to a homeland that only had ears for emotional whims. The way she danced through the chaos to bring about order truly was a one of a kind thing. He couldn't help but admire her for it, something he shared for those willing to fight for what they believed in. Throughout the years in his life, he had met many that had such a drive, for better or for worse; his first was Jarvan, knowing the young prince, now regent king, ever since they were children and seeing his great potential for ruling, the very same now being tested against many foes, not all of which could be fought head on. He hoped to be there by his side, but now it seemed so distant, literally and figuratively. Luckily, he was surrounded by people not only loyal to Demacia, but also to him, Xin Zhao, Tianna and Lux being a few of the more notable. He had faith in Jarvan, but all he could do now is hope Jarvan had faith in himself.

Another driven individual he had both the pleasure and pain of meeting was Demacia's sharpest and most excellent noblewoman, Fiora Laurent. At first, they had a hard time passing through each other's veneer of nobility, but a few drinks and shouts later they became acquaintances and later friends. She was not what he expected, the layer of aristocracy hiding a woman who'd do anything to protect her family and fight for what she believed in. If he hadn't been the truest Demacian example, she might've taken that title; proud of her accomplishments, honorable to the death and always striving for perfection. He once even caught himself entertaining the idea of asking for her hand in marriage, only abstaining because he knew better; her fabled tests were meant to determine who was worthy of that title and she trusted him enough to disclose why she did it. All of them were not tests of strength or will, but of character although she refused to go further than that in case he decided to take the test for himself. Still, they valued each other's company and held the other in high regard despite their rough common background and he was lucky he had a friend like her in his life.

Luxanna…

What would she say about him now? No doubt she would ask him about what he'd seen and who he'd talked to. Would she be proud of how far he'd come? Would she push him further? He couldn't wait to tell her all about his adventures when next he saw her… if he saw her. No. No more thinking like that. He would reach Demacia, he would set right all he could and he would serve it until his last breath. He would take her in his arms again, maybe even ruffle her hair just to tick her off like the old days. Most of all, he would tell her about everyone he'd met on the way here, especially the one whom he owed his life to.

Before he got any further with that thought, the seal unlocked, making him slowly get off the wall and stand before it. A few seconds passed before the door creaked open, fully revealing who was behind it. The shadows of the room concealed her colors, but not her form. And then, she stepped out into the light.

In his younger years, Garen learned a word that could only be used in certain situations and on certain people, the specificity and narrowness of the usage so precise that it was meaningless for anything else. Right now, in this very situation, that word came to mind.

What lay before him was something out of a fairy tale, a legend told only to spur imaginations and dreams. He struggled with belief right now as he had a hard time finding evidence that this was real and that he wasn't dreaming in his room right now. Even so, he didn't want to wake up.

Irelia Xan stood in front of him, dressed- nay, draped in a gorgeous yukata replete with cosmic and constellation designs, some of which Garen recognized. It melded with her form splendorously, accented by her bottom half having a slack skirt that reached all the way to the ground. Her hair was completely loose, the bow and circlet now left behind as the calm rivers of silky strands emerging from her head dropped down all the way to her hips. Her crest was left behind as well, making her almost unrecognizable and otherworldly, as if she were a goddess of beauty descended to mortal soils. The cosmic colors of gold, blue and white smoothly stood out from the little skin she showed, the hands and head being the only proof that there was a human underneath that sackcloth of stars. A large tabard covered her from neck to heels, Ionia's twin dragons portrayed on it in hues of light green and gold. Her face was washed clean and shiny, almost challenging the idea that she was a human being and was indeed from the heavens.

All of it was completed with a smile that made the real stars jealous.

They stood there for a full twenty seconds, looking at each other uneasily, Garen still wrestling with the thought that he was asleep while Irelia was combating the rising blush.

"Uhm… Well?" She managed to gather enough will to break to silence, although it broke her guard on the blushing end as her cheeks reddened.

"Huh? … Oh… Oh! Wait, what?" Truly a reply of grace, courtesy and dignity from the knight.

"Garen? Helloooo~?" She was starting to get worried. Maybe he'd taken too many blows to the head these past few weeks.

"… Wait, I'm not asleep? This isn't a dream?" Now she really was getting worried.

"Not that I'm aware of. Garen, are you alright? You look a bit… dazed."

A few more seconds of silence passed as Garen started to return to reality, realizing that Irelia was real, dressed magnificently and could easily be mistaken for a divine being.

"… Irelia, I'm going to say a word. This word describes the current you and the way you look. It might sound like an insult or a curse, but trust me it is not. May I?" Garen found his mind, deciding to speak exactly what was on it. Irelia was a bit taken aback but went along with it in hopes of keeping him as sane as possible.

"Alright, hit me."

"Pulchritudinous."

"… Say what?"

"I know, I know, it sounds really weird and almost offensive but trust me, it is the exact opposite of offensive." He began explaining a bit reservedly.

"Ok, so… what's it mean?"

"Huh?"

"Garen, stay with me, pal. What does that word mean?"

"Oh! Right, sorry. Well, actually, I think it might be best if you found out for yourself. I'm… a bit embarrassed to tell you." He turned away while fiddling with his hands, making Irelia a bit more suspicious.

"Hmmmm… Fine, I'll let it slide. Still think it's a weird word, though…" She stepped forward, ready to finally get this evening date rolling. Garen, fully composed and returned from his stupor, stood beside and extended his elbow.

"What are you doing?"

"Taking the lead. Oh, yeah. Sorry. It's Demacian custom for a nobleman to lead his chosen lady by the elbow, allowing for a display of trust, dignity and tradition." He explained with his elbow still pointed at her. Irelia thought about it for a second, deciding to follow his gesture and taking him by the elbow.

"Alright then, Sir Crownguard. Show this lady a good time."

"I thought you didn't like being called a lady."

"Shut up and take me out on this date already."

They both crossed the hallways to the entrance of the inn, the young concierge taking a look up from her boredom to be met with a wondrous sight for the evening, blushing slightly at both of them as her eyes and head followed them out the inn until the door closed. Irelia made one miscalculation concerning drawing attention; Garen blended in perfectly… but she didn't.

As soon as they began walking down through the treetops and the bridges, heads began turning in Irelia's direction, only a miniscule amount of those glances being directed at Garen. They tried to ignore the attention and the murmurs, but as they traversed levels lower and lower, the crowds grew thicker, making it almost impossible. Throughout the ordeal, she never let go of his elbow, her head hung in desperate attempts to seem unnoticeable. Garen, on the other hand, looked around as much as he could, taking in everything his eyes could spot. The venues and events were numerous, each different than the last, each inviting him to try out all they had to offer. Indecisiveness was rare in his life, but this was one of the few times it took hold of him. He expected it to slow him down, but it only seemed to give him strength it this case. He turned to his partner, who was looking uncharacteristically shy for this event.

"So what do you wanna do first, Irelia? Get some food, drinks, maybe play a game or two?" He didn't even bother asking why she was like that, knowing it would lead him nowhere.

"Wha… oh. Well, I guess we can start it off with a nice walk to the pool, but…" She really wanted to start enjoying this evening, but the stares were too much, a fact Garen noticed. He couldn't really do anything about them, but he could make her ignore them. As he searched for something to distract her with, he spotted a long wooden halfpipe leading all the way down to the pool, the stream passing through it enchanted to float upward to the treetops through branches in the halfpipe, a lot of ends sprinkling out in a refreshing drizzle.

He suddenly remembered one of his wilder younger days, back when he and his family were out on the countryside near High Silvermere and he wasn't thinking of joining the military yet. It was a dare between him and Lux to see if he could actually do such a feat. Although his parents found out later, his mother reprimanding him while his father silently saying congratulations behind her back, he still managed to pull it off. Remembering the steps, he slowly guided Irelia toward the halfpipe, scouting the route down. As they reached the stream, she perked up, taking in their surroundings before looking at her guide.

"Garen? The stairways are over there. What-"

Before she could ask, Garen scooped her up in his arms, the dancer yelping out in surprise.

"Whoa! What are you doing?!"

"It can't compare to a dragon ride, but I think it comes close." His smile turned devilish, almost evil as he leapt on the wooden sides of the halfpipe, Irelia unable to do anything but hold on to him. She suddenly looked down, observing where the pipe led to, swapping looks rapidly between Garen and the bottom.

It dawned on her in horror.

"You're not THAT insane!"

"I suggest you hold tighter."

"WHAT?!"

"Don't worry. I have a strong neck."

"GAREN, STOOOOOOOO-!"

It was too late; Garen held her close as he leapt off the railing and began grinding down toward the bottom, keeping his balance and carrying Irelia at the same time, quite a challenge especially for someone as large as him. Still, he welcomed it and the obstacles that barred his path, leaping over the occasional branch and shifting balance to steady himself. The only real problem for this was the screaming dancer in his arms, her shrieks threatening to bleed his ears dry.

"YOU CRAZY DEMACIAN BASTARD!"

Irelia was having the opposite of fun, trying to hold on through the grind and pray that Garen could maintain his equilibrium. The wind whooshed through them, Garen looking like a small wave passing through the air while Irelia a stellar spark trailing alongside him to those that watched the loud spectacle from afar. They were quite hard to miss, even some of the guards turning to see what the commotion was about.

Garen, however, only cared about what was in front of him and the person in his arms.

"Left curve! LEFT CURVE!"

"I see it."

He shifted his weight just enough to hold the curve, himself and Irelia steady.

"SHARP DIVE!"

"I have eyes, Irelia."

She was too scared to be vexed at that comment and he knew it, settling for a tighter than usual grasp which didn't deter him in the slightest, only serving to spur him on and wake her free side up.

"Hold on!"

"WHADDAYA THINK I'VE BEEN DOING ALL THIS TIME?!"

As the sharp dive was right in front of him, he let go of her waist, Irelia gripping his neck for dear life. He bent down backwards, holding the wooden rail with his right hand for steadiness and control. As they cleared the dive, he pushed himself back up and grabbed her shoulders yet again, surfing the rail through the treelines and the structural growths, attracting all kinds of attention. The people below them began looking up one by one as the screaming Irelia got everyone's ear, all of them marveling, cheering, dismissing or surprised at the sight.

With each curve cleared and each stunt executed, however miniscule, Irelia's scream of terror slowly subsided, turning into yelps of surprise. She began taking in the sights and the sparks of magic, steadily losing herself in the excitement. Little by little, the dancer slowly began smiling, the yells of encouragement and joy from the ever increasing onlookers affecting her more and more. Garen spared as many glances at her as he could, happy that his plan was working. The real fruit of it, however, was when she started laughing, becoming louder and louder until she finally bellowed out in pure joy and relief.

'And there she is.' Garen's plan was fully realized as they made for the final descent, the halfpipe leading to the central pool itself. The visitors nearest to the edge cleared the way for the two so-believed performers to land uninhibited. At the end of the halfpipe before it entered the pool, Garen crouched, gathering all his vast strength in his legs and leaping off just as the halfpipe dove in the pool. Soaring across the air to the edge of the gazebo, Garen landed with a massive stomp, driving up a small gale from the impact and nearly rattling the small structure. The guests and crowds looked on in a silent moment before erupting in cheers, many of them raising glasses to the spectacle. The daring knight set his now joyful dancer down, the woman in question unable to care about anything else except laughing the sweetest laughs of relief.

"You are… absolutely…" She tried speaking between breaths, but couldn't finish.

"Inspired?"

"No!" She was unable to stop and he wasn't helping.

"Agile?"

"Maybe!" He was enjoying her laughter almost blasphemously.

"The best man to have around in a crazy situation?"

"Ok, now you're just pushing it."

The laughter slowly died down as the crowds dispersed with a tale to tell for the night, Garen dusting off his hakama while Irelia adjusted her yukata and shook off the last vestiges of the fear and embarrassment. After it all ended, they shared another of their common looks. This one was held a bit longer than their previous ones, both trying to gouge the other's feelings.

"Thanks, big guy."

"Anytime, my princess."

Both succeeded.

"… Princess? Really?"

"Milking it for all it's worth, Xan." He could be a smug jackass when he wanted to be and this was one of those times.

"Yeah, I figured…" It was infectious for her face as well, seeing as how she developed a smugness of her own. Before Garen could say anything, she put her hands on his shoulders, almost teasingly seductively.

"So… Mister Uptight has a wild side. Who knew…"

Any other time he wouldn't have minded her being this close, but today was special. That being said, it wasn't as uncomfortable as the previous times. He actually found it nice. Her aroma helped a lot with that, so much that he had to take extra care not to get addicted.

"Hey, I told you way back in Bilgewater I had one. I also told you I only let it out on special occasions." He also had to be careful not lose himself in those eyes.

"Well, here's hoping it doesn't get us arrested." Her reason snapped both of the out of it as they looked around for any approaching guards, finding none and hoping their luck held out.

"I must admit, I am tempted to."

It didn't; Elder Atoi stood in front of them with a parental reprimanding look. The knight and the dancer faced him with embarrassed and sheepish looks respectively.

"I understand that tonight is for festivity and celebration, but please try not to incur property damages. We have plenty on our hands as it is and we don't need strangers to cause a ruckus, especially not at the sacred pool." He stepped out toward them, moving them aside as he leaned over the wooden railing that now reconstituted itself.

"This pool fuels and nurtures our entire town. If anything were to happen to it, all of us will feel the consequences. Please take extra care, travelers." He hoped to dissuade them of further unpleasantries. It worked, but their curiosity was sparked.

"It's magical in nature, I assume?" Garen asked.

"Of course it is. What kind of question-" Atoi turned to him, sizing him up a bit clearer.

"… You're not from Ionia, I forgot."

"I'm not."

"Might I inquire where you are from?" Atoi's tone turned suspicious, if ever so slightly.

"Demacia." Garen answered honestly, wanting to clear his doubts as much as he could, especially now.

"I've never heard of that province. Where is it? Is it recently formed? From the war, I mean?" They were on the fringes. Little wonder they knew so little of what went on in the south and west.

"It's a kingdom from beyond our shores, Elder." Irelia moved in on the conversation.

"One of Noxus' territories?" His voice dropped.

"Never!" Garen's emotions got the better of him. Realizing it a bit too late, he relaxed his balled fist. The outburst, however, gave Elder Atoi proof he was not a Noxian.

"Easy, good sir. I believe you. No one with that kind of anger toward them is a subservient coward. Where is this Demacia kingdom you speak of?" He chuckled a bit before he inquired.

"Far to the west, beyond Noxus' territories. I'm a long way from home, Elder." Saying that and hearing others say it was beginning to sting a bit. His previous talk with Irelia brought out that vulnerable side of his, not thinking it might come back to bite him. Just one more thing to deal with…

"I see. You're here to stay? If so, I'm sure Ionia would welcome someone as passionate as you." Atoi spoke without thinking, catching himself at the last moment.

"I apologize. I didn't mean to assume, it's just… I'm used to my city being a haven for the downtrodden. Please, don't mind me, I won't keep you any longer. Enjoy the festivities and try not cause another ruckus." With a deep bow of respect, Atoi left the gazebo to the guests and the small spot on the veranda for the travelers. Although he did not know it, that was best for the moment.

Garen's mind was in a strange and unknown place right now; Atoi's suggestion made him wonder about things he shouldn't have been wondering about, one runaway thought in particular.

Ionia really was a welcoming land to those that did her no harm. She offered beauty, grace and nurture to those professing themselves her denizens while giving cold, unforgiving and sharp steel to her enemies. Her colors varied from place to place, but she was always true to herself and her harmony with magic. There were times when that harmony became discordant but it always realigned itself thanks to those willing to help it do so. What she lacked was direction, the voices of her people uncertain and afraid still, which in turn made a lot of things doubtful about her future together with them…

… Was he talking about Ionia or Irelia?

He couldn't really tell anymore. Not that it mattered.

His hand got taken away from him by hers once more. It was the only way she could get his full attention.

"Whatever you're thinking about, stop."

He did.

"After all that you just did, don't you dare go dreary on me, got it?"

He would do everything in his power not to.

"Now, enough annoying ourselves with doubts. We've come this far. Let's not go back."

She gave him the exact words he wanted.

"Alright."

It was all he needed to say.

"Now… wanna hit the food stands first or the game arcades?"

"Food." He could use something in system right now.

"Read my mind, there. I could go for some fried chicken." She slid her hand into his elbow once more, giving the go for the continuation of their evening. Oh, they turned eyes still, true, but they all the knight and the dancer thought about was getting those taste buds rolling and then taking everything and anything the festival had to offer.

They weaved through the décor and the lively crowds, finding themselves one of the festival's main food arcades. Four rows of food stands of all northern Ionian delicacies, some of which even Irelia hadn't seen back west in Navori. Meat, veggies and fruits all waited to be bought and eaten by hungry mouths while the smells helped tempt any and all who approached. Hundreds of visitors flowed through them like grand rivers converging into the vast ocean. The noise wasn't as overbearing as they initially thought it would be, though, sounding more like a harmonious chaos of voices, music and fair ambience.

"I'm buying." Garen offered, leading his date to a meat stand, the sight almost as enticing as the smell.

"For you, yes. I got more than enough for mys-" Irelia tried protesting, but Garen shushed her.

"Let me treat you. Just this once, ok?" He sounded like he had something on his mind, but Irelia pressed no further.

"… Fine. I want the fried chicken, double sticks, marinated and salted." She would bleed him dry and she let him know it both in words and smugness.

"Anything milady desires." And so would he. After a dodged swipe, Garen got them both two chicken sticks to munch on as they continued through the arcade, drawing looks and putting the ones in their immediate proximity in silent awe.

"You like it? I honestly didn't figure you for a meat eater." Garen started out their first actual conversation of the date.

"Gotta maintain my muscles somehow, mister Beef-for-brains." She spoke before she chomped down her food.

"As long as it doesn't go to that projecting belly of yours, eh?"

"Right you are on that, kettle. Right you are on that."

"… I do love our talks." They both downed their bites before Irelia responded.

"… I do, too." Unlike his, there was no undertone of sarcasm. Her voice conveyed those emotions properly to the knight, whose thick skull could do nothing in preventing that. They let their stomachs enjoy the meat while their hands found one another again, the stares doing nothing to prevent them from being comfortable with one another.

It was a strange and new thing for both of them, this feeling of safety and normalcy. Usually, their days were spent preparing for the next fight or the next attack, neither of them getting the proper rest they needed. Garen found a way to adapt it into his lifestyle, but despite everything and every method tried, he still felt something missing from his story. When he asked her about it, Lux simply told him to not worry about it as worrying made the thing he was missing seem further and further away. She never told him what it was, though, leaving that issue for him to sort out. Only now did he realize what she meant.

On his right, Irelia pondered how many times this has actually happened in her life, going out on an genuine date and enjoying herself to her fullest and truest. She never had anyone to come home to, the crest and her memories being the only things keeping her company in her solitude. It wasn't until a young woman visited her during one of her dances and requested her help in the Great Reformation, as it was so called. She thought nothing of the woman until she revealed herself as the current host of the ancient spirit Karma. It was a name so revered she had little choice but to accept. Despite the young woman's many attempts to include her in her meditation sessions and to get her to communicate with the spirit itself, however, Irelia kept her at arm's length. She kept no secrets as to why; she had distaste towards her ways of seeking peace for all who call Ionia their home, even those that once rode under Noxus' banner, provided they proved themselves. Irelia knew better than to trust them. After all, there was no such thing as peace for Noxus, only the next conquest. They kept coming back, over and over until they were victorious. This defeat only seemed to agitate the wounds they suffered from it, as if gaining strength from pain, not unlike cornered predators.

Darha, however, was deaf to the cries of the past. Her and many others only wished to stop the fighting and protect the still-ongoing Reformation. Healing took time, but it could only be done when the battle was over. And when it came to Noxus, it was never over.

Irelia only wished Darha and all the others would see it that way.

Only after that thought ended did she realize they stopped. She looked up, ready to face the reprimanding eyes of the knight.

She found only patience and happiness.

"You done reminiscing?" It was slightly coy, but he meant only good.

"I, uh… yeah, I am." It had the intended effect on her as she brightened up and tightened her hand's grip on his, if ever so gently.

"Then let's kick it up a notch." He pointed to a game stall where a large crowd was drawn. They had to maneuver through them a bit forcefully, but they finally reached the front.

It was quite the spectacle and not just for onlookers; it was a throwing ball stand with a few Ionian innovations added to it. Behind the stall there was a small open field with three targets, one static circle and two floating ones. Participants threw from a pair of two balls with the goal of hitting all three circles. The static one was worth less than the floating ones, so novice throwers gave up on hitting the floaters while experts challenged themselves by trying to hit them, most of them failing due to the enchanted circles predicting their throws and moving out of the way. Most would've called it a scam were they not in Ionia, as magic was the norm here and special contests like these embraced creative rules.

"You wanna play?"

"Hmmm… Ok. But how about we make it interesting?"

"Oh? How?"

"If we win, we pick a prize for the other, not ourselves."

"Ah… A test of sincerity and knowledge of one another. Alright, lady Xan. You're on." The knight accepted the challenge as they approached the counter and awaited their turn, drawing the attention of the onlookers more than the game itself. They paid it no mind and patiently waited until the other contestants were spent and their turn came up. The game tender took a moment to compose himself at their sight before offering.

"One or two sets, youngsters?" Said the elderly tender.

"Sets?" Garen asked. The tender simply pointed to his left, where a sign that had the rules written on it lay.

"Oh. Ok, let's see… One or two sets for one player, one copper per each ball in the set, two balls per set… One set for each of us." Garen ordered, pulling out his coin purse.

"You sure? Read a bit further below, lad." At the tender's request, Garen scanned the sign, finding one more sentence at the bottom.

"Couples get a free set for ordering one… Oh…"

They both knew people would assume due to today's earlier events, but it still made him a bit guarded. Turning to Irelia, however, made it all go away.

"We'll take it, sir." She took over for him, grabbing him by the elbow and awaiting their sets.

"Why did you lie?" Garen whispered to her.

"We get a free set this way, so neither of us gets in a fight about who pays. Also, technically…" She began to explain, turning sly at the last part.

"Technically what?"

"For tonight, we are a couple, mister Crownguard." She tightened her grip with oozing smugness. Garen just sighed at his predicament, turning away lest she see the forming happiness on his face.

"You just want the free shots, don't you?"

"Hell yeah, I do. Come on, then…" She whispered the first part before yelling out the last, looking him in the eyes.

"… Darling." She was enjoying parading him much more than she liked to admit. The strung knight could only let out another breath of resignation.

"Coming, dear…"

They stood ready before the counter, the game tender giving them their sets. He waved his hand and the targets started moving, the circle in the middle turning cyan while the moving rotating rhombuses moved around it erratically, trying to throw off their aim. Irelia stepped up to the counter first, readying herself before being stopped by the tender.

"By the way, lassie, if you hit all three targets with one ball, you get one of our grand prizes." He pointed to his left, letting her take in all the goodies.

"Interesting. Why wasn't this on your sign?"

"No one's ever hit all three in one go, so I didn't put it in. Didn't want to tempt folks and see them let down, is all, but I also couldn't remove the rule entirely out of principle. So now, I just tell it to people I think are capable of doing the feat. Easier that way."

"Oh… Well, thank you, but I don't think I'm capable-"

"Just try, lass. Go on." The tender put his elbows on the counter and watched, the crowd and Garen following the second part.

Irelia breathed in and out deeply, steadying herself and visualizing the rhombuses. They moved almost like insects dancing around proverbial flowers, making it a bit easier for her to identify their patterns. She had seen a lot of her homeland's fauna to do so.

She closed her eyes, seeing the targets in her mind, their motions, their repeating patterns and their erratic ones. One breath of focus later, she opened them with a steel will, aiming at them carefully.

She grabbed one ball and stretched her arm out as far as she needed to.

Another deep breath... and then she released it along with a sharp throw.

The ball flew through to the left rhombus, which was coming down just as the ball connected to it, bouncing off up in the air. As it took an arc, it came down on the rhombus on the right, Irelia hoping her aim was true while the rest of the onlookers waited with bated breath. Garen, on the other hand, stood almost smiling at her strategy.

'Almost, Irelia…' And he saw every flaw in it.

The ball bounced off the rhombus in such an angle that it flew right toward the stationary circle, making everyone gasp in surprise except the knight. The disappointment came crashing down on them when the ball barely swished by its edges, Irelia cursing under her breath at her miscalculation.

'… but not quite.'

"Eh, it was a good try, lass." The game tender comforted her as she threw the second ball at the circle, netting a win nonetheless.

"Still, you get a prize for managing to hit all targets. Take yer-

"Actually, my partner would like to go before we pick prizes. May he?" She intervened, bringing Garen in the spotlight once more.

"Eh, why not. Aight, boy. Same rules." The tender swiped at the targets as they reset themselves, moving in different patterns this time.

Garen focused on the movements, picking out the patterns easily. It really was like a military strategy to him. Unlike Irelia, however, he had a lot more experience in it. He lined up the shot, gripping one ball in his right hand while readying the other. As the right rhombus started going up, he tossed the ball with terrifying strength, the ball bouncing off violently and knocking the target down. It came down right on top of the second rhombus, hitting it square on the top and almost breaking it. The second bounce was nowhere near the circle, however, making the crowd and Irelia sigh.

Before anyone could take in the letdown, Garen grabbed the second ball and threw it forward, the second zooming at the place the first was coming down. They intercepted right before the circle, the second knocking the first right into it, netting the knight a perfect victory.

A small moment of silence passed before the crowd erupted in cheers, Irelia stunned at the display.

"Not bad, kid. Not bad." The tender lowered the prizes of the top shelf for him to peruse where Irelia got the ones on the second.

"Take yer pick, kids. You've earned them."

The knight and the dancer eyed the baubles and crafts which ranged from small statuettes to even a few jewelry pieces, the latter reserved only for Garen as he got the grand prize. After a short consideration, they picked out their gifts.

Garen grabbed a pendant in the form of three blades, which upon closer inspection, were actually six. Interwoven around it was a golden inlay binding that bound them in the shape of a triangle, the seams looking almost like flowing rivers.

Irelia selected a small sword amulet, the golden winged crossguard being its most prominent feature. Other than that, it was a simple steel necklace. The design was foreign, however, which led to Irelia questioning how exactly did such designs find their way this far up north.

They turned to each other, eyeing the gifts selected and confirming each other's choice with beaming smiles.

"We'll take them." They said simultaneously as the tender let them have their prizes. As soon as the crowds dispersed to give them room, Garen wasted no time in turning to his date.

"Allow me?" He held up the necklace.

"Never thought I'd wear a tiny replica of one of our nation's mythical treasures, but you sure do have a way of breaking the norm around here." She moved her long hair aside as Garen unhooked the necklace and placed it around her neck.

"Mythical treasure?"

"Oh, right. You don't know. The pendant you selected out for me is actually the representation of the Trinity Force, one of, if not the greatest and most powerful of Ionian relics. It's ancient, dating back all the way to the beginnings of the land, when the God-Willow first spread its roots and branches across the land. The legends say it has no true form, changing its shape to match the wielder's preference, but always maintains some hint to the three virtues it represents." She went off, enthusiastically explaining all she could and knew about the famed artifact. Garen, for his part, loved hearing her tell stories about her homeland and thus did nothing to stop her, his face shifting uncontrollably to curiosity.

"The way you speak about it sounds like it's been lost to time." He commented.

"It has. No one knows where the artifact is or if it even exists anymore. Just another of my home's mysteries."

"Do you want to find it someday?"

"Hah, no. I've got too much responsibility on my hands and chasing stories isn't one of them. I'd rather focus on writing and living my own first."

"Well said." He spoke as he finished clipping the necklace in place.

"Thanks, but it's your turn now." Irelia was eager to return the favor. Garen eyed the pendant as she put it around his neck, the design seemingly familiar to him.

"Hmm… It looks… almost Demacian in design, doesn't it? Hard to believe they had this in the shop."

"I'll say. Maybe some Freljordian brought the design over and they just went with it."

"It's a possibility. Well, it doesn't matter. What matters is that it's perfect for me."

"You like it?" She sounded so happy from that, Garen had to turn and see her face. It was infectious, but he didn't mind. He loved seeing others smile and Irelia was no different.

"I love it."

"Well then. What's next- Oh. OH!" Irelia asked before her attention was taken toward a fireworks stand.

"Kashuri imports?" She dashed away, asking the shopkeeper about their origin eagerly.

"That's right, ma'am. Would you like one?" She offered a sizzle stick to Irelia, who got giddy, the knight joining her at the moment.

"We'll take four. Wait, no! Eight!" She tossed the coins in the shopkeeper's surprised hands and practically swiped the sticks off her, grabbing Garen by the elbow and continuing down the arcade, searching for another shop, one that sold matchsticks or ignition stones, finding the latter and repeating the same sequence as before, the only difference being the amount bought and the price paid.

"Why didn't you tell us, anyway?" Garen suddenly asked.

"Tell you what?" She was confused.

"That you liked fireworks. We would've gotten you some back at Kashuri." He was genuinely perplexed. Irelia turned a bit downcast at that suggestion.

"There were more… pressing matters. I had to focus on what came before me in spite of… of…"

"… of what you wanted."

"Yeah… But, that's over with now and I'm not sullying your hard work with gloom. Come on. Let's go find someplace private to light them and enjoy the show to the fullest." She suggested, but Garen's attention was elsewhere.

At the end of the arcade was a large dance podium filled with people, both professionals and amateurs alike. The former made sure to impress the crowds with precise and flawless dances while the latter entertained others and themselves with fumbles worthy of court jesters. All in all, it was the center of the festival's liveliness. Irelia was also entranced, finding it difficult to resist the urge to join in, but the fear of attention started whispering in her head yet again, telling her she would always be in the center of it and that she had no choice but to give in to that-

"Care to dance, miss Xan?"

All was silenced when Garen extended his hand in invitation, the brewing storm inside her mind broken and scattered into nothing.

"You? Dancing? Oh, hell no. I still remember Buhru."

"Aw, come on. I promise I won't do that dance… here." She loathed how he added that last part.

"Mmm… Well, I suppose we can give it a go. Do you want to watch how the dance is done before we-" She couldn't finish as the knight dragged her to the dance floor.

"Suddenly I'm not so eager…" She took her position, expecting Garen to come up with some travesty of a pose. To her surprise, however, he took a position almost perfectly, extending his hand tilted sideways and the other one at his stomach's side.

"How did you-"

"While you were spacing out for the hundredth time, I watched the dancers a little and picked up the pattern. I'm good with things that repeat." He proclaimed, his feet moving in the same way as hands. Irelia mirrored the pose as their hands touched.

"Yeah, you look and act the part of that last one… Alright, then. Let's see how much you've picked up, Mr. Hero."

With both of them ready, they began moving around each other in rhythm with the slow music of drums and flutes. Garen managed to maintain the flow quite easily, even shifting at the right moments. Irelia, however, knew that was only the beginning of the dance. Knowing he didn't see all of it, she separated from him at the repeating point of the dance and continued the rest on her own. Once again, she enraptured the crowds with her motions, all of it accented by her attire and her loose hair twirling easily along her body. And once again Garen caught himself unable to turn away. Watching her be who she wanted to be and what she wanted most melted the armored shell around his heart, the heat empowering the emotions inside it, all of them cooled by his tempering mind into something wonderful; an image of Irelia Xan's happiness.

Unbeknownst to him, something else sparked deep inside his heart furnace, a feeling buried under a proverbial unmelting True Ice ever since his escape from Noxus and his last meeting with Katarina du Couteau. As it was small, it went unnoticed by him… but it remained rooted firmly in his heart.

"What's the matter, Mr. Hero? Getting lead feet?" Irelia's tease got his attention. Seeing as how he couldn't really replicate her dance, he settled for the next best thing he knew is the situation. With a look of conniving confidence, the knight simply approached the dancer, grabbed her hands just as the music picked up and just started swaying both himself and her freely and without care.

"What the- … What are you doing, you oaf?" Her condescending and miffed tone sprinkled with tones of pure joy, despite her effort to hide it.

"Dancing." He let himself loose, all grace and poise gleefully thrown out the window as he and his partner swayed around the dance floor.

"… Ah, I see. This is the famed 'waltz' you mentioned a month back, eh?"

"Nah, this a common countryside dance. I like this one more. Less of a fuss making than the waltz." Garen and Irelia spun around, aware of their surroundings in the minimum so as not to bump into anyone. The crowds joined them, each dancing to their own tune. The knight and the dancer cared little for how they looked, only their own enjoyment.

The dance went on for nearly an hour, all of the participants coming and going. Throughout it all, Garen and Irelia twirled, spun, swayed and even tripped a few times trying to innovate new styles for themselves. And yet the laughs didn't stop, so much so that their gaudy clothes were becoming a bit stuffy and incomparable with their attitudes. Their demeanors were quite influential as more of the crowds relaxed around them, snickered at their plights and even copied their styles, crude as they were. The dance slowly began dying down after all that, with many going off to other festivities. In the middle of it all, Garen and Irelia also began tiring themselves out and running out of breaths to convert into laughter.

"Woo! Haha! Oh, I think I've had about all the dancing I can take for today." Irelia admitted defeat first, settling her feet into place.

"Already? And here I was about to show you my greatest dance trick yet; the legendary 'Flying Swan'. It's a classic among Demacian dances." Although he maintained a smug façade, Garen was just as tired as she was. Who knew dancing was a good form of exercise, even it was just swaying?

"… You know, coming from you, that name just makes me think you're gonna launch me into the air for me to crash down face first in the dirt."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll land on your feet. Someone like you always does. And even if you don't, you'll get up and deal with it… possibly smack me in the face while you're at it."

"That I will… Wanna get outta here? I want to light the fireworks while we still have the chance." They eventually stopped, moving away from the crowds and wading through the arcades and entertainments. Garen wasn't sure what they were looking for until Irelia pulled him aside.

"We need a better view… and somewhere private."

"I don't know… There's too many people everywh- Wait!" He turned, Irelia realizing what was on his mind at the same time.

"Back at the inn!" They both yelled out at once and hurried back to their room.


The celebrations were reaching their climax down below as the crowds gathered at the center of the pool, readying themselves for the next event. Fireworks were lined up around the gazebo, ready to be lit once enough eyes were watching. Above them, people filled the wooden railings and bridges along the treetops. The inns were relatively empty so it was easy for the two travelers to reach their own and return to their room without any fuss, although the stares continued along the way there.

They got in, the room untouched and how they left it along with Irelia's usual attire tucked up and resting the bed. Their destination was the balcony, however.

"Ah… That was the best night I've had in a long while." Irelia breathed in and out, as if coming up for fresh air after wading under a murky swamp.

"Agreed. Ionia's celebrations come close to those of Demacia." Garen stepped out on the balcony, taking a look at the sights below and above. The crowns of the great trees were moving aside, slowly revealing the night skies and the stars above. The crowds below were getting ready to start the final celebration of the night.

"Maybe we should've stayed below… It looks tense, but in a good way, y'know." He noted, but Irelia joined him in with an arm nudge.

"Too stuffy. Besides…" She took his arm and put four of the fire sticks in it.

"… I want this moment to be just for the two of us." She recalled her crest from under the bed, holding two blades out.

"Ready?"

"Light them." Garen held two of the sticks upside down. Irelia brought her blades up and grinded them against each other in one fast slash, producing the sparks that lit them.

As with all things Ionian, the sticks had another hidden benefit to them; the sparks they produced were not mere lights, but colors of all kinds. They adapted to their holder after a few seconds, becoming blue and gold in Garen's hand while turning blue and red in Irelia's. Beneath them, the great celebration had begun, with the fireworks being lit. A moment later, one by one they all launched into the air, exploding into all kinds of shapes, colors and sizes, from tiny drakelings to massive eagles. A tiger's roar filled the air as a flock of silver birds formed by the fireworks flocked around it, igniting the passions and delights of the people beneath them and surprising the ones near the tops. After a performance by all the different animals created by the fireworks, they coalesced into a giant mass of light and flew upward through the tree crowns, exploding in a final display of Ionian creativity and ingenuity as the crowds below marveled and congratulated each other on Winter's Embrace finally being here.

And from that lone balcony on that high inn, the knight and the dancer, leaning on the railing, let their fire sticks burn out in relative peace, both of them floating out of their hands when they reached the halfway point. At that moment, when the explosion above them subsided, all the lights in the entire city went out, creating an atmosphere of peace and contemplation. The crowds shushed as the entire city gazed at the sight above; the stars shone as bright as they could, as if greeting them and wishing them a happy turning of the year.

"Irelia?"

"Yes, Garen?"

"… Happy Winter's Embrace."

"Happy Winter's Embrace to you too."

In the peace of the moment, she allowed herself the affection of leaning on him. On his end, Garen completely let his guard down and received it, letting her have the relief and quiet she so much wished for. They enjoyed the sight the stars gave them, losing themselves into the great beyond of the cosmos and taking in all they could. And once again, that familiar void returned, enveloping them both. It was not grey and white this time, though, but a vast, dark ocean of lights and twinkles. No one bothering them, no one to break eternity's fragile bubble and no one to separate them from themselves… For the time being, it was just the Might of Demacia and the Blade Dancer together, traveling through the universe the children of the Star Forger gifted them with.

It felt like a millennium had passed for them; a lifetime ago, they met in a nation that wanted both of them dead, traversed through seas and a city that valued coin, met the most interesting people that ever graced their lives and now… now here they were, in a moment both so desperately needed after all the trouble and toil.

The lights of the city were coming back to life one by one. The tree's crowns once again closed the window to the skies they provided and the crowds returned to their celebrations for one last time before they turned in. It destroyed the bubble of eternity around the knight and the dancer, but by the time it was done, they didn't mind.

"Well… think I need one more bite before bed."

Garen sounded off first, stretching out before turning to the door.

"You and your stomach… You know what, let me buy this time. What do you wanna eat?" Irelia stopped him and made her offer. Garen wanted to refuse, but after tonight he knew better than to object.

"A steamed potato."

"Before bed? Really?" She was rather taken aback at his stomach's abilities.

"Yes. Well, I'm gonna stay up a few hours more, if that's okay with you. You can turn in if you want."

"Eh, fine. As long as you're quiet." She opened the door, turning around to wave.

"Be back in a few."

"Take your time… Not like I'm getting hungrier… Oh, wait. I am." He faked pain before waving back. As she left, he changed out of his uniform and into his plain old shirt and trousers, tucking the hakama away carefully as it was a rental and he had to return it by tomorrow. He sat down on one of the sitting pillow and waited patiently for the one was with him throughout his whole journey, the one that accepted him for who he was, who pushed him to become better and who lifted him up when he stumbled. He didn't know what it was that caused the next thought, but he let it loose through his mind nonetheless.

'… I miss her already.'


Out in the hallway, Irelia walked through to the restaurant to find more than a few seats occupied, the influx of guests not having started yet. Taking advantage of the situation, she quickly walked up to the bar and ordered the biggest steamed potato they had for the gluttonous knight as well as a bottle of sake for both of them. As she turned to leave, she overheard something that caught her curiosity.

"For goodness sake, bro. It's Winter's Embrace! Put down that stupid book and come have fun with your family. With me!" A teenage girl's voice sounded off as the dancer passed the tables, turning to see two teens alone on a table, a girl dressed up in a plain yukata and a boy in normal clothes.

"Ugh, but it's so pointless. It's just a stupid holiday. Why spend my time fooling around when I can read a good book?" The boy retorted, making the girl angrier.

"Fooling aro-! Why you-! Grrrr! You're just a jerk who won't even make time for his sister!" At that outburst, the boy looked up and was about to retort when he spotted Irelia looming over them. She was still in her yukata, entrancing the boy slightly as the girl turned when he didn't respond, becoming taken with Irelia as well going by her blush.

"Take it easy, you two. There are others here besides you kids." Her tone was kind and loose, not wanting to scold the children but simply make them more aware. They complied with a synced nod, pleasing Irelia for her effort. She straightened up and smiled before lecturing them.

"You should spend a little more time with your family, young man. You never know whether or not you'll all be together in the future. And you, young lady, should be a little more patient with your brother. You don't wanna drive him away by being a nagging hag, would you now?" The siblings just nodded yet again, listening to her only because they thought she was some sort of spirit of beauty.

"Good. Now then I-" She turned to leave before noticing the book in the boy's hands.

"Excuse me, but is that a dictionary?" A little memory inside her resurfaced, prompting her to ask.

"Huh? Oh, yes! Sorry, excuse me. Yes it is. My sister here thinks it's a waste of time, but I consider education to be the highest priority in one's life." The boy composed himself before proclaiming his passions proudly. His sister huffed yet again, but Irelia was more interested in striking out and cashing in on her strange luck this evening.

"In that case, may I ask a favor of you, young man?" She leaned in closer.

"Anything!" Learning was suddenly not the only passion the boy had.

"I want to borrow your dictionary for a second. To find one word in particular, that is. Will you lend it to me?"

"Of course!" He was a bit too eager, but Irelia didn't pay it much attention, focusing only on perusing the big book of words. She found the 'P' section, skipping all the way to the end of it.

"Puck, pugilist… Ah, here it is!" She finally found the word that Garen used to describe her.

"Ok, let's see… 'pulchritudinous'… A person of… of…"

She stopped, reading the description of the word in her head. She came to her senses a bit after the children called out to her. She thanked them for the book, grabbed the sake and steamed potato and headed back to the room she shared with… with…

She was glad she didn't bring her crest along because right now, her mind was an active volcano about to erupt violently. She had a difficult time focusing with the rising heat all over her body, especially her face. She only stopped after she reached the door to their room, composing herself long enough to enter, finding a few lit candles and a lone, eager and hungry Demacian man awaiting her arrival patiently.

"Welcome back. I see you got my scrumptious little snack. What's the bottle for, though?"

He still sounded and acted like his usual self, but Irelia started seeing and hearing him… differently, for lack of a better word. Words… their power was rather subtle over humans, but it was strong nonetheless. She stood there for a few seconds before walking over to him and setting everything down.

"It's a bottle of sake. I thought we might have a drink together." She composed herself admirably given the state of her mind. Garen's face lit up, but before it could go further, Irelia raised a hand.

"Ah ah. Get out and let me change first. Don't worry, I won't take a bite out of your little potato. I watch my weight." She shooed him out before changing into her usual blue bodysuit and red overshirt. After he came back in, they both sat down, Irelia opening the bottle while Garen held the small cups out for her, handing back her own before raising his.

"To the spirit of Winter's Embrace. Thank you for bringing us together and giving us these moments."

"May you give us and our friends more like them when we earn them." She raised her own, cheering him as they both downed their drink, letting the alcohol pass through their system.

The rest of their night was spent in peaceful reminiscence to their past few days, picking out the most hilarious moments they shared between themselves and their friends, from Fizz's fishy feistiness to Akali's moody grumbles when she was teased. The festivities outside slowly died down into the warm night, with many of the folks returning home and the arcades closing. The candles were slowly melting away, prompting Garen and Irelia to eventually stop their night of drinking, although they were also getting a bit woozy. Garen finished his potato and got up, laying over to his side of the bed before turning to Irelia one last time for the night.

"Have a good night, Irelia."

"Sleep well, Garen." She said her piece before also laying down on the same bed, her back to him and her eyes closing.

Despite all that, she couldn't fall asleep. Her mind was still racing from what she read back in the restaurant. She turned to Garen, who was fast asleep with his face in a goofy yet tranquil smile from the alcohol. She had never seen how he looked like when he slept, a thought that gave a small start when she caught it as it would be seen as inappropriate. And yet, she still couldn't help herself but stare at the dreaming Demacian. She turned away for a little while, trying to put her thoughts under control, but once again, that word and its meaning returned to keep her awake.

Pulchritudinous.

A person of breathtaking, heavenly beauty.

She turned around to face him again, Garen out like a lantern and lost in his dreams. She was glad for it as the feeling swimming all throughout her body right now was scaring her.

She had never felt this before about anyone. It was something completely new to her and she didn't know how to act or what to do. She was in complete and utter chaos and unlike the other times, she couldn't find a flow in it to follow. It wasn't a river at all, but a raging hurricane parting the seas and earths of her soul. She looked at him again, trying to find a way to calm herself down with his help, as looking at him made her feel strangely at ease.

The way he began looking really was different to her, as if she was only getting to know him. The more Irelia thought about it, the more worried she became. How did this occur? When did it start? The answers to those questions bore yet more discomfort for her. There was no way she was getting her much needed rest tonight until she found out what this feeling was that made her so scared and yet so calm at the same time… a feeling the others asked her frequently about…

No… It couldn't be…

… Was it always there, just under the surface of her heart? What brought it out? And if it wasn't, why now? What made her aware of it?

Either way, what she thought was only a weak spark of a meaningless coal became a spreading fire that ignited her mind.

'So… this is what the others were talking about… I didn't even know… How could I…'

She looked at Garen again, the fires in her mind subsiding, steadying her breathing and calming her down.

'… Damn you for making me feel like this, you… brainless, idiotic, selfless-'

She finally accepted what she became aware of.

And that made it all the more difficult.

She couldn't act on it. She knew the pain he carried and had trouble healing from given his recent experiences with that sort of thing. Worse still, he had a home to return to… a home she couldn't follow him to. Fate was forgiving in many of their circumstance, but in this one it was excruciatingly cruel. In the end, no matter how much she wished it, she had to accept that some things were beyond her reach.

Irelia looked at Garen one last time, the Demacian still unmoving save for his steady chest. She had to keep herself calm somehow without overthinking things again.

Wild ideas were aplenty in a fiery mind and this one was no different.

Still, he was asleep… he would never know…

She felt a bit guilty for taking advantage of him in his vulnerable and unaware state, but she had no choice.

And so, without warning and as quietly as she could, Irelia leaned over to Garen.

'Just this once…'

As that justification passed… she pecked him on the cheek as softly as she could.

'Just for tonight…'

Her mind and body calmed alarmingly quickly after that as both of them remembered they needed sleep as well.

At long last, Irelia let her eyes close as she stared at the ceiling in peace.

The night enveloped them both as their dreams slowly intertwined through the magic of the room. They caught glimpses of each other in them, but ultimately returned to their own goals.

For this one serene night, under the magic of the stars and in Ionia's embrace, the knight and the dancer found what they needed.

Together.