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The Only True Thing

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“Can you imagine if Dimitri came with us?” Sylvain asks. “He’d never shut up about propriety and if I was riding my horse right or any of that shit. This is perfect. Just you and me!”

He slings an arm around Felix’s shoulders. Felix lets him. Sylvain is telling a lie: Dimitri, if he had been allowed to travel with them to quell the rebellion, if he had taken the command his uncle wanted him to, would be quiet and solemn and hollow-eyed, exactly as he’s been the past two years.

But Sylvain is good at lying. Felix didn’t mind it so much when they were younger; it meant Sylvain could always get them out of trouble. It was only in the few years before Glenn died that it began to worry him.

Sylvain smiled at him, the day that Felix pulled him out of the well, soaking wet and bruised, begging Felix not to leave him. Felix couldn’t understand it. He’d found Sylvain at the bottom of a well, and it was Miklan who put him there. What was there to smile about?

Then Glenn left with Dimitri and only one of them came back, and after that, Felix understood. So he lets Sylvain lie to him, even though he shouldn’t. He’d snap and snarl at anyone else who tried to do it. He does so often enough at his father, who only ever seems to speak in pretty half-truths, in noble stories that are cloying to Felix’s ears. But Sylvain is the best liar he knows. He’s good at making the lies taste sweet, even to someone like Felix.

“Dimitri should have come,” Felix says. “It’s his duty.”

“You just miss him,” Sylvain says, infuriatingly true.

Rodrigue shook his head over and over as Dimitri begged to accompany them, begged to take his command, and it made Felix burn inside. Of course the future king of Faerghus could not be risked in such a battle. Of course Rodrigue did not wish to wager both of his remaining sons, the true one and the pretender. Of course, of the two, Felix was the one he felt he could part with.

“I’m worried about the prince,” Rodrigue said the night before Felix left with only Sylvain in tow. “It’s good when you’re here to keep an eye on him, Felix, but I don’t want to send him into a battle like that. Not with how he is now. I’ve spoken with the regent, and he has been made to see reason.”

“Fine,” said Felix. And only now, with half their journey to western Faerghus behind them, does he wonder if he will wish he’d said something more before he left.

He doesn’t mention any of it to Sylvain. He long ago learned not to complain to Sylvain about Rodrigue. According to Ingrid, her brow furrowed, he shouldn’t have had to learn it. She’s right, probably; but Felix knows who he is. He can be thoughtless. Usually Sylvain ignores him when he is, in a way that Ingrid never does. It’s something else Felix likes about him.

It was a long time ago. It was before Glenn died. Felix spent ten minutes complaining about how overbearing Rodrigue could be, how he was always telling Felix what to do. But Sylvain only had to give him a startlingly cold look the once for Felix to understand his mistake. He spoke to Felix in a way that he’d never heard before, his voice flat and cutting. “What are you, a spoiled brat?” he said. “Your father loves you. He doesn’t even care about your stupid major Crest. He’s never mentioned that Glenn doesn’t have one, not even once. Get over it.”

And then he’d smiled, and laughed, and it was a lie.

Sylvain is cocky as they travel, even though he’s only a squire like Felix. He was gifted with the Lance of Ruin just before they left. It was ridiculous. A boy of seventeen, trusted with a Hero’s Relic? But the Gautiers have always done things their own way. So Felix listens to Sylvain’s laugh, and lets himself be teased, and wonders how Dimitri is fairing at home without them, if Rodrigue is coddling him.

They stop for the night, and Felix dispenses with his duties with precision. Being entrusted with the care of a knight’s weapons and armor is a weighty task, and one deserving of respect.

Sylvain doesn’t have much respect in him; he expends what little he does have caring for the horses, and then he sits and chats with Felix while he inspects a set of gauntlets in front of the fire. The knights are off drinking, a toast to their inevitable victory. Sylvain is old enough and has a large enough store of dirty jokes that they would let him sit with them if he cared to, but instead he remains with Felix, telling stories. Sylvain is good at filling silence on nights like these, nights that live on the edge of a knife. He talks about anything: the last girl he dated and a new lance technique he’s learning and a stray cat that’s been haunting the Gautier estate. Nothing Felix cares about, necessarily. But it’s nice. As nice as anything gets these days, in the shadow of everything that’s happened.

By the time it’s full dark, though, Sylvain has grown quiet, his stories drying up.

“Hey, Felix,” he says, finally. “You scared?”

“Of the battle?”

“Yes, the battle. What else is there?”

Felix sets the gauntlets, now definitively free of rust, aside. He puts his chin on his hand and gazes into the fire. “Not really,” he says. “Perhaps when the battle begins, I will hesitate. But I don’t think so.”

Sylvain snorts. “Aw, you sound so grown up. I remember when even the thought of going into battle without Dimitri by your side would make your cry like a baby.”

“We aren’t children anymore.” The part of Felix that cried at anything died with Glenn.

“Guess not.” Sylvain stretches his arms over his head. When Felix turns his head, he’s staring right at him, the firelight dancing across his face. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you cry. But you’re still the same inside, aren’t you? You still care.”

“If you say so.”

Sylvain’s grinning at him, but it’s different from the usual one somehow. Dimmer and warmer all at once. “Hey, Felix?” His voice has gone low, the way it does when he wants to be serious. It’s not a tone Felix hears often.

“What now?”

The way his eyes are—Felix wants to turn away. He can’t. There’s something devastating about them, the kind of searching look that sucks you in. “Sometimes, I think you’re the one good thing in my life.” Sylvain reaches out, brushing a bit of hair out of Felix’s face. He’s been growing it out. “Sometimes I think you’re the only true thing. I don’t know what I’d do without you.” His expression flickers. “Don’t die, okay?”

Felix nods, a little bewildered. He has some idea that he should return the sentiment, but his throat is too tight for words, almost too tight for breath. The moment feels hazy, like smoke dissipating. Sylvain smiles at him, the real one, like something’s been decided. And for a second, Felix is sure he’s going to do something. Pull him closer, touch his cheek, kiss him on the mouth. Sylvain has been looking at him like he wants to do that lately. Felix is never sure if it’s a lie.

And then a log topples over and the fire shudders and Sylvain drops his hand, and his eyes are cast again in shadow. Felix doesn’t know what it is he thought he saw.

He swallows. “Don’t worry. I remember our promise. I just hope you do too.”

Sylvain beams at him like they aren’t about to go to war.

The next day they arrive, and they fight, and for a long while, Felix thinks of nothing but blood. He finds that he told Sylvain the truth: he isn’t scared. The first man he kills falls easily on his blade, startlingly so, but he wouldn’t call what he feels then fear. It is something much quieter. Glenn, who liked words, might have called it melancholy. Felix doesn’t have time to call it anything at all.

He swings his sword, again and again, and all at once his lessons sink in: the blade is an extension of himself. He drives it through a man’s chest and dodges, easily, to deflect another blow. He realizes that he’s good at it. It’s almost like joy.

Felix wonders if this is what it felt like for Glenn before he fell, and at once the joy floods out. He remembers where he is: sweaty and hot and covered in other men’s blood on a battlefield, suddenly so sick with himself that he can barely breathe.

Sylvain will know what to say to make this better. He’ll shout some joking battlecry and Felix will yell at him to shut up and it will be just like practice again, just like all the training maneuvers that Sylvain has never bothered to take seriously.

Felix scans for him on the horizon, and finds him engaged with three enemy soldiers, out of range of Felix’s shout.

A sword comes for Felix’s throat. He blocks it, but half his mind is still on Sylvain, an idiot as always, getting himself into situations Felix will have to drag him out of. He keeps an eye on him as he fights. He should do more, he should be there, but he can’t disengage. He only catches flashes: Sylvain lunging forward, Sylvain being knocked back, Sylvain failing to dodge a hit to the shoulder and staggering.

He takes a gauntleted blow to the face and then another to the stomach, his eyes going wide, letting out a startled yelp that Felix can only just hear.

Felix only realizes that he’s shouted Sylvain’s name after he’s cut the man before him down, panting into the suddenly empty air. He looks up.

Sylvain doesn’t seem to have heard him. There’s an odd expression on his face, utterly blank. The soldier in front of him is winding back for another blow, and for a moment Felix is sure he’s going to watch Sylvain die, and will that be better or worse than only hearing about it afterwards—why is he thinking that, he needs to run, why can’t he move

Before the blow can connect, Sylvain sweeps the soldier’s feet out from under him and stabs the lance through his skull. It’s too far away. Felix must be imagining the sickly crunch he hears. Another soldier charges at him and Sylvain whirls around easily, letting the man run himself through. He yanks his lance back out, bracing his foot against the man’s torso, and as he turns Felix can see his teeth gleaming white in a ferocious grin.

He brings the Lance of Ruin down hard against the wrist of the last soldier, knocking the sword from his hand. He bends to pick it up before he knocks his legs out from under him, going down after him sword-first. It isn’t anything like practice, or honorable combat. It’s a slaughter. It’s what happened to Glenn.

Sylvain kneels above him like an animal and cuts and cuts, until the shouting stops.

He staggers to his feet and raises his head. He meets Felix’s eyes across the distance between them, grown much shorter now. They’re empty. Felix didn’t realize how close they’d gotten. He puts his foot down in the wrong place and stumbles, his ankle twisting, and before he can steady himself there’s an axe coming for his throat. He didn’t even see the soldier coming.

And just as quickly there isn’t. Sylvain is there instead, knocking the blade away from Felix with his lance and going after the soldier wielding it with a roar, the kind of sound Felix didn’t realize a person could make.

Felix has never seen anyone wield a Relic before, not up close. For a moment he thinks that’s why he’s finally terrified, the fear creeping up his spine and leaving him utterly defenseless. The Lance of Ruin glows red in Sylvain’s hand as he brings it down across the chest of the soldier who attacked Felix. His Crest flares bright, and he cuts the man in two, through armor and muscle and bone.

“Sylvain,” Felix says, but it comes out too small and cracked to be heard over the dull roar of the battle that’s arrived around them. No one told Felix how loud it would be. Not even Dimitri. And even if he’d shouted, even if he’d screamed, he’s not sure Sylvain could hear him anyway.

Sylvain demolishes the enemy forces. There isn’t any other word for it. Felix has seen Sylvain fight before, sparred with him countless times, and he long ago pegged him as a capable but lazy fighter. Skillful enough but lackadaisical in his movements. His movements now are precise and deadly.

Felix catches sight of his face. He’s smiling. There’s blood on his teeth. This close, it’s impossible to escape how vicious it is. And for a disorienting moment, Felix has no idea whether or not it’s real. It’s as though he doesn’t know Sylvain at all.

Sylvain brings the lance down again. Blood sprays across his face. He laughs, and it sounds like no one Felix has ever met, like stone breaking, like something being crushed.

And suddenly it’s quiet. The front line has moved on without them. Felix has no idea where his knight is. He looks down, and realizes he’s still holding his sword perfectly steady, even as the rest of him shakes. Years and years of training finally paying off.

Sylvain pushes his hair out of his face. “That was close,” he says, his voice hoarse. “For a second there I thought you were a goner, Felix. Good thing I was there to be your knight in shining armor, huh?” He winks, like nothing is different, like his eyes aren’t still wild. He looks down at himself. “Guess it’s not so shining now.”

Nothing is different. Not for him. He reaches out one hand, his gauntlet gleaming red.

Felix turns away. He runs.

They win, of course. The next few days pass in the hectic aftermath of battle, counting casualties and tending wounds and repairing armor. Felix doesn’t speak to Sylvain. He doesn’t even look at him. But he feels Sylvain’s eyes on his back the entire journey home, always, like an animal pacing, biding its time.

Dimitri is still at the Fraldarius estate when Felix arrives, his horse exhausted from the effort. Felix should feel guilty; Sylvain is always telling him to treat his horses right, to remember that they’re more than just their usefulness, they’re like people, except they actually have to give a shit about you

He leaves his horse with the stableboy and stumbles into the house, tracking snow in his wake. A servant tries to stop him and he shrugs them off. They’ll go find his father, probably. Felix doesn’t care. He’s almost running by the time he gets there, pounding on the door to Dimitri’s room, until it’s wrenched open from the inside and he nearly falls.

“Felix?” Dimitri’s voice is rough. He may have been asleep. Felix doesn’t care. He can’t. He throws himself into Dimitri’s arms, and Dimitri takes a single step back but he catches him, solid as oak, he puts a hand to Felix’s back and another against the nape of his neck, and he holds him while he shakes.

“Felix, is everything—is Sylvain—”

Felix shudders, and shakes his head. “He’s alive,” he says, because it will break Dimitri if he doesn’t. He doesn’t say the rest: Sylvain is inhuman, Sylvain is a monster, Sylvain will kill the world itself if they let him loose. He can’t.

Dimitri holds him. At some point Felix registers that Dimitri’s cheek is pressed to the top of his head, that his face is tucked into the curve of Dimitri’s throat, dark and hidden and safe.

He used to run to Sylvain like this, when Dimitri’s absence made him cry. He’ll die before he ever does it again.

“Dimitri,” Felix says, and his voice is utterly alien, choked-off and horrible, “don’t ever change.”

He closes his eyes and tries to think of anything but Sylvain, but of course he can only remember: the laughing boy who pulled him along to catch fireflies and talk to girls, who looked at him blankly in the moment after Felix dragged him out of the well, before he decided to lie, who had the same look on his face two days ago, slicing a man in half. That’s the last thing he sees of Sylvain for two years: his face, smiling, bloody and twisted and laughing.

-

“You’re going to have to talk to Sylvain,” Ingrid says. Felix, riding to Garreg Mach with only the bare minimum of escort his father would agree to, met up with the Galatea contingent on the road by chance. This was fortuitous, in that it allowed him an excuse to send his father’s guards away; it was also deeply annoying, because Ingrid is the most stubborn person he’s ever met. Worse still, she has a terrible habit of occasionally being right.

“I don’t see why.”

“We’re all going to be in the same class, Felix!”

“That doesn’t mean I have to speak with him. He’s a pig. I’ll have better uses for my time.”

“I haven’t seen much of him lately either,” Ingrid says. “Neither has Dimitri, from what I hear. It worries me. Being cooped up on the Gautier estate all this time…”

Felix grimaces. Thinks of the well, and of Margrave Gautier’s stern expression, and how carefully careless Sylvain’s letter had been, back before the rebellion, when Miklan was finally disowned. “The pig is the pig,” he says. “I’m sure he’s the same as ever. Can we talk about something else?”

“You haven’t changed much, I see,” Ingrid says. “I haven’t seen much of you lately, either. I’m glad we’ll finally all be at school together.”

Felix rubs at his face. “I won’t mind spending more time with you and Dimitri, I suppose.”

Ingrid snorts, and urges her horse ahead of his. “Don’t get too effusive, Felix. People will say you’re going soft.”

Felix ignores her, and soon enough, they arrive at Garreg Mach.

At a first glance, there’s nothing about the monastery to complain about. The training facilities are better kept than those at home, and his father isn’t around, hovering and speaking of ghosts. Felix could ask for nothing more.

He runs into Dimitri while he’s putting his things away in his rooms. Felix last saw him a few months ago in Fhirdiad, and the prince hasn’t changed much. He lacks as much subtlety as he ever did: as they stand outside their rooms and talk, his eyes keep drifting to the last door in the hallway.

“Let me guess,” Felix says. “The pig is staying there.”

“I wish you wouldn’t call him that.” Dimitri’s brow is furrowed. He always did hate it when his friends fought. He thinks everyone should ever be at peace. “I admit, I have not spoken to him recently, but surely you at least owe him an audience.”

“I owe him nothing.”

Dimitri’s eyes have such capacity for sadness. It surprises Felix, sometimes, that he’s the one who people used to call a crybaby. “I’m worried about you,” he says, with his typical terrible earnestness. “You’ve been so angry since you stopped talking to him.”

“You know exactly how long I’ve been like this,” Felix says. He isn’t stupid. He doesn’t need to hear the whispers about him to know exactly when he became himself: after Glenn died, and Felix stepped into his shadow. “I’m going to dinner. I’ll see you later.”

It’s a peaceful enough meal. Felix allows himself to be pleased. His true friends are here. He’s away from his father. Perhaps it will be a quiet and simple year. Perhaps he’ll increase his skill and go home with a lightened heart.

Felix is nearly done with an entirely passable spicy fish stew when an arm slings across his shoulders, and he remembers exactly why Sylvain could always make himself so dearly annoying when he wanted to. When he gets an idea in his head, he’ll never leave you alone.

“Felix! Long time no see!”

Of course Felix knew it was him, but he breathes in sharply through his nose at the sound of that voice, unchanged in the past two years. He feels fifteen again for a moment, wide-eyed and terrified. Worse than that: part of him feels ten, feels the same sense of gasping relief he always had when he was enclosed in Sylvain’s arms.

His voice is entirely steady when he speaks. “Get off me.”

Sylvain only leans in closer. As incorrigible as ever. Why did it ever make Felix smile? His breath is hot against Felix’s ear. “How’s Fraldarius territory? Haven’t been there in a while.”

“It’s all the better for your absence, I’m sure.”

“Harsh!” The worst part is that he sounds exactly like he always did: cheerful and charming and unserious. It’s as though nothing’s changed at all. “You’re still keeping up that prickly shell, huh?” He draws his hand back, his fingers dragging across the nape of Felix’s neck, curling there. “You changed your hair.”

Felix elbows him, meaning just to dislodge his arm, but he misjudges. He never misjudges his strikes. Even so, Sylvain overbalances with the force of it, and ends up sprawled on the floor.

Even in the usual bustle of a busy dining hall, people are starting to look at them. Dimitri, in line for food with Dedue at his side, is looking at him.

“I said get off me, pig,” Felix snaps. This is a mistake. It’s all a mistake: he knows Sylvain, he knows that taunting him or pushing him or yelling at him are never the way to get him to do what you want. You have to be cold to him. Or maybe it’s just Felix’s anger that doesn’t work. Sylvain weathered so much of it when they were children. He weathered so much of Felix, his tears and his rage and his gloom, and none of it ever bothered him. He only got quiet and distant and peaceable when Felix ignored him.

But Felix can’t stop himself. He never could, really.

“Damn, you’ve gotten pretty strong,” Sylvain says cheerfully. He levers himself up, resting his elbows on his knees and grinning up at Felix from the ground. “We should spar sometime.”

Sylvain never wanted to spar. Felix always had to badger him about it, sometimes for days at a time. “Not interested.”

“Felix Hugo Fraldarius? Refusing to spar?” Sylvain laughs. “You really must hate me. I’m a pretty popular guy, you know! Don’t worry. I’ll win you over.”

Felix turns away, sneering. Stupid of him. He should know better than to turn his back on a beast. Sylvain hooks a leg around his ankle, and Felix goes tumbling down. He lands squarely on top of Sylvain, balanced on his elbows. His neck feels hot where Sylvain was touching him.

“See,” says Sylvain. “I knew you’d want to spar.” His hand brushes Felix’s cheek. “Or not. You know, I got what gossip I could, but no one told me you’d grown up so pretty.”

Felix shoves away from him, aware that he’s flushing and hating it, hating Sylvain, hating every stupid student who’s staring at them both.

“Felix? Sylvain?” It’s Dimitri, peering down at them both, eyes full of concern. For both of them, of course. Dimitri cares so much, just like Felix used to.

“There’s our prince!” Sylvain says. “Felix always did get cranky without you.”

Without a word, Felix gets to his feet. He ignores Dimitri’s stare and leaves his dinner behind. The training yard at this time of night, at least, is blissfully empty.

-

Sylvain, seemingly, is everywhere. Felix, every day, convinces himself that he’ll get used to it: he hasn’t seen the pig in two years. Of course his presence is jarring. Of course it grates. Of course he can always feel Sylvain’s eyes on him the second he walks into a room.

For a few weeks he manages. He has classes with Sylvain, of course, but he invariably sits in the back, apparently as lazy with his studies as ever. Felix ignores the worried looks Dimitri shoots him and the considering ones Ingrid directs at Sylvain, like she’s trying to figure something out.

He thinks that maybe Sylvain will just leave him alone. He should know better. Sylvain is a beast, and he also has something of a cat in him. He likes to play with his food.

The training hall is closed for most of the day for an axe tournament, which Felix has no interest in spectating. Axes are brutal, inelegant weapons. They require no skill, only force. So Felix occupies himself with other things. It’s only after dinner that the grounds are opened up again.

At first it’s only Felix and Jeritza, but he leaves before Felix has the chance to ask him to spar. He continues by himself, annoyed.

Even distracted, he knows it the minute Sylvain walks in. It’s a subtle quality to the air. It seems to thicken like smoke.

Felix can feel Sylvain’s gaze creeping along his neck. He closes his eyes and practices his strikes. Usually, in his mind, his imaginary opponents are nothing but faceless shadows, whatever enemy would dare to stand against him. But today they all have Sylvain’s bloody, smiling face.

He finishes another set, following through on the last swing and halting, panting. The sweat dripping down the back of his neck doesn’t usually bother him, but today, it’s unbearable.

Sylvain should say something. He never could stand the quiet. Felix doesn’t have to turn around to know he’s staring.

The echoing silence of the hall abruptly becomes too much. “I assume you haven’t suddenly developed an interest in training.”

“How would you know?” Sylvain asks easily. He strolls into Felix’s line of sight, hands in his pockets. “You’ve certainly gotten better.”

“You haven’t seen me fight in years.” Felix turns away from him, and starts another drill. The professor agreed to spar with him later in the week, and he wants to be as prepared to face them as possible.

“That’s why I’m here. Don’t you at least want to know the news from Gautier? I hear my father’s been remiss in sending dispatches to Fraldarius.”

Felix doesn’t respond, and Sylvain steps right in front of his next strike, forcing him to stop midair. If he’d been holding the weight of a real blade, Felix isn’t sure he’d have been able to manage it; Sylvain isn’t that much of an idiot, he must know that. But his smile doesn’t waver.

“Don’t care what becomes of us, is that it? Do you really hate me that much?”

Felix lowers his sword. He’s finished for the day. Staying here and continuing just to prove a point would be stupid. He’d only overextend himself. Still, some small part of him can’t help but whisper you’re running away as he walks to the edge of the hall to return his weapon.

Sylvain follows him, of course. “The silent treatment, is that what we’re doing? You never used to shut up as a kid, you know. Dimitri said this, Dimitri did that, crying all over me because he was busy that day—oh, there we go, have I hit a nerve?” he asks, as Felix whirls around.

“I have nothing to say to you.” Sylvain takes a step forward, and before he can stop himself Felix steps back, his back bumping into the wall.

Felix doesn’t mind when Dimitri inadvertently looms over him, but when Sylvain uses his height like this, he can’t stand it. Sylvain puts his forearm against the stone behind Felix and leans in, smirking, so clearly doing it on purpose that it makes Felix’s blood boil. He should’ve known better than to let Sylvain corner him, but he’s always been hard to handle. Even before Felix understood what he really was inside.

“Aw, don’t be like that,” Sylvain says. Felix refuses to give him the satisfaction of trying to dart away. He tightens his grip on the training sword in his hand.

“Move, pig.”

“We haven’t even talked since you got here,” says Sylvain, as if he didn’t hear him. “It’s been two years, Felix! We have so much to catch up on.” He leans in a bit further. Felix tips his chin up and glares.

“I’ve done nothing of interest in the past two years, and you certainly haven’t.”

Sylvain reaches for him, and Felix barely manages not to flinch. He’s moving slowly, like he knows exactly what it will remind Felix of if he goes any faster: his hands covered in blood up to the elbows, the Lance of Ruin monstrous in his hands, a demon’s grin on his face.

As if Felix could forget.

Sylvain is grinning now, but Felix knows it isn’t real. He only has one real smile, and it’s nothing like this charming one. His real smile has teeth.

“Don’t touch me.” His voice is utterly even. Felix lets himself be proud of that. Sylvain wraps a stray lock of Felix’s hair around his finger, like that was his goal all along. His hand comes this close to brushing Felix’s cheek.

“You’re beautiful, you know,” Sylvain says. Putting on an act like always: he sounds almost wistful. Felix scoffs, and tries to duck under his arm. Sylvain, casual as anything, grabs him by the shoulder and slams him back against the wall. “Hey, we aren’t done,” he says. “We used to be inseparable. You were always running to me for help. What happened to that?”

“You know what happened,” Felix says. He shrugs out of Sylvain’s grip, but Sylvain only steps in closer. He grabs Felix by the chin, forcing his head up. His hands are startlingly cold.

Felix bares his teeth at him.

“You were so cute,” he says on a sigh. “And now you’re beautiful. Especially when you look at me like that.” His voice goes flat, all the false charm gone from it. “I missed you, you know. We used to spend the summers together, remember? Before you abandoned me for Ingrid and Dimitri.” He smiles again. “Don’t worry about it, though! Me and Miklan had fun without you.”

Felix can only stare back at him. The door to the training yard creaks loudly into the silence. “Felix?” It’s Ingrid. “You’re going to miss dinner—” Her voice draws up short.

“I’ll meet you later,” Felix says, jerking back from Sylvain, who digs in his fingernails but ultimately lets him go. He steps forward and grabs Felix by the hair instead.

“Sylvain, you—let go of him, what is wrong with you?” Felix can hear her stomping forward, but he can’t look away from Sylvain’s face.

“You always were so bossy,” Sylvain says. “If he wants me gone, he can tell me that himself. Can’t you, Felix?”

“Leave it, Ingrid.” Felix tips his head back, feeling Sylvain’s grip on his hair tighten. “Let go of me.”

“I really did miss you,” Sylvain says, in that strange and awful serious voice. “I kind of hate you for that.” He dips his head, close enough that for a moment Felix can feel his breath. His hand in Felix’s hair goes loose, stroking through it instead.

Felix shifts his grip on the training sword. He lifts it, savoring the way Sylvain’s eyes widen in the seconds before he strikes. It hits him across the face with a resounding crack.

Sylvain stumbles back and falls, hands pressed over his mouth, blood running down over his chin. He starts to laugh, only a little nasal. Felix thinks he probably broke his nose.

“Fuck,” Sylvain says, low and appreciative. “Nice one, Felix. You really have gotten stronger.”

Felix throws down the bloody training sword and stalks from the room, Ingrid at his heels, rushing to his side. “Felix, what was that?”

“Weren’t you listening to me? I told you. He’s a pig.” He shrugs off her hand on his shoulder. “I’m fine.” Ingrid doesn’t look like she believes him.

Sylvain was still laughing as Felix left him there, bleeding on the floor. It echoes, even now. For the rest of the day, Felix can’t get it out of his head.

-

Felix develops two persistent shadows after that. When it isn’t Ingrid following him around, demanding he accompany her to the dining hall, it’s Dimitri politely asking if he’d like to spar, or help out in the greenhouse, or go fishing. As if Dimitri ever spends any time in the greenhouse of his own free will.

“I don’t need your protection,” Felix growls at them one evening over dinner. “What is it you two are so worried about?” They exchange glances. Felix glares, first at Ingrid, who ignores it, and then at Dimitri, who shrinks back in his chair just slightly. “Conspiring about me, are you?”

“Sylvain’s been bothering you,” Ingrid says. “Obviously.”

Felix sneers. “That’s one word for it.”

“Well, he won’t anymore,” Dimitri says firmly.

“Oh, let me guess. You talked to him.”

Dimitri flushes. “I did.”

“It will change nothing. Sylvain is as he is. A beast.”

Ingrid shoves her half-finished plate away. She really must be serious. “We’re trying to apologize,” she says. “We didn’t believe you when you said he was different than when we were kids. We should have.”

She doesn’t have it quite right. Felix never said Sylvain was different. He isn’t. He’s the same as he ever was, only unmasked. He’s not the one who changed, really. Felix is. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’ll beat him down again if I have to.”

“There must be some way to get through to him,” Dimitri says, almost to himself. “But in the meantime, Ingrid and I have agreed to run interference for you.”

It’s stupid. Stupid and sweet: so very like Dimitri. Felix stabs his fork into his pasta. “Good luck getting through to a pig like him,” he says. “If it means you’ll train with me, I suppose I can’t complain.”

“You’re welcome,” Ingrid says smugly. She seems to remember her food, and begins to eat again with gusto.

They aren’t completely useless, in the end, and both of their swordwork improves as they try to keep up with Felix’s training. Felix doesn’t stop telling them the truth, though: there’s no changing Sylvain. He doesn’t corner Felix again, apparently content to have his nose broken just the once, but his eyes follow Felix every time they’re in the same room, like fingers brushing across the back of his neck.

No matter what Felix does, he always knows what Sylvain thinks of it: he’s amused when Felix accosts the professor for advice on sword techniques, he’s smug when Felix walks straight across the room to avoid being paired with him for patrol, and his gaze goes utterly cold when Felix puts a hand on Ashe’s arm, the best he can offer in the wake of Lonato’s death. Felix asks Ingrid to watch Ashe’s back that evening.

It’s nothing Felix can’t handle. But it’s a weight that never leaves him.

Then again, it never leaves him even when Sylvain isn’t there. It never left him in the two years since the mask cracked. So maybe it doesn’t matter.

Months after school began, Felix is beginning to think that perhaps it will all be bearable. Nothing is any worse than it was before he came to Garreg Mach. The professor’s announcement at the end of class manages to put a stop to that quickly enough.

“We’ve been tasked with recovering a stolen Hero’s Relic this month,” they say, characteristically blank-faced. “Apparently, it’s fallen into the possession of bandits to the west of here.”

“A Hero’s Relic was stolen?” Ingrid asks. “How haven’t we heard about that?”

“Which Relic?” asks Dimitri.

It’s Sylvain who answers before the professor can. He’s in the last row again, leaning back with his chair balanced on two legs, his arms tucked carelessly behind his head. “It was mine,” he says. “Well. My family’s, I guess. I’m the only one who uses it anymore.”

Felix feels himself take in a breath. It’s sharp and sudden enough that Ingrid turns to fix him with a look.

“Sylvain is correct,” says the professor. “We are to retrieve the Lance of Ruin. We leave at the end of the week.”

That, apparently, concludes the matter in their mind. Class is dismissed. Dimitri, instead of trailing after the professor as he so often does, pushes his chair back with a loud scrape, and goes to talk to Sylvain.

“Come on,” Ingrid says. “Let’s go spar.”

Felix ignores her, and follows Dimitri. He can hear her sigh behind him.

“When did this happen?” Dimitri is asking, his arms crossed. He looks troubled. “I wish the professor had informed me earlier.”

Sylvain is still tipped back in his chair, apparently unconcerned with the theft of his family’s prized Relic. He shrugs. “Guess my father contacted the Church before anyone else,” he says. “He doesn’t really write to me.”

Felix still sees it in his dreams sometimes, the Lance of Ruin glowing red until the light of it is nearly indistinguishable from the blood. He steps in front of Dimitri. “Was it Miklan?” he demands. Sylvain snorts. “It was, wasn’t it.”

It nearly feels like being cut, when Sylvain turns his eyes to him. He leans forward, the legs of his chair hitting the ground. He puts elbows on the table, his posture still utterly relaxed. “Nah,” he says. “Miklan’s dead. Didn’t you hear?”

Felix stares at him, horribly aware each time he takes a breath. He can’t tell if they’re coming too quickly. “Dead.”

“What?” It’s Dimitri. Felix nearly forgot he was there. “I thought he hadn’t been heard from since he was—since he left your family’s home.”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘disowned’,” Sylvain says. “Too cruel for a prince, I guess. You’d better get over that before you’re in charge of this mess of a Kingdom of ours. A soft king is just going to get us all killed.”

Dimitri ignores this. “When did he die?”

“He came back sometimes,” says Sylvain. “Usually the guards just tossed him out. A few months after Felix and I here dealt with that pesky rebellion, he tried it again. Had an accident on his way out of Gautier lands. They found him at the bottom of a well.” He shrugs expansively. “Can’t really blame my father for not letting it spread too far. Doesn’t really reflect well on him. Not that anything does.”

“I see,” Dimitri says. “And he won’t mind you telling us this?”

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll mind,” Sylvain says. “But he let my lance get stolen, so I don’t think he can really complain.” He stretches his hand out in front of him, flexing his fingers. “I was looking forward to using it again.”

“Are you sure you didn’t take it?” Felix asks. “Trying to get your hands on it early?”

Sylvain snorts, snapping his hand closed. “You wound me, Felix. I hear it was some of Miklan’s old friends. They feel like Gautier owes them something. Who doesn’t?”

The professor approaches them then, pulling Dimitri away to discuss something. He glances between Sylvain and Felix before he goes. “Ingrid’s waiting for you,” he says.

“I’ll be there.” Felix doesn’t look at him. Dimitri lets the professor drag him away.

“Felix,” Sylvain says, drawing out the name. “Feels like you’ve been avoiding me.”

“Your nose set crooked,” Felix tells him. He shifts his stance, his fingers itching for a sword. “If you had any sense, you’d be avoiding me.”

“I don’t mind,” Sylvain says. “Something to remember you by.” He stands, stepping closer to Felix. “Well? Is Ingrid really waiting for you?”

“Of course not.” Felix crosses his arms, looking away. He wishes he didn’t know why he’s still here. Why he doesn’t just take the stupid excuse Dimitri gave him and leave.

Sylvain sent him letter after letter the past two years. Felix didn’t read any of them. He wonders if one of them was about Miklan. If all of them were.

“Pig.”

It should be embarrassing, the way Sylvain perks up even at the sound of the epithet in Felix’s mouth. It makes Felix’s stomach twist into knots instead. “Yeah?”

“Miklan didn’t die in an accident.” Felix can’t force himself to make it a question.

Sylvain tips his head back, pressing a hand to his temple. “Of course not. You know me better than that, Felix.” He looks back down. His eyes, when they meet Felix’s, are cold. His voice as the same as it once was, when he called Felix a spoiled brat. “I killed him.”

-

The following week is filled with tense, breathless preparation, the way it always is before they leave on a mission. Usually Felix enjoys the feeling, as though he’s a strike ready to land. It’s still like that, but Felix can’t shake the sense that he’s also on the wrong end of the blade.

He sees plenty of Dimitri and Ingrid, in the dining hall and in class and while they’re cleaning their weapons. Their conversations are either falsely light or subdued and heavy.

Felix doesn’t tell them what Sylvain said. He’s sure Ingrid suspects, and he’s equally sure Dimitri doesn’t. Dimitri is worried about politics, the kind of statecraft Felix has never had the patience for. Though he can’t argue with Dimitri’s conclusion: the Gautiers can’t allow the Lance of Ruin to be stolen from them. It makes them look weak.

“So at least Sylvain should be motivated to help us,” Ingrid says. “He’s always hanging back when we go to fight. On a horse. I always knew he had a lazy streak, but…”

“Maybe he just doesn’t want everyone to see what he is,” says Felix.

“I just hope he can still fight,” says Dimitri. “He’s hardly ever in training.”

He can fight, Felix should say. He managed to take down Miklan when he was eighteen. He can fucking fight. But he doesn’t. It’s the same reason he didn’t tell Dimitri what he’d seen, back when he first ran to him in tears over what Sylvain had become: it’s pointless. It won’t help. There’s no use lingering on the dead or on the past.

It’s not that Miklan didn’t deserve to die. But it aches like metal caught in a wound to think of Sylvain at the top of that well, peering down into the darkness alone.

He sent so many letters. Piles of them, kindling for endless cold winter nights. He asked Felix in the training yard if he wanted news of Gautier, and Felix didn’t want to hear it.

A beast deserves no sympathetic ear. But the boy that Felix once thought Sylvain was would.

Felix just misses him. That’s all.

It’s pathetic, to miss an illusion. Even worse than it would be to live in Glenn’s shadow. Felix can’t burden Ingrid and Dimitri with his own foolishness. They both have enough of their own.

Sylvain is quiet while they make their way to the bandits’ hideout. Usually he jokes around with whoever’s close enough to have to listen to him. Sometimes he even manages to make Ashe or Annette laugh, until Felix glares them quiet. But today he travels in the back of the convoy, Mercedes at his side. Felix has to ride in front to stop himself from snapping at her to get away from him.

It’s not a particularly complicated mission once they arrive. They cut their way through the tower. Felix wishes the bandits posed more of a challenge; it’s obvious they have none of his training. Felix isn’t at his best, anyway. He keeps sneaking glances back at Sylvain. He can’t help it.

Sylvain isn’t smiling. No one else seems bothered by it. They’re fighting bandits from his own territory. Maybe he has the right to be grim. But this isn’t the facade Sylvain has cultivated; this isn’t who he’s been pretending to be. Sylvain should be laidback and smirking, telling anyone who will listen how he’s going to get his family’s Relic back.

He catches Felix looking, and he winks just as he brings his lance down. It’s an awful expression on an unsmiling face. Felix turns away. And even then, Sylvain doesn’t speak, Sylvain who never, ever shuts up doesn’t say a word until they reach the captain of the crew, surrounded by the last few ragged members of his band.

“Is that you, Gautier?”

Sylvain slides off his horse and approaches him without waiting for leave from the professor. The fighting stops for a moment, everyone tense and wary. “The one and only.” Sylvain grins then. It isn’t a very convincing expression. “I think you have something of mine.”

The man looks tired, and a little frightened, the Lance of Ruin shaking in his grip. “I fucking remember you,” he says. “I saw you.”

“Yeah, well, I am a pretty popular guy,” Sylvain says. “I get around.”

“Look,” says the captain, “Miklan was a good leader, okay? He treated us right, he—”

“Shut up,” Sylvain says, his face darkening. “Don’t pretend like you knew my brother.”

The captain keeps talking like he didn’t hear him. Or maybe just like he can’t stop. “He didn’t tell us. He just said we were going to rob some rich family, he didn’t say it was his, he didn’t—I didn’t know he was going after you, all right? I wouldn’t have—it wasn’t right.”

“Shut up.” Sylvain stalks forward, his grip on his lance shaking.

“I would have stopped him—”

“Shut up,” Sylvain says, so loudly and forcefully that it echoes in the cavernous room. “He’s dead now. It doesn’t matter. He’s gone.” His voice shakes on the last word. “You turned tail and ran, all of you. Pathetic cowards. Are you trying to tell me you’re sorry? If he’d killed me like he wanted you’d have forgotten all about me by now. You let him die and you don’t even care. And now you’re just back to take the things he couldn’t. He wanted my life and he wanted that lance, and you can’t have them.”

“Sylvain.” The professor steps forward.

“Don’t get in my way,” Sylvain snaps, not even bothering to turn back and look at them. He watches the bandits instead, his gaze moving from face to face. “You really want to die for that lance? It’ll kill you, you know. Use it without a Crest and it’ll chew you up and spit you out. I’m the only one with the blood to use it. So hand it over, and I’ll let you live.”

The man’s grip tightens, goes loose again. Even held in the hands of someone without a Crest, it looks eerie in the dim light. He darts a glance at his companions. None of them look interested in fighting Sylvain. Felix can’t believe it. It’s actually going to work.

Sylvain’s always been charming, but that’s not what’s happening here. These men have seen Sylvain fight, they’re seen him kill, and they’re terrified.

The captain thrusts the lance out, held in one wobbly hand. “Take it,” he says, sneering. “Fucking thing gives me the creeps anyway.” His mouth twists. “Maybe you deserve it.”

The professor watches all this with their typical steady gaze. Felix is a little annoyed. He was hoping for a real fight. He can understand the professor wanting to take the path with the least amount of bloodshed, but to let Sylvain just do whatever he wants? It sets his teeth on edge.

Sylvain reaches out and takes the weapon. He turns it over in his hands, adjusting his grip, the Crest stone flaring bright. “Thanks,” he says. He flashes a bright grin and then drops it just as quickly, his face going blank. “Also, just kidding.” He brings the lance down hard and fast. Felix doesn’t flinch; he’s seen a man lose his head before. Annette squeaks and Ashe cries out. Mercedes turns her face away, covering her mouth.

“What are you doing?” Ingrid demands, from her place beside Felix.

Sylvain,” Dimitri is saying, as the professor pushes past him, “they surrendered—”

Sylvain isn’t listening. There are three men left, and Sylvain doesn’t bother with the lance this time. He simply sets them all ablaze, making good use of the fire spells he complained endlessly about having to learn. Felix hears the professor’s sharp gasp. He lunges forward, but it’s too late. There’s nothing left but bones and ash and a sudden rush of choking heat.

It’s utterly silent in the aftermath. Even Annette, who is always humming to herself in a way Felix finds obscurely comforting, has gone deathly quiet.

Sylvain isn’t looking at what’s left of the men. He isn’t looking at the professor or Felix or anyone else. He’s breathing hard, his hand shaking on the Lance of Ruin, staring out at nothing.

“He’s dead,” he says, to no one at all. “He’s gone.”

The professor is as blank as ever, and their voice doesn’t waver, but Felix has made a study of their stance. It’s off-kilter. “Let’s go,” they say. “Now.”

They stay behind, standing a careful two feet from Sylvain. Felix can’t make out what they’re saying. Ingrid takes him by the arm and all but drags him away.

“What happened to him?” Ingrid asks, her voice shaking.

“I told you,” Felix says. He sheathes his sword. “Nothing happened. He’s always been a monster.” But he wonders, looking back at Sylvain still staring at nothing, if that’s really true.

-

The library in the evenings is peaceful. Usually it’s just Linhardt here, either terrifyingly focused or dead asleep. Sometimes Tomas, regaling everyone who will listen with meaningless history. They’re both missing tonight, which suits Felix just fine. He’s late on an essay. Ingrid will only give him hell about it if he asks her for help, and Dimitri is no good at tutoring. They learned that early on, when he tried to show Felix how to hold a sword and Dimitri only ended up whacking himself in the head.

Felix smiles at the memory. There’s no one here to see it, anyway.

Without Tomas to point him in the right direction, though, Felix ends up having to hunt around for the book he needs. Eventually he finds it at the top of one of the corner shelves. He climbs one of the sliding ladders to reach it. Annoyingly, he has to go up on his toes, even from there. Glenn towered over even Dimitri and the pig. Felix has no idea why he didn’t have the luck to inherit that; it’d be much more useful than his Crest.

“The book I’m looking for’s just a little to the right. Mind helping a guy out?”

Felix startles so hard at Sylvain’s voice that the whole ladder shakes, and he loses his footing entirely.

Once, Felix fell from a tree that he was climbing on a dare from Ingrid. Ingrid and Dimitri both dove to catch him, but they bumped heads and fell themselves. It was Sylvain who Felix landed on, knocking them both to the snowy ground. Sylvain pretended that his arm was broken, until Felix began to bawl. Sylvain had to prove that he was fine by climbing the tree himself. Felix still remembers Sylvain’s gloved hands on his tear-stained cheeks.

This time he catches Felix neatly, one arm at his back and the other under the bend of his knees.

For a moment the room is so still that Felix is sure even the candles don’t flicker. He can feel Sylvain’s heartbeat under his palm.

It felt just like this when he was a child, landing on top of Sylvain in the snow. Safe.

“Careful,” Sylvain says—against Felix’s cheek, how did he get that close—

Felix shoves against his chest. “Put me down.”

“A thank you would be nice,” he says. Cheerful as ever, as if the last time Felix saw him he didn’t burn three men alive. “Otherwise I might drop you.”

“Then drop me,” Felix says, trying to wrestle out of his grip, but Sylvain only holds on tighter. “Put me down.”

“Where? These tables don’t look that comfortable, but maybe if I lay you back—”

Felix brings one knee up and kicks down hard against his arm. Sylvain really does drop him, but it’s worth it for the way he cradles his wrist to his chest as Felix picks himself up. “Why are you like this?” Felix demands. No better than Ingrid as she pulled him away from Sylvain. Stupid.

“Man, you almost really did break my arm this time.” Sylvain stretches out his fingers, examining his wrist. “That’s definitely gonna leave a mark.”

Good, Felix only just barely doesn’t say. “What are you doing here, anyway? I had no idea you even knew where the library was.”

“Just some research,” Sylvain says. “Hubert mentioned something interesting over chess the other day, about what makes Relics tick. Thought I’d look into it. Never know when it might come in handy.” He tucks his hands in his pockets. “Why? Did you think I was following you? You have been hard to find lately. Is that why you’re doing your homework in the middle of the night? Or is it just me you’re scared of?”

“I’m not afraid of you, pig.”

Sylvain laughs. “Sure you’re not. Everyone says that, you know? No one means it. Not even you.”

“I saw what you did to those men,” Felix says. “But I’m not afraid.”

“No? What would you call this, then?” Sylvain reaches out for him, his hand moving fast. Felix flinches away.

“Disgust.”

Sylvain barks out a sharp laugh. “Right. Well, I have research to do, and you’re going to run away the minute my back is turned, so let’s save some time and both get back to it.” He leans in close, one hand pressed against the bookshelf behind Felix. Felix’s heart is tumultuous in his throat.

“Something you want?” Felix grinds out.

Sylvain takes a book from the shelf, and pulls away. There’s no way he even looked at the title. Felix wants to kill him. “Just this,” he says easily.

“Wait,” Felix says. He steps forward. He doesn’t know why. “Wait. Those men we fought—you knew them.”

Sylvain tosses the book up and down in his hand. “Sure did,” he says. “You heard them. They were there to see Miklan die.”

“Their captain. What was he talking about?”

Sylvain turns his face away. “You know what he was talking about, Felix. Miklan came back for me. Told his friends they were going to rob the Gautier estate, but Miklan never cared about money. He didn’t even care about getting back at our father. He just wanted me dead. He knew he’d never get his position back. He’d have cut my Crest out of me if he could, but that’s not how it works.” He laughs, but Felix can see his knuckles going white around the spine of the book. “I really showed him, huh? It’s too bad. Miklan deserved to see the bottom of that well. I do wish I’d had a chance to put him there, but all I had was my sword.”

“Fine,” Felix says, trying not to think of Sylvain facing down his brother with an unfamiliar weapon. “So Miklan was a monster. Those men were just—”

“They were criminals, Felix. You think the Church wouldn’t have put them to the sword if I’d left them alive? If I’d said nothing they’d all have died at the end of the professor’s blade. Or yours. You can kinda say that I saved you guys the trouble!”

“Don’t lie,” Felix says. “Not to me.”

Sylvain’s expression does something strange. It flickers like a fire running out of fuel. “Fine. I killed them because I wanted to,” he says. “I killed Miklan because I wanted to. At the rebellion? I destroyed those men because I wanted to. Because I have a Crest, and it dictated the path of my whole fucking life, because my brother tried to kill me for it. I might as well use it to get what I want once in a while, right? It’s only fair. I can’t have anything else that I want. Might as well take this. You must know what that feels like. I’ve seen what your Crest can do. You know, between the both of us, we could do anything.”

Felix presses his lips together. He should just go. He should stop talking. He never has this problem with anyone else. “What else is it you want other than carnage, pig?”

Sylvain shrugs expansively. “Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “A brother who didn’t hate me. A better future than to be married off to the first woman rich enough to win the bidding war.” He reaches a hand out, his fingers cool on Felix’s cheek. “I think you can guess the last one.”

His fingertips are rough. Felix turns his head away.

“See? I can’t have it.” Still, his fingers linger. “Do you know what I felt when I killed him, Felix? When I got what I wanted? I didn’t feel anything. I dreamed about it for years, and still my brother’s death meant nothing. Nothing matters. None of it. Only one thing.”

Felix swallows. Opens his mouth. Thinks again of Sylvain all alone, staring into his brother’s dead eyes. “When Glenn died—”

Sylvain drops his hand to his side. His expression shutters. “You think we have something in common because our brothers are dead? You think you can use that to turn me back into that stupid kid you knew? Please. You’ve always known who I am. Glenn was nothing like Miklan. And whether you’re anything like me? That remains to be seen. I don’t know, though: I didn’t cry for my brother either. I think we’ve got more in common than you think.”

Felix snarls at him. “I’ll die before I become like you.”

“You want to follow in your brother’s footsteps that bad? Can’t say I can relate.” He turns away, casting one glance back over his shoulder. “But I guess I’ve never been able to help it. You’re stronger than that, though. You’re better than me. So don’t forget our promise. You don’t get to die without me. I won’t let you.”

Felix leaves then, fuming, his eyes just as hot as when he thought he’d broken Sylvain’s arm all those years ago.

-

He doesn’t know why he’s so upset now. After watching the pig set those men ablaze, Felix didn’t feel much of anything except for a dull and hollow sense of vindication. But now he feels sick, like his ribs are going to collapse in on his heart.

Even after everything he’s seen, he still let the pig fool him. Just for a moment, he let himself feel safe in Sylvain’s arms.

He walks back to the dorms as deliberately as he can. He stops in front of his own room, hand pressed to the wood for long empty minutes.

Finally he lets his hand fall, and he knocks on Dimitri’s door instead.

Then again, and again. There’s no answer. Felix knows just how light a sleeper he is. He pushes inside, because of course Dimitri is an idiot and doesn’t lock his door.

His room’s as characteristically spartan as ever, bed perfectly made. He’s always lecturing Felix for never bothering to make his own, but Felix has never seen the point.

He sits down there and puts his face in his hands, his elbows balanced on his knees. He should go back to his own room and go to sleep. He should stop thinking about Sylvain.

“Felix?” Dimitri pushes the door closed behind him, his face drawn. “What are you doing here?”

Felix doesn’t look up. “What were you doing out so late at night, anyway?”

Dimitri approaches him the way one might a strange cat. He and Ingrid both do that, when they’re worried how Felix might react. He has no idea why. He’s not the one they need to be scared of. Dimitri sits down gingerly beside him, their thighs not quite touching. “Avoiding the question, I see. I was...well, I meant to go to the library.”

Felix barks out a laugh. “And the pig was there, and he chased you off.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way.” Dimitri clasps his hands together in his lap, looking down at them. “He said he spoke with you.”

“It was stupid.” Felix shakes his head. “He said—it doesn’t matter.”

“Felix.”

“He said I was trying to be like Glenn,” Felix spits. “He said he killed all those people because he wanted to.”

“Yes,” Dimitri says gravely. “I expected as much.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Dimitri shrugs. “Sylvain has never had particularly good impulse control,” he says. “Even when we were children.”

It’s true. Dimitri was always the restrained one. Sylvain would do whatever he wanted, Ingrid yelled at him, and Felix cried because they were fighting; but through it all, Dimitri remained calm and unmoving.

At the time Felix hadn’t thought of it as restraint. Just how Dimitri was. It was why he sought Dimitri’s company above almost anyone else’s. It’s why he’s here now.

“I know it must not feel like it, coming from him, but it isn’t an insult to be compared to your brother,” Dimitri says. “It doesn’t mean we don’t know who you are, Felix.”

“Shut up,” Felix says. “I don’t want to talk about the dead.” Glenn and Dimitri’s family and the boy he thought Sylvain once was, all together at the bottom of that well. Miklan too, Sylvain getting his wish.

“You’d rather talk about Sylvain?”

Felix turns away from him. “He’s alive, isn’t he? For all the good it does. And before he said all that he—I—” Felix can’t put it into words, not without contradicting himself. Not without wallowing in a grave. “Sometimes I forget. I know who he is, I always know who he is, and still sometimes I forget. How is that possible?”

Dimitri wraps an arm around his shoulder, yanking him in. Felix only struggles for a moment before he goes, pressing his face into Dimitri’s shoulder. His eyes are hot. He has always hated crying. “I know what he is,” he says. “I saw it. You’ve all seen it. So why do I still…ugh.” He sniffs. “Don’t say a fucking word.”

“Don’t worry, Felix,” Dimitri says. “We all know I’m quite thick-headed. I have no idea what you mean. As for Sylvain…you’re strong, Felix, but that doesn’t mean you’re heartless, no matter what you want us to think. Of course you still care. Of course you can’t stop trying to fight him, of course you can’t leave him alone. I know you hate to be called chivalrous, but…”

“Shut up,” Felix says. Dimitri chuckles, and ruffles his hair.

Felix stays where he is, tucked into his side, Dimitri solid and unyielding against him. He wonders why Sylvain has to be the one who understands. Felix has no interest in fighting him. He can’t leave him alone because he can’t stop picking at scabs, because he can’t stop remembering the friend he used to have. It’s stupid and childish and impossible, but all he’s ever wanted since Glenn died was to make sure it never happened again.

He just keeps forgetting he isn’t strong enough, that loss is a wave that will never stop bowling him over. Dimitri and Ingrid have always seen him as someone he isn’t. Glenn in shining armor. They can’t help it. But Sylvain has always seen him to his stupid useless heart, even when Felix tries to turn away.

-

At least now the rest of their class is as wary of Sylvain as they should be. Mercedes still shoots Felix pitying looks whenever he complains about the pig, like he’s someone she’s supposed to worry about. Ingrid presses her mouth into a determined thin line and badgers Sylvain about his assignments, because apparently that’s what a knight would do. Dimitri watches everyone and everything with a furrow in his brow, rubbing a hand at his forehead. Felix’s room is right next to him. He hears him pacing at night. He’s pretty sure he isn’t sleeping.

Of course, neither is Felix. It’s not as if they have any shortage of troubles. Flayn is kidnapped and Remire village is destroyed and Jeritza is revealed to be as much of a beast as anyone else.

“Well, at least there’s going to be the ball to cheer everyone up,” Ashe says brightly at dinner. Felix grimaces, Ingrid snorts, and Dimitri sighs. “I’m sure you’ll do great in the competition, Felix!”

Felix respects the professor. Likes them, even, for more than just their skill with a blade. They’re cool, calculating, and weigh every word before it leaves their mouth. Felix appreciates all of that. In this case, however, he finds the professor’s logic wanting.

“They really couldn’t find anyone else?”

None of Felix’s classmates have been particularly sympathetic to his plight. Ashe just blinks at him guilelessly. “Well, I’m sure they just thought you’d be the best person to do it.”

“It will certainly help with your sword training,” Ingrid says.

“Oh, so would you rather take my place?”

“What do I need to be graceful for when I’m forty feet in the air?”

Dimitri smiles wanly at their bickering. He’s been quiet, ever since Remire. Understandable enough. Some part of Felix can’t stop waiting for the knock at his door, even though he knows it won’t come. It’s always been this way: no matter how much Felix leans on Dimitri, Dimitri stands strong. He never leans back. Felix wishes he would. “I’m sure you’ll do very well, Felix.”

Annoyingly, that does actually make Felix feel better. “Of course I’ll do well,” he says. “That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

Ashe perks up at that. “You know, it’s said Kyphon was a skilled dancer—”

Felix glares at him. “You’re making that up.”

“Maybe if you read the book I gave you, you’d know,” Ashe says smugly.

At least Dimitri laughs at the ensuing squabbling, even if it’s quieter than Felix would normally expect.

He practices in the evenings, mostly, when the training hall is empty. His footwork is excellent—years of sword training have ensured that. But his balance without a blade can be off. He’s determined to train it out of himself. He won’t fail.

It’s two weeks until the White Heron Cup; apparently, it only takes one of those for word to get around that Felix will be the one dancing. He knows because Sylvain finds him. Sylvain always finds him.

“You know, I wasn’t so sure about the professor. They can be kind of a drag. But they really made the right choice this time.”

“Right,” Felix says. He adjusts the position of his arms and doesn’t turn around. “It wouldn’t do for our class to be represented by a bumbling pig like you.”

“Like I told them, I’d rather see someone cute.” By the sound of his voice, he walks further into the training hall. “Want some help?”

Felix stops. He turns on his heel, utterly ungraceful. “Excuse me?”

Sylvain reaches out a hand, palm up. “I hear it’s easier to practice with a partner.”

Felix sneers at him. “Is that what you say to all your girls, Sylvain? I think your lines could use some work.”

“I’m over dating these days,” Sylvain says. “Just seems like a whole lot of effort. I thought Ingrid would be happy with me, but apparently not.”

“I can’t imagine what you’re filling your time with if it isn’t bothering women.”

“Can’t you?” Sylvain wiggles his fingers. “Come on, Felix. Dance with me. Like when we were kids.”

“Why would I ever want to dance with you? I know what your hands have done. That’s why you’ve stopped bothering with dates, isn’t it? No one in their right mind would want anything to do with you.”

“You’d be surprised how little it matters,” says Sylvain. “I’m still rich, and I still have a Crest. The blood on my hands does nothing to change that. No one cares what I do. So it doesn’t matter, does it?”

“You think you can do whatever you want because girls will still like you? You really are pathetic.”

Sylvain tucks his hands in his pockets. “It doesn’t matter what they think of me. It only matters what you think. And you’ll hate me no matter what, won’t you?”

Felix turns his face away. “Do you remember,” he says, and then stops. He’s not the one who should be reaching back for memories. He already has enough to choke him.

Sylvain steps closer. “Do I remember what?”

“When you asked me to run away with you.” Sylvain had been ten years old, staying at the Fraldarius estate. His parents sent him there after he got lost on a hiking trail. He’d explained to Felix in bored tones that of course he wasn’t stupid enough to get lost. Miklan led him off the path and abandoned him.

“Oh, that.” Sylvain barks out a laugh. “Stupid dream, right?”

“You should have done it. Not then, maybe. But when you were older. What was stopping you? Was it really easier to stay and become this? You’re just a coward.”

“Maybe,” Sylvain says, unconcerned. “What about you? You’re just waiting for a handsome knight to come sweep you off your feet, aren’t you? That’s why you won’t dance with me. Do I not fit the bill? Or is it a prince you’re waiting for?” He looks around. “Seems like he’s too busy for you. Guess that hasn’t changed much since we were little.”

Felix knows Sylvain is just trying to rile him up. He knows. But his fists still clench, his whole body tightening. It’s completely wrong for dancing, as if Felix hasn’t ruined any hope he had of practicing already.

“Oh, still a sore spot? I remember when you would cry and cry if he was too busy to pay attention to you. Well, how about this: dance with me, and I’ll tell you a secret about our prince.”

“Fine,” Felix spits. “If you step on my feet, you’ll regret it.”

“I’d expect nothing less.” Sylvain yanks Felix in with a hand on his waist. It feels hot there against the linen of Felix’s shirt. He can feel his shoulders go tense. He wants to shrug it off. He steps forward instead, going where Sylvain leads. “If this is how you dance at the competition, we’ll lose for sure,” Sylvain says.

Felix doesn’t notice how close he’s gotten to him until they stop moving, and he realizes that every panting breath he takes puts them chest to chest. Sylvain’s hand has moved from his waist to his back. He leans forward. “I should dip you,” he says, breath close against Felix’s ear. “You have to work on your balance, don’t you?”

“Do it and die.” Felix digs his fingernails into Sylvain’s shoulders. He means it. Sylvain’s hand wide on his back, supporting his weight, his hand tight on Felix’s leg—as if he would ever put himself in the pig’s hands like that. As if he could ever bear it.

Sylvain leans forward again, just the slightest bit, and Felix shoves out of his grip, stumbling back. “I think that’s enough practice,” he says. “Tell me about Dimitri.”

Sylvain’s hands hang in the air for just a moment where Felix used to be. He tucks them back into his pockets with a wide smile. “Sure,” he says. “What a loyal dog you are, huh? Dimitri’s been haunting the library. I see him there almost every night. He’s looking into something. Something big. Or at least he thinks he is. I think maybe he’s just running from something. But it’s going to catch him one day.”

“I knew he hadn’t been sleeping,” Felix says. “Is that really all you have to tell me?”

“No,” Sylvain says. His smile fades. “Here’s the secret, Felix: Dimitri is just like me. One day you’ll see his true face. And it’s going to be so much worse.” He snorts, shaking his head. “No one sees it. They see the prince. He’s an even better liar than me. He even knows how to lie to himself. Wish I’d learned that trick.”

“You’re a terrible liar, Sylvain.”

“No, I’m not” Sylvain says. “You just see right through me. It really annoyed me as a kid, you know? Those eyes of yours. They really might as well have blades in them. But you don’t see Dimitri at all, do you?”

“There’s nothing to see,” Felix says. “Dimitri is Dimitri. He’s a person. You’re just a monster.”

“Yeah,” Sylvain says, almost on a sigh. “You always saw the truth.” Sylvain bends to kiss his hand. By the time Felix pulls it back, it’s already too late.

“Do you know why I didn’t run away, Felix?” he asks, his fingers warm against Felix’s palm. “Because you said no. There wouldn’t have been any point without you. And if I’d left you behind, that really would have made me a coward.”

“You try so hard to blame all your problems on someone else,” Felix snaps. “You think it makes you less of a monster to pretend to Dimitri is the same? I have enough burdens to carry without yours. Dimitri has enough. Let them bury you if that’s what you want. But leave us out of it.” He yanks his hand back. It doesn’t even burn where Sylvain kissed it. Felix wishes it would.

-

Felix wins the stupid competition, in the end. He can’t even muster up the energy to be smug about it. Dorothea congratulates him at besting her, and Hilda sticks her tongue out at him.

Sylvain wolf-whistles.

Felix doesn’t even want to be at the ball afterwards. But Dimitri had looked at him with wide and pleading eyes, because as Faerghus’s heir he had no choice but to go.

“Surely you wouldn’t dream of leaving me to suffer alone,” Dimitri said, in his absurdly earnest manner of teasing. But even after years and years, Felix had no resistance to it.

“Fine,” he said, and now here he is, at the edge of the festivities with Dedue, drinking watered wine and watching Dimitri take turn after turn across the dance floor.

Felix does not know Dedue particularly well; he’s unsure if anyone but Dimitri does. He’s a little too like a knight for Felix not to sneer at him at least a bit, but fair enough: so is Ingrid. And Dedue, thank the Goddess, is as comfortable with silence as Felix is, which at this juncture he deeply appreciates.

He has no interest in dancing, not here, surrounded by so many people and so much useless frippery. He danced once with Ingrid, Felix doing his level best to dodge Ingrid’s misplaced steps until she broke into laughter, and once with Dimitri, who led Felix easily, a solid hand at his back. That was fine. Everyone else who would dare ask Felix to dance is kept easily enough at bay with the force of his glare.

Except for Sylvain, of course. Felix hasn’t seen him all night. It’s like an itch at the back of his neck, the unshakeable sense that one moment or the next he’ll turn and Sylvain will be watching him. He’ll walk up to Felix and offer his hand and ask for another dance. This time he’ll make good on his threat to dip him. He’ll hold Felix suspended, his breath against his cheek, and Felix will fist a shaking hand in his collar—

And then Sylvain will drop him, probably, and laugh.

Felix accepts a drink from Claude, who hands it over with a wink; this wine is conspicuously not watered. Claude blithely promises he isn’t testing any poisons in it when Felix gives him a look. “I had nothing to do with it; Hilda’s the one who raided the wine cellar. Maybe stay away from the prawns, though.”

“Those are my favorite,” Dedue tells him reproachfully.

Claude pats him on the shoulder. “Sorry, big guy. Stay here a minute, I’ll get you some of the good ones.”

Felix takes a drink. It’s good enough that he downs it. Dedue raises an eyebrow at him.

“I was thirsty,” Felix says.

“You seem distracted.”

“This is boring.” Felix snags another glass of wine. He and Dedue speak from time to time, and Claude comes back before darting away again, but largely it’s a silent evening. It’s the kind Felix prefers. But he can’t stop thinking about Sylvain, and the man isn’t even here.

Ingrid stops by for a few moments here and there, asking after Dimitri before she’s lured away by Dorothea’s promise of cake on the other side of the ballroom.

“You should come too, Felix,” Dorothea says. “A handsome man like you can’t be brooding away in the corner all night.” She puts her finger to her lips. “If it was anyone else, I’d say it’s part of your charm, but you lean in a little too hard on the anger. Ruins the whole effect. Good way of keeping people away from you, though.”

“Thank you,” Felix says, which makes Dorothea laugh for some reason.

“Stop teasing him,” Ingrid says, as if she isn’t smiling. “He hates sweets. More for us!”

“As always,” Dorothea says, with a twinkle in her eye that Felix can’t read at all.

He looks at Dedue for help. He only shrugs as Ingrid and Dorothea leave, arm in arm. Felix sighs, and finds himself another drink.

“I’ll be taking my leave,” he tells Dedue eventually. He nearly stumbles when he pushes off the wall. Dedue reaches out a hand to steady him, but Felix shrugs him off. “I’m fine,” he says. “Don’t go telling Dimitri otherwise.”

“I would never dream of it,” Dedue says. “I will merely tell His Highness the truth, as I always do.” Felix snorts, and makes his way out of the ballroom. The cool air helps: Felix, for the first time the whole night, feels like he can breathe. He takes in a deep breath and starts walking, aimless.

He went to plenty of balls like this as a child. Dimitri was usually too busy to spend much time with him when they attended; even as a boy, he never escaped the duties of an heir. Felix would beg him to stop being boring and come play, and Dimitri would only look at him solemnly and tell him that he couldn’t abandon his duties.

Felix had admired that about him, even when it made him cry. And then he ran to find Ingrid, who hated balls as much as he did and would help him raid the kitchens, or Glenn, who would let Felix ride on his shoulders, or Sylvain, who would leave off trying out his terrible pickup lines on the scullery maids to dance with Felix. Felix wasn’t any good at it back then, his movements too stiff. When Sylvain got tired of it, he’d just let Felix stand on his feet, and they’d dance like that until Glenn came over to ruffle both of their hair, even though he was barely older than Sylvain.

Those memories don’t belong here, in the world they inhabit now. Felix lived them, and he can still hardly believe they were real.

He can’t even say what changed. Ingrid is too old to sneak into the kitchens, but Felix saw her inhaling an entire plate of hors d'oeuvres. Dimitri still dances with everyone he’s required to. Felix still lurks in the shadows, content to watch. They haven’t changed so much, really. Just grown up.

But Glenn is dead, and Sylvain might as well be. They’re the ones who left the rest of them behind.

The stupid wine is making him maudlin. That’s Sylvain’s fault too. Felix scrubs at his face, furious with himself. When he looks up, he finds himself at the base of the Goddess Tower.

Felix climbs the steps. As a child, he loved fairy tales, stories of brave knights and noble kings defeating all the wickedness in the world. He knows the story of the Goddess Tower; with busybodies like Hilda and Lorenz, it would be impossible not to have heard it. It’s rubbish, obviously. If all it took to make a wish come true was making it in the right place, the world would be very different.

It’s the kind of thing Dimitri might do. Felix can imagine it: meeting Dimitri at the top of the tower, watching his stumble over his words.

What would Dimitri want to wish for? Something noble, probably. Something good. Something to brighten the world around them for once, to bring them out of the dark.

He climbs the last step, his boots heavy on the stone. Obviously Dimitri isn’t there; Felix saw him back at the ball, his dance card overflowing.

Sylvain is, though, smoking as he leans with his elbows against the ledge of the window. He must have heard Felix’s approach, but his eyes are still fixed somewhere on the horizon, tracking nothing.

“It’s not like you to miss a ball,” Felix says. “Or were you meeting some poor girl up here?”

“Aw, Felix. I told you. I only have eyes for you.” The playful words are at odds with his flat tone. Still, he doesn’t look away from the window.

There are other stories. Princesses kissing monsters and returning them to their true forms: the princes they always were inside. Those, Felix thinks, are even worse. He stalks forward. “Where did you get this?” He snags the cigarette out of Sylvain’s hand.

Sylvain shrugs. “Here and there.” He watches impassively as Felix takes a drag. Coughs, just once. He takes it back, his fingers brushing Felix’s. “Don’t bother. It’s not really your thing.” He laughs. “It’ll kill you, you know.” He glances at Felix sidelong. “Why are you here, Felix?”

Because he’s a little drunk, probably; because Dimitri wouldn’t have time to dance with him again, even if he asked, and who else was he going to dance with?

He thinks about Sylvain’s hand on his back again, threatening to carry his weight.

“The ball was boring,” he says. “I’d rather spar. Even if it’s just talking with you.”

Sylvain presses a hand to his heart. “Felix,” he says, his voice curling warm around the word. “I think that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”

“What were you looking at?” Felix always feels like this when he drinks too much. Blundering, like he’s wielding a sword that’s balanced wrong.

“Ghosts,” Sylvain says, like that’s an answer. He breathes in another lungful of smoke, and laughs. “Your least favorite thing.”

“Are you trying to tell me that you’re haunted?”

“I see Glenn sometimes,” Sylvain says. “In you. And not. He’d kill me, you know. Or, no, that’s not like him. He’d challenge me to a duel. He always told me to take care of you. Don’t think he’d like the way I’ve gone about doing it.”

“You haven’t taken care of anyone since—”

“Since you were a little crybaby and I let you dance on my shoes. I know that better than anyone, Felix. Believe me. Glenn does too.”

“Shut up,” Felix snarls. He leans forward, grabbing the cigarette from Sylvain’s fingers again, dropping it to crush it under his heel. “Glenn is dead. It doesn’t matter what he would think. He never knew what you are. Everyone wants to say they’re doing things for him, as if he could possibly care. I thought you were—”

“Better than that?” Sylvain asks, into the silence. He laughs, longer this time. Cracked and hollow. “No, you don’t. I’m not and you know it. Do you know what I thought, when they told me what happened in Duscur?” His tone is almost bored. “I thought—at least it wasn’t Felix.” He shakes his head. His fingers press against each other, like he’s fumbling for the cigarette that isn’t there. “Isn’t that terrible? Your brother died. Dimitri lost his whole family. And all I could think was, thank the Goddess that you weren’t there. I’ve always been awful, Felix. You were just the first one to see it. You’ve always been able to see through my bullshit.”

Felix stares at him. His face feels hot, with wine and hate and awful, startled pleasure.

No one has ever told him that they’d prefer his life to Glenn’s. He doesn’t want anyone to. What a terrible thing to think, about his brother, about Glenn, who surely would have stepped in front of any sword to keep Felix safe, a stupid noble death—

“Hey.” Sylvain’s fingers are on his cheek. Felix raises a hand to push him away, but Sylvain catches his wrist instead, his thumb sliding along Felix’s racing pulse.

“It should have been me,” Felix says. His voice echoes. The acoustics of the tower do strange things to the words. He doesn’t sound like himself.

He’s never said it. Not to anyone. But there’s no one here to judge him or call him a fool or look at him with pity. It’s just Sylvain, after all.

Sylvain jerks him closer, his grip so tight on Felix’s wrist that it’s probably going to bruise. It’s not even on purpose, Felix thinks. Sylvain just forgets, sometimes, that he could ever want to do anything but hurt. “Shut up,” he says, voice low and dark. “Don’t ever say that.”

They’re standing very close. Felix should push him away again, like he did in their dance. Sylvain would let him go. He always does.

But he doesn’t want to. He should have died, but he’s still alive; he should pull away, but he’s letting Sylvain hold him.

He should turn his face when Sylvain leans in closer. His breath smells like smoke. Their noses brush.

Felix waits for the kiss so long that he nearly jumps when he gets Sylvain’s voice instead.

“You’re supposed to make a wish with someone up here,” Sylvain says. “And the Goddess will make it come true. A stupid story, right? But people really believe it. People will believe anything if they want it badly enough.” He closes his eyes. Felix watches him, his face barely in focus. “Make a wish with me, will you?”

Felix swallows. “No.”

“You won’t even hear what it is?”

“I can’t imagine what wish we would have it common.”

“I wish that it’ll be you,” Sylvain says. “Someone will have to put me down someday. I want it to be you. I can have that, at least, can’t I?”

Felix closes his eyes. He thinks of all the impossible wishes he could make: for Glenn to live, for the light to come back into Dimitri’s eyes, for Sylvain to put down his lance and never pick it up again. For the past five years to disappear like smoke, for Felix to be able to grind them beneath his heel until they’re nothing but ash.

For Sylvain to be the fairytale version of himself, the one who would ask for a kiss instead of death.

“Fine,” Felix says. He is a sword, after all. That’s everything about him that matters. Maybe he is like Sylvain after all. “If it’s my blade in your heart you want, you can have it.” He remembers the promise they made, even if Sylvain has forgotten. Sometimes he feels like he’ll never escape it. Like it’s as tight as Sylvain’s hand still wrapped around his wrist.

Sylvain brushes the backs of his knuckles against Felix’s cheek. “Thank you,” he says, smiling like he means it.

-

Felix leaves the Goddess Tower wanting nothing more than to fight something. It’s the only thing that will quell the endless roiling itch under his skin. He’s heading towards the training grounds when Annette finds him and drags him to the chapel, babbling about monsters all the way. And this wish, at least, he gets.

He doesn’t know what to say to the professor after their father dies. They’re just as blank as ever. Felix feels that way too, like an empty piece of parchment rolled up tight.

It’s the way of the world. Everyone is always on the brink of losing those closest to them. The only thing to do is to become stronger. That’s all.

Felix doesn’t dream much, or if he does, it’s nothing worth remembering. But in the weeks that follow that evening, he wakes up every morning with blood on the mind: the professor bent over Jeralt’s body, weeping so openly and suddenly that it curdled Felix’s stomach to watch; Felix’s blade sinking into the body of a beast before he nearly stumbled back at its piercing roar; his dagger deep in Sylvain’s heart, while Sylvain smiles lovingly up at him with bloody teeth.

He startles awake before dawn one morning, blinking back the image of Sylvain’s broken skull pressed tight behind his eyelids. It’s still dark outside, moonlight inching across his floor.

He pulls on his clothes throws himself out of his dorm, aimlessly restless. He knows from experience that they lock the training hall in the middle of the night. He finds himself perched on the fishing pier instead, staring into the water, wondering what kind of peace the professor could possibly find here. All he sees are fish, being raised for the slaughter. Surely there was a time when he wouldn’t have thought of it like that. He can’t remember when.

“Hey.” Sylvain’s footfalls are quiet. He settles down next to Felix like he belongs there. And Felix doesn’t stop him.

“Are you following me?”

“You weren’t exactly quiet,” says Sylvain. “I heard you leave.” And then he doesn’t say anything else. Just sits, not sliding any closer to Felix, not trying to run fingers through his hair. He’s so still that he might as well be dead.

“Hey, Felix?”

“What.” It’s all he can do not to show his shuddering relief at the sound, at Sylvain saying something.

“Run away with me.” He isn’t smiling. “That’s what I should have asked you for. Run away with me.”

Felix stares at him. “We’re not ten anymore.”

“Aren’t you the one who told me I should have done it? Well, I’m telling you, things are only going to get worse. Let’s just leave. Get out of this fucking place. You’ll die if you stay here. We’ll both die. Let’s just go, right now. I can be packed in ten minutes. We’ll be gone before anyone wakes up.” His eyes are bright when he turns to Felix, just like they were at the top of the tower.

“What are you talking about?”

“Did you not notice one of the most decorated Knights of Seiros dying right in front of our faces?”

“No warrior can escape death.”

“Hubert’s been impossible to find lately,” Sylvain says, like he’s still talking about the same thing. “Usually he’s perfectly happy to play chess with me, since we both have trouble finding worthy partners. But these days it’s like he’s barely at the monastery. Claude is scowling when he thinks no one’s looking. I don’t have all the answers, Felix. But things are going to get bad.”

“And that makes you want to run?”

“Of course it does.”

Felix turns back to the water, to the fish swimming in aimless circles. Even if they knew their fate, what could they do about it? “And you call me weak.”

“It’s not weak to want to protect the things you care about,” Sylvain says. “Are you really going to argue with that?”

“The people I care about are here,” Felix snaps. “And they won’t abandon our home.”

Sylvain flops back down onto the pier. “Still hung up on your prince, even after all that.” He laughs. “Stupid promise to ask you to make. You’ll never be the one to kill me. Not if you can die for Dimitri first.”

Felix presses his hands to the wood beside him. He looks down at Sylvain, sprawled out like he doesn’t have a care in the world. Felix almost believes it.

He can handle Sylvain’s cruelty. He can handle his horrible excuse for flirting. He can’t handle this, the way it makes him feel. “Can you pick one?” he demands. “You can be the coward or you can be the tragic martyr on my blade. You can’t be both.”

“So I should be a martyr for your friends instead?”

“They’re your friends too,” Felix says, nearly shouting across the water. He swallows. “They were. Once. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?” The boy Felix once knew was a lie, but he can’t be gone. Not completely. Felix saw him at the tower, in Sylvain’s smile. Maybe the lie is better than nothing.

“No,” Sylvain says, slipping back into blankness. And then he smiles, more like he did dead in Felix’s dream than he did atop the tower. “Only you do.”

It doesn’t make Felix feel warm this time. He stands up. At least the fury is familiar.

“All you ever want to do is run away,” he says. “From Miklan and from your family and from whatever it is you’re so scared of.”

“You’re the one who can’t make up your mind,” Sylvain says coldly. “Didn’t you say I should have run?”

“It’s too late for that.”

“Yeah,” says Sylvain. “It is. It always has been. You know what? I lied. It was too late the moment I was born, and Miklan first set eyes on me. I didn’t run back then because I knew he’d find me. I knew. And if I didn’t have you, I’d just die out there alone.”

Felix swallows. Stands up on shaking legs, feeling the way he does when he takes a wrong step in a sword drill, knowing he’s said the wrong thing. “Stay away from me. And if you’re going to run, you can do it alone. There’s no one to chase you now.”

“Sure, Felix,” Sylvain says. He doesn’t look up from his reflection in the water. “Whatever you want to believe.”

-

Felix fumes through breakfast. Ingrid is worried; he knows because she offers to spar with him after lecture, and he’s so annoyed by what a blatant attempt to cheer him up it is that he almost refuses.

But he does want to spar, and it probably won’t make him feel any worse. Ingrid says she’ll bring Dimitri along. He’s been tense ever since Jeralt died, by turns focused and distracted during training matches. A fight will be good for all of them.

Felix contemplates the rack of training swords. The knights aren’t around. Too busy patrolling. No one will notice if he uses live steel.

“Whoa there, Felix. You look ready to take on the whole world. Anyone in particular you’re planning to point that thing at?”

Felix can’t imagine Sylvain would spend half so much time at the training grounds if he didn’t have Felix to stalk. He weights the sword in his hand, testing.

“You, if you don’t get out of my way.”

“And here I thought we were starting to get along.”

Felix curls his lip. “Should I make good on our wish now? That’s all you want from me, isn’t it?”

“You don’t get to joke about that, Felix.” Sylvain’s eyes are dark. “Only say it if you mean it. You wouldn’t want to lead a guy on.”

“Can’t you even pretend to be decent for even a minute, pig? The whole monastery is grieving.”

Sylvain shrugs. “Sure. Sucks about the professor’s dad, I guess. Not like knights don’t die every day, though. I barely knew the guy. Neither did you. I know what it looks like when you’re really shaken up, and it isn’t this.”

“Do you feel anything at all, anymore?” Felix means the question to sound biting. Vaguely curious, maybe. But his voice comes out wretched.

“You know what I care about. Or are we going to pretend now that nothing happened at the tower? That’s how you deal with conversations you don’t like, isn’t it, Felix? Just ignore them.”

“Shut up.”

“Have you even felt anything since Glenn died—”

“Shut up, don’t talk about Glenn—”

“It doesn’t matter, none of it matters, how can you not see that? You and the professor, you’re just spoiled. You think you deserve everything.”

“For the people we love to be alive?” Felix doesn’t know when he started shouting. “You’re hopeless. You didn’t even care when Glenn died. You said it yourself. You’re a monster. I should have left you in that fucking well.”

Sylvain’s stance changes so suddenly and completely that Felix doesn’t have time to raise his sword. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Sylvain walked in here and started saying awful things, and somehow that made Felix relax. He stalks forward, grabbing Felix’s wrist and squeezing until he has to drop the sword.

After he left the Goddess Tower, Felix had pressed his own thumb to his wrist, looking for bruises that never appeared. This time, he’s sure, he’ll have some. “Probably,” Sylvain says. “Are you going to hurry up and fix your mistake already?”

Felix stares at him. He could dive for his sword. He could kick Sylvain in the balls, which he should have done months ago. He could bite him until he bleeds. But none of it is going to fix this. It probably won’t even make Felix feel any better.

“Does it hurt less if I hate you?”

“It hurts when you don’t look at me,” Sylvain says. He lets go of Felix’s wrist.

Felix turns his face away. “Maybe I should just forget about you.”

He isn’t prepared for it when Sylvain wraps a hand around Felix’s throat and shoves him back against the wall, dragging him up. Felix kicks at him with his dangling feet and gasps for air, but that only makes Sylvain tighten his grip, grinning at him.

“What’s that, Felix?” Sylvain asks. “I can’t hear you. Having trouble? Is that Crest of yours not helping you?”

Felix digs his nails into Sylvain’s hand, and Sylvain only laughs. “You really can’t stop fighting, can you, sweetheart.” Sylvain sounds sad, like that’s something he can feel, like it’s ever been something he can feel. “Don’t even joke about forgetting me. I know you miss me too. I saw it at the Goddess Tower, Felix, I saw it. You can’t hide from me.”

The boy Felix misses is dead. The boy Felix misses never existed; he was only ever a smiling mask. A story he used to tell himself, better left behind.

Sylvain isn’t smiling now. Felix blinks back tears, his vision going dark at the edges, as Sylvain leans in. His hand on Felix’s cheek is as gently as the one on his throat isn’t.

“That’s enough.” For a moment, everything lurches. Sylvain stumbles back. Felix falls to the ground, panting on his hands and knees. He looks up, and Dimitri is there, his face tight with rage. He strikes Sylvain cross the face with none of the finesse the professor trained into them. Sylvain’s head snaps back, and Dimtri lunges at him. “Don’t you dare touch him.” He kicks Sylvain in the ribs, and he goes down heavily, Dimitri falling after him.

“Felix!” Ingrid rushes to Felix’s side. He tries to shake her off, but his limbs feel strangely weak. He coughs, touching his own throat. “Did he—I never thought he’d try to kill you—”

“He wasn’t,” Felix grinds out. He knows Sylvain. He’s the only one who does. Sylvain doesn’t want him dead. That’s the last thing he wants. He looks up. “You have to stop him.”

“Sylvain? I think Dimitri’s got that covered.”

“No,” Felix snarls, struggling to sit up, Ingrid’s hands fluttering over him like she doesn’t know where to touch, “Dimitri, you have to stop Dimitri—”

Dimitri, who’s doing his best to beat Sylvain to a bloody pulp on the training ground floor. He punches Sylvain again with a sickening crack. There’s blood on his knuckles. It’s so familiar that for a moment Felix is sure he’s fourteen again, watching Sylvain take a gauntlet to the face, seeing him laugh with bloody teeth, and understanding for the first time who he was.

“Oh, fuck,” Ingrid says. She jumps up and yanks Dimitri back by the shoulder, as startlingly unafraid as ever.

Ingrid is strong—stronger than Felix, he’ll only ever admit under duress—but even she’s no match for Dimitri, who has always been a little terrifying when he shows his true strength. He shrugs her off easily, barely even seeming to hear her. “Dimitri—Dimitri, you have to stop, you’re going to kill him!”

Sylvain, bloody on the floor, just laughs and laughs. He doesn’t sound right. He isn’t even fighting back, his wrists limp against the ground—Felix thinks one of them might have snapped. He understands what’s happening with the kind of surreal clarity that only comes to him in battle. If they don’t stop him, Dimitri really is going to kill him.

Felix drags himself to his feet and gets his hands on Dimitri’s other shoulder. He and Ingrid manage to heave him back, but Dimitri only snarls at them, something wild and familiar in his eyes.

Felix feels numb. Someday, maybe, it will be him who breaks. Maybe all the children of Faerghus are like this: beasts inside.

“Dimitri,” Ingrid is saying, “this isn’t right—we’ll get him out of here, but you need to calm down.”

“He doesn’t deserve to live,” Dimitri says, his voice low and terrible. He stalks forward.

Felix can see what’s going to happen: he and Ingrid are nothing against Dimitri, and Sylvain isn’t going to even try to stop him. He’ll go cheerfully laughing to his death. If he can’t have Felix’s blade in his heart, he’ll take Dimitri’s fists instead.

And then Sylvain will be gone, and Dimitri will be just like him, if he isn’t already. And someday Felix and Ingrid will have to put him down, too.

Sylvain sits up, groaning. “What, is that all you’ve got? Not very impressive for a prince defending his beloved.”

Dimitri ignores him, bending to pick up the sword that Felix abandoned on the ground. He raises it.

Felix thinks for a moment that feels like forever about letting it happen.

He doesn’t. He can’t. He darts in front of Sylvain just as Dimitri swings, feeling terribly stupid. But what does it matter now? They’re all doomed anyway.

The sword stops barely an inch from his face. “Both of you, stop,” Felix says. His voice sounds awful. He spreads his arms out, like that’s going to do anything at all against a wild beast.

Dimitri breathes out harshly through his nose. “Get out of my way, Felix.”

“Why are you doing this? To defend my honor? It’s just the pig. He’s nothing. He’s not worth the trouble.”

“I’ve stood by idle for years. You were right, Felix. He is a pig. He deserves to be slaughtered.”

“I won’t let you,” Felix says. “If you want to kill him, fine. Kill me first. Beat my face bloody with that.” He tilts his chin up. “Go on. Do it. Prove to me you’re no better than him.”

Dimitri swallows. He stares at Felix for a long moment. And then, miraculously, his eyes start to clear. He pushes his hair out of his face, swaying just slightly on his feet. “Felix,” he says. He blinks, like he’s seeing clearly for the first time. “I can’t just let him—”

“I’ll take care of it.” Felix puts his hands on Dimitri’s chest, pushing him back. “Just get out of here. Now.”

Dimitri grimaces. But when Felix pushes him again, he tosses the sword aside. Ingrid takes him by the shoulders, clumsily gentle in her own way. Felix just looks back at her concerned face when she glances at him, feeling utterly blank and weary.

She shakes her head and leads Dimitri away.

“Aw, Felix,” Sylvain says from his place on the ground, his voice completely wrecked. “I knew you cared.”

Felix drops down beside him, hands fisted on his knees. “Shut up.”

Sylvain reaches up. Felix doesn’t have the energy to flinch back when he touches his cheek, leaving a wet bloody streak behind. “You know, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you cry.”

Felix closes his eyes and doesn’t pull away.

-

Sylvain is no help at all in getting his wounds looked after. No matter how Felix tries to get him to budge, to stand on his own damned feet, he just looks back at him, blank-eyed. In the end, Felix finds Mercedes and brings her to the training yard. Sylvain submits to her scrutiny silently.

Her diagnosis is two broken ribs, a snapped wrist, and that Sylvain really needs to go to the infirmary.

“That’s not happening,” Felix says. “Unless you want to knock him out to get him there, which I’m perfectly happy to help you with.”

Mercedes squares her shoulders. “I can fix your ribs, but you really should let Professor Manuela take a look at your head, at least.” He’s bleeding sluggishly from his temple, probably from when Dimitri threw him to the ground.

“I’ve had worse,” Sylvain says indifferently.

She shoots a worried look at Felix. He ignores her. “Just—do what you can.” He wonders what Sylvain would have done if Felix had walked away and left him bleeding on the floor. Even an animal would eventually leave to lick its own wounds. But somehow, Felix thinks that the knights would have found him there in the morning, blood dried all over his face.

Mercedes heals Sylvain as much as she can on the floor of the training yard, and she and Felix help Sylvain stand. It shouldn’t take both of them, but Sylvain isn’t much help.

“If you don’t get both your legs under you, pig, I’m going to leave you here,” Felix threatens.

“Okay.”

“Sylvain, are you really going to make a lady carry you?” Mercedes asks.

“Guess so,” says Sylvain. Mercedes, a difficult woman to startle, stares at him.

“I will drag you to your room by the ankles if I have to,” Felix growls, slinging Sylvain’s arm across his own shoulders. “And I will enjoy it.”

Sylvain snorts. It’s the first time he’s looked anything but blank for the better part of an hour. “Promises, promises.”

Felix manages to get Sylvain to his room without Mercedes’s help. He convinces her to go check on Dimitri. He tells her he was on the other side of the fight; he doesn’t tell her that Sylvain didn’t get in a single hit. She probably can’t do anything for Dimitri, but he doesn’t want her with him, watching him, looking at him like she’s worried. Like he’s a little brother she has to protect.

He pushes Sylvain inside. It’s sickeningly easy. Sylvain might as well be a fresh corpse, malleable and lifeless. He just stands there in the center of the room, looking around with vacant eyes.

Sylvain’s room is impeccably neat. The Lance of Ruin is tucked away in a corner, gleaming red.

“Shouldn’t that be in the armory?”

“Probably. What the professor doesn’t know won’t hurt them.”

“Why do you keep that stupid lance in here if you won’t even defend yourself when someone tries to kill you?”

Sylvain shrugs. Fixes his gaze straight ahead, above Felix’s eyes. “Makes a good nightlight.” He doesn’t sound like he’s joking, but then, he never does, not if he doesn’t put in the effort.

Felix doesn’t like it when he lies, but he hates it more when Sylvain can’t even bother to pretend to be human. It makes him feel scared in a way he almost never is anymore. It makes him feel like he did when he finally found Sylvain all those years ago, after searching for him for hours. He was hoarse from screaming, but he still hadn’t stopped. Not until Felix called back to him, his voice echoing against the stones. Sylvain’s voice got so quiet then. Felix could barely hear it. He was saying the same thing once Felix had found the rope and gotten him out: don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me.

“Say something,” Felix says, shoving at Sylvain’s shoulders. “Look at me, pig.”

People like to say that Felix is easy to rile up, but Sylvain is so much simpler. All Felix has to do is touch him, and the light comes back into his eyes. Just a little sputtering flame, but it’s there. “Oh, now you want me to talk? To pay attention to you? That’s a first,” Sylvain says, and that’s better—he sounds smug and awful and fucking alive, at least, he isn’t using the dead tone he gets. He grabs Felix by the chin, jerking his face up. “Is this what you want, sweetheart?”

It is, a little. Felix doesn’t want the Sylvain that lies down and takes it when Dimitri tries to beat him to death. He doesn’t want this Sylvain, either, but at least it’s better than that. This Sylvain will keep them both alive.

He can’t have what he really wants. He can’t have the Sylvain who never existed, the one who reached out to touch him in front of a fire and told him he was the only good thing in the world.

Sylvain is watching him curiously, growing more detached by the minute. Felix bares his teeth at him, and watches his eyes come into focus, watches him start to smile.

He draws the dagger strapped to his leg, watching the hungry way Sylvain’s eyes follow the movement. He thinks that maybe this is it. The moment when he breaks, and reveals whatever truth has always been hiding underneath his skin. It’s happened to everyone else, Sylvain and Dimitri and Edelgard. Why not him?

Felix’s anger has never felt like what he sees in Dimitri or Sylvain. It never overpowers him. He always knows what he’s doing when he lashes out.

What he feels now isn’t anger. It’s much colder, deep and dark like wet stone. It aches like a weight in his heart.

Sylvain tips his head back for the blade easily when Felix raises it to his throat. His hand goes slack against Felix’s chin. He lets it fall.

“Cute, kitten,” Sylvain says, as though Felix doesn’t already know how much he wants to die. As if he didn’t see him take Dimitri’s fists with nothing more than a laugh. “I knew you’d be good at it.” His tone isn’t right, not on any of it. He doesn’t sound like he’s flirting. He sounds like he’s waiting for a sentence to be carried out.

Felix stares at him. The stone inside him sinks. “You really do want me to do it, don’t you.” As if he didn’t know it when Sylvain let Dimitri maul him.

Sylvain looks back at him levelly. He never seems more relaxed than when his life is in Felix’s hands. He realizes that now. “I know exactly what my blood is worth. If anyone deserves it, it’s you.”

Felix yanks his head back further by the hair. “God, do you ever shut up? Your blood doesn’t matter, your Crest doesn’t matter. Why did you fucking believe them when they told you that’s all you were worth?”

Sylvain jerks back a little at that, almost laughing. It sounds more like he’s choking instead. “Are you—really? What else was I supposed to believe, Felix?” he demands. “Not all of us were as lucky as you. You and the professor have never understood what you have.”

“You really think any of us were lucky?”

Sylvain closes his eyes. He swallows against the knife. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “Maybe I believed them because they were right. But when I’m with you I don’t think about it.”

“They weren’t,” Felix says savagely. “Whatever you are, pig, your family understood nothing.”

“You’re really beautiful like this, you know,” Sylvain says. He’s almost smiling. “All that conviction. Must be nice.” He goes limp in Felix’s grip. “I think I’d love you, if I could.”

Felix digs his nails into Sylvain’s scalp. He drags Sylvain down and forward, the flat side of the knife pressed to his throat. He holds it there, trembling in his hand as he stares at Sylvain, his heart pounding. He could do anything right now, and Sylvain would let him, Sylvain always lets him. How had he not realized that, the moment he set foot in Garreg Mach? The moment that Sylvain reached out to him on a battlefield with bloody hands. He’d let Felix do anything. It’s the only thing he wants.

It’s not the way he would’ve let Dimitri kill him. It’s something else entirely.

Felix pulls him forward the last inch and kisses him. Sylvain tastes like ash, like blood. He kisses like it’s the last thing he’ll ever do.

“I hate you so much,” Felix says against his mouth, like either of them will for a second believe it. Like it will bring back that Sylvain who will smirk at him, the one he really can hate.

Sylvain looks down at him so disgustingly fondly, like Felix couldn’t have already killed him three times over. “You just want someone you don’t have to worry about hurting, don’t you.” He runs his hand up Felix’s back. Felix wishes he would make a play for the fucking knife. “It’s fine. I can give you that. Nothing really hurts me anymore.”

Felix presses the blade back to his throat and digs in, just enough that he bleeds. Just a little. Sylvain breathes in sharply through his nose, and he tips his head back. A drop of blood slides down his throat.

“Liar,” Felix says. “I do.”

Sylvain laughs. “Felix, you saved me. I watched you do it,” he says, rough and low and wondering. “Let me guess: it was all for Dimitri’s sake. So he wouldn’t wake up one day and realize what he’d done.”

Felix shuts his eyes. His grip on the knife wavers. “It doesn’t matter.”

“Of course it matters,” he says. “Say it. Tell me it was for Dimitri.”

When Felix opens his eyes, Sylvain is looking at him like he’s the only thing in the room, in the monastery, in the world.

He drops the dagger. Listens to it clatter uselessly to the floor.

“I did it for you,” Felix says. He swallows, hating himself, hating the thickness in his throat, hating that if he so much as blinks the tears will start to fall. Hating the knife and hating that he held it, hating that for one single moment he really could imagine using it. Sylvain would thank him for it.

From the look on Sylvain’s face, though, maybe the words are just as good as the blade would be.

It’s another strange hazy moment, just like the night before the battle, the only one that matters. It feels like it takes Sylvain forever to lean in, like he’s waiting for something: for Felix to cut his throat or bite him or turn and leave him alone. And he should; of course he should. But he’s so tired. He’s cold. And Sylvain is warm. Sylvain is exactly what he expects. He tilts Felix’s chin up with one finger, he curls a hand in his hair, his thumb brushing against his ear.

Sylvain kisses him, a slick slide of lips that turns rough in an instant. Felix tips his head back and lets him.

“Fuck,” Sylvain says, letting go of Felix so quickly that he nearly stumbles forward. He runs a finger up and down his cheek, almost wonderingly. “Fuck, you’re beautiful.”

Felix snarls at him and shoves Sylvain by the shoulders, again and again until his knees hit his perfectly made bed. “See,” Sylvain says, laughing as he goes down, as Felix climbs on top of him and digs his fingernails into his shoulders, “see, Felix, you’re not any better than me or Dimitri or anyone.”

“Shut up,” Felix says, even though it’s true, even though there’s blood on the floor that proves that it’s true. “I am nothing like Dimitri and I am nothing like you.”

“Keep telling yourself that, sweetheart.” Sylvain cups his jaw in one hand and runs his thumb up and down Felix’s neck. He’s already beginning to bruise where Sylvain held him against the wall. Mercedes wanted to do something about it, but Felix wouldn’t let her. He couldn’t say why.

His throat feels hot where Sylvain is touching him. He squeezes his eyes shut and he swallows, when Sylvain leans in to kiss him there. He can feel it when Sylvain laughs.

“I look good on you,” he says, but there’s something odd in his eyes. Felix would call it sorrow on anyone else.

“It’ll fade,” Felix says. He doesn’t know which of them he’s trying to reassure.

Sylvain reaches back to tug at Felix’s hair, already loose, until it spills across his shoulders. “I haven’t seen you with your hair down since you grew it out.”

The last time they saw each other before Garreg Mach, Felix’s hair had only just curled around the bottom of his ears, an awkward and inconvenient length he never wishes to return to again. “And whose fault is that?”

“Yours,” Sylvain says. “I do one scary thing and you leave me behind for two years? Come on, Felix. I thought you were stronger than that.”

“I’m strong enough not to need you,” Felix says, Felix lies, and Sylvain snorts and tugs his head back by the hair, baring his throat again.

“You missed me,” Sylvain says against his jaw. “Tell me you missed me, Felix. Tell me it hurt you too, all that time you were gone.”

Of course it hurt him. It’s never stopped hurting.

“You try so hard to pretend like you don’t feel anything. Do you think that will help? Do you think that will really stop you from becoming like me? Like Dimitri?”

Felix tries to push against his chest, but Sylvain grabs his wrists and holds them tight.

“Ingrid and Dimitri, they buy into all your bullshit, but I don’t. I never will. I know it scares you, I know, do you really think you can hide anything from me?”

Felix yanks out of his grip and shoves him flat onto his back. “Shut up,” he says.

“Aw, don’t be like that—”

“I said shut up.” Felix gets a hand in Sylvain’s hair and holds him against the bed, pressing his other hand tight against his mouth. “Say another fucking word, pig, and I’m gone.”

He takes his hand away. Sylvain blinks up at him, utterly yearning. Felix kisses him again so he doesn’t have to look, again and again and again until he aches with it. Sylvain clutches at him and is horribly blissfully quiet, even as they lose their clothes, even as he puts Felix on his back, leaving bruises on his hips. He watches him with dark, serious eyes, and he doesn’t say a word, even after Felix is sprawled panting over him, sweaty and hot and hating himself.

Felix thinks, after, that maybe it was a mistake. A silent Sylvain can’t hide anything. His eyes are wide and dark and awful, pulling Felix in. Felix doesn’t know what he’ll find if he lets himself fall.

He watches Felix with a gaze so heavy that Felix has to turn away from it, staring at Sylvain’s pristine desk and feeling his eyes on his bare back.

“I did it for you,” Sylvain says, finally. He’s hoarse. Felix did that. “You’ve always known that, right? It’s always been inside me. I thought maybe I could hide it forever. But I let it out for you.”

Felix sits up. He shoves on his clothes in rough movements, never once looking back at Sylvain. He can’t find his hair tie, and he remembers where he last saw it: wrapped around Sylvain’s wrist.

“Felix,” Sylvain says. His voice is flat, cold in the completely wrong way. “Don’t—please don’t leave me behind.”

Felix lets his hair be, and leaves the tie behind. It and the stupid knife. If he looks at Sylvain right now, he doesn’t know what he’ll do.

-

Of course, he’s two steps outside Sylvain’s door when he meets Ingrid coming up the last set of stairs. It’s ten feet from Sylvain’s room to his, and he couldn’t even go unnoticed for that long.

Ingrid’s shoulders are tight, her mouth pressed into a thin line. She stops dead when she sees Felix, leaving Sylvain’s room with his hair loose around his shoulders.

“Felix?” She seems to remember halfway through the word that he’s not the one she’s angry with.

“What are you doing here? Your room’s down the hall.”

“I came to tell Sylvain to leave you alone.” Her brow furrows. “Are you okay?” She reaches out as if she might touch Felix’s arm. Something in his gaze or his gait stops her, and she puts her arm down.

“I’m fine.” Felix tries to shoulder past her, but Ingrid steps in his way, her arms folded. They’re standing right in front of Dimitri’s door.

“He’s not there,” Ingrid says when she catches Felix looking at it sidelong. “He went for a ride with Dedue. To cool off, I guess. Dedue—he didn’t say anything, but the way he looked...I don’t think this is the first time this has happened.”

“Of course it isn’t,” Felix mutters. “He’s been breaking to pieces all this time, and none of us ever noticed. Of course.”

“Don’t try to make this something else that’s your fault,” Ingrid says.

“I should have stopped it before it came to this.”

“Dimitri is responsible for his own actions. Just like Sylvain.”

“Fine. Let’s say you’re right. Can I go now?”

“Will you come sit with me?” Ingrid asks. She cracks a smile. It isn’t particularly convincing. “Mercie has been showing me the merits of drinking tea and chatting with friends. I thought I might try it out with someone else.”

“I’m supposed to fall for that?” Felix asks. “Try again.”

Fine,” Ingrid says. “Come to my room and talk to me, and convince me I shouldn’t come back here and finish the job Dimitri started, and throttle Sylvain myself. Otherwise I’m not moving from this spot.”

That, Felix can’t argue with. He follows Ingrid to her room at the end of the hallway and sits on the floor by the window. Ingrid joins him, rather than taking the chair or the bed, her arms balanced on her knees.

“Seriously,” Ingrid says. “I’ll kill him. Just say the word.”

“Don’t joke about that,” Felix says. “Not right now.” He turns his face away from her. Ingrid doesn’t have a particularly piercing stare, but it’s always been soothing when she isn’t angry. Assessing, the way a knight has to be on the field. Steady like Dimitri used to be. “He didn’t hurt me. I have it under control.” Felix isn’t the one who bled.

“Felix, when we found you—I thought you were going to be dead. I really thought you were going to be gone too.” Felix can’t bear to look at her. Ingrid shouldn’t cry over him.

“He wasn’t going to kill me,” Felix says. “He was just—being himself. But he’s too much of a coward to hurt me more than I can take.” He puts his head down on his knees, his hair falling to cover his face. Maybe Ingrid will let him borrow a hair tie. He can’t ask. Then he’d have to tell her what happened to his. As if she hasn’t already guessed. “He’d miss me too much. I know what kind of beast he is. Dimitri’s the one I don’t understand.”

Felix has to work very hard not to flinch at Ingrid’s hand on his back. “Felix. I know you think you don’t need any help, that you can handle anything, but please be careful. Don’t make me bury you too.”

She says it so matter of factly. Felix clenches his hands against his calves. He remembers the last time he curled up into a ball like this, just after Glenn died. It felt like if he could bind himself tightly enough, make himself small enough, maybe he would just disappear. Become nothing. Feel nothing. And all this time, he’s been pretending he doesn’t understand how Sylvain feels.

“Ingrid. Did you ever wish it was me?”

“What?”

“Do you ever wish that I died instead of Glenn?”

“No, Felix,” Ingrid says. Voice pitched to be gentle, which she isn’t any good at. Felix doesn’t know why she bothers. Her hand against his back is too heavy. “Why would you even ask me that? Did Sylvain tell you that? Of course not!”

“Liar,” Felix says, tipping his head back, eyes closed. Sitting in the bedroom of possibly the only true friend he has left, his hair loose around his shoulders, sweat still drying on the back of his neck. Part of him still wishing he’d just stayed and let Sylvain hold him. Just for a little while. He really is pathetic. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Sometimes I wish it was me too.”

-

Felix used to appreciate that Dimitri’s room sat between his and Sylvain’s. He should have known better than to hide behind anyone. Dimitri keeps trying to talk to Felix, before classes or after meals. As though Felix has time for a beast. He goes to the training yard early and stays there late; he takes his meals alone, sometimes leaving the dining hall with his food in order to do so.

Sylvain has always had a knack for finding his hiding spots, even before Felix ever truly wanted to hide from him. But Dimitri is useless at it.

For weeks and weeks they all pretend like everything is fine. Like Dimitri isn’t breaking plates in the dining hall and staring at them blankly, like the professor hasn’t become divine, like Sylvain hasn’t stopped bothering to fake a smile half the time.

The day before they escort the professor to the Holy Tomb, Dimitri manages to catch Felix outside his room.

“Get out of my way.”

Dimitri hovers in a way that Sylvain doesn’t. His hands almost raised, his calves tensed as though he wants to step forward but won’t. An entirely different sort of coward. “Felix, please hear me out.”

“Stop pretending,” Felix says. “You aren’t any good at it. At least the pig knows how to do that.”

“Felix, I’m trying to apologize.”

“I don’t want to hear it.”

Dimitri grabs him by the arm when Felix tries to turn away. His gauntlets are startlingly cold. “Please, will you just listen?”

“Let me go,” Felix says, jerking out of his grip.

“Felix—”

“Don’t touch me, boar,” Felix spits. And this time Dimitri’s fingers go slack, as though Felix’s skin isn’t already starting to throb. Dimitri never did know his own strength. He must have been keeping such a tight leash on the beast inside him all this time.

His expression is shattered. That’s the only way to describe it. Felix doesn’t feel sorry. He will not feel sorry. He can’t let himself be fooled again.

Their mission this month is annoying. A waste of time. As though the Goddess is going to send the professor some sort of vision, as if it would mean anything if she did. The Goddess is a creation of the Church or the Goddess is useless; either way, Felix doesn’t care what she has to say.

He’s mildly cheered by the appearance of the Flame Emperor. Finally, a chance to fight someone who matters, to truly test his strength. What could be a better distraction from everything else? From Dimitri’s hand on his harm and Sylvain’s lips against his, from all the things he would be better off forgetting.

“Think our prince might be losing it a little bit,” says Sylvain, when the professor sends them off together up the side of the tomb, chasing after the soldiers stealing the Crest stones. He nods to the center of the room, where Dimitri has tumbled from his horse and is lashing out at the soldiers around him, teeth bared.

“As though you’re one to talk,” Felix says between slashes of his blade. It’s an easy rhythm now, even against true opponents, even against those aiming to kill. Even when every successful strike takes another life. It should take all his attention, he should have none left for Sylvain, for Dimitri, for anyone, but he always has. Killing has always been easy, no matter how much it disgusts him. So maybe in the end his disgust means nothing.

“I’m the one who’d know best, it’s true,” Sylvain says agreeably. Felix sneaks another look at Dimitri as he lets out a roar, and then he hears Sylvain’s voice, sharp and jagged, nothing like how he usually sounds. “Felix!”

Felix turns, but he does it too slow. There’s already a blade coming for his neck. He stumbles back, his footwork sloppy—all that dancer training for nothing, the professor is going to kill him—but Sylvain is there in a heartbeat, the Lance of Ruin glowing, and where there was a soldier there’s simply nothing but a haze of red.

They stare at each other for a long moment, Felix’s chest moving faster than he’d like. He’s alive, he’s fine, but his body doesn’t seem to understand. From the look on his face, he’s not sure Sylvain understands either.

He opens his mouth. Closes it. He can’t thank Sylvain, not for a hundred reasons. Not least because you don’t thank the sun for shining; it can’t help it. It doesn’t do it for you. It does it because it must.

Sylvain’s fingers twitch, like he wants to reach out. “Like I said,” he says. “Don’t you dare leave me behind.”

Felix turns away and rushes the steps. Dimitri will want to take on the Flame Emperor himself. Maybe Felix can beat him to it.

He takes a boot to the gut just before Dimitri reaches them, his head smacking against the stone. He pushes himself up, dizzy, but the enemy kicks his sword away. Don’t, Sylvain said, don’t leave me—

Ingrid puts a lance through the man’s side.

“Felix?”

“I’m fine,” he says—he isn’t dying, so he is—and before Ingrid can investigate further, the Flame Emperor removes her mask.

Felix should be surprised when he sees Edelgard’s face. He should feel betrayed. But he has no room for betrayal anymore. And how can he be surprised? It’s only natural. No one wears their true face. No one can be trusted. He knows that now.

But it seems Dimitri hasn’t learned. His face when he sees her is even more broken than when Felix called him boar. He laughs just like Sylvain did once, utterly unhinged, he licks the blood from his lips, and Felix can only watch him from the ground, his whole body aching. He spent all this time trying to get stronger. None of it mattered at all.

“I’ll kill her,” Dimitri growls. And he’s gone before Ingrid can reach him, stalking from the tomb with the professor and Dedue in his wake. He’s been gone, Felix supposes, his thoughts dim and vague, for a very long time.

That’s it, then. Dimitri has fallen beyond recovery. Felix knew it already. He knew it, and still he let himself believe it was temporary, still he let himself believe that Dimitri could be pulled back from the brink.

Maybe he could have. Maybe Felix could have helped him. But he didn’t, as surely as he couldn’t save Glenn, as he couldn’t save Sylvain, as he is never strong enough to save anyone.

Dimitri tried to kill a man, and Felix didn’t find him. He didn’t try to talk the madness out of him, he pulled away when Dimitri reached for him. He fucked Sylvain instead. Of course he did.

“Felix,” Annette is saying. “Felix, look at me.”

Felix opens his eyes. He didn’t realize they were closed. He didn’t realize he was still awake.

Maybe he did tell Ingrid a lie.

Annette puts one hand against his clammy forehead and another against his ribs. The familiar itchy gossamer of a healing spell creeps along his skin. It’s like having a scratchy blanket wrapped around your shoulders. Felix has always hated it.

“I like this song,” he tells her. She’s humming just a little under her breath, the same melody he’s heard every time he’s gotten knocked in the head for the past year. Annette is so predictable. He likes that about her.

“Shut up, Felix,” she says. He blinks. The spell starts to work, because she comes into focus above him, her face pinched with the effort of either the spell or of ignoring the tears slowly falling down her face. Who made her cry? Felix will kill them. “I’m sorry, that’s all I have left. Do you think you can stand?”

Felix sits up. He gets about halfway there before he very carefully and gingerly lowers himself back down.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Annette says on a sigh. “Well, it’s not like—it’s not like we can do anything right now, I guess.” She rubs at her eyes.

“I’ve got him,” Sylvain says, a wavering voice high, high above him. Felix groans.

“I can walk.”

Sylvain’s voice is much closer this time. “It’s not nice to lie to a lady, Felix,” he says, and he scoops Felix up.

“Hey—” That’s Annette, blessed as ever. She stands up, hands on her hips.

“I’ve got him,” Sylvain says again. “I’ll take care of him, Annette, I promise.” His voice is all wrong, solemn and cracked. “I won’t let anything happen to him.”

“Sylvain…” Her voice trails off.

Felix punches his chestplate with a closed fist. It doesn’t even hurt, which it should, if he hit him hard enough.

“Easy,” Sylvain says, warm against his ear. Felix feels dizzy all over again. Dizzy and sick but safe, like he felt in the snow all those years ago, like he felt in the library, like he felt, for just a moment, as Sylvain held him in his room.

“It’s fine, Annette,” Felix says dully. “Go check on everyone else, stop wasting your time.”

He curls in against Sylvain and closes his eyes. Dimitri is unhinged. Dimitri looked at Edelgard with blood in his mouth, in his eyes, in his mind. There’s no saving him. There never was.

He doesn’t bother asking where Sylvain is taking him, but he’s still a little surprised when he opens his eyes in his room, not the infirmary.

Sylvain is quiet. He lays Felix back on his bed, settling down on the floor beside it. Felix turns his head to face him. He feels sluggish, like his head’s filled with smoke. He can tell, still, that Sylvain’s movement aren’t quite right. Jerky. There’s too much white showing around his eyes.

“You saw him out there,” he says, his voice low. “He wants Edelgard’s blood. He’ll kill anyone who gets in his way.”

“Probably,” says Felix. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Are you going to punch me if I get on the bed with you?”

“Since when have you cared?”

Sylvain lays his head sideways against the mattress. “Oh, you know me,” he says. “I don’t care about anything at all.” He closes his eyes. Felix watches the brush of his lashes. “Do you remember that well, Felix? The one Miklan tossed me into like a sack of kittens? It only took a second for me to hit the ground. But that second—it lasted forever. For a second, that well was my whole world. Deep and dark and endless, sucking you in. And then I hit the ground, and I sat there. And I knew someone would come for me eventually. You or Glenn or Ingrid or Dimitri. I knew that someone would drag me back into the light. And you did, eventually. I thought maybe you could do it again. But sometimes I think I’m still in that stupid well. That I took it with me when you hauled my sorry ass out. That I am it, hollow inside.”

“Shut up,” Felix says. “The Empire is coming. Dimitri’s lost his mind. We have more important things to worry about than your fucking—empty recriminations.”

“I’m not sorry,” Sylvain says, a shiver in his voice. He opens his eyes. “I’m just tired.”

From the other side of the dormitory wall, the one Felix shares with Dimitri, there’s a shuddering crash. And then words, a flood of them, too fast to make out at first until they resolve into something Felix can understand: I’ll kill her, I’ll kill her, I’ll kill her.

They stare at each other for a long moment. “Well,” Sylvain says, “at least I’m not breaking furniture.”

There’s another sound, like wood splintering. “Get up here,” Felix says. And Sylvain does, taking care to ditch his armor first. He tucks himself in at Felix’s side and his hand tangles in his hair at the back of Felix’s head, still sticky with blood. Felix curls into him. And for a moment it’s like he’s a child again, burying himself in Sylvain’s chest so he doesn’t cry over Dimitri.

More words on the other side of the wall. Dimitri’s moved on from the general to the specific. He’s going to crush her skull, rip out her heart, burn her with his own hands.

Felix’s breathing is just as broken as when he nearly died earlier. His body doesn’t know what to do.

Dimitri smashes something porcelain against their shared wall. Felix shudders.

“Hey.” Sylvain’s hand is huge against the side of his face. Felix opens his eyes. He doesn’t know when he shut them. Sylvain is grinning at him, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “C’mon, sweetheart, don’t look like that.” The smile cracks. “Just—don’t worry about it, okay? There’s nothing you can do.”

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Of course there’s nothing he can do. There never has been.

“It’s what I tell myself,” Sylvain says. “It’s what I always have. You can’t change it. So it doesn’t matter.”

“I hate you,” Felix says. “Ingrid would tell me that it would be okay. That we’d find a way to fix him.”

Sylvain’s thumb strokes his cheek. “And it would be a lie.”

Felix curls in closer. He shuts his eyes again. “Then fucking lie to me.”

“You wouldn’t believe it. You never do.”

“Then make me forget,” Felix says. “Can you do that, at least?”

“Always,” Sylvain says, pulling him in. And if Dimitri breaks any more furniture that night, threatens any more lives, Felix doesn’t hear it.

-

Dawn breaks. Someone in this entire useless monastery probably slept, but Felix can’t imagine who. He spent the night awake in Sylvain’s arms, sure than any second he would have the strength to move. Instead he traced the freckles on Sylvain’s chest and stomach. As a child he always wanted to count them. He supposes he’s getting his wish.

It’s quiet. For a few hours, it’s like they’re in another world.

It doesn’t last. He greats Ingrid in the dining hall, both of them bleary eyed and sullen. He hadn’t asked after her, after the fight. He should have. She tells him about searching frantically for Dorothea, her voice muted. Felix should’ve known she would do that. He should’ve paid more attention to Ingrid, these past few months. She’s the closest friend he has left. And yet whenever they’re together, he finds himself talking and thinking of nothing but Sylvain. Useless.

Not that Ingrid is any better. She talks about Dorothea with stars in her eyes, as if yesterday didn’t make it perfectly clear the only way that could possibly end.

Classes are cancelled for the day. No one’s seen Rhea, but according to Claude she isn’t happy. He’s flitting from table to table, gathering and depositing gossip like some kind of bee.

Dorothea appears just as he’s voicing that thought, after Ingrid waves her over.

“Or a good house leader,” she says, oddly withdrawn. At least Felix thinks it’s odd. He doesn’t really know her very well. Not as well as he should, considering the way her hand is clasped in Ingrid’s. “He’s finding out what he can, protecting his own.” She looks away, distracted. Ingrid squeezes her hand.

The direction of her thoughts is obvious. Edelgard has abandoned the Black Eagles with her guard dog at her heels. No one knows what to make of the remaining students.

There’s going to be a war, obviously. It’s past time for picking sides.

“It’s what Dimitri should be doing,” Ingrid says quietly.

“When I left this morning he was still ranting,” says Felix. “He’s not going to be gathering any intelligence.”

“So we have to do it instead,” Ingrid says. “If Dimitri can’t protect his country right now, then we will.”

Felix doesn’t disagree, necessarily, but he can’t stand to hear it put like that. “The boar should do his own damned job,” he says. “I won’t pick up his slack for him.”

“What is there to know, anyway?” Dorothea asks. “Edie made her stance very clear. I just wish…”

Emperor Edelgard is going to invade,” Felix snaps. “We should be preparing ourselves. We should be training, not gossiping like hens because your emperor is going to—”

Dorothea stands up abruptly, her chair scraping back. “At least she isn’t talking about crushing skulls,” she says, her voice measured and cold. She turns on her heel and stalks deliberately away, her shoes echoing across the stone.

“Felix,” Ingrid says, and it isn’t her lecture voice. Felix learned to tune that out at age ten. She sounds devastated, like she hasn’t slept at all either, like she’s going to lose everything. Abruptly, Felix feels like shit.

“I’ll talk to her,” he says. He won’t. “Look, Ingrid—”

“I don’t want to hear it. You think I don’t know what’s going to happen? I’m not stupid.” Ingrid rubs at her eyes. “I just. Want to take what happiness I can get while I still can.”

“You should be focusing on the war. Not—frivolities.”

I should be focusing on the war that hasn’t even started yet?” Ingrid’s eyes are bright, and there it is, the lecture voice. “And where were you last night, Felix? No one could find you or Sylvain. I looked for you.”

Felix turns his face away. Ingrid always cuts straight to the heart of things. He really hates it sometimes. “It’s none of your concern.”

“We’re way past concern, Felix,” Ingrid says. Now she just sounds tired. “He’s going to be the death of you.”

“It’ll either be him or the boar,” Felix says. “I’ll take my chances. Sylvain knows something, anyway. He mentioned it before all this happened. Edelgard and that dog of hers. He knew they were planning something.”

“What?”

“He—he asked me—it doesn’t matter.”

“If he knows something about what they’re planning, Felix, you have to find out,” Ingrid says.

“It won’t help.”

“It might!” Ingrid runs her hands through her hair, ruining her haphazard braid. “And you’re not going to make him leave you alone anyway, are you?”

Felix doesn’t answer.

“Find out what you can,” Ingrid says. “It’s the least you can do. I’m going to go talk to Dorothea.”

“You’d be better off letting her go.”

“Of course,” Ingrid says. “She’s sweet and good and I might lose her because of—because of our duty, and I should just let her go, but you won’t leave Sylvain behind because you just don’t want to. It’s always about what you want, isn’t it, Felix?”

“It’s never about that,” Felix snaps.

“What isn’t it about?” Sylvain swings himself onto the bench beside Felix, a hand trailing up his back. His fingers brush his neck. His touch this time is shaking. Felix doesn’t flinch. Sylvain wraps a strand of Felix’s hair around his finger. “I couldn’t find you this morning, sweetheart,” he says. If he’s aiming for sultry he misses spectacularly. His voice is thin.

He was worried. He woke up alone.

“We were talking about you,” Ingrid says. Felix, this time, is thankful for her bluntness. It saves him from having to respond, and forces him to tear his gaze away from the way Sylvain is looking at him. “What’s the Empire planning?”

Sylvain looks up at her, blinking as if he could possibly be startled by her presence. “How should I know?”

“You knew something was going to happen,” Felix says.

Sylvain snorts. He lets his hand drop. “You really think fucking Hubert von Vestra was spilling Imperial battle plans over chess games? That man is like a block of ice. Even I’m not that good.”

“You’re useless,” Ingrid says. Not with any venom: just stating a truth.

Felix glares at Sylvain. “You have to know something.”

“I don’t,” Sylvain says sullenly. “She tried to recruit me, you know. Don’t look at me like that. She didn’t say it in so many words. But she asked—she asked me if I wouldn’t prefer a world without Crests.”

“Wouldn’t you?” Felix asks.

“Why not? A world without Crests. A world without people like me. Doesn’t that sound beautiful?”

Felix can’t imagine it. There’s only the world as it is: cold and harsh and real. Not a fantasy an Emperor asks her followers to bleed for.

“So, what did you tell her?” Ingrid demands.

Sylvain gestures expansively at the gloom of the dining hall. “I’m still here, aren’t I?”

“And what about when we have to fight?” Felix asks. “You’ll just run away again.”

Sylvain reaches out to ruffle his hair. Felix slaps his hand away. “Aw, Felix. Does that sound like something I would do?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Ingrid says, her chair scraping as she stands up. “I’m going to find Dorothea.”

Felix turns to glare at Sylvain as she leaves. “She’s right. If you won’t stand with us, we’re better off without you.”

Sylvain leans his hand on his cheek, tracing the woodgrain of the table with one lazy finger. “Maybe,” he says. “I guess we’ll both find out.”

-

It’s chaos when Edelgard’s forces finally arrive. The professor was as calculated as ever, but they disappeared in the chaos of battle, and Dimitri is nowhere to be found. The last Felix saw of him he had blood splattered across his face and an openly bleeding gash on his arm and his horse was rearing back, as mindless as its master, and Felix is looking everywhere for him, for anyone, he hasn’t seen Sylvain since the fighting began and the professor sent him off to the front lines with the other cavalry, with the boar, where is he—

Ingrid skids to a stop in front of him on her pegasus, so close that he nearly runs into its flank. The draft from its wings nearly knocks him down.

“Felix,” she says, voice ragged from shouting orders from the air. “Felix, thank the Goddess, I couldn’t find you or Dorothea—”

“Where is he?”

“Dimitri? I don’t know, I saw him go for Edelgard before the reinforcements arrived—”

There’s an earth-shattering roar. Felix and Ingrid both look up. For a disorienting moment, Felix thinks the sky is covered in flames.

“Is that a dragon?” Felix asks.

“Yes,” Ingrid says, sounding startled at her own surety. “I don’t think we should stick around to find out if it’s on our side. We can regroup in Fhirdiad, I’m sure that’s where Dimitri will go.”

“If he’s alive.” Felix hears the distant sound of a ballista. His sword is still dripping blood onto the ground. Surely if the professor is alive they would have managed to corral the Blue Lions back together by now. Surely if Dimitri is alive he would find the professor no matter the cost. Maybe they’re both gone. Maybe it’s all already lost.

Felix can feel himself teetering. He knows what Sylvain meant about the well now.

“Yes, obviously!” Ingrid snaps. Felix blinks up at her. “Come on, I know you hate flying but get up here, Felix, let’s go—”

“It doesn’t matter. Whether or not he’s alive, we’ve already lost him. We both know it.”

Ingrid’s pegasus whickers. There’s a distant clang of steel, shouting that might be getting closer. Felix’s feet feel like lead. “Even if you’re right, Felix, we have to get out of here.”

“I can’t leave.”

“Dedue will take care of Dimitri, you know he will—”

“I have to find him.” Ingrid stares at him for a long moment. She knows exactly who he means. He can tell in the way her mouth pinches, the way she runs a furious hand through her hair. She was always shoving it behind her ears, whenever Sylvain made her mad.

“Are you serious? He’ll find his own way, Felix.”

“No, he won’t,” Felix says. “Did you see him when the boar was attacking him? He’ll stay here and be killed, and we both know it. I have to find him. Get out of here. You can wait in the forest for us. I’ll steal a horse and catch up.”

“You’re going to stay behind for Sylvain, of all people.” She doesn’t say it like a question. The sound of steel gets louder; her pegasus stamps its hooves.

“I know where he is. It will only take a second—”

“I can’t believe you, Felix! You hate him. You hate him, you’re the one who told us for years that he was beyond saving, and you’re going to risk your life for him. You were right, Felix, isn’t that what you always want to hear? You were right. He’s never going to help us. There’s no point. If he wants to die so badly, let him.”

“I can’t,” Felix says. He doesn’t have a better explanation than that. It would be so easy to leave Sylvain behind. To abandon the past for good. But he can’t.

“Dimitri might be dead! I don’t even know if Dorothea is okay, I don’t know if she’s on our side, or if I’m going to turn a corner today or tomorrow or in a year and have to fight her, and you’re still obsessing over Sylvain? You want me to wait for you and risk my life too? We’re at war!”

“Go without me then,” Felix snarls. “Or go find Dorothea, if she’s so important. If we’re going to war I damn well want him on our side. I don’t have time for this.” He turns on his heel. If Sylvain is at the stables—he is, Felix knows he is—he might already be dead. Edelgard’s first move will be to secure the horses, cut off escape.

“Dammit, Felix, why are you always so stubborn.” Ingrid slides off her pegasus, shushing it when it kicks up its heels. She whispers in its ear and pats its flank, and it takes off in one graceful movement.

I’m stubborn?”

“Shut up,” Ingrid says. “Let’s just do this quickly.”

When they reach the stables, the whole place stinks of blood. It’s empty, except for Sylvain and the corpses and the horse he’s trying to calm, his hand leaving red streaks along its snout. It’s one of the warhorses. It doesn’t seem to mind. The Lance of Ruin is in pieces at his feet, its Crest stone flickering.

“Sylvain?” Ingrid steps forward carefully, her lance still at the ready. Sylvain jerks his head up.

“There you two are,” Sylvain says. “You’re late, you know, but I think there are enough horses left. We can still make it out.”

“Excuse me?” Ingrid asks.

“To get to safety, obviously,” Sylvain says. “Did you guys not notice the professor going missing? We’re doomed without them. Everyone knows they’re the only reason we ever had a chance. Come on, time to cut our losses.”

“We’re going back to Fhirdiad,” Felix says. “You’re coming with us, pig.”

“Am I?” Sylvain could almost sound bored, if it weren’t for the way his hands are shaking as he adjusts the horse’s saddle. “I don’t think so. I’m done with the Kingdom. It threw me in the dark and it made you follow a beast. It’s useless. It’s a corpse. It’s time we set ourselves free.”

“Where could you even run?”

He shrugs. “Anywhere but the loving embrace of the Kingdom army sounds pretty good.”

“This isn’t going to work, Felix,” Ingrid says. The ground shakes beneath Felix’s boots. Another fucking ballista. “You tried, okay? But we need to get out of here now.”

Felix takes in a deep breath. All he can taste is smoke. Soon enough this whole place will be ash. “Sylvain,” Felix says, his voice cracking on the word. Sylvain fumbles, turning to stare at him with wide eyes.

“You haven’t called me that in three years, you know. I counted.”

Felix did too. “Sylvain, we need you.”

Sylvain kicks at the pieces of the lance, bloody on the ground. “What for? Even my stupid Relic’s not good for anything. These things are supposed to be indestructible. Guess that was a lie too.”

“Gautier territory will fall without you. You know your father can’t fight like you can,” Ingrid says. Felix turns to blink at her, but she’s got a determined cast to her face, her chin jutting out.

“I don’t care about Gautier,” Sylvain spits. “What has it ever done for me?”

“Don’t you care about your home?” Felix demands. “About your king? About the people we used to be?”

“Not like you to mourn the past, Felix.”

“You know you’ll never see me again if you don’t come with us,” Felix says. “None of us. Not your home, not your country.”

Sylvain’s eyes flit between Felix and Ingrid, his face blank. “You really don’t understand how bad it’s going to get, do you.”

“So get off your ass for once and help us,” Ingrid says. “What have you honestly got to lose?”

Sylvain snorts. “Lots of things.”

“It’s never going to get any better,” Felix says. “Not if we don’t try. Not if we let her burn it all, not if we let Dimitri slip away. You haven’t fixed anything by running, Sylvain. What are you so scared of? Even you couldn’t make it worse.”

“You’re always underestimating me,” Sylvain says. He doesn’t say it like a joke. He just sounds sad.

Felix stalks forward, bending down to pick up the snapped off end of Lance of Ruin. For a moment he almost does expect it to hurt. But in the end it’s just a weapon, jagged and horrible and soaked in blood. But what isn’t, anymore? “Anything can be broken, Sylvain.”

Sylvain laughs like it sneaks up on him. “Is—is that supposed to be your motivational speech?”

“Felix.” Ingrid’s voice is muffled, like she’s speaking through her fingers.

Anything can be broken,” Felix snarls. “This lance and your brother and this fucking wall you’ve built around yourself, none of it lasts forever. Nothing can. Don’t you want there to be something left of you when it finally falls?”

Sylvain just looks at him then, and he’s watched Felix so many times, in so many ways. But the last time Felix felt Sylvain’s eyes on him like this, he was sitting by a fire, wondering if he was about to be kissed.

“Fine,” Sylvain snaps. His face twists, almost startled by the words. He presses his forehead to the flank of the horse, shaking his head against it. “Fighting for king and country, a doomed cause—fine. I guess there’s worse things to die for than that.”

Felix shares a glance with Ingrid. He takes Sylvain’s hand, warm and slick with blood, and feels his fingers twitch. “I promise it’ll be worth it."

There’s something odd in Sylvain’s eyes when he looks down at their joined hands, a light Felix has never seen before. “You know,” he says, “when you say it like that, I almost think it might be true.”