For weighed and measured. This is completely one hundred percent gratuitous pairing fic. It is also largely unedited and virtually a first draft. You have been warned.


"You forged a check in my name," Soren said flatly as he had a staring contest with the high sloped roof. He bounced one crossed leg against the other, his free hand in his lap and not on the internationally contaminated plastic chair. "No... yes... mother... mother, what part of home in a week do you not understand? Yes – it's the eleventh ... your billing cycle ends on the thirtieth! ... That's nineteen days. ... Nineteen. No, that isn't okay. My bank balance is currently at zero – I told you, I opened a joint account – I will have to pay overdraft. You couldn't wait a week." A hand found its way onto his thigh and he looked pointedly at his companion with his best not now look. "... That depends. How much was it? ... You're kidding me. ... You really want to know? ... Three hundred interest if I pay immediately." The woman on the phone burst into sobbing, screaming apologies and outrage at the system for daring to treat royalty this way, and he clenched his jaw, closed his eyes, and rubbed at his forehead. "No... no, listen to me. Mother. We have enough to cover it. ... Get some sleep. It's four in the morning over there, isn't it? Yes. ... This is an international call. ... Yes. Good night. Go to bed. I know." He lipped Take your medication to himself as he snapped his phone shut.

"Three hundred," Ike remarked. "That's a lot of money."

That was just the interest, Soren silently reminded himself. He stuffed the phone back into his pocket and pointedly lifted a large, calloused hand from his leg and trapped it between his own pale hands instead. "I'll take care of it. Don't worry about it."

Ike curled his hand about Soren's, frowning a bit more at the thought of such a debt. They had both always been frugal – the pair and Ike's family, too. It was his mother-in-law who insisted on an elaborate ceremony and the rest (Soren later apologized to them for this), although they both really would have preferred a quiet courthouse affair with a family bonding sort of event after (more Ike's preference than Soren's). "Is she always..."

"Yes." Soren's veins shone blue with tension and Ike shut his mouth, letting the other man separate his fingers and trace around all their edges and callouses. Ike didn't know why his hands fascinated Soren so much; on one occasion he'd examined Soren's hands in return, pale and slender and clammy, with a single hard spot on his middle finger from writing too much. It had been an interesting experience to do once, maybe, but he thought to himself that he'd much rather just clasp them.

Over the intercom, a soft female voice intoned, Le vol un-zero-sept à destination de Helena, Montana est prêt pour l'embarquement au Porte A-7. "That's us," Soren told Ike, detaching and curtly hoisting his bag over his shoulder, seizing his suitcase, and setting off at a brisk pace to be first in line. By the time Ike had reacted and caught up, the intercom had already finished droning in translation, ready for boarding at Gate A-7.

"I've had enough of airports for the rest of my life," Ike grumbled as he squeezed past irate passengers-to-be, almost knocking over a couple of retractable belt stanchions as he joined Soren, third in line.

"There's only one more after this." Soren gestured with his passport, neatly held open in his fingers, and Ike cursed and rummaged about his backpack for his own. "It's in the back, under your bottle of water."

"Thanks." Ike fished out his passport – barely two months old, but already dog-eared – unsettling the neatly packed contents of his backpack in the process. "I don't know what I'd do without you."

"Neither do I," Soren mumbled quietly as he brushed his hand against Ike's side. An inspection at the desk, tickets and documents exchanged, and with suitcases in one hand and in union with the other, they crossed the tunnel, whir of engines loud around them, into the body of the plane.

They had a pair of seats to themselves next to the window; Soren's last-minute finagling had secured them placement in a row with a vacancy. "No more Paris," he said, mostly to himself.

"Yeah," Ike grumbled as he hoisted their carry-on into the compartments. "No more sauteed snail and annoying waiters."

Soren looked at him pointedly and countered with, "Back to dirty looks for holding hands."

"We can ignore them," Ike pointed out. "I can't ignore the snails on my plate." At Soren's rolled eyes, Ike came to plop down in his seat and found his hand with a click of their wedding bands. "Relax. Our honeymoon isn't over yet."

With a distant look, Soren murmured, "Back to Montana?"

"Yeah. Montana."

Ike dozed off an hour into the flight, leaving Soren with the company of the two chattery middle-aged women in the seats in front of him, who – as far as Soren's French could discern – were exchanging tall tales about mythical American airport security.

Outside the window, rainy England passed by beneath a thin veil of cloud and smog. They had spent a week there, too, on top of the Millennium Wheel and in the shadows of the Gherkin. Soren had refused to spend a whole precious day at Big Ben, insisting that they heard its proclamations every noon anyway. Ike managed to badger him into a single photo under the trees with the clocktower rising far behind them. Apparently, the citizen he had asked to take the picture had shaky hands; the photo came out slightly blurred, and Soren pointedly remarked that he could have photoshopped a better Big Ben picture. In Oxford, Soren recounted his term spent studying abroad, and they were accosted by a professor he knew who still had too much to say about everything. Ike would later remark that he had the snobbiest (or should he say "snootiest"?) way of talking he'd ever heard, to Soren's snort of amusement. He recalled one blessed week in Condensed Matter Physics when the professor had contracted laryngitis and croaked through a microphone system only when necessary – which in Soren's opinion was the perfect amount of narration.

England and France were both pleasant experiences, Soren mused, if only for someone to share them with. And there were countries before them; they had been almost-clueless tourists in a thousand distant places in the world:

Mexico, which Ike proclaimed to have the best food in the world, as Soren grumbled and tried to find a strategic point of shade from the near-equatorial sun. They ran out of sunscreen and Ike insisted on a sombrero to protect Soren's skin, a suggestion he humored if only because sunburn was worse than being labeled as a tourist. He noticed, in fact, that after the sombrero, they were treated to more attempts at communication in English, which arguably went better than Ike's attempts at barely communicative Spanish. They stopped by the ruins of grand civilizations long gone, which Ike adored until Soren offhandedly commented that had all been built upon slave labor. After that, Soren couldn't devise enough excuses to prevent a trip to the beach.

Japan, where Ike worried that Soren might get swept away in a crowd of people (Soren had no such worries in return). They hired a tour guide, who was chillingly polite, excessively hospitable, and avoided looking at them unless necessary. Relying instead on Soren's rudimentary knowledge of Japanese, they decided not to take her along on some days, like the beautiful sunny afternoon when they sampled various seafood-flavored ice creams to their mutual disgust (although Ike mused that the shark flavor wasn't all that bad). Soren insisted that Ike sample Kobe beef if he really wanted to, and hid the bill afterward.

Indonesia, a strange mix of sights between the bustling streets of Jakarta – and they thought to themselves that a city was a city anywhere in the world – and then the sudden countrysides, sights of men working the land with water buffalo from the windows of the train, before their brief tour into a guarded piece of strangely quiet jungle, where Soren spotted no less than three candy wrappers along the way.

Tired of being gawked at, Soren suggested they replace their trip to Madagascar with one to the Netherlands instead, and in Amsterdam Ike was adventurous enough to drag Soren along clubbing for the first time in their lives and they spent that evening feeling uncomfortable for completely different reasons. They returned early to their room at a cozy bed and breakfast and spent the night on their own intimate terms. They slept through the morning and their titular meal and stopped by a coffee shop where Soren advised against the muffins, but Ike wanted to try it just once and afterward said some of the most nonsensically profound things to ever come out of his mouth. As they had planned for Madagascar, they traveled Amsterdam whimsically, dropping by the highly recommended art museums even though neither of them had much of an interest. Their brief days there were dull but carefree and they were well-rested by the time they took their (discounted) cruise to England.

Soren mentally counted the days until the twenty-fourth, when he would have to loan Ike to the California public school system in the prime hours of the weekdays to teach children how to throw a basketball. Two weeks after that, he would have to part for months as he went back to his own studies. He thought about his research, filed away in a part of his laptop he hadn't accessed for the last two months, and sighed, making himself comfortable with Ike as a pillow. Ike was right. Their time together wasn't over yet. He could live in the present for now.

Soren thought to himself that the French women had nothing to worry about, as American arrival security was – stricter than the French departure security, yes – negligible compared to what they had encountered at the beginning of their travels. Ike, ever indiscreet, had created a few problems for them with a bad joke about Soren's "Goldoan connections" and "elaborate life-death rituals" (both merely references to their wedding) and thus subjected them both to a two-hour interrogation and a missed flight. Afterward, Soren lectured Ike on all the things not to say around airport security, while Ike swore to himself that he'd just let Soren do all the talking from now on. Having just woken up from a nap on the plane, both of them were sleepily quiet as they went through all the security procedures, occasionally showing their fondness for each other, too zoned out to care that an occasional Montanan cast a look their way.

They exchanged quick words with Titania about their arrival and waited in the near-empty lounge for her to arrive with Greil's full-sized van that had carried all twelve of them at times, their childhood passing through its tinted windows while the eccentric lot of them wreaked playful havoc inside. The van was meant for work, of course – construction, back when they were still the Greil Mercenaries. (Once an angry contractor who'd lost bidding for them snarled that they were nothing but modern mercenaries. They had no name at the time, and Greil decided that it had a certain rhyme to it, no stigma attached to it in this era, and lent itself well to advertising.) One night in Amsterdam, Soren had murmured to Ike, Why didn't you keep the family business? We were doing well... Ike touched the back of his foot against Soren's cold toes as he muttered almost regretfully, There was too much we all wanted to do. It had to go. Despite their dissolution, they never scraped off the cheerful logo on the side of the van. They were all still the Mercenaries, somewhere inside them.

"Hey, Soren," he said all of a sudden, sounding awake. "Do you need to stop by a bank on the way home?"

Soren thought about the task of removing over half the funds from their nest egg so shortly after they had lovingly laid it. He decided he should face it alone. "No... it's fine." For good measure, to end the conversation, he turned to face Ike – the back of his head rolling about the woolen chair and catching his hair in electric tangles – and said, "Since when do you worry about our finances?"

"Since last April," Ike replied, and left it at that. An originally overlooked bout of shingles had resulted in Soren's week-long hospitalization. The third thing Soren said to Ike when he managed to visit was You need to pay the utilities bill in two days. Get Titania's help. Ike had very unhappily replied, You're on three painkillers, I haven't seen you in four days, and the first thing you tell me is to pay the bills? (Soren corrected him with The first thing I said was that I missed you.)

"You don't need to worry this time," Soren reassured him, a hint of annoyance in his voice as if he still couldn't stand being reminded of his vulnerable occasions. "I'm fine." Ike reached over to smooth his hair and zapped them both with static electricity for his efforts. "... Just keep an eye out for the van." Frowning, Ike just kept an eye out for the van.

Mist and Rhys had come with Titania to meet them at the airport, the former giving hugs to a receptive Ike and to a less-receptive Soren. "Did you have a good time?" Mist asked with a well-intentioned smile.

"Yeah," Ike replied just as innocently as Soren's mind jumped to the night when, after a cool glass of fine French wine, he had pressed Ike into the five-star linens and rid him of his cotton coverings. Face flushing, Soren busied himself with the luggage. "It's good to see you again."

"We just came for your wedding two months ago!" she scolded, giving Ike a friendly shove before flouncing over to Soren to help with the luggage.

"All right, but before that," Ike protested, taking two suitcases at once and loading them into the van. "Anyway, it's been awhile since we've been home."

"Oscar's preparing your favorites for supper," Mist piped. Soren internally winced – Ike's favorites tended to be his least favorite (not that he would deny food to his beloved for an instant). "Oh – and I made peanut brittle for you, Soren!"

Soren stared blankly at Mist for a moment before giving Ike his why did you tell her that look. Shrugging, Ike said, "I thought you liked it. Remember, when we ordered that box for the Crimea High School Band's fundraising?"

Soren gave up on keeping his snacking weaknesses secret. "... Yes, I do. Um. Thank you, Mist." Mist beamed a smile at him.

They piled into the van – although considering how crowded it used to be with the three brothers and large Gatrie and loud Shinon also in tow, their "piling" was rather weak – and shared fond memories throughout the two-hour trip through traffic and wheat fields. A camping trip into the Rockies many summers ago: roasted marshmallows singeing Boyd's tongue when he tried to eat them too quickly, Mist's embarrassing and inconvenient first period, the first night when temperatures plunged ten degrees lower than the forecast and they all inched their bedrolls closer and closer together until they formed a wriggling jumbled three-headed monster. The bad customers: The man who wanted a deck, and a complimentary roof fix, and an overhaul of his fence while they were at it. Greil narrowly kept Shinon from punching the man, performed as asked, added to the bill, and took him to court when he wouldn't pay – not for profit, as the fees outweighed what more they earned, but for sheer justice (or spite in Soren's eyes), which they could all agree upon. The good customers: The tired former single mother whose kids had flown the nest and needed the insulation tended to for the winter to come, who invited them in for lemonade when they took their breaks and sent a small batch of cookies home with them for the children. Their stint in the overwhelming world of large-scale contract jobs (and they didn't speak of the night Greil never returned).

And then conversation turned to memories from when Ike was in grade school. While the rest of them remembered and teased, Soren turned to the window and drew patterns in the thin covering of grime. Oh, he listened – Ike the T-Ball star, Ike who did math homework for promises of afternoons at work with dad, Ike who watched enviously from the van and passed the pliers to Oscar through the window. All of these things, Soren filed into his mind quietly, wishing that he had something to add from those times – wishing he had been there. He stopped with his finger was blackened at the tip and he realized what he had been doing with a sudden rush of disgust. As he fumbled through his backpack for the bottle of water and a packet of tissues, Ike absently brought his hand to smooth travel-disrupted strands of hair, his blunt fingers trailing down to the sensitive ligaments of Soren's neck. He was saying something about how he could swear he never broke a window and that was Boyd – Soren leaned against his vibrating chest as he wiped his fingers clean.

Mist glanced back while in the middle of relating The Mystery of the Missing Popsicle when she caught sight of their position and gave an all-too-knowing smile. Soren remembered the days when he would break away embarrassed, perhaps five years ago when he still stole what kisses he could glean in bathrooms and early mornings when he and only he insisted on hiding what all of the family had already guessed. Now he simply returned her glance and laid a hand over Ike's knee possessively. Mist's smile grew wider.

The sights by the road began to grow familiar: here a barn that he remembered, there a pen of cows, here an intersection with the road sign leaning just so. And then before they knew it, they were driving down the dirt road like they had traveled thousands of times before on busses and at the end of shopping trips, into a glade of pine and cedar (but sparser than it had been before, Soren noted) and down the gravel driveway to the old stone house that had, a century and a half ago, been a coal baron's mansion, in crude imitation of castles of old. It fell short of being a castle, so with some affection they called it the Fort. In recent memory, it was weathered, simple – quaint. And it was their home.

They tumbled into the halls, calling, "We're here!" with luggage in tow and greetings immediately upon them. In a matter of ten minutes, their personal effects were tossed all over the room that was once Ike's, which had been tidy for years until they returned to it. To Ike's disappointment, Soren was more interested in finding an outlet than celebrating their return in the spirit of Bacchus. And then he sat himself down at the desk with his laptop.

Ike stuck his head over one of Soren's slender shoulders, wrapping his arms around Soren's front and leaning upon him in a manner that looked perhaps ridiculous, if not uncomfortable for both of them. "Go help Mist with the fudge," Soren murmured to Ike, soft hot breath tickling his ear in his private gesture even though no one was around.

"I'd only mess it up," Ike muttered back. That was hardly the truth, but Soren relented. He added, "What are you doing, anyway?"

"Cleaning up after mother dearest." When Ike remained draped over his shoulders, he added, "It'll bore you."

"Come on. Just ten minutes."

Ike had used that line on him no fewer than eleven times over the last two months, usually to his success. Soren mentally recalled that they had gone well over ten minutes on half of those occasions. He wasn't in the mood, yet he stared at the blinking cursor on the login screen to the bank website and knew that Ike would not leave him alone. "Give me a half an hour to myself. Then I will." When Ike renewed his attempts at persuasion, fingers rippling across Soren's chest, moisture on his ear – the cursor still blinking, blinking, whispering nine hundred to the liability who found you two years ago – and Soren abruptly made a motion to shrug Ike off. "No. Not now. We've had two months! You can wait half an hour."

At this, Ike suddenly relented. Soren didn't look behind him to catch the perplexed look on his face. No. How often had he denied Ike despite everything? And in that tone of voice? "Soren... is something wrong?"

He half-turned in his chair to glance at Ike behind him. Memories of days and days together, each blurring into the next, swamping his recollection of the present as if he'd never been alone – or time to himself. "Just give me some time alone." The first time he'd wanted such a thing as opposed to Ike's attentions.

And Ike, ever calm, perhaps too calm, said, "All right. I'll be downstairs if you need me," and departed, shutting the door behind him. Suddenly the room was quiet, and Soren almost wished he could fill it with an argument. As if covertly engaging in crime, he logged into their account and wired the needed amount back into his old one. As he stared at the receipt on the page, he thought of how easy it would've been to call the bank and claim forgery (truthfully) and let her handle everything she'd started. She might not even pester him to visit for the holidays for a few years.

Oh, but then she'd get dramatic and pull too much money from the investments and the framework of her life would crash down on her and Pelleas. Knowing that boy, he'd start searching for cliffs to dive from. In truth Soren didn't mind too much, but surely Ike would look at him differently each morning and...

I only pretend to be a good person for you, he thought with the faintest movement of his lips. At times he feared that Ike would know him too well. Soren twisted the band around his ring finger, circles and circles, wondering if he'd secured anything – trapped Ike in with him – with their altar promises. Did Ike know what he'd sworn himself to?

Soren thought of a park bench in Nice, overlooking the Mediterranean, a perfect play of dusky reds on its calm glassy surface, when he'd craned his head to reach Ike's ear and whispered that it was also cool and clear the day he almost died. He couldn't remember how many secrets he'd abandoned to Ike. The reaction was surprise and acceptance; he never knew, and at that time, it didn't change a thing. He toyed with his ring, up and down, never squeezing up past his first bony knuckle. There was always a first time. The first time he'd snapped at Ike like that. The first time...

Peals of laughter echoed from downstairs. Soren cleared the cache and closed his laptop, wondering why all of a sudden after two perfectly happy months, he'd felt such a strong rush of frustration. Propping his elbows against the table and resting his head on his hands, he sighed as he picked out voices – something about an ice cream vendor, which he assumed to spring from a tale of the vendor they chanced upon in England who set her sights upon Ike and insisted that they were soulmates and wouldn't relent until Soren had intervened. Forcibly. Soren couldn't help but smirk as he stared at the wood grains on the table, imagining that on the floor below him they were smiling too.

It was like he was sixteen again, insisting on doing their accounting after dinner instead of staying to chat. Mist would break out the Monopoly board and shoot inviting gazes his way, and he'd shake his head and point out that he had real finances to manage. Once, Greil all but temporarily fired him to cajole him into playing a round with them, and Soren was terribly embarrassed to lose narrowly to Gatrie. He was far more adamant in his refusal from then on.

When he was sixteen he was a different person. That was the year Greil died; the year he learned of his own father and his misdeeds; the year he began to doubt his reasons for living and felt himself scarcely a shadow in the Fort's long stone halls. He still hid himself from the world, even Ike – especially Ike, as Soren watched him chugging water and wiping his face after football games, shamelessly leaving the bathroom with only a towel about his waist, crinkling his eyebrows together in the strangest expression as he attempted his math homework, stretching all the muscles along his back as he laid wooden boards in place. Soren tried to purge the images from his mind in shame, but they came back in cinematic glory after he'd fallen asleep and released his dictator's hold on joy and lust. In hindsight, his desires had been petty, innocent – kissing and laying together and hands barely daring to slip underneath the rough waistline of Ike's jeans – but he fought desperately to slay them if he could, deny them if he couldn't. And he never could defeat that flitting thrill that ran through his colorless life.

It was strange. Ike gave him so much, just by his presence – and now he had him in full – and here Soren sat with his eyes on the old desk watching his hair weave and cross where it met the wooden surface. Demanded Ike's exit to keep his secrets. He lifted his head and propped his chin on his palms, gazing at the reflective surface of his laptop lid. You, he admonished of his unkempt reflection, are hopeless. He gazed at his rumpled traveler's hair a moment longer before lifting himself from the desk and rummaging through their luggage for a comb.

With some strands painfully caught, Soren worked the hair ties out of his tangled mane. Parting snags with his fingers, he observed its length and thought to himself that it was becoming a nuisance. But Ike expressed his fondness for it in a thousand small ways, touching it, smoothing it, wrapping his fingers in it during fits of passion. So he grudgingly worked through it with a comb and bound it again, observing his reflection as best as he could on his laptop lid.

A rumble of excited voices drifted up to his room, and with one last inspection, Soren left his own company.

"We picked it up at the Heritage Festival last month," Titania was explaining. "It's charming, isn't it?"

Soren rounded the corner and saw Ike, Titania, and Rhys gathered around a woven ring draped with feathers. A dream-catcher. Folklore had it that the dream-catcher would catch nightmares in its snarls and let pleasant ones slide down its feathers into the head of the dreamer, and therefore from its place on the wall downstairs – even if lore was to be believed (and Soren scoffed at that) – it wasn't doing a thing that Titania continued to describe. He didn't remark on it, preferring to glide back to Ike's side without drawing their attention.

Unfortunately, they spotted him anyway and proceeded to ask him how he had been. Soren answered with brief statements of I've been fine, observing in his own way that Titania was aging, Rhys's health was improving, Rolf was beginning to uncannily resemble Oscar, and Shinon possibly displaying the earliest signs of liver failure: things he had all noticed in some way or another at the wedding, but it was another thing to see them here, aged, in the home of his childhood. Somehow it was uncomfortable that way, as reality jarred against the images of days long behind him. And yet he wanted to see them anyway.

"Dinner's almost ready," he heard Oscar call from the kitchen. A mix of smells, savory and spiced, floated by and visibly attracted Ike to the mess hall. Soren trailed him, and their conversation followed, too. ("How was the food in France?" "Passable." Actually, he had liked it more than he would admit.) He gazed upon rooms unchanged – there the office where they had kept their business files, there the open room where Mist had practiced dance, and finally the mess hall where the same two large rectangular tables inhabited its center with enough room on each side for them all to eat at once. Without prompting, he shadowed Mist to the kitchen and gathered supplies to set the table alongside her.

"Oh! Thank you, Soren." Mist sandwiched a stack of napkins between her palms, silverware between her fingers. "Do you cook when it's just you two?"

He did, at one point. He tried his best, too, but Ike insisted that Soren had a deficient sense of taste and could only detect if something was edible. (The difference, in truth, was just that Soren was content with just passing the threshold of "edible".) As time passed and Soren continued to insist that they would save money by cooking, Ike snatched his apron and spatulas and showed him that even he could cook a better meal.

Smirking at himself, Soren shook his head. "No... Ike does." At Mist's surprise, he continued, "His food is decent."

"He should cook us something," she said with a decisive nod of her head. Soren thought to himself that however indiscriminate he was about his food, he'd missed the signature tastes of Oscar's cooking, a taste like youth and yesterday, and he frowned at the thought of sacrificing one of those meals and several hours of Ike's time.

"Maybe when you visit," he said, by which he meant no.

"Boyd should learn to cook," Mist added, and Soren mentally said no to that, too.

When they returned with plates, silverware, napkins, and salt, they were treated to the sight of Ike and Boyd locked in a round of arm wrestling. Neither of them were winning, to Soren's disappointment. Rolf was exclaiming, "You can do it, Ike! You can beat him!" while Boyd cursed at him to can it, pipsqueak, and Ike didn't seem to register the cheering as he focused, a very serious look on his face. As their hands trembled and perspiration formed and their muscles swelled to almost comedic proportions, Soren began to wonder if the table could hold up.

He had arranged plates over the entirety of the other table by the time Boyd slammed Ike's hand into the table, causing all of Mist's neatly arranged spoons to jump and click against the the forks. Boyd stood with a victorious whoop as Ike rubbed his bruised knuckles and congratulated Boyd through a half-grin, half-grimace. In the ensuing mayhem of You actually won for once! / Shut up, pipsqueak! Soren ghosted over to Ike's side and, smiling slightly at the absurdity of the situation, whispered, "Is your hand all right?"

"I'll be fine, Soren," he said as he not-very-encouragingly opened and closed his hand to make sure that all his fingers worked. Soren gave a weary sigh and nudged Ike's arms aside to lay down his plate. His efforts were wasted when Ike nudged it aside and demanded that they try it again with their left arms, and Boyd couldn't find a manly enough way to back out.

They had gone through six rounds, split evenly, but Ike had won all of the last three through clearly superior endurance. Boyd adamantly refused to go for a seventh time, insisting that there was food to be eaten. At this point, Oscar called for help with the platters. There was food to be eaten, indeed.

"You smell worse than a bear in heat," Shinon sneered as he took a seat far, far away from Ike.

"I'm glad to see you, too."

Soren was already waiting in bed with a book, damp hair leaving dark spots on his pajamas. Ike scuffed the door closed behind him before removing the towel about his waist to dry his hair. "What are you reading?" he asked through a face full of towel.

"The Handmaid's Tale. A feminist dystopian piece. You wouldn't like it." Not that Ike ever cared for what he was reading, but he felt that it must be stated for, in this case, it would be for reasons unrelated to its word count.

Ike made a sound of amused agreement before throwing the towel over one chair and plunking down beside Soren. He found the blanket and pulled it up higher over them both, resting his cheek on Soren's head as he stared at the words alongside him. After a few page turns, Soren rolled his eyes about to look at Ike and said, "What is it?"

In a disappointed tone of voice, he replied, "If you put it that way... nothing." He lowered himself under the covers, hands under his head, watching Soren with no particular expression on his face. Soren folded the page corner and closed the book, reaching over Ike's head to set it on the nightstand and turn off the lamp. He didn't even glance at Ike as he slid beneath the blankets with no more contact than a bump of his elbow by chance.

He closed his eyes, thinking to himself that the texture of the sheets, the sounds of insects, and the hum of the water heater downstairs were all so strangely familiar, when beside him Ike said, "Soren, are you angry at me?"

Soren opened his eyes again. "No." He was about to add Why do you ask? when he remembered everything of the afternoon. All of a sudden, he didn't know what to say next. From somewhere in the darkness of rural Montanan nights, Ike's fingers brushed against his arm. Before he gave his hand permission, he had found Ike's hand and woven his fingers through his, thumb running across the back of his hand. "It's not that I don't want you with me..."

"I know," Ike said. He didn't do anything more – just kept his hand where it was.

Silence. Soren could've fallen asleep like this, and woken up with the knowledge that everything was right back to normal, like he'd never harbored the doubts he did. Instead, he said in that too-loud stone room, "Ike?"


"Three hundred – that was just the interest."

Ike shifted beside him and Soren could tell by the breath against his ear that Ike was facing him. "So... how much was it?"

"Total? Nine hundred and forty seven," Soren mumbled, turning his head away from Ike even though it was far too dark to be reading faces.

"That's a lot," Ike remarked.

They were quiet for a moment, still unmoving on the bed. It was an older mattress, and if one of them shifted it'd shake them both – but the mattress was as still as if they'd fallen asleep ten minutes ago. Finally, Soren said, "I thought about claiming fraud."

With an incredulous note, Ike said, "Did you?"


"That's good."

"But... I thought about it..."

"You made the right choice. That's all that matters." A squeeze. "Don't worry about it." And just like that – Ike knew, and he was forgiven. He felt all of a sudden like he had doubted for nothing.

Soren rolled his head about on the pillow to face Ike. Strands of hair tickled his nose. He inched closer, and he felt Ike shift too in response, tremors rippling across the mattress. "Ike" – a raspy whisper in his throat before he pressed his lips into the space where he knew Ike's to be, and glanced them before redirecting his aim and finding them, rough and parted with anticipation. Soren grabbed for him, thin fingers with hidden strength pressing like claws into Ike's firm muscles. Ike reached back, supporting Soren as he pulled himself closer and onto Ike's chest, climbing onto him like a lizard onto a warm stone.

He could see the faintest outline of Ike's body from the weak light of the moon coming in through the window at the wrong angle. That was enough. He knew every inch – the bumpy scar across his back, from when he'd fallen while climbing trees; the dimpled ridge of his spine beneath his muscles, pronounced and faded at different places as Ike moved; the soft spots on his neck, on the inside of his elbow, the inside of his thighs. Now he attacked those tender stretches of skin, with the sensitivity of his tongue and his fingertips, with the indelicacy of his teeth and nails. Ike made sounds of banal approval, encouraging him with strong motions, unstoppable as an ocean wave. He smelled of dampness, some olive-oil fragrance that hung in his shampoo, and his own musky scent, slowly reasserting itself in his sweat. As they moved, Soren's nightwear shifted and exposed skin of its own accord, and Ike encouraged its absence, sweeping the pajama jacket as far upward as it would go, leaving a large patch of heated skin to touch along their stomachs, sticking just slightly on contact from the moisture collecting on their skin.

Ike tried to relieve Soren of his clothing too quickly, and it caught beneath his armpits as Soren intervened, batting Ike's hand away with a grumble of, "The buttons." He took a seat on Ike's abdomen as he worked the familiar stiff plastic buttons by touch, Ike's hands gliding about his waist in admiration. Ten too-long seconds and he threw the garment behind him, beyond caring where it landed as he returned to the matter of giving Ike's neck adequate attention to elicit those gratifying grunts and calls of Soren, Sor-en as Ike's hands crept all around his jutting shoulderblades and into his damp hair that wafted something grassy with a note of coconut. They snaked their ways through Soren's dark vines and held him about either side of his head, and Ike brought that teasing assembly of teeth and tongue and lips up from his neck to meet his own. Soren eagerly took to this task, touching his tongue to his favorite cavern, along the ivory stalagmites and stalactites he had already explored but adored so often.

When they surfaced for breath, Ike lowered his hands to Soren's shoulders and gently but not gently rolled him about, pressing him face-first into the pillows and linens before Soren could protest his lost dominance. He turned his head to the side and said through heavy breaths, "It's our last week. Make it count."

"What are you talking about?" Ike muttered back, pulling the last barriers away. "We have the rest of our lives."