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Crown of Shadows

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“Please reconsider.”

In all the time Chrom had known Robin (which, to be fair, had only been a few months), he’d never heard the tactician angry. Irritated sometimes, and once so frustrated that he’d raised his voice. But now, standing just beyond the treeline and surrounded by the Shepherds’ forces, there was an unmistakable edge to his words as he met the captain’s gaze.

Even so, the prince did not budge. “No.”

“Captain, we know almost nothing about our enemy or the terrain,” Robin insisted. “Sending our forces in blind is foolhardy. If we take the time to scout out the area and watch the enemy’s activity, we’ll have a far greater likelihood of success and risk fewer casualties--”

“They have hostages,” Chrom reminded him.

“All the more reason not to rush in with weapons swinging. They might attempt to stay an attack by threatening their prisoners or kill them outright if cornered. We need to plan a targeted attack—”

“People’s lives are at stake,” the prince snarled. “Every moment we waste is a moment they’re left in fear. I don’t know how things are done in Plegia, but here in Ylisse we don’t abandon people to suffer. We’re going in. That’s an order.”

The tactician lowered his head, tucking his hands into his sleeves as he bowed. “As you command,” he muttered.

Drawing Falchion from its sheath, Chrom pointed the blade at the fort beyond the edge of the forest. “Move out.” The Shepherds leapt to obey, charging across the moonlit grounds and striking down the meager guard force that attempted to raise an alarm before crowding through the heavy doors of the bandit stronghold. As old and battered as the fort looked from outside, the interior was in far better shape than the prince would have expected. Several passages branched off of the entry hall, including two dark stairwells to either side, but the only light came from a few poorly tended torches spaced along the walls.

“Alright,” Robin muttered, scanning the room from beneath his raised hood. “Break into groups of two, and keep your guard up. Partner with someone proficient in a different weapon from your own: if one of you finds yourself at a disadvantage, your partner should be able to assist. Try to avoid combat if possible, but make sure you have a vulnerary on hand in case it’s unavoidable. If you find yourselves in trouble, retreat. Kellam, cover Miriel and head downstairs, see if they’re holding the hostages there; Gaius, go with them in case there are locks in the way. Virion, this will be our escape route if things get out of hand, so take up a defensible position -- off the ground, if you can manage -- and cover this room with your partner. Everyone else, fan out, and be cautious.”

The Shepherds looked to their captain for approval, and he gave it with a curt nod. They wasted no time, disappearing in twos and fours into the dark, until only Chrom, Frederick, Lissa, and the tactician remained. “What should I do?” the princess whispered, tugging on Robin’s sleeve.

“Best keep close to the way out,” he muttered. “It would be impossible to hunt down someone in distress given the spread of our forces. If there’s trouble, the Shepherds will be coming back here, and you’ll be able to take care of them.”

“Stay with her, Frederick,” the prince ordered. As the great knight saluted, Chrom started up the stairs leading up to the second floor, glancing over his shoulder to see the tactician still standing by the entrance with his sister. “Are you coming?”

“I suppose I am,” Robin sighed. Patting Lissa’s hand gently, he followed after the prince, his own steps barely audible in the dark as they felt their way along the curving wall.

“You’re mad at me, aren’t you,” Chrom muttered, peering out into the hall at the top of the stairs.

“Is now really the best time, Captain?”

“I’d rather not let bad blood linger,” the prince said, slipping out into the dim passage with the tactician close behind. “Especially in a situation like this.”

“And I’d rather survive the night,” Robin shot back, his voice barely breaking the stuffy silence.

“I’m sure those prisoners feel the same.”

“Then we should make haste.”

There it was again, that clipped tone that made Chrom bristle. “Do you take issue with my orders?”

“Whatever misgivings I might have had are entirely irrelevant now, and I’ve no energy to spare for hurt feelings,” the tactician replied coldly. “We can talk when we’ve finished things here. Now please focus on the task at hand.”

The prince turned and caught Robin’s arm in a fierce grip. “If you have a problem, say it,” he growled.

The tactician stared impassively back at him, his expression as unreadable as ever. “Calm down, Captain.”

Chrom released him after a moment, squaring his shoulders as he straightened. “Can I still trust you to watch my back?” he demanded.

“Of course,” Robin replied, bowing his head. Nodding sharply, the prince strode down the corridor—

“Step lightly, Captain.”

Chrom turned, weapon ready—and saw the tactician a pace behind him, pointing at one of the doors along the wall. Pacing back, he peered through the narrow gap...and tightened his grip on Falchion’s hilt as a bandit turned over in his cot.

“How many are there?” he breathed.

“I couldn’t say. I’d estimate two to four in this room, and who knows how many of the rooms are full,” the tactician murmured, glancing up and down the hall as he stepped away from the door. “It may be wise to pull back and cover the stairs, wait for the others to finish their sweep of the lower floors before attempting an assault here.”

“What if the prisoners are being held up here and the commotion downstairs gets them killed?” the prince snapped.

“What if the commotion downstairs rouses these brigands and we’re overwhelmed and taken hostage ourselves?” Robin returned.

Lives are at stake--”

“Including yours,” the tactician hissed. “Keep your voice down--”

“The fuck’s goin’ on out there?”

Robin stiffened at the shout from the nearest room, but Chrom moved, grabbing the tactician’s arm and dragging them further down the corridor as a door opened behind them. Ducking into the next hallway--

They barrelled into an armed rogue.

The man reeled back in alarm. “Intruders!!” he bellowed, snatching for his weapon.

The prince did not hesitate, striking out at the brigand as the enemy raised his axe -- but even as the man fell, Chrom heard others rousing in the rooms around them, the grate of steel on stone as they took up arms. Racing down the passage with Robin close behind, he ducked through an open door, dragging the tactician after him before closing and barring the way--

Robin’s thunder spell nearly deafened him in the small space. “Are you trying to bring them down on us!?” he snarled, whirling as the magic circles began to glow again...

...and his gut twisted at the sight of the half-dozen bandits scrambling from their chairs, overturning tables and scattering dice, bones, and coins across the floor in their haste to raise their weapons.

He charged into the fray, following the arc of the tactician’s next spell and cutting down one brute an instant before he could heft his hammer. Turning swiftly, he raised his blade just barely in time to block a myrmidon’s swing, striking him down as Robin’s bolt staggered him.

“Chrom!”

Leaping aside, the prince narrowly avoided another fighter’s swing, darting toward the door and felling the swordsman bearing down on the tactician’s position. Another man crumpled behind him, sparks from Robin’s spell crackling across his armor while Chrom crossed blades with the last standing axe-wielder, parrying the swift hatchet-strikes until another bolt stunned the enemy, leaving him a narrow opening to strike.

The prince heaved a sigh, trying to catch his breath as he scanned the wreckage. Gods, it was just one disaster after another tonight--

“Chrom!!”

He turned, hearing the crack of thunder as another spell flew -- following its arc up into the rafters, he saw an archer silhouetted in the spell’s light…

...and as the enemy fell to the floor below, the tactician staggered, an arrow jutting from his chest.

***

It had been quite a while since he’d taken such a wound.

As the captain shouted his name, Robin fell to his knees, pressing a hand to his chest and strangling the pained whimper in his throat. Gods, it hurt. Every breath sent agony crackling through him, spreading further the deeper he inhaled—but even as a wave of dread washed over him, he fought down the rising panic. Losing his head would get him nowhere but the grave. Relax. Breathe. Think.

The tactician sensed the prince kneeling at his side, heard the royal weapon ring as Chrom placed it on the floor, felt a shaking hand grip his shoulder. “Don’t touch it,” he cautioned, not bothering to open his eyes.

“Oh, gods, Robin--”

“Calm down, Captain,” the tactician muttered, drawing in a slow breath -- only to have it catch in his throat; a spasm ripped through his chest as he curled inward, pressing a hand to his mouth and coughing hard…

Something spattered in his palm. He grimaced at the metallic tang, muttering a low curse under his breath. “I need to retreat,” Robin muttered.

“Of course you do, you were just shot--”

“No, I mean I need to retreat rather more quickly than anticipated,” he sighed, tilting his blood-flecked palm toward the prince.

Silence greeted him.

When he finally managed to speak, Chrom’s voice sounded strained. “We need to get you to Lissa.”

“I’m afraid I’ll need a healer, not a cleric. Not that Lissa isn’t adept, but this is...rather more serious than I think she can address--”

“How can you be so calm!?”

The tactician opened his eyes, meeting the prince’s frantic stare without blinking. “Because if I don’t keep a level head, I’ll be dying that much faster.”

A crash sounded behind them. Glancing over his shoulder, Robin took in the splintered hole in the door, the axe blade lodged in the wood, the shouts of the rogues beyond...and turned his attention to the rest of the room. It might have been a meeting hall once, or perhaps a rallying point for soldiers; aside from the now blocked door they’d entered through, a second doorway on the far side of the room remained untouched -- though for how long, he didn’t dare guess.

“Can you help me up?” the tactician asked. Chrom nodded, grasping his arm firmly and pulling them both to their feet. Keeping one hand pressed tight against his chest, Robin picked his way across the room, pressing his ear to the door and straining to hear anything over the screaming agony and the pounding of his heart.

He closed his eyes, pushing down another sickening surge of panic. Stay calm. Concentrate. Breathe. Blocking out the pain for a moment, the tactician focused the whole of his attention on the space beyond the door, listening carefully…

...and hearing nothing.

“This way,” he murmured, pushing the door open and glancing up and down the passage beyond. Likely the brigands were still scrambling to coordinate, though he doubted it would take too long for them to regroup from the unexpected assault. Moving as swiftly as he dared, Robin struck off down the corridor, praying it would lead to another stairwell and trying to sort out his jumbled mental map of the interior--

The prince grabbed his arm and pulled them both into a narrow passage, pressing against the far wall. The tactician joined him, leaning against the cold stones and peering through the poor light as footsteps ran up the hall beyond. Hulking forms lumbered through the wavering torchlight…

...but they seemed entirely unaware of the intruders hiding in the shadows, hurrying on without pause. With a quick nod to Chrom, they slipped into the main corridor again, heading in the direction the brigands had come without a backward glance. Please let them find a way down, please--

The prince lunged as another rogue appeared, cutting the man down before he had a chance to cry out. Waving for Robin to follow, Chrom vanished from sight...and the tactician breathed a silent prayer of gratitude as another steep flight of stairs appeared through the dark.

Even moving with all the care he could manage, Robin could barely keep his feet by the time they reached the bottom. Chrom caught his arm as the tactician stumbled, fighting for every trembling breath as he clutched at his bloody shirt. “I-I need a moment,” he gasped. Gods, his chest burned, and the stones rippled in the weak light when he opened his eyes…

“This way.”

The captain’s voice sounded far softer now. Slipping an arm around the tactician’s shoulders, Chrom guided them on, using the reflection along his blade to check inside the nearest room before leading Robin inside. Staggering just beyond the door, the tactician slumped against the nearest wall, sliding to the floor and curling around his wound. He didn’t dare open his eyes again until his head stopped swimming, but he could barely manage a gasp--

“Are you going to say ‘I told you so’?”

Robin cracked an eye open, peering at the captain sitting at his side. Even in the dim light, Chrom’s eyes were so striking, enough to steal his breath if he had any to spare--

...think of something else.

“Judging by the look on your face, you feel wretched enough as it is,” he managed. “So provided you learned something from this experience -- you did learn something, yes?” The prince nodded firmly. “Then I’m willing to leave it at that.”

Chrom frowned, wringing the sword hilt between his hands. The tactician much prefered his smiles, how his face lit up, the way his laughter rang through the air and vibrated through Robin’s bones--

Gods, he desperately needed to think of something else.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” the prince promised.

“Spoken like a true hero,” the tactician chuckled.

Chrom scoffed, pressing his forehead to the pommel of his weapon. “Some hero I am.”

Robin smiled, tilting his head back against the wall. “You remind me of a hero from the stories I read as a boy. Especially Marth.”

“They have stories about Marth in Plegia?”

“Of course. House Ylisse might place the greatest emphasis on him, since they trace their lineage back to the Hero-King, but he was an integral part of the history of the continent as a whole.”

“...I never thought of that,” Chrom admitted. “Though I don’t see how I could ever measure up to Marth.”

“There was...there was a book I had as a child that I kept hidden in my room,” the tactician murmured. “The Tale of the Hero-King, I think it was. I read it so often that the spine broke and the pages all fell out. But it didn’t matter, because I knew every story by heart. ...he was always so brave, and so kind. So loyal to his friends and comrades, so swift to aid those in need...even those from enemy lands. Even those who raised their blades against him.”

“Did he ever get his allies killed by running off into danger without thinking?” the prince mumbled bitterly.

“There were some close calls,” Robin chuckled -- and pressed his sleeve to his mouth to muffle his coughs, swallowing back a mouthful of blood. “...they were hard lessons. But they were lessons he learned well. So someday...I’m certain that bards will tell stories of the Hero-Prince Chrom and his valiant Shepherds, spreading peace throughout the halidom.”

“Only if you write them,” Chrom insisted. “And you’ll need to include the long-suffering tactician who tried to keep him out of trouble. ...I think you would make the better hero, though.”

The words cut deep. “I’m no hero,” Robin whispered.

“If not for you, that archer might have killed me,” the prince argued. “Without you, we might never have even come this far: you’ve seen us through bandit raids and border skirmishes and even though I was a damn fool, you protected me. How are you not a hero?”

“Because I abandoned them.”

He’d been trying so hard to avoid that truth. But Chrom’s fierce words before the attack had stripped away his flimsy excuses and laid his cowardice bare before him.

“...who?”

“Everyone. My friends. My family. My country. I abandoned them. I left them suffering and desperate and clinging to hope while the nation is ripped apart from within. What hero abandons those who need him most?”

“...Robin…”

“I didn’t want to leave them,” the tactician whimpered. “I never wanted to leave them behind. But when the fighting broke out, my uncle risked his life to get me out of the city because no matter how much I wanted to stay and help them, I couldn’t on my own. I thought I had no choice but to flee and seek aid for them, and people are dying because I wasn’t strong enough to save them myself, but I have to believe that far fewer will die if I succeed than if I had been killed when the coup began -- how could I live with myself if my death would have spared them such suffering?”

His fingers trembled as they tightened in his bloody shirt. He could feel Chrom’s stare, and attempted to wipe away the tears that had begun to flow unbidden as he spoke--

“I’m sorry.”

The prince’s arm slipped around his shoulders in a tentative half-embrace. “I thought...the people that had been captured might be hurt or dying, and I wanted to save them so badly that...I took the idea of waiting as unwillingness to help them at all. I was angry, and I didn’t even think about what I was saying. Or how it might hurt.”

“That’s what Lissa said,” Robin sniffled.

“When?”

“Before we headed off alone. She said you didn’t mean it.”

“...I’m still sorry I said it,” Chrom mumbled.

“She told me you would be. ...though I think she meant you’d regret it after she yelled at you.”

“That sounds about right,” the prince chuckled.

The tactician mustered a weak smile, bracing himself against the wall at his back. “We should go,” he muttered. “Can you help me up?”

“Are you sure?” Chrom asked. “You shouldn’t push yourself with that wound…”

“I’m afraid that if we don’t go now, I might not make it out,” Robin replied. “It’s getting harder to breathe.”

“...alright,” Chrom whispered, drawing the tactician’s arm across his shoulders and levering them both off the ground. “Just...hold on. Please.”

“I’m trying.”

The captain did not let him go. Rather than release Robin to struggle on under his own power, Chrom held him up, measuring his steps to the tactician’s unsteady pace as they navigated the winding halls. He’d stopped trying to keep a mental map. Any attempt to chart their track only made his head spin. He couldn’t be sure if it was the blood or the strain addling his senses, but he’d be no help to the prince if he couldn’t keep his wits about him…

Chrom stopped, easing out from under Robin’s arm and hefting his weapon. “Stay behind me,” he ordered. The tactician nodded, recognizing too late the sound of boot steps pacing toward them, and fumbled with his tome as a shadowy figure turned the corner ahead--

“Captain?” a familiar voice called.

“Sully?”

Robin’s knees nearly gave way as a wave of relief washed over him. Thank the gods.

“Where the fuck have you been!?” the cavalier demanded, marching to meet them with her spear at the ready. “We’ve been goin’ out of our damn minds! You don’t just run off alone, the fuck’s wrong with you tonight?”

“Spare me the lecture, I’ll be getting enough of an earful from Frederick and Lissa,” the prince sighed, sheathing his sword and returning to the tactician’s side.

“...wait, why’s your sister gonna be on you?” Sully asked.

“Because I’ve been a royal jackass.”

“Did everyone else make it back?” Robin asked, tucking his spellbook under his arm as Chrom helped him to find his feet again.

The cavalier squinted in the dim light. “...Captain, what did you do to our tactician?”

“I got him shot by being an idiot. Come on,” he added more softly, holding Robin’s hand to his shoulder. Even through his glove, the touch felt warm. “We’re close now. Can you make it a little further?”

“I’ll manage,” the tactician nodded.

“It’s just around the corner -- we’ve been holdin’ the entrance waiting for you to show up. Ruffles if you shoot me I swear I’ll shove my boot so far up your ass it kicks your teeth out.”

Robin couldn’t help but laugh as the archer in the rafters fumbled his bow, and immediately regretted it as another shuddering cough tore through him. The acrid bite of blood nearly made him retch as he swallowed it back, wiping his mouth with the edge of his sleeve and praying that it left no traces. The prince’s grip tightened, pulling the tactician closer...and Robin drew in a shaky breath as he leaned his weight against Chrom’s side.

A chorus of shouts and cheers greeted their arrival in the entry hall. Most of the battered Shepherds had already fallen back to escort the rescued prisoners to safety, but Frederick oversaw the immediate retreat of the rear guard into the quiet woods beyond. And as the danger receded, the tactician breathed a slow sigh. It was not a pretty victory. But it was hardly a loss, with all their forces standing.

He had not failed.

That, at last, eased his mind. And between the relief of success and the prince’s warmth, his consciousness finally faded to rest.

***

Following the reckless assault on the bandit stronghold, the Shepherds spent the better part of a week camped outside of the nearest town, tending their wounded and ensuring that whatever rogues remained in the area kept their distance. They had been lucky, as far as Chrom was concerned: most of their injured suffered only cuts and bruises, easily tended by Lissa’s staff, and even the worst of their wounded were recovering well under the princess’ care following the village doctor’s treatment.

The prince had, as expected, received several days’ worth of lectures from Frederick, berating him for his careless approach to such a fraught situation, his brash disregard for his own safety, and especially for his decision to rush into danger unprepared. He’d also endured the scolding of a lifetime from his younger sister over his treatment of their resident tactician. And even though he’d already apologized to Robin during their escape, he accepted her reprimand without complaint. He deserved it.

The tactician’s tears haunted him. His voice had wavered when he spoke of the people he’d left behind, broken when he confessed his guilt -- Chrom could hear the echoes ringing in his skull as he sat alone on watch, staring into the fire and mulling over a dozen jumbled plans--

Something moved beyond the flames.

The prince rubbed his eyes, peering into the shadows between the tents as a figure approached, stepping carefully into the light…

“Robin?”

The tactician offered a wan smile, moving around the fire and gingerly taking a seat at Chrom’s side. “Good evening, Captain.”

“Should you be out of the infirmary?” the prince asked.

“Lissa gave me permission to wander a bit, provided I didn’t do any work,” Robin sighed. “And apparently my tent wasn’t pitched with the rest, so I’ve no place to work even if I wanted to.” Which meant he had already tried. “I’m loath to admit it, but it’s a sound tactic to ensure the injured rest.”

“So you rest, you mean.” Aside from the tactician, the last of the wounded Shepherds had been discharged from the infirmary that morning.

“...I suppose I do. I fear I’m starting to drive Lissa mad, though,” he chuckled (and Chrom breathed a sigh of relief when Robin did not suffer a coughing fit). “She insists I need to sleep, but I can’t seem to settle.”

“...is something bothering you?”

The tactician shook his head. “Too many thoughts that I can’t put to rest. Too much to do that I can’t accomplish from a cot in the infirmary. ...I apologize for delaying our departure. I know there’s much to do--”

“Don’t.”

Robin fell silent, hunching his shoulders slightly as Chrom cursed himself. “You’re not the one who should be apologizing. I’m the one that almost got you killed.”

“I should have paid more attention,” the tactician muttered. “If I’d been more alert he wouldn’t have been able to take up a position at all. I should have prioritized disabling the archer over the lancer when we entered the room, I was distracted by his javelin and proximity to the door...”

The prince gaped. “Do you listen to yourself when you talk?”

Robin frowned. “Did...I say something wrong?”

“You’re blaming yourself for taking out the closest threat. And the one that had the advantage against your ally.”

“And in doing so, I allowed the enemy take up a position that gave him the advantage and could have cost your life.”

“I didn’t even know there was a lancer. If you hadn’t taken him down, things might have ended up a lot worse. Don’t cut yourself down for making the best out of a bad situation.”

“...thank you, Captain.” The tactician smiled softly, holding his hands out toward the fire. Silence settled between them, broken only by the soft crackling of the flames and the occasional rustle of branches in the breeze. And while Robin didn’t seem bothered by it, Chrom feared he would suffocate if it did not break soon.

So he mustered his resolve, and drew in a steadying breath. “I’ve been thinking,” the prince mumbled, turning his attention to the glowing logs as the tactician looked toward him. “About what you said. While we were trying to get out of the fort.”

“I don’t remember much of what I said,” Robin replied easily. “I’m afraid I was rather addled. I hope you won’t think too poorly of me for any foolishness I uttered.”

“It wasn’t foolish -- gods, it was...it was anything but.”

The tactician pulled his coat closer. “Dare I ask what I said?”

“You talked about the people you had to leave behind in Plegia. How you came here to find a way to help them.”

“Gods, I’d been hoping that was a dream,” Robin muttered.

“Why?”

“Because you’re the prince of Ylisse and the captain of the halidom’s militia, you shouldn’t be burdened with a stranger’s problems when you have enough of your own concerns--”

“You’re not a stranger,” the prince protested. “You’re a friend.”

“You barely know me.”

“I know you’re a good man. I know that even though you try to hide it behind talk of tactics and strategy, you care about people more than victory. I know you put everything you have into anything you do, and it’s going to get you hurt if you’re not careful. And...even though you always seem calm, I know you’re carrying a lot more troubles than you let on. And it weighs on you. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t have taken that pigheaded remark to heart.”

“...have I always been so transparent?” Robin mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck.

“Not in the least,” Chrom grinned. “I feel like I know you better after almost getting you killed.” ...which was probably not the best way he could have put that, judging from the tactician’s wry stare. “But I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said. And I was thinking that once we break camp, we’ll head back to Ylisstol, and...I can try to arrange an audience for you with my sister.”

Silence.

The prince glanced up to find Robin staring at him. “Why would you do that?” he whispered.

“You came here to get help for Plegia, didn’t you?” Chrom replied. “So what better way than by asking the Exalt herself?”

“N-no, I mean...I mean why would you do that for me? You’re under no obligation, you’ve already apologized--”

“It’s not about what I said.” Not entirely, at least. “And it’s not about getting you shot, either, if that’s what you’re thinking. You’re my friend. If there’s any way I can help ease your troubles, you only need to ask.”

In the weak firelight, the prince almost thought the tactician’s face flushed red. “You shouldn’t say things like that,” he muttered. “Someone’s likely to get the wrong impression.”

It struck him with the force of an axe to the skull. “You mean you.”

Now he was certain he could see Robin blushing. “Captain--”

“What impression are you getting?” Chrom pressed.

“It would not be difficult for someone to misconstrue affection in such poorly-chosen words,” the tactician mumbled, pulling his hood up to hide his face.

The prince felt his own cheeks begin to warm at that.

...though not because the words rang false.

“...what if...it was real affection?” Chrom asked.

“I’m not delusional, Captain.”

“I didn’t say you were. I’m asking: what if you weren’t mistaking the words?” It would certainly explain a great deal: the unshakable frustration when he’d believed Robin was holding back anger; the panic that had surged through him when the tactician’s pained cry guttered out after being shot; the terror that had gripped him when Robin lost consciousness during their retreat from the stronghold; the guilt over those cruel words that had gnawed at the edges of his thoughts over the days that followed...and the grim certainty that, one way or another, he would lose the tactician over this mess.

“I would think that this is a dream,” Robin replied. “And at that point I would see if I could make a flock of pegasi appear out of the trees, because frankly that could be the only thing stranger than the present conversation.”

The prince couldn’t help but laugh, shifting closer to the tactician and gently tugging his hood back. “Well, I’m not seeing any pegasi yet.”

“Obviously I need to try harder,” Robin mumbled.

“Apparently. ...can I kiss you?”

The tactician very nearly toppled backward at that. Only the prince’s arm around his shoulders kept him up -- and even then, he would not meet Chrom’s eye, ruffling his hair in a vain attempt to hide his increasingly red face. “I’d be very grateful if those pegasi would show up.”

“And if they don’t?”

“...this can’t be real,” Robin breathed. “There’s no...it’s not even reasonable, let alone possible--”

“And if it is real?”

The tactician turned a shy glance toward the prince that made his chest briefly seize. “...I suppose you could,” he whispered. “If you wanted.”

Smiling softly, Chrom drew Robin close enough to feel the heat radiating from his flushed face...and brushed a kiss across his lips. Even such a light touch made the tactician shiver -- and sent a tingling warmth humming across the prince’s skin, unlike anything he’d felt before. “How was that?” he murmured.

“...perhaps the pegasi can take their time,” Robin managed.

Chrom laughed again as the tactician mussed his unruly hair further...but as he leaned in again, a familiar call rose out of the dark tents: quiet enough not to disturb the sleeping Shepherds, but still clear enough to send Robin shrinking down into his hood. “I suppose my time is up,” he sighed as Lissa’s voice sounded again, slightly closer. “...it was a nice dream, while it lasted.”

“I could walk you back,” the prince offered. “Make it last a bit longer.”

The color that had begun to fade from the tactician’s cheeks returned in force. But as Chrom stood and offered a hand down to help him up, a shy smile lit Robin’s face, his fingers curling gently around the prince’s wrist. Drawing the tactician to his feet, Chrom moved into the shadows beyond the fire, leading them back to the infirmary…

...and holding Robin’s hand each step of the way.

Chapter Text

Robin was beginning to think his wound had been fatal, after all, and he was experiencing a very drawn-out dying dream.

There was no possible way that any of this could be real, after all. The tactician had harbored a shy affection for the prince of Ylisse since his harrowing crossing from Plegia left him collapsed in the fields beyond Southtown, and Chrom and his sister happened upon him and chose to aid the stranger in their lands. Gods, Robin had been so enamored by his smile when the prince helped him back to his feet...but he’d been well aware of his position, and the sheer impossibility of anything existing between them, and so had buried the foolish fondness within the swiftly growing camaraderie they shared (and he’d reminded himself, often daily, that Chrom shared the same warmth and companionship with the rest of the Shepherds, and that the smile he wore for his tactician held no special meaning, regardless of how it warmed Robin’s chest).

It was frankly unthinkable that the prince might reciprocate his affection. Chrom kissing him was pure fantasy.

...it was a nice fantasy, though. And one the tactician had indulged with somewhat worrying frequency as the Shepherds marched south to Ylisstol. Which did nothing to dissuade him from his notion that he was delusional and near death.

(The prince often smiled when he kissed Robin. It was a curious sensation, feeling the warm curve of Chrom’s lips against his mouth, the memory alone made him shiver and he desperately needed to think of something else.)

Their return to Ylisstol proved a welcome distraction. He’d entered the city only once since his arrival in the halidom, and had marveled then over the ivy that climbed across the stonework, the flowers that bloomed beneath shop windows, the occasional tree peeking over a roof from some unseen lawn; while much of the color had gone out of the city with the fade of autumn into winter (which had been an exhilarating experience of its own, given Plegia’s desert clime), the tactician still enjoyed the view as they marched up the main thoroughfare and through the palace gates.

As the prince relieved his Shepherds of their duties, Robin turned to make his way into the garrison, intending to seek out some quiet corner to tend to the many matters he’d been unable to accomplish during his forced convalescence. Unfortunately, Lissa had other plans for him: before he could take two steps, the princess had his arm in a vise grip uncanny for a girl of her size (but then, she did insist that she was not delicate), and proceeded to drag him into the castle and off to the infirmary for a full examination by the personal healers employed by House Ylisse.

Which, he had to admit, was quite the touching gesture -- if implausible for reality.

The doctors, much to his relief, granted him permission to resume a more normal routine, though they cautioned against excessive strain. And as Lissa escorted him out, a glowing smile broke across her face. “I’m really glad you’re okay,” she said, linking her arm with his as she guided them through the maze of halls. “I was really worried for a while that you might not make it. Or that you might not heal all the way, and you wouldn’t be able to come with us anymore.”

“Why would you worry about that?” he asked.

“Because we like you, silly!” she laughed. “Everybody thinks you’re great! You’re smart and nice and even though you don’t say a lot, you’re always checking to make sure we’re doing okay and helping take care of us all and...and we all really appreciate it. Including my brother, even if he is a stupid jerk sometimes.”

“He did apologize,” the tactician assured her.

“He’d better have,” the princess grumbled.

Robin smiled, gently patting her fingers where they held his sleeve. “No need to worry. So where are we going?” he asked, looking out through the windows at the curiously green lawns beyond. “Back to the garrison?”

Lissa cast a sly grin in his direction. “Wanna sneak into the kitchen and see if they have any pies, instead?”

...well, he had developed a fondness for pie.

Without waiting for an answer, the princess pulled him around the nearest corner--

“Here you are!”

They both stopped short as Chrom strode toward them up the hall ahead. “I was wondering where you’d run off to. Come with me,” he said, patting the tactician’s shoulder.

“Where are we going?” Lissa asked.

“I need to talk to Robin about something. Privately,” he added, giving his sister a pointed look.

“Awww, come on, that’s not fair!” she whined, hugging the tactician’s arm tighter. “Why can’t I come?”

“Because it’s none of your business.”

“Well, maybe I’m making it my business!”

“Come on, Lissa,” the prince groaned.

“No!” she huffed, stomping her boot on the stones. “What’re you gonna talk about that’s so important, huh?”

“Tactics, alright?” Chrom sighed. “Emm said there have been reports of more raiders crossing over from Plegia. I wanted to get his thoughts on how to keep the halidom safe without spreading our forces too thin.”

“...well, why didn’t you just say that?” the princess scoffed, planting her hands on her hips. “You made it sound like it was some big secret or something. I’m gonna go on ahead -- I’ll try to save a pie for you!” she giggled, bouncing off down the passage, around a corner, and out of sight.

“...you don’t really want to talk about tactics, do you,” the tactician ventured.

“Not really,” the prince winked. “There have been more skirmishers crossing the border, though. But we can talk about that later -- come with me.” Slipping an arm around Robin’s shoulders, Chrom started off down the hall, passing the corridor his sister had vanished down and guiding them up a flight of stairs to the second floor.

A nervous prickle of unease slowed the tactician’s steps. “Where exactly are we going?”

“Remember how I said I’d try to get you an audience with my sister?” the prince grinned.

...actually, Robin had forgotten. That had been a very odd night, and discussing a meeting with the Exalt had not been the strangest part. But the reminder made him pause, turning to stare at Chrom’s smile. “Did you…?”

“I did,” he agreed. “She has a break between council meetings and asked me to bring you up.”

The sudden surge of gratitude that swept through the tactician made his eyes burn. “I don’t know how to thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” the prince chuckled. “It’s the least I can do.”

The kiss that grazed Robin’s cheek caught him entirely off-guard. Shrinking into his collar, he pulled his hood up to hide his rapidly heating face -- which only made Chrom laugh, a warm sound that made the tactician’s heart stumble. Taking hold of his hand, the prince led them to the door at the end of the hall, knocking lightly and tugging Robin’s cowl back as a soft voice called to them from within. Without hesitation, Chrom moved inside...and after a brief, nervous hesitation, the tactician joined him.

He glanced quickly around the parlour, admiring the soft greens and blues of the furnishings and the open atmosphere afforded the small space by the windows overlooking the palace gardens. A silver tea set stood on the round table between the comfortable chairs, along with a tray of delicate pastries unlike anything he’d yet seen during his brief stay in the halidom. Offering a low, respectful bow to the woman seated across from the door and the armored knight standing behind her, he tried to settle his nerves with a deep, steadying breath. This was what he had come to Ylisse for. He needed to stay calm.

“Please have a seat,” a gentle voice insisted. The woman smiled as he straightened, gesturing to the nearest chair. “Thank you, Chrom. I’ll see you at supper?”

“Of course. I’ll see you later, Robin,” he added, patting the tactician’s shoulder encouragingly. Nodding slightly, Robin took the chair she indicated, listening to the door close behind him as he folded his hands in his lap.

“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” the Exalt said, holding a teacup and saucer out to him. He accepted it carefully, offering a grateful smile as he took a sip of the dark, sweet brew. “My brother speaks very highly of you, so it’s very nice to meet with you. I am Exalt Emmeryn of House Ylisse, and this is Phila, the captain of the Pegasus Knights.”

“Thank you very much for agreeing to see me, Your Grace,” he murmured, bowing his head again. “My name is Robin.”

“...Prince Robin of Plegia, I take it.”

His cup rattled tellingly on its plate. But even still, he mustered his best smile as he met her eye, ignoring the hand her guard had placed on her sword hilt. “I don’t believe I have any right to invoke such a title at present. Please. Robin will suffice.”

“If you insist,” she agreed, lifting a hand to pacify the knight beside her. “Chrom informs me that you seek a way to help your homeland.”

“Indeed,” the tactician sighed. “The situation grows more heated with each day that passes, and civilians are losing their homes and their lives to the in-fighting. The capital is in ruins, divided between the major factions, and it is the citizens who suffer for it. ...please, Your Grace -- I beg your aid for the people of Plegia, those who have done no wrong, whose lives are at stake in a war they want no part of.”

His father had told him, many times, that no royal should ever beg. That it was unbecoming. But he could not save his homeland alone. He had no qualms about bending his knee for such a worthy cause.

The Exalt set aside her own teacup, folding her hands in her lap. “Did you have something in mind?” she asked gently. “I fear that Ylisse does not have a military force capable of offering any substantial aid...and even if it did, considering the history between our nations, it seems inadvisable for the halidom to send an armed force across the border, when the situation is already so tense.”

“I agree,” the tactician nodded. “And I would not ask military aid of you, Your Grace, for those very reasons. I have several agents in Plegia who have been working to ensure the safety of the citizens, evacuating those in the path of the conflict and those whose homes have been destroyed in the fighting. But now they have nowhere to turn, and safety is fleeting at best. If they could be allowed entry into Ylisse as refugees of the ongoing crisis, at least until the war is quelled…”

“My, you have thought this through, haven’t you, Your Highness -- Robin,” she amended. “I believe that something can be arranged.”

A smile broke across his face at her words. “Thank you, Your Grace,” he managed, bowing his head. “I fear I cannot offer any recompense at present, but I assure you that--”

“Please, don’t concern yourself,” she laughed. “You’ve already done quite enough, I would say. You’ve offered an invaluable service to the halidom by taking on the role of tactician for the militia, and by keeping my brother from getting into more trouble than usual. Any further discussion can wait. Though, I am curious to know if you have plans to put the conflict to rest without an army.”

“My intention is to meet with the khans of Regna Ferox,” he replied. “Though I will need to take leave of the Shepherds to do so…”

“You haven’t told my brother who you are, have you.”

The tactician felt a slight pang at her words. “As I said, I have no right to claim title to a land I abandoned, regardless of the cause. I am simply a tactician. Nothing more. Please...I’ve no right to ask further favors of you, Your Grace, but...I would rather he not know.”

Likely once Chrom found out, Robin’s dream would end.

“...as you wish,” the Exalt murmured, inclining her head slightly. “But I would recommend that you tell him yourself, soon. There is no benefit to guarding such a secret.”

He saw far fewer risks in keeping such knowledge to himself. But even still, he offered a weak smile. “As you say.”

“Your Grace,” the pegasus knight said, resting a hand on the back of the Exalt’s chair. “The hour grows late. The council will reconvene shortly.”

“Already?” She sounded almost disappointed. Apparently the duties of leadership did not come easy to anyone, even one who so perfectly embodied the poise of royalty. “I do apologize that our audience must be cut so short. Perhaps we could meet again later?”

“...I would enjoy that, Your Grace,” he agreed, a faint note of cheer returning to his voice. “I do hope you fare well with the council. And it was a pleasure to speak with you,” he added, offering a low bow as he rose from his seat.

“The pleasure has been mine, Robin,” she chuckled, acknowledging his gesture with a nod of her head. “Do take care.”

Retreating from the quiet parlour, the tactician breathed a slow sigh of relief. In spite of the surprises, that had gone far better than he could have dreamed. For the first time in so long, he could see hope for Plegia’s future.

And he did not intend to let the chance slip by.

-----

It took longer than anticipated to navigate his way out of the castle. But, in all fairness, it was effectively his first visit. By the time he finally found his way into the garrison, the midday meal had already been cleared away. But though that was rather disappointing, it hardly mattered. Slipping into the first empty room he came across, the tactician closed the door, briefly considered barring it...but decided against it, for fear of arousing suspicion. Moving instead to the small desk under the window, he removed a bundle of folded parchment from the inner pocket of his coat, smoothing the pages flat in the soft light.

His heart sank at the sight of the first page. Judging by the scrawl covering much the parchment, his convalescence had not gone unnoticed.

Mor ataks. Yor dad iz geting alot mynr. Gangrel iznt much betr. Unkl sez tu mor bloks ar gon. Wy’r runing owt ov gud pleysis tu hom pypl. Any luck on yor end?

Qwayit tuday. Unkl got a bunch of familys owt ov the sity. Suplays ar runing low. Tharja sez yor dad iz geting wyrd. Robin wats going on? Yu havnt ritin in awayl. Is somthing rong?

Unkl sent me owt on a suplay run tuday. Got alot ov greyt stuf layk lizard teyls and tod ays. Robin wy arnt yu ryting bak? Im ryly woryd.

Unkl iz geting woryd tu. Gangrel iz starting tu krak down on anywun seying anything bad abowt him. Ansur plys Robin.

Sandstorm tuday. Plys ryt bak.

Stil storming. Plys ryt?

Tharja yeld at my tuday. Plys Robin.

Robin Im skerd. Plys ansur.

Yu kno wy kan’t skray tu be shur yor ok. Plys ansur Robin I’m ryly skerd.

Sighing softly, the tactician took a quill from the ink well at the corner of the desk and carefully counted the messages. The first obviously came from the day he’d been wounded. The last might well have come from that morning. He hoped that a late message would be better than none at all.

I’m sorry for not writing sooner Henry. I’m alright. How are things?

He’d barely managed to finish his final question when ink began to bleed into the parchment from an unseen source.

Wer hav yu bin wy’v bin woryd sik!

I ran into some trouble. I’m sorry for worrying you.

Wat kaynd ov trubl?

The sort that’s kept me in an infirmary.

Yu got hurt?

Yes, but I have made some progress on a way to help the displaced families.

Hurt how?

I was shot in the chest with an arrow.

Waz ther alot ov blud?

I was coughing it up for several days and had the cleric concerned.

Yor ok now thow?

The healers agreed that I could resume normal activities, provided I don’t strain myself too badly.

Gud. Its kaynd ov greyt yu kofd blud thow.

It tasted vile. How are things there?

Unkl got alot ov suplays for evrywun yesturday so wy’r ok for now. But the storm stopd and now yor dad and Gangrel ar bak to fayting.

Tell Uncle that I made some progress today. I spoke with the Exalt of Ylisse and she agreed to allow Plegian refugees across the border.

Thats greyt! Wen he gets bak I kan tel him. Watr yu gona du next?

I’m going to see about making travel arrangements to Regna Ferox to request aid from the khans. With any luck, they’ll agree to lend some of their military might to our cause in exchange for favorable trade terms in the event that we win.

O hey Tharja and Unkl sed somthing layk that tu.

Like what?

Abowt going tu Ferox. Unkl sed Gangrel wants him tu go and Tharja sed yor dad sed he waz gona send her and my and shy shud tel them Im yu.

Do you know when?

Probly not til aftr Grima’s Nayt.

That gives us time.

Itl be wyrd not having yu hyr. You alweys did the kal befor. Now yor dad iz probly gona du it and meyk it wyrd.

You’ll be fine. If you want, I can do the call for you from here.

Thanks Robin. I stil mis yu tho.

A knock sounded at the door behind him. Stiffening slightly, the tactician glanced over his shoulder. “Who is it?”

“It’s me,” Chrom’s voice called back. “Are you busy?”

He couldn’t precisely say no. “Just a moment,” he called, dipping the quill once more into the ink and scribbling a final brief missive.

I miss you, too, Henry. I’ll write again later.

Blotting the page gently, he folded the parchment and tucked it into his breast pocket before moving to open the door. “Hello, Captain. What can I do for you?”

“I just came to check on you. Did everything go alright with Emm?” the prince asked, leaning against the frame.

“Wonderfully,” Robin confessed, ruffling his hair. “She agreed to grant asylum to refugees from Plegia, get them safely away from the conflict until the fighting dies down, which is everything I could have asked for--”

“No aid to stop the fighting?”

The tactician paused, surprised by the concern in Chrom’s voice. “No, no military assistance -- I don’t think anyone on either side of the border would be pleased with the idea of an Ylissean force crossing into Plegia, after the last armed conflict, so…”

“...how will the fighting ever stop, then? You can’t just wait until the two sides wear themselves out, that could take years.”

“I know,” Robin agreed. “I had intended to journey north to Regna Ferox after appealing to the Exalt -- as a neutral party with the greatest military might in the land, their assistance would be invaluable in putting this matter to rest.”

The prince considered that for a moment. “How much do you know about Ferox?”

“They’re fierce warriors who prize physical strength over most else. Ordinarily they let other nations fight their own wars and focus on internal affairs, but historically they have occasionally taken sides based on alliances forged with neighboring nations…”

“The healers said you could go back to a normal routine, right?”

The tactician frowned. “Well, they said to avoid excessive strain, but--”

“Come with me.”

Something about Chrom’s grin made him uneasy. “Where are we going?” he asked, warily following the prince as he strode through the garrison.

“You said yourself that Feroxis value strength,” Chrom replied, leading Robin past the armory and out of the building. “So your magic probably won’t be too helpful in winning them over.”

“Unfortunately,” the tactician muttered, looking around the bare stretch of ground littered with barrels and crude dummies made of straw and burlap. It looked like a training field--

“Here.”

Robin blinked, reaching out to take the blunted sword the prince offered. “Captain?”

“You carry a blade, but I’ve never seen you use it,” Chrom said. “If you plan on going to Ferox, you might need some training if you’re going to make a good impression.”

A wry grin twitched across the tactician’s face. “I can use a sword, Captain. You really don’t need to worry.”

“Show me, then,” the prince laughed, flourishing his own practice blade.

...well, it had been a while since he’d trained.

“Alright,” Robin murmured, moving to stand on the far side of the ring. The weapon felt strange in his palm as he tested its heft: it was heavier than the swords he’d used before, straight rather than subtly curved, with a curiously textured wooden grip. But he could manage. It was no more uncomfortable than the other blades he’d trained with under his uncle’s tutelage, after all.

Swinging the weapon a few times, he settled into the flow of action, letting his focus shrink to the field around him. “You ready?” Chrom called, shifting into a combat stance.

A faint smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. His uncle had never asked. He had insisted. Prepare yourself! he had shouted as he began his charge. Robin had dissolved into frightened tears the first few times, until he learned to steel himself against the fear. And in time, he learned to maintain his calm through anything.

“I am,” he replied, tightening his grip.

The prince’s attack was slow. Not sloppy, but a far cry from the clean, swift efficiency that characterized his movements in battle. He was going easy on the tactician.

Which, Robin supposed, was intended as a kindness.

Gauging Chrom’s intent was simple. Avoiding it easier still. And as the prince’s blade struck the ground beside him, the tactician raised his own sword and tapped it across the captain’s shoulders.

Chrom’s look of shock was oddly gratifying. At least his skills hadn’t completely atrophied. “How was that?”

“Not bad,” the prince chuckled. “Let’s see what else you can do.”

Robin saw Chrom’s hand tighten on his weapon and fell back, moving to the far side of the field as the prince took up a different pose. The tactician adopted a defensive form of his own, watching carefully as the captain launched himself across the ring. Faster this time, his movements tighter. The sweep of the blade would be impossible to avoid -- instead Robin moved his own sword to cross the blow, cursing the poor deflection angle as the force nearly broke his stance. But it had at least stopped the blade, and as Chrom recoiled, the tactician fixed his grip and lunged past the prince’s guard, hitting his side with the blunted edge of his weapon.

As he drew in a slow breath, the captain patted his shoulder. “That was good,” Chrom laughed. “You surprised me with that block.”

“I surprised myself with it,” Robin confessed. “I am out of practice in hand-to-hand combat. I was trying to divert the blow but misjudged the angle.”

“You think too much,” the prince grinned. “Come on, let’s go again.”

The tactician felt a smile creep across his face. “Alright,” he agreed, taking up position again as the captain strode across the field. This time his stance was much more familiar, reminiscent of the battles they had fought side by side. Robin, in turn, slipped into a reactive form, tuning his attention to the figure across the field -- and feeling Chrom’s attention fixed on him, in turn.

They did not move for a long moment, simply watching one another. Waiting for something, though the tactician could not guess what. But he held his stance patiently, ready to move in an instant.

The prince shifted, and Robin felt his own limbs tense in anticipation. The charge was swift, sure, holding nothing back: the tactician swept his sword up to parry the coming blow--

Chrom’s blade changed direction in an instant.

A surge of adrenaline shot through him as he tried to adjust to the captain’s feint -- but too late. He froze as the blunted edge touched his throat, staring into Chrom’s smiling face (and gods his eyes were so blue like the band of sky between sunset and stars and he couldn’t seem to think of anything else as hard as he tried).

“You really are good,” the prince chuckled. “Especially when it comes to reading attacks. But you’re always reactive, and you tense up too much when you move. It slows you down when you have to block a feint.”

As Chrom drew his sword back, Robin breathed a shuddering sigh. “I suppose I need a great deal more training,” he whispered.

“Not that much, I wouldn’t say,” the captain assured him. “Just enough to ease up so you’re not so stiff. And maybe you can give me some tips on follow-through -- it was impressive, what you did with that block.”

“...if you’d like,” the tactician agreed, ruffling his hair sheepishly. He’d never felt on equal footing in weapons training with anyone before. It was strange to think that he might have something to teach -- especially to a swordsman so accomplished. But...not unpleasant, either.

He still had his doubts that any of this was more than a fantasy. But even if it was just a dream...he was glad to be having it.

***

An audience gathered to watch them over the course of the afternoon, and by the time Lissa arrived to scold her brother for stressing his recovering tactician (and to chide Robin for overexerting himself in the next breath), Chrom felt like he had learned more than just a few new strategies. As soft-spoken as he was, the prince had once imagined the tactician to be aloof, even unsociable; instead, he was easily the most engaging tutor that Chrom had ever trained under, willing and able to lead by example and explanation alike and offering a kind word of encouragement even for failures.

As his sister shooed Robin off into the garrison to check him over, the prince followed along, leaning against the back of her chair to watch her work. “Really, Lissa, I’m alright,” the tactician assured her.

“You say that,” she grumbled, pressing a hand to his chest. “Breathe in.” He did, obediently -- and Chrom saw a flicker of discomfort cross Robin’s face as it caught, though he did not cough. “You’ve really gotta take it easy if you’re gonna get better.”

“I’ve been taking it easy for nearly a fortnight,” the tactician protested.

“After you got shot in the chest!” the princess reminded him. “A staff doesn’t just magically make things all better!”

“Isn’t that the definition of a healing staff?” Robin asked, his face perfectly calm in spite of his lightly teasing tone.

“Well...I-I mean, I guess, but -- but it’s not that easy! A staff only speeds things up, and only a little at a time. If you push yourself, you just go and undo everything the staff did, and then you’re right back where you started and maybe making it worse. Even with healing magic, you still need to rest to get better. Okay?”

“Alright,” the tactician murmured. “I’m sorry for worrying you.”

“Just try to take better care of yourself, okay? And don’t let my stupid brother drag you into his dumb training,” she huffed, glowering up at the prince.

“It’s not dumb,” he protested weakly. Though it no longer felt like such a grand idea, either, as excited as he’d been before.

“Uh-huh. Sure,” she muttered.

“It’s as much my fault as anyone’s,” Robin confessed, turning a soft smile toward Chrom. “I could have refused.”

“Yeah, you should have,” the princess chided, tapping her staff in the palm of her hand. “Now hold still.”

The tactician folded his hands as the soft green glow of magic wrapped around him, drawing in a slightly steadier breath once it faded. “Thank you, Lissa,” he murmured.

“Do you feel any better?” she pressed.

“I do,” he assured her, rising from his chair. “And I promise, I won’t set my recovery back again.”

“Yeah, you better not,” she mumbled. “...you should probably lay down for a while.”

“I’m fine--”

“You’re not,” the prince spoke up.

“See, even Chrom gets it! Go on, take a nap or something, you really need to get more sleep.”

“I don’t think my condition is quite that dire…”

“You can at least take a break,” the captain insisted. “Read a book in the barracks. Take your mind off things.”

“...alright,” Robin relented. “I suppose I’ll see you both tomorrow, then.”

“I’ll walk you,” Chrom offered.

“I get the sense that you don’t trust me,” the tactician muttered.

“Not a chance,” the princess agreed, crossing her arms. “...not on this, at least,” she amended.

Robin still smiled at her, waving as the prince placed a hand at the small of his back and steered them out of the common area and toward the sleeping quarters. “You really don’t need to do this,” the tactician insisted.

“Yes, I do,” Chrom sighed, pushing the door open. It looked about as cluttered as he remembered, with stray weapons by half the bedsides and books piled on most of the side tables (though the army of potted plants in the window seemed new to him). “Where have you been bunking?”

“I’ve only been here twice,” Robin reminded him, picking his way down along the rows of cots and sitting on the last in the line. The only indication that it might have been recently used was the candle stub on the night stand. “I think this was the one I borrowed last time.”

“...you can make yourself more at home, you know,” the prince remarked. “Get settled.”

“I’ve no more to my name than I’m carrying on my person,” the tactician shrugged. “There seems no point in leaving things strewn about when I have room for all of it in my coat. It makes leaving easier.”

“...do you want to leave?” Chrom asked, sitting carefully on the edge of the bunk.

“It’s less a matter of what I want to do than what I need to do,” Robin sighed. “I need to go to Ferox, if only briefly, and from there…”

“You’ll be going back to Plegia?”

“...eventually,” the tactician agreed.

“You shouldn’t go alone.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s dangerous. You said yourself that people are dying, your life will be at risk if you go by yourself.”

“I don’t see any alternative,” Robin murmured.

“I can go with you.”

The tactician turned a wry smile toward him. “Very funny, Captain.”

“I’m not joking,” the prince insisted.

“The diplomatic implications of the Ylissean militia crossing the border into Plegia would be catastrophic. It could very well be seen as an act of war, and given that I assured the Exalt that Plegia would request no military assistance from the halidom--”

“I’m not talking about the Shepherds,” Chrom interrupted him. “I’m talking about me.

Silence.

And then Robin began to laugh, helplessly, muffling it and the shuddering coughs that followed in his coat sleeves as the prince nervously patted his back. “Are you alright?” he asked as the tactician finally pulled himself up.

“I really am dying.”

Panic shot through Chrom as he took firm hold of Robin’s arm. “What--”

“That’s the only rational explanation for all of this,” the tactician continued. “I’m dying from that arrow wound. I lost consciousness after we escaped the fortress and all of this has just been a dream. It would explain how easily a Plegian managed to gain audience with the Exalt, how swiftly she agreed to my request, this…

“...what do you mean, this?” the prince asked warily.

“You having any interest in me that’s not predicated on a jape.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Chrom demanded, catching Robin’s hands as they raked through his pale hair and forcing them down into his lap…

He was crying.

“It’s been a nice dream,” he whimpered. “It’s been such a nice dream, but I know it’s not real now, and it hurts to realize that I could only have this kind of happiness in a fantasy. I should have known better,” the tactician whispered as the prince cupped his face. “I should ha--”

Chrom kissed him, stifling the rest of Robin’s words. The tactician shivered, bowing his head as he pushing the prince away. “Please stop,” Robin breathed. “I just want it to stop, I can’t bear any more false hope, I can’t…”

Chrom hushed him gently, pulling the tactician into a warm embrace. “Why do you keep thinking this isn’t real?”

“Because this can’t happen to me.”

The prince tightened his grip, marveling for a moment at how small Robin felt the closer Chrom held him. “Why not?”

“I’ve done nothing to deserve it. I’ve done my duty as your tactician, nothing more, and nothing worthy of this--”

“Is that really what you think?” He felt Robin shrink within his embrace as he nodded. “That’s -- why would you believe that?”

“My father told me as much.”

The bitter mumble made the prince’s heart burn. “Everything has a price: trust, loyalty, friendship, affection...the greater the boon, the greater the cost to be paid. I’ve done enough to earn trust, perhaps, but…”

“That’s not how things work,” Chrom breathed, sifting his fingers into the tactician’s soft hair. “Those aren’t things you buy -- gods above, no wonder you’re always bleeding yourself dry. Those are all things given. Robin, it doesn’t matter how hard you try or how much you do: no amount of effort can force someone to feel those things. Not truthfully. I’m not here because of what you’ve done, or what you might do, or...whatever else you might be thinking. And I’m not here because this is a dream. I haven’t seen any pegasi lately, have you?”

The tactician hiccoughed, scrubbing fitfully at his eyes with the edge of his sleeve. “N-no.”

“So you see? It can’t be a dream,” the prince murmured, pressing a kiss to Robin’s hairline. “I’m here because I want to be. Because I care about you. You’re a good person, and I like being around you.”

Sniffling softly, the tactician hesitantly slipped his arms around Chrom’s waist, resting his cheek against the prince’s shoulder. “Even though I’ve done nothing to warrant it?”

“You’re you,” Chrom chuckled. “You don’t need to do anything else.”

A faint smile tugged at Robin’s lips, and the prince felt some of his anxiety ease. “Thank you,” the tactician murmured.

“You can thank me by getting some rest,” Chrom grinned, touching another kiss to Robin’s forehead. “Try not to worry so much, alright? About this, or anything else. I’ll be right there with you, come what may. I promise.”

“You shouldn’t make an oath you cannot keep,” the tactician warned.

“Then it’s a good thing I intend to keep it,” he laughed, resting his forehead against Robin’s. “Now lay down and take it easy.”

“Alright,” the tactician chuckled. As the prince at last released him and rose from the edge of the bed, he heard Robin draw in a breath; turning back, he watched as the tactician folded his fingers a few times, lightly rubbing circles on the back of his right hand. “...Chrom?”

It wasn’t often that Robin called him by name. “Yes?” he returned.

A soft flush of color tinged the tactician’s cheeks as he beamed shyly up at the prince. “...I love you.”

The shock of those words made Chrom’s face burn. But in the wake of that heat came a sudden surge of deeper warmth that swept all else from his thoughts. “I love you, too, Robin,” he said. And the sweet taste of those words on his tongue made him smile all the brighter.

Chapter Text

“Grima’s Night?”

“Yeah!” Lissa laughed, bouncing in place as Maribelle fussed with the princess’ wispy skirts. “You’ve never heard of it?”

“I was unaware that Ylisse celebrated the fell dragon in any fashion,” Robin replied. Chrom winked at the tactician as Frederick turned to browse the array of ornamental armor laid out on the table behind them, which earned him a soft smile in the moment before the great knight presented a filigreed silver helm adorned with curling horns.

“Well, we’re not really celebrating Grima,” Lissa explained, twirling in place and making her gauzy veils billow around her. “See, the longest night of the year is when all the evil spirits come out, but they’re all scared of monsters because ghouls and goblins will eat them right up! So on Grima’s Night we all dress up like monsters and there’s a big party in Ylisstol where we go through the streets and scare away the ghosts from everybody’s houses and we get candy for doing a good job of protecting them!”

“It’s mostly a celebration for kids,” the prince added, smoothing his hair back before donning the helmet. “Which explains why it’s Lissa’s favorite holiday.”

“Hey! I am not a little kid!” she insisted, stomping her boot on the stones.

“Careful, darling,” Maribelle chided, fixing a series of silver ornaments in the princess’ hair and draping a fine spiderweb-patterned lace across them. “There. You look simply spectacular, dear -- you’ll surely be the light of the festivities.”

Giggling, Lissa skipped across the room, hooking Robin’s arm and trying to tug him out of his seat. “You’re gonna come, right?”

The tactician smiled vaguely, patting the princess’ hands. “I’m not sure if I’d be welcome.”

“Of course you’re welcome to take part,” Chrom insisted, adjusting the ram skull clasp of his tattered grey-blue shroud. “Why wouldn’t you be?”

“Well, the short answer is that I’m Plegian,” Robin replied. “I don’t know if the people of Ylisstol would take terribly kindly to a Grima-worshipper joining in their celebration.”

“That’s silly,” Lissa scoffed. “Nobody’s gonna mind! Everybody’s gonna be having fun and there’ll be lots of sweets and games to play and…”

“Even if you’re not a kid, it’s still a good time,” the prince agreed, testing a pair of fearsome-looking gauntlets with finely pointed silver claws. “What do you think?”

“Oooh, scary!” his sister laughed.

“For all that you say this is Lissa’s favorite celebration, you seem to be putting a great deal of effort into your attire,” the tactician remarked as the prince flexed his fingers.

“It’s tradition,” the prince protested, fighting back the heat rising in his face. “House Ylisse always attends the festivities, and we have to fit in. Right?” he asked, turning to his sister.

“Chrom doesn’t like sweets,” he heard her whisper into Robin’s ear. “He just likes to dress up.”

“Hey!” Lissa dove behind the tactician, giggling madly as her brother stalked closer. “I could make you go alone, you know.”

“Okay, fine! I’ll just take Robin, instead,” she replied, sticking her tongue out at the prince as she hugged the tactician’s arm. “We’ll have a great time, and you can just stay here and sulk. Come on, come on, what do you want to dress up like?”

“I-I don’t know if--”

“I bet you’d look great with antlers -- Chrom never wears them, he always goes with horns,” the princess chattered, bouncing off to look over the helmets on the table.

“You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” the prince assured him, laying a hand gently on Robin’s shoulder.

As Maribelle bustled off in search of one last finishing touch for Lissa’s costume and Frederick vainly attempted to deter the princess from her browsing, the tactician’s fingers touched his (and Chrom found himself regretting the armor that kept him from feeling that brief affection). “I think I’d prefer to go as I am, if I could,” he murmured.

“Then you should,” Chrom smiled. “Come on, let’s sneak out.”

Robin grinned at him, and the prince was briefly stunned by the boyish charm in that unfamiliar expression. And as quickly as it appeared, the tactician hid it under his hood, rising silently and slipping out the door with Chrom close behind.

A quick glance confirmed that they were, at least for the moment, alone -- and the prince did not waste the opportunity, pouncing on Robin and lifting him off the ground. The tactician buried a peal of laughter in his sleeve, swatting at the horned helm as Chrom nuzzled his shoulder. “You should smile like that more often,” the prince murmured into the thick, soft material.

“And you should put me down,” Robin whispered back, his voice still light with mirth.

“Maybe I don’t want to,” Chrom rumbled, savoring the tremor that went through the tactician. “I am a monster tonight, after all.”

“Chrom--”

Grinning, the prince put Robin down...and as the tactician turned, Chrom caught the edges of his hood and tugged him into a deep, warm kiss. Robin’s face instantly caught fire, judging by the heat radiating against his cheeks -- which only brightened the prince’s smile as he pulled back.

“Chroooom!” Lissa whined as the door flew open behind them. “You big jerk, why’d you run off like that!?”

“I’m taking Robin down to see the festival,” he laughed, catching the tactician’s arm and hurrying off down the hall with the princess’ protests following after them. Bursting out into the cold evening air, the prince paused to look out over the city stretched beyond the palace grounds. Great lanterns hung throughout the square, lighting the booths and stages that had already attracted crowds of children and adults. Even from the castle steps, he could hear the occasional strain of music floating up through the bright streets, growing louder as they moved past the gates and onto the bustling main road.

Lissa and Frederick caught up with them at the edge of the city center, and together they made their way into the square. A ripple of applause spread through the crowd, growing into resounding cheers as the prince and princess of the halidom made their way up onto the central stage, officially opening the evening’s festivities. And with that accomplished, Chrom jumped back to the ground, grinning sidelong at Robin as he led them on through the warm firelight.

They wandered for a while, listening to musicians play and watching as men and women tried their hand at games of luck and chance. More children gathered with every moment that passed, dressed as ghouls and goblins, imps and ogres, wraiths and demons of every sort. “Soon they’ll start going down the streets,” the prince explained, catching the tactician watching the boys and girls who clustered with their parents around the roads leading away from the square. “The buildings with lights have someone inside to greet them and give them a present -- usually sweets.”

“They haven’t gotten enough from here?” Robin chuckled, gesturing to the crowded booths; passing by them made Chrom’s mouth water from the savory aromas.

“Not a chance!” Lissa piped up, planting her hands on her hips. “Come on, come on! Let’s go!” Marching off through the milling crowd, the princess led them to a small side road, candles burning in nearly every window the prince could see. “This street has the best stuff,” she explained, flourishing a lacy satchel. “And it’s usually pretty quiet, too, which means more for us!”

“More for her, she means,” Chrom teased. As his sister stuck her tongue out at him, a gaggle of children scampered over to join them, chattering gleefully…

...only to stop a few paces away, falling curiously silent.

The prince looked back at the imps and goblins, clustered together and staring at the tactician in his hooded coat. Crouching before them, Chrom offered the children a kind smile. “What’s wrong?” he asked gently.

“Is that Grima?” a girl no more than seven whispered back, pointing over his shoulder.

The prince blinked, turning to look again at the man behind him. He’d grown so accustomed to Robin’s coat that he’d never stopped to consider how it might look out here -- but the bold violet eyes stitched on the sleeves were unmistakable.

“How distasteful,” a woman’s voice muttered as the children’s parents arrived. Chrom felt a spark of anger flare in his chest as he turned a sharp stare on the gathering adults--

“Yes.”

The prince started, whirling to watch the hooded tactician retreating back into the shadows beyond the ring of lamplight. “Yes,” he repeated, his voice low and soft. “I am Grima.”

Chrom’s chest tightened as the boys and girls began to whisper behind him. “Robin…”

“This, the longest night, is mine,” the tactician continued, opening his arms. “And with my powers at their height, I have come with my spirits to visit fear upon your city, for none can stop the fell dragon!”

As Frederick placed himself firmly between Lissa and the dark figure, orbs of eerie blue-violet light began to swirl and dance in the shadows around him. The children gasped and murmured as Chrom took a wary step forward--

In the pale glow of the fire, he swore Robin winked at him.

“Ah,” the tactician murmured, grinning under his hood. “Some foolish mortal seeks to challenge me.” Looking down, the prince watched as a small goblin toddled forward, her chubby hands balled into determined fists. “But no man can defy me! My army of spirits shall…”

Robin paused, leaning down as though to better see the child. “Wait. What is this? A monster has come to challenge me?” The girl nodded so firmly that she nearly lost her headpiece, the little horns going slightly askew before she hurriedly fixed them. “Impossible!” the tactician cried, looking around him in apparent surprise as, one by one, the lights faded and vanished. “My army! The spirits flee in terror from such a fearsome visage -- my powers! They fade…”

The prince clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter as Robin staggered dramatically and fell to his knees, bowing before the child (who looked awed at the sudden turn of events). “My army has fled. My power wanes. O, mighty goblin, will you be the one to strike down the fell dragon?”

Chrom held his breath as the girl’s brow furrowed in deep thought. And then she marched forward and patted the tactician’s forehead firmly with her palm.

Robin groaned and collapsed, rolling over onto his back and raising a shaking fist toward the sky. “You have bested me this night, O Queen of the Goblins!” he declared. “But know this! I shall return! Mark my words, in one year’s time, my army will rise again -- relish this victory while you can…”

The tactician’s exaggerated death rattle was too much for the prince to take. While the children cheered and gathered around their apparent savior, Chrom doubled over in a helpless fit of laughter, joined by Lissa’s giddy cackling from somewhere nearby. By the time he managed to get ahold of himself, wiping tears from his eyes, most of the ghouls had gathered around to inspect the vanquished ‘dragon’ (a thought that made him snicker again) -- and one particularly brave little imp even crawled up onto Robin’s chest, poking his cheek gently.

“Grima’s dead now,” Robin whispered to the child. The boy would not be deterred, though, patting the tactician’s face until he finally relented, lifting the peak of his hood to see. “Yes?”

The little imp dug into his bag and removed a sugar-dusted fig, holding it out in his chubby palm. “...are you sure?” Robin asked. “You may risk restoring Grima’s fell powers.” The boy giggled, shoving the treat more insistently in the tactician’s direction. “Well, if you insist,” he sighed, plucking it from the child’s outstretched fingers. “Thank you.” The boy squealed in delight as Robin smiled and ate the confection in one bite, chewing contemplatively…

...and sitting up, sending the giggling child tumbling into his lap. “This is delicious,” he announced. “How would Grima go about getting more of that?” he asked, looking to the bright-eyed ring of monsters around him.

“This way!” the newly anointed Goblin Queen said, taking the tactician’s hand and pointing toward the glowing windows lining the street. “Come on, come on!”

“Alright, alright, Grima’s coming!” Robin laughed as the other children began tugging insistently at his coat.

“Need a hand?” the prince chuckled, reaching down to him.

“That might be for the best, before I’m overrun by monsters,” the tactician agreed. Careful of the gauntlet’s claws, Chrom gripped Robin’s wrist and pulled him to his feet, resisting the powerful urge to pull the hood back as he helped to dust off the tactician’s robe.

“That was great!” Lissa laughed, bouncing past Frederick’s guard as the great knight grudgingly relaxed.

“You had me worried at first,” the prince confessed.

“I apologize -- I thought that...well, it is Grima’s Night, so why not make use of it? Make things a bit more exciting with some stage play -- and I was confident that one of you would step in to fill the role of hero, if no one else did,” he added, grinning at Chrom.

“How did you do that thing with the ghosts, though?” the princess demanded as a tiny ogre grasped the hem of Robin’s coat and started to pull them down the street.

“Oh, that?” Reaching into his sleeve, the tactician produced a stone tile the size of a playing card, inscribed with an arcane array of symbols and swirls. “It’s actually a nightlight,” he explained, calling up another pale flame to wander overhead. “It’s rather less trouble than having to re-light a candle in the dark.”

“...that’s brilliant!” Lissa clapped. “Think of all the candy we’ll get when we chase something off for real!”

“That wasn’t really what I’d intended--”

But the princess would not be deterred. And she was right: entertained by the spectacle of soft lights winking into and out of existence while monsters growled and gave chase, the people were very generous with their treats. And for all their initial misgivings, the parents soon warmed to Robin’s presence, laughing and sharing a few soft words as the children raced off to claim their rewards.

“We should do this every Grima’s Night,” Chrom mused as they turned back toward the square, their bags laden with sweets and other prizes.

“I don’t see why you couldn’t,” the tactician replied, watching as Lissa dug through her satchel for treats to trade.

One of the smallest boys tugged at the back of Robin’s coat. “I tired, Gima,” he mumbled.

“It has been a long night,” the tactician murmured, kneeling down before the child. “Climb up, tiny one. Grima will carry you.”

A soft affection stirred unbidden in the prince’s heart at that gesture. The boy wrapped his arms around Robin’s neck, and the tactician folded his hands behind him, keeping the sleepy imp secure as he rocked back to his feet. “Well, we can’t do it without you,” Chrom remarked.

“Of course you could. It just requires a bit of spellcraft -- or stagecraft, I suppose -- and costume. Anyone could do it.”

“It’s better when it’s you.”

The tactician’s shoulders hunched slightly, the faintest trace of color rising in his face where the hood could not hide it. “Why do you say things like that?”

“Because it’s true,” Chrom grinned. “I bet everyone here would agree, too.”

“Agree with what?” Lissa asked, skipping closer.

“Grima’s Night is better with Robin.”

“And how!” the princess laughed. “This is the best haul ever! And your act was so great!”

“See?” Chrom chuckled as the children clamored in agreement. “It’s better with you. So next year, we’ll need you back.”

“We’ll see,” Robin replied. “...and thank you. For letting me take part.”

The smile beneath the tactician’s cowl made his heart glow. “It’s been our pleasure,” the prince assured him. And for all that Lissa might disagree, Chrom was certain that most of that pleasure had been his own.

***

It was very late by the time Robin returned to the garrison. But much to his relief, Maribelle had not yet departed for the evening. The noblewoman was understandably surprised when he approached her with a request, but she seemed happy to comply once he explained what he needed...though only after he promised to share.

Half an hour and one cup of the tactician’s cardamom tea later, he finally managed to excuse himself from her company, taking the fine china teaset with him and promising to return it the next morning, cleaned and undamaged. Slipping into an unoccupied room, he sighed, setting the tray down on the sturdy table and removing the rest of the items he’d collected over the course of the day from his pockets: six candle stubs, a few sprigs of dried lavender, a pair of cracked saucers, several dark pebbles, and a phial of sweet oil.

He’d never prepared for the invocation on his own before. But in the past, he’d performed it for the whole of the capital: the sheer scale of such a ceremony precluded any lone individual from accomplishing it. Tonight, he was alone. No watchful eyes judging his recitation. No pressure to perform flawlessly. No threat should he falter.

Gods, that alone eased his mind beyond measure.

Humming to himself, Robin settled to work, arranging the stones on the more battered of the two plates and tipping the contents of the vial onto the other; digging in his pockets for a moment, he removed a small obsidian blade and pricked the tip of his middle finger, coaxing a bit of blood to the surface before touching his fingertip into the saucer and stirring to mingle the blood and oil. He paused for a moment, thinking back to the slant of the sun through the windows that afternoon before he’d been called into the castle...and moved around the table to face east, drawing the Mark of Grima on table’s surface with its twining roots growing from the sunset.

Placing one candle on each eye, he lifted the lamp from the windowsill, lighting each wick in turn and touching the flame to the end of the lavender sprigs to set them alight. A soft breath extinguished the flowers, leaving only a faint curl of smoke trailing from their glowing tips; arranging them carefully to stand between the stones on the plate at the center of the mark, he stood back to survey his work. A fine job, considering its size -- if only in his rather humble opinion.

Removing a handkerchief from his pocket, the tactician dried his hands. And then he touched the tips of his thumb and middle finger to first his forehead, then the corners of his eyes, and finally his breast, before folding his hands over his stomach and bowing his head. “O Grima, You who watches over us from the shadow of this world, I pray You hear my call and answer: on this night, when Your great wings so long embrace the world, allow those souls who have joined You to walk amongst us once more, that we may share again in their company under Your watchful gaze. With the wisdom granted by Your Eyes, we entreat You; with the strength granted by Your Eyes, we beseech You; with the love granted by Your Eyes, we implore You; guide them home, as Your presence guides us from the shadows.”

Silence settled over the room in the wake of his quiet speech. The gentle aroma of lavender smoke soothed his mind as he breathed a steady sigh...and with a smile, he removed his coat, placing it over the back of one chair before taking a seat across the table, pouring two cups of tea and placing one before each seat.

“Hello, Mother,” he murmured. “I apologize for taking so long to greet you -- it was a very busy evening.”

The thought warmed his heart. “I made it to Ylisse,” he continued softly. “Things at home in Plegia have been difficult, so I crossed to the halidom to request aid, and...gods, I couldn’t believe it, but the first person I met was the prince of Ylisse. And he took me in without a second thought. ...well, alright, first there were raiders -- Gangrel’s men crossed in pursuit and besieged a nearby village, so I joined in routing them, and...and the prince invited me to join him. The militia. As a tactician. So I’ve...for the past few months, I’ve been dealing with...bandits, and skirmishers, and rogues, and all manner of other little things -- but I haven’t forgotten about Plegia, I did speak with the Exalt, and Henry said the first group of refugees should be arriving soon!”

Gently rubbing the back of his hand, Robin looked down into his tea. “The prince of Ylisse -- Chrom -- is...he’s very kind. He’s earnest, and passionate, and he makes mistakes, but he always strives to improve. And...h-he’s very charming. His laughter, and his smile, and…”

Fighting back his blush, the tactician picked up his cup, swirling the aromatic brew a few times before taking a sip to settle his thoughts. “Did you know they celebrate Grima’s Night here in Ylisse? Not the way we do -- it’s a children’s festival, where they dress as monsters to scare off evil spirits. I wasn’t...quite sure how I felt about taking part, at first, since...it’s like chasing away family. Even if they don’t know it. But I went to see, and...there were children who asked if I was Grima. Which. Was somewhat uncomfortable for its accuracy,” he mumbled, fighting to still the tremor in his right hand. “But...they didn’t know that. It was your coat they saw, that’s all. So...I played along. I let them have their victory. And...if only for tonight...I don’t think they were really afraid of the fell dragon. They were happy. They were...they wanted to be friends with Grima, and share the night with him. ...with me. It was nice,” he whispered. “It was nice, to just...have friends, rather than worshippers, as Grima. If only for one night--”

The knock at the door caught him off guard. Fumbling his teacup and thankfully managing to avoid dropping it, Robin turned -- but even as he drew a breath to call out, Chrom stepped inside, his costume replaced by more normal garments (though his smile remained entirely unchanged). “I was wondering where you ran off to. I was going to ask if you had a good time tonight -- what have you been up to while I got changed?” he asked, glancing at the array on the table as he moved behind the seat across from the tactician--

“Wait!”

The prince paused, glancing down at the chair with Robin’s coat draped over the back. “What?”

“You can’t sit there,” the tactician insisted.

“I can’t?”

“No.”

“...why?”

Robin drew a breath…

...and paused, running a hand through his hair. Gods, how could he explain this without causing offense or discomfort?

“It’s okay. You can tell me,” Chrom insisted.

“...that’s my mother’s place,” the tactician whispered, looking down at his folded hands.

A smothering silence met those words. He shouldn’t have said anything, Robin knew better than to think--

The price stepped away from the seat.

And instead, he touched the chair next to the tactician. “Is this one alright?”

“...y...y-yes,” Robin agreed, staring as Chrom sat down and leaned his elbows on the table. After another speechless moment, the tactician moved to pour another cup of tea, offering it to the prince with shaking hands -- and to his surprise, Chrom took it with a smile, steadying Robin’s fingers with a brief touch as he took the saucer.

“Would you mind telling me about this?” the prince asked gently, gesturing vaguely to the candles on the table and the coat over the back of the apparently empty chair.

“...it’s Grima’s Night,” the tactician murmured. “The Grimleal holy day, not...not the Ylissean celebration.”

“I don’t know anything about the Grimleal faith,” Chrom remarked. “Well, besides the Grima-worship. But that’s a given.”

There was something light in his tone. Something inviting. And Robin smiled shyly as he turned his cup in its saucer. “The Grima-worship is a substantial part of it. You see...when Grima fell a millennium ago, He was not destroyed. Not really. He became the shadow of the world -- it’s said that through our shadows, Grima walks with us, watches over us, and guides us through troubled times, for even in death He has not forsaken His people. It’s said that souls go to Grima when their bodies die, and...the longest night of the year, when His powers are at their height, is the night when those departed souls can be called back to reunite with their families.”

“...so Grima...isn’t sending evil spirits, but…”

“Departed relatives,” the tactician agreed. “In Plegia, we celebrate with grand communal feasts -- there’s an invocation at sunset to call the spirits home, and their places are marked by items they favored in life. Families and friends come together and talk about everything that’s transpired since the last Grima’s Night, and most people don’t sleep until dawn, when Grima’s power wanes and the souls take their leave for another year.”

Chrom sipped his tea, looking thoughtfully at the empty chair. “So your mother is here?”

“It’s almost ten years, now, since she went to Grima,” Robin murmured. “And even...I can’t ask her for guidance anymore, but I’m happy to talk with her, and show her how far I’ve come. And I hope she’s proud of who she sees.”

“She should be,” the prince said. “You should be proud,” he added, turning again to the chair bearing the hooded coat. “Robin is one of the smartest, kindest people I’ve ever met. He works too hard, but it’s always for the sake of other people. So I’ve been trying to look out for him lately -- should I have introduced myself?” he asked suddenly, turning back to the tactician.

“Don’t worry,” Robin chuckled. “I don’t think she’ll mind. My mother always had a fine sense of humor, this seems more likely to entertain her than anything.”

“Now I know where you get it from,” Chrom grinned. “...you didn’t tell her I got you shot, did you?”

“No, but now I think you need to,” the tactician replied around the rim of his teacup.

“Wait, why me? It’s bad enough having to tell Emm when I mess up…”

Robin laughed, a bright smile displacing the last of his anxieties -- and in spite of the protests, he found that warmth mirrored in the prince’s face.

Chapter Text

“So you plan to leave soon?” Emmeryn asked.

“Indeed,” Robin nodded, taking another scone from the tray between them. “I received word this morning that my agents have finished their travel preparations and will be setting off at dawn tomorrow. I’ll be meeting them in Ferox to discuss our next course of action, regardless of whether we’re able to secure military assistance. Assuming conditions are fair, they should be able to reach the Longfort within a fortnight, so...ideally I should set out within the next few days, so that my arrival coincides with theirs.”

“I pray you have a safe journey,” she murmured, lifting her teacup from its saucer. “And that the weather remains fair for your travels, as well. Winter tends to be rather fickle on this side of the mountains.”

“So I’ve noticed,” the tactician chuckled, glancing at the dusting of snow on the trees beyond the window. “But the Northroad is far easier to navigate than the deserts or the Midmire; a delay for weather seems a small price when the alternative is trudging through sand.”

“A fair point,” the Exalt laughed. “Have you informed my brother yet?”

“No,” he sighed. “I intend to do that this afternoon, now that I have confirmation.” The mere thought of it made him queasy. Chewing contemplatively over his pastry, he tried again to find the words he should use, though none felt right ...

“You still haven’t told him who you are, have you?”

Robin mustered a weak smile. “It seems a rather moot point now.” Not that it had ever mattered to begin with, in his mind.

“What do you fear he would say, if he knew?”

He set his shaking saucer down on the table, gripping his right hand with trembling fingers. “I’m afraid of how he’ll look at me,” the tactician whispered. “When he finds out that I’m not just a courtier begging aid but a prince who abandoned his people? Who fled, rather than stay and fight for their sake, because he was too weak?”

Emmeryn leaned across the table, touching his shoulder gently. “He will understand,” she assured him. “I’m certain of that. And I believe you know him well enough to be sure, yourself.”

“...a part of me wants to believe that,” Robin breathed. “But...there’s another part of me that’s certain the truth will destroy whatever friendship we might have, and it chokes me whenever I consider telling him.” Even now, the thought of losing what affection, what respect, what trust Chrom might have for him made his hands tremble and his chest tighten…

“It’s alright.”

Her delicate fingers folded around his. “I know my brother,” she smiled. “This is not a truth that will upset him. It will only allow him to see you in a new light: it will not change how he feels.”

“...thank you,” he whispered. “I...I will try.”

“That’s all I ask,” she murmured. “It’s all anyone could ever ask.”

The thought shook him to the core. How often had more been demanded of him, under his father’s cold stare? How often had he failed, and been cut down by words more vicious than any blade? How often had a casual remark earned him venomous ire, until he learned to speak his carefully chosen replies only sparingly? What a kind world, where such a notion could be true: that an honest attempt might truly be enough.

But he wanted so much to believe in her.

Wiping his eyes with the hem of his sleeve, the tactician drew in a steadying breath. “Thank you, Your Grace,” he whispered. “For everything you’ve done -- for me and for Plegia both.”

“I’m happy that we were able to meet,” she replied. “And I hope that what aid the halidom can provide will help to bring peace to your homeland.”

He smiled, lifting his teacup in a light toast. “May it prove the first step toward peace between our two nations.”

When at last he took his leave, a faint sorrow settled over him. He would miss this, after he departed for Ferox. He’d come to look forward to the quiet tea times shared with the Exalt; it was very likely -- almost certain, really -- that they would never have occasion to meet like this again. But just as the Exalt had her duties to fulfill, so too did Robin.

This was not how he had expected his dream to end. But he had always known that it could not last forever.

Chrom was nowhere to be found when he arrived at the garrison, which was both a blessing and a curse. But there were things to do in the meantime. Wandering through the various rooms he’d haunted during his stay, the tactician tidied the assortment of maps he’d reviewed, replaced the ink and parchment he’d used for various purposes, and gathered the books he’d borrowed; by the time he returned to the common area to reshelve them, the captain had returned, and was conversing with Sully and Stahl.

The prince’s smile warmed when he caught sight of Robin, and the tactician fought back the heat rising in his face as he tucked his tomes under one arm, returning Chrom’s cheerful wave. Even as he moved to the bookcases along the wall, he heard the prince excuse himself from the cavaliers’ company, and within moments the warm, familiar presence stood just beside him. “Good evening, Captain,” Robin murmured.

“Good evening, Robin,” Chrom replied. “How are you?”

“...well enough, I suppose,” the tactician murmured, slotting a text onto one of the shelves.

“That sounds ominous.”

Robin drew in a slow, steadying breath. “I’m...afraid that I must take leave of the Shepherds,” he said, unable to meet the prince’s eye and focusing instead on the books in his hands. “Before the weather fouls further, I need to make for the Longfort, in hopes of appealing to the khans for aid.”

Chrom hummed thoughtfully, leaning against the bookcase and tapping his finger on one of the shelves. “...request denied.”

The tactician started, turning a pleading look on the prince. “Captain, please, this is important--”

“I know it is,” Chrom agreed. “But I’m afraid it’s an inopportune time for you to take leave of the Shepherds, since we’re going to need our tactician when we head for Ferox in the morning.”

A grin twitched at the corners of the prince’s mouth as Robin stared, struggling to comprehend just what Chrom was implying. “...Captain, I can’t ask you to do that.”

“I know you wouldn’t,” the prince chuckled. “But Emm’s heard rumors that the prince of Plegia is going to Ferox, too, and asked if I could deliver a message in her stead.”

The tactician’s heart lodged in his throat as Chrom held up a neatly folded letter with a blue wax seal bearing the brand of House Ylisse. He could say it now. He could ask for the missive, he could tell the prince the truth, he could explain the circumstances that brought him here, he could…

But as he drew breath to speak, a paralyzing fear constricted his throat. The Exalt had sworn her brother would understand -- but what if she was wrong? What if this was the crime Chrom could not forgive? What if, in making this attempt, he destroyed what few days of happiness remained to him?

“Are you alright?”

Robin twitched as the prince touched his arm, mustering a shaky smile. “I’m fine,” he insisted. “I-I lost focus for a moment.”

“That’s not like you.” Chrom’s concern was plainly visible on his face. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

“I’m certain.” The smile on his face didn’t feel quite right. But he wore it anyway as he returned the last text to its place on the shelves, taking a slight step backwards. “If we’re to leave in the morning, I’d best chart our route tonight -- I’m sure Frederick will want to review it before we set out…”

As he turned, the prince lay a hand on his shoulder. “...don’t push yourself too hard,” he murmured. “Try to get some rest before we head out.”

“I will,” he promised, resisting the urge to touch Chrom’s fingers; too many watchful eyes for such a display. “Don’t worry, Captain.”

The prince did not press. But as he retreated alone into the quiet hall beyond the common room, Robin cursed his wretched cowardice, and prayed that he would find the strength to face the challenges of the days ahead.

***

The march to Ferox proved uneventful, much to everyone’s relief. Aside from the cold and the occasional dusting of snow as they made their way north, the Shepherds encountered no major setbacks. The only real cause for concern, in Chrom’s mind, was their tactician. Robin had been quiet throughout the journey and reclusive whenever they made camp, to the point that Lissa had been forced to drag him from his tent on more than one occasion to join them at supper. What few moments the prince had managed to share with him had been brief, and often enough supervised by Frederick as they discussed the route ahead.

It worried him, seeing the tactician retreat into silence. Worse still, when Chrom did manage to catch him alone, Robin insisted that he was fine -- but the prince sensed that something weighed on the tactician’s mind, leaving an uncomfortable silence between them as they parted ways.

They made camp a few hours out from the border wall as night fell across the Northroad. The evening meal was warm and filling, and most of the Shepherds retired to their tents in high spirits. Chrom wished he were one of them. But uncertainties about the day ahead and the meetings that awaited, both with the khans and the Plegian royal, left him restless well into the night. He knew more about dealing with Feroxis than Ylisse’s westerly neighbors, and while he was comfortable enough with Robin, a foreign prince was another matter entirely--

“Chrom?”

The captain started at the unexpected voice. “Robin?” he ventured.

“Can I come in?”

“Of course -- yes, please, come in,” Chrom agreed, scrambling to his feet as the tactician moved inside. He looked troubled and worn in the soft lamplight, sitting quietly where the prince indicated and folding his hands in his lap as Chrom settled across from him.

“Thank you for seeing me,” Robin murmured. “I’m sorry for coming so late.”

“Don’t apologize,” the prince insisted. “You know I always enjoy seeing you. What’s on your mind?”

The tactician did not smile, tightening his fingers on his right hand as he looked down. And though he drew a breath, he did not speak, even as Chrom waited patiently for a response.

“Is this about tomorrow?” he prompted gently, touching Robin’s knuckles -- and feeling the tactician shiver as he nodded. “About meeting the khans? Or seeing the prince again?”

“...everything about tomorrow frightens me.”

The captain frowned, moving from his place across from Robin to sit beside him and slipping an arm around his waist. “Don’t worry. I’ll be right beside you. Remember?”

“You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep,” the tactician repeated.

“Well, it’s a good thing I still intend to keep my word, then,” Chrom chuckled, pulling Robin closer. It hadn’t been so long since he’d held the tactician last -- less than a fortnight -- but gods, he had missed it. The closeness. The warmth. “Don’t worry,” he murmured, pressing a kiss to Robin’s jaw. “I’ll be with you, every step.”

“How can you swear to that? You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, you don’t…”

“I can’t think of anything that would make me change my mind,” the prince smiled, nuzzling the tactician’s shoulder. “You’re a good person. Kind and thoughtful, maybe a little too selfless…”

“Look who’s talking,” the tactician muttered. Chrom laughed, catching Robin’s mouth in a warm kiss as he turned within the prince’s embrace. The tactician shivered at the touch, drawing back after a long moment (that still seemed too short for Chrom, as long as he’d ached for this) and touching their foreheads together. “I’m...I’m not…”

His words faltered, his voice failing as he bowed his head. Cupping his cheek in one hand, the prince lifted Robin’s chin and kissed him again, more gently. “I know you,” he insisted. “I know the kind of person you are. Anything that comes out of tomorrow won’t change who I know.”

The tactician mustered a weak smile, leaning into Chrom’s next touch. It felt like such a long time since he’d felt that affection returned...it kindled something in his core that burned away the cold. Slipping his fingers into Robin’s pale, soft hair, the prince tightened his other arm around the tactician’s chest, his lips grazing the side of Robin’s neck. “...can I ask something of you?” Chrom murmured. The tactician made a soft, curious sound, nestling closer against the prince’s chest (which only made the heat swell and spread as he held Robin against him). “Can I touch you?”

The tactician tensed, a dark blush coloring his face as he turned. “W-what?”

“Can I touch you?” Chrom repeated patiently. “I know that’s not why you came, and you don’t have to say yes, if you’re uncomfortable, but…” It was quiet in the camp around them. They had a moment, brief though it might be, and he wanted to savor it however he could -- with a kiss, with a touch, with…

Robin nodded shyly, his fingers settling over the prince’s hand. “What should I do?” he whispered.

“...what do you want to do?” Chrom returned, easing his free hand down to work the tactician’s belt loose. He’d barely registered that Robin had come without his sword, and the thick leather guard at the tactician’s waist relaxed and slid free as the prince unbuckled what he’d thought was only his first obstacle.

“I don’t know. I-I don’t…”

“It’s alright,” Chrom murmured, nuzzling Robin’s jaw. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. And you don’t have to let me do anything, either. Just tell me if I need to stop.”

Kissing the corner of the tactician’s mouth, the prince eased a hand up under the soft knit shirt, feeling Robin shiver as he pressed back against Chrom’s chest. He’d never actually seen the tactician disrobe before: Robin had always bathed privately either earlier or later than the rest of the men, and did his own laundry at the same odd hours. Underneath the loose fabric, the prince’s fingers found a deceptively narrow frame, defined by lean muscle and the faded traces of old scars. Moving slowly, Chrom’s hand wound its way up, his touch drifting across the faint impression of ribs, the warm curve of the tactician’s breast…

Robin made a small sound, less a murmur than a frayed breath. The prince paused, his free hand gently catching the tactician’s fingers. “Are you alright?” Chrom murmured.

“I-I’m...I’m fine,” Robin nodded. “I’m alright, I…” His voice wavered as the prince’s lips touched the corner of his jaw, trailing into silence. Turning his head, the tactician lifted his free hand, his fingers sifting through Chrom’s hair as he pressed a tentative kiss to the prince’s mouth -- and that touch stoked the warmth in his core to a blaze. Returning that affection in kind, Chrom let his hand trail down Robin’s chest, easing his fingers under the band of the tactician’s smallclothes…

He was still soft when the prince touched him, firming only as Chrom’s hand curled around his length and began to stroke him. Robin’s breath dissolved into a muted whine, barely audible even to the prince -- but he felt it, a faint hum against his lips as the tactician trembled in his arms.

Tightening his grip on Robin’s hand, Chrom guided the tactician’s fingers gently down and back to touch the prince’s groin. Robin shied, his hand twitching away as he broke the lingering kiss -- and Chrom let him go, his fingers stilling while the tactician caught his breath. “It’s alright,” the prince murmured, pressing his lips to Robin’s temple. “You don’t have to.”

They held for a long moment. Tucking his nose into the tactician’s soft hair, Chrom breathed him in…

...and a tentative touch brushed against him again, Robin’s hand slipping under the prince’s tunic and into his smallclothes.

His fingers were light, careful, but even that first uncertain caress pulled a warm rumble from deep in Chrom’s chest. He felt the tactician’s smile, a breath of laughter whispering against his ear -- and as Robin’s palm rubbed the head of his cock, bright pleasure lanced through his core, spreading a crackling heat through his chest and limbs. The prince snared him in another deep kiss, his own hand resuming its coaxing, and the tactician’s breath frayed as his length stiffened under Chrom’s touch.

They moved slowly, easily, guiding one another with a word, a whisper, a shift of weight, a twitch of fingers in the other’s hair; warm kisses dissolved to mingled breaths, the brush of lips on skin, resolving anew to kisses that captured sounds more felt than heard. The tension mounted with each touch until his every thought was of that sharp, sweet pressure, the pleasure that shot through him, every movement winding him tighter and building the intensity to a fevered heat…

He came, a low, heady groan rumbling through his chest as he buried his face in Robin’s shoulder -- and as his limbs curled, pulling the tactician close against him, he felt the tremor ripple through the narrow body in his arms, a breathless gasp filling his ears as his pulse began to quiet.

They were still for a long moment, Robin’s weight gradually spilling into the prince’s arms as Chrom recollected his senses. “...that was nice,” he mumbled, nuzzling the tactician’s cheek. “Are you alright?”

Robin made a soft sound, his eyes fluttering as he blinked up at the prince -- and the heat that had begun to fade stirred anew into a warm, deep affection. Gathering the tactician up against him, Chrom touched another kiss to his hairline, smiling as Robin nestled closer against him. “You’re not going to be able to make it back to your tent,” he remarked.

The tactician did not argue. And he did not protest as the prince cleaned both their hands before bundling them into his bedroll, wrapping his arms around Robin’s chest and holding him close. “I love you,” Chrom murmured, tucking his nose into the tactician’s soft hair.

“...and I love you, Chrom,” came the whispered reply.

-----

Chrom woke warm and comfortable in his bedroll as Robin stirred within his arms. And when he touched a kiss to the tactician’s nape, the prince heard a warm, soft murmur rise in Robin’s throat as he nestled closer against Chrom’s chest.

They roused slowly in the predawn gloom, straightening their rumpled clothes before making their way out to the remains of the fire where Vaike had fallen asleep on the last watch. Shaking his head, the prince rebuilt a blaze from the ashes, sitting beside the tactician as he spread one of his maps across his lap and quietly began to speak of the route ahead and the likely course of the day. Chrom paid only half-attention, enjoying the gentle cadence of the words more than any meaning they might hold.

As the rest of the Shepherds began to rise, Robin briefly took his leave, much to the prince’s disappointment. But he returned in short order with his sword at his side, sitting across the fire as they ate breakfast; and as the weak sunlight at last pierced through the heavy clouds overhead, they broke camp and set out on the last leg of their journey north.

Their arrival at the Longfort was met with shouts from atop the wall. The general of the border forces strode out to greet them, and the Shepherds swiftly found themselves embroiled in a fierce argument which came to blows when Chrom revealed their purpose in coming -- after all, who besides a spy would know when a foreign prince would be coming to another land? But while the captain’s brand did not satisfy her, the militia’s combat skills (guided by Robin’s clever tactics) won them both the battle and the woman’s grudging trust.

Another day’s travel by wagon spent wedged between Frederick and his sister left the prince sore and aching, and all the more grateful when the Shepherds at last stumbled into the ankle-deep snow surrounding the Feroxi stronghold. “Gods, I’m starting to miss Ylissean carriages,” he grumbled, rubbing his sore shoulders. At least they had more room, for all their unnecessary gilding--

“Oh, lighten up, Prince Chrom.”

The brassy laughter caught him by surprise; the sudden weight leaning on his shoulder nearly staggered him, though he thankfully managed to catch himself. Glancing up, he found a sharp-eyed woman in red and silver armor grinning back at him. “Hello,” he offered warily. “Are you the khan…?”

“Indeed I am,” she agreed, her smile sharpening as she stepped back, offering her hand to shake. “Flavia of the East. It’s an honor to have a prince in our company.”

“Soon enough we’ll have two of ‘em,” a low voice muttered. Flavia rolled her eyes as a broad-shouldered man strode up beside her, surveying the company with keen attention before offering his hand to the prince. “Basilio of the West, Khan Regnant of Regna Ferox.”

“It’s an honor,” Chrom said, taking the man’s hand and trying not to wince at the crushing grip that met him. “So the Plegian prince hasn’t arrived yet?”

“That should be him now,” the man noted as another wagon rolled to a stop nearby, the sturdy draft horses stamping and snorting in the cold air.

Robin moved to stand beside him, nervously rubbing the back of his right hand as Chrom gently patted his shoulder. “It’ll be alright,” he assured the tactician. “Don’t worry.”

Robin mustered a weak smile as the doors opened and three figures piled out into the shallow drifts: a dark-haired woman in a black fur cloak, a berserker with a thick greying beard...and a wiry young man with a grinning face framed by pale, wild hair. The boy looked around in awe, pulling his own cape around him to fight off the chill as he turned in tight circles…

...until the Shepherds finally caught his attention.

The young man’s grinning face broke into a wide smile, and he launched himself across the narrow distance, flinging himself at the tactician and tackling the both of them into the snow. “Robin!!! It’s been forever since I’ve seen you I’ve missed you so so SO MUCH,” he chattered, burying his face in the tactician’s coat and muffling any other words he might have tried to say.

“...well, he seems friendly,” Chrom remarked as Robin patted the young man’s hair.

“I’ve missed you, too, Henry,” he chuckled. “And I’m glad to see you, too. Can you please let me up, though? It’s cold down here.”

In response, the young man -- Henry -- only snuggled closer. “Don’t wanna. Missed you,” he mumbled.

“Henry, we’ve been talking for months.”

“That’s writing, it’s different!”

“...that is a fair point.”

As the boy continued to cling stubbornly to the tactician’s coat, the berserker strode up to join them, reaching down to pick Henry up (and Robin with him, given how tight the young man’s grip was). Brushing snow gently off the back of the tactician’s robe, a gentle smile crossed his scarred face. “It’s good to see you again, Your Highness.”

Chrom’s thoughts ground to a sudden halt.

“I’m glad to see you, too, Uncle Mustafa,” Robin murmured, giving Henry’s head another fond pat. “Did you have any trouble at the crossing?”

“Nope!” the boy piped up. “They all thought I was you!”

“Only because he managed to keep his mouth shut for once,” the dark-haired woman growled, stalking up to join them. “We’re all pleased to see you well, Your Highness,” she added, her voice dropping to an unsettling purr as she curtsied before the tactician.

“Alright, now wait just one godsdamn minute,” Basilio roared, his voice booming across the assembled company. “My men informed me that the Plegian prince was arriving from the West Gate. You lot arrived from the East Gate. Which one of you is the man I’m to talk treaty with?”

“That would be me.”

Chrom turned to look again at Robin, watching as the tactician carefully removed his bracer and held up his right hand...to reveal a six-eyed mark branded on his skin, bright violet even in the poor light. “I trust this will suffice as proof,” he murmured.

The West Khan’s eye narrowed as he nodded. “That’ll do it,” he agreed. “...not a bad tactic, either, sending a dummy to divert attention.”

“Thank you, sir,” Robin replied, gripping the khan’s wrist as Basilio extended his hand. “And I appreciate your consideration in opening your borders that we might meet. We’re prepared to discuss terms at your earliest convenience.”

“Good man!” the west khan grinned, patting the tactician’s shoulder hard enough to make him stumble. “What say we get right to it, then, shall we?”

“As you say.”

As Basilio led Robin past, Chrom saw the tactician cast a strange look in his direction. Apologetic...and somehow frightened, for all the outward calm of his demeanor. The prince’s hand twitched, reaching out to him…

...but he was already beyond Chrom’s grasp, flanked by his Plegian guard and disappearing into the shadows within the fortress walls.

-----

Chrom had never been much good at waiting. Ever since he was a child, his tutors and trainers had all insisted that impatience was one of the prince’s defining traits -- and the one they had the most difficulty coaxing out of him.

And as he stood outside the chambers where the Plegian delegation met, he found the wait to be unbearable.

Gods, he had so many questions swirling through his mind, so many things he wanted to ask, to know. Trying to put them in order was a losing battle, and one that only made his impatience that much worse. So he paced, and struggled with his warring thoughts, and stared at the doors, willing them to open.

The sun had drifted low behind the clouds by the time they finally did. “Thank you, Khan Basilio. Khan Flavia,” he heard Robin say. “Your support is deeply appreciated.”

“As is your trade offer,” the west khan laughed, clapping the tactician hard on the shoulder as they walked out of the room. “We’ll be looking forward to a good fight, and to the spoils that come out of it when we win.”

“Isn’t that the truth!” Flavia crowed. “We’ll be ready at your word -- hope it comes quickly, we’ve been itching for a good brawl.”

“It may be a while yet,” Robin admitted. “We’ll need to orchestrate a battle between the main forces within easy reach of the border wall, or else risk inciting a panic among the people as foreign forces appear to invade…”

The tactician met Chrom’s eye, his voice trailing into silence as that strange, hunted look flashed across his expression again. The Plegian berserker paused beside him as Robin stopped, casting an uncertain glance between them as the captain stepped forward.

“...please go ahead without me,” the tactician said. “I need to speak with Prince Chrom for a moment.”

“...as you wish, Your Highness,” the man bowed, shepherding Henry and the dark-haired woman off ahead of him. And soon there was silence, broken only by their quiet breaths in the bitter Feroxi chill.

“...Prince Robin of Plegia,” Chrom murmured.

The tactician winced as though struck, his head bowing as he hunched his shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he whispered as the captain stepped forward, gently touching his shoulder -- and in that brief moment before Robin flinched away, Chrom felt him shivering fitfully beneath his hand.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” the prince asked.

“I wanted to,” the tactician breathed. “I wanted to -- I tried, but…”

“...last night?” Robin nodded, his hands trembling as they gripped his sleeves. “...I wouldn’t have been upset,” Chrom assured him. “I’m not upset now. Surprised -- gods, I’ve been using a prince as a tactician, your uncle’s going to kill me -- but...I’m not angry.”

“...your sister swore you wouldn’t be.”

“Who? Emm?” The tactician nodded again. “Of course she would know,” he muttered. “Why didn’t you believe her?”

“I did. ...part of me did, at least. But...the rest was afraid. Is afraid. That...that you’re hiding your anger. That it will come later, that…”

“...you know I’m not like that,” Chrom murmured, wrapping an arm around Robin’s shoulders. “I got you shot because I couldn’t let a misunderstanding rest, remember?” But the tactician did not smile, and his shivering did not abate. “...why would you think I would be upset?”

“Because my father would be, if I’d kept something like this from him.”

The prince felt a familiar prickle of anger at that. Not for Robin, but for the man who had left such deep scars, invisible to the eye. “It’s all I could think of,” he whimpered, pressing the heels of his shaking hands against his eyes. “It’s all I could hear when I thought of telling you -- his rage, his contempt...he would never forgive a secret like that, never let it go, he’d remind me of how little faith he could place in me because I kept this from him, how little trust he could ever give me again for hiding something like this, ho-ow…and whe-en I thought of losing you to that I...”

The tactician’s voice hitched and stumbled into silence as Chrom’s arms folded around him, pulling him close and smoothing his soft, pale hair. “I’m not like that,” he murmured. “Not everyone -- gods, no one should be like that: no one has any right to punish you for keeping something like that private. It’s your decision to say something, and when, if ever. I wouldn’t...I would never be angry at you for keeping a secret like that. I swear.”

Robin’s arms coiled around the prince’s waist, his tremors gradually subsiding. “You’re certain?”

“Entirely,” Chrom agreed, brushing a kiss to the tactician’s cheek. “Though I do wish you would have told me sooner -- I could have given you this a long time ago,” he chuckled, pulling back just enough to fish Emmeryn’s letter from his satchel.

A weak smile crept across Robin’s face as he scrubbed at his eyes, taking the parchment from the prince’s hand. “Next time,” he mumbled as he broke the seal.

“I hope there’s not a next time,” Chrom teased, watching the tactician’s grin brighten very slightly before he turned his attention to the letter...and as the prince watched, a look of awe lit his expression, his gaze darting between Chrom and the paper. “...what is it?”

“Did you know about this?” Robin breathed, passing the missive back to the prince. Taking it warily, Chrom glanced through the neat, familiar script…

...and then read it through a second time, a brilliant grin dawning across his face as the words sank in.

By order of Exalt Emmeryn of House Ylisse, the Shepherds under the command of Prince Chrom of House Ylisse are hereby granted unto the service of Prince Robin of Plegia, to command as he deems necessary for the purposes of reclaiming security for his nation.

“I never asked for military aid,” the tactician insisted.

“And you don’t need to use it,” the prince pointed out. “But...I can’t say it’s disappointing news,” he laughed. “It makes it easier to keep my promise when I’m under orders, after all--”

“Your Highness!”

They both jumped as the Plegian berserker charged down the hall to meet them. “What’s wrong, Uncle?” Robin asked.

“Trouble’s brewing,” the man grated out, gesturing for the tactician to follow as he started back down the hall. Robin fell easily into step behind the warrior, Chrom keeping pace beside him while they wound their way up through the fortress to the battlements. Both khans stood beside Henry and the young Plegian woman, staring out over the snowy landscape as the pale-haired man frantically sorted through a pile of disturbing looking materials.

“You were supposed to be scrying for spies following us, Tharja!” Henry babbled, throwing a few feathers and what the prince hoped (but doubted) were beads into the strange array beside him.

“I have been!” she snapped back, holding up a round looking glass, dark eyes staring out of the ornate gold frame. “Nothing’s showing up at all, how in Grima’s name do you expect me to tell you about what I’m not seeing--”

“Enough!” Mustafa snapped. The bickering instantly fell silent, Tharja turning her attention back to the mirror while the pale-haired boy scrambled to finish his work. The tactician moved to join them, frowning at the dark shapes moving through the drifts below as Henry began to chant, the air around him wavering like heat haze in spite of the cold. A strange current rippled through the blowing snow, cutting across the waste, through the encroaching strangers’ party--

A shrill scream rose from the glass in Tharja’s hands. “What in the gods’ names is that!?” Basilio demanded.

“They had scrying wards,” the woman hissed, running the tips of her fingers over the surface of the metal to silence its cry as Robin leaned in to see.

“Twelve men,” the tactician muttered. “Judging from their armor and weapons, they look to be assassins. ...and a sorcerer. A powerful one.”

“How the fuck did they get past the Longfort?” Flavia snarled.

“Magic or hexcraft would be my guess,” Robin replied, gently patting Henry’s hair as the boy clung to him. “It’s alright, it wasn’t your fault…”

“B-but we led them right to you and they’re gonna try to hurt you a-and…”

“We won’t let that happen.”

All eyes turned to Chrom as he lay a hand on his sword hilt. “We’ve been given leave to fight for you. I think now seems a good time to start.”

“...I like that spirit,” the east khan grinned. “Hey, oaf! Didn’t you just get done promising an army to this boy, yourself?”

“...and we won’t see much trade if the prince we struck a deal with dies,” the west khan agreed. “Sound the horns, upstart!”

Flavia wasted no time. The deafening blast shook snow from the stronghold walls as the Shepherds gathered in the growing drifts beyond, watching the hazy figures approaching through the whipping wind; to the captain’s surprise, the Plegians joined them in short order -- and their prince made his way to Chrom’s side, his tome in hand and his hood raised against the biting snow.

“Are you sure you shouldn’t be back in the fortress?” he asked. “It’s you they want.”

“I can’t let the Shepherds go off to battle without their tactician,” Robin replied. “After all, isn’t that why my request for leave was denied?”

“...you make a fine point,” the captain grinned. “Alright, then -- lead on.”

The Shepherds and Plegians both clustered together as Robin surveyed the field, waiting expectantly for their orders. “The Feroxis are mobilizing and will act as reinforcements, but ours will be the first charge. We counted twelve men in the scrying glass. Pair off -- most of them appeared to be assassins, so expect swords, rather than bows, given the poor visibility and high winds. Vaike, Uncle Mustafa, you’ll act as the rear guard: keep an eye on the fighting and assist if someone is in distress. Be careful, and watch one another’s backs: these are swift opponents who prefer sneak attacks to direct confrontation, so stay alert.”

“Are we clear?” Chrom asked. The assembled forces nodded in agreement, beginning to pair off as the prince unsheathed his blade. “Then move out!”

They dispersed into the blinding gale, shadowy figures becoming hazy outlines in the poor light. And as the captain started into the wind, he was relieved to find the tactician beside him. “I thought you might go off with Henry.”

“Oh, Henry wanted to pair off with me, rest assured,” Robin agreed. “But I think he’ll be better suited elsewhere.”

“I’m glad to have you at my side,” Chrom confessed. The tactician smiled, tugging the edge of his hood down slightly further as they continued to edge their way through the blinding snow. “Gods, where did this storm even come from?”

“It’s not natural,” Robin muttered. “I’d wager the sorcerer is responsible. Be on guard.”

The occasional crash of metal, distorted by the howling gale, sounded around them as they advanced. Falchion’s soft glow shimmered across the blowing flakes, illuminating the way through the growing dark. “Should we have seen something by now?” the prince asked, his voice raised to combat the wind. They weren’t lost, were they? No, he could still hear the ring of steel--

The tactician grabbed his arm and dragged him aside an instant before a fireball crashed into the snow where they’d stood, hissing violently as it scattered sparks into the drifts. Lifting his hand, Robin fired a bolt of lightning into the dark -- and a shadow ducked aside, a skull helm grinning in the light of the spell’s passage.

“Not bad, Six-Eyes,” a hollow voice called through the gloom. “Just what I’d expect from Grima’s Heart. But we can’t allow the dragon to rise again -- your heart was quelled once, fellblood, and so it shall be again!”

Chrom saw the circles blaze in the dark ahead as the tactician’s own magic began to crackle in the air around them. The fire soared high, an instant before the next thunder spell arced through the wind -- a glancing blow, nothing more, and the flames roiled overhead as Robin tried to retreat through the deepening drifts at their back…

Instinct drove the prince’s steps. Shoving the tactician back behind him, Chrom turned his shoulder into the spell, pulling his cape around them to shield them from the blaze.

And pain seared across his senses as it burned through his cloak, his sleeve, and into his flesh.

***

The prince’s scream shattered Robin’s calm.

“CHROM!!”

The captain staggered, falling to his knees as molten flame burned across his arm. Catching the prince as he began to fall, the tactician dug his free hand into the drifts around them, desperately fighting to douse the burn before it ate through to the bone and fighting back the bile in his throat at the scorched stench...

The dying wind carried a rattling laugh through the storm. “It seems I missed. I suppose I’ll have to try again.”

Golden light glowed out of the dark as Robin struggled to pull Chrom up against him, draw him out of the line of fire--

The prince pushed back against him, stumbling unsteadily to his feet. “Chrom,” the tactician gasped, catching his uninjured arm as the captain fought to lift his sword. “Stay down, you’re hurt--”

“I won’...ge-et you hurt agai-in.”

Robin’s heart twisted. “Please, Chrom,” he breathed.

“Seems I need to break your shield before I can burn your heart,” the sorcerer cackled, flames swirling around him. “So be it!”

Terror swelled within his breast.

And then rage pushed it aside, his vision wavering as something burned through his veins.

“Stop!”

The force of that word shook the ground, stilled the wind, and brought Chrom to his knees. Stalking forward through the drifts, the tactician gently touched the prince’s shoulder in passing, placing himself squarely between the sorcerer and the captain. The enemy mage sneered beneath his helm as Robin unsheathed the silver blade at his side, the metal singing in the cold air. “I was warned you’d be a difficult quarry. It seems the king overestimated his opposition.”

A thin smile cut across the tactician’s face as the magic circles sparked to light, their pulsing glow swirling around his sword. The sorcerer’s voice lifted in a steady chant -- and Robin’s weapon cut the air with a thundering roar, the twisting bolt snaring the man in jaws of lightning that threw him to the ground. In the echoing wake of the spell’s passage, the tactician darted forward, his blade slicing effortlessly through the enemy’s tome as he slipped past -- and as the sorcerer scrabbled upright, Robin turned neatly on his heel, cutting through the man’s hamstring in the next fluid blow.

The enemy mage fell to the ground, his shriek of agony falling silent as Robin touched the bloodied edge of his sword to the man's throat. He could hear, distantly, the crunch of footsteps approaching through the snow, but did not raise his eyes to see. The stride alone was unmistakable.

“Uncle?”

The steps faltered and stopped. “...yes, Your Highness?”

“Do we need one of them alive for information?”

Silence met the cold words. The sorcerer stared up at the Plegian prince, wide-eyed with shock as the snow bloomed red around him.

“...it would be wise,” Mustafa agreed.

“Then I leave this to you,” Robin said, withdrawing the wicked silver blade from the man’s neck and cleaning it by force of habit before sheathing it at his side.

And then he turned, the fire in his veins dying away as he bolted through the windblown drifts and fell to his knees at Chrom’s side. The Ylissean prince lifted his head, his eyes focusing slowly on the tactician’s face...and a pained smile crept across his pale features. “You alright?” he mumbled.

“I’m fine,” Robin whispered, smoothing Chrom’s hair away from his sweat-soaked brow. “Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. Help is coming soon, alright? Stay with me.”

“I-it really hurts,” the prince gasped, his hand trembling as it tightened on his sword hilt.

“I know,” the tactician breathed, settling closer and gently touching Chrom’s fingers. “I know. Just hold still. Don’t think about it. Focus on my voice.”

The prince slumped, his trembling hand snaring Robin’s fingers in a painful grip. But the tactician made no complaint, cradling Chrom’s head to his shoulder. “Breathe with me,” he murmured, inhaling steadily as he squeezed the prince’s shaking hand. Chrom’s own gasp stumbled and frayed into a sob, a violent tremor tearing through his chest…

...and Robin curled close around him, turning his face into the prince’s sleek cobalt hair as he began to sing. Chrom’s tense grip gradually eased, his breaths steadying slowly as the murmured melody floated around them; the familiar words that had so often given Robin strength did not dull the fear that made his heart race in his breast...but they seemed to distract the prince from his pain, if only for a moment.

He paid little attention as Lissa and Frederick arrived, feeling their stares but never once relaxing his grip on Chrom’s fingers, nor lifting his head from the prince’s hair. His song quieted as the princess picked her way through the snow to stand beside them, her staff’s glow fighting back the deepening twilight -- and when Chrom’s breath once more dissolved into a weak gasp of pain as Frederick helped him up, the tactician scrambled to his feet, cupping the prince’s face in his hands and touching their foreheads together. “I’m here,” he breathed. “I’m here.”

Much to the great knight’s clear frustration, it was Robin who supported Chrom on the way back to the Feroxi stronghold, the hum of his song fraying from the strain, but never once fading to silence. It seemed to help, if nothing else. And there was little more that the tactician could ask for.

The Feroxi medics took over the moment their small procession passed through the fortress doors, bundling the captain off to the infirmary with his sister close behind. But before the ache of loneliness could set in, he found himself surrounded: his uncle and both of the khans pulled him aside, each voice speaking gravely of the attack, the implications, the man they’d captured and what little they had been able to obtain so far.

Robin paid little attention. Sitting quietly among them, he allowed the voices to flow around him, filing the words away for later consideration. And when, at last, they released him from their company, the tactician crept through the halls in search of the ward. It took little enough time to find it, if only because he happened across Lissa leaving just as he slipped down the passage. Her weary smile eased his troubled mind as little else had -- and as she leaned against him, Robin wrapped his arms around her shoulders.

“He’s gonna be okay,” she mumbled into his shirt. “He’ll need a lot of rest, a-and a lot of treatment, but...but they said he’s gonna be okay.”

“I’m glad,” the tactician whispered. “I was afraid that…”

“Me, too. I-I was really scared, but...but he’ll be okay,” the princess sniffled.

“...do you think I could see him?”

Lissa peeked up at him, her smile brightening as she scrubbed at her eyes with her sleeve. “Sure,” she giggled. “He’s sleeping right now, but I don’t think they’d mind. Just make sure you get some rest, too, okay?”

“I will,” he agreed.

“Promise?”

“I swear,” he nodded, placing his marked hand over his heart.

“...okay. And...thank you. For...for everything.”

He wasn’t entirely sure what she meant. And he was equally bewildered by the tight hug she gave him before hurrying out of sight down the hall. But, he supposed, he could ponder that later.

Moving into the Feroxi infirmary, Robin glanced around the room, scanning the shadowed cots by the low-burning fires for any patients. Very few were occupied, which at least made his search rather simple...and to his relief, as he approached the nearest bed, the soft light from the hearth lit Chrom’s familiar features.

He looked pained, even in sleep. Unsurprising, given the extent of his wounds...but even still, it made his chest ache as he settled beside the prince’s cot, gently smoothing Chrom’s hair away from his brow. “I’m sorry I couldn’t keep you from this,” he breathed. “I’m sorry I…”

“Your Highness?”

The tactician looked up as a broad, familiar form moved toward him through the dark. “Hello, Uncle Mustafa,” he murmured.

“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”

“What made you think that?”

“A great many things, Little Bird.”

A weak smile twitched across Robin’s face as the man sat down across from him. “Until today, I thought I’d done rather well at keeping those things quiet.”

“You always have been adept at hiding what means the most to you,” the warrior agreed. “At least until it’s at risk.”

“And that is how I always lose, in the end.”

His uncle did not argue. Instead he bowed his head, resting his elbows on his knees as he folded his hands. “Your Highness. ...Little Bird. You know...that I have served your family well, these many years. Your mother, before she joined Grima; your father; and you, Little Bird. I have...I have always known that you would lead Plegia to an age of peace. You were born with Grima’s Heart. That is your destiny. I believed...when your father began your training, that he wanted to ensure that your mind and body were fit and ready when your transition arrived, and you ascended the throne. I thought…”

“...Uncle, what is this about?” the tactician asked, a disquieting chill crawling down his spine.

Mustafa sighed, stroking his beard as he collected his thoughts. “On Grima’s Night. The one just past, not...your father conducted the invocation. And...the things he said…”

The berserker lifted his head, his eyes meeting the tactician’s steadily. “I am a soldier. I’ve been a soldier near all my life. And a soldier’s duty is to follow the orders he is given. I taught you that, knowing that one day, you would need to carry a heavier burden still -- the weight of a crown, and the duty to your people, whose needs must come before your own. Do you remember?”

“I do,” Robin agreed. Gods, those words had followed him every step of his journey through Plegia, and on through every day in Ylisse…

“...Your Highness, what I heard on Grima’s Night made me doubt my duty.”

The tactician’s breath caught.

“Your father -- he has never intended for you to take the throne. These last ten years, since your mother’s passing, he has been honing your body that another power might fill it. He has trained you only that you might be a fitting vessel for Grima’s soul. And two years past -- the night of the coup -- he...he had planned to sacrifice every Grimleal attending the invocation for the sake of a ritual to awaken Grima within you.”

Robin’s stomach twisted, a sudden rush of queasy anxiety closing his throat as he stared into the warrior’s scarred face.

“I heard him speak the words himself, before the ceremony,” Mustafa continued. “That your eighteenth year should have heralded Grima’s awakening, and that even though the ritual could not be completed as planned that night, with every day that passes Grima’s power grows, ready to be called into you -- and...he intends that the battlefield where the Feroxi forces meet Gangrel’s men will be the sacrificial stage.”

Two armies’ worth of shed blood, spilled across Plegian soil. Gods, the power of such a ritual could rend mountains…

“Why are you telling me this?” the tactician whispered.

“...because I cannot bear to see that fate for you, Little Bird.”

The warrior reached out, resting his great hands on Robin’s narrow shoulders. “I did not raise you so that your father could slaughter his own people and conquer nations to satisfy his own lust for power. I raised you that you might lead us to peace, as Grima’s great heart returned to His people. I cannot stand by and allow this, I can’t…”

Very slowly, the tactician’s thoughts began to turn. “...Uncle. Gangrel thinks that you are his man. My father believes that you are his. Where do your loyalties lie, in truth?”

Mustafa straightened slowly, his shoulders squaring as he met Robin’s eye. “My loyalty has always been, and will forever be, with Grima’s Heart.”

“And how many of the men pressed into Gangrel’s service feel the same?”

“...many, I would say, with the exception of those he has bribed with promises of wealth or power after his crown is assured.”

“And how many of my father’s followers place their loyalty in the Six-Eyes, rather than the hierophant?”

“Most, aside from his closest council.”

“...when you return to Plegia, can you find them? Those who believe in Grima’s Heart?”

The warrior frowned, stroking his beard slowly. “For what purpose?”

“To rally them. That when we arrive at the final battlefield, they will come to the side they truly believe in -- and we might quell all the usurpers at once.”

A slow smile spread across Mustafa’s face. “Of course, Your Highness. I will see it done.”

Rising from his chair, the berserker offered a low bow, bidding the Plegian prince a soft goodnight. And then he departed, leaving the tactician to his thoughts. With a heavy sigh, Robin leaned back in his chair, piecing through the scattered bits of information he'd gleaned--

“What was that all about?”

The tactician started, nearly upending his seat as he turned to look at the cot beside him. Chrom blinked muzzily back at him, a wan smile drifting across his face as Robin’s fingers brushed gently across his forehead. “A complicated political mess that you needn’t concern yourself with at present,” he murmured.

“...that’s probably for the best,” the prince chuckled. “I don’t think I could concentrate on it if I tried.”

“You should sleep, then,” the tactician smiled. “You’ll feel better once you’ve rested.”

Chrom frowned slightly, his brow furrowing under Robin’s fingertips. “...will you stay?”

A gentle, affectionate warmth spilled through the tactician’s chest. Shifting his chair slightly closer, Robin carefully slipped his arm beneath the prince’s head, brushing a soft kiss across his lips. “Of course I will.”

Chrom smiled wearily, pillowing his head against the tactician’s shoulder. “...love you,” he mumbled.

“And I love you,” Robin whispered back, breathing the words across the prince’s brow. And until Chrom’s breaths at last calmed into easy rest, the tactician remained, humming a gentle lullaby into his hair.

Chapter Text

“Do we really gotta go?” Henry whined, digging his heels into the snow as Mustafa gently led him toward the waiting wagons.

“I’m afraid so,” Robin murmured, keeping easy pace alongside them. The past week had been spent in a whirl of preparations -- meetings with the khans to plan for the inevitable battle they would face, discussions with his uncle on the safest means to find allies and thwart spies from either side, experiments with Henry and Tharja to avoid further surprises from warded enemies -- but piece by piece, their plans had come together, until every foreseeable eventuality had been charted, leaving only the unknown to chance. Now all that remained was to set things into motion.

“Are you sure I can’t go with you?” the dark mage pouted, leaning back far enough to look at the tactician upside-down.

“Unfortunately, no,” Robin sighed. “My father will be expecting you back. And remember, you can’t tell him about the Ylisseans.”

“I don’t wanna tell him anything,” Henry grumbled.

“Then don’t. If he asks you, just tell him exactly what we agreed on: we met with the Feroxi khans, they agreed to aid the Grimleal side, and we fought off Gangrel’s assassins with their help. Alright?”

“...okay,” the dark mage mumbled. “I can do that. I guess.”

“Thank you, Henry,” the tactician smiled. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

Tears welled up in the mage’s eyes as he broke free of the berserker’s grip, flinging himself at Robin as they stopped beside the convoy. “I’m gonna miss you. You’re sure you can’t come with?”

“I’m sure,” the tactician murmured, vainly smoothing Henry’s wild hair. “But I promise I’ll write to you every night. Alright?”

“...okay,” the dark mage sniffled, pulling back as the warrior touched his shoulder. “And...and we’ll see you soon, right?”

“A few months, at most,” Robin agreed. “Take care until then, Henry. I’ll miss you. But I believe in you.”

A shaky smile finally returned to the mage’s face as he drew himself up, mustering an awkward salute. “That means a hex of a lot!”

“Henry,” Tharja and Mustafa both groaned while the tactician stifled an amused snicker in his sleeve; they might have been drowning in terrible wordplay for the past year, but Robin found that he’d started to miss the groan-worthy puns.

“I won’t let you down,” the dark mage giggled. “...make sure you write soon, okay?”

“I will,” the tactician nodded.

As Tharja shoved Henry into the wagon, the berserker offered a crisp salute. “I’m happy to have found you well, Your Highness. Be safe until we meet again.”

“Thank you, Uncle.” As the berserker relaxed his stance, Robin stepped forward, embracing the man warmly...and feeling Mustafa’s arms fold around him after another moment. “I’ll miss you,” he mumbled.

“And I will miss you, Little Bird,” the warrior replied. “May we meet again soon.”

Stepping back, the tactician offered a soft smile to Tharja as she hovered in the wagon’s open doorway, keeping Henry from jumping back out and further delaying their departure. “Take care. And thank you for everything: we’d not have come this far without you.”

“It’s been my honor, Your Highness,” the woman curtsied. “Farewell -- you’ll be in my thoughts until we next meet.”

Bowing slightly, Robin stepped back, waving to Henry as the door closed and the draft horses set off toward the western border. And then he turned, trudging through the snow to the wagons waiting to carry the Shepherds back east. Climbing through the first open door…

He paused, glancing from one narrow bench to the other: Lissa and Frederick sat together on one side...and Chrom sat alone on the other, still rather pale and far quieter than the tactician was accustomed to. Between the potent Feroxi medicines and his sister’s healing arts, he had been recovering well...but he was by no means back to his usual self.

“I apologize for intruding,” Robin said, starting to step down--

“No no no don’t go!” Lissa insisted, snatching for his hand and trying to pull him inside. “We were saving a seat for you!”

“You were?” he asked, glancing toward the stone-faced great knight beside her.

“I was,” Chrom replied, a faded grin tugging at his mouth as he patted the place beside him.

“...you’re certain?” the tactician pressed.

“Yes,” the prince and princess replied in unison. And given Frederick’s silence, they’d already argued him into acquiescence. Smiling softly, Robin pulled himself up, closing the door and sitting down next to Chrom as the wagon began to move…

...and within moments, the prince settled comfortably against him, his uninjured arm linking with the tactician’s as he began to drowse. Glancing toward the opposite bench, Robin found Lissa beaming at him, bouncing out of time with the convoy’s bumpy progress, while the great knight stared ahead without expression.

But no one seemed intent on speaking. So the tactician closed his eyes, resting his cheek against the prince’s hair (ignoring the princess’ giddy squeak as he did) and turning his thoughts elsewhere.

He must have dozed off somewhere along the road. Robin stirred as the convoy rolled to a halt at the Longfort gates, patting Chrom’s arm to gently rouse him from sleep...and as Frederick opened the wagon door, the tactician helped the prince to his feet and out onto the snow-dusted ground.

The Feroxi border guard happily put the Shepherds up for the night, hauling Chrom off to the infirmary before supper. He seemed marginally more energetic when he returned, laughing with the rest of the troops as they chatted over the meal and eating well of everything offered. And by breakfast the next morning, there was more color in the prince’s smile, more energy in his movements -- and a familiar playfulness in his eye as he winked at Robin across the table.

When the Shepherds headed out into the chill morning, the captain fell into step beside the tactician, tugging his cape over his bandaged arm. “Good morning.”

“Good morning, Chrom,” Robin replied, smiling at the grin spreading across the prince’s face. “How are you feeling?”

“A little better,” he admitted. “Though we’ll see how long that lasts on the march--”

Heavy hoofbeats paced toward them, accompanied by the familiar clank of armor. They turned together as Frederick stopped a pace away, his destrier’s reins in hand. “Good morning, Milord.”

“Good morning, Frederick,” Chrom returned. “Do you need something?”

“Indeed,” the great knight replied. “Given the state of your injuries and your ongoing recovery, I think it would be wise for you to ride, rather than risk overexerting yourself on the march.”

“It’s not that bad--”

“I agree with Frederick,” the tactician remarked, ignoring the look of betrayal the prince turned on him. “You’ll recover faster if you rest as much as possible.”

“I would have preferred to remain in Ferox until you progressed further in your recovery,” the great knight added, similarly refusing to acknowledge Chrom’s glower, “and while I respect your dedication in seeing through your duties to the Exalt and the halidom, it would be to your benefit to avoid undue strain if you insist on forging ahead.”

“I concur,” Robin nodded. Frederick inclined his head gratefully as the prince sulked, folding one arm petulantly across his chest (and wincing as he moved the other before wisely deciding against it). “Remember what Lissa said to me: healing staves don’t magically make everything better.”

“Then what’s the point of them?” Chrom grumbled.

“To set you on the mend,” the great knight offered. “Come now, Milord, you can ride with me.”

“I’d rather ride with Robin,” the prince muttered.

“Milord, Robin is not a horseman--”

“Chrom, I don’t have a horse.”

Both the prince and Frederick paused at the tactician’s words. “You ride?” Chrom asked.

“Capably, if not adeptly,” Robin shrugged. “You’d likely be better served going with Frederick--”

“But I’d rather ride with you,” the prince repeated.

“Again, I’ve no horse--”

“You can borrow mine,” Sully grinned, sidling over and slinging an arm across the tactician’s shoulders.

“...Sully, you don’t ride a horse, you ride a wyvern in disguise.”

The cavalier howled laughter, pounding on Robin’s back hard enough to leave him aching. “Fuck, I didn’t know you had a sense of humor!”

“I’m being frank,” he protested even as Sully turned to scan the milling Shepherds.

“Hey, Stahl!” she yelled, waving to her fellow cavalier. “The Captain needs to borrow your horse. And you owe me twenty gold!”

“What do you need Alfie for?” Stahl ventured, his mare following close behind as he approached. “And what bet did I lose?”

“Tell ‘em,” Sully grinned, elbowing Chrom pointedly in the ribs.

“I’m banned from marching.”

“And?”

“I didn’t want to ride with Frederick.”

“And?” she prodded.

“...I’d rather ride with Robin if I’m not marching.”

“Pay up,” the redhead insisted, holding out her hand while Stahl stared blankly between the prince and tactician.

“Have you been gambling on this?” Chrom demanded.

“Captain, you an’ I both know I don’t bet,” Sully replied. “I never put money down if I’m not winning.”

“What have you been wagering on?” Robin ventured warily.

“The fact that Chrom’s mooning over you.”

“I have not been mooning,” the prince muttered as the tactician’s face began to burn.

“I’ve known you since we were kids,” the cavalier shot back. “I know every stupid face you make, and every time Robin walks in the room you get the stupidest grin on your face and stop paying attention to everything. You didn’t even notice when I called you a trashlord. You’re mooning.

“When did you call me a trashlord?”

“Exactly. Now, I gotta be honest, I didn’t see it being a two-way thing since you usually show all the emotion of a wet burlap sack,” she continued, casting a pointed look at the tactician, “but I wasn’t taking bets on that, so I’m in the clear and half these dumbasses owe me a month’s pay. You kissed him yet?” she asked, nudging Chrom’s arm.

“Lay off,” he grumbled, making a very rude gesture at her.

“Hey, I’m just sayin’ it might help. Maybe you’ll stop getting all stupid after you do. Come on, Stahl, you’re with me today,” she said, hooking her fellow cavalier’s arm and dragging him off to where her own mount stood.

“Go easy on her!” Stahl called over his shoulder as Robin gently caught the mare’s reins. The horse obediently settled, snuffling at the tactician’s hair and hood while he stroked her neck. She was a pretty thing, and sweet-tempered from everything he’d seen; hopefully she wouldn’t mind a strange rider for a day, since Sully apparently had no intention of letting Stahl go…

“Will this work?” the prince asked as Robin adjusted the stirrups and pulled himself up into the saddle.

“...I suppose,” Frederick relented. Helping Chrom up behind the tactician, the great knight spent another few minutes fussing over the prince while Robin settled comfortably into his place on the mare’s back. It had been so long since he’d last gone riding, he’d nearly forgotten how pleasant this could be.

Alright,” Chrom sighed, grudgingly accepting the second blanket the great knight handed up to him and wrapping it around his shoulders. “Can we please go now?”

“Of course, Milord,” Frederick agreed. “Prepare to move out, everyone,” he called returning to his own mount.

“Thank the gods,” the prince groaned, leaning against the tactician’s back. “I was starting to think he’d never leave.”

“He’s only looking after your health,” Robin murmured, clucking his tongue and touching his heels to the horse’s sides to encourage her forward. She went easily, seeming content enough in spite of the unfamiliar rider. “At the risk of sounding like Frederick, though, you might want to hold on,” the tactician advised softly.

He felt Chrom’s lips curve into a smile against the nape of his neck, the prince’s sound arm coiling around his waist. And as the sun climbed over the Northroad, the Shepherds headed south, Chrom’s warmth at his back keeping the cold well at bay.

***

“So where did you learn to ride?”

Robin glanced over his shoulder, his soft smile warming Chrom’s heart. “It was just one more part of my training -- though, to be fair, it was one of the more enjoyable parts, and started much earlier than the rest.”

The prince made a thoughtful noise, resting his cheek against the tactician’s shoulder. They had been making good time so far, and from Frederick’s monologue at the head of the procession, it seemed likely that they would reach a town before nightfall. Not that Chrom minded camping, but he wouldn’t pass up a bed given the opportunity -- especially when he still felt so miserable. The healers insisted he was recovering well, but while the pain had subsided from a fevered scream, it remained as a deep ache gnawing at his bones beneath the mending flesh.

Heat helped, though, and he was grudgingly grateful for the blankets the great knight had pressed on him before they set off; large as they were, the prince had bundled Robin up along with him, and the comfortable warmth had certainly helped to soothe the lingering pain. But as he’d realized when the wound was fresh and agony seared his senses, distractions were a far better way to keep his mind off the ache.

“You know, you still haven’t told me what that was all about,” Chrom murmured. “With your uncle, that night in the infirmary.”

Silence met those words.

“I was hoping you’d been too dazed to remember that,” the tactician eventually sighed.

“Afraid not,” the prince chuckled. He hadn’t caught everything, and much of his memory was hazy...but enough remained clear to realize that something larger than Plegia’s peace was at stake.

“...I suppose I should begin by asking how much you know about Plegia.”

“Besides the Grima worship?”

“Besides the Grima worship,” Robin smiled.

“...not a lot,” Chrom confessed.

“Well, I suppose now’s as good a time to learn as any. If you’re feeling up to it.”

“...I suppose I’m up for a lesson,” the prince grinned, snuggling closer (and ignoring Sully’s whistle from somewhere behind them).

“Then...I suppose we should start where all of this began: Grima’s Fall.”

“Where the first Exalt defeated the Fell Dragon, with Naga’s guidance. Right?” They celebrated it each summer during the Festival of Naga’s Light...which he probably shouldn’t mention.

“Yes -- but...before that -- before the fall -- it’s said that Grima passed unto His people the Eyes to find their way once He could no longer guide them.” Keeping the reins in his left hand, the tactician awkwardly removed his right bracer, revealing the six-eyed mark on his skin. Briefly loosing his grip on Robin’s waist, Chrom caught the tactician’s fingers, stroking the brand with his thumb. “It’s said that each pair of Grima’s eyes in life were dedicated to a different purpose: the first pair allowed Him to see the minds of men, read their thoughts and know their plans; the second pair allowed Him to see the talents of men, gauge their movements and predict their actions; and the last pair allowed Him to see the hearts of men, know their true intentions and understand what they hold dearest.

“Before His fall, each of His followers was granted one pair of Eyes, along with the roots to ground them. The first pair, at the top of the brace, are the Eyes of Wisdom, granting a keen mind and deep insight; the second pair are the Eyes of Strength, granting physical or magical prowess; and the final pair are the Eyes of Devotion, granting empathy and fortitude of will.” Touching each mark in turn, the prince finally secured his grip again, watching as Robin slipped his bracer back into place and took up the reins in both hands again. “The Eyes were intended to see Grima’s people through the bleak times ahead. And they endured long after His fall, fading or strengthening as they were passed down through different lines. Most Plegians have no eyes at all, or perhaps only the brace. Two Eyes -- one pair -- are uncommon, while four Eyes are quite rare. Three pairs are unheard-of. But...it was said that within the Six-Eyes beats the Heart of Grima. So for generations, my father’s family chose their marriages with care, in the hopes that one day their lineage would give rise to the Heart.

“In the meantime, of course, Plegia has been ruled by one chosen by Grima -- technically by diviners, who read their signs and choose the one who will be Grima’s Voice to His people. Invariably it’s someone with more Eyes, and all those with the greatest blessings to be found are gathered for the diviners to choose among. The last king had two pairs, and ruled for many, many years...but in the twilight of his reign, my father at last succeeded.”

Chrom reached out, brushing his fingertips across the tactician’s knuckles. “There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the Six-Eyes would come to rule, in time,” the tactician continued. “And after a great deal of debate...the hierophant of the Grimleal faith -- my grandfather, at the time -- and the king reached an agreement: when the Six-Eyes reached his eighteenth year, and attained his majority, he would ascend the throne as king...but should the reigning king die before that time, a regent would temporarily lead the nation, chosen by the king’s diviners. Everyone was pleased with that arrangement, and...for several years, things were calm. The war with Ylisse had ended, Plegia was recovering...my mother raised me in the capital, under my uncle’s guard, and while I saw little of my father, I didn’t mind overmuch. I had my mother and my uncle, and all the love I could want. I learned about music, and horses, and magic, and literature, and...I was happy.

“But...when I was ten, my mother fell ill and passed into Grima’s embrace. And my father took over my upbringing. I was thrown into all manner of rigorous training -- tactics, history, swordplay, alchemy...anything he deemed unnecessary was excised from my life. No more music. No more reading for pleasure. If it did nothing to hone my mind or body, it was worthless in his esteem. And then, some...five years ago, I think? The king passed, and since I’d not reached my majority yet, the diviners were called to choose a new ruler from among those with the greatest blessings -- my father among them. It’s said...well, my father believes that the diviners were not as impartial as they claimed to be, for they chose the man the last king and his council had found, passing over the hierophant to do so. And that was where the trouble began: Gangrel enjoyed power, when he found it at his command, and did not want to give it up when the transition arrived. So...a year ago -- slightly more, on the Grima’s Night before the one that just passed -- he staged a coup to prevent the crown from falling to the Six-Eyes.

“My uncle had anticipated it, I think. Tensions between Gangrel’s men and my father’s had been on the rise for years, it seemed only a matter of time before they reached a breaking point...so he helped me escape the city along a secret route, in hopes that by escaping, I would find a way to end the conflict and bring peace to Plegia at last. ...of course, no one knew at that point that my father was planning a blood ritual to awaken Grima in me, and that all that godsdamn training and study was for the sole purpose of having a honed vessel for Grima’s power…”

The prince frowned as Robin began to tremble, tightening his grip on the tactician’s waist. “It won’t happen,” he murmured. “I’ll protect you.”

“You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep,” Robin sighed.

“Then I’ll just have to be sure to keep it,” Chrom grinned.

“At least refrain from making oaths before you’re fit to keep them.”

“...I suppose that’s fair,” the prince mumbled. “...so riding was part of your training?” he asked, attempting to steer the conversation to less dire subjects.

“One of the few my father saw benefit to, and allowed me to continue,” the tactician murmured. “It branched into mounted combat, of course -- I can struggle my way through archery and I’m a passing hand at swordplay, though I was adept with spellcraft -- but riding was always a reprieve.”

“Did you have your own horse?”

A soft, fond hum rose in Robin’s chest. “I did. A lovely bay mare. I’ve no idea how she’s fared, through all of this…”

“What’s her name?” Chrom asked.

The tactician said something incomprehensibly beautiful. And after a moment, he turned to smile at the prince’s blank stare. “It would translate to something like ‘Amber Moon.’”

“Gods, you have such a poetic name for your horse. Alfalfa here must be jealous.”

“...her name is Alfalfa?”

“Stahl was hungry when he named her,” Chrom shrugged.

“Stahl is always hungry,” Robin chuckled, patting the mare’s neck. “Though I think Alfie is a lovely name.”

“Step lively, now, everyone, if we’re to reach town before dark we’ll need to move a bit faster,” Frederick announced at the front of the line.

“I can’t wait to take a hot bath and fall into a nice warm bed,” Lissa sighed from her perch behind the great knight.

“That all sounds good to me,” the prince agreed.

“Then I suppose we should hurry on,” the tactician smiled, his light flick of the reins spurring the mare into a trot. And as the rest of the troop increased their pace, Chrom tightened his arm around Robin’s waist, nestling warm and close as the sunlight faded toward night.

***

A few more days and they’d reach Ylisstol. Robin found he was looking forward to that prospect nearly as much as the rest of the Shepherds: the halidom’s capital had swiftly become a place of comfort for the tactician, and while it didn’t feel quite like home, it was certainly a city he treasured. Even with all the careful orchestration he would need to oversee for the conflict ahead, the promise of security and companionship that awaited kept his spirits high.

But he would be equally glad to reach Ylisstol for Chrom’s sake.

The prince was, by all accounts, recovering well from his burns, in large part because of his sister’s dedication in making sure they were regularly treated. But they had at last reached that tenuous stage where Chrom’s energy exceeded his patience, and his nightly bickering with the princess became yet one more part of pitching camp. Robin knew this particular dance unfortunately well, as often as he and Henry had performed it -- though in Henry’s case, it was his inability to feel pain over a certain threshold that spurred him on too early; in the tactician’s, it was the fearful drive to avoid his father’s cutting ire that pushed him ahead.

But to Robin’s surprise, things were quiet that evening as Frederick lit the fire and the tents rose beneath the trees. Somehow, that did not comfort him. If the prince was submitting to treatment without complaint, his condition might be worsening…

“ROBIIIIIIIN!”

The tactician jumped at the sudden call. And his heart sank as he turned to see Lissa running up to meet him, her usual smile replaced by a troubled frown. “What is it?” he asked.

“Have you seen my pig-headed brother around?” she asked, the ire of her words offset by her anxious expression.

“Not since we stopped to make camp. ...is he avoiding treatment again?”

“Like the plague,” she grumbled. “He’s not gonna get better if he doesn’t take care of it, but getting him to sit still is like herding kittens.”

Robin had to hide a smile behind his hand at that particular image. “I could help you look,” he offered. “Two pairs of eyes will likely have better luck than one alone.”

That, at least, brought a smile back to her face. Digging into her sleeves, the princess produced a vulnerary and a tightly rolled bundle of linen strips for bandages. “Do you think you could take care of him, if you find him? He’ll probably try to sneak off before I can get there.”

“I think I can manage,” Robin chuckled, taking both and tucking them away in his coat pockets for safekeeping. “I’ll take the west side?”

“Good luck,” she giggled, scampering off to continue her own search. The tactician, meanwhile, turned his attention toward the other half of the camp, walking slowly away from the fire. Odds were good that Lissa had already checked her brother’s tent, and it was equally likely that Chrom would have avoided it for that very reason. He doubted the prince would stray far, with twilight near at hand, and his injury would prevent him from doing much in the way of hunting or collecting firewood (not that Frederick would allow it, if he tried) -- so he would likely be somewhere in camp, though not in the places he tended to frequent. And not a place where someone might stumble upon him by chance...

The tactician stopped outside his own tent, looking thoughtfully at the canvas. It was quiet in this corner of the camp, with most of the Shepherds at work preparing for supper...and even though the rest of the troops were paying a great deal more attention to their interactions now, he doubted that anyone would think to look for Chrom in Robin’s tent when the tactician wasn’t around.

A faint smile tugged at his lips as he lifted the flap and moved inside. “Good evening, Captain,” he said as the prince scrambled to his feet. “No need to get up on my account. Your sister is looking for you, though.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Chrom muttered, pulling his cape around his bandaged arm. “Are you going to call her down on me?”

“No,” Robin replied, fishing his spell tablet from his pocket and calling forth a few gentle lilac orbs to light the space between them as he sat down by the bedroll. “I don’t see the point, since you’ll just run off if I do.”

Patting the place beside him, the tactician watched as the prince hesitantly lowered himself back to the ground. “I’m tired of getting fussed over and treated like a child. I’m a grown man, for gods’ sakes.”

“They’re not trying to be condescending,” Robin murmured. “They’re only concerned for your health.”

“I’m fine,” Chrom huffed.

“How’s your arm?”

“It’s fine,” the prince mumbled, tugging his cloak slightly closer.

“Can I see it, then?”

“Why?”

“I’d like to check on it.”

“You don’t trust me?”

“It’s for my own peace of mind. ...you were injured because of me. I’d at least like to see for myself that you’re on the mend.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Chrom insisted.

“If you hadn’t been trying to protect me, you wouldn’t have taken such a wound.”

“It was worth it.”

“You nearly lost your arm.”

“But I didn’t. And I didn’t lose you, either.”

The prince’s fingers curled around his hand, and a soft smile touched the tactician’s face as he returned the gentle pressure. “That is true,” Robin murmured. “Though I would still like to ensure that you keep that arm. So may I see?”

“...I suppose,” Chrom sighed. “If it’ll reassure you.”

“It would,” the tactician agreed, gently pushing the prince’s cape aside and touching the bandages. They remained dry, thankfully, though the heat against his palm still concerned him; unwinding the linens, Robin guided one of the soft lights closer, frowning at the redness around the lingering traces of char. “This doesn’t look fine,” he noted.

“It’s getting better,” Chrom mumbled.

“It will get better faster if you keep treating it,” the tactician pointed out, removing the vulnerary and bandages from his pocket.

“...my sister put you up to this, didn’t she?”

“She only armed me in case I should find you,” Robin shrugged. “And, to be fair, I’d have insisted on seeing it treated even if I wasn’t equipped. But this way,” he grinned, “you get me taking care of you.”

That gave the prince a moment’s pause, during which the tactician opened the clay pot and dipped his fingers into the chill salve. “That...doesn’t sound so bad,” Chrom admitted.

“I’m glad we agree,” Robin murmured, brushing a kiss across the prince’s lips. He felt Chrom’s mouth curve into a smile beneath that touch, savored the warmth of it...and finally drew back, scooping some of the vulnerary’s contents out and spreading it across the fading burns.

The prince hissed as the tactician smoothed the ointment along his arm, his uninjured hand fisting in the blankets. “I take it back,” he grumbled. “Not better.”

“Bear with it,” Robin smiled. “It’ll feel better once it warms, just give it a moment.”

Chrom’s muttering gradually subsided into a halfhearted mumble as the tactician’s hand continued to spread the salve across his skin; as his other hand relaxed, Robin laced their fingers, lightly kissing the prince’s cheek. “Better?” he asked.

“...getting there.”

Chuckling to himself, the tactician leaned his forehead against Chrom’s, frowning slightly at the prickle of heat against his skin. “How have you been sleeping lately?”

“Well enough.”

A vague reply. Hardly comforting. “Would you sleep better if you had company?”

The prince lifted his head, a smile spreading across his face. “Maybe. If it were the right kind of company.”

Robin made a thoughtful sound, fishing a handkerchief from his pocket and cleaning the remnants of the vulnerary from his hand before unwinding the roll of linens and beginning to wrap Chrom’s arm. “I’ll keep that in mind, then. Is this too tight?”

“It’s fine.”

“You’ve said that quite a lot this evening, and it never seems to be an accurate measure of things.”

“I’m being honest! Was medicine part of your training, too?”

“Not as such,” the tactician admitted. “It was...very informal. But I’ve made good use of it.”

“Obviously. It does feel better, though. I wonder if I can convince Lissa to let you take over all my treatments.”

“Don’t push your luck, Chrom,” Robin warned, neatly tying off the bandages off and brushing his lips teasingly across the prince’s mouth--

Chrom’s hands cupped the tactician’s face, pulling him into a deep, warm kiss that set his cheeks on fire. “That’s much better,” the prince grinned. “Would you agree?”

Robin had no words for that.

A loud crash sounded from somewhere near the heart of camp. “I think that’s the dinner bell,” Chrom mused, winking at the tactician in the soft light. “Shall we go? Together?”

As the prince rose to his feet and held out his hand, a rush of affectionate warmth swelled within Robin’s chest. Gripping Chrom’s fingers, the tactician took to his feet...and with the prince’s arm curled around his waist, they slipped together into the twilight.

Chapter Text

“Hey. You busy?”

Robin looked up from his maps as Chrom leaned against the back of his chair. “Well, at the moment I’m charting activity at the border based on the latest scout missives--”

“Can you do it later?”

The tactician narrowed his eyes at the prince. “Is there something more pressing that needs my attention?” he asked warily.

“Yes.”

“And that would be…?”

“I want you to go out with me tonight.”

Robin was immediately thankful that they were alone. If Chrom’s words hadn’t attracted immediate attention, the tactician’s fiery blush certainly would have. “That seems inadvisable.”

“Why?”

“Well, beyond how suggestive it is--”

“I go out with Sully and Vaike all the time.”

“I’m neither Sully nor Vaike.”

“So?”

“Chrom--”

“Just one night,” the prince insisted. “You’re running yourself ragged. You need to relax sometimes. So take a break. Let’s go out on the town.”

“...and do what?” Robin sighed.

“Have fun!” Chrom laughed. “That’s what people do when they go out.”

“I’m afraid I don’t see what’s so ‘fun’ about it.”

“That’s because you don’t get out enough,” the prince teased. “Come on. I promise you’ll enjoy it.”

“...I suppose this can wait for morning,” the tactician relented. It might be against his better judgment...but Chrom’s effortless smile swept away the better part of his reservations. Gods, that man could be charming.

Robin hadn’t realized how late the hour had grown; stepping out of the garrison, he saw guards carrying torches to light their patrol routes, and the glow from the buildings lining the streets of Ylisstol nearly gave the illusion of daylight. They walked side by side down the cobbled road, less than a pace apart -- close enough to touch, though the prince wisely refrained. The tactician had spent little time in Ylisstol proper...where would Chrom lead them, he wondered?

“Here we are.”

Robin stopped, looking at the graven sign hanging over the nearest door. It was an old establishment, given the wear, but he could still make out the image of a dancing bear carved into the wood.

“A tavern.”

The prince grinned, holding the door open for him; with a sigh, the tactician made his way inside, pulling his coat slightly closer and trying to ignore the unsettling sense of being watched as he followed Chrom to the counter. Crowded places made him uncomfortable at the best of times, and given that the prince had made it abundantly clear that this was meant to be a private, personal outing…

“Relax,” Chrom chuckled, waving to someone in the crowd before dropping a few coins on the bar. “A pint of ale and a spiced cider, please.” The tavern keeper nodded, hefting two steins and moving to fill them from the barrels lining the wall. Well, at least the prince had remembered that Robin didn’t drink.

The mugs sloshed as the man set them down on the counter, spilling foam down the sides. Chrom lifted his without hesitation, taking a deep draft that left froth clinging to his upper lip. The tactician smiled to himself as he took a sip from his own cup...and then another, deeper pull as the spicy sweetness warmed him from the inside. “This is wonderful,” he admitted.

“Best cider in Ylisstol,” the prince grinned, hefting his stein approvingly to the tavern keeper. “Gods only know what goes into it. The recipe’s a secret that’s been passed down for as long as this tavern’s been here.”

“And I’ll go to my grave with it,” the man behind the bar huffed. Robin smiled to himself, taking another slow sip and savoring the flavor: tart apples, to be sure, sweetened with something dark and rich...cinnamon, perhaps cardamom -- no, cloves (and he could imagine how jealously they must guard those ingredients, given the limited trade between Ylisse and Plegia in recent years)...

“I hope someone will inherit it,” the tactician murmured. “It’s delicious.”

“High praise.” In spite of his gruff tone, Robin thought he saw a smile on the man’s face as he moved to tend to another customer.

“See? This isn’t so bad, is it?” Chrom asked.

“...I suppose not.” Certainly not as bad as he’d expected. The sense of being watched had abated somewhat, and though the alehouse was quite busy, the bar sat well apart from the bustling tables in the wider room. “Is this where you come when you go out with Sully and Vaike?”

“Sometimes. It depends on how we’re feeling and what kind of trouble we want to make.”

“What sort of trouble do you come here for?”

The prince winked, raising his mug in a toast. “The fun kind.”

“Should I be concerned--”

Someone was singing.

Robin’s head came up, the whole of his attention fixed on the woman in the center of the room. He dared not guess where she might hail from, with her dark hair and wind-chaffed skin, but the rolicking song she sang over the strumming of her lute was undoubtedly Plegian: The Ballad of Rana and Letu. His mother had sung it to him when he was young, fighting back his fears with joyous melodies that drowned out the howling wind.

He still knew it by heart. He hummed it when he was alone, breathed the words to himself when he needed solace or strength, listened to it play within his mind as he settled to sleep. But it had been years since he’d heard another voice lift Rana’s sword high, burn Letu’s maps to ash, weave the starry tapestry they followed through the dunes, and finally swell with love at their reunion.

It took all the strength of will he had not to weep. And still his eyes burned as the strings at last fell silent. He clapped warmly, and heard Chrom join him without hesitation; a scattering of applause rose from the room beyond, and the minstrel offered a nod and a pleasant smile toward the crowded tables.

“Would it be alright if I spoke with her a moment?” the tactician asked the tavern keeper while the woman tuned her instrument.

“I don’t see the harm,” the man shrugged.

“I’ll be back shortly,” he promised, rising to his feet.

“Take your time,” the prince chuckled.

Casting a grateful look over his shoulder, Robin crept between the crowded tables to join the singer in the open space dedicated to her performance. She looked up at him, grinning cheerfully and plucking a few notes on the lute strings. “Evening, sir. Got a request.”

That was tempting, actually. If she knew a Plegian ballad, she might know others...but no. Don’t get distracted. “I actually wanted to say that your song was beautiful,” he said. “I never expected to hear the Ballad of Rana and Letu here--”

The minstrel’s face lit up. “You know it?”

“I grew up with it. It was one of my favorites, as a child.”

“You’re from Plegia?”

The room seemed to still at that question. But he nodded slightly, feeling a fond nostalgia well up in his chest at the thought of home. “I am,” he admitted.

“Well, it’s an honor to hear that I did justice to one of your homeland’s treasures,” she bowed, strumming a small fanfare.

“You wouldn’t happen to know any others, would you?” he asked. “Red Horsemen, perhaps?”

“Oh, I love Red Horsemen!” she replied -- and as she spoke her fingers flew across the strings, energetic notes rolling from the body of her instrument and catching him up in their fervor. “You know this one, too, don’t you? Sing with me!”

He smiled shyly in the face of her grin. How long had it been since he’d sung with another? His mother was the last, he was certain of that...and yet, when the minstrel hummed the first notes, he joined in, his soft harmony growing bolder as the tune grew lively and bright. Something about the intense joy of her melody gave him courage, and by the time the song ended on a fierce chord they were both fighting back laughter.

A sharp whistle jarred Robin back to reality. Shrinking into his collar, the tactician turned...and in the dim lamplight by the bar, he saw Chrom beaming at him. The prince’s applause rang in his ears, sparking a resonant warmth that burned through his face as he sheepishly ruffled his hair.

“Look at that,” the minstrel teased, elbowing him gently. “You’ve got a fan.”

And something about those words made his heart burn all the brighter.

***

They passed most of the evening in conversation with the minstrel. For once, it was Chrom who spoke few words, listening instead to Robin and the singer talk about Plegia, and music, and travel, and all manner of other things. She played frequently as the time whiled by -- a few Feroxi drinking tunes, a handful of Ylissean folksongs...but every time she strummed a Plegian melody, he saw the tactician smile as he hummed along. And as the alehouse emptied, leaving only a handful of drowsy patrons slumped at their tables, she coaxed Robin into joining her for another verse.

The prince had never heard anything like it before. Though he couldn’t understand the words, the tactician’s smile captivated his attention, and the warmth of his voice left Chrom’s chest feeling tight and full. Applause seemed a poor way to express what that moving melody had stirred in him. But it was all he could think to do as the lute’s final strains hummed into silence.

“I’ve been here all week and I’ve never gotten that kind of response,” the minstrel scoffed playfully, elbowing Robin as she secured her instrument at her back. “Maybe we should team up.”

“I’m afraid I have other commitments,” the tactician chuckled. “Though it was wonderful to meet you. I hope our paths cross again someday.”

“If fate allows,” she grinned. “May the moon guide you safely on your travels.”

“And you, as well.”

As Robin approached the bar, the prince took to his feet. “Should we head back?”

“I think so,” the tactician murmured, watching the tavern keeper vainly attempting to wake a man sleeping in his stein. Moving to the door, Chrom led the way out into the quiet night; the shopfronts were mostly dark at this hour, leaving them to make their way by moonlight through the palace gates and on into the castle courtyard.

Casting a sidelong glance at Robin, a triumphant grin tugged at the prince’s face when he caught the man’s subtle smile. “I told you you’d enjoy yourself.”

The tactician beamed at him, brighter than the moon that lit the cobblestone path. “You did,” he agreed. “I didn’t believe you, but you were right. ...thank you, Chrom.”

The prince nearly walked into a tree, enraptured as he was by that smile. Only Robin’s hand on his arm stopped him -- and just barely in time. “Be careful,” he chuckled. “I think the ale is catching up to you. Best be off to bed--”

“Not yet.”

Chrom caught the tactician’s wrist as he turned to leave. “Please. I don’t want the night to be over yet.”

Robin sighed. “How much have you had to drink?”

“Just the pint when we sat down.” And he hadn’t even finished that, engrossed as he had been in the conversation and songs. The tactician gave him an appraising look, and the prince hoped he didn’t appear too desperate in those piercing eyes…

“...I suppose it’s not so late yet.”

He relaxed as Robin’s fingers laced with his own. “We could take a walk in the gardens,” he offered. “Talk a while.”

“I’ll leave that choice to you,” the tactician chuckled. “You’ve made good on your promise thus far. I’ll trust you to continue.”

Chrom failed to stifle a grin as they moved into the dappled shadows of the tree-lined path. “I had a feeling you’d like that. I know alehouses aren’t your favorite, but...I thought you might make an exception this once.”

“I was surprised to hear a Plegian ballad here,” Robin confessed. “How did you know she would sing it?”

“Because I asked her to.”

The tactician paused, a puzzled frown replacing his smile. “When?”

“A few nights ago. Some of the Shepherds went out for a round of drinks to celebrate my recovery, and...I recognized that song. It was the one you sang to me, when I was hurt. So I went and told her that a close friend of mine knew it, and would probably like to hear it, so...I asked her to play it if she saw me again.”

Robin said nothing for a long moment, and the prince feared he might drown in the silence. “...was I wrong?” he asked.

“No,” the tactician whispered, shaking his head. “No, you were exactly right.”

“That’s a relief,” Chrom chuckled, slipping his arm around Robin’s waist and drawing him closer. “I’m glad I could do something that made you happy.”

“...why?”

“Because I love you.”

The words tasted sweet on his tongue. He repeated them softly, touching his lips to the tactician’s forehead, and a pleasant warmth kindled in his chest.

“And I love you,” Robin murmured, tilting his forehead against the prince’s, “but you don’t need to go so far out of your way. It’s one thing for the Shepherds to know, but I don’t want to cause any trouble for you--”

“Doing things for you is never trouble. It doesn’t matter where it is, or who sees it. And it’s always worth it, seeing you that happy,” the prince added, smiling as he brushed a kiss across Robin’s lips. They stood together for a few moments, their cloudy breaths mingling in the chill night air...but eventually Robin broke away, wrapping his coat closer around him as he continued down the cobbled path. Matching his pace, Chrom let the silence stretch, looking up at the dark sky through the canopy overhead…

...and when the tactician touched his hand, he laced their fingers and held fast.

“It was nice, hearing you sing again. And under far better conditions,” the prince remarked as they rounded the quiet fountain at the heart of the gardens.

“I don’t claim to do it well,” Robin shrugged. “And since I’ve had so few opportunities to practice…”

“Why not?”

The tactician sighed, his grip tightening on Chrom’s hand. “My mother taught me about music. It was her passion, and she shared that joy with me. My father...thought that it was unimportant. After her death, he banned it, and reprimanded me for wasting time that could be better spent learning tactics, or training with magic, or studying astronomy, or…” The prince squeezed Robin’s fingers reassuringly, watching his breaths billow softly in the cold. “He wanted me to forget her, but I remembered her songs. Music is my memory of her. It helped to carry me here.”

Chrom smiled, bumping his shoulder lightly against the tactician’s. “Was that last song one she taught you?”

“It was,” Robin murmured.

“It was beautiful.” He couldn’t think of another word to describe it. “What’s it called?”

He thought he saw Robin blush at that question. “It...would translate to something like ‘Moon of My Heart.’”

“It almost sounds like a love song,” the prince ventured.

“...it is.”

“That seems an odd choice for a minstrel to make in a tavern.”

“...I requested it.”

Chrom felt his own face begin to warm. “...did you have someone in mind?”

The tactician did not answer. But the way his grip tightened on the prince’s hand spoke clearly.

As they returned to the courtyard, Chrom felt his cheer rapidly fading. As soon as they parted, the night would be over; come morning Robin would be back to casual familiarity, rather than affection, guarding his smiles and measuring his words like everything had been a dream…

...and yet, the tactician’s fingers remained twined with his own.

“Do you want to come inside with me?” the prince asked.

Robin’s shy smile made his heart swell. “It’s still not too late,” he murmured. “And you’ve made good on that promise thus far. I trust you’ll continue.”

Chrom’s spirits soared. And together, they turned away from the Shepherds’ barracks and walked side by side up the castle stairs.

-----

The halls were still as Chrom led the way through the palace, up the winding stairs, and into his own rooms. The fire in the parlor had been banked for the evening, but the hearth in his bedroom still burned low, dulling the usual chill of the castle by night; while the prince added a fresh log to the flames, Robin looked around with interest at the trappings and decor, marveling over the ornate tapestries as a trace of light returned.

Smiling warmly, Chrom moved to join him, slipping his arms around the tactician’s waist. Robin leaned back against him, and as the prince nuzzled his jaw, the tactician tilted his head into the touch. “You can sit, if you want,” Chrom offered.

Robin nodded against his cheek. The prince led him over to the bed, taking a seat and patting the space just beside him...and as the tactician sat down, Chrom drew him close, brushing his lips across Robin’s mouth. The tactician’s arms curled around his shoulders, his breath grazing the prince’s skin an instant before Chrom caught him in another kiss, sifting his fingers through the man’s pale, soft hair.

This was different from the moments they had stolen in the past: a touch as they sat by the campfire on watch, a kiss as they pored over his maps, the briefest intimacy in the quiet parts of the night, as good as forgotten by morning. They had time. And he intended to use it to the fullest.

His fingers strayed, running the length of Robin’s thigh. The tactician smiled against his mouth before breaking away, his hands drifting down to the prince’s elbows. Grinning in turn, Chrom coiled an arm around Robin’s waist, brushing kisses across his jaw, down his throat, his blood stirring as he felt the tactician’s laughter against his lips…

“What’s this?”

The prince paused, glancing over as Robin touched the curved spout of the pot on his bedside stand. “Oil,” he replied.

“I somehow doubt you use this for lamps.”

Chrom couldn’t argue that point.

The tactician shifted slightly, lifting the container from its place and testing its weight. “...have you...been with other men before?” he asked.

“You’re the first,” the prince replied. Though he’d thought of it well before Robin, more out of curiosity than any true attraction for another--

“Have you thought…”

Chrom took the tactician’s free hand, stroking Robin’s knuckles with his thumb. “You don’t have to do anything you’re not ready for. That’s not why I brought you here.”

“I know.” The prince’s heart lodged in his throat as a smile crept across the tactician’s face. “But I want to try. If you would.”

Gods, yes. “If you’re sure,” Chrom managed. Slipping off the bed, he opened the lower drawer of the nightstand, withdrawing a small box from the furthest corner and removing a lambskin from inside. It seemed a small consideration, but if he could make things any more comfortable for Robin…

He looked up just in time to see the tactician shrug out of his coat.

There was something so striking about that simple act. The delicacy of his movements as he shed the armor that kept so much of the world at bay...the prince could not help but stare transfixed as Robin slid from first one arm, then the other, folding the robe neatly and setting it safely aside. Then the belts, the guards, the bracers; sitting down on the edge of the bed, he began to work on his boots, casting a questioning look toward the prince that finally jarred him from his daze. And even as Chrom disrobed, the tactician still occupied the greater part of his attention.

He looked so much smaller than the prince ever expected. Even knowing how loosely his clothes fit, Robin’s narrow frame and lean build took him by surprise every time he happened to glimpse it -- which was itself a rare occurrence, as guarded as the tactician was. Sitting down beside him, Chrom gently traced the faded scars on his chest, lingering over the freshest one below his right breast…

...and as the tactician’s arm coiled around his shoulders, the prince caught him in another kiss. Robin had always been slow to warm. But tonight they had no reason to rush, and Chrom took his time in building the heat between them, stoking the fire in his blood with every shared breath, every touch of skin.

“Enjoying yourself?” the prince chuckled, brushing a kiss to the tactician’s throat. Robin nodded, his low hum vibrating against Chrom’s lips before the prince pulled away. Taking up the lambskin from the bedside stand, he slid it down his own length and secured it with the narrow ribbon threaded through the open end--

“What’s that?”

The prince glanced over at Robin as he leaned his cheek against Chrom’s shoulder. “A lambskin,” he replied, brushing a kiss to the tactician’s temple.

“...do I need one?”

“Were...you going to…?” He may have miscalculated, if that were the case (and he wasn’t sure how he felt about being on the receiving end)--

Robin’s face flushed deep red in the low light. “N-no, no no no, I didn’t -- I-I don’t--”

The prince laughed, ruffling the tactician’s pale hair. “Relax,” he chuckled. “We’ll take it slow. Alright?”

Robin nodded slightly, and Chrom grinned, running one hand across the tactician’s shoulders. “Lay back,” he murmured, lifting the pot from the stand. They would doubtless make a mess with this -- but as he poured oil out into his palm and over his cock, he found that he didn’t care. Turning to Robin...he paused, just for a moment, looking over the lithe young man nestled in the blankets beside him. The tactician met his eye, faint color rising in his cheeks as he offered a smile that made the prince’s chest swell with warmth.

His fingers left slick trails where they caressed Robin’s thigh; the tactician shivered, folding his arms under his head as Chrom’s hand touched and teased...and finally eased inside.

Robin made a small sound, his body stiffening and beginning to curl. “Are you alright?” the prince asked.

“It feels strange,” he mumbled into the coverlet.

“Bad?”

“No, just...strange. Not uncomfortable, but...not familiar.”

“Should I stop?”

“...no.”

Chrom smiled, leaning close enough to brush a kiss to the tactician’s shoulder as he teased another finger inside. Robin shivered and tensed, a breath catching in his throat...but after a few moments, he released an unsteady sigh, settling slowly into the prince’s touch once again. Chrom took his time, working slowly and watching the tactician fidget and squirm, until each movement came easy and Robin’s hands barely twitched in the blankets.

He slid off the bed, easing his fingers free and cleaning his hands with a soft cloth. “You’re sure about this?” the prince murmured, his fingers trailing down the tactician’s sides before settling on his hips. Robin nodded, nestling down into the coverlet as Chrom’s cock rubbed against him. “...I’ll go slow. Tell me if I need to stop. Alright?”

“Alright.”

The tactician’s voice was little more than a whisper, muffled by his folded arms. The prince leaned close, pressing a kiss between Robin’s shoulder blades...and gently eased inside.

He’d expected the tactician to tighten, but the sudden pressure pulled a heady groan from deep in his chest. Robin made a soft sound, his hands curling...but with another deep, slow breath, he relaxed, turning his face into the blankets. “Still strange?” Chrom managed. The tactician nodded, biting his lip as the prince curled over him. Rocking his hips against Robin’s--

The tactician moaned.

Chrom froze, snaring Robin’s fingers in a tight grip. The tactician never cried out unless he was in pain, and even that was brief and swiftly silenced. “Are you alright?” he asked.

“Y...y-yes.” He could feel Robin shaking, finespun tremors coursing through him. “I don’t...I didn’t me-ean to, it just…”

The prince eased his hold on the tactician’s hand, lacing their fingers and smiling as Robin returned his gentle squeeze. “Did it feel good?”

“Yes,” the tactician breathed. “Please…”

Chrom nuzzled his nape, settling his free hand on Robin’s waist and pulling him into the next slow thrust. The tactician made another sweet sound, burying his face in the coverlet to dampen the noise; the prince had no such reservations, making no effort to stifle the low rumbles of pleasure that each movement drew from deep within his chest.

Gods, it felt incredible. And yet…

Chrom slowed. And then stopped, bracing his arms on either side of Robin’s chest as his trembling tension eased. “Hey,” he whispered. “Can you turn over?”

The tactician lifted his head, looking at the prince over his shoulder. “Wh-why?”

“I want to watch you.”

Robin’s flushed face reddened further in the instant before he buried his head in his arms. “Gods, why do you say things like that?” he mumbled.

“Because I love you,” Chrom laughed. “So can you?”

It was almost unbearable, resisting the urge to move. But he waited, even still...until at last he saw the tactician nod. Pulling gently free, the prince watched as Robin pushed himself up, twisting to face Chrom...and with a smile, the prince cupped his cheek, snaring him in a warm kiss.

As the tactician fell back into the blankets, Chrom hooked his hips, maneuvering him into a more comfortable position. Robin’s thighs pressed tight against his waist as the prince eased inside him again, his breath snaring in his throat...and when Chrom thrust deep, the tactician's back arched, his cry filling the prince’s ears and making his heart race.

They moved together, slow and easy; keeping one hand on Robin’s thigh, Chrom curled the other around his cock, stroking him and feeling the tactician’s every muscle tense. He was tight and warm and every thrust lanced crackling pleasure through the prince’s core -- but even over the thunder of his own pulse in his skull, Robin’s moans rang clear through his senses, a sweet melody all their own.

The tactician came, his limbs curling as a tremor rippled through him -- and with it, Chrom felt the tension in him snap and unravel in time. For a moment he did nothing more than breathe, drinking in the chill air until his blood at last began to cool; only then did he pull free, feeling a faint shiver of residual pleasure ripple across his skin at Robin’s small sound before falling across the bed beside him. Resting his head in the curve of the tactician’s neck and shoulder, the prince coiled an arm across Robin’s chest, smiling as unsteady fingers sifted into his hair.

“Did I make good on my word in the end?” Chrom asked, his voice a faint rumble in his own ears. The tactician hummed in reply, barely more than a breath. Chuckling softly, Chrom dragged himself upright, discarding the lambskin and gently cleaning first Robin, then himself, with a soft cloth before stumbling across the bedroom to pour a cup of water from the pitcher on the table by the far wall. By the time he returned, the tactician had managed to rouse himself enough to sit up, though it still took a bit of coaxing to get the mug into his hands.

“How was it?” he asked, settling close against Robin’s side as the tactician took a slow drink.

“...intense,” he decided after a moment’s thought. “...I don’t know if I can do that often.”

“That’s fine,” the prince murmured, tucking his nose into Robin’s hair. Though, to be fair, he’d never turn down another opportunity if it arose. “So how do you feel?”

A drowsy smile drifted across the tactician’s face. “Warm. Tired. ...satisfied.”

“...happy?” Chrom offered.

Robin tilted his head against the prince’s shoulder. “Yes,” he agreed.

Chrom beamed, wrapping his arms around the tactician’s chest. “Finish your drink,” he ordered. Robin obediently took another sip as the prince folded back the coverlet, and another as Chrom slipped off the bed again to bank the fire in the hearth. The tactician’s cup was empty when he returned; taking it from his hands, the prince set it on the bedside table before bundling Robin’s warm body against him and dragging them both down into the blankets.

As the tactician’s arm curled around him, Chrom pressed a kiss to his hairline. “I love you, Robin,” he breathed, smoothing the man’s pale, ruffled hair.

“And I love you, Chrom,” the tactician murmured, sparking a new warmth in his chest. As he settled with Robin in his arms, he knew that they would have to return to formality come morning...but even with the rise of dawn, the songs of the night would remain in his heart.

Chapter Text

“Leaving again so soon?” Emmeryn asked, dipping a sweet biscuit into her tea.

“It’s hardly soon,” Robin chuckled around the rim of his cup. “It’s nearly spring -- if we delay any longer, we’ll have to worry about getting mired in the spring melt along the border. My father has already begun mobilizing the Grimleal force, and Gangrel is sending his own troops in pursuit -- likely on my uncle’s advice. It will take them longer to reach the northern waste, with so many people and supplies to move, but since I’ve further to travel, it should come out even if I set out tomorrow morning.”

“You keep saying ‘I’ like you’re going alone,” Chrom pointed out. “The Shepherds are going with you, aren’t we?”

The tactician turned a fond smile toward the prince beside him. “If you’re not needed here in the halidom, I would certainly appreciate the support.”

“Emm gave you temporary charge -- didn’t you?” Chrom asked his sister, who smiled and nodded in agreement. “There, see?”

“The halidom has soldiers enough to protect her in the Shepherds’ absence,” the Exalt agreed. “And peace in Plegia is a step toward peace in Ylisse. So long as they act by your command, I am happy to see them join your cause.”

“I’m still grateful for their aid,” Robin murmured. “And for your kindness in granting them to us. I doubt I would be here now, if not for Chrom.”

The prince beamed, his fingers brushing across the tactician’s knuckles. Robin offered him a shy smile, turning the cup between his hands; it still felt very strange, showing such affection where other eyes could see...but little by little, he was beginning to enjoy it.

“Do you think the Shepherds and Feroxis will be enough, though?” Chrom asked after a moment. “How many men does Gangrel have? And your father, for that matter?”

“Far fewer than either one imagines,” the tactician murmured, a sharp grin cutting across his face before he took another sip of tea. The prince stared expectantly at him, waiting silently for an explanation as Robin lowered the cup and its saucer to his lap. “I have long known that Gangrel would sooner see me dead than cede rule of Plegia to me. That much was made abundantly clear by the assassins he sent to Ferox. But apparently my father never intended to allow me on the throne, either, and has more use for my body than my soul. I’m tired of being a pawn, used and discarded as others see fit. I feel it is time for me to step forward for myself. So I asked my uncle before we parted to reach out within my father’s forces and Gangrel’s, and find those who are loyal -- not to my father’s vision of conquest or to Gangrel’s promise of influence, but to the dream of peace in Plegia under the Six-Eyes. He has found many in both camps...and when the battle comes, and they turn to our side, my hope is that we will see numbers enough to quell the fighting without further bloodshed. Which will disappoint the khans, but...given my father’s intentions, it’s the preferable outcome.”

“...there are that many who would join your cause?” the prince asked.

“According to my uncle, yes,” Robin nodded. “The numbers he’s relayed are quite heartening, though I think Henry might be adding a few zeroes.”

“I hope you don’t mind my asking, but you’ve mentioned your agents several times before -- how do you maintain contact with them over such a distance?” Emmeryn asked.

“I have Henry to thank for that,” the tactician smiled. “He’s…well, officially I suppose he’s my retainer, but he’s more like family by now. He’s rather eccentric, but very talented where hexcraft is concerned. He experimented with a duplication hex ordinarily used for making copies of documents -- it’s cast on the parchment, so whatever is written on one page will appear on both -- and modified it to be effective over distances.”

Removing the bundle from his coat’s inner pocket, Robin unfolded the sheaf and offered the top-most page to the Exalt, who took it curiously. “Henry’s writing is...challenging,” he noted as a puzzled frown crossed her face. “Literacy is not his strong suit. But it’s a reliable means of communication: instantaneous, impossible to intercept, and ultimately untraceable.”

“This is quite amazing,” Emmeryn admitted. “I wonder...would it be too much to ask if I might have a page? We’ve no hawks to send between the halidom and Ferox, and couriers are not exactly the swiftest means of sending word across the continent. And since I would imagine that you’ll be meeting Henry before the battle begins, you’ll have the matching sheet. Correct? ...it would ease my mind to know how you fare.”

The tactician smiled, removing the bottom-most page from the stack. “If this will help to reassure you, then I will be glad to share it,” he murmured, passing it across the table. She beamed as she accepted, handing his ongoing correspondence back and folding the clean sheet in her lap.

“I thank you, Robin,” she murmured. “And I wish you well in all that awaits you.”

“Thank you, Your Grace,” he replied, bowing his head as he took to his feet. “The hour grows late, though, and if I -- we,” he amended, catching Chrom’s look as the prince stood beside him, “intend to depart in the morning, we’ll need to ensure that preparations are complete.”

“Of course,” she chuckled. “Please, do take care, and best of luck. I’ll see you at supper, Chrom?”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” he agreed, grinning as he moved to follow the tactician. And with a final wave, the prince closed the door behind them, his arm curling around Robin’s waist. “I bet she wouldn’t mind you coming, either.”

“I don’t want to intrude,” Robin murmured, tilting his head into Chrom’s touch as the prince nuzzled his cheek. “This will be your last occasion to dine as a family for quite some time. You should enjoy it.”

“Why can’t you be part of that?”

“I’m...at best a close friend.”

“To everyone in the family,” Chrom pointed out. “Emm invites you to tea, Lissa thinks you’re great…”

“And you?” the tactician teased.

“I don’t think ‘friend’ is the right word,” the prince murmured.

Robin smiled, trying vainly to wipe the rising color from his face. Chrom laughed, a warm sound that vibrated through the tactician’s chest and set his heart aglow. “Let’s wait until we see how the preparations are coming,” he managed. “If they’re well in hand, then...I’ll consider.”

“Then we’d best hurry,” the prince grinned, sneaking a kiss before trotting off down the hall. And as the tactician hurried after him, pulling his hood up to hide his blush, a faint breath of laughter bubbled up in his throat.

-----

The journey north was more difficult this time, with Ylisse locked in winter’s grip. Unlike Ferox, where the major roads across the country were dutifully maintained by members of the guard, the halidom took no such action, and the snow made progress slow at best. But once they reached the Longfort, things at last began to move smoothly: one wagon trip to the central fortress to greet the khans, another to the western border, and within another week their forces camped just beyond the wall. According to reports from Basilio’s scouts, the Plegian troops had amassed in the waste ahead: his father’s just beyond the Midmire and the arched spires of Grima’s ribs, Gangrel’s near the foot of the eastern mountains.

In all likelihood, the armies would meet in the coming days. Mid-morning, if they set off at sunrise. As Robin wrote to Henry to apprise him of their progress, it dawned on him how close they were to the end. Come what may...this would all be over soon.

There came no swift response from the dark mage. The tactician waited a while, weighing the edges of the parchment down as he consulted his various maps, pondering strategies in the event that a bloodless conclusion were unattainable and glancing, now and then, at the open page…

“Knock knock,” Chrom’s voice called from outside the tent an instant before he shouldered his way inside. “Hard at work again, I see. Have you thought of stopping for supper?”

“Is it already time? I didn’t hear the pots.”

“The Feroxis have a gong, actually. I’m surprised you missed it, that thing’s deafening. But you’d best hurry, if you intend to get anything.”

“Just another moment, I was in the middle of--”

“No, now,” the prince laughed, wrapping his arms around Robin’s waist and lifting him off his chair. The tactician made a small, startled sound, throwing his arms around Chrom’s shoulders for fear of falling -- which only made the captain tighten his hold, warm and secure, before gently setting Robin’s feet back on the ground. “Come on,” he murmured, touching a kiss to the tactician’s lips. “I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.”

“...I could stand to eat,” he agreed.

Grinning, the prince led Robin out into the twilight, toward the light of the fires at the heart of camp--

“HEY!!”

They both jumped, hands reaching for weapons as they turned toward the booming call...only to relax as Basilio strode toward them through the dark. “Been lookin’ for you,” he said, patting the tactician’s shoulder. “Got somethin’ you need to see.”

“...what is it?” he asked warily, following the khan toward the wall with Chrom close behind.

“From what I hear, it’s something you’ll like,” Basilio replied. Which was not exactly a helpful answer. The prince shrugged as Robin turned to look at him, keeping easy pace as they entered the warm torchlight around the main gate. A group of guardsmen clustered around the stables, seemingly debating over the horse standing placidly in their midst and its pale-haired rider…

“Henry?”

The dark mage looked up as the tactician approached, a familiar grin brightening his expression. “There you are! We were about to come looking for you,” Henry laughed.

“We?” Robin repeated. “Did Uncle and Tharja come along?”

“No, Uncle’s stuck with Gangrel and Tharja’s keeping an eye on your dad,” the mage replied, nearly falling as the horse under him began to move unbidden through the circle of Feroxis, its coat shining red in the torchlight…

“...Amber?”

The mare whickered softly, lipping the tactician’s hair as he reached out to stroke her neck. “I’ve been taking good care of her for you. She missed you,” Henry giggled, sliding out of the saddle and falling unceremoniously to the snow-dusted ground. “And you can’t go off into battle without your trusty steed, can you? Your dad wanted you to have a black one for reasons, I guess, but I thought you’d like her better.”

“I would, indeed,” Robin laughed, helping the dark mage back up to his feet as Chrom reached out to stroke the horse’s velvet nose. “Thank you, Henry.”

“We can put her up here for the night,” Basilio chuckled. “Should be a free stall in the stable -- take her in, then get yourself some dinner before it’s all gone.”

Taking up the mare’s reins, the tactician led her into the warm barn, lingering a while with her as several guardsmen filled the troughs with oats and water...but as Henry called from the entrance, he at last gave the horse’s nose a final, fond pat and retreated, joining the prince and the dark mage as they made their way to the center of camp.

Fortunately for all of them, the Feroxis still had plenty to spare; over a coarse, hearty bread and rich meat stew, Robin laid out the plans for the day ahead, ignoring the half-hearted complaints of the guardsmen and Henry both as he stressed the need to refrain from violence if at all possible: the less blood spilled, the better, he reminded the dark mage.

As the activity around the fire began to quiet, Henry leaned against the tactician’s shoulder, snuggling in close to fight off the night’s chill. “You know, I was rather worried when you didn’t respond to my message,” Robin murmured. “Usually you’re quick to reply at this hour.”

“As soon as I saw it, I came to see you,” the mage mumbled. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“It certainly was unexpected,” the tactician agreed. “When will you need to head back?”

“I don’t gotta!” Henry laughed. “I’m supposed to stay with you now. Uncle Mustafa said that Gangrel’s army is moving out in the morning, and so is your dad’s, so no more messages!”

“Actually...one more message,” Robin murmured. “I gave a page to the Exalt of Ylisse, to inform her of our progress.”

“Why’d you do that?”

“Because she asked. And she is Chrom’s sister, I’d like to reassure her that her brother is doing well.”

“Your boyfriend has a sister?”

“Two, actually -- who told you he was my boyfriend?”

“Am I not?” the prince asked.

“That’s beside the point,” the tactician replied, patting Chrom’s hand gently.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Henry shrugged. “I mean, Tharja hates him.”

“How does that prove anything?” the prince demanded.

“Tharja hates anybody Robin likes that’s not her,” the mage replied.

“...that’s actually a fair point,” the tactician remarked.

“How does she feel about you, then?” Chrom asked, looking at Henry as the young man cuddled closer against Robin.

“She puts up with me. Mostly because I could hex her silly if I wanted,” the dark mage grinned.

“...remind me not to get on his bad side,” the prince whispered.

“It’s very difficult to get on Henry’s bad side,” the tactician assured him. “Was that your only clue, or…?”

“Well, there was the whole thing with the sorcerer and how you were always in the infirmary after that, too. But when we met up last time, you were right next to him, and you never get that close to anybody you don’t like -- you don’t even stand that close to Tharja if you can help it, but you didn’t look like you were uncomfortable about it, or you woulda just moved.”

...he actually hadn’t considered that. Amazing, how much he gave away to the ones who knew him best...and who cared about him most.

“Those are fair points,” Robin murmured. “But if we’re moving tomorrow, I’d like to let her know. Did you bring the rest of your pages?”

“Well, sure, but I don’t have any ink or anything,” the dark mage mumbled, digging under his cloak.

“That’s fine. I should have more than enough in my tent -- and we likely should retire if we’re to be ready at dawn.”

“You have a point,” Chrom sighed. “I’m guessing Henry will be bunking with you?”

“For everyone’s peace of mind, that may be for the best,” the tactician replied, rising to his feet alongside the prince and the dark mage.

“Sleep well, then,” Chrom murmured, touching Robin’s shoulder.

“Pleasant dreams,” the tactician smiled -- and before the prince could turn away, Robin leaned close, touching a gentle kiss to Chrom’s lips (and steadfastly ignoring Henry’s excited noises behind him).

If the boldness of the gesture hadn’t colored his cheeks, the prince’s awed stare certainly would have. “I could get used to that,” he managed after a moment.

“Let’s see what tomorrow brings before making plans,” the tactician chuckled. “Rest well, Chrom.”

Turning away from the fires, Robin hooked the dark mage’s arm, tugging him along through the dark rows of tents and ducking into his own. Henry agreeably offered his bundle of hexed parchment, and the tactician removed the bottom-most page, writing a brief, reassuring missive and once more leaving the sheet weighted down on his writing table, ready to reply come morning.

As he and the mage nestled into the furs and blankets, Robin drew in a deep, steadying breath, attempting to quiet his nerves. He had done all he could to prepare for the day ahead. Now, he needed sleep if he intended to face it at his best…

“I really like your boyfriend,” Henry mumbled through the dark. “He seems really nice.”

“He is,” the tactician agreed. “And I like him very much, myself.”

“Are you gonna marry him after tomorrow?”

Robin laughed, ruffling the dark mage’s unruly hair. “It may be a bit soon to think of that. Let’s at least wait to see what tomorrow brings. ...but it is a pleasant thought.”

He’d not taken the time yet to consider what would come after the conflict ended. The laborious process of restoring the ruined capital, rebuilding after the vicious in-fighting, would be but one of his duties upon claiming the crown...but he’d not thought of what he wanted. He’d not indulged a real fantasy of his own for years. But the idea of a life with Chrom…

...he would gladly chase that dream.

-----

Anxiety roused Robin just before dawn. The Feroxis, too, were beginning to stir and prepare in the hazy gloom; to the sounds of boot steps trudging off to various tasks and whetstones singing across metal, the tactician checked his parchment, smiling at the script written neatly beneath his own words that wished them well in the day ahead. Writing out a brief reply and promising to inform her when the battle concluded, regardless of the outcome, Robin slipped out into the camp and off to the stables.

The guardsmen had kindly removed his horse’s tack for the night and given her a heavy blanket to stave off the brutal cold. As the other men and women filed in to begin tending their own mounts, Robin brushed his mare and cleaned her hooves before securing the gilt saddle and bridle in place again. Even if she wasn’t one of the ceremonial black horses favored by the Grimleal, the gold ornamentation still looked striking against her coat.

Breakfast was a raucous affair, though the cheerful bravado of the Feroxi soldiers did little to settle the tactician’s nerves. But while Henry chattered on, Chrom settled close beside Robin, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. It did little to quiet his anxiety...but it was a welcome comfort, nonetheless.

As the sun crested the eastern peaks, their forces set off with the Plegian prince at their head. The Feroxis kept up a swift marching pace through the rolling plains, in spite of the thorny scrub, and before the sun reached its zenith they crested the final hill overlooking the battlefield Plegia’s warring powers had chosen for their final engagement.

For just a moment, the tactician’s heart caught in his throat at the sight of them. Gangrel and his father both had amassed so many soldiers: several battalions apiece, in ordered ranks behind them, weapons and armor glinting in the light that broke through the intermittent clouds. If he couldn’t stop this battle...

Gods, please let him succeed.

Silence settled over the field as the Plegian soldiers looked toward him. Drawing a deep breath, Robin touched his heels to his mare’s sides; without hesitation, she picked her way down the rise, Chrom and Henry on either side and the khans’ forces at his back. As he drew nearer, he saw a handful of soldiers raise their hands, touching their faces and chests in the familiar pattern of Grima’s Mark -- a movement that spread on both sides of the field, in spite of Gangrel’s echoing snarl at his own troops.

His horse stopped at the foot of the hill as he tugged gently on the reins. Dismounting with care, the tactician handed her lead to the dark mage at his side before moving toward the center of the field, glancing back only once to see Henry fidgeting nervously between the khans...and Chrom keeping easy pace a step behind.

The commanders of the Plegian forces strode out to meet them, keeping a wary distance from one another, each flanked by their own guard: Mustafa beside the king, Aversa beside Robin’s father. “I see the Six-Eyed whelp has finally decided to show his face,” Gangrel sneered, drumming his fingers impatiently on the hilt of his Levin Sword. “I can’t begin to understand why these fools worshipped you, when all you ever did for them was speak a few pretty words once a year and then leave them behind to save your own skin. And then when you do come crawling in, it’s under the boot of those northern barbarians with an Ylissean sword in your back. Seems they know your mettle now, don’t they?”

“Say what you will,” the tactician replied. “But now is the time to step down peacefully. If you do, I assure you that no harm will befall you or your men.”

The man threw back his head and cackled. “Me? Surrender? To you? And they call me mad -- I’ll not go off to life in a dungeon while you let those Ylissean dogs ravage us again. What Plegia needs -- has needed for years now -- is a king with the balls to stand up to those curs and put them in their place, not one who’ll roll over and lick their boots. Or do you imagine you can make me step down?” Gangrel taunted. “Turn that foreign army on your own people, show your true colors?”

“I’ve no need to,” Robin murmured. As the mad king rolled his eyes, the Plegian prince turned his gaze toward Gangrel’s army, raising a hand toward them. “Lay down your arms!” he called.

The king’s laughter fell abruptly silent as Mustafa’s axe touched his throat. Behind him, the soldiers raised their own weapons, arresting the generals as they prepared to rally to Gangrel’s defense. “How dare you,” the king hissed, his hand shaking on the hilt of his sword.

“You claim to be the king that Plegia needs,” the tactician said, his voice echoing over the field. “And yet, you would wage war on our neighbors for no other cause than to satisfy your own grudges and lust for power. You care nothing for the people of this land -- the proof is in the loyalty you have bought with promises of power and wealth, or extorted from your men with threats against them and their families. You have no right to lead this or any land. And I will ensure that you pay justly for your crimes against these people.”

Hollow applause rang from the opposite side of their assembly, and Robin felt a chill run down his spine. “You have done well, my son,” his father crooned, narrowing the distance between them. “Now all that remains is to end this war.”

As the man reached a skeletal hand out to touch the tactician’s hair, Robin stepped back. “You’re right,” he breathed. “That is all that remains.”

Raising his hand toward the Grimleal forces, he watched as they turned their own weapons on the members of his father’s council who led them. The man turned in shock toward his soldiers...and then back to his son, a curious look of dismay etched across his gaunt features. “What is this?” he asked. “After all I’ve done -- the care and effort I’ve lavished on you, the gifts I’ve given, the life I’ve spent for your benefit...why would you do this?”

The tactician felt himself shaking violently as he met his father’s eye. “You’ve done nothing for me,” he whispered, hating the tremor in his voice but knowing that if he stopped he would not be able to start again. “You’ve never done anything for me. Everything you’ve done was for your benefit, to see through your schemes. All you’ve ever cared about was yourself. Not me. And not these people. I’ll not let you use Plegia or her people any longer.”

The man’s expression remained distantly sad for a moment as he looked on his son. “Dear boy,” he sighed. “Who has been telling you such lies?”

“They’re not lies,” Robin protested. He should have realized it himself, long ago, but he’d wanted so much to believe that there was a way to make everything right…

“I’ve done so much for you,” his father insisted, stepping forward again. “I’ve given you the best of everything you could ever have want of, taught you well that you might rise to the throne you were born to take…”

The man stepped forward again -- and before the tactician could retreat, something cold pierced his chest, just above his stomach.

Robin looked down at the knife in his father’s grip, buried nearly to the hilt in his torso. He recognized it -- a ritual dagger, obsidian...the same one he had used every Grima’s Night save this last, making a shallow cut in his palm to mix with the sweet oil that marked the stone floor. “And this is the first step,” the man purred, twisting the blade and wrenching it free.

“Robin!”

Chrom caught the tactician’s arm as his knees gave way, watching the brilliant red stain spreading through the soft fabric of his shirt. “That’s why it was planned for Grima’s Night,” he whispered. “You needed my blood.”

Robin heard the rattling of weapons and armor as soldiers from all corners of the field began to move -- but when he lifted his head, all he could see was his father’s cold smile as he held his dripping blade. “Grima’s blood is the beginning of everything,” the man said. “His power will have no trouble healing such a minor wound, once He takes His place in the vessel I’ve prepared.”

“Dastard!”

“Chro-om--”

Even as he lifted a hand to reach for the prince, Chrom darted out of his reach, drawing his holy blade from its sheath and lunging for the Grimleal hierophant -- but the man’s dagger parried effortlessly, his other hand crackling with violet lightning as he sneered down at the prince. “And what a fitting sacrifice for His return -- Naga’s own vile spawn!”

The tactician’s blood ran cold.

But as he raised his hand, clawing desperately for the tome tucked away inside his coat, he felt a familiar, indefinable something rushing through his veins. The blinding light of the magic circles pulsed around him, electric energy crackling across his skin as he took aim, the swelling power steadying his hand and guiding the twisting flow of magic from his fingertips.

It struck true, tearing through the hierophant’s chest. The man staggered back, turning a hateful look of betrayal on the tactician as he fell...but Robin felt no grief for that. No sorrow. No anger. Only a hollow sort of acceptance as his limbs began to tremble, weakness spreading through his body in place of the blood he’d lost.

And as darkness settled over his mind, he thought he heard Chrom call his name.

-----

Robin roused slowly, pressing a hand against the sharp ache in his chest. His thoughts were hazy, confused, a muddle of dreams and memories, words and images bleeding together in the dark behind his eyelids. He’d...taken an arrow wound, hadn’t he? But the pain didn’t feel right -- lower, sharper, at odds with the sutures he could feel beneath the linen--

“Ah -- you’re awake!!”

“...Lissa?” he mumbled, squinting through the dim lamplight at the indistinct faces hovering over him.

“Thank Grima,” his uncle’s voice rumbled, a rough hand smoothing the hair away from his brow. “We were afraid we might lose you.”

As Henry’s familiar embrace latched onto his shoulders, the memories settled slowly back into order. Not an arrow. That wound was far in the past, however fantastic the time between might have felt. A dagger, wielded by his father, spilling first blood on Plegian soil. But...if he was still conscious, then…

“Did we succeed?” the tactician asked.

“You did,” Mustafa replied, his voice soft and rife with pride. “Gangrel, those loyal to him, and your father’s councilmen have been chained and await transport back to the capital to stand trial. Aversa had to be detained...somewhat more forcefully, but she is being held and should present few problems, with Henry and Tharja’s hexes in place.”

“...my… … … t-the hierophant?”

“Gone,” the warrior murmured.

“Escaped?” Robin pressed.

“Dead,” another voice corrected.

The tactician pushed himself up onto his elbows as Khan Basilio strode over to his cot. “Glad to see you back among the living, boy,” he chuckled. “Our medics weren’t sure for a while they’d be able to keep you here. That man wasn’t one for holding back, was he?”

“No,” Robin muttered as the dark mage beside him clung tighter. “He never was.”

An uncomfortable silence settled over the room as the tactician levered himself up further, pressing his hand against the wound. He wondered why he felt no real grief at knowing the man was dead. No sorrow. Only a guilty sense of relief at the realization that he was free, at the cost of his father’s life.

“It’s alright,” Mustafa said, touching the tactician’s shoulder gently. “Plegia is safe now. And you can come home at last, Little Bird.”

Home. Gods, he’d not seen it in so long...but even knowing all the work that awaited, all the rebuilding that would need to be done, he wanted to return. He’d missed it, a nostalgic ache that had followed him along every step of his journey… “When?” he asked.

“Soon,” his uncle replied. “...many of the Plegian soldiers have not seen their families in quite some time. And Gangrel imprisoned many unfairly in his time as king, who must be released back to their families. It would be for the best if...we set out immediately.”

“You sure don’t waste time, do ya?” the west khan grumbled.

“Not when we’ve none to spare,” Mustafa sighed.

“...I gotta respect that dedication,” Basilio admitted. “So long as nobody ends up dead, that is.”

“We’ll take care with him,” the warrior agreed. “Henry, can you gather His Highness’ things?”

“H-hey, wait,” Lissa protested as the dark mage crept away. “You can’t just leave like that...y-you’re hurt, and my brother’s been worried sick about you. He only left a couple minutes ago, can...can I at least go get him before you run off?”

“...best not,” Robin whispered, easing his legs over the side of the cot and rising unsteadily to his feet. It would only make things that much more difficult. “Thank you for everything, Lissa. I hope that...we can meet again someday.”

“Do you really have to go?” she pleaded, hugging him gently.

“I’m afraid so,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry…”

His eyes burned as he released her, leaning on his uncle as he picked his way out of the healers’ tent and into the chill air beyond. He must have been unconscious for quite some time: the Plegian forces now camped in the foothills beyond the Longfort, their convoys packed and secure, simply waiting for their order to return home.

He had let himself believe for so long that his happiness would last. But now, as ever, he was losing...and in the end, it really had been nothing more than a dream.

***

They’d spent two days camped along the border between Plegia and Ferox. Robin’s wound had been grave -- nearly fatal, given what the Feroxi healers had muttered amongst themselves in the quiet hours when everyone should have been at rest (and Chrom had prayed as he pretended to sleep, to any divine that might be listening, to let them be wrong). But the tactician had not died. He’d yet to wake, but his body had begun to recover thanks in large part to Lissa’s magic. And that, at least, gave the prince heart.

The Plegian soldiers, wary though they were of the Ylisseans, proved quite friendly: when Chrom needed to burn through the nervous energy building in his limbs, he wandered his way down to their camp, talking with them over their fires in the evenings, playing a few games (and losing more coin than he dared admit to Frederick over those colored glass beads they flicked about), and trading the sugar candies Lissa habitually shoved on him for all manner of things: spicy cinnamon drops, savory pistachios, and even a handful of beautiful green and blue glass baubles.

They were kind people. Happy, relieved by the nearly bloodless battle, heartened by the promise of an age of peace under the Heart of Grima’s rule...and praying always for Robin’s swift recovery. Which the prince understood all too well.

Making his way back to the infirmary, Chrom shouldered his way inside the tent, hoping for good news, any news, something--

“Chrom…”

He stopped as Lissa moved to meet him at the entrance, hugging him tight. Looking around the dimly-lit space, his gaze settled on the empty cot where Robin had, just that morning, slept silently on. “What happened?” he asked, his voice choked.

“He left,” she whimpered. “W-with his uncle, he...he sa-aid they’re going back home.”

A sickening weight dropped into his stomach. “When?”

“A little while ago, j-just--”

“Do you know where he went?”

His sister pulled back, scrubbing her eyes as she looked up at him. “I...I-I think he went down to the camp, towa-ard where they’re keeping the horses…?”

“Thanks, Lissa,” he murmured, hugging her briefly before turning and hurrying down the hill. The Plegian troops were already hard at work as he made his way to the pastures, soldiers dismantling tents and loading convoy wagons for the journey home -- gods, he’d just been here, how could they move so quickly--

There.

Striding through the coarse grass, the prince approached the Plegian berserker and the pale-haired figure huddled beside him. Robin turned…

...and Chrom caught him in a close embrace. “You were just going to leave?” he breathed, sifting his fingers through the tactician’s pale hair as he began to tremble. “Not even a goodbye?”

“Chrom, please--”

“I made a promise, remember?” the prince asked, touching his forehead to Robin’s. “I swore to you that I would be by your side.” The tactician remained silent, shivering fitfully as Chrom tightened his gentle hold. “How can I keep my promise if you leave without a word?”

“You can’t.”

Robin’s breath hitched as he bowed his head. “Don’t you understand? You could never keep that promise -- not when I knew I would have to come back to Plegia...why do you think I told you not to swear an oath you couldn’t keep? I cannot hold you to it, I ca...I can’t…

Chrom hushed him gently, smoothing the tactician’s hair with a steady hand. “I made an oath to you, Robin,” he murmured. “I made a vow to stand beside you. Come what may. And I still intend to keep it.”

“How?” the tactician sobbed. “You were only given leave to join me in assuring peace for Plegia, and now that we have you would be defecting if you traveled any further south--”

“Then I’ll send the Shepherds back to Ylisse and join you myself.”

“You know better than I that Frederick would never allow that, you’re the prince of Ylisse--

Something tugged on Robin’s sleeve.

They both paused, looking over at Henry as he held out a piece of parchment. “Can you read this?” he asked.

“Now’s not the time, Henry,” Mustafa sighed, gently taking the mage’s arm and trying to draw him aside.

“Yeah it is!” Henry protested, waving the page toward them. “She said I should give it to Robin and he’d know what to do!”

“...who did?” the tactician sniffed, taking the parchment in a shaky hand.

“Your boyfriend’s sister! The one you gave the other page to, remember?”

Shoring Robin up with an arm around his waist, Chrom helped to steady the sheet with his free hand, reading through the varied lines of script.

We’ve arrived safely at the border between Plegia and Ferox. According to Henry, the armies will set out tomorrow at dawn. If all goes well, the war will end tomorrow.

I’m happy to hear from you. Best of luck in the day ahead. My thoughts and prayers go with you and yours, Robin, and may you have success in the trial to come.

Thank you, Your Grace. With any luck, we’ll see a swift and bloodless end to this battle, but whatever the case, I’ll write again as soon as I can once the fight ends.

Ar yu Krom’s sistr?

I am. Is this Henry?

Hi!

Is Robin alright? It’s been several days and he never replied, I’ve been quite concerned.

Bad stuf hapend. But we wun! Robin got hurt and just wok up and now Unkl sez we haf tu lyv.

Do you know if my brother and sister are alright?

They’r fayn! Lisa’s bin ryly nays tu Robin and taykin kayr ov him and Krom iz ther al the taym. Robin’s gona by sad wen we lyv. Unkl sez Krom kan’t kom.

Give this to Robin, alright? He’ll know what to do, and I think it will help.

By order of Exalt Emmeryn of House Ylisse, Prince Chrom of House Ylisse is hereby named as the Ylissean ambassador to Plegia, and is hereupon charged with conducting talks with the ruler of Plegia to open discussions between the halidom and her neighbor, on topics including but not limited to trade agreements and the transport of necessary aid and supplies for the restoration of Plegia.

A smile broke across Chrom’s face as he pulled Robin closer, looking at the tactician as he read the message over and over again. “It sounds like I can keep my promise after all,” he chuckled, tucking his nose into Robin’s hair.

“I’m never going to be able to repay your sister,” the tactician breathed.

“Emm’s always said that all she ever wanted for her family was their happiness,” the prince murmured. “Do you still think you’re just a ‘close friend’?”

That, at last, made Robin beam, pressing a hand to his chest as helpless laughter took the place of his tremors. And as Chrom nuzzled his cheek, the tactician caught him in a warm kiss that set his heart aflame.

***

“Chrom, have you seen my coat?” Robin called, peering under the bed without much hope.

“What, this coat?”

Looking up, he was rather less surprised than he perhaps should have been to find the prince wearing it. Rolling his eyes, the king of Plegia pushed himself up to his feet, crossing the room as Chrom pulled the hood up and adopted his most mysterious look -- which, coming from him, was not terribly mysterious at all. “Yes, that one,” Robin chuckled, catching the edges of the cowl in his hands and touching his forehead to his husband’s. “I’d like it back, please.”

“Maybe I don’t want to give it back,” Chrom teased, lacing their fingers together. “I like it.”

“I’m not leaving without it,” the tactician murmured.

“Well, you wouldn’t be leaving without it if I’m wearing it, now would you?”

“...that is a factual statement, but entirely beside the point.”

“What will you give me for it, then?”

Robin grinned, pressing a warm, deep kiss to the prince’s lips. Chrom’s arms coiled around him, drawing him still nearer as the tactician’s arms slipped around his shoulders. They held each other for few long moments, breathing each other in, enjoying the warmth and the closeness…

...before Robin finally eased back, smiling softly at the face beneath the hood. “How’s that?”

“...I’ll accept that,” the prince beamed, shrugging out of the coat and holding it up by the shoulders; slipping easily into it, the tactician pulled it close, savoring the lingering heat on his skin as Chrom touched a kiss to his nape. “So when do we leave?”

“Everything should be packed and ready by now -- they’ll just be waiting on us.”

“So...we’re holding things up?”

“Not really,” Robin shrugged. “I think they’ll understand -- we still need to collect the baby, after all.”

The prince’s face lit up at that. Turning back to the bed, they both settled on the edge, reaching out to the child curled among the pillows. “Lucina,” Chrom called, smoothing the fine cobalt hair away from her face. “Wake up, sweetheart, it’s time to go see Aunt Emm and Aunt Lissa.”

The girl’s tiny face scrunched up as she tried to snuggle deeper into the covers. “No, no hiding,” the tactician laughed, gathering her up in his arms. “You can nap on the ride, Little Light. Come on, now…”

Coaxing the child gently into waking as they wandered through their rooms, she was babbling cheerfully by the time they settled to a quick breakfast, happily (if messily) devouring everything the prince fed her. And after a quick change of clothes for their daughter, they made their way together down to the bustling courtyard where Mustafa waited patiently astride a sturdy roan mare. “Trouble waking the little one?” he remarked as Robin mounted his horse, patting the mare’s neck fondly before taking Lucina in arms while Chrom pulled himself up behind the saddle.

“She’s not much for mornings until she’s awake,” the prince chuckled, wrapping his arms around the tactician’s waist while Robin secured their daughter in the sling across his chest.

“And once she’s awake, she won’t sleep until she wears herself out,” the tactician laughed. “Is everything ready?”

“Indeed, Your Majesty -- we ride on your command,” the general replied.

“Then let’s not tarry any longer,” the king smiled, touching his heels to his bay’s sides. And as the procession headed out of Plegia’s now thriving capital and into the singing sands beyond, they raised a ballad to the winds to carry them on their way east, and to the welcome reunions that awaited beyond their shared borders.