Ike's hand hovered over the doorknob. Lifting a slim book, he stared at its pastel jacket and wondered, for the hundredth time, if it had been the right choice. Such uncertainty was unusual for a guy who barged into throne rooms without thinking, but here he was, frozen in front of his own bedroom. Still, what stood in this room mattered more than castle etiquette. Ike tilted the book as easily as if it was a piece of bread, but it felt like a sack of lead on his arm. He exhaled with a heaviness that surprised him. Come on, there's no point in dragging this out, he told himself. Even so, what pushed him to turn the knob wasn't prudence, but a desire to see the man inside.
Ike's eyes found Soren immediately. The book vanished from his mind. No matter how many weeks passed, it always struck him how natural Soren looked standing there. Ike's room reflected his dislike of unnecessary things, and if he somehow came up with all the gold in Begnion, he still wouldn't replace his sunken mattress or rickety table. The room had had a few additions in recent months—a crooked bookshelf Ike had built, a chair from the company's storage, and of course, the man currently nibbling the end of a quill—but Ike didn't need anything more.
As sparse as the room was, Ike could have even done with less as long as Soren stood there waiting for him. Even when the two of them left the study at the same time, Soren managed to materialize in the bedroom before Ike opened the door. The fact that he never even saw Soren pass him made Ike suspect otherworldly interference, but then, he wouldn't put any ability past Soren. In any case, while the reason Soren retired earlier may have been to encourage Ike to keep a more responsible sleep schedule, Ike suspected his partner knew he liked the feeling of coming home to someone, even—especially—someone he worked with.
Ike had tried to wean his staff officer off of his late night work habits so that the evenings could be theirs. Nevertheless, as Ike shut the door behind him, he saw Soren leaning over an array of documents. His bangs brushed the parchment, and he was almost dipping his chin in an inkwell.
Ike remembered the book he carried just in time to shove it under his cape. At the sound of the door, Soren jerked his head up, quill still clenched in his teeth like a hand in the cookie jar. Ike raised an eyebrow. Soren's face displayed no guilt, but he set the implement down and turned his back to the table.
"You know, most people don't walk in on their lovers cheating on them with supply charts," Ike said.
"Most people's lovers are as frivolous as they themselves, and would not know the concept of planning for supplies even if they were to have children."
"Next you'll probably say they don't plan on the children."
"How did you know," Soren said flatly.
Ike's eyebrow was still raised, a quirk Soren had mirrored, but otherwise they were both expressionless. It occurred to Ike that most lovers probably didn't greet each other this way, but then again, he didn't care what most lovers did. He only had one.
Soren tilted his head. If anybody but Ike ever caught the movement, it might have saved them a lecture or twelve, since Soren always tilted his head to the left when he was irritated. If he tilted right, as he did now, it just meant he was studying something, usually Ike. His test subject patiently awaited the results.
"You paused outside the door," Soren said. Ike stifled a smile. Of course Soren would have noted his footsteps, even while hunched over reports.
"Yeah, I did."
"Why?" The question was a formality—his eyes had already found the arm behind Ike's back. Ike wondered why he had bothered hiding the book at all. Soren could see right through him, and it wasn't like surprises garnered much reaction from him. Still, Ike kept the tome concealed long enough to step forward and pull Soren against him. The kiss was remarkably conventional until Ike dropped the book, causing Soren to jerk away with a grunt and bend to rub his foot, which his sandal did little to shield.
"Sorry," Ike said. "You okay?"
"Yes," Soren muttered, his attention on the book. Rare nerves seized Ike as Soren picked it up. Turning it over gently, Soren scanned the strangely colored cover before prying it open with bony fingers. Ike watched with bated breath. He didn't have to wait long before a wrinkle formed between Soren's eyes. It grew as he flipped the pages, until finally even Boyd could have read the strategist's face. Ike could have prided himself on causing such open expression if Soren's eyes weren't angled sharply under a creased forehead. The derisive snort didn't help.
Ike couldn't help but feel disappointed. He hadn't expected song and dance, but he'd kind of hoped that Soren would look less likely to throw the offering off a dock at Port Toha.
"Ike," Soren spluttered, "What…is this?"
Immediately Ike felt stupid. Judging by Soren's unimpressed gaze, he wouldn't have argued. He rose slowly until they were face to face. Ike flinched. That stare could freeze lava. He was used to seeing it at an angle, pitying the poor noble receiving it, but he wasn't used to it piercing him. All Ike could think about was chasing it away.
He swallowed. "Wait, I didn't mean—"
"A practical joke," Soren said pointedly, "Is one thing, and technically harmless despite my not expecting such juvenile behavior from you, but on this day—not that I had cared about such a tradition or…expected…" His voice grew small even as his glare stood strong.
Ike felt awful. He'd clearly screwed up, but he had no idea what he'd done. He broke the painful gaze and tried to glean an answer from the book, but Soren had snapped it shut, and wringing an explanation from a wordless cover was fruitless.
Ike was never one to dance around a subject, especially if Soren was hurt, so he took a breath and asked, "Soren, what's the matter? I wasn't trying to joke, honest. If it's the book, then I must have gotten the wrong—"
"Ike. You bought me a manual on childrearing."
Soren cleared his throat. "Quite."
Ike blinked until his eyelids hurt. His brain struggled to understand how those words could have taken that order. Finally, it clicked.
A more emotive man might have laughed. Ike just blinked again.
At least that explained the pink cover.
After giving Ike a moment, Soren cleared his throat again and snapped Ike out of his stupor. Ike smacked a palm against his forehead and groaned. "Okay, I really didn't mean to do that. Honest. I mean, how in Tellius could I have ended up with—"
A sharp laugh cut him off. Anybody but Ike might have mistaken it for a blade being drawn. Ike released a breath he couldn't recall trapping.
"Uh," he said, "I can find you something else if…"
Soren shook his head. "Ike, I'm fairly certain your expression is a gift in itself. A child in a brothel has looked less confused."
Ike chose not to consider the metaphor. He was just glad the anger had slipped from Soren's eyes.
"At any rate, I'm really sorry," Ike said. "I wasn't trying to play a practical joke or anything. I just, uh, kind of am a practical joke."
Soren's laugh didn't last a second, but it rid Ike of the weight he'd felt at the door. It had been wrong, he thought, to carry tension into this room, a room with no night table and a chest containing just enough clothing. The cloth had bulked up recently, yes, but there was still nothing extraneous, no nice garments for special meals or evening trysts. Ike eyed the bookshelf Soren wouldn't replace even when books fell off the slanted rows. Watching a tome teeter, Ike wondered how he'd bought such a ridiculous gift.
"I was trying to get you something nice, really," he said with a frown, "But the guy I got the book from must have been the one playing a joke. He spun so many words around that I lost track of what he was talking about, but I ended up with the impression that he'd suggested something you'd like."
Soren didn't look the least bit surprised. "That's what merchants excel at, Ike. Convincing you that you need useless things."
The man hadn't exactly been a merchant, but Ike decided to omit that detail.
"Well, I still should have been more careful. I mean, usually you're with me catching things like that, but I wanted to surprise you with something nice…"
Soren's neck threatened to tilt left. Ike rushed to the point. "I mean, it is a special day and all."
His bemusement melted into affection. That was the important thing, after all.
Soren's head remained centered. "Ah, yes," he murmured. "My 'birthday.'"
Ike was relieved to hear the playful intonation. Soren had never said it, but Ike knew that childhood birthdays once bothered him. At some point, Ike had suggested the day Soren joined the mercenaries as a placeholder, but he'd never really known if Soren himself liked the custom. Now, the slightest of smiles answered.
Ike smiled back. "Happy birthday," he said. "And…" His voice trailed off as he considered how to express what he wanted to say, but he failed to find words suitable enough and instead wrapped an arm around the smaller man. Burrowed in Soren's hair, Ike remembered how soft he'd once daydreamed it would be. It was rough in reality, like a pile of hay that scratched his cheek when he napped in it. It wasn't hard to imagine earth and grass mingling with Soren's cleanliness. Ike inhaled memories of sun-bathed hillsides.
"I'm glad you joined us," he whispered. The understatement was horrid, but sonnets couldn't have described childhood and wartime and supply charts. Ike tightened his grip. Soren leaned into it and Ike forgot about words.
They breathed together for a stretch. Their breaths weren't synchronized, but Ike knew they were both focusing on them. He was in no rush to break the silence, but Soren spoke up.
"Ike, I'm curious. How did you come across that book? I don't remember any merchants or collectors passing by recently, let alone one with such poor humor."
"Well, it's a long story…" Ike retraced his steps, trying to line up the events. "I went to the nearest library," he started. "I figured they'd be able to suggest something, since I know so little about books." A dreadful admission for someone in a relationship with Soren, but it wasn't what he reacted to.
"Ike, the nearest library is…"
"Yeah, I know, kind of small, but it was the closest choice and I figured someone knowledgeable would work there."
Soren's head tilted to the left at the interruption. His hair mussed itself up on Ike's shoulder. "That's not it. I was going to say the nearest library is three towns over."
"Yeah, it is." Ike wasn't sure what Soren was getting at, but he had his stops in order and didn't want to ruin his concentration by asking. "Anyway, the woman who usually tends that one was sick from the frost, so her apprentice was running the place, but she was just a little girl and didn't know much. She suggested I try the next library."
"Ike, that's another two towns—wait, frost? It's spring."
"Oh, it wasn't back then." Ike hadn't set out until the worst of winter had passed, but it had still complicated his journey. While snow no longer piled in banks, the frozen soil was uncomfortable to sleep on. He still hadn't stayed at an inn. It wasn't like the mercenaries were rolling in gold.
Soren lifted his face from Ike's shoulder, but Ike was staring at the floor. He only saw a silver of the frown tugging at Soren's mouth. "Ike, when did you do all of this?"
"Near the end of winter."
"Winter? Why so long ago?"
"Well, I figured I was inept enough at this kind of thing that finding something would take me this long. Turns out I was right," Ike said dryly.
"Wait, you've been trying to buy me this since winter?" Soren asked. Incredulity seeped into his tone.
Ike couldn't blame him. All that, and Soren was holding a child-rearing manual. It was laughable. "Yeah, and even with that time I still couldn't get a good one. Dumb, huh?" He finally looked at Soren. It was a rare sight. His eyes resembled inkwells, and his slack jaw revealed a loss of his usual control.
"Ike," Soren said slowly, "You travelled through five towns during winter—"
"More than five," Ike said. "The next library was closed for—"
"Ike, how far did you go to get me this?"
"I ended up in Melior."
"Melior?" Soren's eyebrows scrunched together and rushed to meet his brand.
"Yeah. Count Bastian practices wind magic and seems knowledgeable about tactics, so I thought he might know a book you'd like. He ended up selling me this. I didn't think anything of his crazy language and amused face because he's always like that anyway." Ike shook his head. He tried to recall if Bastian had given the joke away, but all he remembered was something about flowers in bloom and maybe bees. He remembered a splitting headache, too, but he'd tried to focus on the inane speech for Soren's sake. Maybe he hadn't tried hard enough.
The quietest of voices broke Ike's thoughts. "Ike, was this what you were doing while you were away?"
"Yeah," Ike said, rubbing his neck. "I know I didn't really explain it back then, but, well, obviously I was trying to surprise you. I'm sorry that I left you so long just for—"
"Ike," Soren said with a sharpness that snapped Ike's shoulders back, "If you apologize one more time I'll be forced to conclude that you regret putting more effort into a single gesture for me than anybody has my entire life." He shrugged Ike's arm off and stepped away. The warmth had retreated from his eyes. Forced to look at them, Ike finally noticed the multitude of things he normally couldn't have missed. His shoulders dropped as Soren's words sunk in.
"Oh…" he said, then in a whisper, "Oh. Never, Soren."
Soren closed his eyes and exhaled. For the countless time, Ike marveled at how so few words could erase so many misunderstandings. That trust, that bond, tied them together, not ribbons on a package. Ike had given Soren a trek through numbing wind and frost-laced fog, not words in a pastel book.
Soren's calmness told Ike there was no need to explain this. Still, he wanted to at least say one thing. "It's not that I thought it was a waste of time. I just…" He grasped for the right words, the sentiment the book hadn't expressed. "I wanted it to be right," he said.
Soren stepped forward silently. He waited until Ike had drawn an arm around him to place his cheek on Ike's shoulder. "I appreciate it, Ike, but there's no need to concern yourself."
Ike smiled. "It's the thought that counts, huh?"
"Not the thought. Anybody can have a thought." Soren tilted his face up and beamed in a way he reserved for Ike, a gaze holding the phrase only you every time he looked at him. "It's the effort."
"Yeah, you're right," Ike said. He couldn't resist adding, "And the sentiment, too?"
He received the expected snort, but the lips Soren hid against Ike's neck were curved in an undeniable smile. Soren kept them there for a long moment before turning to scan the charts littering the desk.
"Incidentally, Ike, I'm surprised you were so concerned with a proper gift, considering my last present to you was—"
"The paperwork for the company's taxes, spanning the next four years with alternative documents in case of every reasonably possible shift in policy."
"I'll never forget having to lock you out of the study."
Soren frowned. "It was uncalled for, Ike."
"I let you back in after you started hyperventilating, didn't I?"
Soren tried to jerk away, but Ike held him in place and chuckled at his complaints. Rubbing Soren's back, Ike glanced at the scandalous paperwork splayed across his table. Their table.
Theirs happily, as unconventionally romantic as it was.