Sunday. Marth finished the last of his push-ups and then stood and began his stretches. Zelda watched him from the doorway. Marth knew she was there, but continued his stretches anyway, ignoring her. Eventually Zelda broke her silence and spoke up.
Marth ignored her.
He stretched his calf and thigh muscles again. Then he straightened and stretched sideways, and then swung his arms, stretching his shoulder muscles.
"Well? Marth? Can you hear me?"
"I'm running," he said flatly. Inside he felt as nervous as jelly, but he wasn't going to let it show. His tense stomach threatened to empty itself each time the image of a long road leapt into his mind. Yesterday hadn't done anything for his confidence, even though it was the furthest he had ever run. Apprehensively, he reached for the white dress he had worn so long ago when he had first gone to the gym.
"Marth? This is madness. Look at you. You need to be sleeping, not running a 31 mile Championship."
Marth ignored her again. It was two hours until the start of the race. Enough time to have breakfast, meet up with Roy for a quick warm up and then arrive early at the start line.
After breakfast he jogged gently through the city, heading for Britch Tower. The image of a painfully long road stretching endlessly in front of him was now getting persistently harder to push from his thoughts, but distraction was at hand in the form of a rapidly approaching fly swat.
"Didn't think you'd be running today, Marth," said Roy, who sounded pleased.
"I didn't think you'd be running either, not with your blisters," Marth commented.
"Ah well, a good salve solves everything."
"How long now?"
"About forty five minutes. Drink?" Roy offered him a bottle of water and Marth took it nervously. Roy noticed his hands shaking and was about to comment on it when another voice interrupted.
"Ike. Hi." Marth turned around and smiled at him.
"Missed you at the gym yesterday."
"Yes. Sorry." Endless road…
"Are you ready to run?"
"Erm…y-yes," he said shakily. Endless road…
Ike smiled at him and Marth felt reassured by his expression. He was alright. He could do this. Hell, he almost did do it on Friday… Endless road… Marth stomach clenched unpleasantly.
"Excuse me a moment to stretch," said Ike, moving away slightly so he could stretch his legs and arms. Marth sat down on a bench and put his head in his hands. Britch tower, the old and much loved bell tower that stood separate from the church that used it, stuck its intricately carved spire high into the sky, a testament to human ability. The shadow fell over the bench where Marth sat, giving him some respite from the unusually strong sun. He lost track of time as he sat there, clutching the water bottle Roy had given him, nervous about the race, nervous of confessing his feelings to Ike.
"…Marth… come on, the race is about to start."
Marth looked up. It was Ike. "Huh?"
"The race is going to start! Come on." Ike helped hauled him to his feet and for a moment they were embarrassingly close, but the moment passed, broken by a voice from a loudspeaker.
"Ladies and gentlemen! Take your positions! The Handers Championship is about to begin!"
The bell in Britch Tower rang; a long, rich sound, and the tsunami of runners spilt out over the road, reluctantly and then with increasing speed, leading the trail through the High Street. Either side tall blocks of office building alternated with high-end shops, restaurants and jewellery stores. Marth kept up with Ike, and now they were running, felt a lot better. The week of hard fitness training had certainly helped, and his lungs didn't feel like they would seize up any time soon.
More shops passed, and the tide of runners followed a turn around a blocked off junction. There would be no cars around here today. Now they ran past more shops, but the quality had gone slightly from the arrogant grandeur of the high street, more humble cake shops appeared and shop windows began to show those familiar big red stickers announcing the latest price cut-back.
The roads grew narrower, widening briefly to show an elusive glimpse of the large park and then thinning again, winding away. The city was slowly being left behind. Now there were office blocks, endless brick and concrete towers. The frontiers of these buildings had been left to the mercy of the birds and elements, and their oppressive height pushed Marth to lengthen his stride, eager to be out of their shadow.
Ike still hadn't said anything, and Marth wondered if he was just saving his breath. He was about to say something to break the silence when in a series of sharp turns the twisting crowd swallowed Ike in a blur of colour.
"Ike?" Panicking slightly, Marth looked to and fro, peering between the sweaty bodies for that familiar blue hair and bandana. Now the office blocks had gone too, there was evidence of housing, and people walking their dogs cheered as the runners passed by.
"Ike?" Some over-eager woman with a large bust pushed past him, throwing him off balance. For a moment he thought he was going to fall, but a firm hand took his arm and put him back on his feet.
"Nice dress by the way," came the familiar voice, as his helper accelerated onwards, bandana flapping in the breeze. Marth smiled.
In minutes the city was falling behind, the suburbs approaching with their manicured lawns and scrawny tabby-cats. An old lady fanned herself distastefully as she waited for the runners to clear enough for her to cross the road. The stream of runners thinned now, the professionals leading as the suburbs grew thinner, became roads and separate housing estates. Here was an odd mixture of rich and poor, it was not uncommon to see a mansion lined either side with terraced houses, or to see in alternate lawns marble statues and broken tricycles.
More miles slowly began to peel away, turning to more rural areas, where there was more oxygen to breathe and better scenery. After the next corner a long wide path followed, lined either side with tall trees. It was a beautiful scene. Turning his head slightly, Marth saw that Ike was as pleased with the pretty path as he was. A romantic idea struck him. The timing wasn't what he had originally wanted, but the moment just seemed to fit.
"Do you know anything about these trees?" he began.
"No." Ike inclined his head slightly, watching Marth out of his peripheral vision.
"I used to paint under one that was near my local park when I was younger."
No, he'd just made it up. "Sure, not much though." I.e., not at all.
"How about that. I would love to do something so creative, but I never have the time."
"Yes. I love those trees. Strong and sturdy, but still sensitive to gentle breezes. Easy to climb, but not to the top. Always reliable… and good for hanging swings on," he added quickly on the end.
"Sounds like a great tree. Does it have a name?"
Marth took a deep breath. This was it. His confession. "Ike."
There was a long silence, and Marth felt a flush creeping up his neck. Ike seemed to be thinking something over.
"I see," he said eventually. "That mint I told you about… is called 'mentha timida'."
Shit. Well how was he supposed to know that the mint was actually a mint? Marth blushed furiously, wishing a hole would just open and swallow him. But what had he based his assumptions on, really? His own fancy, a few nice conversations and a slightly sentimental description of a plant?
"Don't worry, it's fine," Ike hurried.
"I have been the world's biggest fool," he muttered under his breath, more to himself than to Ike.
"No, it's fine."
But it wasn't. Marth increased his speed, subtly letting a gap develop, which was naturally filled by other runners. He felt terrible – his shame took over him like an illness, making it harder to breathe. How could he have been so stupid? Well the tree-lined path was coming to an end now; perhaps some new scenery would refresh his thoughts. Of course Ike didn't feel the same. It was going to be hard to put that out of his mind, but he had to, he needed to concentrate on pacing himself.
Several miles later he was bearing a terrible stitch. And yet more and more road lay ahead of him. It was a hot day and there were many mirages on the road, making it twist and distort before him as he ran. Ike ran beside him silently, saving his breath for breathing rather than talking. No strain showed in his face apart from the sweat that shined his forehead, and compared to how Marth must look… Despair washed over him. How many miles had they run now? He looked up and saw a red flag marking the halfway point perhaps a few hundred yards away. Why was he doing this? Ike didn't even feel the same way about him, never would… what was the point in him running this marathon? For Roy's charity? Yes, he should run it for the charity. His breath felt funny as he ran. He couldn't go another metre, he just couldn't…
His feet slowed, and he couldn't muster the willpower to speed them up again. They slowed, and slowed, as if he was wading through thick sludge. Eventually he stopped. He stared blankly into the distance, struggling to breathe, his heart thudding in his chest. Memories of yesterday filled his mind – the endless road and the exhaustion, how he had just wanted to curl up into a ball and sleep forever.
"Marth? Marth?" Ike had stopped, was looking at him, concerned. Marth just nodded breathlessly, waved a hand in a resigned way, telling him to keep running, and leave him behind.
"Come on Marth, we're not halfway yet!"
Marth shook his head slowly from side to side, and then faster, more determined. "I can't."
"Why not? We ran halfway when we went jogging on Wednesday. Come on, it's only a few hundred yards left to halfway. Marth?"
"No. I can't." Marth kept on shaking his head. A drop of sweat dripped off his eyebrow. His breath was shaking, his muscles felt like they were about to give up. Ike didn't know about his running yesterday, would never know. Marth could never tell him how he had kept on running, just so that he would be fit enough to run with Ike today… because he thought they had something… what a fool.
"Hey, I know you can do this. I'm not going to leave you behind."
"Go!" Marth exclaimed, as loud as he could bear.
"Because I can't. So just leave me here."
"I'm not going to leave you behind!" Ike looked annoyed, almost angry, but confused too. "Why are you so upset?" he asked, looking impatiently on as other runners overtook them.
"You…" Marth shook his head. "The mint. I thought you were referring to me and… well I was a fool, leave it at that."
"I said it was fine." Ike sighed.
Yes, so you're not offended or treating me like I'm carrying a disease. But you don't feel the same way!
"Marth, come on, I want you to run this with me. Come on!"
Ike leant forwards sharply, hesitated, and then seized Marth by the shoulders and kissed him, holding him there as he deepened the kiss, running his hands over the fabric of Marth's dress. Marth, shocked but certainly not unwilling, kissed him back, and they stood there entwined in each others arms for a long time, no longer caring as the endless flow of runners moved on past them. Eventually Ike pulled away and stared at him intently, holding Marth by the shoulders.
"But…" stammered Marth.
"But you didn't say anything! You just said it was fine, pulled an expression that could have meant anything, and continued running! I don't get it!" Marth shook from relief and anticipation. "Well?"
"I meant that it was fine – I felt the same way! Fine! Absolutely goddamn great!" Ike grinned at him. "I just wasn't sure what to do given we were in the process of running a marathon, and I was also desperately fighting the urge to grab you there and then and drag you off to a hotel! I didn't want to embarrass you." Ike blushed and Marth smiled, finally certain of himself. This time it was Marth who lead the kiss, and in the background of passing people he was vaguely aware of the sound of cheering. When he stopped he stroked Ike's cheek affectionately.
"Well I don't think I'd have minded very much," he blushed, "but if that's the way you feel… then I guess the sooner this marathon is over the better!" He winked, surprising himself with his own confidence, and rejoined the flow of runners, looking over at Ike, who was watching him go.
"What are you waiting for?" he called. "Let's go!"
It was getting consistently harder to run, but now Ike was there, so much easier at the same time, and the extra adrenalin helped. Frequent glances at Ike showed a small smile occasionally tweaking at his tired expression. The race passed by farms, and the farmers waved. It was probably the only time of year when they ever saw more than 100 people in the same place. The wave of runners proceeded onwards, looping back towards the city, this time approaching on the western side, much more rural and pollution free. Here they passed by horse riders in red jodhpurs and blue hats, all belonging to some riding school or other. The horses, with complete sereneness, halted and waited as the runners passed them by, watching them with their calm dark eyes.
And finally, a welcoming sight for weary eyes – Notsleigh fields at last, their flowers an ecstasy of colour. Past St Loun's Church and along the river, many footsteps treading the fallen leaves into a solid carpet of autumnal colour. By some unspoken consent both Marth and Ike reached out to hold the others hand, and thus united they crossed the finishing line before tumbling into a welcoming bed of long grass.
"Well done," came a familiar voice above Marth's head. He opened his eyes reluctantly and let a large hand help him up.
"Thank you sir."
"You can call me Roy." He wore shorts today, and his mechanical legs were obvious. He followed Marth's gaze and smiled.
"I've had them ever since the war. Lost the originals to a landmine."
"Oh." Marth nodded sadly.
Roy leant in closer and whispered, "Don't tell anyone, but these mechanical legs make it a lot easier to run. It's like having springs attached."
Marth laughed. A deeper laugh came from behind him and he turned to see Ike.
"Remember what I said before?" he asked, dangling a mobile phone in front of his face. "The cab's on the way."
Marth blushed, and stammered something incomprehensible. He was just trying to form a 'thankyou' when another set of familiar voices caught his attention.
"…twenty….thirty….fifty…and one hundred. Happy now?" Link muttered, annoyed.
"Yes, very," replied Zelda.
Marth turned around to find Link passing cash notes to Zelda. They still hadn't noticed him and were talking amongst themselves.
"So predictable. I knew he would talk himself into running that marathon."
"How could you be so sure that he would fancy Ike and try to impress him that way?"
"But poor Marth… telling him Ike was straight so that he would wear a dress, because Marth knows he looks like a cute girl in a dress…" Link chuckled.
"And giving him a secondary motive to seduce Ike, even though he would probably have tried anyway. I felt quite safe in betting that I could get Marth to run a marathon in a dress. Why did you ever bet against me?" She laughed and Link clapped her on the back amicably.
"YOU WHAT?!" Marth yelled. Link and Zelda jumped and turned to face him.
"Look, please, it was only harmless f–"
"You blackmailed me into trying to seduce Ike so that I would end up running the marathon in a dress for a stupid BET?!" Marth was fuming.
"What's this about seducing me?" Ike interrupted, in a voice so thick with intent it sent shivers down Marth's spine.
"They," he pointed, "used my feelings against me, put me through hours of torture at the gym and hours of torture out running, had a fly-swat-happy mentor stalk me…"
"So you didn't actually care for me, you just figured you'd seduce me for some bet?" Ike asked incredulously.
"No…no it's not like that…" Marth, flustered, thought for a moment. "If I didn't want to seduce you I'd never have accepted the bet in the first place!" he blushed furiously at his confession, but Ike seemed pleased, and leant over to kiss him.
"Hang on a minute…" said Zelda. "So you two actually…"
"Yes, we are together," Ike supplied, making Marth blush even more. Honesty, he hoped some day scientists would come up with a cure for embarrassment. Ike put his arm around Marth and they wandered away towards the road to wait for their cab. Once they were safely out of hearing distance, Link turned back to Zelda.
"You can give me fifty of that back," he said triumphantly. "I knew they would get together."
And that's it everybody! Hope you've liked it. Please review :D