Note: Special thanks to Raphiael for beta-ing!
Frost cluttered the ground outside the fort on the morning the Greil Mercenaries returned from Melior. Their sighs turned to fog as they rubbed the bare skin of their arms, tugging at sleeveless shirts in vain attempts to cover themselves.
"Whose idea was it to go out like this in winter?" Boyd grumbled.
"What I want to know is who decided it was winter already," Mist said. The chill had painted her cheeks and ears red. "Wasn't it just summer?"
"It's probably been winter for months. We just couldn't tell because we were holed up in some stuffy palace playing Queen's pets." Though Shinon kept at least ten paces between them on principle, Ike heard him loud and clear. He didn't answer the jibe.
Titania's voice rung out from the stable. "Shinon, since you were so displeased with the capital, I expect that means you won't complain about the unglamorous work we'll be doing for the villagers." Shinon grunted and went quiet. Ike kept a smile off his face.
Except for the constant crinkling of grass that had followed Ike the whole way, Soren remained silent. Ike was grateful. Tuning out the buzz of complaints filling the yard took effort he'd rather spend on useful things, like staying warm.
Once they'd unpacked their few belongings, the floodgates opened, like every bandit and leaky roof had waited to strike until the mercenaries' return. The company was swamped with jobs before they'd even put their boots up. As Ike reminded Boyd constantly, it wasn't worth complaining about. They needed the income. While Oscar threw open the doors to a pantry stocked to the roof with dust, Soren stood in the supply shed, pursing his lips. His mutters echoed in the rafters.
Soren wrote winter supply lists, scrunching his tiniest letters together to squeeze enough space out of the parchment. Mist furiously stitched sleeves onto shirts they couldn't afford to replace. When Boyd and Oscar returned from chasing bandits out of the village, Ike sent them right back to spend the earnings on beans and potatoes. The sacks they lugged home looked more impressive slung over their shoulders than they did sagging pitifully in the corner of the cellar.
As the heart of winter blew closer, the bleak reality sunk in about how unprepared the company was. Buying enough to fill their storage space was like bartering for gold with a handful of copper. Luckily, if anybody could have won the gold and then some, it was Soren. Ike hadn't needed any more reasons to appreciate his staff officer, but this season was giving him several.
Ike left most of the budgeting in Soren's capable hands, mostly making final decisions. Sometimes, however, Ike tried to involve himself in more of the process. Though he got the feeling he was only slowing Soren down, Ike felt responsible for his company's management, and didn't want to be out of the loop in any part of it, especially when Soren had a tremendous workload dumped on him.
Still, if Soren seemed on the verge of politely suggesting that Ike go fit some training in, the dinner bell would usually have torn Ike away from the musty study. One day, however, even the smell of Oscar's cooking couldn't distract Ike from what the ledgers were telling him.
"Soren," he said, rechecking the columns, "Have you seriously been spending your own paycheck on company supplies?"
Across the table, Soren kept his nose buried in parchment. It muffled his voice when he spoke. "Yes. Is that a problem?"
"Yes! I mean, it's not that I don't appreciate it, but I'd hope you'd actually buy yourself something once in a while." Ike shook his head. As someone who shared Soren's dislike of unnecessary things, he could understand why Soren didn't care about personal spending, but still, the point of getting paid wasn't to spend the money on your company.
"I purchase everything I need," Soren said. Only the dome of his head peaked out from his work.
"Yeah, but…isn't there something you want?"
Soren eyed Ike over the rim of his parchment. From his expression, you'd think Ike had suggested they hand the company keys to Shinon and become street performers. The sliver of face he'd revealed slipped behind his parchment. "I don't have any unfulfilled desires."
Ike could have listed a few he'd fulfilled recently, but now wasn't the time for that. "You're sure?"
Soren's eyes didn't emerge. "As I said, Ike, yes. Would you rather I be filled with unsatisfied longing?"
Ike sighed. "No, of course not. I guess if you're satisfied—"
"Then it's settled." Soren's voice made it clear that asking again would be pointless. His talent for cutting conversations short didn't always work on Ike, whose persistence—Soren would say 'stubbornness'—had a way of crashing through it, but Ike knew enough to at least stay quiet for now.
Ike tried to study the chart in front of him, but before long, his attention slipped. Though his focus was almost unbreakable while sparring, numbers started swimming in front of him if he stared at them for too long. The movement of Soren's quill caught Ike's eye. He forgot his own efforts and watched Soren's hand move in tight strokes, looping and swirling in a measured glide.
A savory scent snapped Ike's attention away. Oscar's cooking was unmistakable, somehow more full-flavored in scent than other cooks' food was in taste. Mist wasn't shabby herself, but when she took over, Ike missed Oscar's cooking, full of deep, beefy aromas that were threatening to lift him out of his chair. It took all of his willpower to not drool on Soren's work.
Soren glanced up at the sound of Ike's stomach. "Ike, why don't you go eat? I can finish the budgeting myself."
"Okay," Ike said. "You'll come eat soon, right?"
That didn't mean much, but Ike figured he could always bring back a bowl if Soren refused to leave his work. Ike stood, but a glimpse of Soren's face stopped him. It was hard to tell, but Soren looked even more wan than usual, his ghostly skin pulled taut over prominent cheekbones. It made him look skeletal. Ike frowned. He never got sick, so he didn't worry about his own health when winter knocked, but Soren was another story.
"Soren, I really think you should eat," Ike said.
"Soon," Soren repeated. "I'm almost finished with this."
"What does 'almost' mean?" Ike asked. Knowing Soren, it could have meant anything from 'in a few seconds' to 'after an all-nighter.'
"It means I've deemed this work worth finishing now, and will join you when I'm ready," Soren said. Impatience bit into his voice. Others would have shrugged it off, but Ike wondered if sickness was making Soren testy. He considered asking, but Soren avoided questions about his health, and needling him until he was annoyed might cause him to skip dinner entirely.
Ike sat back down and scooted his chair in, making Soren twitch at the scraping wood. "Then I'll just stay here until you're ready," Ike said. At least Soren wouldn't wait until midnight to eat if it wasn't just his dinner at stake. Ike ignored his stomach's complaints. He told himself they only made his case more convincing.
Soren eyed Ike warily. "Do as you wish," he said, and returned to his work.
With his stomach devouring his attention, Ike found it even harder to focus. He picked up a random document to look busy, watching visions of beef stew dancing teasingly in the whiffs he inhaled, and finding that his eyes were more drawn to Soren's hands than to the figures they scratched. While watching the controlled movements, Ike caught a tremor in Soren's scrawny wrist. Soren lifted his quill momentarily to keep his handwriting from being affected, then continued. A few moments later, it happened again, his wrist shaking inside the wide sleeve draped over it. He muttered as he kept his pen off the page. Ike frowned. He'd spent a lot of time with those hands, watching them work or simply holding them, and they rarely shook like this. Ike looked at Soren's face, blank except for a twitch of irritation that drew Ike's attention to Soren's eyes. The contours around them were painted with unnatural colors hidden by the shadows his protruding facial structure cast.
Ike cringed. Whether he'd get a real answer or not, he couldn't stay quiet. "Soren, have you been eating less than usual?"
Soren didn't break his scrawl. "Given our current financial situation and the season we're stockpiling for, I've deemed it prudent to take less at meals." His voice was less affected than when he gave reports, like he was telling Ike where to find something or reminding him to check the milk supply. Ike was horrified.
"Soren, you've been skipping meals?"
"No," Soren said, "I merely said I was taking less."
"You don't eat enough as it is. You can't afford to take less," Ike said.
Soren's eyes, still fixed on his work, narrowed. "I think I know my body's limitations better than you do, Ike. I eat enough to keep it functioning properly."
"Yeah, but there's functioning,and then there's actually being in shape."
"My lifestyle necessitates less physical labor than yours. I've been performing my daily tasks without difficulty. I believe the pile of finished reports you've been pretending to stare at provides enough proof of this."
"Just because your brain's working fine doesn't mean your body's healthy."
Soren prickled. "As I said, my job doesn't require me to push much more than my brain." The way he mimicked the word made Ike realize that he'd recalled nasty things others had said. Being anywhere near the category of others in Soren's mind made Ike's neck itch.
"Soren, I didn't mean…Come on, I'm just concerned because you look awful."
"Thank you," Soren said dryly. "I thought you were looking particularly handsome today, too."
"No, wait, you know that's not what I—" Ike groaned and kneaded his forehead. "It's just…Your face is all pale and sunken and—don't tell me you look like that anyway, I know the difference!" Soren had opened his mouth. He closed it. "I mean, have you looked at yourself lately? You keep shaking, too!"
"That tends to happen in cold weather," Soren said.
Ike's shoulders locked up. This wasn't going anywhere. He should have known Soren would be difficult. Ike let out a loud breath. "Look, just do me a favor and eat more from now on, all right? It'll ease my mind. I don't want you to waste away."
Soren stared at Ike for several moments before responding. "I'll endeavor to take more at meals."
Ike leaned back and tilted his head. He supposed it was the best he would get. Soren taking care of himself for his own sake would be too much to hope for, even if Ike still did.
"All right," he said. "Thank you." Soren nodded and went back to his work.
Everything would have been fine if Ike had let it go. So of course, he didn't.
"Really though," he mused, "I can't imagine what eating less than you normally do amounts to. At this point, you're basically starving your—"
"Ike," Soren snapped, jerking his head up and Ike's spine along with it, "Given that you've always been able to satisfy your excessive appetite, I'm not sure how you'd know what starvation looks like." He glowered in a way that went beyond eye rolls and flat stares. There were no daggers in his eyes, but steel had coated them like a shield, like a prison's barred wall, like its padlock. Ike's jaw went slack as the rest of his muscles tightened. He ignored the dread pooling in his stomach and tried to look past the barriers Soren had raised to figure out what he'd done, how he could wipe that look away. Snippets of conversations barraged his mind, and for once, he forced himself to push through the hurt and remember.
'I left and walked for days,' 'No one would help me,' 'I couldn't find food. I was dying…'
Oh. Of course.
Guilt bit Ike when he realized the memories he'd stirred up, the broken past he'd taken lightly. He couldn't remember what Soren had looked like back then, no matter how he wished he could despite the ache he felt when he thought about his partner facing death. Still, even without that image, Ike realized Soren must have been worse off than he was now. No wonder his current state didn't bother him. He was probably in better health than he'd ever take for granted.
Ike swallowed, pushing down his own feelings. They weren't the important thing. He took several deep breaths before speaking, not wanting to risk blurting anything insensitive. Not again. Not Soren.
"I'm sorry," Ike said. "I wasn't thinking. I understand."
Some of the steel left Soren's eyes, but his face remained fix, masked. His gaze flicked across Ike's face, as if searching for signs of dishonesty, the mannerisms he claimed gave away people's lies. It wasn't the first time he'd turned that test on Ike, but it always hurt to realize that even he didn't get a free pass from it.
Ike stared straight back. He wanted Soren to see he had nothing to hide. To his relief, Soren dropped his hunt.
Ike spoke softly. "I just worry about you, you know."
"I know," Soren said. "I wish you wouldn't." He looked at his documents without scanning them. His fingers toyed with a dry quill. "But thank you," he added quietly.
Another piece of the puzzle came back, something that Ike had buried along with the painful things.
'You were the only one…'
Ike smiled and reached to brush Soren's hair out of his face. Soren lowered his head, hiding his expression. Ike didn't mind. He didn't need to see it. He was just glad Soren hadn't pulled away as he once would have.
Rubbing Soren's jaw, Ike felt hard bone under his thumb. His own jaw hurt from holding his smile steady.
"Don't worry about it," he said gently.
Soren kept his head bowed. "I'd give you the same advice," he said.
Ike stroked sallow skin and listened to sharp breaths. "I'll try," he said. At least if Soren fell ill, Ike would be at his bedside. He tried to let that comfort him. Touching a thin neck, he wondered if Soren was thinking the same thing.
Probably not. Soren never expected care like that. Ike felt a pain at the back of his mouth and swallowed. Soren's eyes darted to Ike's throat, his eyebrow lifting in question. Ike shook his head and tugged at Soren's bang with calloused fingertips.
Ike remembered past winters, days spent holding Soren's shoulder down to keep in bed while Soren's arm flapped toward the bookcase. Ike had shaken his head and grabbed a tome on herbs or history to stave off Soren's urge to stumble out of bed and all but crawl, as he inevitably would, to the store room to take inventory.
Soren would take enough care of himself to prevent that. Though Ike wished the motivation was different, it was something.
Still, for all the work he did, Soren wouldn't even spend his own paycheck. Ike knew Soren worked for him, not for reward, and Ike could certainly understand being apathetic about money, but he couldn't shake the thought that Soren deserved something in return for his devotion.
Sharp eyes turned on Ike, and he suddenly realized he'd been sighing. He dropped the hand he'd been running through his hair. "I was just thinking it doesn't feel right that you should have to pay for the company out of your own pocket," he explained. And plate, he resisted adding. He'd just smoothed that one over. Best not agitate it now. "I mean, you do so much as it is."
"You speak as if I'm sort of martyr." Soren wrinkled his nose like he did when Boyd spit on the floor. "My paycheck is simply excessive—"
"You do an excessive amount of work."
"And since you refuse to cut it, this is my way of using the funds effectively." Soren's brow twitched at the interruption. He gripped his quill and scratched meaningless designs into the table. "If you'd rather be able to afford equipment some other way, you could be less choosy about the jobs you accept."
Ike pulled his jaw back until his chin hurt. He knew not to take Soren's tone personally, but the dig hurt. The possibility of mismanaging his father's company was one of the few things Ike was sensitive about. Despite the experience he'd gained, sometimes he still felt trapped in Gallia, fumbling with his scabbard while people looked to him to manage their departure. He tried not to let it show, but with a single glance, Soren put Ike's emotions on display.
Lifting his head, Soren set his quill down and cleared his throat. "Ike, I—"
Ike held up a palm. "No, don't bother. You're right. I've turned down several well-paying jobs recently, even though we need the money." His stomach churned when he remembered those offers, but he had ten other stomachs to feed. He eyed Soren's cheeks, so sunken they aged his boyish face, and tried to picture the rest of his company, wondering if they, too, had grown thin, but the vague images he brought up told him nothing. Ike never paid much attention to people's looks unless he was noticing Soren's hair. It caught his eye now, a lock falling limply against a neck Mist could have snapped in two. The length of Soren's hair and robes made the rest of him seem thinner, like a sapling swimming in fabric. Perhaps, Ike thought, it was time to rethink his priorities.
As soon as the sight in front of him swayed his mind, past meetings rushed to protest. Nobles dripping malice from faces that looked down at him, curled lips spitting plans of nighttime attacks on rival lords. They had duped Ike into seeing them by making claims about targets' supposed power abuses, but it soon became clear that his potential employers were the ones who fit that bill, and that the given motives were thin coverings for grudges pettier than the lace choking their clothes. Ike's father would never have taken those jobs.
Ike's debate raged until Soren cut it off with a shake of his head. "No, Ike. I understand your reasons for turning them down, and it's probably for the best. Such untrustworthy employers could have backstabbed us in the blink of an eye, and if word got out about those jobs—and gossip gets out about anything nobility does—our reputation could have been damaged among the employers we rely on for steady, if less dramatic, income."
The brawl in Ike's mind vanished. The hands in his lap, gripped with the same wrongness he'd felt when the company's management fell to him, relaxed. He moved on from the days when he'd dropped crates of food and asked Titania to take over for him while he swept spilt rice. If Soren said a decision was for the best, then it was. He would never have been false about the company's interests just to boost Ike's confidence.
Noticing Soren's lips parting with half-formed speech, Ike lifted an eyebrow. Soren cleared his throat. "Well, besides, Lord Nolyle makes me want to dunk my head in the nearest vat of ale."
Ike laughed, a loud bark even he didn't recognize. "You sure know how to cheer a guy up."
"Anyone not cheered up by insults against Lord Nolyle might not be entirely human."
Ike's stomach echoed his laugh. The kitchen's aroma smacked him. It was somehow even beefier than before. He licked his lips.
Soren glanced at Ike's stomach. "Ike, you—we—should go eat." The word hesitated on his lips, stumbling like a trainee with a new weapon. Ike smiled as warmly as possible.
"Yeah, let's do that. Oscar's cooking is driving me crazy." He stood before Soren could change his mind.
Soren put his work away meticulously, scanning documents for long moments before rolling them in tight scrolls. Ike's efforts to speed up the process didn't help, his scrolls flopping loosely, and when Soren suggested Ike leave the task to him, Ike stood back and stretched to cover up his fidgeting. He saw Soren linger over an unfinished column, resting twitching fingers next to a quill. Ike grabbed Soren's hand and held it away from the table, watching the quill until Soren stowed it. He didn't release Soren's hand.
Soren's knobby knuckles stood out. Ike hid them in his grip. He rubbed a thumb over Soren's hand, so small and brittle Ike feared he'd crush it. Watching his staff officer put away the salary chart, Ike's mind turned back to Soren's paycheck. Even if he wouldn't accept money, there had to be something Ike could to do repay him, some way to make up for shoulders that could barely support the old robes hanging off them.
"Hey, Soren," Ike said, pressing his hand gently, "You want to go on a vacation? Just the two of us?"
Soren blinked and turned to him, lifting his eyelids a millimeter higher than usual. That might have been comparable to Mist cheering, but Soren spoke dully. "It's difficult to fathom a vacation while struggling to stretch our food budget through winter."
"Oh," Ike said. He was a bit disappointed—he'd almost thought he'd come up with a good idea, but of course, it wasn't feasible. Stretching his mind, he failed to come up with anything else and sighed. "Well, if you ever want anything, let me know, okay?" He knew even as he said it that Soren wouldn't, but Ike would never let that stop him from offering.
He expected Soren to agree dismissively and continue organizing, but Soren set down his papers and wrapped slender fingers around the hand holding his. He tilted his pointed face and gave Ike an adoring look.
"Ike, what more could I possibly want?" The smile in his voice didn't reach his lips, but Ike returned it nevertheless. A maddening aroma wafted from the kitchen, threatening to pull Ike's stomach down the hall with or without him, but the look on Soren's face kept his feet planted. His stomach's growling didn't escape Soren's notice. He tilted his head toward the door.
As they left, Ike spotted a ledger still sitting out. Even at a glance, the mismatched columns told him that the costs were greater than their budget. Soren tugged Ike's hand gently away. Ike didn't spare the chart another look.
Soon, they were sitting in the mess hall among a hum of activity. Ike overhead Oscar telling Mist how to stretch ingredients by using stale bread as a binder. Ike ignored the tips as he tucked in. He preferred to think of Oscar as a magician, working miracles on roots and bones. Savory notes his Ike's tongue one by one while he shoveled the stew faster than he could swallow it. The searing pleasure erased all other thoughts from his mind expect for one. He looked at the bowl next to his and saw that it didn't seem any emptier than when he gave his last pointed stare. Soren glanced up at Ike and dropped his eyes quickly down to his stew, lifting a meager spoonful and nibbling it. They continued until the bowls were empty.
After licking them both clean—just because Soren wrinkled his face at it didn't mean Ike would let a single drop go to waste—Ike slumped over the table and sighed, stretching his arms and then wrapping them around his head. He smiled when fingers slid over his.
Soren leaned over him and whispered things that had nothing to do with strategy. Ike's grin spread. He knew that tomorrow he would fuss again about Soren's sacrifices, about plates and paychecks, but for now, he understood that Soren lacked nothing. Like soft echoes in the background, Ike heard Titania's unhappy voice talk about firewood and axes. The complaints felt worlds away. With Soren's thumb rubbing his wrist, Ike couldn't imagine wanting for anything. Tasting the flavors lingering on his tongue, he knew his stomach would agree.