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Music For A While

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Music for a while

Shall all your cares beguile

 

Felix’s arrival in Fhirdiad is heralded, not by trumpets, but by a chorus of giggling.

Dimitri is in his office when it starts. He is trying to force a long series of numbers into his brain, but his concentration is interrupted by a sudden burst of feminine excitement. The familiar pattering of feet outside the door of his office. Excited whispers followed by nervous laughter and hissed conversations up and down the corridors.

“Oh no, look at my dress.”

“Is my hair all right?”

“What do you think? Shawl on or off?”

“Get back to work,” a sterner voice cuts in. But no sooner have the first girls scurried away than the next take their place, fretting about their appearance and shouting at each other for clips and pins.

Dimitri regrets, sometimes, that his office is in such a central part of the palace. He likes to be accessible, to be able to feel what is going on around him. People are usually mindful not to make too much noise when they pass him by. But when Felix arrives, all bets are off.

Setting down his quill, Dimitri leans back in his chair and rubs his eyes. It is nearly lunchtime. The summit starts right after, but he supposes he will just have to rely on his aides to recall exact numerical figures. There is no way he is going to memorise anything with the thrum of excitement running through the palace.

He gets to his feet and steps out onto his balcony.

The air still carries the bite of winter, but the spring sun shines down on his face. He takes a deep breath, enjoying the fresh air, then searches the courtyard below for Felix’s familiar figure.

There. Talking to a stable hand.

Dimitri leans against the railing and watches the exchange, taking more amusement from it than he should. Felix has grown into himself these last few years. He is a capable and efficient leader, a wise advisor, and though his manner remains curt he has a reputation as a just and even-handed man.

He is also, in must be said, startlingly handsome. He has always been good-looking, but these last few years have transformed him from attractive to heart-stopping. He is all dark hair and sharp angles, lean strength and the kind of bone structure that looks as though it came right out of a storybook. His mere presence is enough to send near half of Dimitri’s staff into helpless distraction.

Right before his eyes, Dimitri’s stable hand – a competent, experienced girl who can handle even the feistiest of stallions – has something of a meltdown. Drops the reins when Felix hands them to her, stumbles over her own feet in her haste to pick them up, then drops them again.

Dimitri should not laugh. He likes Elaine, and she is an excellent worker. She is never so clumsy when Dimitri dismounts from his own horse. They chat, in as much as any of his staff ever chat with him. Stiff, slightly awkward given their respective stations, but both of them attempting to ignore the divide while simultaneously paying each other utmost respect.

She is nice. Dimitri hopes Felix isn’t saying anything too unpleasant.

Once Elaine has the reins firmly in hand, Felix pats his horse’s flank and stalks off towards the palace. Either oblivious or apathetic to the way Elaine stares after him, her shoulders slumping.

Dimitri heads back inside. He knows Felix – Felix will come and speak to him directly. Sylvain is also due to arrive soon, but Dimitri is expecting him to wander into the first summit meeting late and unrepentant, as is his usual method.

A few minutes later Dimitri hears a sharp rap on the door. Two strikes, clean and sure.

“Come in,” he calls.

Felix strides in, and suddenly Dimitri understands Elaine’s fumbling. Felix’s hair is windswept, his eyes startlingly amber in his face, his cheeks flushed from the ride here. His expression is severe, but it only serves to bring out the sharpness of his cheekbones. He is, somehow, even more handsome than when Dimitri last saw him.

That should not be possible. Dimitri is not sure how he does it, for Felix is hardly a vain man. He is not the sort to waste time on primping, yet somehow, and with little effort on his part… Dimitri has known Felix for many years and through many indignities, but even he is blind-sided by Felix’s looks sometimes.

“Dimitri.”

Dimitri jolts out of his thoughts. Shakes his head and gestures towards a chair in front of his desk. All the giggling must be rubbing off on him.

“Felix,” Dimitri greets. “It is good to see you.”

Felix’s expression is one of cool disdain, but then, it usually is. “You haven’t done anything about your staff situation, I see.”

No further greeting, but Dimitri is not expecting one. Felix sits and crosses one leg over the other, and Dimitri finds himself following the motion of Felix’s lean, muscular thigh.

Dimitri has not been sleeping enough – he should not be so distracted.

He pulls himself together. “What happened this time?”

“One of your stable hands is ill-qualified for her position,” Felix says. “You’re too soft. You don’t have to hire every person who comes begging at your door, you know.”

“My staff are good at their jobs.” Dimitri remembers the look on Elaine’s face as she looked at Felix and fights down another surge of amusement. He really should not find this funny; it is unkind of him. He continues, hedging, “Perhaps they would not be so nervous if you were… well, a little friendlier with them.”

“I fail to see how I could intimidate them with you hulking about.” Felix gestures towards Dimitri, as though that should be proof enough of his argument.

“You would be surprised,” Dimitri says. Felix narrows his eyes, and Dimitri moves the conversation swiftly onwards. If Felix does not know the effect he has on people, Dimitri is certainly not going to be the one to tell him. “How was your journey?”

“Fine. Now, about my last letter.”

Never one for small talk, he launches immediately into the news from his own territory. He and Dimitri have been in frequent correspondence, of late. The war ended three years ago, but things are by no means settled. Three separate countries have become one, but tensions still remain. A feud between old families recently hit crisis point, and there has been an outburst of violence in the Fraldarius duchy.

Fortunately, Felix brings good news.

“Everything is under control now,” he says. “The main instigators have been punished, but I’ve allocated everyone else service to the community. They didn’t like being made to work together at first, but it seems to have smoothed things over.”

That part was Dimitri’s suggestion. Felix does not thank him, but open acknowledgment of the plan’s success is, from Felix, a grand gesture indeed.

“I am glad to hear it,” Dimitri says. He smiles warmly, and Felix’s eyes flicker away from him, as they so often do.

“I’m hungry,” Felix says. Conversation apparently over, he gets to his feet. Pauses, and looks back at Dimitri. Says, slightly awkward, “Are you coming?”

Felix is not by nature a hesitant man, but he speaks as though he does not wish to presume. If it were anyone else – Sylvain, Ingrid, Annette – he would have said ‘come on’. But with Dimitri, he asks. With Dimitri, he is uncharacteristically… well, Dimitri is not sure what the word is. Careful, perhaps. Felix is careful.

They have come a long way from Felix barking insults at him and demanding Dimitri fix things. But on the whole, Dimitri is not sure if this odd caution is any better.

“I would be glad to,” Dimitri says, despite the mountain of work on his desk.

They make their way downstairs. Quiet, but companionably so. Felix is a warm, familiar presence at his side, and Dimitri feels lighter than he has in months.

He gets so weighed down by his work, sometimes. There is never any reprieve, never any sign of letting up. No sooner does he solve one problem than a new one pops up and requires his immediate attention. Ruling Faerghus would have been task enough – ruling the whole of Fódlan is a task not even the greatest of his ancestors ever undertook. A task which, no matter how hard Dimitri works, seems insurmountable.

With Felix here, though, Dimitri can pretend. Can enjoy being in the company of one of his oldest friends, just two people spending time. Felix is not cowed by his position. Felix knows him, and tells Dimitri what he really thinks, and does not expect Dimitri to be perfect all the time, and the relief of that goes beyond words.

The feeling of lightness does not last, of course. They round the corner as the delegates from the Church of Seiros arrive, and Felix comes to a sudden halt. Dimitri takes a few more steps before he notices. Turns, confused, but Felix isn’t looking at him.

His gaze is fixed on one of the knights. A tall, strapping man in a shining suit of armour who spots Felix at about the same time. Murmurs something to his lady and bows low, then makes his way over to Felix. Bows again, a hand pressed over his heart and a broad smile on his face.

“Duke Fraldarius,” he says. His voice is warm and melodic. “How wonderful to see you again.”

“…Sir Wesley.” Felix’s reply is terse, but he holds out a hand for the knight to shake. Something… odd passes between them. Something hidden beneath Felix’s stern countenance and Sir Wesley’s smile.

Then, with a jolt of surprise, the knight spots Dimitri nearby. It is unusual, to say the least – Dimitri is generally hard to miss.

“Oh! Your Majesty, I beg your pardon.” Sir Wesley whips his helmet off his head, and his fair hair cascades around his face. It is only as long as his chin, but it moves in waves, shining as bright as his armour.

He bows even lower to Dimitri. “It is a great honour, your royal Majesty. I apologise for not greeting you properly. I am at your most humble service.”

Dimitri can feel his eyebrows rising. The man is effusive, to be sure. “Think nothing of it. You have met Duke Fraldarius, I take it?”

It is, apparently, the wrong thing to say. Felix’s face contorts into a grimace. He glares at Dimitri behind Sir Wesley’s back, and his cheeks go pink. Dimitri can only stare at him, helplessly, utterly confused as to what he has gotten wrong.

“We are old friends,” Sir Wesley tells Dimitri, oblivious to the exchange going on over his shoulder.

Felix turns on his heel and stalks off towards the dining hall. Sir Wesley straightens up, beaming, but whatever he means to say next dies when he turns around and sees Felix striding away. For a moment, even his golden hair seems to wilt.

It is all very strange. People usually flee from Felix, not the other way around.

“How long have you served as a knight?” Dimitri asks Sir Wesley. Continuing with the conversation as though everything is normal.

The knight turns back to him. Rallies admirably, but his smile has dimmed. “Three years, your Majesty. I am fortunate indeed to be sent on such an important mission. It is the highest honour.”

It is a national trade summit in peace time, but Dimitri appreciates his enthusiasm. “It is an honour to meet you. I hope your stay here will be comfortable. Now, please, take a moment to rest before the summit begins. You have travelled far.”

“I will, your Majesty, you are too kind.”

The knight returns to his lady – an academic-looking woman Dimitri vaguely recognises from other such meetings – and Dimitri follows Felix into the dining hall.

Felix sits at an otherwise empty table. The cloud of anger around him is an almost physical force.

Dimitri takes the seat beside him gingerly. “Is everything all right, Felix?”

Felix doesn’t look up from his steak. Hacks into it with his knife. “You didn’t have to talk to him.”

“I am the king. It is my job to talk to everybody.”

Felix’s hand stills. He makes an irritated noise – which, for him, is acknowledgment of Dimitri’s point – then returns his aggression to his meal.

This is not how Dimitri hoped to start their visit. He never seems to get things right with Felix, always has one fall-out or another, but this is a new record. He sees Felix rarely enough as it is. Letters are not the same, and Dimitri is so busy that he is hardly the world’s best correspondent.

“Has he offended you?” Dimitri says.

“Just leave it, will you?” Felix shoves himself out of his seat, his cutlery clattering onto his plate.

Dimitri thinks Felix is going to storm off. He can feel his heart sinking, but he does not understand what he did.

But… Felix pauses. Looks back at Dimitri, his brow furrowed. Says, reluctantly, “I… sorry. Just – I’ll see you later.”

It feels a bit like whiplash. Dimitri has no idea what to make of any of this. “As you wish.”

Felix’s mouth twists, and his eyes dart over Dimitri’s face with a look Dimitri cannot read. He does not say any more. Strides out of the hall, leaving most of his lunch untouched.

There is nothing for Dimitri to do but stare after him.

- - -

The first afternoon of the summit is purely introductory.

All the attendees gather together. Dimitri says a few words, welcoming them to Fhirdiad and thanking them all for attending. Various lords and ladies take their turn to speak, introducing themselves and their hopes for the summit. Sylvain, true to form, wanders in late, but it does not matter. He has not missed much – the real talks start tomorrow.

Dimitri is not looking forward to it. Trade summits are a special form of torture. In name, Fódlan is one unified country. As far as trade is concerned, however, it is about thirty. The lords jealously guard the resources within their respective territories, and none of them show any inclination of wanting to play nicely with the others. International trade is a simpler affair at present, and that is saying something.

Things will get easier. Three warring countries do not blend into one overnight, and old arguments are not quickly laid to rest. Dimitri is not an authoritarian king, and so will not order resources from one territory into another. As such, he must slowly coax cooperation from his lords and ladies. It is just going to take time. Time, and an awful lot of boring meetings.

He spends most of this one distracted by Felix. Felix’s dark mood has not let up. He sits at Dimitri’s right hand, and if Dimitri did now know him well, perhaps he would not notice his tension. Dimitri keeps trying to catch Felix’s eye, but Felix refuses. Stares blankly at whoever is talking, his eyes dark and expression forbidding.

As soon as the speeches are done, Felix all but bolts. Sylvain shares a look with Dimitri, his expression both amused and exasperated, and follows after Felix at a more sedate pace.

There is nothing for Dimitri to do, then. Whatever is bothering Felix, he is more likely to speak with Sylvain about it. They are close, in an easy kind of way Dimitri cannot imagine achieving with either of them.

Things are easier with Dedue. But Dedue is in Duscur.

Dimitri heads to his chambers. Takes a bath. Dresses again in his finery, tidies his hair, and checks the time. Just under an hour until he will be expected to re-emerge for the evening’s social event.

He feels tense, antsy. His mind keeps wandering back to Felix. To his glare, to his anger, to his apology and the hesitancy with which he approaches Dimitri. It seems like every time Dimitri sees him, Felix is further away. Dimitri’s advisor, Dimitri’s friend, but distant and careful and strange. And Dimitri does not understand why.

He forces himself to breathe out. He is tying himself up in knots. He needs to calm down.

He does what he usually does to calm himself these days. Dimitri makes his way over to the upright piano in the corner of his chambers and sits down.

Scales first. He takes two long, steady breaths and sets his fingers over the keys. C major, A natural minor, A harmonic minor… There are so many still to learn, but it is a slow process. Hard and laborious work, a process of repetition. The same thing over and over, until his clumsy fingers obey. Until he plays smoothly, rather than hacking at the keys with too-strong fingers.

He moves onto his songbook. Clunks his way through a simple arrangement of a famous piece, though Dimitri has never heard it before. He is, all things considered, a poor excuse for a music student, for he knows none of the songs or composers.

He is not playing well tonight, but it does not matter. With his mind focused on reading the music, other thoughts have little time to creep in. The tension building in his chest releases, bit by bit. The piano is an instrument of discipline, and discipline is one thing Dimitri has always understood.

He finishes the piece. Checks the time, and he has to get moving now. Almost immediately the tension comes flooding back in, because he does not want to take up his mantle again. He wears no crown, but sometimes he swears he can feel it, ringing his head, weighing him down. So very, very heavy.

Dimitri stands. Closes his songbook, sets his piano stool to rights. Pulls on his cloak and gives himself a last look in the mirror.

He does not look like a king, not like the kings of old. There is no glory, no magnificence. He looks like what he is – pale and tired and helplessly mortal. Only a man, and not a very good one at that.

- - -

The foyer is filled to the brim with people in the finest of clothing.

The heralds announce Dimitri’s arrival, as they always do, with a blast of pomp. Dimitri descends the staircase with a neutral expression fixed in place. There is a smattering of applause (it happens regularly, even though he has done nothing but walk down some stairs) and the moment his feet touch the floor of the foyer he is swamped by lord this and lady that. People shaking his hands and introducing every one of their relatives, and Dimitri dons a smile and welcomes them all.

Smile, bow, shake hand. Smile, bow, shake hand. By this point, it is almost mechanical.

When there is a lull in the stream of guests, he looks around the foyer for his friends. They never approach him at events like this – they always wait for him to come to them, if indeed he can find the time.

He wants to find time. Already he can feel his mask slipping, and even a moment’s reprieve would be welcome. Sylvain is around here somewhere, and he is always good company, always manages to make Dimitri laugh. Felix is here, Annette too, and Dimitri has not seen her in what feels like forever. He is assuming she made it here safely, for he did not have time to greet her on her arrival.

The Goddess smiles on him. The crowd parts and he catches a glimpse of bright red hair. Annette, tiny but unstoppable, gesticulating so wildly she almost loses the glass in her hand. And there, standing by her…

For a moment, Dimitri forgets what he is doing. Felix. Dressed in navy, the dark colour accentuating the narrowness of his waist and the long lines of his legs. His hair is loose around his shoulders, framing his angular, handsome face. He smiles, sudden and sharp, and Dimitri’s stomach flips.

Dimitri forces his attention back to where he stands, readying himself to greet the next wave of people.

During the next lull, Dimitri seizes his chance. He makes his way across the room to them, pretending not to notice when someone else tries to catch his attention.

“Your Majesty!” Annette chirps. She beams and leans up on her tiptoes. Dimitri takes the hint. Bends down so she can kiss his cheek, fond but restrained.

He smiles. But it occurs to him, with sudden and visceral clarity, that this is not how she will have greeted Felix. With Felix she needs no titles or caution. Dimitri has no doubt that she flung her arms around him the moment she saw him, exuberant as ever. Knows Felix, for all his embarrassment, will have allowed it. Will have returned it, his arms winding around her strong and sure. Even after all these years, she is never as easy with Dimitri.

Dimitri forces the thought down. His mind is unhelpful, sometimes. He does not know why he dwells on such things in the few precious moments he has with her.

Felix raises his eyebrows when Dimitri straightens up. Behind Felix, some ladies are whispering behind their fans, making gooey eyes at him and glaring daggers at Annette. Felix pays them little mind.

“Why are you dressed for a funeral?” Felix demands.

Annette elbows Felix in the side, but Dimitri is used to him. He looks down at himself. Black tunic, black belt, black gloves. Shirt and breeches, both black. The only pop of colour is a blue pin, the colour of his house, but these are some of his finest clothes. What does it matter if they are all black?

He usually wears black, these days. Colours feel… wrong, somehow.

“What is wrong with these?”

“Nothing, if you’re in mourning. I thought this was supposed to be a party.”

“I suppose I am not the partying type.”

Felix looks at him for a long moment. His jaw is tense, and there is something unreadable in his eyes. The moment passes when he turns his head away, folding his arms across his chest.

“It is good to see you, Annette,” Dimitri says. “I trust your students are treating you well.”

“Oh yes! Still, I’m looking forward to a break. The term is almost over.”

“I hope the concert will serve as a well-earned reprieve, then. I hear the performers are very good.”

“I can’t wait!” Annette is bouncing up and down. “I hardly got any sleep last night I was so excited.”

“And you stayed up late because you hadn’t marked all of your exams yet,” Felix cuts in. His expression opens up at he turns to look at her. His lips quirk – he is teasing her.

Felix is terribly fond of Annette. He never looks at Dimitri like that.

“You’re the worst, Felix,” she says, equally fond, and Dimitri’s stomach clenches. Things are so easy between them, but Dimitri…

“I will leave you to it,” he says abruptly.

Annette’s mouth opens in surprise, and he sees her exchange a look with Felix before Dimitri plunges back into the crowd. He does not look back.

He regrets his sudden exit once the pang fades. He has missed them, after all, and his distance from them is his own fault. He has no business envying them their closeness. He is so busy ruling that he has little time even for those he loves the most.

He has little time to dwell on it. Hears a voice from behind him.

“Good evening, your Majesty.”

The next wave of guests. Dimitri plasters on his smile and turns to greet them.

When it comes time to go into the concert hall, he looks around for Felix and Annette again. He should not have left them so rudely. Should have plastered his smile back on, but it is... harder with them, somehow. Harder to pretend.

He can sit with them, at the very least. Even if he is poor company otherwise. No one expects him to talk during the performance. He can just… be with them.

He cranes his neck and - there, up ahead, joining the stream of people moving into the hall. They make a fine picture, Felix offering his arm and Annette throwing back her head with a laugh. She slips her arm into Felix’s, her smile radiant.

Another pang, but Dimitri pushes through it. Strides towards them, determined not to be waylaid. His steps are quick and purposeful, and he should make it to them in time.

His eye, though, scans the periphery - checking, always checking - an instinct from years on the run. And he spies a young lady hovering alone on the side of the foyer. Sees her nerves in the twist of her hands, the craning of her neck as she looks around.

And Dimitri… Dimitri stops.

He has a moment of indecision. Felix and Annette are at the entrance to the hall, about to go in, and he will miss them if he dallies any longer. But the young lady is alone, searching the crowd with an increasingly panicked air about her, and he cannot just leave her there, surely.

He has a duty. He has a duty.

Dimitri changes his path. Felix and Annette disappear into the hall, and it feels like a blow, like a yawning chasm opens in his chest. Dimitri is a weak man. He is a king; he has no right to feel miserable over something as small as this.

He pulls himself together. He swore he would do right by his people, and acting like a gentleman is the least of his duties.

“Excuse me, my lady.”

The young lady starts. Her eyes widen as she looks up – and up, and up - at him. If possible, her nervous face turns even whiter.

Even dressed up in all his finery, there is no mistaking Dimitri for anything other than what he is. His scars speak for themselves. He cannot blame her for her trepidation.

“Are you waiting for someone?” he asks, as kindly as he can manage.

“Ah, n-no,” she stammers. “Just my p-parents, but I cannot see them.”

“Perhaps they have gone into the hall already. Would do me the honour?” He holds out his arm.

“Th-thank you, your Majesty.” She barely squeaks the words out, cannot meet his eyes, but she loops her arm through his all the same.

One of his aides is hovering by the doors to the concert hall. Probably intending to shepherd him into a seat chosen by the highest bidder, as is the usual way of things. Dimitri had hoped to avoid it. No chance, now.

“Am I correct in thinking your father is Lord Denmar?” he asks the young lady.

“Y-yes, your Majesty,” she says. “My name is Olivia.”

That rings a bell. “Lady Olivia, of course. The painter.”

Her head snaps up, and she is clearly startled that he remembers. He smiles down at her, and for a brief moment she smiles back. Her face goes from white to scarlet so quickly that he is astonished she does not faint, and she abruptly turns her attention back to her shoes.

Dimitri’s aide has indeed selected a seat for him, but he escorts Lady Olivia to her family first. Keeps a firm hold of her hand as she awkwardly negotiates the cramped aisle on her way to her seat, wobbling slightly in her heeled shoes.

“I hope you enjoy the concert, my lady.”

Her sisters, two glamorous-looking ladies with gentlemen of their own, are staring at him with open mouths. Lady Olivia’s cheeks are still scarlet as she nods in mute acknowledgment. Her mother not-so-surreptitiously nudges her.

“T-thank you, sire. Y-you as well,” Lady Olivia stammers out.

People were nervous enough around Dimitri when he was a prince, but that is nothing to how they are now.

“We are much obliged to you, your Majesty,” her father, Lord Denmar, adds quickly. He leans over the seats, and from the eager look on his face Dimitri can see another conversation coming.

“Not at all. Good evening to you,” Dimitri says, and hastens away before Lord Denmar can get started.

His own seat is right in the middle of some of the most well-to-do and demanding nobles in all of his kingdom. They talk at him in simpering, sycophantic tones until the performance begins, and Dimitri is finally granted reprieve.

It is a good show. Music and dancing, grand sweeping numbers that are met with much applause and gasping from the general audience. An extravagant performance to welcome guests from all across the continent.

Dimitri does not absorb any of it. He stares ahead, unfocused, heavy exhaustion weighing him down, and only his duty keeps him in his chair. He cannot relax, not in his present company, but as long as he keeps his eye fixed straight ahead no one will speak to him.

Noise, colour, light. They all blur into one. Cheers from the crowd, the thundering beat of the drum. Dimitri just sits.

Then the music turns quieter. A slow, melancholy piece starts, and Dimitri wakes from his stupor. Watches as a single male dancer takes the stage - a prince, Dimitri assumes from the costume, though he has not been following the story. The man dances, dark-haired and graceful, but it is the music that captures Dimitri’s attention. The music that washes over him, captivating him.

For a moment, the lights from the stage strike just right, and he sees Felix and Annette seated several rows ahead of him. Felix’s head tilts to look at Annette. The lights make his eyes shine, even from here. Dimitri traces the aristocratic line of his nose, the way the shadows play across his handsome face.

The music fits him, somehow. Fits with how Dimitri thinks of him, all fondness and regret.

The prince dances on, but Dimitri has eyes only for Felix, long after he turns away. Even as the last notes fade, and the stage explodes into noise and colour again.

Dimitri stays in the quiet melancholy. Shuts his eye, and tries to burn the melody into his brain. Sorrow, loneliness… hope. Suffering, fading away at last.

When he lays his head down that night, that melody lulls him off to sleep.

- - -

Trade discussions begin in earnest the next day.

Though the details have changed, the general gist of discussion is very much the same – that is to say, the same nonsense cropping up over and over again. Nobles from what was previously the Leicester Alliance banding together in stubborn refusal to trade grain with previously Imperial territories for anything less than an exorbitant price. Imperial territories retaliating with complaints about heavy usage of trade routes through their own lands, and why they should be entitled to tax road use extravagantly. Faerghus nobles chiming in with their own petty complaints, lamenting the restricted hunting rights along the borders of their territories and Imperial ones, demanding access to the heavily populated forests in the name of ‘fairness’. Never mind the families who have maintained those territories for hundreds of years and have no intention of yielding their sovereignty over any part of them.

It is spiteful, and it is petty. None of them have any serious complaints to bring to the table, only long-standing dislike and a burning desire to swell their own coffers as much as they can. The Faerghus-Imperial-Leicester divides are not the only problem, either, for the nobles dislike their immediate neighbours every bit as much as they dislike their once-enemies.

“We have heard your arguments on leather trade several times,” Dimitri cuts in when it looks like the representatives from House Varley and House Hevring might come to physical blows. “I suggest we lay the subject to rest.”

Whatever issues it has caused with Felix, Sir Wesley’s presence, surprisingly enough, proves to be a great asset. As far as Dimitri understands it, he is here to escort the Church representative beside him. Not a diplomat, but a guard. He does not act like one. Speaks loudly and regularly, with the same unstoppable enthusiasm as when Dimitri first met him.

“Hear hear, your Majesty!” he says. “Let us make peace, my noble friends. What are neighbours for, but to help each other in times of need? And, of course, to amuse each other with our folly.”

It is a joke. He grins broadly, and to Dimitri’s surprise the room laughs with him.

Dimitri does not know how he does it. The meeting goes on, dull and intermittently hostile as ever, but Sir Wesley’s presence is a soothing balm. He laughs, he jokes, he slaps the table emphatically whenever he makes a point. And nobody seems to mind. Dimitri does not mind, even when Sir Wesley derails the whole thing in order to tell a long anecdote about a pub crawl that ended with him up on top of a mountain with no memory of how he got there.

No one interrupts him. The man is just so charming. Even without his armour, he gleams. He leans into the table, smiling at every person there, and all of them – even the most ill-tempered – lean in with him. Not even Felix interrupts the man, though his expression is pinched.

When they are done for the day, they have made more progress than Dimitri anticipated. He calls the knight to him.

“Sir Wesley.”

The knight comes at once, inclining his head respectfully. There is enough noise as the attendees speak among themselves to cover their conversation. Felix, though, watches with sharp eyes as he tidies his things.

“You have quite a way with people,” Dimitri says. “Thank you for your work today.”

The knight looks startled. Then a slow smile spreads across his face. He bows, low at the waist. “You honour me, your Majesty.”

Felix shuts his notebook with a loud snap. Dimitri looks over at him, but Felix refuses to make eye contact. He is about to go to him when Sylvain makes an inopportune appearance, materialising by Dimitri’s elbow and tugging him away. Sylvain’s grip is like iron, and Dimitri has no choice but to go. Still, he does not miss the way Sir Wesley turns to look at Felix, or Felix’s answering glare.

“I have a friend I’d like you to meet,” Sylvain says, and all but drags Dimitri over to where a finely dressed lady stands waiting.

The lady giggles and curtsies and holds her hand out for Dimitri to kiss. He does, but he is unsure why Sylvain gives him such a heavy look and then abandons them. She is a pretty woman, very much Sylvain’s type. Surely Sylvain wishes to see her too.

The lady is looking at him expectantly, so Dimitri starts the conversation. “Are you enjoying your stay in Fhirdiad?”

She twirls her hair with her finger. Her jewellery tinkles with the motion, and her perfume is delicate and feminine. Not overpowering, which Dimitri appreciates, for many women seem to drench themselves in scent.

“It is a remarkable city,” she says. “And I must say, it is an honour to meet you at last, your Majesty. I have heard so much of you from Margrave Gautier.”

“Indeed?”

“Of course.” She blinks rapidly, in a way that suggests she has something in her eyes. Fortunately it resolves quickly. “He and I are good friends. It is a delight indeed to finally meet you. The stories do not do you justice.”

“You are too kind.” Dimitri looks away, trying not to seem as awkward as he feels. His eyes alight on Felix once more.

Felix, standing in the corner with Sir Wesley, having what looks like an argument. His hand gestures are sharp and precise. There is a frown on Sir Wesley’s face, and his hands are held in front of him placatingly.

“You are too modest,” the lady says. Laughs, soft and feminine.

Dimitri turns back to her. “I beg you would excuse me, my lady. I have much work to do.”

“Of course, your Majesty,” she says. Then, slightly rushed, “I hope I will have the pleasure of dancing with you at the ball.”

“The pleasure will be all mine, I am sure.”

He bows, swift, and he can only hope he has not offended her as he walks away. There is a distinct downward turn to her mouth.

“Dimitri.” Sylvain re-materialises. Gives Dimitri a look.

“What?” Dimitri says as he gathers his own things from the table. Still watching Felix and Sir Wesley in his peripheral vision. Felix throws his hands in the air and stalks out the door, and Sir Wesley makes as if to follow before clearly thinking better of it.

Old friends, he said. Yet Felix has never mentioned him before, and is not happy to see him now.

Sylvain sighs deeply. “You’re hopeless, you know that?”

“Why? What did I do?”

Sylvain just claps him on the arm, his smile rueful. Shakes his head, then wanders off again.

- - -

Dimitri stumbles unexpectedly across Felix as he makes his way back to his office.

Felix has found a balcony on one of the less-frequented routes through the palace. Leans over the railing, and even with Felix’s back to him Dimitri can that see he is angry. Everything about his posture is forbidding, and Dimitri certainly did not come this way in order to chase him.

Felix is still not speaking to him, not really. His anger is not directed at Dimitri, but that does not make it Dimitri’s place to pry. Whatever is wrong, Dimitri does not want to make it worse.

He hesitates. Wonders if he should find Sylvain or Annette.

In the end, he is not given the choice. Felix looks around and sees him hovering in the corridor. He scowls, but he does not tell Dimitri to go away. For him, that is almost an invitation.

Dimitri approaches slowly, as one might approach a wildcat. He wonders what he should say. Settles on, “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” Typical Felix.

Dimitri looks over the railing, following Felix’s sightline. Over the courtyard, across the grounds, and into the city beyond.

Felix shifts beside him. Shoots Dimitri a look, looks away again. Stares down at his own hands, his shoulders drawing up to his ears. As though he is uncomfortable being so close to Dimitri.

The thought is not a happy one.

“Is Sir Wesley bothering you?” Dimitri asks, because that, at least, he can do something about.

“No.”

Dimitri looks out over the city again. Forcing his eyes away from the handsome lines of Felix’s face. “You do not have to speak to me if you do not wish to, Felix. I do understand. But I can clearly see something is the matter. I would like to help you, if there is anything I can do.”

Felix huffs, “Dimitri.” Goes quiet again.

For a few long moments, they stand in silence. The tension builds, and Felix’s hands grow twitchy.

Dimitri sighs. Turns to leave. Wonders, not for the first time, how he has driven Felix so far away from him that the rift between them will never be fixed. That they will be civil but strange with each other. That Felix no longer hates him, but it is almost as if he is indifferent, and somehow that is worse.

“Ugh.” Felix scrubs a hand over his face, pushing back his loose strands of hair. “Fine, I’ll talk,” he says, as though Dimitri is twisting his arm. “Just… not here.”

Dimitri’s surprise must be written all across his face, for Felix scowls and his eyes dart away.

“All right,” Dimitri says.

They end up in Dimitri’s office. Felix throws himself into the seat in front of Dimitri’s desk. Dimitri has another moment of indecision as he tries to decide what he should do – whether he should stand, or pull up a chair beside Felix, or sit in his usual chair with the desk between them as they do when they meet king to duke.

He goes with the latter.

“I didn’t know he’d be coming here,” Felix mutters, less to Dimitri and more to his own boots. His cheeks are a dull red, and his arms are folded tightly across his chest.

“No?” Dimitri is not sure what else to say. Treads lightly, while Felix is offering information of his own free will.

“He’s such a -” Felix cuts himself off. Breathes out, and the anger on his face is all too familiar. After all, it is how he used to look at Dimitri. “He’s annoying. But his presence is clearly helping you in the meetings, so I won’t get in the way.”

“You need not suffer for my sake, Felix. I can have a word with-”

“No. It’s fine.”

Dimitri studies him. It clearly isn’t. “He said you were old friends. I take it you do not feel the same?”

Felix shoots Dimitri a withering look. Dimitri expects him to storm out then and there, but to his surprise, Felix subsides in his chair.

“We have… a history.” Felix’s tone is weighted, and his flush deepens.

Dimitri stares at him. Waiting for more, but no more comes. “Oh?”

Felix looks at him in disbelief. His face is so red the colour has even spread to his ears. Through gritted teeth, he elaborates, “We were involved.”

“Involved?” Dimitri repeats dumbly. Felix is looking anywhere but Dimitri now, but why should he be so embarra-

Oh. Oh. Involved.

“I… I see,” Dimitri forces out. His chest feels oddly cold all of a sudden.

Felix’s face is turned from him, and Dimitri’s eyes trace the long length of his lashes, the sharp line of Felix’s jaw. Linger on Felix’s lips, slightly parted, and to think he and – he and Sir Wesley -

Dimitri clears his throat. Forces the – whatever he is feeling deep, deep down.

“I see,” he repeats. “If you find his presence… uncomfortable I am certain we can find a way to keep you at a distance.”

Felix’s head snaps around. He meets Dimitri’s gaze dead-on, which he so rarely does, and his expression is oddly intense. “Is that all?”

Dimitri forces a smile onto his face. Hopes it does not look at painful as it feels.

“Do you require anything else from me?” Then, he realises he may have misinterpreted. “If you parted ways in an amicable fashion, then of course there is no problem. I apologise, I should not have presumed-”

“No,” Felix interjects. He slouches back into his chair. Kicks at Dimitri’s desk with his boot. “Keep that oaf away from me.”

This new bit of information jolts Dimitri in an entirely different way. Oaf? “What did he do? If he has wronged you-”

No, just -” Felix interrupts again. “Just… leave it.”

“All right,” Dimitri says, but his mind is already whirling with possibilities. Studying Felix, as though doing so will uncover a clue.

Sir Wesley seems like a pleasant man. Seems. He is very charming – charming enough, perhaps, that he might be hiding a darker side underneath. Charming enough even a man like Felix could fall under his sway. There are those who make a cruel game of wooing. Those whose charm is only superficial, and acts as a disguise for a predator.

Dimitri cannot imagine Felix falling victim to a predatory type, but then, everyone has their blind spots. Even Felix, for all his pride and terse opinions, is not infallible.

Dimitri’s opinion of Sir Wesley sours dramatically.

“Whatever it is you’re thinking,” Felix says, “stop it.”

Dimitri startles. “I did not say anything.”

“I can see you thinking,” Felix snaps. “I don’t need you to start – defending my honour, or whatever hare-brained idea pops into your mind.”

“Does your honour need defending?” Dimitri’s mood darkens further. What did Sir Wesley do?

Felix groans loudly. “No, you stupid-”

Felix cuts himself off before he can call Dimitri boar. Last year Dimitri asked him, rather awkwardly and after many months of consideration, to stop. He knows Felix does not mean it as the insult it used to be, but that does not stop its sting. Does not stop it reminding him acutely of the darkest time in his life. Felix, to his credit, has stopped, though the habit is so ingrained he still occasionally slips up.

“It was nothing, Dimitri. There’s nothing to be angry about. Just leave it alone.”

Dimitri isn’t angry, not exactly. Anger doesn’t explain the cold feeling reaching all the way down to his toes. Doesn’t explain the roiling in his stomach, or the odd tightness in his throat.

He takes a breath. “As you wish.” Another thought occurs. “You never told me you were seeing someone.”

“Because it’s none of your business,” Felix snaps.

Dimitri’s mouth snaps shut. And he knows, he knows he has no right, and that Felix owes him nothing. He knows that his friendship with Felix will never be what it was when they were children.

Still, it hurts. And Dimitri is not quick enough to keep the hurt to himself. Flinches backwards before he gets his response under control. Fixes his eye on the wood of his desk, because suddenly he cannot look at Felix.

He hears Felix exhale. The sound of Felix pushing his hair roughly from his face.

“That isn’t what… I didn’t mean it like…” Felix says.

“No,” Dimitri says quickly. “No, I understand. I have no right to pry.”

He pushes his chair back abruptly. Stands and goes over to look out the window, just so he can take a moment to compose himself. So Felix cannot read his face, which Dimitri has never managed to get entirely under his control.

Dimitri,” Felix says, but Dimitri doesn’t know what he wants from him. All he can do is try and smooth over the cracks.

“I apologise,” Dimitri says.

He hears Felix take a deep breath – fighting down his temper, perhaps – then the sound of Felix’s own chair scraping back.

“It was just… it wasn’t anything important, all right? I’m not one to go around telling people about my private life anyway.”

Felix’s private life. A clear box around it. A private life, which Dimitri has no part in. Even after all this time.

“I know.”

Silence falls. A clock ticks in the corner of Dimitri’s office. A sharp inhalation of breath from Felix, as though he means to speak – then more silence.

Dimitri gets himself under control. Turns and smiles, sweeping back to his desk as though nothing has happened. “We shall keep arrangements as they are, then. My aide will be pleased. She gets very particular about these things.”

He starts moving his papers around. Ordering his notes from the day’s meeting.

Felix hovers in place, just for a moment. His hands makes a movement towards Dimitri, as though he means to reach out. Stops. Returns to his side.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” Felix says. Oddly emphatic, and even without looking Dimitri can feel Felix’s eyes boring into him.

“Tomorrow.”

Another moment. Then he hears Felix’s footsteps moving across the room.

As soon as the door shuts behind him, Dimitri slumps into his chair. Buries his face in his hands and lets out a shaky breath. His stomach churns, and it feels as though he has swallowed a lump of lead.

It is none of his business, he reminds himself. None of his business.

His head knows this. If only his heart would get the message.

Chapter Text

It seems like Sir Wesley is everywhere Dimitri goes.

Every time Dimitri turns around, there is Sir Wesley. Talking loudly, slinging his arms around people, laughing with his head thrown back. Carefree and dashing, and the ladies of the palace titter over him almost as much as they do over Felix.

“Good day, your Majesty!” Sir Wesley greets whenever Dimitri passes him by.

“A fine bout, your Majesty!” when Dimitri wins a sparring match.

“A noble horse indeed, your Majesty!” when Dimitri mounts up, as some of the visiting nobles have expressed a desire to go riding.

No matter what Dimitri does, there is Sir Wesley, singing his praises with that never-ending enthusiasm and a flourishing bow. His moods are as golden as his hair, and even out of armour, he seems to gleam wherever he goes.

Dimitri grits his teeth and forces himself to grind out the endless mantra – “Thank you, Sir Wesley” - when gratitude is the last thing he feels.

He does not want to talk to Sir Wesley. Dimitri is curt one moment then guilty the next, because what happened between Felix and Sir Wesley is not Dimitri’s business. He is being churlish, for Sir Wesley is his most stalwart supporter, and he has done nothing untoward. Admittedly he is a little loud, and admittedly he wears his clothing tight enough that his biceps threaten to burst out of his shirt, but these are not fair reasons not to like the man.

But Dimitri does not like him. He does not like him at all, because he is a pathetic excuse for a king sometimes. Sir Wesley is doing him nothing but favours – his mere presence has generated more good-will between the lords and ladies than anything Dimitri has tried over the course of three full years – but Dimitri still does not like him. Looks at Sir Wesley’s bright smile and feels his heart drop into his stomach. Feels that cold feeling spreading through his veins, because while Felix does not like Sir Wesley now he must have liked him at some point, because he – because they -

Dimitri does not sleep much, the next few nights. Tosses and turns and jerks awake to the kind of nightmares that drench him in cold sweat. Vivid and gory and so real that he cannot stop shaking. That he gets up and paces his room, heart leaping in fright at shadows just on the edge of his vision. Whispers of things not really there.

Without sleep, the next few days of meetings turn from torture to living death. Dimitri is so tired it is physically painful, his adrenaline glands so overworked from his night terrors that his entire body is in a constant state of distress. He gets through them through sheer force of will, for he is well-practiced in ignoring physical misery. But Sir Wesley’s presence is a different misery all together. Sir Wesley talks and talks and talks, and the room adores him, and Dimitri does not like him. Wants nothing more than for Sir Wesley to disappear off the face of the earth just so Dimitri can sleep again.

(His nightmares are not Sir Wesley’s fault. Dimitri has them from time to time, periods where they prevent him from sleeping. Periods where his brain conjures up the worst images and torments him with them, triggered with little rhyme or reason. His nightmares have nothing to do with Sir Wesley, or Felix, or anyone else. Still. They did not start until this whole business with Sir Wesley, and no matter how irrational, part of Dimitri blames him anyway.)

Today, Dimitri can barely drag himself out of bed. Lies wrapped in his blankets with the clock steadily ticking, though it has been hours since he woke up. Hours since a particularly unpleasant nightmare jolted him from sleep, and he has not dared to close his eyes again. He does not want to get up. Does not want to face the day ahead of him.

The clock ticks on. Dimitri is the king, now and forever. He has no choice.

He forces himself out of bed and goes to splash his face in his washroom. Stares at his reflection in the mirror, at the black rings under his eyes, at his pallid skin, at the ugly, scarred pit where his eye used to be. The mark of his sins, written across his face for all to see.

Dimitri heads back into his bed chamber. Goes through the motions of getting dressed with little thought, too tired to spend the energy on worrying over his hair. He pulls on his eye patch, breeches, socks. Hesitates, though, when he goes to pick a shirt.

Why are you dressed for a funeral?

He picks through the endless sea of black to the white shirt at the back of his wardrobe. Reaches out to touch it, then hesitates again. He thinks of Felix’s effortless, elegant handsomeness, of Sir Wesley’s bright colours so perfectly complementing his golden hair. Thinks of the face Dimitri sees when he looks in the mirror.

The colour of his shirt is hardly going to make a difference. Cursing himself for being so foolish, Dimitri shoves the white shirt back into the depths of his wardrobe and dresses in his usual black.

- - -

Dimitri is on his way to the gardens when the sound of hurried footsteps makes him turn around. Lord Denmar, the father of the young lady from the other night, is practically jogging along the path after him.

“Your Majesty! A beautiful morning, is it not?” The man must have been waiting for him, and is hurrying to catch up. Dimitri took a shortcut, clearly to Lord Denmar’s surprise. The man’s face is red with exertion. “I am very glad to have caught you alone, sire, before the entertainments begin.”

“Indeed.” Dimitri’s reply is delayed, and takes far too much effort to muster. Not a good sign, for he has a long day ahead of him. It does not bode well that he is already feeling as if his body and his mind are disconnected. Already fighting down a flare of irrational irritation.

“I hoped to have the opportunity to speak with you, one man to another. Forgive me for saying so, your Majesty, but my wife is terribly taken with you.” The lord laughs, loud and jolly and all together far too chummy. Too forced.

“You are too kind,” Dimitri manages.

“Nonsense, nonsense. You were very good to our Olivia the other evening. Any mother would delight in such gentlemanly attention being shown her daughter.” No good deed goes unpunished, it seems. “My wife practically begged me for the pleasure of your company this morning.”

Lord Denmar goes quiet, awaiting a reply. But Dimitri has nothing to say to that - nothing civil, anyway. He forces himself to focus on his breathing rather than risk saying something that might cause offence. It is harder than it should be. Lord Denmar’s eyes gleam with foolish schemes and ambition.

The silences stretches on. Eventually, the lord fills it. “Olivia is also eager to know you better, sire. She would never be so forward, of course - you know how modest young ladies can be. Her older sisters are both engaged to be married, but Olivia has little experience of men. She is a sweet girl. Very docile. Very agreeable.”

Dimitri knows this. Knows, at least, that her terror of him rendered her near silent, whatever her father’s aspirations. Denmar is not the first lord to try and force his daughter into Dimitri’s path. Undoubtedly, he will not be the last.

Normally, Dimitri would brush it off. He has had a lifetime of people latching onto him in their own ambition. Many parents are besotted with the idea of their children ascending to the throne, never mind who happens to be seated beside them. But Olivia… she is a sweet girl, surely no older than seventeen. Still a child. And everyone in Fódlan knows Dimitri is a violent man. Knows the bloody path he cleaved for his throne, yet for status Lord Denmar would hand the poor girl over to him like a head of cattle.

For a moment, Dimitri is angry. Far more angry than he should be, something inside him tipping over.

“I pity your daughter, Denmar.” The worlds leave Dimitri in a low growl. Vicious, and he can see the way Lord Denmar flinches back, the shock marring the man’s features.

“Sire?”

For a moment, Dimitri wrestles with himself. He knows, he knows he is overreacting. Is unslept and irrational and his judgment is impaired. But the anger is real and visceral, clawing at his insides, and if he could let go, just this once -

Dimitri takes a breath, then another. Forces the anger down, down, down. It is like swallowing acid.

“I am sure she has many admirers.” His voice is a better approximation of polite. “I fear a man with my history is not the best entertainment for young ladies, my lord.”

“You are too humble, sire,” Lord Denmar says. Apparently back on safer ground, he launches into a long list of his daughter’s other virtues. Most of which, when it comes to it, boil down to obedience.

Dimitri tunes him out. Focuses on quelling the irritation still simmering in his gut. He thinks of Felix, his amber eyes piercing and his jaw stubborn. Thinks of Felix’s temper, his sharp tongue, his independence. Ferocious and brutal in his honesty, unwavering in the pursuit of his goals. He thinks of Felix’s refusal to back down, from anything and anyone, when Felix believes he is right.

He thinks of Felix’s rare smiles, of the way his hair falls around his face when he has been riding. Thinks of the brisk nod of Felix’s head when he approves of something, the twitch of his lips when Felix is disguising amusement. Dimitri thinks of the way Felix looked on the night of the concert, illuminated by the lights from the stage with the music playing so sweet and melancholy.

The melody is out of the reach of Dimitri’s memory. Teasing around the edges of his mind. He needs to hear it again, with an urgency that does not entirely make sense even within his own mind.

Lord Denmar is still talking, sycophantic, but Dimitri thinks of the music.

He is able to shake off Lord Denmar when they reach the rose garden. There are no meetings today, but a garden party. Dimitri’s aides insisted upon it – a summit cannot be all business, and must provide opportunities for social connections too. Dimitri sees the wisdom of it, tempting as it is to about-face and run off in the other direction.

It is early, but the garden is already thronged with people. Some are admiring the spring flowers, others lamenting the lingering chill in the air. It is still early in the year – surely it should not be a surprise.

Dimitri wants nothing more than to go back to his chambers and climb into his bed again, fruitless as sleeping proves to be. But he forces down his lingering irritability, pastes on his best approximation of good humour and moves amongst his guests. Fills his mouth with the kind of small talk he barely remembers afterwards - the roses are lovely, the day will warm up soon, thank goodness winter is finally over. The same script on repeat.

True to Lord Denmar’s threats, Lady Denmar pulls Dimitri over to her daughter as soon as she is able, hinting unsubtly all the while. Her parents make some flimsy excuses to leave them alone together – Lord Denmar even has the gall to wink at Dimitri, and it is all he can do to bite his tongue. The girl’s face is so red she looks as though she might spontaneously combust. She cannot bear to look at him, her hands twisting the fabric of her skirts.

Dimitri softens, almost in spite of himself. She really is just a girl. Her parents are not her fault, nor is Dimitri’s ill temper. It would be unfair of him to be unkind to her. Confronted with her agonising shyness, though, Dimitri is unsure what to say to her. Still battling his own bad mood, and slow thinking because of it.

He is casting around for a topic when he spies a familiar head of red hair in the crowd. For a moment he thinks he is mistaken - surely Annette should be teaching at this hour. But when she moves closer, there is no mistaking her.

“Annette!”

Annette turns. It takes her a moment to locate him, but when she does her face lights up in a smile.

“Your Majesty!” She hustles over to him, dropping into a quick curtsy. Clearly getting it out of the way, because she bounces upright again and starts craning her head around the crowd. Looking for someone, though she is too little so see over any heads.

“This is a pleasant surprise,” Dimitri says. “I was not expecting to see you this morning.”

“Felix wants me. Have you seen him?” Annette bites at her lip as she looks around, uncharacteristically subdued. Concerned, Dimitri thinks, and suddenly his sluggish mind races.

Felix wants her. Why? Because of Sir Wesley? The matter must be serious, then, if he has called on Annette for support. Even though he will barely speak to Dimitri, about this or anything else. Dimitri has not even seen him this morning, and-

Later. This is not helping. Dimitri will deal with those feelings later, though this surge is even harder to force down than the last.

None of his business, he reminds himself. Felix has every right to keep his distance. Just breathe.

“I confess I have not,” Dimitri says as mildly as he can manage. He does, he thinks, a good job of it. Then he remembers that they have an audience, and is even gladder for his restraint. “Annette, may I introduce you to Lady Olivia?”

Annette starts, as though she did not realise anyone else was there. When she sees the young lady, though, her face warms immediately. While Dimitri has a soft spot for children, Annette positively adores young people of all ages. She, at least, will know what to say to the girl.

“Annette is the prize instructor as the Royal School of Sorcery,” Dimitri says. “And an old friend of mine.”

Annette swats his arm, but she is smiling. “You don’t have to flatter me.” Then, to Lady Olivia, “It’s lovely to meet you!”

“And you. I am honoured to meet a friend of the king’s,” Lady Olivia says. No stammer, and noticeably easier now she is speaking to Annette. But then, Annette has that way with young people – with all people, if he is honest. She is a bright spark of joy wherever she goes.

Lady Olivia’s eyes flick back to Dimitri, just briefly, then she flushes and ducks her head.

“Lady Olivia enjoys painting,” Dimitri says. “I was just about to tell her of our gallery here in the palace.”

The thought only just occurred to him, but it seems as good an idea as any.

“Oh, you must see it,” Annette says. “There’s some very beautiful artwork, and a very dashing portrait of his Majesty.”

Dimitri bites down a groan in the nick of time. He hates that painting, and the knowledge of its existence is deeply embarrassing. Still, that feeling is a private thing. He should certainly not complain about it in his present company.

Lady Olivia blushes deeper. Her hand flits to her hair, and she is grinding her toe into the dirt. Her eyes keep darting up to Dimitri then away again.

“I should be delighted to s-see a portrait of his M-Majesty.”

There is her stammer again.

“There is no need,” Dimitri assures her. He certainly does not want to oblige her to go and see it. He would rather nobody saw it, ever.

“It’s very good,” Annette says. She shoots Dimitri an impish look, then leans in to speak to the girl. “His Majesty cuts a fine figure in his armour.”

The girl makes a squeaking noise, then blanches in mortification. She fixes her gaze once more on her shoes. Annette nudges Dimitri’s side. Clearly meaning to share a joke, but Dimitri has no idea what she means, or why she would find Lady Olivia’s nervousness around him funny.

Annette must see his lack of comprehension in his face. For a moment she looks torn between exasperation and fondness. Reaches out, somewhat inexplicably, to swat Dimitri’s arm again before she takes pity on the poor young lady.

“I’m starving,” Annette announces. “I don’t suppose you could show me where the food is, Lady Olivia?”

The girl takes the out gratefully. Curtsies, casting Dimitri another one of those darting looks, then leads Annette away. Annette reaches out for her as they go, squeezing an arm around the girl’s shoulders. Quite literally taking the girl under her wing. Kind, always kind, as though it is easy.

Dimitri goes back to his duty. Talking, endless talking. Lunch, then an afternoon of croquet, which Dimitri has never seen the point in. But he has to pretend. Swing his stupid mallet and clap politely when other people do the same.

He wants so badly to sleep. To ease the dull pounding in his head and the tension in his chest, the persistent feeling of irritation that simmers just below the surface. It is a constant, niggling discomfort, and he has to watch every word that leaves his mouth.

He forces himself through one round of croquet, then cries off the next with the excuse of needing a drink. He hovers by the table for far too long. Nominally listening to an elderly countess, but mainly just nodding along while his mind wanders, spinning his croquet mallet idly between his fingers.

As his eyes rove, he finally spots Felix, over on the edge of the rose garden, striding out of the surrounding trees. Walking swiftly, the sun shining off his dark hair. The light brings out the stark definition of his features, sharp and dangerous and untouchable. It takes Dimitri a moment to remember that he needs to breathe - sometimes, just seeing Felix is a punch to the gut.

Annette bursts into view a moment after. Hurrying after Felix, chasing him. Her hands fly around her face and Dimitri can see her mouth moving. Clearly trying to reason with Felix, even as he stalks away.

Dimitri takes a step towards them before he remembers himself. Hesitates, wondering what he should do. He is used to Felix’s anger. Knows it well, after all, and Annette is too sweet to weather the worst of Felix’s temper alone. Dimitri can handle him. Perhaps Dimitri could -

The thought dies a moment later. Sir Wesley appears from another direction, and Felix stops dead.

For a moment, they are oddly frozen in time. A picture frame – Annette, Felix, Sir Wesley - caught in a moment of flight. Felix half running, Annette reaching for him, Sir Wesley’s presence stopping them both dead.

The moment is broken when Sir Wesley moves. He walks forward slowly, almost cautiously. Bows, with a hand placed over his heart. Felix does not bow back, his arms folded tightly over his chest. Sir Wesley gestures along the pathway, clearly inviting Felix to walk with him.

Felix’s initial refusal is obvious. He whirls away, but stops again when he sees Annette blocking his path. She says something and slowly, ever so slowly, Felix turns back. Stares at Sir Wesley. Raises his chin, proud as ever, but inclines his head. Capitulates. Goes with him, falling into step side by side and leaving Annette behind.

Dimitri’s croquet mallet snaps. The sound of it startles him and he looks down to find its handle broken clean in two. Looks up, and Felix and Sir Wesley are gone.

- - -

Dimitri returns to his chambers long after dinner, when the night is dark and he is finally, finally free of obligation.

Tonight, he is so tired that his feet drag behind him as he crosses the threshold. It is the worst kind of tiredness, his body like lead but his mind racing a mile a minute. His bad temper has given way at last, but in its place comes melancholy. Memories dancing around the corners of his mind. Memories he does not want to relive.

There is a rushing noise in his ears. Hissing, whispers, just outside the reach of his understanding. Too quiet to understand what they are saying. They will not stay so forever.

Dimitri undresses as soon as he closes the door behind him. He strips down until he is only in his shirt and breeches, dumping his finery on the floor even though he knows he should pick it up. Should at least put it on a chair.

His eye patch is the only thing he is careful with. He pulls it off, setting it on his dresser. Misplacing it is worse than an annoyance – he cannot leave his chambers without it. The scarring underneath is too abhorrent.

It is late. He is so tired, but he already knows he will not sleep, not with the whispers. They will grow louder and louder. He can feel unwelcome thoughts clawing at the edges of his mind. His breathing is coming too fast, and the pressure on his chest is suffocating. He wants - he needs -

Dimitri sits down at the piano. Plays a scale with his right hand, focusing on that, focusing on the noise of it. Filling the holes and empty spaces in his head.

It helps. It is never enough, but it helps.

He takes a few deep, long breaths as his right hand moves up the piano. Opens his songbook with the left. Picks something easy and familiar and begins to play. Plays the next song, and the next. When his breathing steadies, he skips ahead in the book to something more difficult. Something that requires more focus, that challenges his fledgling ability to read music.

He makes mistakes. Leans in to check notes – D, not F. He is still learning the upper part of the stave, still cannot read it precisely. Corrects himself. Tries again, slow and steady.

Slowly, slowly, Dimitri calms.

It is strange – Dimitri has never much cared for music. He picked up the hobby unexpectedly. In the early days of his kingship, the silence of his chambers choked him. He filled every moment of the day with work, but every night he would return, physically and mentally exhausted, to his empty rooms. Every night he would stand by the window when he could not sleep. Books could not hold his attention. Memories were too painful. The darkness outside was complete, and the silence within grew unbearable. He worked all day, and at night he retreated to… nothing. Emptiness. Maddening, unrelenting silence.

Silence is dangerous for Dimitri. It fosters the dark whispers lurking, always lurking, in the corners of his mind. Telling him things that should go unspoken. Making him hear things that are not there.

The piano fills the silence, if nothing else.

A knock at the door startles him out of his practice. His fingers still on the keys, and he stares at the door. Wondering, for a moment, if he imagined it, for his mind likes to play tricks on him.

Slowly, he stands. Crosses the room, the carpet soft beneath his bare feet, and pulls it open, expecting to find the space in front empty.

Felix is the last person he expects to see. Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, eyes darting everywhere but Dimitri’s face. “Can I come in?”

Dimitri… does not know what to do. Stares at Felix dumbly, unable to reconcile his unexpected appearance here when Dimitri has not spoken to him all day. The moment grows awkward, and Dimitri jolts himself out of it. He nods, mute, and steps back to let Felix enter.

Felix’s eyes flit upwards as he passes. They stop. Linger on Dimitri’s face, and only then does Dimitri remember the state he is in. Hardly dressed, dirty clothes strewn across his floor, and he is not wearing his eye patch.

He hurries to his dresser, pulling it back on. Rushes to pick up his dirty clothes and put them in the basket like a civilised person. He looks down at himself, tugging awkwardly at his shirt, which is showing rather too much of his chest for company.

His breathing is ragged and shaky. He steadies himself, using the excuse of tidying to take a few deep, gulping breaths. Turns to Felix when he thinks he has himself under control.

Felix is not looking at him. Felix is staring about his room, taking in the bookshelves and comfortable furniture and the door leading off to Dimitri’s private washroom. Gaze lingering on Dimitri’s piano, with his still-open songbook and the assortment of miscellaneous books and papers strewn across the top of it that Dimitri has yet to organise.

Felix has not been in here… ever, now that Dimitri thinks of it. They meet in his office, or out on the grounds. Felix has never come into Dimitri’s private chambers.

He is at the piano now. Running his gloved fingers over the top of it. Reaching down to press a single key.

“Why do you have a piano?” Felix asks.

Dimitri cringes, and he can feel heat rush to his cheeks. Embarrassed, even though he knows there is nothing shameful about music. It is oddly… personal, all the same. A part of Dimitri that exists only inside these walls, that exists only for himself.

“I have been… learning to play,” Dimitri says, stilted even to his own ears.

“Huh. I didn’t think-” Felix, in the process of turning back to Dimitri, stops mid-sentence. Stares at Dimitri’s face again, at his eye patch. “You didn’t have to…”

For once, Dimitri looks away first.

“I apologise for not receiving you properly,” he says, falling back on long years of his manners being drilled into his head. “I was not expecting guests. Would you like a drink?”

Felix is quiet a moment. “There’s no need to be so formal, Dimitri.”

There is every need – formality is all Dimitri has. The only lifeline in this unexpected incursion into his private space, into his most private moments and dark thoughts.

Felix does not need to know. Would not want to know, even if Dimitri wanted to tell him. If Dimitri cannot be charming, at least he can try for composure.

“Would you like to sit down?” Dimitri gestures towards the armchairs by the bookshelves.

“I… thank you.”

They sit. Neither looking at each other. Both quiet.

Dimitri takes a breath. “I apologise for my attire. I was not expecting company, or I would-”

“It’s fine, Dimitri.”

But Dimitri can see Felix is uncomfortable in the way his eyes flit over Dimitri bare neck and collarbones, still too exposed for either of their liking. Felix’s eyes snap away again, his cheeks once more a dull red.

“I, uh…” Felix shifts in his seat. Clears his throat. “It’s late. I… shouldn’t have called on you unexpectedly.”

The words sound wrong coming from Felix. Felix, who has never paid any attention to etiquette in his life, grinding out social niceties like they cause him physical pain.

“I am always happy to see you.” Dimitri does not know what it says about the state of their relationship that saying so makes Felix even more tense.

Felix’s eyes rove the room. Pause on Dimitri’s bare feet, and Dimitri fights the impulse to curl them up under his body. Felix’s eyes move on. Linger once more on Dimitri’s piano.

“I didn’t know you liked music.”

He says it softly, softer than Dimitri has seen him in a long time. Low, almost intimate. Here in the late hours of night, he does not seem so sharp and forbidding. Candlelight bathes his striking features with a soft glow, gentling them. Bringing out the hollows in his cheeks, the tiredness of his eyes, the vulnerable parts of Felix never seen in the harsh light of day. Some of his hair has fallen out of place, and for a moment Dimitri can imagine reaching out, brushing it back…

It is only for a moment.

“Everyone likes music.”

“Play something for me?” Felix says. His eyes are so strikingly, startlingly amber. Looking right at Dimitri and asking, which is so rare that for a moment, Dimitri thinks he could give him anything.

Unbidden, Sir Wesley’s image swims into Dimitri’s mind. Dashing and gallant, with effortless charm. He thinks of Felix and Sir Wesley walking off into the rose garden together. Thinks of how he plays. Clunky and clumsy, the furthest thing from beautiful. Nothing worth listening to.

“I am still learning. I would rather not, if it is all the same to you.”

Felix’s eyes flit away when he nods. The loss of them is both pain and relief, as is Felix’s easy acceptance. He knows Felix – he acquiesces only because he is speaking to Dimitri. If it were Sylvain, or Annette, or even Ingrid, Felix would not have rested until he heard them play.

Felix would not be sitting across from them now, awkward and distant, his uncertainty clear on his face.

“I’m here to… Well, Annette said…” Felix trails off.

“Yes?” Dimitri says, when more is not forthcoming.

Felix shifts in his chair. Stares at the piano again, his brows furrowed. “I… didn’t get much time to speak with you today.”

“You were busy,” Dimitri responds mechanically. Knowing full well that Felix could have spoken to him at any point if he really wanted to.

Felix shakes his head. Heaves a sigh. “I’m not here all the time, and I’ve been pre-occupied. I wanted to” - a brief pause, Felix wrapping his tongue around words that do not come naturally to him - “catch up.”

“You have many friends to see, Felix. I take no offence.”

“I know you don’t. But I – you know.” Felix’s eyes bore into him, willing him into understanding. Felix often does this. Says half a sentence then looks at Dimitri expectantly, waiting for him to catch his meaning.

Dimitri used to be good at it. Not any more.

“I understand, Felix,” Dimitri says. Then, before he can stop himself, “You were busy with Sir Wesley.”

He knows it is the wrong thing to say as soon as the words leave his mouth. Felix’s face shutters. Any hint of softness vanishes.

Dimitri knows better than to push. He knows better. Why did he say that?

“You’re tired,” Felix says, standing abruptly. “I won’t keep you up.”

“Not at all,” Dimitri says, even though it is far too late. Felix’s contemplative mood is long gone. He is already heading for the door. “I am not sleeping anyway.”

Dimitri does not know why that, of all things, makes Felix pause. Felix turns, almost reluctantly, and his eyes flick once more over Dimitri’s face. For a moment, his expression is… strange. Then comes the anger, which Dimitri can read very well – it is, after all, Felix’s way.

“You need to take care of yourself,” Felix snaps. “You’re going to make yourself sick again, and the last thing we need is you dying some stupid death due to your own stubbornness. I’m not rushing to your bedside if you work yourself half to death again.”

Felix did rush to his bedside last year when he got sick. Stayed for well over a month and handled the kingdom for him, when Dimitri was delirious with fever. Between him and Dedue, they were able to keep the kingdom from falling into disarray while Dimitri recuperated.

It was quite a fever. He does not remember much, though he distinctly remembers Felix’s ferocious temper and numerous threats to kill Dimitri himself when Dimitri was finally lucid again.

Dimitri is so tired. All he can think of is that they are almost acting like their old selves again. Felix, caustic and ill-tempered but caring in his own strange way. Angry with Dimitri, not because of Dimitri himself, but because he worries for him. 

And Dimitri… he has no more words, not right now. Is too tired, or melancholy, or… something else. He traces his eye over the fine lines of Felix’s face. Holds Felix’s amber eyes until Felix jerks his gaze away, not quite quick enough to hide his flush.

Felix has never liked direct eye contact. With eyes like his, though, Dimitri cannot help but stare sometimes. 

“Get some sleep,” Felix mutters. Walks over to the door. Pauses again when his hand is on the handle, looking over his shoulder with his brow furrowed.

Of course. He is expecting a reply, naturally he is. Dimitri has let his mask drop too far. Sometimes he does not want to speak – what is the point of it, after all - but he has to. He has to.

“Good night, Felix,” Dimitri murmurs.

He does not understand the look that passes over Felix’s face then. As though Felix is almost… in pain.

“Good night,” Felix says, gruff, then stalks out.

Dimitri stays where he is for a time. Breathing, resting. Then he gets up and locks the door again. Takes off his eye patch and sets it in its place back on his dresser.

He can still hear the whispers. Still feel the nightmares lurking at the edges of his mind, waiting for him.

He looks at his bed. Having spent all day longing for it, he suddenly cannot bear the thought of being in it. Cannot stomach the terrors that will come to him in his sleep.

Dimitri goes back to his piano. Plays on, song after song, and in his mind’s eye he can see Felix roaming his chambers, running his fingers over the piano. He can almost imagine Felix standing by the piano stool, so close Dimitri can feel the warmth of him, listening to him play.

In his imagination, Dimitri does not drive him away.

Dimitri pauses. Pulls a scrap of paper towards him and pens a note to his piano tutor. He wants to play the music from the concert. Wants to fill the emptiness of his chambers with that melody.

He does not know its name. But in the privacy of his mind, he thinks of it as Felix’s song.

- - -

The next time they speak alone, it is days later, and Felix storms over to Dimitri in a fit of temper.

“That Lord Denmar,” he snarls without preamble, “just told me to mind myself around him, lest I fall out of your favour!”

They are at yet another social function. Post-dinner drinks and mingling while a small band of string instrumentalists plays in the corner. Dimitri pauses with his glass halfway to his mouth, trying to make sense of what Felix just said to him.

It is harder than it should be. Much as Dimitri dislikes Felix being angry with him, there is a part of his mind that cannot help but notice how good anger looks on him. How handsome Felix is when his eyes flash.

“What?” is Dimitri’s eloquent response.

“That’s exactly what I said,” Felix says. “What have you been saying to the man? He’s over there going on about how close you are.”

Dimitri shuts his eye. Takes a moment to breathe. “Ah. I see.”

Lord Denmar really is the worst kind of man. Grasping and grabbing, simply because Dimitri has shown basic kindness to his daughter.

“Explain yourself,” Felix growls. He is so angry that whatever Denmar said, it must truly have offended him.

“Peace, Felix,” Dimitri says, leaning in so only Felix can hear him. “He is clawing for power, nothing more. I assure you I have showed him no favour or made any promises. I assisted his daughter, that is all.”

Felix’s eyes are narrow, studying Dimitri’s face. “You assisted her.”

Dimitri knows better than to try and talk around the truth. Felix is giving him one of those looks, like he buys exactly none of Dimitri's nonsense. Dimitri heaves a sigh. “Lord Denmar is quite keen on the idea of marriage, I think.”

Something in Felix’s jaw spasms. His fury darkens, and Dimitri leans back instinctively.

“She is a sweet girl,” Dimitri continues hurriedly. The last thing he wants is for Felix to terrorise her. “Whoever her parents may be. I would be remiss in my duties if I left young ladies unattended, and she is only young.”

He gestures subtly to where she stands over on the other side of the room. With her sisters tonight, and perfectly composed when she is out of his company. Felix follows the line of his finger. Is still for a long moment.

“Have you… made her any promises?” Felix says, oddly quiet. His head whips back around, his eyes narrowing again. “Not that I care. I just don’t want to see the kingdom run into the dirt by the likes of Denmar. He’s an idiot.”

“I have no plans for marriage. You are my advisor, besides – I would tell you if I did.”

Felix nods. Deflates somewhat, now he is sure they are on the same side. Without anger to carry him through, without the clearly-defined roles of king and scolding advisor, the blanket of awkwardness settles over them again. Felix looks away from Dimitri, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, folding his arms over his chest.

“You’ll have to be married at some point, I suppose,” he mutters. He does not look happy at the prospect.

Dimitri shrugs. “I have not really thought about it.”

Felix looks incredulous. “You’re the king, Dimitri. You have to have an heir. What do you think will happen if you die?”

“You managed the kingdom well enough in my stead. If I died, it would not make too much of a difference,” Dimitri says. He means to placate him. He does not mean for Felix to look, all of a sudden, so upset.

For a moment, Felix’s mouth works without sound coming out. He looks almost as if Dimitri has struck him. Then his glare snaps back into place.

“You’re impossible,” Felix snarls. And just like that he whirls away, storming off into the crowd before Dimitri can breathe so much as another word.

Dimitri wants to follow him. Does not understand what he did, but knows he did something for Felix to have looked at him like that. Once again he is on the back foot, baffled by the see-saw that is his relationship with Felix, always out of balance one way or the other. He is distracted, though, by a sudden burst of laughter from the centre of the room. It is Sir Wesley, of course. Drawing in a crowd as he tells one of his tales.

A group of ladies to Dimitri’s right titters.

“He’s so charming!”

“Look at his shoulders.”

“He’s very handsome. He’s almost a match for Duke Fraldarius.” At that, the ladies all break out into a sea of giggles.

A match for Felix. Dimitri stands frozen in the middle of the room, the phrase turning over and over in his head. Jerks himself back into the present and tries to find Felix, but Felix studiously avoids him. Slips out of reach whenever Dimitri draws near, and later Dimitri spies him over in a corner, leaning against the wall with his noise pointed upwards as the ever-present Sir Wesley tries his charms on him. Leaning in, golden and charming and handsome, so handsome he gets the ladies giggling. Felix does not look any more impressed than he usually does, but Felix must think him handsome too, because they...

It occurs to Dimitri, rather suddenly, that he has never heard anyone giggling about him.

Later, Dimitri forces himself to look in the mirror. To really look, not just at his scars but at the sum of him. His shaggy hair, the lines on his face he never noticed before. The sun-spots and freckles from the years he spent mad and wandering. The black ring under his dull blue eye.

His gaze trails down further, down his bare chest. He has always known his body as a tool, a weapon. He has lived years of hunger and pain and misery, where its nagging needs were a weakness and little else. He has used its raw strength to kill again and again. He has never thought of it in terms of… well, being desired.

Now, though, he takes in the full scope of his scarring. Takes in the shape of his torso - he is still muscular, still trains regularly, but he spends a lot of time seated too. Some of him ripples with hard muscle, some of him is soft, and some of him is marred by thick, ugly scar tissue.

Sir Wesley is not like that. His clothing fits so tight his physique is on plain display, broad and hulking at the shoulders and narrow at the waist, his biceps straining to squeeze into his undershirt. Felix is not like that either, lither and slighter in every respect, much like a panther is to a bear. He is sleek, graceful, and though his physique is more compact every part of him is whip-cord muscle. He turns heads everywhere he goes, without even trying.

And Dimitri is… this. He turns from the mirror. No surprises, then, that he hears no giggling when he walks by.

He was not lying when he told Felix he had not thought of marriage. He is so busy, and he struggles to think of his future at the best of times - it is a blank slate, a black hole, a terrifying leap into the unknown. But Dimitri has a duty. Some day he will be married, because he is a king and that is what kings do. But other than his rank, what does Dimitri have to offer as a husband?

His nightmares still haunt him. He is almost late to the meeting the next morning, dragging himself into the meeting room just in time. He sits down at the head of the table, and Sir Wesley is already talking, entertaining the room at large with tales of his exploits as a knight and long complimentary tangents about his audience’s respective territories, families, and interests. Adored and admired by the room at large. (A match for Duke Fraldarius.)

Felix leans towards Dimitri. Says, frowning, “You look terrible.”

Dimitri feels his mouth twist. Dimitri is not handsome, or charming, or capable of captivating a whole room of people with anecdotes. But he is a king. He can lead, if nothing else.

He does not reply. Claps his hands together, and the room goes quiet.

“Good morning, everyone,” he says. “Let us begin where we left off yesterday.”

He can feel Felix watching him during the meeting, but Dimitri has nothing to say to him. Has nothing to say to anyone, really. When he speaks it is brief and to the point.

He wants to sleep. Wants to play his piano. Wants things between him and Felix to be easy again, as it was when they were children. He wants to go home - a nonsensical desire, a longing that makes little sense. Dimitri is home, yet he yearns for something more. Yearns for a peace he never feels, even in his sleep.

Dimitri looks at Felix, and he wants.

But Dimitri is a king. It is all he is, all he has. He has no business wanting.

Chapter Text

“Dimitri! Just the man I was looking for.”

Dimitri looks up from his paperwork. Sylvain leans in the doorway, casual as ever, but the grin on his face is a surprise. Today’s meetings have only just finished, and the last one was a nightmare. Not even Sir Wesley’s charms could stop the bi-annual shouting match between Countess Hestia and Earl Effring. They managed to antagonise near half of the room along with them, this time, and Dimitri’s head is still aching.

“You found me,” Dimitri replies.

Sylvain shuts the door behind him. He sits down in front of Dimitri’s desk, and how he manages to sprawl elegantly in the stiff wooden chair is anyone’s guess.

“Working still?”

Dimitri expects to work well into the night. His other duties do not let up just because of a trade summit. “Do you need me for something?”

“I don’t need anything,” Sylvain says. “We just haven’t had the chance to spend some quality time yet.”

He is right, of course he is. Dimitri feels a pang of guilt. “I apologise, Sylvain. I am delighted to see you – all of you. There is just so much to do, and-”

Sylvain waves him away. “I didn’t come here to complain at you. I came to take you out.”

There is something both familiar and deeply worrying about the look on Sylvain’s face. Dimitri sets down his quill slowly. Takes in the gleam in Sylvain’s eye, as if he knows something funny that Dimitri does not.

“What are you up to this time?”

“So suspicious, your Majesty!” Sylvain says, though his roguish grin does little to assuage Dimitri’s doubts. “When have I ever led you astray? Nothing wrong with two old friends having a night on the town.”

Sylvain has led Dimitri astray many times, but fortunately he is as good at talking himself out of trouble as he is at getting into it. And he is right – he and Dimitri have not gone out together in a long time. Sylvain comes to Dimitri’s office and they talk about work, for he is one of Dimitri’s key advisors, but Dimitri has little time for purely social visits. Sylvain is asking, and Dimitri really should oblige.

But Dimitri looks down at his desk, at the veritable mountain of paperwork awaiting his perusal, and cold reality seeps in.

“Sylvain, I really am busy.”

Sylvain leans so far back in his chair that it threatens to topple over, rocking it back and forth on two legs like a schoolboy.

“Come on, Dimitri,” he wheedles. “You could stand to let your hair down a bit. I’ve found us some quality entertainment, too.”

That raises an immediate red flag. Any ‘entertainment’ chosen by Sylvain is likely to be dubious at best. “Sylvain.”

Sylvain throws up his hands in a placating gesture. It is a small miracle he does not fall backwards. “Nothing scandalous! I know you have your reputation to uphold. Just a quiet night of theatre and companionship, that’s all.”

Dimitri should say no. Should go back to his work. Instead, his mind unhelpfully fixates on the word reputation.

People do not giggle when Dimitri walks by. But he does not know what they do think, and all of a sudden he has the desperate urge to find out. He knows he is not handsome. Knows he is not charming like Sir Wesley, or endearing like Annette, or striking like Felix. But… what is he, in the eyes of his friends and his people?

He should not rightly care. He is the king, after all, and caring for such petty matters is a weakness. He should certainly not display it, but…

This is Sylvain. They have known each other for years, ever since they were little. Sylvain has seen Dimitri at his worst (not to mention his most embarrassing), and has never breathed a word outside their immediate circle. Surely, if Dimitri can ask anyone in the world, he can ask him.

“What is my reputation?” he says. Tries to make it casual, playing with his quill and carefully avoiding Sylvain’s eyes.

Sylvain is quiet just a beat too long. Dimitri’s heart freezes in his chest. It must be terrible, then. Mortification sweeps over him, and he regrets ever even thinking the question, let alone voicing it, but-

“Dimitri, my friend, you really need a night off if you have to ask me that,” Sylvain says. “I’ll make you a deal. Come out with me and I’ll tell you, with all the sordid details and saucy gossip.”

Dimitri reel back in shock - sordid details? - and it takes him a moment to realise that Sylvain is teasing him. Sylvain slaps his own thigh and positively howls with laughter. Taking too much pleasure from his own stupid joke.

Dimitri heaves a sigh. The tension in his chest uncoils, just a little. “Why must you be this way?”

It is a question he has asked before. Not one he expects a reply to.

Sylvain shakes his head. He lets his chair drop back onto all four legs, still looking heartily amused at Dimitri’s expense. “Get your cloak on, we’re going to be late.”

He stands. And though his smile does not waver, there is steel in his eyes. A sharpness Dimitri does not usually associate with Sylvain. Insistence.

Dimitri does not know why Sylvain is being so stubborn about this of all things. For a moment they stare at each other, locked in a silent battle of wills. Dimitri has to work, should be working. He has so many documents to read and sign off on, letters to reply to, and notes to revise for tomorrow’s round of meetings.

The guilt wins out. The knowledge that his friends have to fight him for his time. Sylvain is reaching out, and Dimitri can give him this, at the very least.

Dimitri stands and pulls on his cloak, trying to ignore the burst of anxiety in his gut. He is leaving his work to pile up. He does not know where they are going. He is not prepared for a night out – did not have the time to mentally ready himself - and he feels the furthest thing from sociable. He does not know what to say to Sylvain, does not know how to be what they were, and surely Sylvain will expect -

Just breathe, he reminds himself. It is one night. He owes Sylvain this much, even if he is unsure what to say to him. None of Dimitri’s work is urgent, and he will have plenty of time once the summit is over to get it back under control. He can do this.

Logic does little to stem the anxiety. But Dimitri squares his shoulders and goes anyway.

Their plan for the evening ends up being surprisingly tame, given that it was organised entirely by Sylvain. He has arranged a private booth at a small local venue, and clearly forewarned the owners that the king will be in attendance tonight. Presumptuous, but seeing as he got his way, hardly inaccurate. The owners bow Dimitri rather nervously into the booth and serve him and Sylvain personally, though Dimitri is sure their other staff are perfectly capable of carrying food and drink to their table.

“Thank you so much,” Sylvain says, giving them his most charming smile. “We’d like not to be disturbed during the performance, if you’d be so kind.”

From his lips, the words manage to sound warm and friendly, even though the instruction is clear. The owners assure them they will be left alone, bow in the confused way of people not required to do so often and hazy on the etiquette, and leave them to their own devices.

“Good service, here,” Sylvain tells Dimitri, helping himself to the platter on the table.

They are surprisingly well-concealed in the booth Sylvain has chosen. Nobody looks twice at them. Dimitri lets himself breathe in the gentle hubbub of excitement, of ordinary people out to see a show with no noble pretensions or any ambitions beyond having fun.

It is… a good feeling. Dimitri usually dislikes crowds, but he is sequestered away enough that he does not mind this one. Likes the sound of their talk and laughter, so unrestrained and unselfconscious. A sharp contrast to the stiff formality of palace social events.

Like this, Dimitri is just like any other person. Out for an evening with a friend, with no other expectations placed upon him. He shrugs off his cloak. After a moment’s hesitation, he decides to go all in. Pulls off his gloves, rolls up his sleeves and leans his elbows against the table.

“There he is!” Sylvain crows around a mouthful of cheese. “Better already.”

For a moment, it is tempting for Dimitri to roll his eye at him. To slip back into their boyhood antics, the insolent camaraderie of two young men. But sleeves up or not, Dimitri is who he is. A far cry from the boy he used to be. He does not have the luxury of insolence, not anymore.

Dimitri often has these moments. Moments where he feels caught between the past and the present, unsure how to react. Moments where even the smallest of actions are worth second-guessing.

“What are we here for, exactly?” Dimitri asks.

Sylvain winks at him. “You’ll see.”

Dimitri quirks a brow, but lets it drop. If Sylvain is in one of those moods, there is no point in asking again.

The question of his reputation, though… Now it has occurred to him, he cannot let it go. He runs his finger along a groove in the table, weighing his words. He is certain he will be embarrassed about it tomorrow, but… “As for my earlier question?”

“Your reputation?” Sylvain says, and Dimitri nods. “Later.”

Dimitri’s finger pauses. He looks up at Sylvain, who is sprawling elegantly across their booth, taking up as much space as is physically possible. Easy, relaxed. His eyes, though, are still too sharp. They search Dimitri’s face, and Dimitri has to look away.

“I believe we made a deal,” Dimitri reminds him. His tone is light. As though he, too, is easy.

“Shush, the show’s starting,” is Sylvain’s only reply.

The show, Dimitri discovers, is a varietal performance by a small troupe of travelling actors. Comic skits, for the most part, many of them rather saucier than Dimitri is accustomed to. He can feel his face heat at several points during the performance and fights the impulse to cover his eye with his hand. He is a king, he is supposed to sit stone-faced and stoic no matter what is presented to him.

Then he remembers… they are well-concealed. There is no one looking. Sylvain is watching the stage, and he has known Dimitri for years anyway, so Dimitri need keep up no pretensions with him. If Dimitri lets his composure slip, just a little…

On stage, a lady’s bodice rips clear off to howls of laughter from the audience, and Dimitri’s face drops into his hand. Sylvain laughs, nudging Dimitri’s leg under the table. But he keeps watching the stage, unbothered and unsurprised by Dimitri’s reaction, and something uncoils inside Dimitri. The pressure on his chest eases, and for the first time in what feels like forever, he lets himself stop thinking. About his work, and his status, and his own reactions, all of them. Sylvain is good company, laughing loudly at all the jokes and slapping the table when the time comes for applause. Unselfconscious in a way that lets Dimitri be so too. Lets him laugh, even though his laughter feels rusty.

The reprieve does not last forever. Halfway through there is an intermission, and that goes fine. Sylvain repeats some of his favourite jokes to Dimitri with tears of laughter in his eyes, and Dimitri wonders why he thought spending time alone with Sylvain would be awkward. Sylvain is… easy. He does most of the talking, and he reads Dimitri well, and he does not ask anything more of him than his company. Seems genuinely happy, unbothered by all the things Dimitri lacks as a companion. Dimitri’s face is getting sore – he is unaccustomed to smiling so much – but it is a good kind of sore.

Then the performers come back on. And during the break, someone clearly informed them that their king is in the audience. The second half of the show is a disaster.

Lines are forgotten. Props are dropped. One performer staggers onto the stage at the wrong time, blanches, and rushes back off again, taking some of the set along with her. Another performer accidentally turns a stage-punch into a real one, and his scene partner pushes through the rest of the skit with blood dripping from his nose.

It is no small miracle that they make it to the end. Whoever told the performers did them a great disservice, for they are clearly accustomed to a different sort of clientele. The explosion of nerves can only be attributed to Dimitri’s presence, and he supposes he cannot blame them. They are a humble troupe – certainly not the type who would be invited up to the palace. Dimitri’s aides would have conniptions.

Still. Disastrous second act or not, Sylvain’s good humour carries the evening through. When things go wrong and mistakes are made, his laughter is as easy as ever. And once Dimitri makes absolutely certain that no one can see him - night off or not, it would be unseemly for Dimitri to be seen laughing at his subjects - he snorts laughter into his own palm too.

When it is done, the performers stumble off-stage with trauma written all over their faces. The audience starts chattering immediately, but no one notices him and Sylvain sitting in the shadowed back corner of the room.

Dimitri rights himself again. Pulls down his sleeves, smooths back his hair, wipes the crumbs from his tunic. Sylvain downs the last of his drink, but Dimitri leaves his own unfinished. Pulls his cloak and gloves back on.

He is tired, now. As quickly as it came, his good mood is fading, the reality of his life pressing down on him once again. He wants to go back to his chambers where he can strip off his layers and not worry about anyone looking at him, or inadvertently ruining a performance simply by joining the crowd. He wants to play his piano, practice his songs, then climb into bed.

The performers know he is in the audience, though, and Dimitri has a duty. He finds the owners of the establishment and asks to be introduced.

The leader of the troupe looks at Dimitri with a terror he has only seen before on the field of battle. He is as frozen as a startled deer when Dimitri approaches. Moves in slow motion when Dimitri goes to shake his hand, as though he cannot believe what he is seeing.

Dimitri pastes on his smile. Shakes one hand, then the next person’s, then the next. Asks their names one by one, and thanks them for the show.

“It was a wonderful performance,” he tells the group at large. The first half, at least, though he diplomatically keeps that thought to himself.

“We-we are deeply honoured, my lord – your Majesty, sir,” the troupe leader stammers. “The highest of honours, to entertain you.”

“I was most entertained,” Dimitri assures them. He fixes his gaze on two performers in particular – the youngest, shyest ones, who performed great feats of physical comedy before completely collapsing in on themselves when they learned of their king in the audience. He smiles at them, as warm as he can muster. “I particularly enjoyed the juggling skit.”

One of them, the boy, still has yet to pick his jaw up off the floor. The girl, though, lights up, and Dimitri offers her another smile before he turns away.

“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” he says to the owners of the venue. “You have a very fine establishment here.”

“It is an honour, an honour, sire.” Both the man and his wife bow again. Too low. Neither of them have quite figured out what to do with their arms. They are decent, humble people. Dimitri dislikes the alarm his presence brings them – brings all of them.

He understands, he does. It is not their fault. All of his life Dimitri has been raised apart from the common people, taught different rules, different manners, different expectations. If he had lived a life free of struggle, perhaps he would have seen nothing strange in their fearful respect of him. In the distance between him and them, as though his title renders him something greater than a man.

But Dimitri spent five years on the run, lower than a beast. Barely bathing, eating scraps, snarling and fighting and killing like a wild animal. Revenge consumed him, madness possessed him, and he became something less than a man. Something he will never truly atone for. If they must fear him, must bow and scrape for fear of his displeasure, let it not be for his rank – let it be for that.

Sylvain’s hand grips Dimitri by the shoulder. Jolting him out of his thoughts.

“I’d better get his Majesty back to the palace. Good evening to you all,” Sylvain says. He steers Dimitri away with a surprisingly strong grip. Releases him only once they are walking back up the palace. “I think that should answer your question.”

It takes Dimitri a moment to understand. He looks over at Sylvain – his comfortable stride, his hands in his pockets, his head tilted up to admire the moon. Sylvain is smiling, as if pleased with something.

Dimitri’s question - his reputation. He thinks back to the performers’ mistakes, when they knew he was there. Their scraping, confused bows. The alarm written all over their faces.

“What’s that face for?” Sylvain is looking at him. There is alarm on his face too now.

Dimitri shakes his head. Tries to shake off their reactions to him with it, but the knowledge of their fear burrows deep, deep down.

“Dimitri?”

Dimitri gets himself under control. Composes his features. “Thank you for a very enjoyable evening, Sylvain.”

Silence. Sylvain huffs out a breath, runs his fingers through his hair. For the first time this evening, it is awkward. Dimitri always manages to make things awkward.

“You really need to relax more, Dimitri.” Sylvain moves as if to nudge him in the side with his elbow. Reconsiders and aborts the motion.

“It was a good show,” Dimitri says. Cannot think of anything else to say, so returns to safer ground. Returns to a topic that is decidedly not about him.

He can feel Sylvain’s eyes on him, but Dimitri pulls his cloak tighter about his shoulders.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Sylvain says at last. “I thought it might be your sense of humour. Just don’t tell Felix it got raunchy.”

That gets Dimitri’s attention. Felix... He wonders if Felix knows he is out with Sylvain. If Sylvain is concealing it. Or, stranger still, if Felix put Sylvain up to this. But… no. Neither option makes sense. Dimitri is over-thinking.

“Felix is no prude,” he says.

“Maybe not, but I value my head where it is. Felix is Felix. You know how he gets about you.”

Something clenches in Dimitri’s chest. He does know. He remembers how Felix was in his chambers. Subdued, distant, uncertain. A stubborn, unstoppable force of a man rendered cautious in Dimitri’s presence.

Sylvain is looking at Dimitri again. Says, hurriedly, “I’m not saying it’s fair of him. But you can’t blame him for it, either.”

“No,” Dimitri agrees quietly. He does not blame Felix. He has never blamed Felix for the way things are between them.

Sylvain reaches out. Uncharacteristically careful as he places an arm around Dimitri’s shoulders. “Just give him time. He’s been in a right state ever since you got sick. He’ll settle.”

That, at least, makes more sense to Dimitri. He remembers how angry Felix was. How tired he looked, how hard he worked to keep the kingdom functional when Dimitri was incapacitated. Something changed, then. Dimitri did not recognise it before. After all, his relationship with Felix has been fraught for a long time. But after he got sick, Felix got even stranger.

Perhaps it was the burden of running a kingdom. Perhaps the burden of Dimitri himself.

“He’s always been difficult about these sorts of things,” Sylvain is saying. Still talking, though Dimitri is finding it hard to listen.

“Yes,” he says. His lips feel oddly numb. “Of course.”

Sylvain lets him go. They finish their walk in silence, but when they part, he says, “It was good to see you smile again.”

It is a strange thing to say. After all, Dimitri forces himself to smile all the time.

- - -

Lord Denmar contrives to bring his daughter along to the next meeting, so the poor girl is subjected to hours upon hours of arguments about the minutiae of taxation. Not even Sir Wesley can make that subject more entertaining. Occasionally he chimes in with an anecdote, but for the most part, he sits in the same bored silence as everyone else.

Dimitri is barely staying awake. Count Bran drones on and on about wine and other non-essential goods, and Dimitri is at the stage where is can only hope his aides are recording the details for him. He will feel the guilt of it later, as well as the shame that comes with being such a poor excuse for a king. Now, all that keeps him from slumping into his seat is Felix at his side, so distractingly handsome that every glance at him is an electric shock.

Felix is dressed today in deep wine red. Half of his hair is pulled back, framing his face, where the rest drapes freely down his back. Dimitri finds himself watching the way it moves when Felix tips his head, watching it brush against Felix’s neck and shoulders. Wondering what it would feel like to run his fingers through it.

Dimitri pays no attention to hair as a general rule. He barely bothers with his own, let alone anyone else’s. Yet he finds himself mesmerised. Perhaps it is the sheer boredom of this meeting that does it. Perhaps… perhaps not.

Count Bran sits down, and Dimitri forces his attention back to the meeting.

“Thank you,” he says, though he has no idea what the man has been saying. Is relieved when someone else stands, looking to him for approval to speak. She has a large sheaf of notes in front of her, and Dimitri can only hope he hides his dismay. He nods for her to proceed.

He tries to pay attention, he really does. But today, his eye keeps drifting back to Felix. He is not hiding his staring well, either. Given that Felix is on his blind side, Dimitri has to sit at an odd angle so he can see him.

Dimitri is a weak man.

Felix spends most of the meeting glaring at people, as he usually does. Stern, icy, acerbic. Dimitri’s right hand, and Felix wields his power with swift finality whenever people overstep.

“This matter doesn’t concern the king, Duchess Vila,” he snaps when the duchess appeals to Dimitri directly over a minor land dispute.

“It is a matter of some import, your Grace.”

“Take it to the local magistrate. This is a waste of the assembly’s time. We’re here to discuss trade, not your borders.”

There is no arguing with Felix. His tongue only sharpens with every attempt, and his patience is infamously thin. The duchess glowers, but has no choice but to return to her seat.

The next time Felix cuts in with a sharp reminder – this time preventing Countess Hestia and Earl Effring from starting a fight again – Sir Wesley also pipes up.

“Well spoken, Duke Fraldarius. Your wit and wisdom are, as ever, a sight to behold. We are graced indeed by your presence.”

There is something off about it, just slightly. Sir Wesley is always effusive, but today he is too effusive. There is an odd undercurrent of tension in it. He leans into the table as though seeking Felix’s approval.

Perhaps Dimitri was mistaken, thinking Sir Wesley's quiet was due to boredom. He is as golden as ever, but his charm is not effortless today. There is strain around the corners of his smile.

Dimitri’s gaze flits to Felix. To his handsome face rendered suddenly and surprisingly neutral. No blush. No snarl, either. Felix just looks at Sir Wesley. Inclines his head, ever so slowly, but does not otherwise acknowledge the compliment.

Eventually, the meeting adjourns. People begin to stand and talk amongst themselves, and Felix turns to Dimitri.

“Why do you keep looking at me funny?” he mutters. “We’re in a meeting, I’m not going to do anything.”

Dimitri can feel his face redden as mortification sweeps through him. To be so unsubtle, so obvious in his admiration. But then he follows Felix’s line of sight. Finds Felix glaring as Sir Wesley again, and… oh.

Felix thinks Dimitri is staring at him because Dimitri is worried Felix might act out. Dimitri’s next breath is shaky with both guilt and relief.

“I know,” Dimitri says.

Felix scowls. Crosses his arms. “I’m not an idiot.”

“I would never mean to imply so,” Dimitri says. Felix’s scowl deepens. Glaring daggers at Sir Wesley – charming, likeable Sir Wesley – and Dimitri’s mouth is opening before he realises. “You look different today.”

Felix’s scowl falters. He blinks. “Do I?”

Dimitri’s stomach sinks into his boots. What is he doing?

“Y-your hair,” he explains, even as he feels his cheeks heat. Wishes fervently that the ground would just swallow him whole.

Felix’s hand moves up to touch it. His scowl returns, and his cheeks redden. “Annette did this. I told her it was stupid.”

“No,” Dimitri says. Even to his own ears, he sounds painfully awkward. “It is not stupid. I… I like it.”

A moment of silence, so awkward it is unbearable. Felix’s hand rubs his neck. He ducks his head away from Dimitri, and even the tips of his ears are red.

“I’d better, uh…” Felix stands. He darts a look at Dimitri. Darts his eyes away again, his hand fidgeting with a loose strand of hair. “I’ll… see you later?”

“Of course,” Dimitri says, and Felix disappears into the crowd.

Goddess. Dimitri hates himself, sometimes. He should know better than to try and compliment Felix, of all things. Sir Wesley’s compliments are eloquent and elegant, would flatter even the steeliest of hearts. Dimitri stammers his out like a schoolboy.

He needs to sleep more. If Dimitri were thinking clearly, he would never have said such a thing at all. I like your hair. Goddess. Why would Felix even care for his opinion?

“Your Majesty!” It is Lord Denmar. Of course it is. Dragging his poor daughter over to Dimitri after forcing her to sit through the most boring meeting of the summit.

“My lord. My lady,” Dimitri replies. He draws himself up to his full height. Knows he should smile, but cannot muster one. Lady Olivia’s eyes trace his form, all the way up, and her eyes are wide. Her father, though, is relentless, a rictus grin across his face.

“My Olivia and I were just discussing what an excellent opportunity this summit is. Very eye-opening for a young lady, learning the ins and outs of running a kingdom. Is it not, my dear?”

The girl nods. Looking at the floor now, fingers playing with her skirts.

Somewhere to the left, Dimitri hears, “Felix, may I have a moment?”

Dimitri’s head whips around. It is Sir Wesley, standing by the door only a few feet away. Right in front of Felix, blocking his path.

“Duke Fraldarius,” Felix corrects, icy cold.

“Duke Fraldarius, of course, I-”

Whatever Sir Wesley says next is drowned out by Lord Denmar. “Olivia is a very talented scholar indeed, sire, and most grateful for your Majesty’s generous accommodations.”

Dimitri jerks his head back to the front. Forces himself to nod, but his mind is racing and his ears are straining to hear Felix’s conversation. Trying to drown out the sound of Denmar’s boasting.

He hears only snatches.

“I’ve told you… had enough,” Felix mutters.

Sir Wesley’s reply is even quieter, and Dimitri can barely make it out. “Just… talk. I don’t understand… you know how I…”

“Is that not so, your Majesty? … Sire?”

“Hm?” Dimitri snaps back to the conversation in front of him.

“The king is otherwise occupied, Father,” Lady Olivia whispers. Her face is clearly mortified. She tugs at her father’s sleeve, as though trying to pull him away.

“Nonsense, my dear,” Lord Denmar says. Again with that forced jolliness that barely conceals his desperation. “What man could refuse the company of such a fair young lady? Is that not so, your Majesty?”

Father.” The blatant misery on Lady Olivia’s face is all that keeps Dimitri civil.

He has no idea how they came to talk of company. When he turns his head he can see Felix’s increasingly agitated hand gestures, and Dimitri wants to know, wants desperately to listen in, but Denmar is too good at this. Navigating his bid for power requires too much of Dimitri’s attention. Dimitri's temper flares - he restrains it, but only just.

“My mind is on other matters, my lord,” Dimitri says. “For that I apologise – I appear to have missed part of the conversation.”

“Why, we are speaking of the ball!” Lord Denmar says. “And partners, of course, sire.”

He winks at Dimitri, inappropriately chummy. Despite his determination to restrain himself, Dimitri’s lips thin. Lady Olivia practically shrinks before him.

It is not the girl’s fault, he reminds himself. Not the girl’s fault. She is even more mortified by this than Dimitri is. If she were clawing alongside her father that would be one thing, but she is not. She is a good-natured girl with unfortunate parents, and Dimitri cannot punish her for that.

“Perhaps you would honour me with a waltz, my lady,” Dimitri says, forcing himself to ignore the triumph that crosses her father’s face.

“I w-would be delighted, sire.” She curtsies. Cannot look at him, her face still scarlet.

“It is settled then. Now do excuse me, my lord. My lady.”

Dimitri makes his escape. He is just in time to see Felix push past Sir Wesley and storm out into the corridor. Sir Wesley is about to follow, but he is blocking Dimitri’s way as much as he was blocking Felix’s. All of a sudden Dimitri is in front of him, and Dimitri can see the moment his duty compels him to stop. To bow to his king, instead of chasing after Felix.

“Your Majesty,” he says. For the first time, Dimitri sees what frustration looks like on the man’s golden face.

“Sir Wesley.”

The knight steps neatly to the side, still bowing, to allow Dimitri to pass. As Dimitri steps into the corridor, he spies the last flicker of Felix’s cloak around the corner. Felix is long gone now, and Dimitri would be lying if he said the knowledge did not give him some relief.

He returns to his chambers to change before dinner. Avoids the mirror as he strips off and pulls on his new clothes. He is not sure why he bothers, really. He has not exactly worked up a sweat, and his clothes are black on black, as they always are.

He should head back downstairs immediately. The meeting was long, and dinner will be served any moment. But his gaze settles on his piano. On the new sheet of music his tutor gave him.

He sits. Just a few minutes, that is all.

He plays the right hand, then the left. Still separately, still clumsily, for even simplified this song is beyond his current abilities. But with every repetition, he is getting better. Learning, slowly, how to read it. Learning how to play it as soft as it deserves.

Its true name is The Prince. He plays it over and over, on endless repeat. Expresses what he feels in the only way he can, in the privacy of his chambers when there is no one there to hear him.

Felix’s song. And sometimes, if he plays it well enough, he can pretend it is worth listening to.

- - -

It is to Dimitri’s great surprise that Felix does come and see him later.

It is two hours since dinner finished, and Dimitri is working in his office again. Slogging through the backlog of papers on his desk. One of his aides has been through and sorted them for him, drawing his attention to the most pressing ones, which is helpful. Still, the mountain of work only increases. He scarcely knows how he will get through it all.

“Enter,” he calls when he hears a knock. Finishing his signature, then doing a double-take when he looks up to find Felix hovering in his doorway.

Hovering, not coming in. Arms folded over his chest, and eyes fixed on the floor.

“Good evening, Felix,” Dimitri says. “What can I do for you?”

Felix grunts. Considers a moment, seems to undergo some sort of internal debate, then closes Dimitri’s door behind him and comes to sit in front of the desk. There is a package wrapped in brown paper under his arm, and he sets it down on the floor beside him.

Dimitri’s eye traces his face. As handsome as ever, but Felix looks tired. There is that particular hunch to his shoulders which indicates he is upset. A defensive shell, though one wrong move on Dimitri’s part and it will turn into anger.

“It’s late,” Felix says. “You shouldn’t be working.”

“Alas, I have no choice. I have to get through these.”

Felix shifts in his seat. His shoulders twitch – it is a tiny motion, barely noticeable, but Dimitri looks at him closer. Felix was seated too far away at dinner for Dimitri to speak with him much, but he did not seem agitated then. Sir Wesley was staring at Felix, though… have they had another argument?

Dimitri’s brow furrows, and right at that moment Felix looks up at him. Sees the concern on Dimitri’s face and scowls.

“You’re going to work yourself to death, you know,” Felix snaps. There it is, his temper. “You’ll make yourself sick again.”

“I am fine,” Dimitri says, placating. “I am quite well.”

“You say that now. You were insensible with fever for a week, all because you’re a stubborn-”

Whatever insult Felix is going to say, he abruptly cuts off. Breathes heavily, visibly wrestling with himself. Still… still distressed, though Dimitri does not know why. Does not know quite how to ask what is actually wrong, because Felix surely did not come in here to berate him about something that happened several months ago.

“Felix,” he says, gentle.

Felix’s eyes dart to his face, and there is a flicker of something in them that makes Dimitri’s heart clench in his chest. Dimitri leans forward, work forgotten. Reaches out, instinctively -

“Get up and come on,” Felix snaps. He leaps to his feet in an uncharacteristically ungraceful motion. Then he pauses again, mouth twisting. “… Please.”

Dimitri blinks at him. Becomes aware that his mouth is hanging open, and closes it with a snap. Not for the first time, Felix utterly blindsides him. So familiar and yet somehow a stranger, somehow entirely unpredictable.

Slowly, Dimitri stands.

“Felix, your package,” he says as Felix moves for the door. Dimitri goes to pick it up but Felix intercepts, darting back and grabbing it. He yanks it to his chest, glaring, practically daring Dimitri to comment on his odd behaviour.

Things may be strange between them now, but Dimitri knows better than to try it.

Felix leads him down the corridor in near silence. Still twitchy, still antsy, and every question Dimitri can think of dies in his throat. Are you all right would only antagonise Felix. What happened would do the same. What is going on between you and Sir Wesley would be a disaster. Please, Felix, talk to me… Dimitri has no right to ask that.

Eventually, he settles on something neutral. “Where are we going?”

“Your room,” Felix says. “Clearly I can’t trust you to go to bed of your own volition.”

“Uh,” is Dimitri’s eloquent response. Silenced when Felix fixes him with a dark glare.

When they reach his chambers, Felix hovers on the threshold before Dimitri explicitly invites him inside. His package is still clutched to his chest, like some sort of shield, and his glower is decidedly locked in place.

Dimitri has no idea what is going on. No idea whatsoever, but it is better to go easy when Felix is in one of these moods. Easier this time around because Dimitri is fully dressed and not fending off dark whispers.

“Would you like a drink?” Dimitri asks him.

“Just go to bed.”

“I will, Felix, I will. But I really do have work to-”

“For Goddess’ sake, Dimitri,” Felix explodes.

His shouting shocks Dimitri into silence. He goes still, staring while Felix brings his temper under control. Felix has said far worse before. Far, far worse. But Dimitri’s heart sinks through the floor.

Felix exhales. Scrubs a hand over his face. “This isn’t what I- look, sit down, will you?”

But Dimitri doesn’t. He feels frozen in place. Felix is shouting at him, here in the quiet of his chambers. Shouting at him. And Dimitri is being foolish, does not understand why his insides are churning because Felix really has said worse things before. And much worse things have happened to Dimitri than someone yelling at him because he will not go to bed.

“… Dimitri?”

Dimitri pulls himself together. Lowers his gaze so he cannot see the way Felix is looking at him. Sits, as Felix asked.

“I didn’t come here to yell at you,” Felix mutters. Either to himself or Dimitri, Dimitri does not know. Dimitri just nods, slowly. Staring blankly at the carpet.

Felix sits down in the other armchair. Leans forward, trying to catch Dimitri’s eye. And Dimitri obliges him there too. Raises his head, and Felix’s next inhalation is sharp.

“I’m… I’m sorry, all right?” Felix says. His hands are clasped together, knuckles white. His face is drawn, a worried crease to his brow – upset. Felix is upset.

Dimitri is ruining things between them again. Overreacting. All Felix did was raise his voice, which he has done a thousand times before. Just… not here. Not in Dimitri’s private space, but that should hardly matter. Dimitri is overreacting. Ruining their already damaged relationship with his moods.

“All right,” he says.

“Dimitri…” Felix says, but trails off again. He looks, somehow, even more unhappy. Opens his mouth, closes it again. Shifts in his seat. Awkward, uncertain, uncomfortable.

“What did you want to see me about?” Dimitri says. Using his manners again. Trying to pretend everything is normal. Felix’s eyes search Dimitri’s face, but Dimitri looks away again.

Felix exhales. Says, quieter, “I came to bring you something. It’s… it’s stupid. It doesn’t matter.”

“What is it?”

Felix hesitates. Shoves the brown paper package at Dimitri, and Dimitri takes it. It is quite heavy, now he feels it. Large and rectangular.

He opens it. Finds a handful of piano books inside. Stares at them, his fingers idly playing with the wrapping paper. Piano books.

“It’s – I mentioned to Annette that you play and she insisted on sending you something. That’s all it is.”

Dimitri pulls them out of the paper, slow and careful. They are beautiful things, hard-bound. Collections from a variety of composers, and at a variety of skill levels. Dimitri flips through them. Some of the arrangements are simple, some challenging, but there are definitely songs here he will be able to play.

“I - she wasn’t sure where you were up to, so she just got you a selection,” Felix mutters. His arms are crossed again.

“They are beautiful.” Dimitri runs his fingers over one of their covers. Rocked, blind-sided once again. But this time... this time, he feels... “Please, thank her for me.”

He looks up, and he knows that he is smiling. He can feel it spreading across his face, matching the slow bloom of warmth in his chest.

Felix stares at him. In this light his eyes look darker. His twitchiness stills, and the lingering furrow in his brow smooths out. He just... stares.

Dimitri’s smile slips, a wave of self-consciousness washing over him. He looks back down at his books. Touches them, feeling the texture of them. Taking them in.

Felix clears his throat. Gets to his feet.

“I should be going,” he says, gruff. “But… really, get some sleep.”

“I will,” Dimitri promises.

When Felix leaves, though, he continues to flip through his books. Feels the slow pulse of... of joy running through his system. So foreign and unexpected. Like whip-lash, given that only moments before Felix was yelling at him, but if he dwells too much on that then the good feeling will go away.

It is a shy sort of joy. Slightly embarrassed, too. He really is not very good at the piano, and these books must have been expensive. Were chosen specifically for him. Given to him simply because he has a hobby, no matter how private he keeps it.

Dimitri does not know how to label this feeling. Holds his books to his chest when he stands to take them to the piano. Sets them down carefully, wary of his strength.

He pulls out his piano stool. Finds the simplest piece and, slowly, he begins to play.

Chapter Text

The next social event on Dimitri’s calendar is a tournament.

Once this would have been a cause for celebration. The exertion and exhilaration of competition, the opportunity to test his skills against an opponent in a non-lethal setting. Dimitri participated in many during his school years. Tournaments were one of the few things he genuinely looked forward to.

Today, though, he is only a figurehead. He is not supposed to participate in the fighting, but watch and applaud. His approval is the prize, and today is an opportunity for fighters from all over the continent to impress him.

Dimitri knows the importance of this tradition. Regardless, it is hard to get out of bed.

He dresses – black on black, as usual. Pulls on his boots and gloves and cloak. Avoids looking at himself in the mirror as much as is possible, taking in only pieces rather than the sum of his reflection. Breaking himself down to fragments so he does not have to confront the whole.

His hair. His buttons. His shirt collar. Tidy – as good as he is ever going to get.

Dimitri makes his way through the palace. Down the stairs, inclining his head to those who stop and bow as he passes. Out onto the grounds again, in the opposite direction from the rose gardens.

The tournament is to be held in a specially-erected fighting ring. It is not Dimitri’s idea – the official training yards are perfectly adequate, as far as he is concerned. They are not, however, ideal for a large group of spectators, and today is nothing if not a performance.

The grounds are already thronged with people. Men, women and children all milling about and chattering excitedly. The fighting ring itself is huge, and picnic blankets have been laid out all around it for the general populace. In deference, perhaps, to the lingering dew.

For him and his lords, there is a marquee. Comfort and luxury, even in the outdoors. It is hard to remember sometimes that they were at war not so long ago, for the lords complain at even the most minor of discomforts. As though they have forgotten true struggle.

Dimitri remembers all too well. Exile, then war, one blending into the other. He remembers the pain, his body screaming as its most basic needs were denied it, his fractured mind at war with itself. Remembers the ever-present hunger gnawing at his belly, the sleeplessness, the desperate thirst. Remembers the haze of his madness, the things he did, the things he said, the rare moments of lucidity between ranting and raving at visions of the dead.

It was living death. And now Dimitri is expected to care if one lord receives a larger glass of fine vintage wine than another.

He can see them clearly now. It as though he is observing some grotesque portrait, an artist’s rendition of the vulgarities of nobility. They are gathered in the marquee, a writhing, seething mass. Packed in too close, because to step outside would be to yield their position, and position is everything. The overpowering smell of perfume wafts across the breeze. He can already see them taking jabs at each other, smiling through clenched teeth, snarling orders at unfortunate servants who come their way. They sneer at each other, at their surroundings, at the people making their way to the picnic rugs, as though they are better.

They are not better. They squeal and bleed and die like anyone else.

Dimitri is breathing too fast. His stomach is rolling, and he forces himself to take a steadying breath. To breath in the cool, crisp air. He cannot let his thoughts go down that road. He has a long day ahead of him, a day of sitting and smiling and talking.

Memories flash across his mind. The sickening kind, unwelcome, unbidden. He forces them away too. Thinks of the piano books Felix and Annette gave him. Thinks of his progress, slow but definite, and the way his fingers move easier over the keys. It does not help. He can muster none of the joy or excitement now.

His thoughts whirl, threatening, intrusive. He feels unbalanced, his mind and body out of sync. It seems that for every moment of pure, uncomplicated happiness, Dimitri must pay an equal price in misery.

He is sick of it. Sick of everything – the summit, his guests, his endless and unpredictable moods. Sick of himself.

But the show goes on. He is the king. There is no way out.

“His royal Majesty,” a servant announces as Dimitri steps inside the marquee. The assembled nobility are on their feet at once, bowing.

“Good morning to you all,” Dimitri greets. A caricature of a man, but not in a way anyone else notices. He does a good impression of normal.

It falls by the wayside, though, when he spots a pregnant woman standing at the edge of the marquee. Good morning is chorused back at him, but he pays little attention, scanning his surroundings. The marquee is over-crowded, with a mere handful of chairs stuffed inside it. Chairs that are already occupied, exclusively by members of the very highest houses, and he can see the smug satisfaction on their faces. There is only one chair left unclaimed – large, positively decked in cushions, and clearly intended for him.

He looks back to the lady. Heavily pregnant, as even the most ignorant of fools could see. Already shifting her weight back and forth in discomfort. Standing, while fit and healthy young lords lounge in their cushions.

Dimitri’s tenuous hold on his mood snaps. He stalks across the tent. People scatter out of his way, and the lady’s eyes go wide as he approaches. She glances behind herself as though looking to see who he means to address. Realises it is her, and shrinks before him.

“My lady,” Dimitri says. “Please, have a seat.”

She startles. Looks around the sidelines for a spare chair, her confusion obvious on her face, before she understands his meaning. That he is telling her to take the seat meant for him.

“Oh no, sire, I could not possibly -” she starts, but Dimitri will hear none of it.

He takes her by the hand - gently, but with an intent far more forceful than is generally acceptable from a strange man - and escorts her to it.

“I absolutely insist upon it,” he says. Will not take no for an answer, despite her stammered protestations.

She is a woman from a minor noble house, not known to him by name. And by consequence she has been left to stand for hours on end, despite the obviousness of her physical need, because her house lacks prestige.

And Dimitri… he has nothing today. Nothing. He looks around at the assembled lords, not one of whom stood for a pregnant woman, and he is done.

He seats the lady. Releases her hand once he is sure she will not try to get up again, waving away both her gratitude and embarrassment. He catches the attention of a passing servant.

“Please ensure this lady is properly taken care of.” His voice sounds strange, even to his own ears, and the servant hastens to obey.

A young lord seated nearby leaps to his feet. Smiles at Dimitri, obsequious, though it wavers when Dimitri does not smile back. “Your Majesty, do take my seat instead, I beg you.”

Dimitri can feel his lip curling back from his teeth. Stares at the lord, his disgust all-too-evident on his face. “I would not dream of taking a chair from one who needs it. I can only assume that is why you did not stand for this lady.”

Silence. Deathly silence. In a corner of the marquee, Dimitri suddenly spots Sylvain, surrounded by attractive young women as usual. Even Sylvain is quiet.

“I – I beg pardon, your Majesty,” the young lord stammers. “I…”

“I did not realise decency was such a rare commodity.” There is no mistaking Dimitri’s revulsion. Lords shift in their seats, uncomfortable, and not one of them has the courage to look him in the eye. The air in the marquee is unbearable. Bated, waiting to see what Dimitri will do next.

He should say something to ease the tension. To soften the reprimand. Should say something glib and winning and make everyone friends, somehow, as Sir Wesley manages to do. If Dimitri were good at this, he would know how to balance both.

But he has nothing. Is so sick of this, sick of the relentless, crushing weight of his obligations. Sick of pretending to smile at people so petty and pathetic that they will not perform the most basic acts of human decency.

“These chairs should go to those who need them,” Dimitri says into the silence. “I will find a seat elsewhere.”

With that he whirls on his heel. He is out of the marquee and striding across the grass before anyone can say otherwise. One of his aides comes running after him, twisting his hands and stammering, but Dimitri does not slow his pace.

“Your Majesty, please, I can find another chair. There are plenty in the palace!”

“Good!” he barks. “I believe Duchess Madalaina is still standing. Please fetch her one.”

“B-but sire-”

Dimitri will not hear it. His aide twitches, but hurries off to find the elderly duchess a chair.

Heads turn when Dimitri strides by. Whispers abound, though no one asks him directly what he is doing. He finds an unoccupied picnic blanket up on the hill and all but throws himself down.

In some corner of his mind, he knows he is overreacting, that the sheer strength of emotion flooding through him is unwarranted. He knows he should go back and make nice, but he cannot bring himself to do it. To sacrifice any more of himself for the benefit of grasping, graceless, selfish people, so caught up in their own importance they would not even offer a pregnant woman a chair.

He wants to return to his chambers. Wants, conflictingly, to go running across the grounds for the sheer exertion of it. Wants to fight, and rid himself of this useless, irrational, burning anger.

He wants most of all to be left alone. For an hour, a day, a year. But that is impossible

The sudden change of his seating plan throws his staff into uproar. The head servant all but runs after him, but Dimitri will not be persuaded back to the marquee.

“I am perfectly comfortable here,” he says. He barely keeps himself in check. “Proceed with the arrangements exactly as planned, no changes are required.”

“But sire, the refreshment tables are over there.”

“I am capable of walking if I am hungry, Tabitha. Please do not move them.”

His tone is edged, but Tabitha is not cowed. She pins him with a stare. “This is unorthodox, sire. The marquee is laid out to be enjoyed by you and your guests.”

“And I am certain they are enjoying it. Proceed as normal. You are dismissed.”

She bows, her disapproval evident in every line of her face. A cluster of servants gather around her as she goes, flocking around her like confused hens. Looking for instruction now the king has thrown their plans out of order.

He is twenty paces away at most. Twenty paces from the marquee. But nothing Dimitri does is without flow-on consequence, and he pretends not to hear Tabitha when she tells her staff, irritated, “The king is in one of his stubborn moods today.”

He scowls, but… it is not an inaccurate assessment. He is in free-fall, openly rebelling against his duty and his obligations as a host, refusing the expectations placed upon him as king.

But his lords did not stand even for a pregnant woman, and Dimitri cannot endure them. Cannot stomach them, not today. He can practically hear the reprimands he will receive – Gilbert, Felix, any and all of his advisors. But he cannot do it, however poor a king it makes him.

Tabitha returns with a plate of sandwiches, a pitcher of water and a defiant look. She sets them down on his blanket, adjusting their arrangement with her usual attention to detail. Simultaneously ignoring and fussing over Dimitri, which is quite a feat.

The other servants are not so bold. They hover off to one side, lacking the nerve to approach him so brazenly after Tabitha herself was dismissed, and Tabitha clicks her tongue impatiently.

“Come on,” she snaps, and the servants slink in close to erect an umbrella above him.

Dimitri takes in a steadying breath. Wishes, not for the first time, that they would just let him alone. But he is a king, and they are his staff, and they know their jobs better than he does.

“Thank you, Tabitha. Very thoughtful. Though I repeat that no changes to the planned arrangements are necessary.”

“Of course, sire,” she says, in a way that very much means she will continue to do as she sees fit.

Naturally, his guests are equally unwilling to let him alone. They ooze across the grass in confused disarray, trying to make it seem like their migration is natural.

“What a lovely day to enjoy the sunshine!” one of the lords declares as he finds himself a picnic blanket nearby, practically shouting the words to ensure that Dimitri hears them.

They are vacating their chairs, at least. There will be enough for those who genuinely need them now.

Sylvain is the only lord daring enough to approach him. Nudges Dimitri to the side of his blanket so he can sprawl out beside him. In a good mood, seemingly oblivious to Dimitri’s poor one as he chatters on. About women.

Dimitri could not be any less interested in women right now. A fact Sylvain seems to want to correct.

“Dimitri, you’re missing out on so many opportunities!” he says. “You should come and meet my friends. There are some very fine ladies around. Lady Bronwyn’s a skilled fighter, too – I know you like them fierce.”

He nudges Dimitri, grinning. Dimitri just grunts.

“Come on,” Sylvain wheedles. “You need to relax a bit. You’re missing out.”

“I have no interest in your womanising,” Dimitri snaps. Too harsh, and he regrets it the moment the words leave his mouth. He is just so sick of everything. Including, as it turns out, Sylvain.

Sylvain just shrugs, seemingly unperturbed. “You’re not a man easily tempted. Never mind – leaves plenty of ladies for me.”

Dimitri grunts again.

“Or…” Sylvain hesitates, just a fraction. “You know, Lord Elwyn is very handsome, and I’m sure-”

Sylvain.” Dimitri’s heart is pounding all of a sudden. His palms are sweaty in his leather gloves. He does not… he did not think anyone…

Sylvain raises his hands placatingly. “All right, all right. I just want you to have some fun is all.”

He leaves it at that. Sits beside Dimitri in silence while Dimitri calms down. Feeling decidedly like his entire being is an exposed nerve.

He does not want Sylvain to see it. Does not want him to know, even though Dimitri cannot entirely manage his outbursts. He wants to be a friend to him, easy and companionable. Not… not this. Not difficult, volatile. Dimitri hates that he is so volatile.

He pulls himself together. Forces his anger and misery deep, deep down where no one can reach them. Pulls on his mask as best he can.

“I am looking forward to seeing you fight today,” he tells Sylvain. “I am sure your lady friends will be very impressed.”

Sylvain is quiet a moment. Gives Dimitri a searching look, his mouth tightening. His eyes, usually glimmering with mischief, are suddenly sharp.

Dimitri has not fooled him. He has not fooled Sylvain, and his heart is beating too fast again.

“Dimitri… look.” Sylvain says, pushing his hair back from his face. “I know you prefer to keep to yourself, but… we’ve been friends a long time, you know? You can talk to me. About… things.”

Sylvain looks at him expectantly. Dimitri looks away, back to the fighting ring.

He does not know how.

“Of course,” he says. “Thank you, Sylvain.”

Sylvain looks as though he wants to say something else, but a trumpet sounds. He glances towards the ring, where the combatants are readying themselves. He sighs.

“I have to go down now, but… talk soon, all right?”

“As you like.”

Sylvain usually leaves Dimitri with a smile, but not today. Today he furrows his brows at him, even when Dimitri pastes a smile on his own face. He claps a hand on Dimitri’s shoulder and squeezes it, lingering, before he goes.

Dimitri is not sure what Sylvain sees. He is quite sure Sylvain does not like it.

He leaves, though, and Dimitri’s gaze follows him as he makes his way down to the ring. He spots Felix, and his heart stutters, as it so often does. Felix, unlike Sylvain, will not waste time socialising before a tournament. He is warming up, sword in hand, and his brow is furrowed with concentration.

He is a force of nature. A whirlwind of power and skill. Beautiful, so beautiful, when he fights. So far out of Dimitri’s reach. He watches him, though, lets Felix wash over him in all his strength and perfection. Feels that familiar ache in his chest.

Felix. He is pain and joy all in one.

“Y-your Majesty?”

Dimitri starts. Looks up to find Lady Olivia hovering nervously by his blanket.

“My lady?” Dimitri says. His voice is hoarse. He clears his throat.

“I-I noticed that you did n-not have any cake, sire. I-I should be happy to share mine.”

The words are obviously rehearsed, despite her stammer. She clutches a plate in her hands, laden with cakes and biscuits and slices. Baked goods hold little appeal for Dimitri, given the insensitivity of his palate. He opens his mouth to say no. Remembers her shyness, and how much it must have cost her to come to him.

“Thank you, my lady,” he says. Then, fighting with himself, wrestling for a semblance of politeness, “Please, sit with me, if you would like. I believe the fighting is about to begin.”

She sits down, setting the plate between them. Dressed in a white, flowery gown, the perfect picture of a young lady out on a picnic. Dimitri looks down at his own clothes. Black, always black. The only colour that feels right on him, and yet he is always out of place. As ghastly in his own way as the whispers that keep him awake in the night, and always trying to pretend otherwise.

Stuck, once again, pretending to be better than he is for the benefit of his company.

True to his word, the tournament begins. Two fighters enter the ring, and they are supposed to bow to Dimitri first, causing another brief kerfuffle as they look to the marquee and find he is not there. They find him quickly, though, and they reposition themselves. Bow to him, then to each other.

As first fights go, it is a disappointing one. Over in a matter of seconds, and Dimitri thinks nothing of it until he hears Lady Olivia’s gasp. She is covering her mouth with her hand, watching wide-eyed as the loser is taken from the battlefield with blood streaming down his face.

The next fight is longer. Better matched, and both fighters mean to win. Neither is willing to yield, so when the match ends neither of them leave the ring uninjured. They look to him, and Dimitri nods his approval.

Another fight, then another. Despite a poor start, the determination and skill on display perks Dimitri up. These are real fighters, not noblemen squaring off against each other in a politely reluctant duel. It is the first time, perhaps, that fighters from all over the continent have crossed blades since the war. And though some are less skilled than others, every one of them means business.

Dimitri could be out there. Fighting amongst them, revelling in the burn and sweat and pleasure of it. Testing his skills against the finest in the continent. Enjoying himself.

Instead, Dimitri sits on his blanket. A figurehead. Useless.

No event would be complete without Sir Wesley, and all too soon it is his turn in the ring. Dimitri leans back, fighting the familiar surge of irrational dislike. Sir Wesley is not content with merely bowing to Dimitri, as the rest have done. Instead he makes a spectacle of himself. Bows with a flourish, then announces at large that he fights solely to honour his king.

“With this blade, your Majesty, I hope to prove myself worthy. With this victory, I hope to honour you.”

He goes on, effusive and arrogant, and Dimitri hopes Sir Wesley cannot make out his expression at this distance. This is not Sir Wesley’s tournament, but a tournament for all. Drawing such attention to himself is -

Dimitri cuts those thoughts off quickly, before his mind gets stuck in a circle of vitriol. Fixes his gaze on Felix again, down on the side of the ring, but this time it does not calm him. Because Felix – Sir Wesley –

Dimitri picks up a biscuit, just for something to do with his hands.

Sir Wesley fights well. Very well indeed, it turns out, which should not be a surprise. Felix took up with him, after all, and historically sword fighting is the only thing capable of piquing Felix’s interest. Sir Wesley is strong, and skilled, and he fights like the finest of knights.

Too fine. Dimitri wonders if Sir Wesley fought during the war, for he is too chivalrous, too constrained. Classically trained and civilised, where everyone else lost their civility a long time ago.

Still, he wins. Wins over and over, and bows to Dimitri every time he does it. Waves and revels in the audience’s delight with him. Looks over at Felix every time and –

Felix is not watching him fight. Is standing by the ringside, but in conversation with Sylvain. Blatantly, rudely ignoring him, no matter what Sir Wesley does. The knight fights harder, more fiercely, but Felix does not look. Even as the crowd gasps and cheers. Even as Sir Wesley grows bolder, takes more risks, pulls off stunts that are really, genuinely dangerous. He keeps looking over at Felix, and not once does Felix look back. When Sir Wesley steps out of the ring, undefeated, Dimitri can see the frustration in every line of his body.

Dimitri is equal parts elated and guilty, because it is not his business. It is not like Felix is looking at Dimitri, after all. It is petty in the extreme to be glad Sir Wesley is met with similar indifference.

Yet Dimitri is glad of it. Shamefully, disgracefully glad.

The next fights, without Sir Wesley’s chivalry, take a turn for the aggressive again. Lady Olivia lets out a squeak as a particularly fierce duel ends up with a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder. Her face is white and pinched with anxiety. She watches the injured man as he is supported out of the ring by a medic, and there is something like horror on her face.

“He will be quite all right,” Dimitri assures her. Musters what little smile he can when she looks to him for reassurance.

“It is so – so violent,” she says.

Dimitri looks back at the fighting ring. Its adjudicators, waiting to pull anyone up for anything unsporting. Its team of medics hovering around the side. The immaculate ground, clear of any hazards. Fighters facing off one against one, the fight stopping the moment one of them yields.

He remembers the war. The blood. The screams. The lack of anything resembling mercy as armies meet.

“You have not seen a real battlefield.” Only after he has said it does Dimitri realise his mistake. It is low, almost dismissive of her distress, which is not his intent – he would spare her battle’s horrors. Spare her and all of his people the desolation of war.

Olivia blanches. Twists her skirts in her hands and says, miserably, “I – forgive me, your Majesty. I did not mean – I… I…”

Dimitri shuts his eye, just for a moment. “Forgive me if I spoke harshly. I am glad of it. If I have my way, all of my people will be protected from the horrors of the battlefield.”

A moment of quiet. Lady Olivia slowly unclenching her hands from her skirts. Still miserable when she says, “You must think me such a – such a small, silly girl.”

Dimitri turns to her in surprise. Her cheeks are flushed again, mouth twisted in distress.

“Not at all,” he tells her. “You are a sweet girl. I would not wish you into battle for anything.”

She blinks. Her cheeks flush crimson, and she ducks her head, but not before he catches the shy smile spreading across her face.

“Why are you sitting up here?” snaps a familiar voice.

It is Felix. Dimitri jots, and for a moment he wonders if he is seeing things, because what is Felix doing here? He should be down by the ring, awaiting his turn.

Instead, he looms over Dimitri, arms folded and scowling. Dressed to fight, his pants fitted down the muscular lines of his legs, his shirt emphasising the width of his shoulders. His sword is at his hip. Any moment, Felix is surely due to enter the ring.

“What?” is all Dimitri manages to say.

“Why are you sitting. Here. Instead of in the marquee.” Felix’s words are clipped. His expression is dark with anger, though he holds it back. Shoots a glance in Olivia’s direction, and Dimitri can only assume it is for her sake that Felix is not lashing him already. Dimitri is, after all, not where he is supposed to be.

“It is a beautiful day.” As excuses go, it is not a particularly strong one.

“You should be mingling. Not having a…” Felix’s lips thin. “A private picnic.”

Dimitri cringes. Felix is right to be angry, but the best justification Dimitri can muster is, “It is not private.”

Felix’s nostrils flare. His eyes shoot between Dimitri and Lady Olivia. He looks more than angry – he looks upset, too.

First Sylvain, now Felix. Dimitri is ruining everything.

“I needed some fresh air. That is all,” Dimitri says, and his voice is small, smaller than it should be in company. He is so foolish, sometimes. He can feel his shoulders slumping.

Felix grinds his jaw. His eyes flash over Dimitri’s face. Then he exhales, smoothing back a stray tendril of hair from his face.

“Well. You deserve a break, I suppose,” he mutters. Capitulating, which is a surprise. Then Felix looks at Olivia again, and Dimitri understands. Felix cannot reprimand him properly in front of her.

Still, there is no need for Felix to give her such a withering look.

The silence stretches on too long. Dimitri summons his manners. Pastes on his smile. “Please allow me to introduce you. This is Lady Olivia, Lord Denmar’s youngest daughter. My lady, the Duke Fraldarius.”

“Denmar’s daughter. Of course.” Felix’s expression is dark and forbidding. He raises his chin, both proud and cold.

“I-it is an honour to meet you, your Grace.”

“Hn.” Felix makes his hostility all-too-evident. Shoots her one of his nastier looks then turns back to Dimitri, blocking her out. “I need to speak with you later. I’ll come by your rooms.”

He speaks oddly pointedly. Strangely emphatic, as though rounding off an argument. A warning, Dimitri assumes. The promise of punishment for Dimitri’s misdeeds.

“Of course, Felix.” There is no hiding Dimitri’s dejection.

Felix gives Dimitri a complicated look, too complicated for him to read, then turns and stalks away. Back towards the ring, where he should be, and Dimitri remains at a loss as to why he would leave mid-tournament to have a conversation that was, as far as Dimitri can tell, perfectly capable of waiting. It is decidedly unlike him.

Dimitri will hear all about it later, he supposes. No matter how awkward their relationship is now, Felix is not shy with his reprimands.

First things first. Felix’s hostility often requires explanation, and Dimitri looks to Olivia to see if he has offended her. Instead he finds her staring after Felix, wearing the familiar stunned expression that many people wear after being in close proximity to him. Felix is at his most devastating when dressed to fight, his eyes sparking and his clothing fitted to him like a glove.

Lady Olivia jolts out of her stupor when she sees Dimitri looking at her. Fumbles for a cake, her cheeks red. Dimitri is accustomed to the effect Felix has on people – there is no need for her to be embarrassed about it.

He smiles at her as best he can. Looks back to the ring. “He is very handsome.”

Olivia fumbles her cake again. “Y-yes, sire. V-very handsome.”

“He will be coming to the ball.” The most desired dance partner, entirely out of Dimitri’s reach. He is used to it.

“Oh n-no, sire! You m-misunderstand me. He is very handsome, but h-he is not to my tastes.”

That pulls Dimitri up short. He blinks at her, unsure if he heard her correctly. Not to her tastes? Felix?

Despite the colour in her cheeks, Olivia goes on. Lowering her voice, as though telling Dimitri a secret. “He is – f-forgive me, your Majesty. But he is quite intimidating.”

A laugh bursts out of Dimitri’s chest, unbidden. “I… suppose he is. Here I thought myself the more frightening, between the two of us.”

He should not speak so. Should not voice the thought, for it is a glimpse behind his mask, too personal, too raw. But Olivia just shakes her head. Toys with her skirts.

“O-only at first, sire. You are a warrior and a king, but you are v-very… very kind.”

Dimitri is speechless. Becomes aware his mouth is hanging open when Lady Olivia lets out a nervous little giggle.

He shuts it. Mercifully a new fight begins, and he is given an excuse to turn his attention back to the ring. Lady Olivia is a shy girl. Sweet, if a little awkward. He thought she was frightened of him – she certainly was at first – but… she is not frightened now. Is more intimidated by Felix than by him. Called him kind.

Dimitri does not know what to make of it. It does not – it does not fit. Not with what he knows of himself. He feels blindsided.

It is Felix’s turn to fight soon enough, and Dimitri sets his confusion aside for later consideration. Felix’s fights are a sight to behold. He is a force of nature, unstoppable, unbeatable. Aggressive yet skilled, strong yet lightning fast. He wins and wins and wins. Steps off the field undefeated, to great applause, as he turns to face Dimitri. Bows one last time, as is expected of him. Dimitri inclines his head in turn, as he always does.

But… there is something different about Felix. He pounds his fist over his chest, oddly aggressive. Still angry, perhaps, and working through it in the ring. He holds Dimitri’s attention for a moment longer than protocol dictates, and even at this distance Dimitri can feel Felix’s eyes boring into him.

“He is very talented,” Lady Olivia says, and the moment ends. It is all Dimitri can do not to jump. He had forgotten she was there.

“Our best swordsman,” Dimitri agrees.

He looks back to the ring. Felix is making his way out. Joining Sylvain, who claps him on the shoulder and offers him something to drink, their camaraderie as easy as ever.

Dimitri wishes, so badly, he could join them. Wishes he could fight, rather than being stuck sitting around all day. Wishes that for once, just once, he could cast off the mantle of king.

Suddenly a whisper springs up in the crowd. Dimitri is on the alert at once, scanning for a threat, but he finds only Sir Wesley. Sir Wesley entering the ring again, well after his turn is done. Sir Wesley, looking to Dimitri, but not before he is certain he has Felix’s attention first. Only once Felix looks at him does he address his king.

“Your royal Majesty,” he calls. There is a swell of excitement from the crowd, quickly hushed by those wanting to hear more. “I beg your forgiveness, sire, and the forgiveness of my noble brothers and sisters-in-arms for speaking out of turn. I am humbled by the skill I have witnessed here today.”

Sir Wesley glances at Felix. Another piece of flattery, another call for his attention. And Sir Wesley has it. Misses, perhaps, the way Sylvain’s hand clamps down on Felix’s arm in an iron grip, holding him back.

Dimitri should tell him to get out of the ring. He should. This is decidedly against the order of things, but… “Speak your piece, Sir Wesley.”

Sir Wesley bows to him, low and flourishing. “We have all heard the tales of your prowess in battle, my king. I am but a humble knight” - very humble - “ and I have no right to ask this of you. But it would be the highest honour in the land to cross blades with you. I request, most humbly, that you honour me with a duel.”

Gasps, whispers. Sir Wesley is bold to ask this. It is not done, and for the first time the whispers around the perfect, golden knight take a darker turn. Shock. Indignation. One of the adjudicators hustles across the field towards him, clearly intending to shoo him off. Dimitri’s aides are also converging, faces like thunder.

A humble knight. Challenging the king to a duel. It is scandalous. Unorthodox.

Dimitri is in an unorthodox sort of mood. A warrior long before he was a king. A man, just like any other.

He wants this. Wants to fight. Just this once.

He stands. The crowd hushes again. He hears Lady Olivia let out a noise of surprise.

“I accept.”

He does not look at Felix as he makes his way down to the field. Does not look at anyone. His aides fuss and flurry around him, but Dimitri will hear none of their objections. Hands his cloak off to the stammering Dominic as he makes his way into the ring. Violating all manner of tradition and protocol in the process.

Dimitri is already in trouble for his conduct today. Already out of control, even before he consented to fight. He will never hear the end of this. Right now, he does not care. He just wants to be happy. To feel alive again, if only for a moment.

Dimitri pulls off his overcoat. Takes up the lance that is handed to him – not his own, but it will do. The excitement of the crowd is a visceral thing, and his heart is beating faster now a weapon is in his hand.

He does not look at Felix. Does not want to see the fury surely written across his face.

“You honour me, your Majesty,” Sir Wesley says, bowing low. All this to impress Felix, all this for his attention. A chivalrous, courtly knight, openly defying the rules of the tournament.

Sir Wesley, it seems, is losing control too.

Dimitri bows back. Says, low, “The honour is mine.”

They ready. Excitement thrums through Dimitri’s blood, sudden and heady. Sir Wesley is a skilled opponent. A challenge. That is what Dimitri needs right now. A challenge.

He is disappointed. Dimitri is a warrior born of war – bloodied, brutal, forceful. An army unto himself. Dressed like a king, but he will never cast off the shackles of the bloodthirsty monster he became.

It is over all too quickly. Sir Wesley, classically trained and chivalrous, never stood a chance.

- - -

“That was excruciating.”

It is later. Felix, true to his promise, has stormed up to Dimitri’s rooms. Eyes sparking, radiating anger. He is barely in the door before he starts on Dimitri. Kicks it shut with his foot, and it slams with a bang.

“You’re unbelievable,” Felix snaps. “Do you even use that head of yours, or is it purely for decoration?”

Dimitri heads to his armchair. Sits down, head bowed. Taking his punishment. He knew it would come, deserves it and any other reprimand that comes his way for his conduct today. He deserves Felix’s fury.

“What were you thinking?” Felix paces in front of him. Angry, incredulous, demanding. “Do you have any idea the amount of people I’ve had to fend off all afternoon? Half the court’s in uproar.”

Dimitri’s heart is like lead in his chest. He nods, mute. Ashamed of himself and the failings he put on display for the continent to see. His temper, his melancholy. The sheer violence he is capable of.

Nobody could mistake the way he took down Sir Wesley for anything other than what it was. If anyone had forgotten just who Dimitri is, the things he has done, he has just reminded every last one of them. His court. His people. Lady Olivia, who mere moments before professed that she was not, in fact, afraid of him, though he has little doubt his display will have changed that. Felix…

Felix, who has always been disgusted with Dimitri’s brutality. Felix, with whom Dimitri still cannot mend his relationship. Felix, who Dimitri keeps driving further and further away.

“I don’t know why I’m here if you never bother to listen to me,” Felix snarls. “Why do you even have advisors, if you never take their advice?”

“Forgive me,” Dimitri says. His voice cracks.

Felix pauses in his tirade. Breathes heavily. Dimitri can see him restraining himself as he grinds out, “Explain yourself.”

“I just…” Dimitri flounders. It is hard to speak. Hard to find the words when his mind is so fractured. When the weight on his chest is too heavy to bear. “I just… wanted to fight.”

It is a weak excuse. Miserable. Felix tosses his head, making a noise of disgust.

“Not that. Denmar’s girl!”

He… what?

Dimitri’s head jerks up. Felix is glaring at him, expectant, awaiting an answer. But Dimitri does not understand the question. “You… you are not angry at me for fighting?”

Felix gives him a look as though he has grown two heads. “What are you on about?”

“I just – I-” Dimitri takes a moment. Struggling to get himself back in order. To make his words make sense. “I injured Sir Wesley.”

Felix waves a hand. “He’s the idiot who challenged you. And don’t change the subject – what were you thinking, going off with the girl like that?”

Dimitri is not sure what to do. Stares at Felix, his mind slowly turning this new information over. It is just... Sir Wesley. Felix gets angry when Dimitri mentions the man, let alone fighting him. He repeats, “You are not angry at me for fighting Sir Wesley? Truly?”

“No, I -” Felix cuts himself off. Stops pacing at last, scowling down at Dimitri. “What did you think I came in here for?”

“I was… not supposed to fight. I thought…”

Felix stares at him for a long moment. Exhales, and Dimitri can see his anger warring with… something else. Felix stops pacing at last. Sits down across from him. Still angry, still tense, but more restrained.

“Why weren’t you sitting in the marquee?” he asks. Dimitri does not see how that is related, but…

“There were not enough chairs.” Felix’s raised eyebrow says it all, and Dimitri elaborates. “A pregnant lady had been left to stand all day. I gave her mine. I could not just leave her like that. Nobody else stood, so I…”

Dimitri cannot go on. Cannot understand now why he was quite so furious – indignation would have been fair, but to throw everything entirely out of order… What is wrong with him? He looks down at the carpet. Finishes his explanation with a shrug.

“So you sat on the grass and gave her your chair,” Felix says. Less angry. More resigned. “You’re the king. You could have ordered more chairs to be brought.”

The obvious solution to the logistical problem. Not the real problem, though, not for Dimitri. Not the real reason he walked away, nothing to do with his disgust, or his fury, or the crushing weight of his despair… but he cannot tell Felix that.

“I know. I should have, but I was… disappointed. I just walked away.”

It takes Felix a moment to reply. Dimitri braces for another tirade – he knows what he did was unreasonable. A stupid way for a king to behave. He braves a glance at Felix and -

Felix is just looking at him. Quiet. His expression complicated, again, or perhaps it is that he has drifted so far away that Dimitri can no longer read him. Cannot understand him.

“And the girl?” Felix asks.

“She brought me cake,” Dimitri says. Finishes, lamely, “I did not eat much.”

Felix leans back in his chair. Huffs out a breath, shaking his head. The corner of his mouth twitches.

“All right,” he says. “Leave the court to me. I’ll handle it.”

And that is that. Dimitri waits for more – an elaboration on what Felix will handle, at the very least, but no more is forthcoming. Instead Felix stands. Moves over to his piano.

Dimitri is missing something, something crucial. Forgets about it entirely when he sees the sheet music to The Prince  right there on the music stand. Beside an open book, because Dimitri plays it so often he keeps it readily at hand. Right where Felix can see it.

Dimitri leaps to his feet. Lunges forward, snatching it from the music stand and burying it beneath a pile of other music. Felix gives him a strange look, but Dimitri cannot explain himself. His hands are twitchy, traitorous. He tidies his music, trying to act as though that was his intent all along. Hiding The Prince as well as he can manage it.

Logically, he knows that Felix has no way of knowing that Dimitri thinks of it as his song. No way of knowing that the melody reminds Dimitri of him, haunts him the way Felix haunts him. That Dimitri plays it, over and over, with Felix’s face swimming in his mind’s eye, and only its melody eases the aching of his heart.

Dimitri still panics. And Felix is still looking. Giving him one of those thin-lipped, piercing looks. Dimitri is waiting for Felix to snap at him again.

Instead, Felix sits down at the piano. Back straight, nimble fingers settling on the keys, and Dimitri’s own hands still. Felix says nothing. But slowly, clumsily, he plays a ditty, a simple children’s song, on Dimitri’s piano.

Dimitri’s heart pounds. He has never heard Felix play. Never knew Felix could.

“It’s a good instrument,” Felix says when his fingers still. “That’s as much as I can play, though. I’m… sure you’re much better.” Felix is strangely halting, strangely awkward. Different, so different, than he was when he came into Dimitri’s rooms.

He is like whiplash. Throws Dimitri back and forth. Unpredictable as lightning, one minute angry, the next…

Felix’s eyes are almost golden, in this light. Beautiful, so beautiful, when they flicker towards Dimitri. Dart away again as Felix dips his head, looking back at the piano where his hands rest on the keys. Quick, almost… almost vulnerable. So close Dimitri can feel his warmth, so close he can breathe in the smell of his hair.

“Will you play something for me?” Felix asks.

Dimitri’s heart says anything, anything. Anything Felix asks, Dimitri would give him, if only Felix would look at him like that again.

But Dimitri’s fingers twist. His stomach clenches. Felix is not angry with him – no small miracle – but Dimitri is still… he cannot…

“Forgive me,” he says. “I have nothing to show yet.”

A beat. Felix nods. And slowly, he takes his hands off the piano.

Chapter Text

Dedue returns from Duscur entirely without fanfare.

It is late. Another long day of meetings has passed. Dimitri climbs the stairs up to his chambers in a daze, exhausted as ever. Trying to process the events of the day while simultaneously preparing for the next one.

The summit is going the way these things always do – that is, slowly and painfully. But Dimitri has to keep his guard up, no matter how long it drags on. Has to pre-empt his lords and ladies, manoeuvre the conversation in such a way that he can block them from starting fights without causing offence himself. He is not good at it. Claude was much better at this sort of thing, at scheming and manipulating and predicting the movements of others before they knew it themselves. But he sailed off and left the Leicester Alliance to Dimitri, along with the entirety of the Adrestian Empire.

His territory is huge. Beyond anything Dimitri imagined, anything he could possibly have prepared for. The numbers alone make his head hurt because they are too large, so large they become abstract, even when they cannot afford to be. He cannot think of his citizens in terms of mere numbers, but there are – there are so many of them. So many, all relying on him to lead them, and -

Dimitri opens the door to his chambers. Steps over the threshold before instinct screams at him that someone is there – delayed, too slow. His hand grasps for the dagger he keeps hidden at his waist, his heart pounding with the realisation that if someone had been behind the door Dimitri would have been too late.

Then Dedue pokes his head out of Dimitri’s wardrobe, and the tension goes out of Dimitri in a great flood. “Good evening, your Majesty.”

Dimitri almost laughs. Lets out a shaky breath and steps fully into the room, shutting the door behind him.

“I apologise for startling you,” Dedue says.

“No, not at all.” Dimitri’s heart rate is slowly coming down again.

“I have found several garments in need of repair. I will take them to the tailor tomorrow.”

It is almost surreal. It takes Dimitri’s tired mind time to parse that sentence, and to comprehend the scene unfolding after the gruelling day he has had. Dedue. Dedue is here, pottering about Dimitri’s chambers and going through his possessions. No greeting, no news of his return – he has just come back after months away and buried himself in Dimitri’s wardrobe.

“Dedue, you are not my servant.” As welcomes go, it is not Dimitri’s best. Not how he imagined their reunion would go, certainly. He tries again, “When did you return? You must be tired. Please, sit down.”

“I returned an hour ago,” Dedue says. Turning back to Dimitri’s clothes so he may frown at one of Dimitri’s overcoats. Picking at loose stitching on the sleeve. “You have not been well cared-for in my absence.”

“They are just clothes. Must I remind you again you are not my valet?” Dimitri is too tired to manage his tone for long – it comes out too high, too strained, and Dedue’s eyes are on him at once.

“You have had a long day, your Majesty. Allow me to take your cloak.”

“There is no need.” Dimitri hastens to undo its clasps before Dedue can try to remove it for him. “What news from Duscur?”

Dedue shakes his head. Gives a final disapproving look to the contents of Dimitri’s wardrobe before stepping out. He has to squeeze, for he is broader than Dimitri remembers, somehow even more muscular. Duscur food has been suiting him well.

“Later,” Dedue says. “I wish to inquire after your health first.”

“I am well, Dedue, I assure you.” Dimitri can already see from the look on Dedue’s face he does not believe him. Though knowing Dedue, nothing Dimitri says is likely to make a material difference to the way Dedue worries.

“I will make you some tea. Please sit down, your Majesty.”

“Dedue,” Dimitri sighs. But he is too tired and wrung-out to muster any real form of protest. Dedue is steady, implacable, possesses seemingly endless amounts of patience. Arguing with him is like arguing with a mountain – he is equally immovable.

Still, Dimitri hesitates. Hovers in place as Dedue rifles through his travel bag, and Dimitri wishes he were more surprised to find that Dedue came straight to him the minute he got into the city. Dedue pulls out what looks like an entire apothecary of unidentified herbs. Takes another look at Dimitri, studying him, before selecting a few.

“Please sit,” Dedue repeats. “I will not be long.”

It is not right. Dedue must be exhausted, he should not be waiting on Dimitri. But Dedue pays him no further mind, materialising a mortar and pestle out of his bag and beginning to grind his herbs. A glance at the fire shows a kettle already coming to the boil, placed there long before Dimitri returned to his chambers. Dedue’s mind was already made up – Dimitri will not change it now.

Slowly, Dimitri sits.

The warmth of the fire lulls him. He does not drift towards sleep, not exactly, but his mind is quiet. In some sort of stupor, and he only jolts out of it when Dedue takes the kettle from the fireplace and pours water into a cup. He hands it to Dimitri and Dimitri looks into it, trying to make sense of the murky brown colour and unusual scent. Not tea as he knows it.

“I have taken the liberty of procuring medicinal herbs from Duscur,” Dedue says.

“I see.” Dedue is waiting, so Dimitri blows on it gently and takes a mouthful. Given the colour of it, in this instance his lack of taste may be a blessing.

“You look thin,” Dedue says. Frowning at him, despite Dimitri’s acquiescence with the tea.

“Do I?” Dimitri looks down at himself. It is a foolish impulse – he is fully dressed, completely covered. Still. Now Dedue mentions it, now Dimitri actually thinks about it, Dimitri has been looking… stringy.

Sir Wesley pops into his mind, as he so often does in these moments. Sir Wesley with his bulging muscles and healthy cheeks, full of strength and vigour. Handsome, with the kind of physique straight out of a romantic novel.

Dimitri tugs at his sleeve, pulling it further down his wrist. Tugs at his tunic, trying to pull it away from his skin. Trying to cover the shape of him with loose fabric, so nobody ever has to see it.

“I should not have left you. Not so soon after your illness.” Outwardly Dedue is as stoic as ever, but Dimitri knows him well enough to read his regret, his anxiety, his guilt.

“I have long since recovered,” Dimitri says. “Truly, Dedue, you worry too much.”

It took all of Dimitri’s persuasive power to get Dedue to go to Duscur at all. Even once the healers declared Dimitri safe, there was little he could do to calm Dedue’s anxiety. Dedue was ready to abandon everything he had worked so hard for, abandon his role in the rebuilding of Duscur, just because Dimitri took ill.

Dimitri is fine. But Dedue never believes him.

Dedue goes back to his pack. Pulling out more herbs and bunching them together, tying them with a piece of string. Goes to Dimitri’s bed and places them under Dimitri’s pillow.

“Dedue.”

“They will help you sleep.”

Dimitri watches him. Too tired to question it any further. Discomfited, but not enough to ask Dedue to stop. If it were anyone else handling his things, it would be an invasion, an intrusion, a desecration of his most private space. But it is Dedue.

“I did not know you were coming back,” Dimitri says. Not just tired, now, but sleepy in a pleasant sort of way – perhaps because of the tea. “You were not due to return for another… six weeks, was it not?”

“Five, your Majesty.”

Dimitri yawns. Rubs at his eye. “Why did you come back, then?”

Dedue’s silence is telling. Dimitri sits up straighter, shaking his head in an effort to push the sleepiness away. There is something strange about this. Something just beyond his reach.

Dedue’s mission was important. Important not just to the kingdom, but to Dedue personally. It is he Dimitri tasked with leading the kingdom’s effort to rebuild Duscur, and Dedue worked so, so hard to make it happen. Spent long nights with Dimitri discussing policy, and public strategy, and the logistical difficulties of rebuilding a nation that was burned to the ground long ago. Dimitri has not heard a word from him that would suggest an early return – in fact, Dimitri was expecting quite the opposite.

“Dedue?” he prompts.

“It seemed prudent,” Dedue says. Too careful.

Dimitri studies him. The tense line of his shoulders. The way he will not look at Dimitri.

“Dedue, please. Sit with me.”

Reluctantly, Dedue does. He removes his travelling coat first, though, loathe to get dirt on Dimitri’s fine furniture. He sits down ramrod straight, his eyes cast towards the ground.

Dedue has not been so strange and stiff in Dimitri’s presence for a long time. Familiar dark whispers rear up at the back of Dimitri’s mind, blaming him, but he shoves them away. He has done nothing to push Dedue away from him, he reminds himself, for Dedue has not been around to offend.

“What are you not telling me?” Dimitri asks. Utterly without tact or guile, going straight to the point, but this is Dedue. There is no need to mince words.

Dedue sighs. Capitulates at once, never one to keep secrets from Dimitri. “I received a letter.”

“Yes? From whom? What did it say?”

Dedue shifts in his seat. “I fear it will displease you.”

Another pang goes through Dimitri, this one not so easily dismissed. Dimitri looks away. Stares into the fire, the pleasant sleepiness vanishing. “You do not need to fear me. I will not be angry with you.”

Dedue shakes his head. “You misunderstand my meaning. I do not fear you. But I do not wish to agitate you at this time of night. You need to sleep.”

Dimitri takes that in. Calms, just a little, though he still does not have his answer. “Just tell me. Please.”

Dedue’s reluctance is obvious, but he does not deny him. “Very well. I received a letter from Sylvain.”

Whatever Dimitri was expecting to hear, it was not that. He blinks, trying to comprehend it. Sylvain sent Dedue a letter? Sylvain?

“What-” Dimitri cuts himself off. Already he is too loud, and he promised he would not get angry. He says, quieter. “Go on.”

“He told me you were in low spirits, but you did not wish to speak to him about it. Thus, I have returned.” Dedue is watching Dimitri. Calm as ever, though there is a furrow in his brow. “There was no force. I returned of my own volition, your Majesty.”

Low spirits. Low spirits.

Dimitri lurches to his feet. Paces around the room, his head whirling. He would have expected Dedue to return early because of – of political reasons. Food shortage, tense relations. Or even an illness or injury to Dedue himself. This is something else. It makes no sense.

Sylvain wrote to Dedue. Sylvain. He wrote to Dedue about Dimitri and Dedue has returned early. Not because of something important, but because Sylvain thinks – what? That there is something wrong with Dimitri?

Dedue is talking again, but Dimitri cannot hear him. Paces, wretched, angry. So breathlessly, terrifyingly angry. Blood is rushing in his ears.

Sylvain called Dedue back. Called him back from a critical mission, when he has no right to do. Interfered with the entire rebuilding of Duscur, because he must have known that Dedue would fly to Dimitri’s side given the slightest provocation. Why? Because Dimitri is in low spirits? Does Sylvain think Dimitri is incapable? Unfit for his duties?

(The shame is worse than the anger. Cuts deep, so deep. Dimitri cannot hide his weakness no matter how he tries, causes trouble for everyone around him, and he wants to scream.)

A hand clasps Dimitri’s shoulder. Dimitri whirls around, half wild, but – Dedue. It is just Dedue.

“Dimitri,” Dedue says. Strong, stabilising. When Dimitri does not pull away Dedue clasps his other shoulder too, restraining and comforting in equal measure. Dedue leans forward, pressing his forehead against Dimitri’s in the manner of the people of Duscur. A gesture of affection. Not something often shared with outsiders. Shared with Dimitri now.

Dimitri takes one gulping breath, then another. Reaches up, not to brush Dedue away, but so that he may grip Dedue’s arms in turn. Anchoring himself.

“You should not have come back,” he says when he is able. “Your work is too important for this. There is nothing wrong with me.”

“I live to serve you, above all else. You know this.”

Dimitri does. But the thing is, it was changing. Dedue was changing. Looking to the future, for himself and for his native people. Working towards a greater goal, a higher purpose than worrying after the state of Dimitri’s clothes. And Dimitri was so proud, so happy to see Dedue becoming his own man.

Then Dimitri got sick, and it ruined everything.

“I do not need you as my nurse-maid, Dedue, I-” But Dimitri has no more words to say. Cannot explain the maelstrom inside him.

Dedue squeezes his shoulders. “My work was almost done, and I have delegated the rest. I am happy to be back. I have missed you.”

Dimitri’s stomach churns with misery. But he cannot express it, not without sounding ungrateful, not without driving Dedue away. Because he has missed Dedue every bit as much.

“It was unnecessary,” he says. “But I have missed you too.”

- - -

“Summon Margrave Gautier at once,” Dimitri commands the next morning.

It is early. The summit meetings are due to start in an hour, but Dimitri is pacing his office. He has barely slept. He has not eaten. His head is pounding but his mind whirls and whirls.

Sylvain had no right, no right, to interfere. Dedue told Dimitri very little, but he can read between the lines. Dedue is straightforward, easily manipulated when it comes to Dimitri, so Sylvain must have – have used that knowledge to get Dedue’s compliance. Sylvain has some ulterior motive, some reason for intruding on the rebuilding of Duscur, and has fabricated some petty complaint in order to go about it.

(It is not because of Dimitri. It cannot be. He will not – it cannot be that, because Dimitri is fine. He is fine, he is fine, he is fine.)

A servant comes in with a tray of breakfast, takes one look at him, and fumbles it. Manages to right herself with only a minor amount of spilling and deposits it on his desk. Bows her way out without so much as a word.

Sylvain clatters into his office a few minutes later. Dressed haphazardly, hair a mess, his expression decidedly alarmed. “Dimitri? What’s wrong? What’s happened?”

Dimitri pauses in his pacing. Curls a lip at him. “Margrave Gautier. Please, sit.”

Sylvain goes still. Stares at him as though awaiting a punchline but finds not a trace of humour in Dimitri’s face. Sylvain’s expression shutters. Careful, wary, as he sits down.

“Dedue has returned from Duscur,” Dimitri says. Resumes his pacing, unable to contain the energy radiating through every one of his limbs. It is not a pleasant energy. It crackles inside him like electricity, burning, sickening.

“Has he?” Sylvain says. Careful, very careful.

“He returned on your instigation.”

Sylvain cannot quite hide his surprise. He blinks, his mouth falling open, brow furrowing in obvious confusion. Then his eyes flicker. His expression smooths. He tips his head, casual, unassuming, but his eyes watch Dimitri like a hawk.

“I’m sorry, your Majesty, but you’ve lost me,” Sylvain says. “Dedue’s got his own thing going on, he doesn’t listen to a word I say.”

“Don’t play dumb with me,” Dimitri snarls. “You wrote to him, asking for his return from a critical mission in Duscur, which is decidedly outside your purview. You have no business interfering in matters of foreign policy.”

Sylvain tries a smile. Tries his usual charm. “Come on, your Majesty, you know me. I try to avoid policy talk as much as possible.”

“Yet here Dedue stands, summoned by your command. An order you have no right to give.”

“I didn’t. I think there’s been a misunderstanding, sire.” But Sylvain’s eyes flicker again, and Dimitri has known him too long for Sylvain to hide from him. Sylvain doesn’t want to talk. Is holding something back. Will weasel his way out of this if he can, but Dimitri will not let him.

“What you have done is beyond the pale,” he growls. Prowling around him, watching Sylvain grow tense. Good. “You have compromised many months of hard work, not to mention a staggering amount of resources. Do you have any idea how hard we have worked to win the trust of the remaining people of Duscur? How hard it has been to secure support for the rebuilding, given the anti-Duscur sentiment in the kingdom?”

“Of course I know. It wasn’t my intention to interfere. Believe me, your Majesty -”

But Dimitri isn’t done. Cannot listen. Cannot stop the torrent of words leaving his mouth. Does not try to. “I thought you would rise to your post. Make yourself useful, make something of your life. Instead I find you interfering with sensitive, time-critical missions because of some idle gossip. I thought you had risen to your responsibilities, but you are as much a good-for-nothing as ever.”

Any trace of warmth or humour has vanished from Sylvain’s face. He is still as carved stone. “Are you done?” he says. “Or are you going to keep drawing conclusions and making a fool of yourself?”

Dimitri’s anger flares, dark and all-consuming. “Do not speak to me so, Sylvain, I warn you.”

“I’m your advisor, aren’t I? It’s my job to tell you the truth, even when you don’t want to hear it.”

Dimitri barks a laugh. Harsh, almost violent. “And I suppose that is why you wrote to Dedue about my low spirits. Or do you expect me to believe it was something other than a ploy to force his return? What are you planning?”

Before this moment, it had not occurred to Dimitri that this might be some sort of plot. But as soon as the words leave his mouth, they make sense. Terrible, awful sense, and he is right, he must be right.

“Planning?” Sylvain repeats. Still playing dumb.

“You cannot hide from me. I see you now, snake, though you have played me for too long.”

“What are you talking about?” Sylvain says. “Do you even hear what you’re saying? It’s me, Dimitri.”

This is it – this is what Sylvain is trying to conceal. A plot. Dimitri’s mind is reeling with the revelation. Sylvain is up to something, it all makes sense now. “You mean to betray me?”

Sylvain is on his feet. Fists clenched by his sides, his voice tight. “I’m nothing but loyal to you. I’ve always been. Listen to yourself, Dimitri.”

Betrayal. It makes sense. It is the only thing that makes sense, the one constant in Dimitri’s life. His step-mother. Edelgard. Now Sylvain. It is happening again, and Dimitri has been blind, so very blind. Trusted Sylvain, with so many things, with himself. And Sylvain is – is scheming.

“Do you mean to take the throne? To kill me?”

It makes sense it makes sense it makes sense

“For Goddess’ sake, Dimitri.” Sylvain’s face is drained of blood. “Calm down, I – should I fetch Dedue?”

“Don’t you go near him, traitor.”

Sylvain reaches for him, but Dimitri whirls away. His thoughts run too fast for him to catch. His hands are shaking, every fibre of his being on fire.

“Dimitri – come on, calm down. Please.”

Sylvain means to hurt him. To usurp his throne, to kill him. He cannot believe he did not see it until just now, but Dimitri will not let him, he will not let him. Every one of his instincts screams danger, and Dimitri is on fire.

“I wrote to him about this, all right?” Sylvain is saying, oddly distorted, as though he is far away. “I didn’t ask him to come back. I just… Dimitri, calm down, you’re gonna hurt yourself.”

“You really are a good-for-nothing coward,” Dimitri spits. “You think you can kill me? Tell me now why I should not take your treacherous head from your shoulders.”

“You’re out of your mind. You’re mad, Dimitri, do you even hear yourself? You’re raving like a lunatic.”

Mad. Mad. Mad.

It is like a blow. A strike across the face, and Dimitri is suddenly, agonisingly still. Mad. Mad?

Sylvain is reaching for him again. Tentative. Afraid, and he should be, except – except -

Traitor? Sylvain? No, no.

Dimitri jerks back to himself. Looks around. He is in his office – he had lost track of it, forgotten, somehow. He is sweaty, so sweaty his shirt is sticking to his back. His scalp hurts – Dimitri has been tugging at his hair. Somewhere a clock is ticking, and the morning sun shines cheerfully in through the office window.

Slowly, carefully, Sylvain comes closer. Pulls something out of Dimitri’s hands, watching him as one would a wild animal. Tense, ready to pull back at a moment’s notice.

It is – an ornament. Just an ornament. A sculpted metal flower gifted to him by Mercedes before she went to the church. To brighten up your office, she had said. Dimitri does not remember picking it up. Does not know why Sylvain would want to take it.

Then Dimitri looks down. Finds he has squeezed so hard that the metal has punctured his glove. Punctured the skin below, and there is… blood. He is bleeding.

Mad, Sylvain said. Mad.

“Goddess, Dimitri.” Sylvain’s voice is hoarse. “I didn’t think… I’m glad Dedue’s back, I didn’t realise you were this bad. I just thought…” He exhales. “You’re not right. I wrote to Dedue when I realised something was wrong, and maybe I should have asked you directly, but – you never talk to me. I didn’t know what else to do, all right?”

“Get out,” Dimitri whispers.

Sylvain grimaces. “If you’d just-”

“OUT.”

Dimitri does not remember picking up his inkwell, either. Only realises he has thrown it when it shatters, shards of glass and black ink spraying everywhere. Oozing into the priceless rug at their feet.

Sylvain looks at it. Throws his hands in the air. “Fine.”

The door slams behind him. Dimitri’s breathing is coming faster and faster. He buries his face in his hands, and he feels sick, and his hands are shaking, and he cannot breathe, he cannot breathe.

The journey back to his chambers is a haze. He is a puppet, a caricature, forcing a rotten smile at the people he passes, fake, unreal. He takes the stairs up to his chambers at a run. Locks the door and yanks off his cloak and overlayers, too hot, too constrained, and he hears something tear but he does not care anymore. He throws himself down onto his bed.

Mad. You’re mad.

He cannot breathe. Cannot think. Dimitri just shakes, and shakes, and shakes.

- - -

He wakes some time mid-afternoon. Opens his eye, bleary and confused to find himself blinking up at his ceiling in full daylight. His throat is sore, and his eye feels crusty. He rubs at it, slow and sleepy.

Then memory of this morning washes back over him, and Dimitri’s heart freezes in his chest. Oh Goddess. Oh no.

He cannot bear to think of what he said to Sylvain. What he accused him of, but the words come back to him anyway. Good-for-nothing. Snake. Prove to me why I should not take your treacherous head from your shoulders.

Dimitri threatened him. Threatened him. Threatened his friend, his subject. Like a tyrant, violent, vile. Monstrous.

He presses a hand over his face. What was he doing? What was he thinking? Traitor, he called Sylvain, but now not even Dimitri can follow the thread of his logic. He accused Sylvain of ruining the rebuilding of Duscur, of scheming, of wanting to kill him, but none of those things make sense. At the time they were revelations, like some great epiphany, but now…

Now Dimitri knows better. Dimitri was having some sort of fit. Out of control, so consumed by his own emotion he was incapable of acting rationally. Paranoid, illogical, dangerous.

Dimitri is mad again.

He closes his eye. The wave of despair that washes over him is painfully familiar. His throat burns, and despite himself he can feel tears beginning to leak out. Dimitri is mad again. He cannot control himself. He is mad.

He hears the door open. Rolls onto his side so he can hide his face in his pillows.

“You are awake now, your Majesty.” It is Dedue. Of course it is.

Dimitri does not reply, but he hears Dedue padding across the room. He sets what sounds like a tray down on Dimitri’s bedside table. Then Dimitri’s mattress dips, and Dedue’s hand squeezes his shoulder.

“You should eat something. You will feel better.”

Dimitri shakes his head. Nothing will make him feel better. Not now, not ever.

“I will feed you myself if I must.”

Dimitri shakes his head again. Hunches further into his sheets.

Dedue sighs. “As you wish.”

He withdraws with a final squeeze to Dimitri’s shoulder. Potters about the room, and there are gentle clatters, domestic noises, as Dedue tidies Dimitri’s things. The sound of rustling fabric from the direction of Dimitri’s wardrobe, Dedue pulling things off hangers – taking them to be mended, as he said he would. Then Dedue goes, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Dimitri stays in bed for a long time. Breathing in the smell of whatever herbs Dedue buried beneath his pillow. Feeling the tears slowly leak from his remaining eye.

He thought he could control it. Could control the fractured, broken pieces of his mind. But he changed at the Tragedy of Duscur, broke irreparably with Edelgard’s betrayal. Lost everything, himself included. He was a fool to think he had gotten it all back again. A fool to think he could hide, and go on, and live after all he has done.

Dimitri is a monster. A mad, cruel, violent monster. He is so tired. So, so tired. Of himself, of everything.

Dedue comes in again at some point. Takes the tray on his bedside and replaces it with another. He does not say anything this time, though he sets another cup of steaming medicinal tea by Dimitri’s bedside.

Eventually, the pressure in his bladder forces Dimitri out of bed. He washes his hands. Stares at his reflection in the mirror, and it is strange, sometimes, to realise the image looking back at him is him. That the bundle of bones and blood and flesh in the mirror is Dimitri in his entirety, all he is and ever will be.

Dimitri’s razor is missing from the washstand. Dedue must have taken it.

Huh.

That is not all he has done. When Dimitri steps back into the main room he finds Dedue has stripped it of sharp objects entirely. Even the dagger Dimitri keeps at his waist is gone, though he does not recall Dedue taking it. The door out onto his balcony is locked and the key, which usually sits in the keyhole, is missing.

Dedue has been busy.

Dimitri wipes at his face. Not crying, now. Empty. Hungry, in a distant sort of way, but he does not want to eat. Thirsty, too, so he takes a few mouthfuls of the medicinal tea Dedue left him. Owes him that much, at the very least.

He does not want to go back to bed now he is out of it. He sits down at his piano.

There are so many songs to choose from. So many it is almost paralysing, so he picks the one he plays the most. Felix’s song. Dimitri is having trouble reading the music today, having trouble focusing on the notes, but it does not matter. He has played this song enough that his fingers remember how to move.

The melody washes over him. Hopeful in its melancholy. Soothing. It feels good to play. Quiets his mind, eases the weight on his chest. He plays it over and over, easier with every repetition. Easier to play without thinking, and it fills the hollows and gaps inside of him with something else. It helps.

It helps.

It is a physical thing. Keeping time, keeping his hands steady. Moving them to the right places at the right time, sounding every key with equal care. He can feel the rhythm of it in his chest, in his heart.

Dimitri plays. And plays. And plays.

There is a knock on the door. Dimitri misses and hits the wrong note, and it keeps ringing, dissonant, until he removes his foot from the pedal. He looks at the door. Slow, trying to make sense of the intrusion. It cannot be Dedue, for Dedue has a key.

It might be Sylvain. Dimitri’s stomach clenches at the thought, sick, panicky. He does not want to talk to him. Does not want to talk to anyone, but especially not Sylvain. Perhaps he should just ignore it.

Another rap, sharper and louder. “Oi, Dimitri.”

Felix. It is Felix.

Slowly, Dimitri takes his hands off the piano. Dimitri looks down at himself, rumpled, half-dressed. Useless, lying about his chambers and wallowing in his own misery. He looks around – everything is tidy, at least, for Dedue has been here. He has removed the clothing Dimitri dumped so unceremoniously on the floor, and filled the room with plants instead. Some dried flowers, some fresh, few of which Dimitri recognises. Only Dimitri’s bed is unmade, his sheets a mess, but it would be easy enough to draw the curtains around it.

Still, Dimitri sits in indecision. He does not want to see Felix. Wants desperately to see Felix, his handsome face, his striking eyes. So sharp, so quick, yet a balm to Dimitri’s soul.

“Dimitri, I know you’re in there. Open up.” Irritated, impatient. Dimitri does not know how to refuse.

He stands. Pulls the curtains around his bed. Has a moment of panic when he realises he has lost his eye patch but – it is there, on a side table. Not where Dimitri usually keeps it. Dedue has found it and left it somewhere he knew Dimitri would find it.

Dimitri pulls it on, and goes to open the door.

Felix’s annoyed face greets him, but it lasts only a moment. Felix’s lips part. His eyes sweep over Dimitri, taking in the utter disarray of him. His hair loose and messy from lying in his bed. Dressed in nothing but his trousers and undershirt, exposing far too much skin, and only half tucked in at his waist. Dishevelled in every respect.

“Oh, I. Oh,” Felix says. He looks stunned.

Dimitri must look worse than he thought. But what does it matter, really? What does any of it matter? He is a pathetic wreck of a man. He is fooling no one.

“Hello, Felix,” Dimitri greets mechanically. That part, at least, is easy. He has been well-trained in politeness. “Come in.”

“I… I just came to check on you,” Felix says, uncharacteristically flustered. He lingers in the doorway. “I heard you were unwell.”

He does not sound annoyed, now. Just strained. The ties on Dimitri’s shirt are coming undone, and Dimitri has made no move to correct them. His shirt is precariously loose, steadily sliding down to reveal his shoulder, and Dimitri remembers how thin he is looking. How disgusting he is, scarred and too-thin and sallow, and how revolted Felix must be.

Felix looks like a rabbit caught in a snare. Trapped. His cheeks are flushing, and he looks at Dimitri as though he cannot look away. Like a man witnessing a disaster, unable to divert his gaze from the horror of it.

Dimitri needs to cover up. But he is too tired to care much, even for his own shame. He can hate himself for it later.

“It is just a headache,” Dimitri lies absently. He needs to sit down. Walks over to his armchair, letting Felix decide whether to enter or not. “I am fine.”

Felix clears his throat. “It’s-” he begins, then has to stop to clear his throat a second time. “It’s not like you to miss a meeting. And Dedue turned up unexpectedly, so I thought something had…”

The meeting. The meeting. “Oh, Goddess.” Dimitri presses his face into his hand. Rubs his forehead. “What did I miss?”

“Nothing important. I handled it.” Felix takes a step forward, then pauses again. Looks back over his shoulder at the open door, as though reluctant to be trapped alone with Dimitri – but then, Dimitri does not blame him. Felix seems to steel himself. Shuts the door. “Have you seen a healer?”

“I don’t need a healer.”

Felix’s face twists with anger. It rights him - he looks more himself, now, not so strange or tentative. “That’s what you said last time, and I remember very well how that turned out.”

“I am fine.” Dimitri says it a lot, but no one believes him. No one ever believes him.

“You don’t look fine,” Felix snaps, sharp and acerbic again.

Dimitri looks up at him from behind his hair. Their eyes meet, and Felix’s breath catches. Dimitri hears it stutter out of him in odd bursts. For a moment, Felix says nothing, as though he has been struck dumb.

Then Felix snaps his gaze away. Paces across the room, clasping his hands behind his back, to look out the window of Dimitri’s locked balcony.

“Just a headache? No other symptoms?” Felix asks. Clears his throat again.

Dimitri makes an affirmative noise. Reconsiders it. He does not want to lie to Felix, not so blatantly. Cannot tell him the truth, either. “I am… I am not myself,” he tries. “But there is nothing to worry about. Dedue is looking after me.”

“Well, he’s good at that, at least,” Felix mutters. He rubs his temple. Fixes Dimitri with a glare – but looks away again immediately, the anger wavering.

Felix is so strange, today. Anger is his one constant, the one thing Dimitri can be certain of between them. Somehow, Dimitri has ruined even that.

“I’ll send a healer if you get any worse,” Felix says.

Dimitri looks down at his hands. Turns them over, in his lap, taking in all the scars and calluses. Taking in the puncture wounds from the metal flower. In his hands, even the benign can become dangerous. “There is no need, I assure you.”

“Let it be for my own peace of mind,” Felix mutters, and Dimitri is too tired to make sense of him. He cannot even make sense of himself.

Felix moves away from the window and goes in the direction of the piano. The stool is still pulled out, Dimitri’s music on the music stand. Some of the books Felix and Annette gifted to him, open and full of bookmarks of all the pieces Dimitri would like to learn. The loose sheet music to The Prince, Felix’s song, sitting right at the front. In the open, unmistakable. And this time, Dimitri is not quick enough to hide it away.

“Huh,” Felix says. Leans forward, studying it. “Borodin. He’s one of my favourite composers.” Felix turns to look at him. Tips his head to the side, his dark hair brushing his shoulder. “You play this?”

Slowly, Dimitri nods. Does not have the words to describe the feeling in his chest.

Felix looks back at the music. “The Prince… wasn’t this played at the concert?” Again Dimitri nods, and Felix looks pleased. “I knew I recognised it.”

He goes quiet. Dimitri gathers himself. It is hard, but…

“I liked it,” he says. Not much of a reply, barely a response at all. Still hard. Still vulnerable. Still an admission. Because every time Dimitri plays that song, he sees Felix’s face. Lit by the lights of the stage, soft with affection. Beautiful, so beautiful he breaks Dimitri’s heart.

Felix nods. Says, “You know, Annette and I are going to the opera tomorrow night. Not Borodin, but it should be good. You could come too.” For a moment, he looks excited. Like he does when he discovers a new sword technique, or when a worthy opponent enters the ring. Then he looks at Dimitri, and the excitement dies. “Only if you’re feeling better. I’m not having you doing anything stupid.”

The door opens before Dimitri can reply. Dedue comes back in, carrying yet another tray, as though he means to drown Dimitri in unwanted food.

“Felix. Good evening.”

“Dedue. Welcome back.” It is not heartfelt, not from Felix, but it is polite. He and Dedue are civil, these days.

“I bring you some soup, your Majesty. Perhaps this will suit you better.”

Dimitri still does not want food, even though he is hungry. Soup, though, might be tenable.

“It is getting late,” Dedue continues, this time directed at Felix.

Felix looks at the clock. Startles. “So it is. I’ll leave you, then.”

“Goodnight,” Dimitri manages.

Felix bows, brisk, and strides out the door. Does not look back until he is in the process of shutting it behind him. Dimitri cannot read the look on his face, or understand why his eyes linger on Dimitri. But then Felix goes, and it is a moot point anyway.

Dedue sets the tray on a side table. Picks up the bowl and hands it to Dimitri, along with a spoon. Looks pleased when he takes it.

“Please eat, Dimitri,” he says.

The soup is smooth. Nothing Dimitri has to bite or chew, which would be too much energy. He takes a spoonful, swallows it. Dedue smiles.

“Thank you, Dedue,” he says quietly. For this, and a thousand things. No amount of thanks will ever be enough. “Dedue, I…”

There is so much he must explain. So much to go through – he still has not heard the news from Duscur. And he cannot imagine the gossip that must be circulating around the palace already. The dishonour, the disgrace he has brought down on his head, entirely of his own making. The things he said, the things he did. Sylvain…

Dimitri’s stomach clenches. He cannot bear to think of Sylvain. Sets his spoon aside, unable to stomach any more.

Dedue takes it up again. Presses it back into his hand, gentle yet unyielding. “We will talk tomorrow, Dimitri. Eat.”