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Loose an Arrow at My Tempered Heart

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“Are you going back to Ishgard?”

Estinien looks away. He hadn’t been to see Alberic for years and somehow he still had the ability to cut right through his shell only when he was desperately avoiding a specific conversation. He’d always attributed it to parental instinct.

“I don’t know.”

Alberic hummed in a non-committal way before getting up from his small dining table and going to poke the fire. Estinien knew he wasn’t going to drop the conversation and was probably giving him the chance to think over what he actually wanted to say. It was a tactic he’d been using since he first took Estinien in. After all, he’d never been good with words.

“You know, I half expected you to actually join the Scions. I recall you caring pretty deeply about the boy. What was his name?”

“Alphinaud.” Estinien grips the mug of tea he’s been sipping on just a little bit harder. The warmth radiating through it feels nice against his freezing fingers. “I think I’m done with devoting myself to grand causes. It did not end so well last time.”

“But you’d help them if they asked?”

“Aye.”

How couldn’t he? He owed Kalinessa and Alphinaud his life. Even though he knew they’d never think of it as anything more than helping a friend some small part of him would always think of it as a debt he could never repay.

“Then I suppose if you’re going anywhere but back to being something of an adventurer it’d have to be Ishgard. Aymeric is there after all.” Estinien almost throws the mug he’s holding at Alberic but thinks better of the move and just breaks eye contact again. Alberic laughs. “Are you really going to keep denying it?”

“I’m denying nothing.”

“For a man that’s seen more than thirty summers you sure do act like a child sometimes Estinien.” Estinien glares but it does nothing to dissuade Alberic from coming back to the table after he’s content with the fire. “You could do a lot worse than a man like Aymeric.”

“And he could do a lot better than a man like me. This conversation is over.” Alberic sighs but admits defeat. Years of experience have taught him it’s all but impossible to keep talking when he gets like this.

“Fine. Go see if any of the knights or merchants need help while I make dinner then. After that you’re not getting it for free.” Estinien doesn’t even so much as glance back at Alberic as he walks out the door. For all the show he puts on Alberic knows he’ll be back to eat dinner and have a warm place to sleep until he decides where he’s going after this. He also knows that Estinien knows he’d make him dinner regardless of whether or not he actually went and helped the other people in the camp.

True to form the door opens two hours later to a slightly less grumpy looking Estinien. Alberic decides it best to avoid the topic of Ishgard and Aymeric de Borel for the rest of the night. Estinien isn’t talkative, but then again he rarely ever is. At least he’s answering the questions about where he’s been, even if it’s with as little detail as possible.

---

Alberic awakes in the dead of night to Estinien crying and whimpering in his sleep. He doesn’t know what to do besides put the blanket that he’d kicked off back on top of him.

---

 

Estinien stands looking at the Steps of Faith and almost considers turning around and walking to wherever his heart, the wind, and his coin lead him. Out there is uncertainty and freedom, even if it is an oxymoronic freedom. Only his own moral sense and survival can dictate his actions, but the need for food and shelter limit him in ways that life in Ishgard never did. The politics and millenia old social structures of his home had not been on his mind once since the beginning of his journey.

What right does he have to return anyways? He, whose own arrogance nearly destroyed the city itself, had no right to walk amongst the home of those he nearly killed. That it had once been his home mattered not. He forfeited that luxury the moment he was foolish enough to pick up both eyes.

And, as loathe as he is to admit it, the wide world beyond the gates of Ishgard presented one other unique problem.

Estinien was, in the simplest terms, lonely.

It was his own fault, that Estinien would willingly admit. There was no doubt that Alphinaud would let him into his little party of do gooders before he could even finish asking. Dedicating himself to a cause so grand was more than antithetical to what he was so determined to run away from though. He had wondered on a number of occasions why he was so conditioned to gravitate towards grand and just causes even if he was trying to escape from a lifetime of a grand and just cause that had all but killed him. His own heart struggled to let him take the break his body and mind so greatly desired.

That loneliness was what had brought him back to Ishgard in the first place. If he wasn’t going to continue to assist the Scions in their endeavors there was only one other person he could turn to.

Aymeric de Borel.

Unfortunately, returning to Ishgard and returning to Aymeric came with far more baggage than just the annoyances of Ishgardian customs. Ever since Niddhog had relinquished his grasp on Estinien he’d been dealing with feelings that had been buried deep under the wyrm’s nearly all consuming vengeance and anger. He hadn’t purposefully been ignoring them all those years, at least not towards the end. He’d admit to himself and himself only that their repression was far more intentional early on.

In his defense, there had been more pressing matters to attend to than his childish crush on his once peer and eventual commander.

His feet had brought him to the Steps without really thinking and so he resolves to do that before making any more decisions. It doesn’t take long for him to find a decently sized rock to sit on. It’s next to a small stream that is somehow not frozen over. There is something in his gut telling him that if he chooses to go back he won’t be able to leave again. He wouldn’t be able to make himself leave again.

“When did you become like a child in love,” Estinien angrily questions his reflection in the stream. “You are the only one that has claim to your heart and freedom.” Estinien sighs and looks to the sky, letting the cold Coerthas breeze dance on his skin. It stings, but in a familiar way that somehow makes it less unpleasant. He stays like that until his eyes start to water.

So Estinien lied to himself. He told himself that he could shove all his silly romantic notions so far down in his soul that he would take them to his grave. He told himself he’d be able to leave Ishgard whenever he wanted. It was just to see the city again. Maybe he wouldn’t even go and see Aymeric. Yes. That was it. He’d just get this lonely nostalgia out of his system and then be off to continue his adventuring.

Or so he had thought up until the moment he entered the city proper and realized darkness was already falling. He no longer had a room at the Temple Knight barracks and it had been long enough since he’d taken the job from Tataru and Krile that he was all but out of money again, so an inn was out of the question.

That left Estinien with three options. The first and least socially awkward was leaving the city immediately and hoping he could make it back the Observatorium before the night cold sets it too deep. He’s not quite sure he can, especially with the way the winds were blowing when he entered the city and he doesn’t have the equipment to rough it after his time spent in warmer climates. There was the added threat of dealing with Alberic knowing he’d failed too.

Camp Dragonhead is closer but he knew Emmanellian was currently in charge there and he just knew that if he so much as stepped foot into the Camp that word of his reappearance in Coerthas would spread like wildfire.

He could sleep on the streets of the city but then he ran the risk of a Temple Knight recognizing him, something he had been skillfully avoiding. Those years spent wearing nothing but dragoon armor had their small perks.

The third, and most daunting socially, was to go to the de Borel manor. It promised a soft bed and warm food and that tempted him greatly. When was the last time he’d slept in something other than a bedroll or the always uncomfortable inn beds aside from last night? Aymeric would be there though and that was troublesome.

He’d spent a handful of nights at the de Borel manor when he was younger. On the rare occasion he’d actually go out drinking with Aymeric and the other knights he’d sometimes end up back there, he and Aymeric’s drunken selves too tempted by the plush beds and cozy blankets to return to the barracks instead.

Estinien quickly regretted thinking about a much younger, drunk Aymeric because the memories made his breath catch just a little bit. He’d always been too affectionate and too oblivious when he was drunk, never actually realizing what the way he wrapped his arm around Estinien’s shoulders or breathed too close to his ears did to him. Even now Estinien could recall the exact way Aymeric got drunk. His ears flushed first and once that happened it was already too late. A drink or two later he’d seem a little sleepy and then he would get overly affectionate. A hand too high on Estinien’s thigh, his head resting on his shoulder, dark hair tickling his neck as he laughed at the jokes of everyone else at the table while Estinien was a ball of anxiety beside him.

Those moments had spurred on more dreams than Estinien would like to admit.

Estinien jumped to the nearest rooftop quickly, deciding he needed to be thinking about anything but that. Of course now was the first time in a while the quiet whispers of a soul not his were nowhere to be found.

His movements after that were all muscle memory, leaping from roof to roof along the same paths he took when he had been charged defending the city.

There was nothing to defend the city from now though.

The methodical nature, the reliance on muscle memory, did calm him down a bit though. It had been simpler when all he knew was fighting. This, dealing with feelings more complicated than revenge, was hard. Logically, he knew that the people he was so desperately running from were no danger to him. None of them would ever take advantage of the strange vulnerability that he’d been beating back for too long. He knew that.

But being vulnerable scared him more than any dragon or man ever. Dragons and people he could kill. No spear would ever destroy his most vulnerable and complicated feelings.

Eventually Estinien found himself sitting on a roof in The Pillars staring at the night sky. It had been hours since most people had gone to bed and the night air was starting to numb his ears and fingertips. He picked at knots in his hair. It had been too long since he’d brushed it, let alone washed it. And that was to say nothing about the state of his clothing.

Appearances had never been something Estinien had cared about extensively, especially since he’d started wearing armor that covered most of his body, but the amount that he’d left himself go in the last few months embarrassed him a little bit. What would Aymeric think if he saw him like this? He’d spared no words criticizing Estinien’s hygiene practices when they were first becoming friends and he was markedly worse now.

“By the Fury, why do I care so much about what he thinks of me,” Estinien muttered to no one, question lost on the wind as soon as it left his mouth.

---

Maybe it was the cold or maybe it was sleep deprivation setting in or maybe it was Alberic’s words from the night before replaying in his ears, but at some point something broke down his will and he found himself in front of the de Borel manor. It was dark and Estinien was sure that the few staff Aymeric had were either asleep or had retired to their personal homes. He hesitated for a moment before knocking and finally admitting defeat to the loneliness in his heart. If Aymeric was to claim his heart the way he had then at least he could take responsibility and give him a warm place to sleep for the night.

It took a few knocks before Estinien heard someone moving quietly through the manor and then saw a light go on in the parlor. Just a moment later the door opened slightly.

“Hello?”

Estinien was glad for the wind for the first time that day because it had already given his cheeks and ears a pink hue. Aymeric was far too cute for a grown man, soft pajamas hanging just slightly wrong on his frame, hair messy from sleep, eyes only half open. It’s dark enough that Estinien decides it’s okay to smile just a little bit at the sight. It’s also dark enough that he can ignore the dark bags under Aymeric’s eyes for the time being.

The Lord Commander’s expression shifts quickly from tired to surprised to elated.

“Estinien, is that you?” Aymeric rubs his eyes a few times as if he’s making sure they aren’t deceiving him.

This was a mistake. He cannot handle the way Aymeric looks at him, sleepy eyes all to gentle for someone like him. He can hardly handle the urge to reach out and touch the other man, pull him into an embrace so tight that it makes bare all the insecurities plaguing him.

“Aye. It’s me.”

Chapter Text

There were many a day that Aymeric thought about stepping down from his seat in the House of Lords. There were a few where he almost did, endless bickering from his peers almost driving him to quit on the spot. Those days require more than a few deep breaths and a few moments away from the mental noise of a personal, never ending battle to get through. A few drinks with Lucia or Artoriel or any of the Scions if they were in town usually did the trick as they were all receptive to his much less reserved, drunken complaints. Although some were better than others at making sure he drank enough water to only be the normal amount of tired the next morning.

It was work that needed to be done, work towards a peace that he had promised and that people had staked their lives on, he reasoned when that overworked, tired part of him wanted nothing more than to sleep or run as far away from the Holy See as possible.

There were days when his exhaustion felt like it had seeped into the core of his being and those days were the hardest. It was a labor of love but also a labor that he felt may be leading him to an early death not at the hands of his greatest enemies but at the hands of a tiredness inescapable.

So he’s only a little jealous when Lucia brings him word that a handful of knights all need the same few days off for a wedding of one of their fellow knights. It normally wouldn’t be an issue he dealt with directly, but they’re all from the same unit and it just so happens to be a unit that was supposed to be run joint training exercises with the Twin Adders that very same set of days.

“It’s an inconvenience, that is certain, but it does make me happy that we’ve been having less issues like this because of death and more because of happy occasions.” Lucia was a steadying force on even his worst of days. Her knack for knowing when he was pushing himself too far was not something that escaped Aymeric's notice and for her stern suggestions about when problems and paperwork could wait for tomorrow he was endlessly grateful.

“That I certainly agree with. I’ll go and talk to the unit commanders and see which are most suited as replacements-”

“I’d wager that most of them have already retired for the night. I passed two heading to their private quarters on the walk here. Something that you should probably do too.”

He wanted to go home for the night, he truly did, but the stack of papers in the unfinished pile was still nearly twice as tall as he originally intended it to be when the day was over. There were at least two meetings tomorrow that he hadn’t even thought about besides writing some very messy outlines for and that’s not even to mention the fact that he wanted to stop by and see if the night guards he rarely got to talk to had any pressing issues that needed his attention.

To think that at one point he’d hoped a period of peace would mean less work for him.

“I’m sure the same could be said of you. Let me finish reading this over and then I’ll finish up for the night.”

Lucia let out a huff of resignation. It was time to stoop a little low then. So be it.

“It’ll be hard to keep this city safe until a certain someone’s return if you overwork yourself into an early grave.”

It would not have been visible to someone who didn’t spend a significant amount of time with him, but to someone with eyes as trained as Lucia’s the pink tint of the Lord Commander’s skin was immediately apparent and he knew it.

The subject of Aymeric’s romantic relationships, or more precisely the complete lack thereof, was one of the most popular topics of Ishgardian gossip. The lack of war in any regard had left everyone with more time to think about romance and there was no more sought after bachelor than the Lord Commander himself. The acute interest in him as a romantic partner and every thing that came from it did little to help his state of perpetual tiredness. It also didn’t help that it was one of the preferred topics of his friend when he did get a rare night off to spend with them. Not all of them knew about who his heart truly belonged to but there were countless jests at his expense nonetheless.

Aymeric did his best to ignore the rumors and let down gently those bold enough to ask him directly.

Ah. My focus on setting the nation on the right path and my responsibilities as Lord Commander do take up most of my time. I’m afraid I just don’t have time for much else at the moment.

It was only a half lie, really. He didn’t have time. He hardly had time for drinks with friends once a moon.

Aymeric figured that was reason enough to turn people down. No need to mention the more than decade old fixation his heart had.

“Now that was just uncalled for.” There is a noticeable delay between Lucia’s dig and Aymeric’s retort and that is exactly how she knows she’s won for the night.

“If it gets you to go to sleep at a reasonable hour then I disagree.” Aymeric sighs and sets the bundle of papers he was reading over off to the side to pick up again tomorrow morning. He was not so proud as to continue on when he knew the battle was lost.

“I guess it was called for.”

—-

There’s a window in his bedroom that gives a good view of the rooftops of the lower levels and the mountains of Coerthas. Before the Calamity, before Coerthas was cold all year round, he’d leave it open in the summer when he slept and listen to the sounds of the city as he drifted off. He’d tried once or twice to recapture that feeling, but now all the bitter wind did was keep him awake and steal what little sleep he did afford himself.

Most nights he was asleep before his head hit the pillow, exhausted from a long day and too little sleep the night before. While today had been another long day preceded by too little sleep, sleep was slow to take Aymeric.

“A wedding. . .”

It wasn’t that his heart was particularly jaded about love or anything, not that anyone could blame him if it was. His adopted parents had loved each other deeply, a rarity among Ishgardian nobility, but that was the exception and not the rule.

At one point, in the too short time between when he was old enough to feel the budding notions of romance and when they were proceedingly forced down into bottommost recesses of his heart by what hearts too cold had to say about his own origin, he’d even entertained childish fantasies of idyllic romance, of summer weddings, and of finding some he loved as much as his adopted parents loved each other.

Spending the majority of his life attending more funerals than weddings or anniversary parties might had hardened him a little bit too. He loved Ishgard, but that was easy. Despite a thousand year war it had endured and he was sure it would endure for much longer. His love for the people he’d spent so long fighting for would die with him, not the other way around. Individual people were another matter entirely. He knew all too well how fragile an individual life was. He had told too many families that their mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, would never be coming home to believe his own loved ones were safe from an untimely death. There were those he cared about deeply but those feelings never crossed that carefully defined line.

Save for one.

Even if pressed Aymeric couldn’t exactly say when he’d actually fallen for Estinien. He’d been fascinated by him from the first, his suicidal ambition out matching even the most determined of knights. Aymeric had never been one to put too much value on reckless determination though. It had brought about far too many premature funerals for his tastes. He realized quickly that Estinien was much more than his self destructive tendencies.

It was buried deep, but Aymeric was nothing if not persistent. Underneath all that grumpy, aloof armor was buried a person that cared so deeply it pained him to the very core of his being. He’d seen the tears of frustration early on, tears of inadequacy, that were wiped away as quickly as they came. He’d seen the anger, the dedication, the absolute all consuming nature of Estinien’s focus.

Sometimes he got to see the softer parts of the man that would eventually become his closest friend; the tenderness of his real smiles (those born of true happiness instead of Estinien’s snarky pride), the gentle way he cared for animals, the odd way that children attached themselves to him despite Estinien’s best efforts to avoid them.

(If only he’d had the right words then. If only he’d been able to offer more than bandages and a shoulder to hold onto as they trudged back from whatever tragedy they’d just escaped.)

At some point Aymeric had made it his personal mission to dig out those parts of Estinien he’d spent so long hiding. At some point the small bits he slowly uncovered had tethered themselves to his heart and refused to let go. At some point they’d melted the protective layers he hadn’t realized he had without him knowing they were even melting.

Time was a precious resource back then too though and so the yearning of his heart had unknowingly taken a back seat to his yearning for an Ishgard that could better serve her citizens. It burned quietly in the background of everything Aymeric did with absolute consistency that he grew so comfortable with it’s warmth that he rarely ever took notice of it.

Then just when he did, just when a too close call almost took the source of the warmth from him, the cold of the Calamity snuffed it out.

---

A knock on the front door roused Aymeric from a dream he couldn’t remember except for the way it elicited sadness and joy in the same breath. He steeled himself for some tragedy, either already happened or currently unfolding, because he knew that's the only reason any of the Temple Knights or Scions would interrupt the sleep they’re always insistent he doesn’t get enough of.

He didn’t change out of his pajamas, a silent prayer that maybe he won’t have a reason too, but he did grab Naegling out of habit and leaned it against the door frame before opening the door and facing whatever late night troubles awaited him.

Estinien, skin red from the cold night air, is the last thing he expected.

“Estinien, is that you?” He rubbed his eyes, partially in disbelief that the dragoon was actually standing at his door in the middle of the night and partially because he was still waking up.

“Aye. It’s me.”

Chapter Text

It had been a little more than an hour and a half since Lucia arrived at the Temple Knights headquarters and by that point she was certain that Aymeric had been reading the same report the entire time. She'd gone in and out of the office a number of times in that hour as well and came back every time to find the Lord Commander somewhere different. He'd been at his desk when she first arrived, tea hot but untouched beside him. He hadn't noticed when she first walked in but the early morning and Aymeric's love of not getting enough sleep could explain that. When she left to discuss the training regiment of the most recent batch of recruits with the individual unit commanders and returned she found him standing by the back window, a suspiciously similar piece of set of papers still in hand and tea now probably room temperature and untouched on his desk. It was at that point she began to suspect something was wrong. When she came back an hour later with a diplomatic visitor from Gridania and he was pacing with what she now knew was the same few sheets of paper she was certain something was up. Normally the man was the pinnacle of professional and composed when on any kind of official business. He stared at the Twin Adder commander for what seemed to be nearly ten seconds before shaking whatever was occupying his mind.

Lucia was mulling over the state of her superior when Hilda sat down on her desk (but not before carefully moving the papers that were in the way), crossing her arms and legs as she did so. The taller woman had long since given up on telling her to sit in an actual chair. Some might even say that Hilda’s distaste for decorum had charmed her.

"Why you knights insist on conducting business so gods damn early in the morning is beyond me. Merchants are barely awake and you make me trudge all the way up here to talk about budgeting of all things." Hilda, Lucia had quickly realized after the watch had become something of a half official organization, was not a morning person.

She was certainly doing her best to convince people she was displeased but Lucia could see through the act. While mornings were certainly not Hilda’s preferred meeting time, the small smile that appeared on her face after an, in Lucia’s opinion, incredibly long yawn did give away that she wasn’t entirely unhappy to be there.

“For that I apologize. It’s the only time both of us are available today, although I’m not sure the Lord Commander is ready to discuss anything of importance at the moment.”

Hilda’s entire face perked up as she shifted to lean closer to Lucia, obviously intrigued by the prospect of something being off about their seemingly perfect and always put together leader.

"Oh? Do explain."

Hilda, for the most part, tried to interact with the ever changing gossip of Ishgardian nobles as little more than free entertainment. The men and women in the watch picked it up from everywhere and anywhere and so it had a tendency to funnel back to her, diluted and twisted as it tended to be. She'd become relatively decent differentiating between what was true and what was absolute bullshit. Other than the poorly kept secret of Aymeric's parentage, the man managed to keep his name out of the pile of rumors she'd figured were true. On top of all that, she'd never once in her years of working with the Temple Knights heard Lucia say something was visibly off about him.

Lucia leaned close enough that Hilda could feel the breath on her skin and, in a whispered voice, recalled every oddity of the morning. The less people that realized something was off about the city’s unofficial leader the better. Even after all this time there were still those that openly detested him and Lucia would rather be safe than sorry.

Hilda mulled things over for a little bit. Were it anyone else she’d have blamed something along the lines of lack of sleep or illness. Then, something struck her.

“Ya think he’s in love? Had to knock some sense into one of the watch the other day ‘cause he was spacing out thinking about some lass he’d had dinner with the night before.”

Lucia wanted to laugh. Could Hilda have possibly been so close yet so far from the mark? Oh of course Aymeric was in love. Aymeric had been in love since before either of them had known him. It certainly wasn’t anything new and distracting. It would be stranger if he suddenly wasn’t in love anymore.

“Somehow, I doubt that’s the issue.”

“Ya never know.” Hilda had a glint in her eye that Lucia had come to know meant she was up to something. “Why don’t we bet on it? I’d wager we won’t get anything done until we unravel the mystery of our distraught leader anyways.”

“Getting that budget done is so important after all. What are we betting on?”

“Drinks? Pretty boy’s in love and you’re buying for the next month. He’s not and I’ll take the hit.”

“I’ll take that bet.”

 

---

The shock of it all wears off rather quickly, probably thanks in part to the sharp wind cutting through Aymeric's pajamas.

He's a little bit angry. He's just the tiniest bit upset that Estinien had the gall to show up at his doorstep in the middle of the night looking like a stray dog begging for warmth after years with no more than a sentence or two under the pressure of war and dear friends almost dying.

So maybe he's more than a little bit angry. Maybe he's extremely angry and has been repressing it all this time because now all the energy he was silently, subconsciously channeling into worrying about Estinien's wellbeing has to go somewhere. It’s occupied the background of his thoughts since the day the other disappeared suddenly from his sick bed.

He took a few deep breaths and looked at the other elezen again and a lot of that anger seeped out of his body and into the air. It wassn't completely gone and Aymeric promised himself he was going to make Estinien sit down and feel bad about disappearing without a trace and then fucking off for a few years without so much as a note. The wind was cold though and Estinien looked remarkably miserable and tired, which was a far cry from the usual self-assured half smirk on his face.

"Would you like to come in or will this be another very short lived visit?" That may have been too harsh. Estinien broke eye contact in an uncharacteristically meek move.

"I wouldn't be here otherwise."

Aymeric relented, stepping to the side to let Estinien enter first. There were more questions bouncing around his brain than the night had time to answer. Some he thought maybe he could get the dragoon to consider with enough patience but others were deeper. They stung too much to think about right now.

"I'm assuming the guest room is unoccupied?"

"Correct but you'll have to go and fetch firewood from the back. Had I known you were coming I would have already had a fire going."

"I can start it myself. Go back to sleep." The sentence is definitively finite. Aymeric knew there wouldn’t be anymore talking tonight.

As if he could just go back to sleep though

The entire situation was making Aymeric's head spin with an intoxicatingly angry nostalgia. Aymeric couldn't even begin to recount the number of times Estinien had shown up in the dead of night after a fight at the barracks to take over the couch or the guest room or even the floor of his own bedroom if someone else was at the manor. Estinien never liked to talk about it until the morning after at the absolute earliest and he figured now wasn't much different. It was both a relief and a horrible frustration that things hadn't changed.

So Aymeric decided, in what he knew was an exercise of futility, to try and go back to sleep, letting Estinien deal with making himself comfortable.

Sleep did not come to him. It was mostly because he was all but convinced Estinien would be gone again in the morning.

Aymeric half thought to check in the guestroom when he left his room in the morning, but the pair of filthy boots by the doorway reassured him enough that the other man was still somewhere in the house. Besides, he knew that his lack of sleep would already be hard enough to deal with. Estinien's mere presence and the way it toyed with his heart and mind would absolutely crush him if it were to be added on top of his untimely insomnia.

So he made himself get dressed and forced himself to wash his face. A piece of fruit would have to do for breakfast because he certainly didn't have the energy to cook anything and he'd told his housekeeper he could take the day off. Hopefully the stash of tea he kept at his office would do something to wake him up.

Aymeric certainly went through the motions of being a fully present person. He said good morning to every other Temple Knight he passed, made his tea without making a mess of things, and even managed to find the spot he'd left off on in the report from the night before.

That was where the motions stopped. He let his tea go cold and it took him a full five seconds to recognize someone was talking to him when Lucia popped her head in to say good morning.

--

Estinien slept eventually, but it took far longer than he'd like. He'd hoped the warmth of the fire and the comfort of the bed and all it's plush pillows and blankets would lull his exhausted body into sleep regardless of what his mind wanted. Instead he hyper focused on the way Aymeric's expression shifted as soon as they'd both had time to process the situation.

Aymeric was mad.

Maybe he wouldn't say it outright but they'd known each other long enough to read one another well enough.

Not that Estinien was upset about Aymeric being mad, because the moment he started to reflect on his own behaviour was also the moment when he started to question why anyone was friends with him in the first place. Emotionally distant, self-destructive, and horribly averse to opening up to anyone were usually not in people's list of top qualities they looked for in a friend.

Aymeric had opened up his home to him despite all of his sub-optimal qualities and his radio silence and that had to mean something. Right?

It didn't, he'd all but convinced himself by the time he actually fell asleep. Aymeric was too nice of a man to actually turn someone away in the dead of night, especially someone he knew.

Why was he even worrying about what Aymeric was planning on doing with him when he didn't have a plan himself? He'd shown up at the manor without really thinking about it but now that he was here he had no idea what to actually do. He didn't have a family or job in the city and there was a less than zero percent chance he was going back to his old position. Would he just bum around the manor for a few days and then just screw back off into the wilderness? He didn't particularly want to. Aymeric was the only reason he'd actually come back though and staying would mean working through that emotional unavailability that Estinien was so known for to actually try and apologize for disappearing.

The soft, warm thrall of the bed coupled with an exhaustion that Estinien was convinced had all but become part of his being won out in the end though and eventually forced his eyes closed and his brain off.

If only it staved off the nightmares that overtook him all too frequently.

He awoke awkwardly, tangled in the comforter, hand clasping it so tightly his knuckles were white. The nightmares rarely left him with distinct memories, which he figured was because they were almost always monstrous amalgamations of his and Niddhog's lives, if what he experienced when they crept into his mind while he was still awake was anything to go off. When they were distinct he could remember them, regardless of who they came from. Those were easier to deal with. The sourceless, gut wrenching, raw emotion that came from the muddled ones made him nauseous.

Estinien swallowed down the bile rising in his throat as he slowly opened his eyes and noted that it was in fact light out. What time it was he did not know, but the light meant he'd gotten at least a few hours of sleep. So better than most nights.

He tried to will himself back to sleep but he was too alert, the light too bright on his eyes. Being unable to fall asleep did not mean he couldn't enjoy the comfort of being in bed though, so he did just that for a few moments. It was only when his mind started to wander and think about what the rest of the day held that he forced himself to get up. Laying there and doing nothing was pointless, especially with the way his stomach was growling.

Getting up revealed that it was a little bit past seven in the morning, which almost guaranteed that Aymeric had left for the day. As much as his heart yearned for the man he was glad that whatever awkward, uncomfortable conversation they were eventually going to have was pushed off until evening at the earliest. Not that he'd use that time for anything constructive, because that would mean opening up the high pressure bottle that was his emotions without anyone else there to clean up.

The prospect of food served as a good enough distraction.

Aymeric, for the most part, didn't stock his kitchen with anything too extraordinary and that had been the norm since his adopted parents had passed. For that Estinien was thankful. He never claimed to be skilled in the kitchen and would be lying if he claimed his knowledge of cooking went farther than roasting wild game over a fire.

Thoughts of what he could throw together easily from whatever he could find in the kitchen were cut short. Laying on the counter, looking much more at home than the manor's actual owner ever did, was Estinien's second oldest enemy.

Popoto the Cat.

He was, in Estinien’s opinion, an absolutely horrendous beast. Popoto predated Estinien in Aymeric’s life. He’d brought him in from the streets at some point in his mid teens and despite spending more time living inside than the average cat spent alive he still looked like he had just wandered in from a long stretch outside. He was a brown tabby that was missing the end of his tail and had a few scars on his face where his fur had never grown back.

Estinien probably would not criticize that cat’s appearance if it wasn’t for the fact that Popoto despised Estinien.

Even at his the depths of his anger and despair Estinien had never been purposefully mean to animals. It was one of the few things that remained with him from his childhood. Usually they returned the favor by being oddly attached to him. That was not the case with Popoto. Popoto had had it out for Estinien from the moment that the two met.

---

Estinien sat on the edge of Aymeric’s bed as the other man knelt in front of him, dabbing at the set of three long, deep scratches that ran along his forearm with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol.

“You don’t have to.” Estinien wasn’t looking at Aymeric, opting instead to glare at the cat sitting casually in the doorway of the bedroom. He only winced a little bit at the sting of the disinfectant on his open wounds.

“Nonsense. Popoto is my cat and I’ll take responsibility for his actions.”

 

“You didn’t seem too concerned about his actions when the beast attacked me when I tried to pet him. I seem to recall you laughing.”

“He’s just jealous. It’s been a while since he’s had someone to compete with for my attention. You are also more than a bit intimidating my friend.”

“I’ve fought dragons with less bloodlust.”

He tried not to think about how gentle Aymeric was when dressing what would ultimately be superficial wounds. It was the same way on the battlefield. He was always so careful, his touches almost reverent of the body he was slowly patching back together. Those soft, warm fingers brushing against his skin like it was something that deserved to be saved almost made him care about his own body. Almost.

Estinien tried not to think about it too much.

“There. All patched up.”

---

Estinien leveled his best glare at the cat as he leaned against the doorway to the kitchen. This was a contest of wills and he would not lose to an old, spoiled cat. “I am going to make myself breakfast, beast, and you can do nothing to stop me.” Popoto flopped his half tail against the counter in a harsh motion, somehow pulling his ears back even farther.

Despite the threats Estinien did his best to give Popoto a wide berth. Unlike beast or dragon or Garlean he could not actually harm Aymeric’s elderly cat and that meant he would always lose any scuffles the two got into. It seemed that the cat had outsmarted him yet again though, as the cabinets with all of the food he could eat without any need for preparation were directly underneath counter Popoto was currently laying on.

Popoto was an animal though and could be bought with food, that much Estinien had figured out in years of dealing with the cat. He fetched a small fish from the ice chest on the opposite side of the kitchen and gently threw it next to him. Aymeric would have chided him about giving Popoto too much people food, Estinien thought and then quickly banished the fond nostalgic memories from his mind. With Popoto distracted he could rummage around in the drawers he, if he was remembering correctly, knew that Aymeric usually kept his bread in.

“You are easily bought Popoto.” The cat didn’t look up from the fish it had half eaten. Despite coming away unharmed Estinien felt like he’d still lost. At least he’d managed to find some bread and a small block of cheese to silence his stomach. No ornery cat could take that from him.

---

“Am. . .am I in love?” Aymeric’s voiced swirled with both confusion and surprise. It was not the opening line he had expected from Hilda during a meeting that was supposed to be about budgeting.

Lucia and Hilda stood opposite Aymeric. Hilda was leaning on his desk, the picture of casual familiarity. Lucia, for her part, was trying to maintain a facade of professionalism. As if she wasn’t currently engaged in a bet with a month’s worth of drinks riding on it about her boss’s private life.

“Lucia told me you’ve been spacing out all morning and since you’re a man that is seemingly unaffected by lack of sleep love seemed like a plausible assumption.”

Aymeric blinked a few times before sitting down and reaching for his tea. He was surprised to find it cold and only then did he realize how much time had passed since he’d first arrived.

By the Fury, he thought, I’ve been doing nothing for the better part of two hours.

Aymeric took a few moments to compose himself and focus in on the situation in front of him rather than the situation that awaited him at the manor. He thought about lying before thinking about it for just a moment and remembering just how terrible a liar he was. Lucia would know full truth of it the moment he started talking but maybe he could conceal things from Hilda for just a little longer.

He wasn’t even sure why he wanted to though. He’d trusted Hilda to keep the city safe in his absence on more than one occasion. Surely he could trust her with his childish crush on his oldest friend. There was no reason to hide it but admitting it made something inside of him sting. Giving the feelings voice made them hurt so much more than when they were tucked away deep inside his chest.

“I had an. . .unexpected visitor last night.” Hilda smirked in between his sentences. Oh how simultaneously right and wrong she was. “Our missing dragoon showed up and spent the night. Whether or not he will still be their when I retire for the day is another question.”
Aymeric knew that the sympathetic look on Lucia’s face meant she understood. What he hadn’t expected was to watch his second in command exchange a few wordless glances with Hilda that seemed to communicate everything he could not say with words.

“Oh.” A pause. “Oh.”

Chapter Text

Hollow. That's the word Estinien would use to describe the de Borel manor devoid of any occupants save for him and Popoto. He'd been thinking about it while eating breakfast, wondering about how habitable yet uninhabited the residence felt. When Aymeric's adopted parents had been alive the place had at least been frequently host to gatherings and parties of all sorts, even as its former owners aged (not that he had ever willingly attended them). The short spans of time between when things needed to be prepared for served to fill the empty space of a home clearly built for a family larger than three people and a cat.

Now it felt so suffocatingly empty that Estinien was driven to seek out Popoto's companionship, but of course the cat had disappeared from his countertop perch (the one time his presence would have been at least somewhat welcome).

Normally, he could deal with the feeling of physically being alone. He'd spent more time on his own in the wilderness than most people ever would. This was different though. Nothing felt wrong about spending a night alone in the woods. It was peaceful, or as peaceful as someone like Estinien could be. Something felt so intrinsically wrong about being alone in a home clearly designed to be full of people that it made him feel oddly off.

No wonder Aymeric spent so little time here.

Estinien shook his head and hurried to finish breakfast. He had to find something more mentally or physically strenuous to occupy his time with.

It proved a more challenging task than one might think. His biggest accomplishment of the day was that he made himself brush his hair and wash his face. Which also happened to be the first thing he set about doing. He considered, briefly, taking a bath but the thought made him feel odd. Aymeric had at least one person employed to take care of the house and Estinien was without a doubt not mentally or emotionally prepared for him to show up while he was bathing. He hadn’t asked Aymeric either. It had never been a problem in the past but things were different now.

The stinging tension between them combined with the uneasy emptiness of the manor made him question things he would have never questioned before.

So, aside from forcing himself to look mildly presentable, the day was, largely, uneventful. He tried to go back to sleep at one point despite knowing that had never worked in the past. He could barely sleep at night when he was on the brink of exhaustion. It’d be a miracle if Halone actually let him take a nap. He’d hoped that today would be the day.

It was not and just laying in bed let his mind wander too much. The last thing he wanted to do was think about whatever the evening entailed. He must have gone through half the books in Aymeric's small library trying to find something that would interest him. It was another exercise he knew would end in disappointment though. He'd never been much of a reader before and now, while plagued by fear of his oldest friend being angry at him, was certainly not the best time to start.

Tucked away on the highest shelf in the corner of the room were a set of books that were markedly smaller and in worse shape than the rest of the collection. Estinien, thanks to their almost hidden placement, almost missed them. They were, he quickly realized, not lengthy novels or historical accounts like most of the other books in the library but a set of small, illustrated children's stories.

Estinien assumed at one point the illustrations had been just black and white, because the line work was, well, professional.

The coloring looked like it had been done by child.

As Estinien flipped through the pages a small smile crept onto his face. A much younger Aymeric had colored in every single one. The others were the same and his parents had loved it enough to add it to the family library.

It was frustratingly adorable yet roused a somber nostalgia in him. While his own parents hadn't been well off enough to afford books as nice as the former viscount and his wife (or any at all really), childhood in general was something Estinien tried not to think about. It was easier that way.

So he, in a rare moment of thoughtful gentleness, resituated the books in their place on the shelf carefully and did his best to shut out any fond memories creeping into his head. They'd spiral into something much worse too quickly, that much Estinien knew from experience.

He wandered until he eventually ended up in the small backyard that, before the Calamity, had been home to a well cared for garden.The yard was little more than a field of snow now. The remnants of the flower beds and bushes had been pulled out and thrown away years ago. The view of the mountains in the distance hadn’t changed though. Not even the Calamity could tame the hard, imposing peaks of the mountains of Coerthas. At least there was some comfort to be found in that. They were the same regardless of whether he was looking up at them to avoid confronting the blossoming love bubbling inside of him or if he was looking up at them waiting for death to take him. Their harsh familiarity, the neutral way they seemed to oversee all things was one of the few constants in his life.

Estinien found himself on the small, covered stone patio that connected the garden to the house proper after finally giving up on tearing apart Aymeric's library in search of something distracting and wandering around aimlessly. He remembered sitting on the steps that led down from the patio, watching a much younger yet somehow still old Popoto chase bugs through the flowers, remembered the way Aymeric, slightly drunk, arm in a sling after a particularly bad mission, smiled and laughed when Popoto popped out of the garden covered in pollen and flower petals. He remembered how even through laughter and smiles Aymeric had still looked pained, the edges of his eyes just the faintest hint of red.

They’d both come back. Others hadn’t been so lucky.

He remembered wanting to kiss him, as if that would somehow change things.

It was the first time he’d ever thought about it.

---

Aymeric was fine. That was what he told himself. He didn't hate the sad way Lucia looked at him or the way Hilda teased him about his 'terrible taste in men'. Absolutely not. It didn't make him feel like they thought there was something he should do about it, as if he hadn't been going over and over that same train of thought for ten years now.

He'd tried to move on. He truly had. Estinien was certainly not in the headspace for a relationship before the end of the war and it felt wrong to try and take advantage of his new found freedom from constant anger afterwards. That was assuming he was even interested in the first place, which Aymeric didn't think he was.

The few dates he'd gone on in desperate attempts to move on were things he'd rather push to the back of his mind.

He wanted to think that every single time Estinien let himself be soft and vulnerable, every time he let the empty sorrow Aymeric knew clawed away inside him show,that was something special. Something only for him. He wanted to believe that Estinien letting himself be something other than angry around him had some kind of deeper meaning.

It was enough, he'd reasoned long ago, to just let Estinien be his friend. He didn't need anything else. Estinien needed him as a friend, needed someone as a friend in general, even if he wouldn't admit it. He couldn't risk changing things then and, after far too long apart, he wouldn't risk it now.

There was the anger and disappointment to deal with too. In all honesty he'd probably consider them more pressing topics than his deep seeded feelings for the man. Expressing the fact that he was elated about Estinien's return while not glossing over his frustration at his absence would take tact that his heart didn't feel like he was capable of right now. He'd thought it all dulled by the passage of time but when those feeling had been dug up last night they were still as raw as the first nights after Estinien disappeared from his sick bed.

What a naive sentiment.

In the end he went home with a mountain of work on his desk and no plan on how to confront the man hopefully still waiting for him.

---

Estinien was laying the snow, lance discarded at his side when Aymeric returned. Faced with confronting any of the emotions growing in his chested he'd opted for the comfortable pain of working himself to the bone training instead of actually thinking about anything. It was the only way he could guarantee he's still be there whenever Aymeric did return.

He'd resolved to at least have whatever conversation Aymeric wanted to have that night. The man deserved that much. He wanted to believe that things would not go poorly, but his track record with being open and communicable was not exactly the greatest.

That absolutely did not mean he was going to open the conversation though. That much sincerity was still beyond him.

So Estinien pretended that he didn't hear the front door open and close, that he didn't hear Aymeric take off the outer portions of his armor and boots, that he didn't hear him walk towards the backyard Estinien was currently laying in until the door opened quietly.

"I half expected you not to be here when I returned." At that point Estinien sat up and dusted the snow off of himself. He hadn't bothered to put on his actual armor. The travelling clothes he was wearing were starting to get wet from melted snow. Aymeric was standing with his arms crossed in the doorway. He looked more annoyed than actually mad, but that still worried him.

He supposed it was time to face his problems for the night.

"Where else would I have gone," he asked as he got up and walked around to lean against a column for the roof opposite the door.. Aymeric's expression did not shift. Gods this was not going how he wanted it to.

"Aymeric, I-"

His words, an apology he had been avoiding thinking about all day, were cut short in one of the tightest hugs he'd ever been on the receiving end of. His heart just about stopped dead in its tracks.

"I am still upset with you," the shorter man said, the words muffled because he was speaking directly into Estinien's shoulder. "But gods am I glad you're here and you're okay."

Estinien blinked, because that was all his brain could manage at that moment in time. Even as Aymeric let go and moved a step or two backwards (but still within arms reach, Estinien noted by the way Aymeric's hand gently rested against his elbow) he was entranced by the warmth of the hug, how Aymeric had been close enough that Estinien could smell the shampoo he used. It was close in a way that he hadn't been to anyone in years and that was overwhelming. He wished he hadn't let go.

"It's good to see you too," was all Estinien could muster.

Aymeric laughed quietly. "I suppose it was all okay in the end. You're not dead and I don't suppose you came out of your time away worse for wear. Next time you decide to disappear without telling anyone you could at least write every few months? There are people who worry about you."

"Besides you? I highly doubt it. I would have guessed the whole of Ishgard wanted nothing to do with me after what happened."

"Your reputation here is on shaky ground, that I must admit. But there are at least a few Scions I know would have appreciated more frequent communication. And that's not even to mention Alberic, who I think I have seen him more in recent years than you have."

"I saw him two days ago." Aymeric looked almost as shocked as he had when Estinien had showed up at his door the night before. "It was on the way."

"Well, that was oddly thoughtful of you." Estinien scowled but it is entirely for show. Aymeric, despite scolding him and still looking just the slightest bit annoyed, was acting just have he would before. It made him indescribably warm. "I jest. I'm sure he appreciated seeing you."

"Perhaps."

They lapsed into silence. Estinien felt more than a little awkward just standing there with nothing to say. After a few moments Aymeric sat down and motioned for Estinien to follow.

Had Estinien known Aymeric was going to attempt to kill him by resting his head against his shoulder he may have made up some excuse about being cold and having to go back inside. Not that it was a lie. He was cold and his clothes were still wet.

"Regardless of everything else I did miss you. It is not the same here without you."

Estinien managed to calm himself and was yet again thankful that Aymeric seems fond of having conversations out in the cold where he could blame his progressively redder and redder face on the weather.

"I'd wager I'm not the only reason things aren't the same."

"Absolutely not but you may have been the most noticeable. For all the supposed reform and peace my actual day to day has not changed greatly. There are less deaths to report but the stack of papers on my desk seems to stay the same size regardless of circumstance."

They're so close he could reach out and grab his hand. He could entwine their fingers and finally kiss Aymeric like he'd been thinking about in this same garden all those years ago.

He does not because Aymeric deserves someone better than him, because he doesn't want to have to leave if things go wrong, because he doesn't know how to say what would come after that even if things went right.

"What about you? Not disappearing again I'd hope?"

"No, not for now at least." Aymeric moved his head off of his shoulder and looked at him in a way that he knew meant the other man wanted him to say more. "I do not know where to go from here. I don't really have a plan."

"You could stay here until you figure it out? I have more than enough space for a guest for a while. I'm sure Popoto would like the company." Estinien actually scowled a little bit at the mention of the cat but it was quickly replaced by a straight face to hide the relief threatening to bubble over inside of him.

"If you'd have me I suppose that could work."