Even before the knock on his door in the late morning it’s sweltering.
If it were a dry heat he could take it, but it’s a humid one that seems to weigh down the air in his room. Soren’s hair and clothes are sticking to him in sweat; he’d gotten up an hour early, finding the extra heat of his covers unbearable. He’s just grateful there aren’t any bugs to irritate him either. Last winter’s chill had lingered too long, and most of them died.
He gives up concentrating for now, instead straightening up his stacks of paper and relaxing back in his worn chair. Someone knocks at his door. He immediately straightens back up, clears his desk with a sweep of his arm and calls out, “Come in.”
Ike steps in, disheveled all over. He’s been running his hands through his hair in frustration again. Soren can immediately guess that he woke up, felt the heat, and left half his clothes on the floor in a messy heap. Titania would scold him later while washing everyone’s clothes, probably. He also conspicuously keeps a hand hidden behind him for whatever reason. “Good morning, Soren. Do you have those reports done?”
“Yes,” he replies, picking up a few papers at the top of one stack. “Here you go. Soon we’ll have to restock out supplies, but at the moment we seem to be fine.”
“Thanks, Soren.” Ike sifts through them, giving the words a once over. “I’ll look through them more thoroughly later. I’m calling an off day today.”
“Because of the heat?”
He nods. “We have enough money from the previous jobs we’ve done to afford it, don’t we? Besides, everyone’s tired from all the jobs we’ve been working. Wouldn’t it be good to let everyone take a break?”
“It’ll rain soon,” Soren notes. “I’ll need to check the fort—”
“You don’t need to,” Ike insists. “There aren’t any cracks in the fort or anything. I checked everything earlier. You need a day off too, Soren.”
“If you insist,” he relents. “How’s Mist? All this heat can’t be good for her.”
He sighs. “She’s still horribly sick, though I think she’s getting better. Hopefully by next week her sickness will be gone.”
“Noon is the hottest time of the day,” he comments. “After it passes we’ll all feel a bit better, I hope.”
“Speaking of noon,” Ike says, “I’ve got something for you.”
Soren gestures to Ike’s hand hidden behind his back. “Is it whatever you’re hiding behind your back?”
Ike laughs and responds, “You noticed it?”
“It was fairly obvious,” he says. “You never keep your hands hidden. Of course I’d notice. So, what is it?”
“Well, it’s about lunchtime right now.” Ike sits down on the edge of Soren’s bare bed. “Oscar’s been run ragged by all the jobs he’s been on. He’s completely burnt out today, so I decided I’d let him rest and make lunch instead.”
Soren allows himself a small smile. “You were cooking? What did everyone think of that?”
He chuckles a bit. “No, I didn’t cook anything. I decided that I’d just make some cold sandwiches for everyone. It’s not too hard to make, and it still tastes okay.”
The heavy feeling of déjà vu feels like a weight in his stomach. He pushes the absurd feeling away; how could a simple meal, of all things, be so important?
“I suppose it’s hard to mess up making a sandwich.”
“Shinon thinks I have anyways,” he laughs. “He refuses to eat any of it.” He brings out his hand from behind his back and it’s a plate with a simple sandwich on it. “Here, this one’s yours.”
“Don’t listen to Shinon. He’s got the brain of a gnat anyways.” He takes the plate and stares down at the lunch—
A memory resurfaces and stops all thoughts racing through his mind until now.
(He sees a small boy thin as a twig with tattered clothes and a haunted expression, huddling in the shadow of a giant tree. How could he have forgotten?)
“So,” Ike’s voice is a thousand years away, “eat it all for me, got it?”
(Never ending pain in his stomach and a dizzy mind—if he looks closely enough the leaves blur to form quiet flames.)
He doesn’t respond.
“Soren? Hey, are you listening?”
He shakes himself out of his stupor. “Eh? Did you say something, Ike?”
“Are you all right, Soren?” Ike ignores his question. “You never zoned out on me like this—well, I suppose when the war was going on…”
“I’m fine,” he quickly interrupts. “I’m… fine, really.”
Ike grunts. “If you say so.”
He mumbles, “So, what were you saying?”
“I was telling you that you need to eat more and…”
(Hair like blue flames with a silly sort of importance around him like he will change everything—)
Soren sees Ike’s lips moving and it occurs to him that he was just saying something.
“…I’m… I’m sorry, what was that?”
“What’s with you today?” Ike reaches out and places his calloused hand on his forehead. “You’re not sick, thank Ashera. Have you been skipping meals again? Staying up too late to finish all the paperwork? I should really give you a break.”
“I’m fine,” he insists.
He hesitates. “Is there something going on?”
“Nothing particularly,” he mutters. “I’m fine, Ike.”
“If you say so,” he replies, his tone pacifying. “I’ve got to go check on everyone else now. Just relax today, all right?”
With a more cheerful expression, Ike nods and leaves, throwing an “Eat the whole sandwich, okay?” behind his shoulder as the door swings shut.
As the knob clicks shut with a sigh of relief, Soren lets out his own bitter sigh and lets his body relax to fit the rickety chair.
Fate is too cruel.
They first met in autumn, he remembers that clearly. Every day the cold creeps closer, a permanent chill that pierces through his ripped and tattered clothing. By now all the trees have dropped their leaves onto the ground. Now they stand crooked and barren of any life at all. Soren doesn’t venture outside the hollow in the oak tree he’s been sleeping in now—it’s too cold for that. Instead he spends his days tucked away inside the deepest part of the tree watching the wind pick at the hills of leaves.
A loud snapping sound resonates across the large clearing he’s hidden on the edge of. Shortly after it a yelp sounds. He instantly curls up in panic. It’s another villager, most likely. He edges as quietly as possible back into the hollow at the base of the large tree. Afterwards he can hear the scuffling of feet and a small voice. It’s a child, though he doesn’t lower his guard. The small child shuffles around noisily, crunching through dried-up leaves. Something hits the ground with a dull voice, but it isn’t thrown anywhere near Soren. The child is throwing sticks, he decides. What for, he doesn’t know. He forces his battered body in the crevice of the old tree, hoping that the child would go away.
As he does a jarring crack erupts from the tree and a chunk of wood clatters as it rolls around in the colorful leaves. He must have dislodged it when he’d curled up against the curves of the hollow.
“Huh? What was that noise?” A small voice charged with tension at the sudden noise echoes in his ears. He’s messed up. Soren tries to disappear into the shadows as footsteps that rustle in the fallen leaves come closer. They soon stop at the other edge of the clearing.
Soren waits a few impossibly long seconds before raising his head to see if the child had left. As he does, a voice calls out.
“There’s something on the ground…”
A tuft of blue hair peeks out from behind a tree. Soon a head follows. Finally, the body of a small boy steps out from the cover of the trees, bold now that he can see Soren’s not some fierce monster with sharp teeth and chipped claws or a dragon with fiery breath and gleaming scales like multi-colored crystals. The boy is a bit bigger than him with hair like fire, burning bright and blue. He wears simple clothes, except for an odd object that is draped over his shoulder. As he comes closer, Soren can see it’s some sort of long piece of fabric that trails behind him barely above the ground and extends upwards to his neck, where it ends in one large, misshapen knot under his chin. The fabric glows a dull red. In his right hand he loosely holds a medium-sized stick with the end snapped halfway off.
The boy peers at this stranger cautiously. “You’re so skinny!” He gasps as he sees Soren’s emaciated figure. “Uh, um, what should I do…? You must be so hungry!” Soren is silent as death, holding his breath for no particular reason. Some silly idea has pushed its way into his mind—that something is happening, like the whole world and he are holding their breaths together because this is important somehow, this is a beginning, and with one more movement everything will change. It’s nonsense and he knows it. He holds his breath anyways.
Slowly, the boy steps away towards a faraway tree. Soren sighs in relief, though it’s short-lived. A few short moments later, the blue-haired boy reappears with something in his hand. He flinches back. It’s a box-shaped item, with decorative features etched into the surface. The boy stops a short distance from him and sets it down, undoing the top and opening the object up.
Something smells delicious. He sits up a bit and creeps as close to the object as he dares, keeping a wary eye on the boy all the while. When he looks inside, he sees—
(Fate is too cruel.)
The boy has not moved an inch. The sandwich stands tantalizingly between them two. Soren instantly understands. He’s offering Soren the chance to reach forward and take the box, to eat what’s inside. Although the other boy is utterly still, he’s skeptical, afraid. He eyes the stick in the other’s hand. What if, just as Soren is reaching out his hand, the stick comes down and crushes his hand? No, it’s far too dangerous. He won’t take the bait.
But, the other boy has not moved an inch. What’s the harm? If he’d been planning to hurt Soren then he could have easily done so already. And the sandwich is so tempting. It feels like weeks, months, years from the last time he had eaten. But he will bring the stick down onto Soren or run away with the food for a laugh. It’s too dangerous. But the sandwich is so tempting. He battles with himself in frustration and bitter sorrow.
The thing that finally shatters the impasse is a slight movement. Soren’s eyes immediately shoot up to the other boy, certain now that it is a trick. The boy looks down at him, eyes flickering. His hands are quivering, and it suddenly occurs to Soren that maybe, just maybe this boy is afraid too. Both are strange and foreign to one another, after all. To the other boy, Soren is a mass of shadows creeping around like a monster in the night. Noticing his stare, the boy tries his hardest to manage an encouraging smile. It’s his choice, Soren knows. It’s his choice to reach out or draw back in fear.
He examines the other in interest. This other boy’s short blue hair is splaying haphazardly across his sweaty forehead; dirt decorates his shirt with smears of color from the earthen floor, and his face is bright with a curiously gentle smile. It’s his choice. To the other he is a broken mess of a silhouette crying out pitifully against a callous world. The sandwich sits out in front of him freely. It is his choice.
Soren slowly extends his arm and reaches forward for the lunch box.
Within minutes the last crumbs of the sandwich have disappeared down his throat.
“Does it taste good?” The other boy’s voice is wavering with anxiety. Soren doesn’t directly respond (he can’t, anyways), instead hopefully looking up at the figure.
He pauses, looking at him curiously. “Do you want more…?” He shakes his head. “I’m sorry. That’s all I had…” Soren doesn’t move an inch. It’s not the sandwich he wants now. The other boy hesitates before sitting down in front of him, carefully making sure to roll up the piece of fabric hanging down his back and brushing off bits of foliage.
“So, um…” At a loss for words, he asks, “What’s your name?”
Soren instantly freezes. He can’t speak. What is he supposed to do? In vain he tries to open his mouth and make a sound, but nothing comes out. Eventually he lowers his head in disgrace at having failed this boy.
The other pauses. “You… can’t talk, huh?” As Soren begins to panic, he says quickly, “That’s fine. Mother says I couldn’t talk for a bit either, and Mist was the same.” With a half-laugh he adds, “Not that you’d ever know Mist couldn’t speak. Now she talks all day. Mist’s my sister,” he explains after noticing Soren’s confused expression. “She’s a real handful.”
The boy stops abruptly. “You’re so thin,” he murmurs. His hand twitches forward like he’s going to reach for Soren, but then he withdraws into himself. He’s shaking but pulls himself together.
“You need more food.” He holds out his hand. “Hey, why don’t you come back with me? Back where I live, there’s plenty of food.”
It takes little more than a second for Soren to realize what he’s referring to. He wants Soren to come with him back to the village.
(He can barely breathe as he runs. Burning torches and intertwined shouts chase him out. Then the rocks came, the rocks that leave large, purple bruises and tear open his skin. He can do nothing but scream.)
He shakes his head no.
“Are you sure?” He frowns. “But, there’s food there. You’re too skinny…” Soren shakes his head again. He will never go back there.
He relents, muttering half to himself, “But I can’t just leave you here.” For lack of anything better to do, he pokes the stick at the ground, turning over a few brown leaves. Soren watches him, afraid.
“I won’t make you go,” he promises Soren. “I just need to think of a way to bring food to you, that’s all! Hey… Bringing food…” His eyes light up. “I know! Hey, listen to this!”
Startled out of his thoughts, he nods to show he’s listening. Encouraged, the other boy lays out his idea. “How about you wait here… And tomorrow, I’ll just come back with more food for you! Is that okay?”
Soren stares at him. The boy immediately fidgets, aware he’s slipped up. “Sorry… It’s just that I can’t get more food today, that’s all. Mother and Father don’t have enough time. Mist’s birthday is tomorrow, you know.” He nods to himself. “Yeah, right now they’re trying to find her a birthday present. They didn’t let me come with them, though, probably ‘cause they thought I’d tell Mist what it was.”
He smiles at Soren, and at once Soren decides. He will trust this boy. After all, what’s the harm? He’s promising to bring him more food. What reason was there to distrust him? And besides, he thinks, he’s talking to him, keeping him company. It’s lifted a previously-unknown weight on his shoulders.
“Huh?” His face instantly lights up. “You mean you’ll wait here for me?” When he nods again, his face breaks into a toothy smile. “Great! Yes! By the way, my name’s Ike. It’s nice to meet you!”
Assured, Soren settles down against a particularly large root to listen to Ike.
“I promise I’ll bring you Mother’s cooking! She’s the best cook in the entire village!” He pauses, noticing the pale goosebumps on Soren’s exposed forearm. “Ah, I didn’t even notice! It’s fall, so it’s getting cold outside. You must be really cold from staying out here, right? I’m sorry. Maybe… Hmm…” His hands drift to the large, childish knot tucked under his chin, dropping the stick he’d been waving around to emphasize his points. It takes a few seconds, but the frayed corners soon slide free and he undoes the rest of the tangled knot. Ike pulls the rest of the rolled-up fabric off his shoulders and gathers it into a bundle of fabric. Soren inhales sharply, realizing the significance of his gesture in some way.
“Take this! It’s not much at all, but it’s another layer. Maybe it’ll keep you warm!” He falters when he sees Soren’s astonished expression. “Don’t worry. It was really cheap, and anyways I’m not really a hero. It’s not a cape. It’s just a blanket I decided to wear.”
Wordlessly, Soren grasps the cape. It’s warm and comforting just like Ike.
“You know, even though Mother and Father didn’t let me go on the shopping trip,” he says so proudly, “I think I know what they’re getting her!” He frowns. “I don’t know what it’s called… But it’s this kind of toy! I think it’s boring, really, but I saw her looking at one of them the other day, and she asked Father if we could buy it. But of course, I won’t know until tomorrow. They sent me off to play when they went shopping, and that’s how I met you!” Ike beams.
Soren listens intently to everything he has to say. Ike chatters on about mostly trivial things while sitting on the ground and waving his stick around to articulate his speech. All of it is new and mostly confusing, but he absorbs everything that comes out of his mouth regardless. It’s very important to him, possibly the most important thing in the world at that moment in time.
“They’ll definitely cook a huge feast for you!” He prattles on about mostly useless things. “Or, maybe I could ask them to make extra food when they make Mist’s favorite food. Mist really likes this one spicy dish of hers. I like Mother’s soup best, though.” He whispers secretively to Soren, “But you know, Mist doesn’t even know how spicy that dish is. Father and Mother always water it down for her. One time I tried some of the spicy stuff on Father’s plate. It really burned!”
Seeing how engrossed Soren is in his tale, he continues babbling on about anything that comes to mind. “To be honest, I really like that spicy dish too, even the super spicy one. It’s just that, well, whenever I got sick when I was younger Mother always made that soup for me, so I have really fond memories of it.” He nods with a serious and pleased expression on his face like he’s just said something notably profound. “That reminds me, see this?” He holds the stick up and waits until he sees Soren’s nod to continue. “Well, to be honest this is only filling in. That’s why it snapped. Sometime really soon, Father said he’d get me a sword.” Immediately he blushes. “I mean, it’s not a real one, because that’s dangerous. But it’s a wooden sword, and it’s definitely better than some stick. I think I saw one at the market the other day or something. But Father said he was going to make a sword for me!”
Soren’s eyes widen. He can tell just how important this is. Ike grins wildly. “Isn’t it cool? My own wooden sword! Maybe he’ll teach me swordplay sometime soon too!”
A shout rings through the forest, calling out to Ike. Immediately Soren’s hands jerk up, latching onto Ike’s arm.
“I’m sorry,” he says hurriedly as he grasps Soren’s hands with his own. “That’s my father. I have to go.” Seeing the tortured look on his face, he does nothing but smile. “Hey, don’t look so sad. I’ll be back tomorrow, won’t I? There’s nothing to worry about. I promise I’ll come back tomorrow with lots of food for you. And I always keep my promises.”
He shakes his head no, clings more fiercely onto the other’s arm.
“Ike! Where are you, boy?”
“I’m so sorry,” he murmurs, pushing off Soren’s weak hands. “I promise! I promise I’ll be back with more food. I’ll be back with so much food you won’t even be able to eat it all because there’s too much! Just trust me, okay?”
Soren desperately pulls on his arm, dropping the blanket as he does.
Ike notices. “You can keep that,” he whispers quickly. “Keep the blanket. I don’t need it. I mean, I’m not a hero. I’ll be one someday, though! I’ll save you, so you won’t have to be all alone here. We’ll meet again! I’ll be back tomorrow, I promise.”
Soren understands. Ike will definitely come back for him. He trusts him, after all. He lets his arms drop down and encircle the blanket.
“I’ll definitely come back with food.” Ike stands and walks away slowly from the clearing, stopping once to look back. “I promise. I’ll see you later!”
He watches Ike walk away from him, disappearing behind bare trees. As he does, he realizes that while the trees are devoid of color, the forest floor is drenched in red and orange and yellow, vibrant colors that break through the browns and grays. Quickly he stands up on his own two feet. If he closes his eyes, he can see Ike, hair like blue flames. Soren doesn’t even notice when tears drip down onto the tendrils of red leaves like fire left in Ike’s wake.
The next day passes by agonizingly slow. Minutes tick by like years as Soren keeps a constant vigil, keeping his eyes trained on the end of the clearing. Soon the sun is high in the sky again, but he hasn’t returned. Maybe he’s been abandoned again. But no, that’s not right. Ike had promised that he’d be back. It was just taking a while for some reason, that’s all.
Something is wrong. Usually Soren can hear the sounds of the townspeople; the town is fairly close, though not close enough for the villagers to discover him. Today there is dead silence. Not a single sound is coming from the town. No, wait, that’s wrong too. He can hear the strangely loud sounds of insects. There must be thousands of millions of insects. Why are there so many? Crows and ravens and other kinds of birds he can’t identify have been flying past the whole morning. Something is terribly wrong.
He stops completely. The insects, he’s heard them once before. The day the sage had died, there were many insects and they’d sounded just like this, too. He freezes in place. The sage had died that day. There must be a dead person somewhere.
He clumsily gets up. He is sore all over, and tired and hungry too. It doesn’t matter. Ike is in danger. As he stumbles towards the edge of the clearing he drapes the cloth Ike had given him around his shoulders and ineptly fastens a knot under his chin with trembling fingers. It makes him feel braver.
There are far too many bugs, zipping around in the air and filling the air with eerie noises. His heart is pumping out of his chest and bursting as he tightly clenches the blanket around his shoulders. Where is the village? Not far, it can’t be too far. He is sure that once he breaks through the wall of trees he will see villagers. They might throw rocks at him again, of course; it doesn’t matter anymore. Ike is there too. Ike must be okay.
He pushes his way through the final barrier of trees and finds—
(He might have vomited too, but he doesn’t remember anymore.)
The town is death, rot and decay. Countless people lay on the ground that is dyed mostly red. They are motionless and some are clearly in states of deterioration. Soldiers and peasants run around in an uproar, shouting. He flinches back, but none notice him and they seem to be leaving now. The dead bodies are nothing like Ike, Ike with his vibrant and crisp energy. Where is Ike?
He carefully steps around corpses like the village is a minefield waiting to be triggered. As he advances, blue hair catches his eye. There is a blue-haired figure on the ground. His heart spills out of his eyes. With shaking hands he reaches for the small figure’s shoulder. He flips the figure over with the utmost care to see its face.
It’s not Ike at all. The figure is a woman with blue hair like Ike’s. Now that he can see more clearly he notices all the difference that should have been painfully obvious, like how she is so much taller and her long hair that had been mostly obscured by her still body. As he looks around her, he can see that she is the only one who is smiling. She is the very image of forgiveness, happiness, love amongst death and sorrow. He leaves her and keeps walking past her dead body. Something about her frightens him.
From a single glance he can tell that most of them are not Ike, but he turns them all over anyways. He moves a taller man over and something round falls onto his feet. Soren turns it over and opens the handmade pouch. Inside are shiny round objects. He takes one out and holds it up; it glitters in the sun. It’s currency, he decides. Though he knew what money was, he’d never actually held any before. He remembers what it’s used for, buying food and goods. He searches some other bodies and takes all the coins he can, frequently taking their pouches as well. They are possibly the most valuable thing there.
He searches all the bodies. Aside from the woman, not a single one looks like him at all. Ike is not here; he’s not dead. Where is he?
He turns over one last body, an aged man with something on his pack. There is a delicious smell so different from the rot that permeates the village. Inside is food, dried meats and bread and other kinds of food he’s never seen before. Forcing off the pack from the merchant’s back, he discovers that the pack is fairly light, enough for him to carry. He finds other coins just like the ones in the pouch too, and new clothes for him to wear. He stuffs them all in and hoists the pack over his shoulder. He is done here; Ike has left. Ike is alive. Where could he have gone?
Soren searches his memories. They are in Gallia, the land of the beast tribe. The closest country he can recall is Crimea. Crimea is a land of beorc, known for its scholarly accomplishments. He tightens his grip on the cape he wears. Ike must be in Crimea, having fled from whoever had done this. With one hand wrapped in the cape around his neck, he leaves the village.
The next years are the hardest. He travels north to the borders between Crimea and Gallia with a heavy heart, trying his hardest not to think about how hopeless this journey. Crimea is huge and Ike only one person. He might be dead by now, or maybe Soren’s picked the wrong country and Ike is in Daein or Begnion. He is in Crimea, alive and well.
Winter has come by now, but Soren isn’t afraid. It’s cold, yes, but he’s no longer afraid of going to sleep and never waking up, frozen from the chill. Since Ike had given him that blanket, he’s gone to sleep each night wrapped in the blanket. It, for all his fondness of the thing, should barely help at all—the blanket is too thin to work as his only protection against the cold. Yet every time as he goes to sleep, he remembers Ike and how warm he’d been.
You won’t have to be all alone here. We’ll meet again.
After that, the blanket’s been as warm as fire.
Several times when heading to the border between the two nations, he encounters laguz. The first time he sees one it’s a tiger laguz, large and powerful. One little movement could easily kill him. He quails backwards and cowers in the shadow of a tree. The laguz’s senses are far too sharp to avoid; immediately he spots him. It only takes one look at the mark on his forehead that designates him an abomination and the laguz leaves. No recognition. No acknowledgement or the barest hint of empathy. Soren watches the space where he once was and suddenly his chest is tight.
One day he passes by a village on the outskirts of Crimea. The supplies he’d stolen from the village are running out, so he cautiously steps among the people. He buys more from a traveling merchant and quickly leaves before they can notice the mark on his forehead. He travels in the shadows; even now, a year after Ike had appeared to him, he is unable to walk amongst people without becoming irrationally fearful. As he swiftly tries to make his departure, a small hand tugs on the fabric trailing behind him.
Soren stiffly turns to see a tiny boy, probably barely more than two years younger than him.
“That’s a really cool cape you have there!” His face is brilliant, shining. Soren makes to walk away.
“You look just like a hero in a legend!”
He freezes for just a second before breaking into a sprint.
Soren flees from the village with tears pooling in his eyes all over again.
On his way through Crimea he stops by a church. The soft light from the stained glass windows doesn’t match the harsh white of the early snow, he thinks. A bishop pauses by the doorway to see him, a boy dressed in clothes so large and ill-fitting they are wrapping every which way around his body and holding onto a cape red like fire. The next thing the bishop sees is the brand on his forehead. Before he knows it he is being ushered in by sympathetic priests and bishops.
(He doesn’t understand until years later, sitting by a fire in the Melior library with a book bound with maroon that speaks of the marked ones and the symbols they are branded with. The first thing he does when he does understand is throw the book to the floor.)
The day he loses the blanket it’s raining. He is packing his things to travel again, but he isn’t careful enough. A gang of thieves his age ambush him. They grab for his things, the coins from the village, food he’s been meticulously saving. He yells and thrashes around, knocking several of them off. Quick as he can he snatches up his meager supplies and runs, saving most of his things. As he flees hands reach and clutch at the cape in an attempt to slow him down. His inexperienced and quick knots and the threadbare edges of the cape finally fail him. The sound of ripping ensues and he can feel the weight lightening around his neck, but he doesn’t dare look back, simply running as the sounds of tearing cloth echo in his mind. When he is convinced they are gone he drops to his knees on the side of the road and weeps over the shredded remains of the cloth.
He lets himself rest, lying on the soft earth while a fire crackles a short distance away from him. His pack lies next to him too. Soren’s arms and legs relax until he feels like they and he are melded into the earth, silent, unmoving. It’s been years since the first and last time he’s set eyes on Ike. Maybe he’s dead—no, he probably is. What’s the point of looking for him? He’s alive. Isn’t that enough? What was it, what was it about Ike that was special? He wasn’t special in the least to Soren, really—
(It’s his choice. Ike has gone away somewhere. It’s his choice if he wants to follow or not. The sandwich sits in front of him all over again. The woman, the sage, the villagers, they’d all abandoned him. Ike will abandon him too.)
(It is his choice.)
(It is his choice, Ike shouldn’t be so important to him anyways—)
The last few bits of red cloth lie in the pack, only held together by a few last threads.
In the morning he stays in the shadows of the next village he encounters and searches vainly for a blue-haired boy.
One day he sees a flash of blue while on the outskirts of a market peering in. There’s a small boy now grown tall and lean with hair like stars poking their legs at the sky.
One day he sees a young, blue-haired boy. His heart stops. The boy is playing with an even younger girl at swords, pretending they were heroes. The next day he asks the boy’s father about employment as a mage. He insists he’s good, a top-notch mage, and he can read and write too. The man—Greil—wouldn’t regret hiring him.
“I don’t hire children,” he says and Soren feels panic for the first time in years. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Soren,” he says. The word falls out strangely.
“Well then, where are your parents, Soren?” Greil’s voice is gruff. “I’ll have to have a word with them if they’re letting a small boy like you run around working dangerous jobs for them.”
“They’re dead,” he replies, not a hint of emotion. It’s only a guess, though he doesn’t care anymore.
“Ah,” he says, and this time there is some sort of understanding behind his words. Soren glances around for Ike’s mother but sees no one.
(She was the blue-haired woman, he’s sure of it. He still has dreams about it.)
Greil clears his throat. “Well, what about any other family members?”
“They’re all dead,” he says. Only Ike is left to him.
There’s a heavy pause as Greil absorbs his words.
“I see.” He turns away, thinking. Soren waits, his heart pounding.
“Well,” he mumbles, “I suppose I can find a use with a little kid like you somewhere.”
The day after that Greil takes him to the fort. Standing near the entrance are two children with the same shade of blue in their eyes. One is a little girl, messing around with a small patch of flowers. The other is a blue-haired boy with a wooden sword in hand, bright and vibrant like fire. They stop short when they see him. He stops short too. He’s suddenly forgotten how to breathe.
“Ike,” Greil tells him, “this is a new recruit of the Greil Mercenaries. Introduce yourself and your sister.”
“Yes, sir.” Ike turns to him. “Um… Hey there. My name’s Ike. The man who hired you is my father.” The girl steps behind Ike warily. He laughs. “The person hiding behind me is my sister, Mist. It’s nice to meet you!”
Soren stops completely. Ike can’t remember him. Ike doesn’t remember him.
His hand clenches into a fist behind his back.
(He pushes his way through the final barrier of trees and finds—)
(There is a blue-haired figure on the ground.)
(With one hand wrapped in the cape around his neck, he leaves the village.)
(After that, the blanket’s been as warm as fire.)
(“You look just like a hero in a legend!”)
(“That one is ‘thank you’.”)
(He drops to his knees on the side of the road and weeps over the shredded remains of the cloth.)
Soren almost says something but—
(It’s his choice.)
He swallows. It was his choice.
“Thank you. My name is Soren.”
Later that day there is another knock on the door. Soren’s been expecting it all day, his thoughts constantly drifting to the silent handle on the other side of the door. He immediately turns towards the door, pushing his chair back, and calls out, “Come in.”
Ike closes the door behind him, remarking, “You’re still working?”
“Yes,” he replies, putting the paper away. “I only started a while ago, though.”
“You shouldn’t be working at all.” Ike sits back down on Soren’s bed. “I told you, everyone’s having a day off today.”
“It was just a bit of work,” he mumbles. “I needed to get my mind off of things.”
He sighs. “Well, that’s not what I’m here for.”
“I was looking for your plate, actually—they finally settled the debate of who’s going to wash the dishes,” he says. “Boyd lost.”
“Here,” Soren says, pushing forward a clean plate.
Ike stops completely.
“You ate it all,” he murmurs.
“You did tell me to try to eat it all,” Soren reminds him.
His face breaks into a smile. “Here, let me have that.” Ike takes it off his now mostly clutter-free desk.
“You liked it?”
“It was edible enough,” he answers. “I don’t particularly care about the taste.” Soren turns back to his papers, mindlessly organizing them into neat stacks. At some point he looks back over his shoulder and realizes Ike’s still there.
“Is something the matter?”
He sighs. “Well, for one, you’re working again. But actually, I came here to talk to you about something.”
“About that day.”
“Remember? It was when we’d crossed the bridge back into Crimea, when the war was still going on.”
His hand clenches, almost convulses. Ike continues.
“We talked a bit and you said—”
He gives Soren an odd look. “Don’t you remember? You told me the sage lived in Gallia.”
“Yes.” His throat feels dry and cracked. “So, what—what did you want to say about it?”
Ike pauses, struggling to find the words. “…I can’t remember it, to tell you the truth.”
“You can’t?” Soren’s voice is subdued.
“…No, I can’t.”
Soren looks away. “I see.”
(A boy with rags for clothes curling up in nests of fire that crackle and crunch, a boy with blue hair and a cape trailing behind him like a fairytale, bearing on his shoulders a half-broken promise—we’ll meet again)
“Maybe if you told me,” Ike quickly suggests, “a little bit about what you remember, maybe then—”
“No, that’s fine,” he murmurs.
“Of course it isn’t,” Ike protests. “You’re upset.”
He shakes his head. “I’m fine, I promise.”
(I’ll definitely save you)
(He remembers a day when Greil had sent them shopping for supplies for the fort—)
“They’re waiting for you, right?” His voice comes out strangled. “Boyd must be getting impatient by now.”
He tries to crack a smile. “No, I think they can wait a bit longer.”
“I can wait too,” he murmurs. “Go. You know how he gets.”
“Ike, it’s okay.”
He looks at Soren like it’s the first time he’s really seen him all over again.
“…I guess I can’t force you.” He grins. “But, if you ever want to talk about it…”
“I know.” He pauses. “…Thank you.”
“Of course,” Ike responds. “I’ll see you later, then.”
As soon as Ike leaves this time, Soren sets his head down on the desk and closes his eyes.
(Years pass by like minutes, dodging between a thousand people with the same face, looking for a blue-haired boy with a smiling face…)
Ike doesn’t remember.
(It was his choice.)
Ike can’t understand or remember in the slightest—
But did Ike have to remember?
After all, there was no doubt that they were one and the same, the boy who’d held out his hand that day.
(But, if you ever want to talk about it…)
It doesn’t matter in the slightest, he decides. It was his choice. Ike doesn’t need to remember or understand him. They still are those two children, reaching for ideals and fantasies and hopes and dreams and one another.
(He’d walked across two countries for a boy with a smiling face)
And he’d do it again and again and again.
Soren doesn’t regret a thing.
“Hey, are you feeling any better?” Ike hands a glass of cool water to Mist as he sits down at the edge of her bed. She nods in response, accepting the glass and gulping half the contents down. He takes a quick look outside the window; it’s evening and though the sun hasn’t yet set, but the sky is already turning shades of purple. If he looks closely enough, he can see the horizon in the far distance, close and yet a thousand miles away.
“Yeah, I’m feeling a bit better,” Mist says, sniffling. She looks better than in the morning, at least.
“You shouldn’t push yourself too much,” he tells her. “Rhys hasn’t got sick yet, and Soren’s pulling his and your weight too.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone…”
“Hey, no one thinks of you as a burden,” he scolds her. “Just concentrate on getting better.”
“Are you sure? I mean,” Mist mutters, “Soren’s been overworking himself because I’m sick, right?”
“He’s not angry,” he insists. “He told me as much this morning.”
“When you delivered his lunch? Speaking of which,” she says, “what did he think of your sandwich? Did he eat it all?”
He hesitates, instead turning his gaze to a point beyond the setting sun. “Well, he ate it all.”
“Ike? What’s wrong?”
She pauses. “Did something happen?”
He sighs. “It’s hard to explain.”
“I’m listening,” she promises.
Ike shakes his head. “It’s not that—I know you’re listening. It’s just… about something really personal to Soren, that’s all.”
“Really personal? What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure,” he says. Then he quickly clarifies, “I mean, I don’t actually know what happened, really.”
Mist frowns. “Then… What’s the problem?”
“He won’t talk about it,” he mutters. In a louder voice he adds, “He won’t talk about it to me.”
“Well, if it’s really personal…” She sneezes.
“Careful,” he says before continuing. “But it’s hurting him not talking about it, and I’m the only one he’ll ever talk about it to.”
“Well,” she says slowly, “Why don’t you just give him some time?”
He stops. “What do you mean?”
“If it’s really personal, then why push him?” Ike fiddles with the end of his cape.
“Father’s death bothered you a lot too,” she reminds him. “You were there; you could have saved him. That’s what you kept thinking, right?”
“Of course I did,” he starts hotly, but she interrupts him.
“Didn’t you say that we’ll carry on together?” He stops completely.
Mist asks, “Were you going to leave me all alone?
Ike doesn’t say a thing. She reaches forward and holds his hand.
“You didn’t want to talk about it, right? That’s okay. I guess… It’s not something you just casually bring up, right?”
Her face breaks into a smile. “Maybe Soren just doesn’t want to talk about it either right now.”
He shifts, fidgets. “But…”
“Maybe I’m wrong.” She picks at a loose thread in the blanket next to her. “I could be wrong about this. But if Soren doesn’t want to talk about it, maybe you should just let it go for now.”
Ike says nothing.
“Someday,” Mist’s voice rises in hope, “maybe you’ll talk. But not now. For now… Well, maybe Soren just needs to think about it on his own.”
“Maybe you’re right,” he admits. “I don’t like just leaving him alone. He gets depressed and listless. But,” he adds, “I guess you’re right. Well, I have to finish up preparations—I just need to check on our food supplies one more time. Oscar’s cooking dinner this time—I’ll save you some of his cooking, all right?”
“And then you’ll save some for everyone else, right?” She teases him. “Everyone else needs to eat too!”
“They can have the rest of my sandwiches,” he laughs. “See you later, Mist. Focus on getting better. That’s an order.”
“See you later, Ike.”
The two walk past many market stalls and push through large crowds of people clamoring at an auction. “We should go check out the weapons over there,” Ike notes. “Father says we’re short on lances.”
“I see,” Soren says. “That sounds like a good idea.”
As they saunter through, something catches Soren’s eye. It’s a bundle of cloth spread out amongst others of its kind. The cloth glows with a warm yet dull red. He stops.
(Ike pulls the rest of the rolled-up fabric off his shoulders and gathers it into a bundle of fabric)
Ike keeps walking before realizing Soren is no longer beside him. He turns around and calls out to Soren as he comes back, “Is something wrong?”
Soren says nothing in response. Ike follows his gaze to the merchandise and asks, “Do you see something you want?”
Soren’s fingers tighten around a small bag of coins in his pocket. It’s more than enough to pay for the cloth, he can tell. It would be a simple business—just a few words that he’d have to say…
“If you don’t have enough money, I could lend you some,” Ike suggests. “Don’t worry about my father; I’ll think of something.”
“No,” he murmurs, surprising both of them.
Ike looks over at him. “Eh? Why not? If it’s just an issue of money…”
Soren shakes his head. “I’m fine, Ike. I don’t need anything.”
“But,” Ike objects, “This is the first time you’ve really shown any interest in buying anything. Even Father buys a trinket we don’t need once in a while. I’ve never seen you buy anything for yourself.”
“You never buy anything you don’t need either,” he reminds him. “And anyways, I don’t need it anymore.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was just reminded of something from my past when I saw that stall,” he says. “But it’s in the past.”
Ike shrugs. “Well, if you say so. It’s your choice, after all.”
“…Thank you for being concerned about me, Ike.”
“Of course,” Ike says easily, like it’s the obvious thing in the world to do. “You never take care of yourself, you know. You even forget to eat sometimes, and you barely sleep. That’s why I’ve got to look after you.”
“Thank you,” he echoes himself again. It sounds hollow and far too overused by now, but he can’t think of any other way to express his gratitude for everything.
Ike grins. “Let’s get a move on, shall we?”
Soren nods and moves his feet. As they walk side by side through the crowds, Soren dwells on their exchange.
Thank you for being concerned about me.
Ike’s concern is enough for him. And anyways, it was never the blanket that mattered as much as the memory of it he’d desperately clung to, lost and afraid.
He’s ready to let go.
I was happy, too. Not just because I wasn’t hungry anymore. Because someone finally would talk to me.
You’d forgotten that day in Gallia. But I didn’t care. My only wish was to see you again. I just wanted to see the only boy who had held out a warm hand when I had nothing…
That’s why you’re my one and only friend.