He wasn't entirely sure when she'd shown up. He'd been engrossed in studying the area that would more than likely be their next battlefield; it would have been easy for her to arrive without him noticing, small and unassuming as she was. He doubted it, though. Ilyana wasn't exactly a master of stealth, and he doubted she'd been there long before a loud rumbling alerted him to her presence. As he looked over at her, she moved one hand apologetically to her stomach. "Sorry," she murmured. "I didn't… mean to bother you…"

He acknowledged her with a brief nod of his head and returned to his work. He didn't expect her to leave, of course, nor did she. If she truly didn't mean to bother him, she wouldn't be there at all.

Sure enough, she soon cleared her throat. "Um…"

"Then why are you here?" His tone was cold—a little colder than he'd intended, actually, but that didn't matter. Soren wasn't known for his warm, open nature, after all.

"I just… I was wondering if I could trouble you for some food…"

"I don't have any." He kept the sentence short and simple. Giving her any more would encourage her to persist.

Sadly, she didn't seem to get the hint. "Please… anything you could spare, I'd appreciate it."

He let himself huff a little as he turned to face her. "Ilyana, I don't have any food. Begging and pleading is not going to change that. If you want something to eat, I suggest you go visit your friends in the supply convoy."

He felt a twinge of satisfaction upon seeing the look on her face. It would be best for both of them if he could drive her away as he had so many others. He didn't like people, and they gained little from associating with him. Nevertheless, he couldn't pretend that seeing her so pained didn't give him a sense of shame as well.

"Look, they're sure to have something there," he said, surprised at how much softer his tone had become. "And they know you pretty well, so they're bound to share it with you."

She lowered her eyes. "I don't know. I consider them friends, but the way I eat, I sometimes worry they think I'm just using them to get food."

He raised an eyebrow. "Then it seems to me that the best solution is to not eat so much."

The pained look returned. "I… I can't."

Ah, yes. He was starting to remember now. He had noticed Ilyana the day she joined—since she was another mage, of course—but it was only from others that he'd heard about her… unusual physiology. Many in the group had marveled at her ability to put away plate after plate of food, yet still be so hungry she looked like she was about to keel over (and not gain any weight from it either).

He looked her over. Come to think of it, she seemed a little weak on her feet now, too. "Do you have any emergency rations?" He kept his tone cold to ensure she didn't mistake it for concern.

"No… I ate them already."

Of course you did. "Then I guess you have no choice," he said. "Go to the convoy and ask for food. It's their responsibility to keep us fed, after all, and if they're truly your friends, I think they'd be more concerned about your health than about the dent you make in their food stores."

He was surprised to see her smile, and turned away, feeling his face heat up a little.

"You're right," Ilyana said. "They'll feed me if I go over there. Only… um…"

"What is it?"

"I can't move."

There was a brief silence. "You're joking," he said at last.

She shook her head.

"You're not joking."

"I'm sorry," she said, seeming more embarrassed than anything. "But… I'm just so hungry… I don't trust my legs…"

He couldn't blame her. Even without walking anywhere, her body was swaying to an unsettling degree. He sighed. "Well, I… Hang on. Let's… uh…"

He found himself at a loss. What was he supposed to do with this girl? His first instinct was simply to ignore her; she was most likely lying in order to manipulate him into helping her. Except… she wasn't. He was no doctor, but it was clear from the color of her skin and the way she moved that there was something wrong. If she was faking, she was damned good at it, and it was an awful lot to go through just to trick him.

But should he really help her? He could barely stand her as it was. He certainly didn't want to develop a rapport with her. Besides that, what could he do? He was a mage, just as frail as she—although he didn't have her problems with food, admittedly. Helping her seemed like more trouble than it was worth. But he couldn't just leave her there…

"I'll go get Zihark," he said at last, coming to a compromise. "He seems to know you pretty well. He'll be able to help you."

Her eyes widened. "You're leaving…?"

"Yes. Zihark will be along soon. You'll be fine."

"Wait," she said, reaching out to him. "Soren, I…"

She tried taking a step toward him, but before she even realized her own mistake, her leg buckled under her weight and she collapsed. All thoughts of leaving her here for someone else to take care of fled Soren's mind as he rushed over to her. "Ilyana!" he cried, the worry in his voice surprising them both. "Are you all right?"

She struggled up, trying to prop herself up on her elbows with little success. He pushed her gently back down, careful to press against her shoulders instead of her chest. "I'm ok," she said, weakly.

"Looks like you were right about not moving," Soren said, cradling her head.

She smiled a little. "Told you."

He started to lay her head down. "I'll go get some emergency rations. You wait here."

"No," she said suddenly, grabbing him. "Don't leave me, please."

He hesitated. "…You really don't want to be left alone, do you?"

"Yeah," she said, and smiled again before adding, "I thought that the whole trying to follow you and collapsing thing might have clued you in on that."

He smiled, too, but quickly suppressed it. "Well, what else am I supposed to do? I'm not nearly strong enough to carry you , Ilyana. I spent most of my life training to be a mage; it didn't exactly leave much time for push-ups."

To his surprise, she laughed at that. It was a good laugh, too; strong, but light-hearted and sweet. "I know," she said. "It was the same for me, too." She looked up at him. "You don't have to carry me. Just help me along. Let me lean on you." Only a moment later did she think to add, "…Please?"

He tried to refuse her, to tell her he'd get someone else to help, to remind himself that he needed to keep a distance between himself and others—especially someone like her.

It didn't work.

"All right," he conceded. "If it's the only way to get you to do something about this, I'll help you."

If his condescending tone hurt her, she didn't show it. Instead, she simply smiled, and accepted the hand he offered to help pull her up. She put her arm over his shoulders, and, after a brief hesitation, he reached around her back and put his arm under hers. He couldn't help but blush as she leaned against him. He was surprised at how little she weighed, too; another consequence of her high metabolism, no doubt. She took a tentative step, and Soren moved along with her, keeping her upright as she swayed. As she got used to his presence beside her, they began to move more quickly, heading toward the convoy.

"So," she asked after a while, "What else did you do?"

"I… beg your pardon?"

"As a child. Didn't you have any hobbies, or favorite games, or… anything? You said doing magic didn't leave much time for push-ups. I was just wondering… what did it leave time for?"

Soren hesitated a long time before shaking his head. "Not much, really. My childhood was… well, tumultuous, to say the least. Any time not spent training was spent traveling."

"Oh… I'm sorry…"

He shrugged as much as he could with her arm over his shoulders. "Nothing to be done about it now."

"Still," she said, "It can't have been easy. Traveling all the time, you don't get a chance to get to know anyone. You never get to make any friends."

Soren smirked. "I guess you haven't noticed that I'm not very good at making friends anyway."

She lowered her eyes and remained silent for a long time before replying in a soft voice. "I had noticed, actually."

The male mage glanced over at her, surprised. He hadn't been expecting a response like that, nor did he know how to react to it. He suddenly became uncomfortably aware of how close they were, of the fact that her hand was resting on his shoulder and his on her side. He resisted the urge to draw away.

"It's just too bad, though," she said. "You never had a chance to do anything else."

"Oh, come on," Soren replied. "It's not like you do anything but cast magic, outside of eating."

He winced as soon as the words left his mouth. He was a cold person, yes, but he hadn't intended to sound that harsh. Ilyana's indignant glare only made him feel more ashamed. "Sorry," he muttered.

"I do other things than just eat," Ilyana said sullenly. "When I was a girl, I…" She trailed off.

"What?" Soren asked, trying to draw attention away from his earlier blunder—but also curious as to what she was talking about.

"Nothing," she said, looking away as she began to blush. "Just… never mind."

Soren remained silent. He didn't want to press her more than she was comfortable with. And besides, it was none of his business anyway. But still…

They came over a ridge and found the convoy only a few feet away. Aimee was standing ouside, and rushed over upon seeing Ilyana. "Oh, dear. Again?"

"Sorry," liana muttered.

"Don't apologize, dear," the shopkeeper said, patting her hand. "You two wait here. I'll bring something for that bottomless belly of yours." She turned and vanished into one of the wagons.

Soren helped Ilyana down onto a nearby rock before turning to leave. She looked up at him. "Where are you going?"

"Back to the field," he said. "I need to finish preparing."

"Soren?"

"Yes?"

She paused for a moment. "…I sang."

He looked back at her, his lack of understanding clear on his face. "What?"

"When I was a little girl. My parents paid a local musician to give me singing lessons for years. I loved to sing, until… well, until all this started. After a few years, I spent so much time putting food in my mouth, I couldn't use it to sing any more. It's been years since I practiced, and I'm sure I wouldn't be any good at it now… but I wanted you to know. I don't just eat and cast spells. There's more to me than that."

Soren remained silent for a moment, then shook his head. "I know that, Ilyana. Everyone has more to them than what you see on the surface. I didn't mean to judge you like that. …I didn't mean to treat you as poorly as I have been."

She blinked. He could only imagine how unusual it was to hear an apology coming from his mouth. It didn't feel that odd to him, though. He'd never wanted to truly hurt her, after all, only put some distance between them. He needed to get away from her—from the soft, smooth skin he could feel as he helped her along, from her long, silky hair he longed to run his fingers through, or from her beautiful face that was practically calling out for him to reach out and gently stroke it. But he couldn't do any of that. He could only try to get away from her.

However, it was becoming increasingly apparent that she didn't want him to leave. And, as he was beginning to realize, neither did he.

He sat down in front of her, arranging his mage's robes so he'd be comfortable. "If you don't mind," he said, "I'd like to hear you sing."

She looked just as surprised as when he'd apologized. "W-what?"

"If you don't mind."

She started shaking her head. "B-but… I just told you, I'm out of practice, and… the others might hear… and…"

He shrugged. "It's all right. You don't have to. I just thought it'd be nice to hear it."

She paused a moment. "…Really?"

He offered a smile. "If you want to."

Another pause. "…Ok. If you really want me to…"

"Go ahead. I'm ready."

The river flows, sit upon its shore

East to west, then the ocean's roar

Running with you all along its shore

No more…

Along the river's flow

He wasn't ready. Looking back, he wasn't sure what he was expecting, but he certainly wasn't expecting… that. Ilyana had told him that it had been years since she sang, and she certainly hadn't seemed confident in her abilities. Granted, it did take her a few moments to find her voice, but how was he to know that it would be the voice of an angel?

I watch the sun setting in the west

Don't know who you are, though I've tried my best

Just come with me, leave behind the rest

Just rest…

And watch the river's flow

The song, he was not familiar with. It had the hallmarks of a tune from the Crimean countryside, the sort Brom might have sung along to while Nephenee pretended not to listen. This one in particular, though, he'd never heard before—nor, he'd wager, had anyone else. This was something her teacher had written, he imagined—or maybe, just maybe, something she'd written herself.

I sit outside, knockin' on your gate

You ask why I love, I'll ask why you hate

Look to the west, wonder am I too late?

Don't wait…

'Cause on, the river flows

Her eyes were shut, just as his were wide open. She seemed to be trying to focus on the music, concentrating on it to the exclusion of all else. Or, perhaps, she simply did not wish to meet his eyes. He couldn't blame her. If he'd hated her singing, she'd probably feel embarrassed, even ashamed. But if he liked it…

The river flows from beginning to end

Looking for something on which to depend

Someday I hope I can call you a friend

'Till then…

Let's let the river flow

Her eyes opened. Evidently, the fourth verse had been the last. As he expected, the look she gave him was tentative, hopeful and dejected at the same time. "So…"

Soren didn't know what to say. What could he say? What words could possibly tell her how beautiful her voice was, how it seemed to reach in and touch his very soul? He'd known she was beautiful, but now that he'd heard her sing, she seemed to radiate light. Realizing that the girl who did little aside from eat was hiding something like this inside her was, quite simply, beyond his ability to grasp, let alone describe. What could he possibly say that would be adequate to tell her how he felt?

Nothing, of course. But he had to do something. He stood up, stepped forward, and placed a hand upon her shoulder. She seemed to draw away slightly at first, but then she started to lean into it. A smile spread across her face, and he returned it.

"That was beautiful," he said.

She blushed, turning away. He thought she was about to say that no, it wasn't that good, it would have been better with practice, or that she'd never be as good as some singer Soren had probably never even heard of.

She didn't, though. She just said, "Thank you."

As far as Soren was concerned, that was enough.


Author's Note: I recalled RawkHawk mentioning once that he wished there was a little more to Ilyana's character than just "the girl who eats a lot." Singing isn't much, but hopefully it's a start. The song itself was heavily inspired by both "Build that Wall" by Darren Korb (from the Bastion soundtrack) and "The Humbling River" by Puscifer. Imagine something like a cross between those tunes, and you'll have a good idea of how it sounded. Merry Christmas, RawkHawk2.0!