Closer
by Benjamin Avner

I had figured it would take something pretty extreme to make me long for Kakkara. I was right. The desert heat and glare would have felt like a paradise after just a few hours in the Ice Country. I doubted if I would ever be warm again. The three of us - Purim, Popoie, and I - trudged onward through the endless white drifts of snow, the falling snow covering our tracks almost before we made them. The wind and snow hit our faces and bodies from every direction, quickly soaking through our clothing and chilling us to the bone. I could barely see five meters in front of me. My face must have been twice as red as it had been in the desert. When weíd reached the Ice Country in the late afternoon, seeking Salamando and the Fire Seed, we had hoped to reach the fabled Tropics by the end of the day. Now it seemed weíd be lucky to reach it tomorrow. Even Popoie was shivering to the point of convulsions by evening.

"Hey," I finally called out, shouting to be heard over the wind. "Weíre fooling ourselves if we think we wonít get lost traveling at night. Letís call it quits for the day."

Purim and Popoie had stopped questioning my judgement as our unofficial leader long ago, and both seemed eager to get out of the snow. Thankfully, weíd had the prudence to buy a tent before leaving the Ice Countryís unnamed town. We spent a few minutes looking for an area heavily wooded enough to keep us out of the reach of the roaming Howlers while we slept. Finding such a spot, we fought our way through the low-hanging, frosty tree branches, and struggled to pitch the tent. With relief, I stumbled inside behind the others.

The tent wasnít much protection. Its insulation was practically zero, and in the near-darkness, it felt almost as cold inside our shelter as out. It was nice not to have all that snow to worry about, though. It wasnít long before we were ready to sleep. Popoie could use some of his internal Mana to keep from freezing to death while sleeping, but Purim and I didnít have that luxury. The blankets that weíd been carrying in our packs had become too soaked to be worth it, so the two of us lay down on the floor of the tent, both of us still in our traveling clothes, and still shivering.

Purim moved over towards me, and I reached out to pull her closer. We held each other, feeling a bit warmer. From what I could see in the minimal light, she looked in a pretty bad way too, but her battle-hardened face showed no sign of wanting to give up on our quest. I had always found her inner strength and supportiveness endearing. Two years my senior, Purim always managed to stay focused and good-natured, even in the face of every kind of oppression imaginable. Her determination was reinforced by her undying love for Major Dyluck, of Pandora. Without Dyluck, I probably would never have met her, but I still couldnít suppress a few tinges of envy.

Purim shifted her weight until she was lying on top of me, arms wrapped around my body. I hugged her back, pulling her a bit closer, trying to share as much body heat as I could. I enjoyed the feel of her body pressing against mine. I suddenly realized how this closeness might make her feel, and I flinched away a bit.

She grinned, tossing her blonde ponytail back behind her head. "Donít worry about it," she managed through chattering teeth. "Even if Dyluck could see us, Iím sure heíd understand that weíre just trying to keep from freezing."

I tried to stay expressionless, but as close as we were, she must have picked up on something, even in the dimness of the tent. "Hey, whatís wrong?" Purim asked. Her countenance grew concerned as I didnít reply right away. "Randi? Whatís going on? Was it something I said?"

"No, itís nothing. My mind was just wandering," I managed, after a few moments. I started to elaborate, but then I broke off. I couldnít lie to her. "Well, actually∑"

I trailed off helplessly. She stared at me, a bit confused. "Why? Whatís the problem?"

"Yeah, well∑" I broke off again, a bit flustered. "Yeah, um, I guess I need∑ that is, I think I should tell you the truth." I hesitated a moment, and she broke in before I could continue.

"Oh∑ I get it. You∑ well, you care about me, donít you?"

I felt a little better about saying it now, though it was still hard. "More than that. I love you, Purim. I know this probably seems kind of out of place∑ uh, especially with Dyluck and everything, but thatís the way I feel. Iím, well, Iím sorry if itís wrong or something. Iíve been attracted to you ever since we first met, but in the time weíve traveled together, I realize my feelings have gotten deeper than that. Itís a little embarrassing, but I just canít hide it any more; I really love you."

Despite the fact that she seemed to be expecting something like that, my little speech seemed to catch her unprepared. She thought for a few seconds, apparently trying to put something into words. I held her a little closer, but I didnít interrupt. Finally, she managed to start talking.

"Damn∑ Randi, I really donít want to have to say this." She paused. "Guess I donít have a choice. Itís just that youíre such a great friend∑ I donít want to hurt you. But Iím just not interested in you that way. All of my love is for Dyluck. Iím sorry."

I sighed. "Yeah∑ I guess so. I was sort of expecting that, but I had hoped that things could be different∑" I was disappointed, but it felt kinda good to have said it. There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment, which Purim finally broke.

"Randi?"

"Yeah?"

"Well, um, we can still be friends, right? I mean, I hope itís okay with you. I could really use a friend right now."

"Yeah, itís okay with me, Purim. We still have a lot to do, and Iíd hate to lose a good friend. Especially at a time like this."

"Thatís so sweet, Randi." At first her words sounded patronizing, but I realized that wasnít what sheíd intended. "I think∑" she hesitated, then shrugged, leaning forward. "Oh, what the hell. You deserve something for that."

Our lips pressed close as she kissed me. For the first time since arriving in the Ice Country, I felt warm. I felt closer to her than Iíd ever felt to anyone. The kiss gave me a sense of deep satisfaction, plus that special thrill that supposedly always comes with a first kiss. But there was a sort of bittersweet emptiness that came with it, as at that moment, I really accepted that she couldnít love me the way I loved her.

"Feel better?"

I shrugged. "Thanks, Purim. Youíre really a great friend too." I hesitated a split-second, and she seemed to sense the "but" coming to my lips. "But I do need to tell you something else. I know you donít love me, but it doesnít change the way I feel about you. I donít know if anything will." I shivered, the cold coursing through my body again.

She frowned for a moment, but then smiled faintly. "Well, I guess itís good that you told me. There isnít much we can do about it." Her smile grew broader. "Itís good that we can be honest. Iím glad you trust me enough to tell me these things."

"Hey, what are friends for?" I forced a wry smile of my own.

Purim leaned closer and smoothed my hair back affectionately. "Youíre a real hero, you know that, Randi?"

I sighed, a sigh of mingled contentment and disappointment. "Thatís what they keep telling me."

The wind blew a sharp note. A wave of additional chill swept through the tent, and we held each other closer.

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