A/N: Written for a prompt at the Fire Emblem kinkmeme on Livejournal, requesting that, based on the assumption that Soren told Stefan he would stay with Ike as long as he needs me, Stefan ask Soren to come to the Grann desert with him again, after Radiant Dawn, and in front of Ike.

Pairing: Ike/Soren, I guess

Disclaimer: I do not own Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, or Path of Radiance.

---

Clearing out bandits for country villages was the main thing the Greil mercenaries did these days, along with construction and guard missions. Or rather, they did those things when one country or another wasn't calling them in for some vaguely defined diplomatic work, which seemed to consist of hanging around the capital until someone found something that needed to be guarded, rebuilt, or cleared of bandits. Ike preferred the villages. It was his favorite kind of work, the kind they used to do when his father ran the company, what he always thought he'd grow up to do when he was a kid. He was probably going to miss it when he left. He wouldn't miss the bowing and goggling that he'd gotten whenever he'd shown his face in public since the war, though. Maybe it would be easier for the others to find work when he wasn't there, too - Ike knew that if he were choosing a mercenary group to hire, it wouldn't the one with the guy who caused people to come from three towns over to gawk.

Maybe they would go back to their old base in western Crimea. Ike wished he was there now, as he wandered through the oversized, empty corridors of their current residence. It was an abandoned manor house with too many wings added on, not too far from the border with Begnion. The former owner had apparently been killed in the war, leaving his house and his fiefdom open to any passerby with a mind to seize them. A coven of thieves had taken the opportunity and made use of the manor house and surrounding farms until the farmers' owners called in the Greil mercenaries.

Most of the rooms in the mansion had been emptied, making it a convenient place for storage in addition to lodging visiting mercenaries. The dining room, to which Ike was headed at that moment, had been piled ceiling-high with all the displaced furniture and ornaments. Soren had appropriated one of the tables for use as his office, and by extension Ike's office, since Ike had never seen a point to having an office other than Soren's. What would he do with it? He needed to ask if Soren and Titania had managed to come to a payment agreement with the farmers yet, so the company could get out of here. Shinon and Boyd were already complaining to him about being stuck in this farmland with nothing to do.

Ike edged into the dining room, narrowly avoiding knocking over an upside-down, formerly glass-doored cabinet. He didn't exactly remember where Soren had found the table. It was somewhere in the middle, surrounded by bookcases full of empty wine bottles. The smell had been overwhelming. Ike ducked under a bed leaning against the wall. He could hear voices further in. He had assumed they were Soren and Titania, but now he noticed that both of the speakers were male. One was indeed Soren, and the other sounded sort of familiar, but he couldn't tell who it was. Maybe one of the local farmers he'd met the other day.

He hit a dead end at a pile of rugs. The thieves had purposefully made this place a maze to hide themselves in, but it would have been more effective if they'd actually fought in it, rather than running drunkenly outside when they heard people in the halls. Or if it were harder to knock over by accident. As it was, it was just giving Ike difficulty locating his staff officer. At least he could follow the sound of voices.

"...make small talk."

"Of course..."

"Why...business...Greil mercenaries?"

Ike turned a corner past a candelabra and the conversation got clearer.

"No, my business here is with you."

"What is it, then?"

"You don't remember?"

"Nothing that explains this sudden visit."

Ike finally found them. Soren was standing on the opposite side of the table (adorned with neat stacks of papers, bound record books, and several well-worn maps) and immediately saw him.

"Ike. What is it?" He sounded relieved.

"I just wanted to ask what you and Titania worked out about the payment, but it sounds like you're busy." Ike spotted their guest leaning against some of the bookshelves, facing away from the opening from which Ike had entered the makeshift office. Green-haired, quite tall, wearing a blue coat that perpetually seemed about to fall off. Ike recognized him as Stefan, one of their wartime colleagues.

Stefan nodded his head to Ike in acknowledgment. "General Ike. A pleasure. I didn't see much of you in the last war."

Ike had practiced swordsmanship with Stefan several times. He was a disconcerting man to duel - completely calm, no matter what his opponent did. Ike nodded in return. "Same here."

From what he remembered, Stefan lived in Begnion, and he couldn't imagine what he would be doing here - with Soren, especially. Soren didn't usually like to deal with people except for mercenary business, and Ike didn't think Soren had mentioned anything about Stefan when he was working with them. The mage didn't look particularly pleased with his visitor, either.

"Should I come back later?" Ike directed the question to Soren, but Stefan answered it.

"Actually, it may be best to have this conversation with you present. Unless," Stefan addressed Soren, "you would rather he didn't know?"

"He knows," Soren said with an air of defiance.

"Really." Stefan seemed surprised. "I suppose that will make this simpler...For how long has he known?"

"Over four years."

Ike had no idea what they were talking about, and was unsettled by being spoken about as if he wasn't there. "What is this that I know about?"

"Me," said Soren. His fingers had a tight hold on the edges of his sleeves. "My...parentage."

"You mean he knows too?" That was surprising, to say the least. Ike had seen how Soren was about being Branded. It had taken so long for Ike to get him to reveal that fact to him, and they had known each other forever. Ike felt strangely betrayed. What had Stefan done to get Soren to trust him that much? And when had this happened, for that matter?

"I am Branded as well. We recognize our own kind," Stefan explained, looking amused at Ike's shock.

"Oh. Like laguz do, then?" That made more sense, and would explain how uncomfortable Soren looked. Ike didn't know what Stefan thought was funny, though.

"Yes, rather like that. Now, I made Soren a proposition some years ago - during the Mad King's War. He rejected it at the time, but I was inquiring just now as to whether present circumstances might have changed his mind."

Well, that was a vague explanation if Ike had ever heard one. Instinctively, he turned to his tactician. "Soren, what is he talking about?"

"Stefan asked me to return to the Grann desert with him after the Mad King's War. I declined."

"The Grann desert?"

"I have settled there with others of our kind. We live, General Ike, in a world that rejects us. We make our sanctuary where we will not be found, whether in remote places or by hiding our true natures for those around us, as this one does. It is our only method of survival. Has your strategist given you an idea of how our kind lives, I wonder? What is it to hide oneself forever, or face hatred on every side?"

Ike had heard Soren's story. It made him angry, almost as much as beorc and laguz lashing out against one another for no reason but pointless prejudices. To think of Soren, the tiny child he had first met, neglected, abused, starving and alone, made him rage inside, but there wasn't anything he could do. He could see how much it had hurt Soren: his friend's terror of being discovered, his lingering resentment of laguz and anyone at all, really, his silences and his coldness (when Ike knows that Soren isn't uncaring at all)...

"Some," he answered.

"What's your point?" Soren asked Stefan sharply.

"I'm inviting you to share our sanctuary. I thought he should know what I am offering you, so that he might help you see my reason, since you regard his opinion so highly."

"I don't think I really understand this," Ike said quickly, trying to stop this from getting ridiculous, "but I don't make Soren's decisions for him. He works for me, I don't own him."

Stefan gave a short, soft laugh. Before Ike could ask what he was laughing at, Soren spoke up. "This has nothing to do with Ike, and in any case, this issue was fully resolved when you first made the offer."

"At the time, maybe. But I remember there being a condition to your refusal."

"I don't recall any."

"I remember that you said you would not leave him," Stefan nodded to Ike, "as long as he had need of you."

"I said - "

"Regardless of which of our memories is defective, I think the point is a good one. Will you stay here if you are not needed? Speaking from my own knowledge, I'd say it's extremely inadvisable." Stefan was suddenly across the room, leaning over the table with his hands on Soren's shoulders. "Listen to me. I am giving you the chance for real shelter. Whatever your reservations, I can promise you this: a desert is a safer place to make your home than a man."

"What makes you think you can say that?" Soren hissed through his teeth. "What do you know about me? If there's one thing meeting others of our kind as taught me it's that we're no more like each other than beorc or laguz, whatever our delusions to the contrary." He pushed at Stefan's hands, but the larger man didn't let himself be moved.

"I know the signs. I've seen children like you before - swearing themselves to the first place or person that offered them refuge. They do ridiculous, dangerous things, let themselves be used, taken for granted, waste away for some master who wants nothing but another pair of hands to serve him, a body to - "

"Shut your mouth." Soren's voice was full of cold anger. "And get off me!" He pried at Stefan's fingers on his shoulder.

"No, not until you - "

Ike acted on instinct, grabbing Stefan's arm and yanking it away from Soren. Stefan looked at him as if he had forgotten he was there. "He told you to get off," Ike said in explanation.

Stefan shut his eyes and exhaled heavily. "You're right." He turned back to Soren, who was still glaring at him. "I apologize. I have no desire to hurt you, I just need you to listen. I'm telling you something you ought to know. That's all. I've seen this, and how it ends. Beorc and laguz rarely understand it - can you, Ike?"

Ike felt that this was something he shouldn't even comment on, something completely outside his realm, but he desperately needed to know about what they were talking about, so he couldn't turn away. "What?"

"Can you understand what this boy needs from you? Can you give it to him? Because otherwise I would ask you to tell him so, and let him come with me. It will save both of you the pain."

What Soren needed from him? He looked to his friend for an answer, but Soren wasn't looking at him. He answered Stefan's question as best he could: "I can't read Soren's mind, so I have to trust him to tell me himself if there's something he needs me to do.

"You would tell me, right?" he asked Soren.

"Of course." Soren answered quickly. "This man doesn't know what he's talking about."

"Are you so sure? If you feel you have to lie...Let me guess. You'd do whatever he asked of you, whatever you thought he needed, you'd give him your life - you don't know how you'd live without him - am I right?"

Stiffly, Soren nodded. Stefan smiled, but it made him look more melancholy than anything. Ike thought he was starting to see what Stefan meant. How many times had Soren told him that he only wanted to be with him, or that he'd do anything Ike wanted? And he couldn't imagine Soren letting anyone else hold him while he cried - and he was pretty sure no one else had. He'd been grateful, at the time, to be able to do that for his friend, something no one else had done. He knew he was important to Soren, but he'd never thought about it too much. It wasn't a problem, so he had let it be.

"I've never denied that," Soren said.

Stefan sighed and rubbed his hand over his eyes. When he spoke again he sounded as if he were trying to break the truth about something very terrible in the gentlest way he could. "Few people know what to do, faced with that kind of need. They feel suffocated, burdened by the need to support someone who depends entirely on them, or they abuse the power they hold over you. You make yourself a slave to a cruel master, and a parasite to a kind one. Even a good man can only take that for so long before he casts you aside, for his own sanity. That's why you must know - "

"Stop it." This time it was Ike who was angry. He pulled the other swordsman around to face him. "Soren's right. Maybe you know about other Branded, but you don't know a thing about us. Soren's not a burden to me, and he never will be. I know he needs me - he's told me so, and I don't think any less of him because of that. Everyone depends on other people - and whatever kind of person throws someone away because they need him, I promise you that's not me."

Stefan was unfazed by Ike's anger. He calmly removed his arm from Ike's grip. "Really? That's not what I've heard."

"What have you heard, then?"

"By word of mouth - you won't be in Tellius much longer."

"...How did you - " Ike's mind raced. He hadn't told that to more than a few people - Ranulf, Tibarn, Sanaki, Elincia, people he thought should know so that they wouldn't expect him to be around to help with their diplomatic plans and or do jobs. He hadn't told anyone for personal reasons - none of his mercenaries knew yet, or at least he hadn't thought they did. He looked at Soren, but he couldn't tell whether he had known before or not. He just looked grim.

Stefan half-smiled. "Laguz have excellent hearing. And from there, rumors about someone as important as the blessed General Ike, Saviour of Tellius, greater than the Goddess, spread quickly."

"Don't call me that, I'm not - "

"You see what I mean? You are all those things - you are the hero of Tellius, and people need their heroes. They need to believe in something, so they turn to you, and you can't bear that, can you? Such great responsibility. You will abandon whole countries that need you - why should this boy be any different?"

Ike didn't know what to say - if he thought about it, he did feel that suffocation Stefan had described. It was the same reason he hated being put in positions of power, when so many people treated him like some kind of holy object. He wanted freedom, wanted to just be himself - and that was selfish, wasn't it? He had never wanted power over people, or the responsibility that came with it, and that was what Stefan was saying. But still...

"Ike." Soren was in front of him now, speaking quietly. "Is that true?" His tone was clipped short, sounding as if he were making every effort not to display emotion.

"It's...About leaving Tellius, yes. That's true." Ike met Soren's eyes, feeling suddenly helpless. He wasn't sure where he went wrong, but he knew he had. This was going hurt Soren, wasn't it? If only he knew how to stop it...but Stefan spoke before Ike could get his thoughts together.

"This answers my question, I believe. You see, I heard that he," he gestured to Ike, "was going to leave, and that's why I came all the way here from the desert. I thought, since this makes it clear that he does not need you any longer, you might reconsider my invitation." He inclined his head slightly to Soren.

"I - you -"

"Don't blame me. It may seem harsh, but wouldn't it hurt you more if you didn't know until the fact? I promise that I act only out of concern. I do not like to see my brethren suffer for what they are - and I would be grateful if you were to join me. I know from fighting with you and under your guidance that you are very talented. You could do great things for the betterment of our race if you were to come with me."

Soren made a sound somewhere between choking, sobbing, and laughing. He looked away from Stefan, somewhere in the direction of Ike's feet. "Why would I do that, Stefan? While it's...touching to know you feel such kinship with me, I can't say I share it."

"You may come to. After all, once he is gone, you will need somewhere else to go. My companions and I can be that place - we have done so before, and we will continue to do so as long as the Branded need to live apart from the rest of this world. Don't think that you're the first one to whom I've made this offer."

Soren made no answer, continuing to stare at the ground. The three men stood in silence, each waiting for one of the others to speak and answer his many questions.

Soren spoke first. "Ike. Do you want me to leave? Or, no, since you've already decided to leave, that's not the relevant question, it's - "

"It's not because of you, Soren," Ike said, having put together part of what was wrong with Stefan's assertions. "My leaving doesn't have anything to do with you. It's not that I want to get away from you, or any of the mercenaries."

"It's fine, Ike." Soren was still looking at the ground. "I know that you've been unhappy. You've been acting restless for months. If what's troubling you is enough to make you leave Tellius, I won't stop you. I don't want...It's true that I rely on you, and if it's been too much, I apologize. I knew it could become problematic, but I...I don't want you to suffer on my behalf Ike. I'm not worth that."

"But you're not the problem." Ike really meant that - he couldn't think of any time Soren had made him feel the way awed crowds and titles did. He liked it when Soren turned to him for comfort, rare as that was - it made him feel important, needed, but in a different way. More real. Unfortunately, Soren didn't see that distinction.

"If you feel you have to leave everyone, then yes, I am the problem. I'm part of it." Soren turned away. "If you're planning to go soon - how soon is it? I'll stay as long as we're completing our work - we have jobs lined up for the next three weeks. I suppose you'll hand the command over to Titania after you leave?" Soren looked at him.

"Yeah, I thought so, but Soren - "

Soren didn't seem to have heard him. "Stefan. I assume you would allow me to remain until things are settled here?"

"Of course."

Ike reached out impulsively, catching Soren's wrist in his hand. "Soren!" The mage looked back at him. Both he and Stefan looked questioning. "Don't go. Come with me." He hadn't been planning on it, but the moment he said it he knew it was what he wanted. It was ridiculous he hadn't thought of it from the beginning.

"Wh...Ike, I..." Soren looked over at Stefan, who was frowning, then back to Ike. He spoke in a whisper - maybe trying to make it so Stefan couldn't hear. "I want to. So much. More than you know. But...don't do anything you'll regret. Don't take me out of pity, not if I make you -"

"Hey. Stefan said that, not me." Ike shifted his grip so he was holding Soren's hand, which was something he hadn't done for a long time, but it felt important that he do so now. "You can rely on me as much as you want - it's fine. You don't treat me like I'm not human or anything. It's that that I hate. You're not like that at all - you tell me just what you think - and I need that, you know? Your guidance. And being able to help you. I really don't mind it - as long as I can rely on you too." He rubbed the back of his head with his free hand. "I think what I'm trying to say is: I do need you. So don't leave."

Soren looked at him warily, eyes scanning over his face - probably trying to read his thoughts in his facial expression, something Soren could do better than anyone else. Ike hoped his sincerity showed. "I'm sorry. I'm not that good at making plans like this on my own - I should have asked you before. I didn't think - I guess I didn't think about leaving you, and what that would mean. If you'd rather go with Stefan and try to do something for the Branded I'll understand, and won't stop you - but I wouldn't really be happy about it."

"Are you satisfied?"

Ike was confused, before he realized that Soren was speaking to Stefan, though his gaze was still locked on Ike.

"Are you?" Stefan asked softly. His expression was blank.

"Yes. I think my refusal of your offer is clearly established, and if you have no further business with me or with Ike, you can leave now."

"Very well. You are remarkably fortunate, Soren. I can only hope you remain so."

Soren nodded, still not looking at Stefan. However, to Ike's surprise he did say, "Thank you."

"And - " Stefan locked eyes with Ike over Soren's head, his fingers running over the hilt of the sword at his side, "I hope you are as much a man of your word as you as reputed."

"I try to be."

Then Stefan slipped away among the stacks of furniture. Ike hoped that Stefan really would be able to do something for the Branded - after all, he could help Soren, but there had to be so many more like these two out there, suffering the same way.

"Ike?" Soren's tentative voice called him out of his thoughts.

"Yeah?"

Soren opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again, looking down at their interlaced hands, then back at Ike.

Ike couldn't help grinning. Soren never did know what to say at times like this. "So you'll come with me, then?" he supplied.

"Yes," Soren answered, smiling back. "Yes, Ike. Please."