Everything in war was a euphemism. They used decisive loss to mean the uncomplicated math of “the other side killed far more of us than we killed of them.” They dressed up the savagery of destroying their own land by calling it scorched earth. All the Margrave’s talk of tactical withdrawal only meant they wouldn’t make it through another year.
It would be proper winter soon. Sylvain had been born and raised into this climate but fighting a war in it was a whole different monster. The last time he was home had been three months ago. Three months running petty warfare and sabotage. Three months sleeping on rocks, hiding in dark pine forests, filling his mouth with snow so the enemy wouldn’t see the steam of his breath. Some days Sylvain felt like he would never be warm again.
Other days he thought maybe he preferred it. The icy remoteness. All the cold, purified air.
His next return to the Gautier estate happened to be at the same time Ingrid arrived for a strategy meeting in Count Galatea’s stead. She surprised Sylvain when she smiled as he approached her in the great hall. Sylvain surprised himself, folding her into a tight hug before he knew he was going to do it.
“It’s good to see you,” he said into her shorn blonde hair. She smelled good—citrus and pine. “I like the new look. It suits you.”
“Don’t start,” Ingrid warned.
That evening, Sylvain snuck her down into the wine cellar. They made an impressive dent into his father’s special occasion claret, sitting beside each other on a pair of tall untapped barrels. It was chilly and Sylvain hadn’t brought enough furs. After ten minutes of stubborn shivering, Ingrid allowed Sylvain to wrap an arm around her shoulders. They talked about how the war was going: “badly,” was the unanimous conclusion. They talked about Ingrid’s desk duties, helping her father with military operations and maintenance costs: “excruciatingly boring,” she let slip, and hastily added, “but I’m learning a lot,” as Sylvain slid her a knowing smirk. They talked, briefly, about the guerrilla raids Sylvain was conducting on Imperial supply lines: “excruciatingly boring,” Sylvain parroted back. For a second Ingrid seemed as though she was ready to push harder, but they were both two cups deep. In the end she let it slide.
“I suppose this is where you bring all your girls,” Ingrid said, glancing around. It lacked 50% of the usual judgmentalness. Instead she sounded like she was merely curious if they were still capable of being the same people to each other.
“No way,” Sylvain played along. “I’m pulling out all the stops for you, Ingrid.”
Ingrid studied the dark stone arches that ribbed across the cellar ceiling. “You’re telling me this is one of your more sentimental dungeons?”
“What can I say, you make me feel romantic.”
Ingrid rolled her eyes. She’d always had a very powerful eye-roll. They drank in silence for a while. Her face was transformed by the yellow candlelight. When she looked down, her lashes cut deep shadows across her cheeks. Sylvain felt a jolt of some kind of sentiment after all. An amorphous flicker of something, gone before he could name it. Ingrid had a tell, whenever she thought about a certain period of their shared history. The “After Glenn” era. It was in her posture. How she straightened up to take the hit. Ingrid believed remembering made her stronger, when it’d always been obvious to Sylvain that it only really made her sad.
“I’ve been down here before, you know,” Ingrid finally spoke up.
“The year that your family hosted the harvest festival. You got drunk in secret, and I had to help drag you to bed and convince everyone else it was only a fever.”
Not that it’d worked. Ingrid was many admirable things, but she wasn’t a good liar. “After everything I’ve given you, you embarrass me like this,” the Margrave had roared the next morning, as Sylvain sweated through his clothes and bed linens, dizzy and miserable.
He’d just turned fourteen. Through the polluted fog of his memory emerged the very clear image of Miklan standing by the door after their father left, calling Sylvain a little parasite.
“That does sound kind of familiar,” Sylvain said.
“I can’t believe you’ve forgotten. Felix was the one who found you. I thought he was going to cry, the way he always used to.”
Sylvain grinned humorlessly. Felix had been such a sensitive kid. Those roots were still there as an adult, entombed deep in the ground. The last time they saw each other, Felix’d had the heart to at least tell Sylvain, “I don’t know when I’ll be back,” which afterwards Sylvain’d deciphered to mean, you’re on your own, enjoy the goddamn snow.
“Did those festivals ever feel pointless to you?” Sylvain asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing grows up here.”
Ingrid looked at Sylvain like she was trying to understand. Like they were suddenly having a second conversation underneath this one.
“We did,” she said.
“Sure.” Sylvain finished off the rest of his wine and asked, “Refill?”
Ingrid shook her head. “Let’s go back up. It’s freezing.”
Sylvain escorted her and the rest of her party through the gates the next morning. They hugged again, this time more cautiously, more like themselves. “Take care of yourself out there,” Ingrid ordered.
Soon enough Sylvain was harassing enemy forces again at the edges of Dukedom territory. At this stage of the war, big open combat was best avoided. For the past half-year Sylvain’d kept his unit small and mobile instead, multiple groups of ten. Easier to hit and run. The Imperial forces stationed in Faerghus didn’t know how to fight in a place like this. It took Sylvain an entire careful day to rig booby traps under thick ice sheets. The mines blew just as an Imperial battalion was crossing the frozen lake. Some of the soldiers could swim. Most of them couldn’t. For ten minutes, it was complete chaos; then, eerie silence, bodies floating among slabs of blasted ice. Five days later, another commander tried bypassing the lake and routing his soldiers through the neighboring forest, where Sylvain had stationed two dozen snipers in the trees.
In between, Sylvain had dreams about banging his fists against a surface of solid ice above his head, screaming into the frigid water. That ended up being kind of stressful, so he slept less nowadays. To pass the time, he envisioned the future if their merry band of Faerghus loyalists managed to pull a victory out of their asses, against the future if Edelgard finally won. Sometimes they looked the same. Sometimes Edelgard’s looked better, which made Sylvain feel indescribably empty.
Most of the time he just wished he could sleep without thinking he was drowning. Once, a pair of boots had appeared on the other side of the ice, fissures forming under their weight. A blur of dark hair. A sharp, lovely mouth.
Maybe Sylvain should’ve paid more attention to omens. After another fun night of intercepting Imperial resupply efforts, he made it back to the main camp at sunrise, where the gossip was already spreading through the rest of his unit: the Fraldarius heir, here in the flesh.
Fuck, Sylvain thought.
He took a deep breath before entering his tent. A chill followed him inside. As promised, there was Felix—steely, pale, and gravitational.
“Wow,” Sylvain said, like it was nothing. “Everyone’s getting haircuts now.”
Felix didn’t approach or speak up yet. For a moment all they did was stand at opposite ends of the tent, sizing each other up. Sylvain took stock of the dirty fur trim of Felix’s cloak and the lean hunger of Felix’s cheekbones. The snow melting in Felix’s hair, which looked like Felix had cut it himself with a rusty sword. The very normal feeling of Sylvain gouging his hands into his own chest and prying his ribcage open at the sight of Felix’s face, at how good it was to be in the same room (tent) again.
Felix asked, “What the hell are you wearing?”
“It’s a long story,” Sylvain said. Well, not too long: they’d ambushed a small band of enemy soldiers, stolen their uniforms, burned their camp. “Do you mind if I take it off?”
He didn’t wait for Felix’s answer, just began removing the armor piece by piece. He wanted all the red and black off his body. More than that, he wanted something to do besides metaphorically stabbing himself in the eye, looking at Felix.
Felix didn’t have the same problem looking at Sylvain. “That one’s new,” he commented.
Sylvain followed Felix’s gaze to the purple, indented scar across his left side.
“Dukedom soldier with a sword,” he said. It’d hurt like a hot branding iron. “Not as fast as you, though.”
Felix made an unhappy expression like he was actually going to hold it against Sylvain, this thing that happened months ago that didn’t even matter anymore. But then Felix reciprocated and yanked down the tall black collar of his shirt. He had a scar of his own, healing high on his shoulder. A few inches higher and Rodrigue would’ve finished losing all of his sons.
“Thief with a lance,” Felix said, as Sylvain fantasized about severing that thief’s right arm and making him eat it. “Faster than you, but worse aim.”
Sylvain huffed a laugh. “You always say the nicest things.”
The tent wasn’t well-insulated enough for him to just stand around in his undergarments, as tempting as that was. Sylvain threw on his uniform coat and sat casually on the low cot instead. He played with a tuft of sheepskin and thought about waiting it out until Felix found a way to say what he was going to say, but from the looks of it, that could take a minute.
So he gave Felix an opening: “Does your old man know you’re back home?”
“I’m not,” Felix said tersely. “I’m headed to Garreg Mach.”
“Going south for the winter? I think you made a wrong turn somewhere.”
“No,” Felix said again. He was getting a little skittish. “I was looking for your camp. To ask if you’d travel with me.”
Sylvain wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so he went for the evergreen option: “I’d love to take a vacation with you, Felix, but my troops might get the wrong impression. Plus all the pillaging and rubble makes Garreg Mach kind of a downer destination nowadays—”
“Would you let me finish?”
Sylvain shut up obligingly.
Felix studied his face, gauging for a reaction. “The boar’s trail leads to Garreg Mach.”
“Right,” Sylvain said. “I guess we’re still doing this, huh?”
Wrong reaction. Sylvain watched the defensiveness bloom across Felix’s face.
“He’s alive,” Felix said. “You think I don’t know how it sounds? You think I care about that?”
If Ingrid was the type of person who’d choose country, then Felix had chosen king. Three years of completely hypocritical ghost-hunting, like a bloodhound tracking its dead owner—that was Felix’s “After Dimitri” era.
Sylvain had heard those same rumors. So what? Either they were wrong and Dimitri was as dead as ever. Or they were right and Dimitri deliberately did not care to be found, and if they ever did find him, it would only be to watch their friend die in a whole new way, somehow slower, somehow worse. There was a level of belief that eventually became too heavy to carry. It didn’t feed you, it didn’t keep you warm. Sylvain had nowhere left to put it.
Felix continued, “I’ve already made contact with Ingrid. If we leave now, we can meet up with her by the month’s end.”
Sylvain stood up, interrupting, “I haven’t agreed to anything yet. I’m glad you got what you were looking for, I’m really happy for you, but I have responsibilities that I can’t just run out on.”
“You think I ran,” Felix repeated. He looked furious and hurt.
This was about to escalate, Sylvain could tell. Every little thing that’d numbed over inside of him now felt like it was thawing rapidly, revealing the bloody red pulp.
“Didn’t you? Felix, we’re losing up here. We’re running out of supplies, my soldiers are starving and freezing, I’m starving and freezing. We are going to lose. Where the fuck have you been?”
“You’re not the only one fighting this war,” Felix said poisonously.
“Really? Great. Thanks for clearing that up, I can sense the tide turning already—”
“—don’t patronize me, I don’t give a shit if you don’t believe me about Dimitri, but don’t act as if I took an easy way out while you were the single person to lose anything—”
“—we both lost Dimitri,” Sylvain gritted out. “Wanna guess how it felt to lose you too?”
Felix took a step back. Clenched and released a fist. He and Sylvain rarely argued for real, because Felix was someone who was useless to argue with and Sylvain was someone who had other cleaner methods of isolating himself. It was a new experience, to draw blood in this way.
A difficult silence filled the tent. When Felix spoke again, his voice was agonizingly level.
“So come with me, idiot. Don’t die alone up here.”
Sylvain felt his own anger and resentment drip out of him onto the ground. He was exhausted. This was exhausting. They were all just trying not to fucking die, right? For whatever reasons and by whatever means they each understood. Anything more hurtful or satisfying he could say to Felix would only be false. He wondered what would happen if he just told the truth. I missed you. Can you believe that?
“Momentary ceasefire?” Sylvain said instead.
Felix let out a harsh breath and scrubbed his gloved fingers through his hair, which was him saying “fine.” Out loud, he said flatly, “I didn’t come here to pick a fight.”
“I know,” Sylvain said. They both got enough worthless fighting done elsewhere.
Better to channel that energy in other ways. The anger was falling off of Felix too, leaving him a loaded, unfired weapon. Color stained his cheeks. His hair was a wind and snow-tangled mess. He stood there, stiff and guarded and waiting.
Sylvain stepped closer and watched Felix track the movement. It was almost deranged, how intense it felt just to walk across a tent. Felix’s eyes dragged down Sylvain’s chest under the open coat. When Sylvain stepped again, they came back up to fix on Sylvain’s mouth.
He stroked two knuckles down Felix’s cheek. Same as handling a spooked horse. Felix held himself perfectly still, looking up at Sylvain. Even after the number of times this had happened before, he never could make it easy.
“I know what you came here for,” Sylvain murmured.
Felix said, “Your lines haven’t improved,” but he turned his face almost imperceptibly, so that he was leaning into Sylvain’s hand.
Most of those other times, Sylvain’d had to make the first move. He was fine with that. It was never going to be a burden to kiss Felix.
Kissing someone you used to kiss a lot but hadn’t kissed in three years turned out to be more painfully familiar than it was brand new. Felix still kissed back the same way, a little sloppy, lunging up into it like he wanted to eat Sylvain alive. Sylvain was, to his own gratification, still taller and stronger, and when he gripped Felix’s waist firmly and sunk his tongue into Felix’s mouth, the little whimper of a noise Felix made got Sylvain hard in an instant. In retaliation Felix shoved both hands under Sylvain’s coat, feeling his abs and the muscles of his shoulders, scratching at his naked back.
Sylvain felt drunk. Oh, yeah. Escalation at its finest.
Eventually breathing had to take priority over grinding his thickening cock against Felix’s stomach. Felix wiped the back of his hand across his mouth, looking wild, pink all over like he’d already been fucked. He pushed Sylvain towards the cot. Sylvain let himself be pushed.
Felix removed his cloak first, then the double-wrapped sword belt from his hips. The gloves came off next. His hands worked over a truly gratuitous number of metal clasps and leather buckles until his outer layer of clothing fell to the ground.
Felix was amazing to look at. The sky could fall down around Sylvain’s ears, he could turn into a pillar of salt and he’d still be looking. At Felix’s face, his body. Those gaiters that went halfway up his thighs. It was like finding an early-blooming daffodil in the dead of winter, beautiful and shocking in its resilience. Felix would hate being compared to a flower, which only made Sylvain want to tell him to his face.
Instead Sylvain said, “C’mere, baby, let me get my mouth on you,” and Felix flushed but came anyway.
Sylvain sat Felix down onto the edge of the cot and knelt between Felix's open thighs. It neutralized most of their height difference (for Felix’s benefit, though Sylvain personally really enjoyed it) and left Sylvain in the perfect tactical position to suck little bruises along Felix’s throat.
“Did you think about me?” he asked, tugging Felix’s collar down to get at more skin. “I thought about you.”
“Yeah,” Felix breathed. Then, “Shut up.”
“Pass,” Sylvain said, and licked Felix’s scar, which made Felix squirm.
It was too cold to justify getting Felix all the way out of his remaining clothes, so Sylvain settled for sliding a hand up Felix’s inner shirt. Felix’s skin was overheating like it wasn’t sub-zero temperatures outside. His chest was already beginning to heave.
“You need this, huh?” Sylvain rubbed his thumb over a nipple. Felix shivered, tipping his head back for Sylvain’s mouth in a way that was thrilling and addictive. “How long has it been? You need me to make you feel good?”
Felix made an annoyed noise. He reached down and grabbed Sylvain’s erection through the cotton and squeezed. Sylvain bit into the meat of Felix’s shoulder. His hips pumped forward eagerly, chasing Felix’s hand. It’d been a while for him too.
“You’re projecting,” Felix said.
Sylvain caught Felix in another aggressive kiss. “Bet you my horse I make you come first,” he said.
Felix’s mouth was shiny wet. “Stop wasting time then. You have a nice horse.”
Sylvain grinned and bent his head down. He lifted Felix’s shirt up so he could kiss his bare stomach. He nudged Felix’s knees further apart so he could scrape his teeth against the inside of each thigh. Not exactly the pace either of them usually preferred, but it seemed like they deserved it, today, to take some time. Felix unlaced his own pants impatiently, but allowed Sylvain to be the one to pull out his pretty, flushed cock.
Sylvain wrapped his hand around the thick base. It felt even thicker in his mouth. Felix’s belly went taut as he hissed, “Fuck.”
Sylvain was a little rusty, but sucking cock was something he was categorically good at. He tugged Felix’s hips closer to get him deeper into his mouth. All the things he remembered Felix liking flooded back into him. Felix liked it relentless and dirty. Liked it when Sylvain was vocal, even though he’d never admit it, he’d never own up to just how much it affected him when Sylvain acted like he couldn’t get enough of Felix’s dick in his mouth.
Sylvain let the spit and precome smear all over his chin. He got a good rhythm going, Felix’s cockhead nudging the back of his throat, while Felix twitched and tried but failed to stay quiet above him.
He backed off for a second, got some air, and stole a glance up. Felix’s eyes were glassy. He was leaning back on his elbows, surrounded by sheepskin, breathing hard.
Sylvain couldn’t help himself. He reached up to touch Felix’s slack mouth, and Felix opened up even more to let Sylvain press two fingers inside.
“Look at you,” Sylvain said, voice rough, stroking Felix’s soft tongue.
Felix glared through his lashes. He sucked on Sylvain’s fingers defiantly, so well-behaved, and Sylvain’s body lit up with desperate arousal. Then Felix spat them back out and held the base of Sylvain’s skull and guided him down again.
Sylvain went obediently. He slid his mouth all the way back down until his forehead pressed against Felix’s sweaty stomach. Felix’s thighs flexed helplessly.
“Fuck,” Felix panted again, lost in it. “Sylvain.”
He wound his fingers into Sylvain’s hair, pulling mindlessly, a little too hard. Sylvain waved good-bye to the rest of his self-restraint and shoved a hand inside his own undergarments, grinding against the heel of his palm. He groaned in sheer relief. In reaction Felix’s cock pulsed against the back of his tongue.
Sylvain felt lightheaded. His jaw was deliciously sore. Sweat rolled down the nape of his neck. He was suffocating inside his coat, Felix made him so fucking hot. Even if he did make Felix come first, it was going to be a close contest.
Felix was both tightly controlled and incredibly responsive in bed. Hearing him ride that line was straight opium to Sylvain’s brain. Felix twisted up, fighting against it, and then finally he came down Sylvain’s throat with a high, hitched gasp. Goddess he’d missed him like crazy.
Sylvain gave Felix some time to calm down, for his cock to finish drooling into Sylvain’s mouth, before he had to pull away. He had to get a hand around himself, he was practically shaking.
He didn’t register Felix rising off the cot to kneel beside him until Felix was pushing his hand away and replacing it with his own. Sylvain choked out a sound and curled forward until his forehead met Felix’s shoulder. He watched his own cock leak all over Felix’s fist.
“C’mon,” he moaned against Felix’s neck. “I gotta—Felix.”
“I’m here,” Felix said, and set a punishing pace until Sylvain’s mind whited out and his orgasm was wrung out of him, shattering and intense.
There was a brief moment of total peace.
Then Felix said, “You’re too heavy,” which is what made Sylvain realize he’d allowed his entire weight to collapse against Felix. With a yawn, he dragged Felix up and arranged them both horizontally across the too-small cot.
They lay there, cooling off. Sylvain, who retained warmth more easily, relinquished most of the sheepskin to Felix. It was a tight fit, but not impossible, and anyway Sylvain’s muscles had become more relaxed, Felix’s mood more pliant.
The camp was mostly quiet outside the tent. Occasionally there was the sound of soldiers walking past. A weapon being sharpened on stone. Guess the war hadn’t miraculously ended yet.
“I came back for a few days, some months ago,” Felix said all of a sudden. He spoke haltingly to the loft of the tent. “You were gone on another campaign.”
He was confessing something here, even if neither of them fully understood what it was. The only response Sylvain could think of that felt right was to take Felix’s nearest hand and touch his face to the back of Felix’s palm, so he did.
Felix gave him a careful look, then sat up. This was a person who was fundamentally incapable of enjoying any afterglow.
He got dressed gradually as Sylvain watched. The sword belt. The cloak. Before the gloves went back on, Felix said, “Ceasefire over.”
Sylvain stretched his arms over his head. “Alright, hit me.”
“Come with me to Garreg Mach,” Felix said. “I’m not going to ask you again.”
Sylvain rolled onto his stomach. Felix’s back was turned. He knew that was Felix’s way of not demanding anything. His hair fell against his shoulders, black and stark against any snow. For a while Sylvain’d honestly assumed he just wouldn’t see Felix again. The visibility during Faerghus blizzards was so bad, it was easy to imagine never seeing anything again, only the bleak ten feet stretched out ahead of him.
Fully clothed, Felix finally looked over his shoulder back at Sylvain. It made no difference, Sylvain thought, whether he fought a failing war up here or a few hundred miles further south. But Felix was there, waiting, so Sylvain got up and followed, which at the end of the day was just another way of saying “faith.”