bonnefois: ghost_factory @ LJ (Default)
[personal profile] bonnefois
Title: The Great Bearding Adventure
Series: FE10
Character/Pairing: Heather/Nephenee, Ike/Soren, Heather's mother, with some of the mercenary ensemble mentioned or otherwise appearing.
Rating: PG-13
Word Count: 8700
Summary: Heather hires Soren to be her beard for the weekend while visiting her mother. This simple task goes awry when Nephenee misunderstands the situation and tries to set things right. Meanwhile, Ike has new realizations about him and Soren.
Author's note: Post RD. This assumes that Ike and Soren either didn't leave or postponed their journey for quite some time to do mercenary work.
For ashesto/ensoot/Yun/Sturmgalan.

Thanks to Wind for the Beta.



Every time Heather returned home, her mother seemed more frail. A part of her ached every time she saw the symptoms of her mother's illness. But elixirs didn't come cheap. Heather had learned at a young age how to steal and con away, until she could afford to buy her mother a few more months.

Any con-woman worth their salt could tell you never do a con near your home. New names, new clothes, new targets. Never where someone could potentially recognize her or where someone could remember old failures and foibles. Nothing ruined a con like the Smith remembering the time she tried to steal a horseshoe on a dare, and got kicked in the thigh by a donkey.

She clutched Heather's hand tight. "Darling, it's been so long since I last saw you."

She let out a wet cough. Flecks of red were upon the handkerchief pressed to her lips. This can't be the end. I'll make another big con, one to get her enough elixirs to make her live twenty more years. I'll wake up the Goddess Herself and make her heal my mother once and for all.

"Maybe you should rest, mother," Heather said.

She slowly helped her mother to bed.

"You're right...I'm a bit tired." She let out a sigh as Heather tucked the covers up to just under her chin.

"I wish...you'd settle down, darling."

"Don't be silly, mother. With my business, I'd never have time to settle down. Besides, I'm not the sort to go have a bunch of children with some smelly farmhand," she said derisively.

"But when I'm gone, I want someone to comfort, and support you. I wouldn't want you to face all that alone."

"Don't say such things," Heather said desperately. "See, I've brought you more elixir. There's going to be more time."

"Heather, dear. You can't fight it forever," she said. She was racked by another series of coughs that shook her whole body. More red stained the handkerchief.

"Please--t-take the medicine. I brought more, see? Everything is going to be better, you just have to take it. And then I'll get more--" Heather said desperately.

She helped prop up her mother with pillows, and held the bottle to her lips. She drank down every drop of that blue liquid. It'd taken months of thieving and con jobs to even afford one.

"Ah...I'll feel better soon. I'm sure of it." She reached out and took Heather's hand in hers, and squeezed it. "I'm so happy to have a daughter who works so hard for me."

If Heather had her way, her mother would be wearing colorful dresses to rival the royal family, and live in a small castle. She had even tried to build on the small cottage at the edge of town, but her mother had always refused. It reminds me of your father, she'd said. The cottage had only two rooms, a small kitchen separated by an open doorway, and a larger one which was both bedroom and dining room. The bed was a short walk from the small, rough table that had only grown more broken down through the years.

Dull, old brown dresses, a small cottage, and empty bottles of elixir, that was all the riches Heather had stolen had gotten. But she'd lived, even as a pauper. Even though Heather would've preferred her to live wrapped in luxury.

Somehow, the repairs had been kept up. The roof leak she'd promised to fix, but had never gotten into it when a con and a pretty lady took her miles away, had been patched entirely. The door had a new doorknob, and the thick quilt that lay up to her chin was definitely new.

It was good to know that the town's people were helping take care of her. Heather felt a flicker inside. She should've been the one to do it.

Images filled Heather's mind. Coming back to an empty house, her mother already buried. No bedside talk, no goodbyes. That was what would happen if she didn't stop wandering. But it would take years with real work to get enough money for the medicine--and that was only if she had a good crop season. A bad one could make barely enough profits to survive on.

"I'm sorry, mother," she said.

But her mother had already fallen asleep. These days, it took very little to wear her out. As much as Heather vehemently denied the signs, her mother's health was even worse than usual.

I'm sorry for being a bad girl. A cheater, a thief, and a liar. I'm sorry I couldn't be the kind of girl you always wanted.

But, she thought, as she watched her mother sleeping, she could fake it. Just for a few days. Just in case the medicine didn't work. She'd played this role in bars for cons, and to steal away wallets all across the country. She could pretend once again, for one big con.

*

The room was filled with books that never had a chance to get dusty, books with fraying spines and bent pages, some of which had been laid across the desk in various states of repair. Everything about the mercenary fort was a series of patches. Patched clothes, patched walls, little rips and tears from a group who could've been the royal guardians dressed in silks and velvet.

Ike repositioned the quill he'd knocked over, missing the drops of ink. Quite a few women found him utterly handsome, the perfect man, for reasons Heather couldn't begin to fathom. She tried to imagine sitting by him at the edge of her mother's bed, his thick muscled arm about her. She felt a visceral repulsion that she swallowed back.

She'd done low-grade honeypot missions before. She'd pretended to adore men for money she could lavish on the women around her. At least Ike wouldn't try and cop a feel or make suggestions, like some pathetic drunk in a bar would. He might eat all her dinner if she ordered the wrong thing, though.

Here goes...

Heather cleared her throat.

"Hello--hello again, I should say."

Ike squinted at her for a moment. "You worked with us. Back in the war before, I think. Your name--"

A book was laid down on the desk. "Heather. A thief whose only intentions to join the army was to chase after women," Soren said.

Well, he was as blunt as ever. Ike didn't seem particularly shocked by this, but she could always count on him to not be interested in women. She considered it his best trait, to be quite honest. That and the many girls she could comfort when he failed to see their admiration towards him.

"Coming to visit someone?" Soren said dryly.

"No, I'd like to hire you. For old time's sake, you could say."

"I'll get the ledger," Soren said. She could hear the faint rustle of his robes as he exited the room.

Heather reached into the wallet at her hip, and pulled out a white jewel. "There's more where that came from if you do the job right."

Ike looked to the door. She followed where his gaze went, but saw nothing except splinters and what looked like magic burns on the worn wood. The place certainly had seen better days.

"Okay, I'll just spell it out for you. I need someone to play the part of a fiancee while I visit my mother. Someone who will erase all the questions. I want to make her proud, and settle her fears, even if just for a little while."

Ike's brow furrowed. "A date? This isn't a brothel," Ike said.

The door flew open, and Soren came in so fast that the pages fluttered about him, as if he'd called on wind spirits to help him get there before some disaster struck.

"You have a lot of practice doing this, don't you?" Heather said.

"You have no idea," Soren said.

He looked down at the jewel she had in her hand. For a moment, his red eyes widened, but he caught himself. Funny, she'd have thought he'd have had the best poker face around. Maybe being near to Ike brought his emotions to the surface.

"A fake fiancee," Soren said. He glanced over her with a critical eye.

"Very fake. One dinner, and I retain the right to use whoever I contract as an excuse for as long as I need," Heather said.

"We'll take the job―more precisely, I'll take the job," Soren said.

Heather considered this. Soren was much smaller, and delicate than Ike, and was even less likely to touch her or show any form of affection. Besides, there'd be far less consequences. Ike was a hero; Soren was merely a tactician and friend, and she was far less likely to run into gossip mongers which would cause problems down the line. Where Ike was blunt and often artless, Soren could be calculating when it came to nobility and plying people. She'd seen how he'd put on the flattery to win over Aimee's silver card.

"Deal, though, I suppose I'll have to pay extra to actually get you to act polite."

She reached into her pocket and pulled out a blue gem. "This should be enough. With how much I'm paying, I expect no rants about the failures of humanity."

"I've smiled in the face of worse," Soren said.

"And then you called her beautiful," Heather said. She smirked at the memory, at how easily manipulated Aimee had been, especially considering how flat his voice had been.

Of course, there were always caveats.

"―But you can't wear that. I'll need something a little more---"

The words uncouth, dirty, disgusting came to mind, but that was just her usual word associations with men.

"Manly, I guess."

Soren looked down briefly to his clothing, his expression unreadable.

"As long as you don't expect me to chop wood, we'll be fine," Soren said dryly.

She had to admire that he was a truly mercenary mercenary; they were becoming pretty scarce these days.

"You don't have to change anything, just put a tunic on and some manly boots, and slather on some dirt, or whatever you men wear," Heather said.

"Manly... dirt?" Soren said. "Are you sure I'm the one you want? We could call Boyd in here. I wouldn't expect too much of him. You'd probably want to refund some of those diamonds---"

Through the open window, she heard two slurred voices.

"Tharrrt tree was sumthin' elsee! Even if the Dryad was too shy to show up, that skirt fit her greatt!"

"Nice job moatterboatin her, jackass. Your face looks like youuu went through a meat grater!"

"Rhyyys will fix usss up. He always doesss. Hey, Rhyyyssss!"

They both laughed so hard that it turned into a coughing fit. They stumbled on, their garbled speech indiscernible.

"My point stands," Heather said.

"They hardly count. I'd put their intelligence level somewhere between farm animal and compost," Soren said.

"Not surprising," Heather said.

"I'll draw up the contract," Soren said.

With little more than corralling lost animals and the occasional bandit to weed out, a few weeks without Ike and Soren was little problem. Titania had taken on the role of leader with ease. With ten thousand gald in their possession, from a guarding mission for the queen two months ago, they could cover their expenses for at least the rest of the year, if not well into the next.

Heather usually did con jobs on her own. Too many people complicated things. The lies would get tangled up until they'd become a noose. However, Soren had two qualities she admired: a sharp mind and an endless willingness and capacity to do anything Ike wished, no matter what the consequences. If she could convince Ike to do it, Soren would already help along, no matter how much he had to get his hands dirty.

If Ike's moral compass hadn't been so strong, maybe they would be working together on cons daily. But as it was, Soren was moral because Ike was. Heather tried not to think what Soren would've turned into if Ike hadn't been around. The worst dictator the world had ever seen, someone to far outstrip the Mad King of Daein, or a hermit deep in the woods?

None of the options were particularly settling.

Good thing he's on our side, Heather thought to herself.

*

The date was all planned out. Soren would arrive at sundown, some kind of stew would be made, they would exchange a series of lies, and then he would disappear and become a convenient excuse whenever her mother asked.

The sunset was gold across the fields. She heard a thunk against the fence, and glanced over. A thief could never be too careful. An arrow from a brigand or a guard could come from anywhere.

"Heather, it's been ages," Nephenee said. She put aside her shovel, "Don't mind the dirt, I ain't had time to clean up since I been helpin' with the harvest."

"We fought in the war together, I've had to pull you off the battlefield with you stained with dozens of different men's blood, I hardly think a little dirt is going to disgust me," Heather said.

Heather couldn't help but smile. With the gold clouds at her back, she looked even more beautiful. Her teal hair was pulled into a loose ponytail that had come slightly undone, to leave a soft series of wisps to frame her face.

Little smudges of dirt were across her cheeks, and to Heather, it only made her look cuter. There was no armor now, but a pair of short pants that came just to her calves, and a white blouse, colored with stains of green and brown.

"I saw Ike and Soren just a little while ago. Didn't expect them out here so far. It's almost like the whole army is back together again."

"Oh, did you say hello?" Heather said.

"Well, I wouldn't want to interrupt. I mean, Soren's always so--busy."

Nephenee had never quite taken to Soren. Unlike most people, she took his callous ways a little personally. Somehow they never registered as 'country enough' to leave her comfortable around them, and Soren's disdain for everyone, along with Ike's bluntness left her stuttering and twisting her fingers, unable to meet his gaze.

Heather leaned against the fence, and smiled towards Nephenee. "Don't worry, I'll protect you from the their rudeness," she said.

"Aw, shucks, Heather. You're sweet, but I can survive a little grimacin'. I've seen livestock ten times more nasty than even Soren can manage." She wiped the sweat from her brow away with the back of her hand. "Tell your ma I said 'hi.'"

"How's your Meemaw been?" Heather said.

"She's been right good lately. Ornery as ever. She's even been walkin' about and sittin' in the sunshin'," Nephenee said.

"I'm so glad to hear it," Heather said. "Really, it such a wonderful help for you to look in on my mother when I go out to get medicine."

"Well, I reckon you would do the same if we were in the same boat. She's had her ups and downs, but she's actually looked a bit better this Spring. So that's why you're back so soon? You just left a couple days ago. Or did you get real lucky with your medicine sellers?" Nephenee said.

Heather realized with a sudden sinking feeling that Nephenee could blow her plan wide open. One of the biggest rules of a con, was the more people you involved, the more likely it was to fall apart. But all it would take was Nephenee slipping up, and her entire plan would be torn to pieces.

"Oh, I'm just going to introduce Soren to my mother," Heather said casually.

Nephenee looked skeptically at her. "Really? You sure he's the one from the old mercenary group to show your Ma? Wouldn't Ike be better and less likely to storm off in a fit of moodiness?"

"Oh no, Soren's definitely the one," Heather said. She looked back to Soren with some pride. He'd been a wonderful pick for her fake boyfriend. He also wanted as little human contact as possible with her, he was upfront about being here just for the money, and most important of all, he would never, ever, ever develop feelings for her. All wonderful qualities in a man, as far as Heather was concerned.

"Oh, you didn't hear? Soren and I are...an item," Heather said. Even saying it left a bad taste in her mouth. Nephenee tilted her head.

"What now? He gave you some items? I didn't think he ever gave anythin' away for free. At least, to anyone but Ike," Nephenee said.

"--He's my intended," Heather said.

Nephenee raised one eyebrow. "Wait, Soren? That Soren? Not some other Soren? You and....him? You sure about that, Heather?"

"Of course I am. I figured it was time to settle down," Heather said.

"With Soren?" Nephenee said again. "I mean, how would that even work? Are you goin' to just take Ike along too or...I didn't think you were even into guys. And now you got two of them." Nephenee shook her head. "I can't say I'm too surprised at you charmin' anyone, but Ike and Soren? Really?"

Heather laughed. "Ike isn't about this. We all know they're just friends."

"...Heather, you ain't been playin' with spirit boards, have you? I heard my Meemaw say some farmer's kids around the way tried to contact the other side for a game, and one of them got possessed. Because if you did, there's bound to be a cleric around who can set you to rights."

Heather playfully tapped her shoulder. "Now, now, don't be mocking my man," she said.

She'd carefully studied the kinds of women who liked men over the years. She could play with her hair, and if she needed to drive said man away, talk of marriage and children. Heather had even left herself a series of notes on what parts of men were supposedly attractive, just in case she ever had to say in a desperate situation.

Heather was utterly sure she had managed this part, though Nephenee's look said otherwise. What could she say? Nephenee knew her a little too well to be tricked by such flimsy parlor tricks. If it was some barkeep who had tried to grope her and steal her wallet, she might've blackmailed them, or slit their throat if they kept it up, but she couldn't bring herself to do such a thing to sweet little Nephenee.

One of the biggest rules of a con was to not care about anyone involved. Well, she'd already failed this step as thoroughly as she could.

"Anyways, I've got a dinner ready. My mother's expecting me, and I wouldn't want to keep her." Heather tried to make it sound airy, as opposed to the pensive feeling of stepping out onto a stage.

When in reality, her plan was showing some serious holes. Damn her inability to pass one pretty girl without flirting. It was really hampering her attempt to make it appear like she was into men.

It only has to be for a night, then he can be conveniently pushed aside and always working elsewhere, Heather reminded herself.

*

"Mother, I've got a surprise for you," Heather called out as she opened the door.

"Hello, stranger. It sure has been a long time," she said. Her mother clutched the jeweled cane Heather had bought for her, or at least what she told her mother how she got it.

"Mother! You're such a joker!"

Heather's mother chuckled. "So you keep telling me."

Her face was worn beyond her years, with more frown lines than smile lines. Every time she returned, Heather saw new marks of the illness. A sallow pallor that hadn't been there before. She didn't think Nephenee would outright lie, but she saw the world in rosy hues, and always had hope.

No matter how many jewels and elixirs Heather stole, her mother couldn't fight this disease forever. It grew easier to be away, to gather things where she wouldn't have to face that any day could be the one where she was forced to bury her mother.

"I've got someone to introduce to you," she said.

She gestured to Soren. At the rate she was paying him, she sure hoped he could at least fake smile and common civility. But, knowing him, he'd probably hike up the rates for things like politeness.

"We fought in the war together. I'm sorry for keeping this secret, but I really wanted to be sure before I brought anyone back home," Heather said.

"Pleased to meet you," Soren said.

Well, it was a start. He didn't look like he wanted to run to the nearest room and slam the door, and possibly the book in someone's face. He apparently hadn't listened to her command about wearing something more 'manly,' but then again, it was possible none of the armor fit him.

"You've never brought anyone home to me before," her mother said. She gave Soren a cynical one-over; he returned the favor.

"Well, I never had anyone I was that serious about," Heather said. "I have very, very, very high standards, you know."

At her mother's lifted brow, she realized her misstep.

"---Because I was so busy working in that traveling shop. You know me, always putting my work before my love life."

Soren made a soft noise in his throat, which she knew was the visual equivalent of rolling his eyes. She gave him a meaningful side glance. She'd forgotten his sharp tongue. Maybe a talk of lowering payment if he couldn't keep his snide comments in order was needed.

"--But, he blinded me with magic. And now, we're a couple!"

"I meant to put on a stew, but I got so tired, and before I knew it, it was much too late. I'm sorry, Heather dear," she said.

"Oh, don't worry! Soren and I will cook for you. We just love cooking together, that's how we um, dated. Yes, dated," Heather said.

She motioned him into the kitchen, and shoved a potato his way. "Peel this. And keep it together. Yes, I know this is a ridiculous sham, but you're being paid well to be a decent sham, so keep your tongue in check."

"You truly should've read the contract better. It states in paragraph five: No refunds, and no retraction of funds, even should event a end in disaster."

"You're a shrewd one," Heather said.

Soren just smirked at that. He started to peel the potato, and Heather set the pot full of water. She couldn't exactly ask him; he probably couldn't even lift the bucket. Soren set the peeled potato aside, and pulled out a red tome. A flash of light, and small flames burst beneath the cauldron.

"Handy. No wonder Ike keeps you around."

"Just for that, I'm charging more."

"We agreed to a price already," Heather said.

"Paragraph seven: should the client be unduly difficult, there will be payment increases of an undisclosed amount, depending on the situation."

Heather grimaced. Maybe she should've read that contract a few more times. But, she'd been desperate enough to not shop around at the other mercenary groups. Most of them would be a little too free with their hands—they might even enjoy the endeavor. Soren, however, could be trusted to hate every moment. And everything else. Which made him the perfect partner in this con.

"No matter. I can stir the soup. Get back to peeling, please, or I won't have any soup to stir," Heather said.

Soon the kitchen was filled with just the sounds of the knife stripping away the potato skin. Soren never was much of a talker. Though, Heather thought, sometimes that wasn't so bad.

In her experience, the less someone talked about a con, the better it went.

*

Once the pot had been filled, and left to boil, both she returned to check on her mother. Soren followed behind, and took a seat at the small table.

"Mother, are you feeling okay?" Heather said.

"Oh, I'll be all right. I can hold up for a night with my only daughter and her future husband. You never share your secrets, Heather dear. Tell me about why you fell in love with this nice young man."

In that moment, Heather's mind came to an utter blank. She mentally scrambled through the entirety of her excuses, only to find all her notes had been for men more built like Ike. She couldn't exactly cite 'broad shoulders or 'rugged chins' like what was apparently what people found sexy in men, as Soren had neither. She really needed to expand her notes, and study the types of people who liked men more. Just in case another scheme like this came up in a future con.

In bars, it was easy. Drunkards would gladly part with their coins for a flutter of eyelashes and a flip of her hair. Many wouldn't even report a theft, as they assumed their gald had been drank away the night before. But in front of her mother was like stepping out onto a stage, knowing that any wrong answer would make her the worst daughter imaginable.

It was a lot hard to pull on con on someone she knew and loved, that was for sure.

"Heather, did you hear me, dear?"

"Oh, I--"

Soren, however, was largely unfazed by all this. Before she could dig herself any deeper, he responded for them both.

"...Her quick thinking and ways with money," Soren said.

"Really? That's what made you fall in love? That sounds more like like a boss talking about his worker," she said skeptically.
"I'm hardly a romantic," Soren said.

"--And that's what I like about him. His quick mind, and skills with money made him an excellent fit for working in the shop together. And his uh....tactics. It's hard to explain, but he really was something on the battlefield. He helped lead us to victory so many times. He's also very loyal."

She left out the part where that loyalty only applied to Ike.

Was she supposed to grip his hand? She mentally tried to remember what those kinds of couples did, but all she could remember was groping and giggling in the bars she prowled at.

Soren seemed to have the same thought, as he slowly took her hand in his. "She's helped advance the coiffures of the mercenary group with her...skills. For that, I am grateful."

Before her mother could respond, a knock sounded at the door.

"Come on in!"

A beautiful, shy farm girl pushed the door open. The awkward night grew about twenty times better just at the sight of her.

"Oh, Nephenee dear. I'm so glad to see you again," Heather's mother said.
"Don't get up, I got it," Nephenee said. Nephenee hoisted a big bucket of milk towards the kitchen. Heather couldn't help but stare at her dreamily.

"Oh, Nephenee, you're wonderful!" Heather said.

Tone it down, people are watching, Heather mentally reprimanded herself. But damn if Nephenee didn't look so cute lifting up that heavy can of milk like it was nothing. God, Nephenee could hoist her like that any time.

"Oh, Soren. Er, is something the matter?" Nephenee asked. She sounded almost hopeful. "I didn't interrupt anythin', did I?"

"Oh no, Heather here was just showing me this young man she met at the war and has been keeping from me all this time. That girl of mine is always one for secrets. She got it from her father," she said. She broke into a series of coughs. Heather desperately reached out to steady her hand across the table.

"Should I go get a cleric?" Nephenee said warily.

"No, I'll be all right. I'm just waiting for that medicine of Heather's to kick in," she said.

"Well, I wouldn't want to intrude," Nephenee said finally.

"Nonsense! You must know Soren too, right? Since you were in the war with her," she said.

Nephenee glanced nervously at the door. "Er, we've met..." Nephenee said.

"Then you must've seen them together. I'm surprised you didn't tell me! Did Heather swear you to secrecy?"

Nephenee didn't respond for a moment. Finally, she glanced towards Soren warily. "I'm surprised you didn't bring Ike along, considerin' that he and Soren are almost never parted."

"You didn't mention he had a brother," Heather's mother said.

"No. They're much closer than brothers," Nephenee said.

"--because they're such good friends," Heather cut in. "Almost like brothers, just without the blood. Really."

"Well, bring him down. There's always room for one more," she said.

"I saw him at the market. I'll go get him, right away," Nephenee said.

"You know what, I think we need to go check on the soup. Together. Because that's what couples do. Together. Just stirring that soup." Heather looped her arm stiffly through Soren's, and all but dragged him into the kitchen.

"Ike was never part of the plan!"

"He is now," Soren said. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, "I never took her to be a backstabber. You must be rubbing off on her."

Heather sighed. "She isn't a backstabber. I don't know what she's trying to do."

"We could call an emergency and cut the night short," Soren said.

"At your rates? Not likely. You'd bankrupt me," Heather said.

"Considering your coiffures are entirely made from other people's wealth, I think that's highly unlikely."

He certainly wasn't one she could pull over a con on easily. She'd almost admire it—if she didn't know that he probably just added on more fees just for that.

"Okay, fine. If things become dire, I'll just...pretend your house burned down, or something. A tragic cow accident."

Soren lifted one brow. "Cow accident?" Soren said.

"Fine, you make up the excuse. You're the tactician here."

"As the tactician, my first plan is no cows," he said.

Heather plastered on a smile as she came back from the kitchen. Soren stayed; last time he'd tried to smile, he'd scarred a whole group of children for life.

*

"Yoohoo! Oh hero of mine~"

"Crud," Ike muttered, as he ducked behind a shop stall.

"Oh, playing hide and seek with me? Well, I'll surely find you--"

Ike tried to duck further under the stall, but it was too small. The glint of his armor still showed. Just as he thought Aimee would come to his hiding spot, Ike head a throat clear.

"Miss Aimee, you're looking for Ike? Er, because you had to sell him somethin', right? He went that way," Nephenee said. She pointed towards the bar, where Shinon would surely be halfway to drunk by now, if not further.

"Oh, thank you! You always were so dependable," Aimee said. She gave Nephenee one last sultry smile before she rushed off, calling Ike's name all the while.

Nephenee bent down to peer into the stall. "Hey, General Ike. Close call, huh?"

"I'm not a general any longer," Ike said. He glanced back, and sheathed his sword. Newly sharpened, it would last for at least a couple more months, depending on how many Brigands they were called to exterminate.

"Best you leave town before she sees you again. Besides, I've got an invitation. Heather's mom wants you to come along to dinner."

Ike's brow furrowed. "Soren called for me?"

"Well, I'm sure he'd like to see you. You're about the only thing he seems to not hate," Nephenee said.

"Well, if he needs back up, then we'd better get going," Ike said.

"Doesn't it bother you? I mean, your, um, friend goin' and gettin' hitched? I don't know, it all just seems real sudden. You think maybe she got a bun in the oven?" Nephenee said. She scrunched up her face.

"Not remotely," Ike said.

"Well, if you're sure. Still, this whole thing is awful strange," Nephenee said.

"It sounds like it bothers you," Ike said.

"I'd be lyin' if I said it didn't. Somehow, it just don't seem right."

"You're jealous of him?" Ike said.

Nephenee clutched her spear. "Soren? What? N-No. No, no really, he um, ain't really my type, and he's already got someone he loves so. I just don't want Heather gettin' hurt because someone else is already first in his heart. I mean, even a blind man could see he's already head over heels with someone. But he's always so mercenary about everythin', maybe he'd ignore his heart like that and settle down."

Ike's grip on his sword tightened. "...Soren's in love with someone?" Ike said.

"...Ike, did anyone ever tell you that maybe you need glasses?" Nephenee said.

"Soren suggested it. Nothing came of it," he said.

"...Right. We should probably just head on back before the soup gets cold."

She didn't try and keep the conversation going, for good reason. All the way back, Ike looked tense enough to unravel, with just an occasional barely audible sound of It couldn't be. She's mistaken. Soren wouldn't.

*

"Oh, Nephenee, you returned just in time," Heather's mother said.

"This is General Ike," Nephenee said.

"Former general Ike, now simply commander of the Greil Mercenaries," Soren cut in.

"Oh, I've heard so much about you. Nephenee, she tells me stories sometimes," Heather's mother said.

Ike had to bend to fit into the door. Ike gave her a quick nod; he never was one much for grand introductions.

"Now, sit on down. We need to be giving some thanks for this food. Hold hands, everyone! That way, the Goddess can hear us."

Soren's mouth twitched. She couldn't tell if it was him being obstinate, or his usual sacrilegious self. Nothing hampered faith like actually meeting the Goddess, and having her attempt to turn the land to stone and personally murder the entirety of the Greil Mercenaries.

Then again, meeting the Goddess had made Heather twice as religious. The portraits really did not do her justice.

"Shouldn't someone check on the soup first?" Heather said. She already had begun to formulate a plan of escape.

"I'll do it," Ike said.

So much for that escape.

"Oh, are you sure? You're a guest," Heather's mother said.

"Knowing him, he probably wanted to make sure it was spiced enough to his taste," Heather said.

Heather tried to turn her grimace into a smile as she reached out to touch him. At least his hands were soft, and not dirty and rough, like most of the men around here. If she closed her eyes, she wouldn't have to focus so hard on how much she had to pretend like men were appealing.
"You certainly seem to be a smart young man. You'll take good care of her business, well into her old age. Tell me, have you thought of children?"

Both Soren and Heather only managed to stare back, wide-eyed at this.

"We're focusing on the business," Soren said flatly.

"Oh, that's a shame, but I'm not surprised. Heather always was an independent kind of girl. But all that distance has to be hard on you both," Heather's mother said.

"It won't be a problem. We've never let such pointless things get between our relationship. A relationship should be built upon trust, and written in contracts," Soren said.

"...Written in contracts?" Nephenee said. She looked incredulously from Soren to Heather, and back again. Finally, Nephenee pushed her chair back, and rose.

"Listen, I can't just ignore this." She lifted her chin, shyness driven away by determination. "―He doesn't love you!" she burst out.

"No refunds," Soren said in a low voice.

"--It's always been clear as day that he loves Ike, anybody who ever spent more than ten minutes knows that. Ike's the one he's loyal to, and you'll never be anything like that to them. You're a real lovely girl, and you deserve someone who thinks the world of you, not someone who is just with you for---I don't even know what's happenin' here. This ain't like you at all.―everyone knows Soren loves Ike more than anythin', and you ain't into his kind."

The table fell silent. Soren' expression was unreadable. At this commotion, A spoon dropped from Ike's hands. He now stood in the doorway, and glanced towards Soren with an expression of both confusion and concern, with maybe a little bit of relief.

"...I have feeling Ike didn't. Or at least he didn't before," Heather said.

Nephenee flushed bright pink, even to her ears. "Oh no.... I've really gone and messed things up. Oh, Nephenee, you're such a fool. I don't think all the apologies in the world will help me out of this mess."

Soren pushed himself up from the chair without a word.

"Soren, wait!" But Soren continued out into the night. Ike followed after him. The door slammed behind them, not with anger, but simply Ike's desperation.

"Well, it's for the best to get this all out before the wedding happens," Heather's mother said.

"...D-do you think they hate me?" Nephenee said. "I should've just shut my mouth."

"Well, Soren hates everyone and about everything but Ike, and Ike only hates people who are really evil, or real rich snooty types, so it's about the same. I doubt they hate me."

"D'you hate me?" Nephenee said.

"I couldn't ever hate you, Nephenee. I just kind of wish you'd talked to me instead. I would've told you what was going on."

Heather let out a long sigh.

"I guess I should've just told you in the first place, instead of trying to bring you into the story. Then none of this would've happened. All right, I'll spill.The whole thing was a lie. I hired Soren to give mom some hope that I had someone. Just in case she...." she couldn't bring herself to say the word die, "...didn't make it," she said finally.

"Nephenee's right. Heather, dear. You shouldn't be hiring a man. That isn't what I want at all. What did your father teach you? Poker face."

"My poker face is fine. This is the face that fleeced a thousand jackasses," Heather said indignantly.

"Heather, dear, I always knew. You might have a poker face with men, but I saw the way you used to look at the farm girls around here, even as a young girl, and knew immediately. Besides, I knew he wouldn't stay with you long the minute I saw him lay eyes on that leader of yours."

"You think I'm blind? You always followed after your father, may he rest in peace. Every time I look at you, I see echoes of him. That roguish smile, that charm, the way you always. I didn't want you to end up like him. I knew you were after girls since you were five years old stealing flowers to give to that neighbor girl on the farm. The way you looked at here, well. It was no secret."

"I guess I just wanted to be a good, normal girl for you. I would've dropped him eventually, but I could pretend at least. Bring him to the holidays. It'd be mutually beneficially; they'd get financial support, and I'd have a fake boyfriend whenever I needed. Besides, it's Soren; it's not like you'd catch him feeling up dozens of girls in the bars," Heather said.

Her mother's face furrowed into a frown. "You listen here, I don't want none of that. I don't want you getting into some sham marriage just for my sake. That's the last thing that would please me. But I don't want to see you strung up like your father was. Even if I know you got his blood."

She was too young to remember the public hanging, but it'd marked her. What little family they had wouldn't even speak to them. Closed away from any financial help, and with her mother's illness worse than ever, she'd had to take to the streets.

"When I said you should settle down, I meant you should bring home a nice girl. Like Nephenee, here. She just moons over you constantly." Nephenee ducked her head and blushed even deeper at this.


"She's been bringing me fresh milk every day, with no charge, and even fresh produce, and home cooked meals, and the most delicious apple pies I ever did have. Her Meemaw's sent quilts to keep my old bones warm, and Nephenee sits and listens to me ramble on whenever I ask. I've felt better than ever because of her kindness, even if I don't look it."

"You did that for my mother?" Heather said. "You never mentioned it."

"I thought you knew," Heather's mother said. She shook her head. "What kind of woman do you take me for? Forcing my own daughter into a fake marriage with a man no less. Heather, such a thing would be unthinkable for you."

"It was embarrassin' to admit. I was just lookin' in on her. I wanted to keep your kin safe. Then I had to go puttin' my head where it didn't belong. ....I made a real mess of things, I'm sorry," Nephenee said. She tightened her grip on the table. Her teal bangs only slightly hid her shamefaced expression.

"No, I was the one who messed up. I should've trusted my mother with this. It's just―" Heather let out a sigh.

"I've never regretted who I am, but–Sometimes, I just want to be that girl who comes back and makes her mother happy. I was never lying to myself, but I thought that a little lie wouldn't hurt. I'd just make up some boyfriend, just like I made up all those jobs to explain how we always had money in the house. I didn't want my mother to be on her deathbed and have regrets."

"Heather, don't be silly. You've never left me ashamed."

But, her mother didn't know what she'd done.

"Mother...I don't work in a shop. You always said I was just like dad--well, I'm more like him than you know."

"You've got so much of your father in you," she said. "You think I didn't know that you didn't get that medicine through selling things? I'm honored to have a girl who would go that far to keep this old heart still beating, even as I worry about you terribly."

Nephenee looked up, her face still cast with guilt. "Should I..go after Ike and Soren?"

"No, dear. Let them be. They have plenty to sort out on their own."

*

The sky was starry above, but Soren was in no mood for stargazing. Even in spring, the last grip of winter could be felt in the cold chill of the night air. Soren hadn't run far. There was nowhere for him to go. Ike would be at the mercenary's fort, and it was unthinkable to not be beside him.

Even as merely a friend.

Other mercenary groups would hide him. Gallia's ambassador had said in no uncertain terms that if he ever wished, he could find work there. He could likely find work within Begnion, or Melior's halls as well.

But a life without Ike was not much of a life at all. An existence near starving, all the hues dulled to nothing but endless winter grays.

He heard the crunch of boots behind him. Too clumsy to be any brigand; Ike never was much for stealth.

Soren slowly opened his bag, as if there was something incredibly important he needed that moment. He always packed light. Excess frippery and waste were things he found distasteful.

"Is it true?" Ike said in a low voice. Soren wouldn't look his way. He kept trying to sort his satchel, as words failed him.

"Soren," Ike said again, more firmly this time. "Is it true?"

"Yes," Soren replied. He wouldn't look up from his tome. "It's all true."

Ike didn't respond immediately. Soren clutched tight to a bottle within his satchel simply to have something to keep his hands from trembling.

"For a long time, all I wanted was to be this swordsman worthy of my dad. I guess I wanted to be a hero without realizing what that'd really be like."

"I remember," Soren said.

"And when he died, all there was in my life was protecting the country, saving everyone. Then it was rebuilding the mercenary group. I didn't even have time to think of myself."

"….You don't have to say it, Ike. I always knew it was pointless to say anything. I never wanted you to know...and look at me differently. As long as I got to be by your side, then I would be able to make it. Even if I had to watch you fall in love with someone else. I was used to having nothing, and this would be no different. Please...don't let this ruin our friendship. That's all I ask. Don't let this ruin the one thing I still have." Soren slowly raised his eyes to meet Ike's. "...do you think I'm disgusting?"

"Soren, don't be ridiculous." He slowly gripped Soren's shoulders. "I could never find you disgusting."

Not when he confessed to being branded. Ike hadn't turned away then. But Soren hadn't revealed everything.

"There was a moment when Nephenee said you were in love with someone and it felt like a punch to the gut thinking you'd go off and marry someone else. It was unthinkable. Like I couldn't imagine a world without you in it. I guess I've been the most blind guy in the world," Ike said.

"Ridiculous. No one could compare to you," Soren said.

Soren rested his head against Ike's chest. Even with the rough edge of armor, it was a comfort.

"I'm just a staff officer. I don't know how to do things like this," he said softly.

"You're good at a lot of things," Ike said.

"Not this," Soren said.

"Well, I guess I'm not too good at this, either. We can figure it out together."

"What even would we do? Send each other flowers?" Soren shook his head. "I have no use for such fripperies."

"I don't think we have to change much," Ike said. He smiled then. "Okay, maybe a little bit of change."

Ike leaned down and kissed the top of Soren's head. "Maybe no more jobs which involve pretending to be someone's lover, all right?"

"Agreed," Soren said.

*

"Well, I hope all this didn't ruin your appetite. Because that food sure smells wonderful. It would be a shame for the evening to be ruined," Heather's mother said.

"Actually, er--I smell smoke," Nephenee said.

"Oh no--the soup!"

Heather rushed into the kitchen. The spirit flames called by mages burned supernaturally hot, and would cook food twice a fast. But that meant they'd burn twice as fast, too. The soup had boiled over, and the bottom was surely blackened.

"I think it's still salvageable. Lemme see," Nephenee said.

She started to stir it with a large wooden spoon. Nephenee drew some of the potato soup out, and doled it into wooden bowls.

"Just add some milk. It'll make it creamy again," she said.

"The bottom will have to be scraped. It'll take hours." Heather rubbed her temples. Just the thought made her feel like she was developing a headache. Cleaning the stew pot had always been her least favorite task.

"I'll do it. It's my stupid mouth which got us all in trouble anyways."

"Hey, don't be so hard on yourself. You set things right. I was too blinded by fear to even think of what I'd do."

"You know, taking care of my mother like that is the sweetest thing anybody has ever done for me."

Settling down hadn't been in Heather's agenda for a long, long, long time, but Nephenee made sticking to her old ways very hard. Nephenee pushed her teal hair back from out of her face.

"Aw, shucks, Heather."

Heather winked, and gently lifted her chin. "You've got to stop being so cute, or I'm going to have to kiss you."

Her lips parted into a little o. All of Heather's resolve faded as she leaned in and cupped her chin, and their lips met. Nephenee was wonderfully soft, and warm. The scent of fire and burbling soup, and the earthy traces of her skin filled her. Nephenee fit within these walls which had once been Heather's home, and now would be again. Kissing Nephenee was like the first bite of autumn apples, the first shoot of green crops out of damp, dark soil.

And even on this awkward night, full of broken plans and disasters, Heather knew there was nowhere else she’d rather be.

When she pulled back (no getting too hot and heavy with her mother in the next room.) Nephenee looked so in awe that Heather wanted to kiss her again, and again, but not tonight. Nephenee touched her lips with such wonder, and looked on with such tenderness that Heather felt even that resolve start to crumble.

"We should bring the soup back, before your clothes end up on the floor," Heather said.

Nephenee was shocked to speechlessness. All Heather could think was this would be so much fun. Stealing kisses out in the farm fields, underneath the orchards, and ooh, maybe taking her skinny dipping in the nearby river when the weather warmed.

Together, Heather and Nephenee brought out heaping bowls of soup.

"Careful, it's hot," Nephenee said. "Lemme carry the next ones. I don't want you burnin' yourself."

Soren and Ike came through the door.

"Back so soon? I hope you got things settled," Heather's mother said.

"...Yes," Soren said. He turned towards Heather. "I trust the contract is completed, despite the setbacks?"

"I already paid in advance. You'll get no more coins from me," Heather said.

"Well. I think a wedding is in order," Heather's mother said.

Heather gasped. "Mother, it's much too soon!"

"I meant for them. Though trust me, dear, you'll be soon enough."

"Paragraph seven," Soren said.

"There had to be some paragraph where you had to make the client happy," Heather said.

"I think they've gotten their money's worth--and so did we," Ike said.

"Come on, stay for supper. Don't let that earlier awkwardness bother you. It's all fine now," she said.

Soren and Ike glanced to each other.

"Free food is free food," Ike said.

"I'd hardly call it free, though I suppose it could be worse; we could be eating at Aimee's campfire."

Ike grimaced. "Don't even remind me. I had to hide behind a stand to avoid her. It was too small."

"Did children come and mock you?" Heather said.

"I wasn't there long; Nephenee gave her wrong directions before she could find me."

"That's my girl!" Heather lifted up her cup. It only held cider, but that didn't stop her. "Always a reliable, that Nephenee. Always a cute one, too!" She winked. Nephenee pulled her helmet down to try and hide her embarrassment.

Even though the con had failed, Heather had never been happier.
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