There’s a long moment, the silence after a victory nobody quite expected, and in the emptiness left behind by Yune’s disappearance, Ike realizes they’ve won.
Mist reaches him first, throwing her arms around him from behind. She buries her face in his back and holds on tight. Ike lets some of the tension slip from his shoulders.
“Let’s never do that again,” Mist says, pulling away a little. Ike slings an arm over her shoulders; he’s tired. It’s the first time he’s allowed himself to be tired in who knows how long. However long they’ve been in the tower.
“We’re going home,” he says, and she hums an agreement as they walk back to the others. Micaiah looks somewhat sad, and Tibarn looks approving.
Elincia puts a hand on his arm as he walks by, and her smile reminds him of the one she’d had after Ashnard’s defeat. It’s not the first time they’ve done this together. He almost takes her hand, but Geoffrey’s standing right next to her, and he looks stricken enough as it is.
He passes over the faces of the others until he comes to Soren, standing at the edge of the small crowd with his face as carefully blank as ever. His eyes – and Ike has spent a very long time learning to read Soren’s eyes – shine with relief.
Ike lets his arm drop from Mist’s shoulders. “It’s over,” he says to Soren, more out a desire to say something than any real necessity. “We won.”
Soren’s face is still a little red, and when he swallows he swallows hard. “I never doubted you,” he says.
Saying they’d go home is one thing; actually getting there is another. Crimea is a long way off, and once the Begnion and Daein factions of their army split, Ranulf cheerfully suggests that Gallia and Crimea travel together.
“Just so long as we don’t run into another holy war,” Ike grumbles, and Ranulf beams in his direction.
“I think those are on a strict three year schedule,” he says.
“It would be nice to travel together,” Elincia says. “We haven’t really had a chance to catch up, what with… well.”
“I’ll stick around,” Tibarn says, grinning. “Someone has to see Reyson and Leanne back to Gallia, after all.” He ruffles Reyson’s hair, a gesture that would likely get anyone else punched in the face. It’s Tibarn, though, and Reyson merely looks huffy.
“Besides,” Ranulf says, “we saved the world! We should celebrate.”
What Ike really wants to do is go find the nearest flat surface and sleep for about two days. But he supposes he can put up with a celebration if it makes everyone happy.
The party is in full swing by the evening. Ike has no idea where they got beer, or food, or the paper lanterns that Mia and Mist carry about, but everyone is laughing. Leanne, Reyson and Rafiel have all joined hands and they’re singing a song Ike does not understand. It sounds happy. He closes his eyes and lets the music wash over him.
When he opens his eyes, Nailah is staring at him.
“You did good,” she tells him. He nods slowly; he’s not sure of that yet. It hasn’t really sunken in, the final battle – it feels like there’s a great emptiness inside, a quiet sea, and it’s filled with the color of Yune in the flames, of the feeling of Mist’s arms around him and the sound of Soren’s crying. It all hurts if he thinks about it, so he doesn’t.
“Thanks,” he says. “I didn’t realize you were still here. I thought you’d be headed back to Hatari.”
“Rafiel wanted to spend some more time with his siblings, and his father,” Nailah says. “I could hardly let him go alone. We’ll return to Hatari soon enough.”
“I see,” Ike nods. Nailah gives him a sharp look with her good eye. Then she looks off in the distance – when Ike follows her gaze he sees Soren sitting by the fire with a plate of food on his lap. He hasn’t touched any of it.
Ike watches him for a moment, studying the flicker of shadows on his face, the way his hands rest on his knees. The line of his shoulders, the folds of his robes and the long tendrils of his hair.
Ike doesn’t think he’s ever noticed someone like this before.
He’s startled out of his thoughts when Nailah slaps him hard on the back.
“Go on,” she says. “Nothing will happen if you just sit there and gape at him! I should know.”
She smiles, wolfishly, across the fire at Rafiel, who returns the sentiment much more demurely. Ike gets to his feet.
“Thanks,” he says with more feeling. She shrugs and stretches out, tail swishing from one side to the other.
“Don’t mention it,” she says. “Go. Enjoy your victory.”
Soren’s picked a good spot. Close enough to the fire to feel its warmth, but far away from everyone else. Ike can still hear the singing, hear Tibarn and Skrimir’s loud conversation, Caineghis’ rumbling laugh and Ranulf’s exasperated commentary, but it seems far away.
He doesn’t ask before he sits down next to Soren.
“Ike,” Soren says, looking up at him. Ike nods at his plate.
“You should eat,” he says. Soren shrugs, looking at the food like it might come alive.
“I’m not hungry,” he says. It’s what Soren always says when Ike brings up the topic of food. He’ll let it go, this time. Next time it won’t be so easy, but there’s a sense of importance to the moment. Ike has something to do, and he can’t put it off by talking about Soren’s admittedly poor eating habits.
“I’ve got something to tell you,” he says, looking down at his clasped hands. Soren looks up, curious and maybe a little nervous, his eyes bright in the firelight.
“Ike?” he says. He puts his hand, very carefully, on Ike’s elbow.
Ike’s got the whole thing in his head – every word, perfect to describe what he thinks and feels about Soren – but then he looks at Soren, really looks at him, and it all disappears.
He stares, openmouthed, for a long moment.
“It sat in my heart like an iron bar,” Soren had said in the tower. “Like a glacier.”
He swallows and takes Soren’s hand in his own.
“Ike, what is it?” Soren says and Ike leans in just a little closer, staring down at Soren’s familiar face.
I don’t want his heart to be a glacier, he thinks right before he kisses Soren. It’s awkward and messy, and Soren gasps up into it in a way that makes Ike’s stomach twist. He gets his hands up between them and fists them in Ike’s shirt.
Somewhere in the distance, Ranulf starts catcalling. Ike hopes faintly that it’s not at him.
He pulls away after a moment and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “I had a speech,” he says, “but that was pretty much what I wanted to say.”
Soren looks at him for a long moment in the same way Ike’s seen him look at particularly dismal battle plans. Then he surges up and finds Ike’s mouth with his own and tangles his hands in Ike’s hair. His thumb catches under the headband and his knee is perilously close to Ike’s crotch.
Ike manages to get one hand on his thigh and the other on his waist, keeping him anchored before this all becomes very counterproductive.
Soren kisses like he’s been trapped in a desert for weeks and the last of the water is somewhere down Ike’s throat. It’s needy and hungry, and Ike doesn’t have much experience with these sorts of matters but he knows that he never wants to kiss anyone but Soren.
Then Soren remembers that they’re in a campsite filled with a few dozen other people. He very carefully disentangles himself from Ike.
Someone – Ike thinks it’s Gatrie – lets out a sharp whistle. Soren clears his throat and looks away.
“Soren,” Ike says. He reaches up to catch his wrist, but Soren twists away from him with practiced ease.
“I’ll be in your tent,” he says, getting up and shaking out his robes. “Mine is full of books.”
Ike highly doubts that. Soren never brings more than he can carry. He lets it go, though, because he likes the idea of Soren in his tent. Like Soren belongs there.
“Go after him!” Ranulf yells from across the campsite and Elincia cheers, laughing as Geoffrey attempts to pry the glass from her hand.
Ike stands and takes a look at what used to be his army – Tibarn is smirking at him and Ranulf’s smile looks slightly strained despite his shouting. Skrimir looks stricken, like someone’s snatched something dear right out from underneath him and Oscar’s smiling in that what can you do with them? sort of way of his. Just out of the fire’s light, Boyd is holding hands with Ike’s sister.
Ike’s gaze lingers on them for a moment until Mist makes shooing motions with her free hand. She gives him her practiced I’m an adult and you can’t tell me what to do glower.
Ike leaves them alone. He can always hunt down Boyd in the morning. Besides, he doesn’t want to keep Soren waiting.
Titania catches him right before he gets to his tent. She puts a hand on his arm.
“Your father would be proud of you,” she says. She holds his gaze. “Of everything you’ve accomplished.”
Ike swallows and ducks his head. “Thank you,” he tells her.
Titania smiles and nods her head towards his tent. “He’d be happy for you, too.”
She lets him go without another word, heading towards the cluster of people. Ike glances over his shoulder just once before ducking into his tent, and it looks like she’s getting ready to break Boyd and Mist apart. He smiles and lets the flap fall behind him.
Soren is waiting for him, and the look on his face makes Ike stop in his tracks.
“Did you mean it?” he asks and Ike sucks in a breath. Soren ducks his head and answers his own question: “Of course you did. How long?”
Ike slides a hand towards the back of his neck. “That depends,” he says. “I realized it in the tower. After I remembered. But I think I’ve known how I feel for a while.” He almost doesn’t ask his next question. “You?”
“A very long time,” Soren says, tilting his head. His hair cascades over his shoulder, down his back. Ike’s mouth goes dry.
“It’s not just about…” Soren trails off, gesturing between the two of them. “It’s… you’re the only person, Ike.”
Ike gets down next to Soren. “I know,” he says, searching to hold Soren’s gaze. “I remember. You don’t have to say it.”
“I need you to hear it,” Soren says, holding his head up high. He trembles only a little. “You’re the only one, Ike.”
“Soren,” Ike says, and leans in to kiss him again. It’s slower this time, more careful, and he avoids shoving his nose into Soren’s cheekbone like the first time.
Soren keeps his eyes open like he’s trying to commit every moment to memory, brings his arms up and around Ike’s shoulders.
“I’ll bring you sandwiches every day,” Ike says when they break apart, like that’s the important part of it all – the memory of holding out his lunch to a scared child with tangled dark hair.
Soren closes his eyes and shakes his head, but when he smiles it’s real and true.
Ike drifts awake at dawn; it’s not an easy habit to break. From where he’s lying he can nudge the tent door open just a bit, enough to see the sky. It’s golden and navy and pink, all mixed together in swirling clouds. He thinks about a goddess with hair the color of dawn and if she’s out there somewhere now. If she’s happy.
Soren’s awake when he looks back down.
“You’re up early,” Ike says. Soren’s mouth curves slightly.
“I’m always up at this time,” he says, “and I think we’ve had this conversation before.”
Ike settles down more comfortably. He folds his arms under his head and stares up at the tent’s ceiling.
“Do you think it’s really over this time?” he asks.
Soren raises himself up on his elbows, staring down at Ike. His hair falls like a curtain; Ike twists a lock around his fingers.
“Strife is in our nature,” Soren says. “I think that as long as there are people, there will be wars.”
“Out of all those needs and desires, hate and strife are born. And that’s all right.”
Ike yanks, gently, on Soren’s hair. “Don’t remind me of Yune,” he says. He relaxes slightly and looks up again, imagines he can see the sky through the canvas ceiling. “I think maybe it’ll work this time. For a while, at least.
Soren huffs and leans his chin on his palm. “I suppose it’s possible,” he says, “considering the circumstances of the past two wars. What’s a general to do in peaceful times, though?”
He’s smirking. Ike narrows his eyes.
“I already quit,” he says.
“I know,” Soren says, his face softening.
“We’re mercenaries,” Ike says, waving a hand vaguely in the air. “We’ll find something to do.”
“Please tell me we won’t be rescuing cats from trees again,” Soren drawls.
“It’s all we’ll do,” Ike says. He rakes his fingers through Soren’s hair, tucks a lock of it behind his ear. He reaches out and drags his thumb across the brand, tries to ignore Soren’s harsh intake of breath. It makes him ache. “Rescue cats, all day long. Boyd can help the little old ladies across the road. The road farthest from my sister.”
“Oh, you noticed, then?” Soren says, catching Ike’s hand with his own. He keeps it pressed against his cheek, turns his face into it. “There’s always bandits, you know. And pirates.”
“Bandits and pirates, all day, every day,” Ike says. He thinks about Yune in the flames and about the great flood. He thinks about Hatari and how everyone thought it had been washed away. He thinks about all the places he’s been, and all the places he hasn’t, and all the places that could be waiting out there.
“You should want. You should strive to fill that want.”
“What are you thinking about?” Soren asks. Ike looks up to find he’s frowning, just a little, watching Ike with curious eyes. Ike strokes his cheek, sinks his fingers into long dark hair.
“Bandits and pirates,” he says.
“How thrilling,” Soren says, raising his eyebrows. “I can’t imagine anything I’d rather do.”
“We’ll figure something out,” Ike says.