It’s been two weeks and I miss you like fire. It’s beautiful up here, wild and craggy. It looks barren at first glance, but there’s beauty in unexpected places. You would like it, I think. Yesterday I watched a snowy eagle plummet out of the sky to snatch a fish from running water. It made me think of you. Deadly and precise, no movement wasted.
Peace talks are progressing at a snail’s pace. The Sreng are a difficult people to talk to, even with our interpreter and my rudimentary grasp of the language. It’s in the face, I think. They seem so stoic, stiff upper lip and all that. I’ve learned that in order to gain their respect, I have to ease back on the reins a little. Less joking and smiling, more stern and businesslike. You would be better at this than me, to be honest. Not because you don’t smile! You’re just more… direct. Less abrasive.
I miss your smile. Did I say that I miss you already? Twice now, I think, which is way too repetitive for you to put up with, so I’ll desist. I hope things are well back home.
“It’ll only be for a few months,” Sylvain says to the floor. “At the outside.”
There is no response. He gathers his wits about him, and his courage, and lifts his chin to look his husband in the eye. It’s harder than he thought it would be. Felix’s face is like stone, utterly expressionless—every word he says bounces off that unmoved surface and back into his face like a sharp-edged boomerang.
“If I can make this work, our northern borders will never be at risk again. We can stop sending men to their deaths. Dimitri will have one less thing to worry himself sick over—”
“You don’t need to convince me,” Felix interrupts. His grip eases on the quill in his hand, and he sets it lightly on the desk as if he hadn’t been on the verge of snapping it a second ago. “It seems like you already have it all figured out.”
“But you don’t want me to go.”
“Of course I don’t. We’re already stretched thin as it is—with you gone, I’ll have to actually put in appearances in Fhirdiad once in a while to keep Dimitri from having me dragged there by force.”
Felix gestures to the piles of paperwork on his desk as he speaks, and Sylvain feels a twinge of guilt. The rebuilding efforts after Fhirdiad was reclaimed have been long and arduous, and neither of them particularly enjoy it. The last six years have made them both men of action, more comfortable on a battlefield than in endless cabinet meetings. Joining their titles and their lands has made things a little easier, but now Sylvain is leaving it all in Felix’s hands—Felix, who never wanted this life in the first place. Felix, to whom he had promised just a few years, to help things settle, and we’ll fuck off and be whoever we want to be, Dimitri be damned.
“But,” Felix says before Sylvain can pick up the dropped thread of his argument, “having solid borders to the north would do wonders for our resources.” He takes up his quill again but only taps the feather-tip against his lips in thought, the picture of a vassal lord. For all he’s fought against the title and deference his station begets, he’s good at his job. Stubborn determination will get you a long way in placating unhappy fieldhands and dragging blood from a stone when there’s no water left to be had. “Are you sure you’re the best person for the job?”
Sylvain puffs out his chest in outrage, ready to defend his skills, but Felix raises a hand to stop him.
“I only mean, you’re the head of the family that has been their mortal enemy for… generations. If you’re putting your life unduly at risk—”
“No more than usual,” Sylvain jokes. It falls flat, like the blank umber color of Felix’s eyes. He sighs and comes around the desk to lean against it, taking Felix’s hand in his own. “If you tell me not to go, I won’t. But I feel a great deal of responsibility here. This is my chance to set things right. And it won’t just benefit us, but all of Faerghus.”
“I don’t understand why you’re asking me for permission—”
“Because, Duke Fraldarius—”
Sylvain smiles and kisses the back of his hand, the indent on his fourth finger where the Fraldarius signet ring rests during state meetings. “Because I am but your humble servant. The extension of your righteous arm. Where you point me, I go, and do battle in your name. Even if it’s the bloodless kind.”
“So dramatic,” Felix mutters, but there’s a telling scrape of pink across his cheekbones nonetheless. “Return to me whole. That’s all I ask.”
The bed is empty and cold without you. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ll be taking a recess to Fhirdiad soon to meet with the cabinet. As much as I hate the bustle and fluff of the city, it will take my mind off how barren the house is lately.
You discredit yourself when you say I would have done better in your place. You are an earnest, forthright man, and far better at diplomacy than I am. I have no doubt that you will win their good opinion given enough time.
Ingrid is at my shoulder insisting I write to you of the less positive goings-on at home, but I maintain that there is little to tell. The harvest promises to be a good one, and the bandit outpost to the east has been taken care of, freeing up trade in that area. A bit of illness visited the main house, which I suppose is what she means me to convey; I was laid up a bit myself, but there is no cause for concern. I am back on my feet and well enough for traveling.
I will be meeting with the rest of our friends in Fhirdiad, so if you have any words of greeting you may convey them through me. Address your next missive to the palace, for I will not be home.
With deep affection,
The night before Sylvain leaves, he barely sleeps. Not out of worry, but because Felix is hungry for him in a way he hasn’t expressed since the war ended: sharp-edged, desperate, clawing at him until there are stinging trails of fire down his back that he’s sure to feel for days. He doesn’t care. He wants Felix imprinted on his skin, buried beneath his bones. Sylvain is the graveyard, and Felix the corpse interred there, carried with him wherever he goes.
Near dawn, after napping together in the sweaty, sex-mussed sheets, the taste of him still on Sylvain’s tongue, Felix rides him. His hair is a wreck, cheeks and chest flushed a permanent red like Sylvain has smeared his skin with paint. Hair sticks to his lips as they kiss, savage and without grace. Sylvain is exhausted but fucks him hard anyway, flipping him over onto his back and holding his hips up rather than bother with a pillow. Beneath him Felix arches his back and cries out, dark hair like ink tossed across the mattress. There’s a wetness on his cheeks that sweat alone cannot explain, but neither of them acknowledge it.
“Close,” Sylvain pants against his brow. He’s already fucked Felix three times tonight, not counting the sticky-sweet hours in between spent lying in his arms, kissing him, petting him, licking his own spend out of Felix’s blood-hot body. He’s so wrung out he doesn’t think he’ll cum again for weeks, but Felix does something to him, strikes a match to dry kindling and sets him ablaze.
“Inside,” Felix begs, voice broken, humiliation traded for pure, white-hot need. “Leave me something to remember you by.”
He buries his hand in Felix’s hair and does just that.
I’m sorry to hear you were ill. By rights I should have caught cold by now, with how rainy and miserable it is here, but the Sreng have some kind of medicinal drink that keeps the chill at bay.
Finding common ground is like pulling teeth from a horse, but we’re getting there. It’s taking longer than I would like, but I can feel the change happening slowly, like permafrost just starting to thaw. I was invited to share a round of mead at the Sreng camp last night. It was the first time I’ve seen any of them smile, and it was heartening. Makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere. Of course, today we bickered for six hours over land disputes, but I must be doing something right because our interpreter told me they would have me at their fires any night I liked. Not sure if that will benefit the peace talks the way I want, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
Please say hello to everyone for me. Especially Ingrid. I’m afraid I was short with her when we parted ways near the border. It’s because I was missing you, and hating myself for leaving, but that’s no excuse. Tell her I’ll apologize in person when I come home. Maybe I’ll even bring a pretty Sreng warrioress to sweep her off her feet.
Did you know the Sreng don’t care about gender? I made an embarrassing faux pas the other day, referring to one of their leaders by the wrong noun in their language, but our interpreter explained it to me and I did my best to apologize. I told them I wished Faerghus would adopt some of their beliefs about who can marry who, and who can lead what, and so forth. Maybe with increased trade between our countries we’ll see a little bit of that openness here.
I still miss you, in case you forgot. I think of you every day. Punch Dima in the shoulder for me when you see him, and shake Dedue’s hand. All my love to everyone else, but especially to you, sweetheart.
“Of course I accept his apology,” Ingrid sniffs, hefting a practice glaive off the wall. They haven’t gone toe to toe as much as Felix had hoped for when he first arrived in Fhirdiad—it seems that the General of the King’s Army has a great many things to attend to, even with the war behind them. But she’s made time for him today, for which he’s grateful. Two months in the capital city and he’s starting to go stir-crazy. “He was miserable the whole ride. I don’t blame him for being snappish.”
“What did you say to him?” Felix asks curiously. He swings his blunted practice sword around in one hand, then the other, getting a feel for the heft.
Ingrid purses her mouth unhappily. “I cracked a joke about him establishing treaties in bedrolls instead of in the peace tents and he nearly took my head off. Well deserved, in hindsight.”
Felix scowls. “Sylvain would never dream of being unfaithful.”
“I know that! I wasn’t trying to accuse him, I… it was poorly timed. Old habits, and all that.” She salutes him with her glaive and assumes a ready stance, face grim like she’s braced for judgement. “You may have your satisfaction out of me now, if you like.”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
It’s been awhile since Felix has had a good spar. He feels it in the ache of his limbs, a wateryness in the pit of his stomach. Too much time behind a desk, not enough time with a sword in his hands. Still, he relishes the chance to test his mettle against someone as skilled as Ingrid. Even on the ground she’s a force to be reckoned with, and her glaive gives her an extended reach that Felix must work around.
They dance around each other for several minutes, working up a sweat in the warm summer sun. Felix is starting to feel a bit… off, but he refuses to acknowledge it, pushing himself harder and faster despite the blisters forming on his hands and the rapid thumping of his heart. Impossible, horrible, that he should have gotten so soft in the year or so since the war’s end!
“All right?” Ingrid asks when he just barely manages to duck jab to the belly. Felix swallows back the taste of bile and nods. “You look pale, Felix.”
“I’m fine,” he bites back. He resumes his ready stance with a flourish, and waits.
With a shrug, Ingrid charges. Felix knows the way to dodge, how to tuck and roll and spring up under her guard, but somehow his body confuses the signals and he finds himself sprawled on the ground, a dull throbbing in his shoulder from where her blunted glaive grazed him. He scrambles to his feet, arm tingling. He’s dropped his blade.
Ingrid is gaping at him. “Are you sure you’re all right? Here, let me—”
“En garde,” Felix snaps, interrupting her. His sword glints dully at him from the sand a few yards away. His arms and legs burn with effort as he readies himself to meet her next advance. His mind plots it out—wait for her to get close, duck, grab the haft of her glaive…
His mind clouds over briefly and he sways. He feels miserable all of a sudden, as though overtaken with flu or food poisoning. But that illness had passed… surely he’s not so out of shape that a little bit of exertion has rendered him useless?
His confused pondering is interrupted as Ingrid throws her weapon aside and comes to put an arm around him. He wants to balk and bark at her, but his knees are suddenly weak, and he fears that without her support he wouldn’t be able to stand. “We’re getting you to the infirmary,” she says decisively. “Something is wrong.”
“Nothing is wrong,” Felix whispers, ashamed. “I’m just out of practice.”
“I don’t know about that. Your strikes were as smooth as ever, earlier. Harper, a waterskin,” she barks at one of the nearby guards as she guides him off the practice court. “Now.”
He’s too dizzy then to feel embarrassed, not even when he nearly vomits all over Ingrid’s boots. He holds himself together, barely, long enough to sip some water and sit in the shade until his hands stop shaking and the queasiness dissipates. “You see?” he says, forcing a smile under Ingrid’s watchful gaze. “Good as new.”
“Your face is grey, Felix. I don’t think that’s its normal color.” Her grimness softens a little and she reaches out to clap him on the shoulder. “Please let me take you to the infirmary. Sylvain would draw and quarter me if he heard that I’d let you fall ill again.”
It’s not fair, bringing up Sylvain, and they both know it. But Felix can’t say no. “I don’t want just anyone looking me over,” he says waspishly, even as he submits to being supported by Ingrid’s strong grip around his waist.
“Calm yourself. Mercie and Annette are in town, I’ll send for her.”
“On my honor.”
Felix grimaces but acquiesces. When Ingrid gets that look in her eye, she won’t rest until she gets her way.
After a few months in Fhirdiad I’m returning home. I got tired of the constant meetings and the people, goddess, people everywhere all the time, fussing over me and making a to-do. Ingrid has threatened me with monthly visits until you return home, so you’d better get a move on.
The harvest is going well, as expected. The storehouses here are full to bursting, and our people are celebrating—as well they should. It will be a secure winter, perhaps the first they’ve seen in many years.
There is much to do, but I still ache for your return. Please say that the snow will not fall before you arrive. Travel is difficult enough as it is, but I fear the onset of winter will keep you in the north, and I do not know if I can bear another season with you here.
In good health,
“Are you sure you’ll be all right?”
“Positive. I would much rather be home than under the scrutiny of every tongue-wagging do-gooder in Fhirdiad.” Felix secures the straps of his pack onto the rear of the saddle and swings himself aboard. Nothing has really changed since yesterday, but it feels like every movement is entirely new. He settles in the saddle and holds out his hand for Ingrid to grip. “You don’t need to worry about me.”
“I will anyway,” she says wryly. “I want a letter from you once a week, all right? Or I’ll come to the manor house and look after you myself.”
“As if you could part with all your children.” Felix glances across the bustling stableyard, bursting with activity even so early in the morning: stablehands run back and forth, and cavalrymen ready themselves and their mounts for the day’s duties. “I promise I will write, Ingrid.”
“When it’s time, will you…” She trails off, wringing her hands. “I mean, I’m probably the last person in the world who knows what to do, but…”
“I… yes. I would like it if you were there.” Felix tries not to grimace at the thought. He is not a spectacle for his friends to gawk at and fawn over—but Ingrid knows that. Knows it better than most. And it will be encouraging to half a familiar face there, especially if Sylvain…
No, he can’t think about that. Sylvain will be there. Four months, give or take… certainly more than enough time for him to wrap up the peace talks and come home.
“Are you going to tell him?” Ingrid asks, guessing the trajectory of his thoughts. She keeps one hand on his mount’s bridle to hold her steady and Felix dearly wishes she weren’t, so that he could wrench the beast’s head around and gallop out of Fhirdiad at top speed without offering an answer. But Ingrid would only chase him down and scold him for endangering himself and—and the baby. Goddess, what have I gotten myself into?
“I don’t want to distract him,” he tells her, not quite making eye contact. “He’s doing important work. If he were to deviate from his path, or goddess forbid leave entirely, he would never forgive himself when the truce fell apart. Better he not know, and finish what he started.”
“If you say so.” Ingrid looks skeptical, but at least he can trust her not to go to Sylvain behind his back. “Have a safe journey, Felix.”
He nods and gives his horse a love tap, urging her forward. The handful of Fraldarius men he’d brought with him from home fall in line behind him, and they cut a swathe through the busy city streets, headed north. Headed home.
Maybe, if he is very lucky, Sylvain will be waiting there to greet him.
I’m glad to hear the news from home. I miss it sorely—almost as much as I miss you. It’s getting colder here by the day, and although the Sreng have been kind enough to outfit us all in the local gear, the wind still bites at any exposed skin with a mercilessness that’s hard to shake off. (And why were people fussing over you? Is the sight of you in Fhirdiad really so strange that they must mete out so much affection?)
I’m proud to say that I’m nearly fluent in the local tongue, now. Our interpreter is very impressed with me, but I still insist she be present for every meeting. Next thing you know I’ll be flubbing an address and start the damn war all over again.
I want to come home very badly, but I can’t. Not yet. Goddess willing we’ll finish before the snows seal up the pass at the border, but if the worst comes to worst I’ll forge a way through anyway. I’ll be home before Solstice, I swear it, and it will be like I was never gone.
Please write me more often. I want to know all about the goings-on at home. Are you keeping well? Are you sleeping enough, eating enough? Your last letter was a bit short and lacking in personal details, and you know how I worry. Even when there’s nothing to worry about.
Your devoted knight,
Harvest’s end sees the onset of revelry in Fraldarius. Felix can’t avoid partaking entirely—after all, every scullery maid and sheepherder is anxious to welcome him home and congratulate him on the impending arrival of the next Fraldarius heir. He can’t help wrinkling his nose at the thought. However things shake out in Fhirdiad with Dimitri’s reforms, he has no intention of foisting the thankless job of Dukedom on his unsuspecting offspring.
He expects things to change, and they do, but more slowly than anticipated. When Mercedes first delivered the news he’d laughed in her face outright. I’m not even showing, he said, and it was true—but it’s becoming less and less true as the weeks creep by. The house cook, a middle-aged woman with seven children under her proverbial belt, tells him he’s lucky to be so mobile. But he doesn’t feel particularly mobile, especially when his own damn quartermaster turns him away from the training yard and forbids him from swinging a weapon around “in your condition, my lord, begging your pardon.”
My own household is conspiring against me, he writes to Ingrid, and receives smug agreement in return. Utterly useless.
The days grow colder. The fields are laid to bed for the winter, and preserve-making begins in earnest. Not every farmcot has the benefit of a proper stove, so he opens the doors of the manor, and there is a constant stream of housewives moving in and out as they make use of their kitchens to brine their pickles and stew their tomatoes.
Felix’s tailor lets out the seams of his winter tunics. More and more he can feel the baby moving and kicking, like an otter pup cavorting in its own small tidepool. “A fighter, like his father,” his steward clucks approvingly.
Sylvain has not come home.
You asked for more anecdotes, so I filled a few pages with nonsense and you may find them enclosed. The Fraldarius-Gautier lands are bedded down and ready for winter, but I am not. I wish to stem the tide as long as I can, keep the winds at bay and away from my door.
A few months, you said. It’s been more than eight since you left. I have distracted myself as long as possible, and there is still much work to be done, but none of it feels important without you at my side. I miss you terribly. I’m not too proud to admit it. I know that you are doing the most important work of your life, and I do not begrudge you for it, but by the goddess I long for your return with every breath.
Come back to me.
“You wish to leave,” Skarde says, observing him from over the tankard of mead he holds in his meaty hand. “I can see it.”
Sylvain toasts him wryly and knocks back what’s left in his own vessel. A traditional Sreng drinking horn, carved in scenes and pictographs that describe the union of their lands. It had been bestowed upon him days ago, a symbol of their agreement and his own admission to the clan as a cousin of the border tribe.
A cruel joke, that they should sign the treaties and then be stuck for another two weeks, bowing to the necessity of celebration.
“I am happy to partake in the festivities for as long as they go on,” he returns in the native tongue. He blames his stilted diction on the unfamiliarity of the language rather than the insincerity of his words.
“But this is not your home.”
Skarde is not the highest-ranking man in attendance, but as the son of the second most powerful Sreng chieftain, he’s roughly Sylvain’s age and was one of the first to invite him to join their mead-fires after each day’s talks. Now they are practically blood brothers, and Sylvain knows he will miss him sorely when he returns home—but right now all he can think about is taking a horse, any horse, and riding south as fast and as far as the night will take him.
“No. It is not.” Sylvain stares into the shadowed depths of his drinking-horn. There are no more dregs to hide behind, so he lifts his face to his bearded companion and admits, “Your hospitality has been gratefully received, but I do not belong here.”
“You miss your husband,” Skarde continues with a wink. “Understandable. A long and difficult winter is turned to spring with a partner to warm one’s bed, and you have been suffering without for far longer than a season.”
Sylvain nods silently, staring into the flames. What he wouldn’t give to have had Felix here, all this time. Almost all of the Sreng officials present had brought their families—wives, husbands, partners, children. The camp was practically a village in its own right by now, bustling with activity even so late at night, cookfires stoked high and blazing to keep the frigid temperatures at bay. Sylvain had brought assistants from home, of course, but none of them were Felix. None of them could fill the void their separation had chiseled between his ribs.
“I do not know what your interpreter has told you,” Skarde goes on, unbothered by his grim demeanor, “but it will not be the end of all our hard work if you depart before the festivities have concluded.”
Sylvain’s heart thuds against his ribs. Tender, sharp-edged hope buckles up beneath the ice. “Truly?”
“You left your family behind for the sake of good relations with us. That is admirable, but no one here would begrudge you returning as quickly as you were able.” Skarde smiles and claps him on the shoulder. “Sleep well tonight, ride out tomorrow. And may the wind speed your journey.”
I don’t know if you’ll get this before the pass closes up with snow, but I had to try. Felix refuses to write you about it, and I’ve respected his wishes for this long, but I’m nearly at my wit’s end. I only pray that you will receive this in time to return home as soon as you are able.
Nothing is wrong, before you fret, and I know you will regardless of what I say. The truth is, Felix is expecting. A baby. Yes, you read that right. I hardly believed it myself at first—Felix, of all people!—but upon reflection, I have never known Felix to back down from a challenge. He is due in a couple of weeks, and so I’ve taken a leave of absence from my duties to stay at the manor house until the baby is born. Mercie is here too, and Annette, who out of all of us is doing the best job at keeping Felix from losing his damn mind.
He insists you’ll be back before he’s due, but the timing is too close to be sure, and so I’m writing to you to speed your return. Your last letter mentioned that the peace talks were drawing to a close. For Felix’s sake I hope that is true. He won’t admit it to me, but having you here would be the most important thing in the world to him. Please, please hurry.
A black-edged blizzard chases them south from the Sreng Mountains into what was once northern Gautier territory. They spread the news as they ride: peace has been struck, the war with Sreng is over. Come spring, the borders will open to free trade between their countries.
At the old Gautier estate, now an outpost of soldiers that will soon return to their families and their fields, Sylvain leaves his slower escort behind and rides ahead, eager to see his husband again. Nine months is far too long to be away, and his letters, as much as Sylvain cherished them, were no replacement for the real thing. Oh, to see his face again! To kiss his stern mouth as it tries not to smile, to lift him in his arms… Sylvain’s mind nearly riots with joy at the mere fantasy, and he pushes harder, faster than perhaps he should. But his horse is of good Sreng stock, accustomed to longer and rockier roads than this, and it does not complain at his persistence.
He crests the last hill in the dwindling afternoon hours just before dinner. Despite the clamor in his heart, he draws his horse up short and looks over the gentle sloping valley with tears pricking his eyes. A fine layer of snow blankets the fields and the rutted road, and smoke rises in comforting white pillars from the cluster of homes that encircle the manor house. They built it together, when the war was done, on the border where their lands once were separate. It’s a far humbler abode than the ones they grew up in, but it suits them.
As he watches, the shadows growing long and blue across the snow, a candle is lit in an upstairs window. The master bedroom, he thinks. His heart swells to think of Felix standing there, waiting, watching for him. With a whoop and a kick of his heels, he urges his horse into a canter. I’m here, Felix. I’m nearly home.
It’s the dinner hour, but there is still a stablehand to take his horse when he rides in just shy of top speed, a small bevy of hunting dogs bounding eagerly in his wake. The poor boy is wide-eyed and white as a sheet as he takes the reins from him, as though he’s seen a ghost. “M-m’lord!” he stammers. “You came!”
“‘Course I did, kiddo.” Sylvain doesn’t recognize him—he must be from one of the newer families that emigrated south when Gautier and Fraldarius became one—but he’s brimming with joy and the preemptive satisfaction of walking in to meet Felix at dinner unexpectedly, so he reaches out with a gloved hand and ruffles the top of his head. “Take good care of her, all right? She’s had a hard ride.”
“Um. Yes m’lord, of course.” The boy bows, red-cheeked, and leads his horse away. With a satisfied puff of white breath into the frosty air, Sylvain shoves his gloves into his belt and saunters into the main house.
He doesn’t expect to find anyone in the front hall at this hour, but when he walks in to see Ingrid pacing back and forth at the foot of the stairs, he gets the first inkling that something isn’t right. Worry turns to ice in his stomach as she looks at him and freezes like a deer caught out in the open.
“Ingrid?” he ventures. “What are you doing here?”
“Sylvain! Oh, thank the goddess, you got my letter.”
“What—what letter?” he asks, muffled by her hair as she throws her arms around him. She’s sturdy enough that he’s nearly knocked off his feet, but he maintains his balance and returns the hug, albeit slowly. “What’s going on?”
Ingrid pales. “You mean you don’t—”
From upstairs, piercing the frenetic quiet, comes a yell. A very distinctly Felix yell. Sylvain has only heard a sound like that once before, and the memory of it is burned into his brain: in the Valley of Torment, between gouts of smoke and flame, he’d watched from across a pit of lava as Felix was struck down by an enemy knight. He’d landed all wrong, arm twisted beneath him, his shoulder close enough to the molten rock that his leather cuirass caught fire. And he’d screamed, so piercing and loud through the clamor of battle that for a second the melee had slowed to a drunken scramble.
Whatever Ingrid means to say to him is lost as he pushes past her for the stairs. She calls something after him, he thinks, but all he can smell is smoke and fire and charred flesh, filling his nose and burning his eyes as he races down the upstairs hall and tears open the door to the master bedroom.
At first he isn’t sure what he’s looking at. All he knows is Felix is on the bed, in pain, and Mercedes, of all people, is bent over him, administering the gentle white glow of faith magic. Two other people are also in attendance, vaguely recognizable to his frantic mind as members of the household staff, but Felix draws him in like a fishhook sunk deep. He pushes past them all, intending to go straight to Felix, and then practically trips over Annette as she rises from nowhere to block his path.
“Annie, it’s me,” he says frantically. “Please, you have to let me—”
“I told you!” Felix shouts, and he laughs, of all things, though his voice is strained and splintered like he’s been in pain for a while. “I told you he’d be here in time.”
“He could’ve stood to be a little earlier,” Mercedes tuts, not bothering to turn around and greet him. “Now will you stop fighting me, Felix Hugo Fraldarius? You’re going to do yourself and the baby an injury if you keep this up.”
“He’s been driving us all batty,” Annette sighs fondly, as though Sylvain is supposed to understand what she means. “Insisting he has to wait for you, as though the baby understands that! Well, go on, then. It’s just like you to miss the worst parts, isn’t it?”
“The worst parts of what?” Sylvain says numbly as he’s shepherded to Felix’s bedside. By now his logical brain has caught up to what he sees, but the disconnect between them is still an impassable chasm. “Felix, what—”
“I was going to write,” Felix whispers, shuddering. Sylvain takes his hand and Felix grips it hard in turn, hard enough that white-hot pain warns him he’s about to have a broken bone or three. But he ignores it, squeezing back as he watches his husband’s face crease in agonized concentration. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I—”
“I need you to push now, Felix,” Mercie interrupts calmly. “For a count of ten. Are you ready? One, two, three…”
Her quiet timekeeping calms Sylvain, gives him something to latch onto. He lets Felix grip his hand and leans down to brace their foreheads together, counting in his head, breathing when he breathes. Felix gasps when the count is done and subsides against the pillow, wild-eyed.
“Shhh. Don’t worry about it.” Sylvain sounds detached to his own ears, like he’s observing the scene from some place outside himself. All the terror is gone, the frantic fumbling as his mind struggled to keep up with the evidence in front of his eyes. He is calm and steady—he is a bulwark, a wall for Felix to throw himself against and not fear breaking. “I’m here. You’re amazing, love, you’re doing so well.”
“You won’t leave?” Felix whispers.
Sylvain shakes his head, heart clutched in an unkind fist. “I promise I’m not going anywhere. Not ever again.”
“Another ten, Felix,” Mercie announces gently. “Are you ready?”
Felix meets his eyes. I love you, he breathes, hardly even a waft of air against his cheek. Sylvain squeezes his hand and holds on.
I’ve probably left it too late, now, but I’ll be the world’s biggest fool if I don’t make the effort now. I had a bit of a scare last night, but Mercie says it’s normal. The body readying itself. I don’t know. It terrifies me, a little, but I’ve suffered worse pain and with less promise of reward at the end of it.
I haven’t even told you the truth yet, have I? I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to worry, or ruin all your hard work by distracting you. But it’s almost time, so I might as well put it to paper, just in case you don’t make it home. Do you remember the night before you left? I don’t think either of us slept a wink that night, but sleep was all I did the next day, hoping it would dull the sting of your leaving. I was clumsy. It was my fault, I should have kept better track. But I didn’t, and four months later I went to Fhirdiad and Mercie told me I was with child. Your child.
I didn’t know what to think, at first. I never planned for this. To my knowledge, we’ve never even discussed it, though some of our friends have. It certainly wasn’t something I thought I wanted. Mercedes said there was still time to terminate, if that was what I chose, but something in me balked at the suggestion. I hadn’t expected this, but it wasn’t entirely unwelcome, either. What was it I said to you, that night? Something to remember you by. I suppose a child is a hell of a reminder.
Now, of course, I’m starting to worry that you won’t want this. I know we’ve discussed at length our respective upbringings, our families, how we want to build something different on the wreckage of the old ways. But there’s a high probability, with the two of us as parents, that our baby will bear a crest. Have I just fallen back into the same patterns we’ve spent so long trying to avoid?
It’s possible I’ve made the worst mistake of our lives, but I hope that’s not true. I think you would be an amazing father, Sylvain. And I want to see if I’m right. I want you to come home. To meet our baby, whoever they are, and help me raise them in a new world we’ve made together.
I love you.
“Well?” Ingrid asks, squeezing water from his long hair and back into the tub. “What did he say?”
“He didn’t really say anything.” Felix seizes the edges of the tub and slowly eases up out of the water, weak as a kitten. Ingrid hastens to wrap a robe around him and take his hand as he shuffles onto dry ground, exploring the nap of the carpet with his toes. He hasn’t been able to see his toes in a while. “But I think he’s… happy?”
“He was crying with joy last I looked, so yeah, I would say he’s happy.” Her hand on his arm is sturdy but not overwhelming, letting him feel his way forward on foot back to the bedroom. Even with Mercie’s enviable healing talents, his entire body still feels off, hips sore and knees trembling as he tries to remember how to walk. “And you?”
“I just pushed a whole goddamn living person out of me,” Felix says wearily, and half-laughs at the insanity of it. “But I’m doing pretty good.”
Back in the next room, the bed has been remade and Sylvain is still exactly where they left him, sitting in a chair by the fire with their son in his arms. His eyes are glazed over like he hasn’t blinked in a while, or like someone has hit him over the head and he still hasn’t recovered.
He’s the most beautiful man Felix has ever seen.
“Bed?” Ingrid asks quietly, when Felix stays where he is. His throat is too swollen with unshed tears to reply, but he nods, and she guides him back to bed. Mercie reappears briefly to check on him, and then they are left alone for the first time in hours.
“Syl,” Felix says. His voice is a barely-there wreck, but Sylvain jerks awake at the sound of it. He stands and comes immediately to his side, still cradling the baby with utmost care. Felix blinks fresh tears away and tries to steady himself. “Since when do you have a beard?”
“Since a few months ago,” Sylvain admits, grinning. It’s more distinguished than it has any right to be, all wild and flecked with grey even though he’s not yet thirty. “Do you hate it?”
“No. It suits you.” He has vague memories of the late Margrave Gautier and his terrible rat-tail of a moustache, perpetually framing a sour expression. His son is miles above him in every respect. Inside and out. Felix reaches out a hand and tucks the blanket in a little more closely around the baby. Their baby. Goddess. “Sylvain, I’m sorry for not telling you.”
“Please. I… I don’t like it, but I understand.” Sylvain sits on the edge of the bed and lays their sleeping son on Felix’s chest. His hand lingers there after, resting on the infant’s back as it rises and falls with every tiny breath. Above the blanket is a shocking riot of dark red curls, fluffy and sweet-smelling when Felix presses his lips to it. “I found your letter.”
Felix huffs with quiet laughter. “Too little too late.”
“Still. It helped me understand your point of view. And even if I was upset, I couldn’t stay that way for long. Look at you.” Sylvain rubs his eyes with both hands, laughing creasing the edges of his tearstained voice. “Look at him. I can’t believe it. All this time, I had no idea—I’m just sorry I wasn’t here to help you.”
“It was my own fault,” Felix whispers. “My own stubbornness…”
“Still.” Sylvain stares down at him, at them both, eyes red-rimmed even as he smiles. “What’s his name, sweetheart?”
Felix hesitates. “I… don’t know. I hadn’t thought that far ahead.”
“I’ve been a little busy helping to rebuild a country,” Felix says snippily—still quiet, but apparently it’s enough to wake the baby, who squirms and starts to suck in air for a proper cry. “Oh, flames…”
“Don’t swear in front of him!” Sylvain exclaims, and Felix bursts out laughing. The sound and the movement must be startling, because their son quiets, staring around at the world with wide blue eyes. “Hello there, sweet thing,” Sylvain whispers. He leans down and strokes the soft cheek, the button nose. “You’re an awful lot prettier all cleaned up, huh?”
“Who does that remind me of,” Felix says dryly.
“Hey! I’m very handsome all the time.”
“Believe me, I’m aware.” With one arm around his son, Felix lifts his free hand to Sylvain’s face, feeling the bristle against his palm, the new wind-burned crow’s feet lining his amber-colored eyes. “I missed you, Syl. So damned much.”
Sylvain’s smile crumbles to dust and he bows his head, brow to Felix’s brow, nose to Felix’s nose. “I missed you, too.” His voice is thick with unshed tears—and then he feels them, warm and wet, plinking one by one against his cheek. Felix shudders and grips his stupid, beautiful hair and holds him close. “Felix, fuck, I missed you so much.”
They cry a little bit, silently, together. When Sylvain finally pulls away, the baby is sleeping again and Felix is so, so tired. And the happiest he’s been in months. “Sorry,” Sylvain whispers, as if he can’t see Felix smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. He wipes his face on his sleeve and fetches a proper handkerchief for Felix. “Want me to take him? So you can get some sleep?”
“No, that’s okay. The wetnurse should be by in a bit.” Felix sniffs and leans into the kiss Sylvain presses to his hair. “Will you stay?”
“Of course. Nowhere else I’d rather be.”
The wetnurse comes as Sylvain is changing for bed, and when she leaves again Felix is dozing, propped up against the pillows. He stirs when Sylvain slides in next to him and places a tender hand on his stomach. “Syl…?”
“Sorry. I just. Still can’t believe I missed it.”
Felix grumbles and tugs his arm further across his body, until he’s ensconced in him, wrapped entirely in the smokey, wintry, cedar-wood smell of him. “You were here for the most important part.”
“I beg to differ! I wish I’d been here for all of it. I would’ve rubbed your feet, brought you whatever weird food you were craving…”
“Where’s the baby?”
“Oh, the nameless infant you produced out of nowhere? He’s in his cradle.” Sylvain kisses his shoulder. “Want me to grab him?”
Felix has never thought of himself as clingy, but the slight tension beneath his ribs dissipates once the weight of their son is resting on his chest again. “Don’t let me roll over in my sleep, okay?”
Sylvain huffs but nestles closer, one arm draped protectively across Felix to secure them. “I’ve got you. I won’t let you go.” His bristly, bearded chin grazes Felix’s jaw. “I love you.”
“Marius,” Felix mumbles, testing it on his tongue.
“Mm? Did you forget my name, sweetheart?”
“No, you idiot. It’s for him. Maybe. If you like it.”
“Marius.” Repeated in Sylvain’s low, burred voice, it sounds good. Sound right. “It’s a good name. Does it come from somewhere?”
Felix blushes a little. Thank goodness it’s too dark for Sylvain to see it, even with the fireplace alive and crackling with a cozy flame. “It’s, er. The name of a character from a book I read once. Ashe made me read it, wouldn’t leave me alone until I did.”
“And who was Marius, in the book?” Sylvain asks with just a hint of teasing in his voice.
“A brave knight,” Felix sighs. “Noble and true. Ashe insisted he reminded him of me, but when I read it all I saw was you. Brave, forthright, honest. Loyal. Even when you tried to hide it behind bluster and foolishness.”
Sylvain is quiet for so long that Felix fears he’s offended him. But he speaks, at last, and his voice is a little bit choked, and he understands. “You were always good at seeing through me.”
“You like it, then?”
“Marius? Yeah. It’s a good name. What do you think, little man?” Sylvain leans down and bestows the gentlest, whiskeriest kiss on their son’s tiny head. “Sweet dreams, Marius. I love you.” He huffs a little laugh and subsides against the pillow. “All the way to Sreng and back.”
I want to say thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for taking care of Felix while I was gone (even if you did nearly faint and have to get kicked out of the bedroom just when things were getting dicey). I’m a little angry that you never said anything, but it’s what Felix wanted, and I can’t fault you for that. You’re a good friend. The best.
Also, a bit of business: the treaties were signed, to everyone’s satisfaction. I’ll be sending copies by courier to the capital in the next few days. I hope you don’t mind that I don’t come myself. I’m a little busy taking care of my husband and our new son.
(Sorry. I can’t stop saying it. I have a son, Ingrid! Me, Sylvain Jose Gautier, a son.)
Please tell Ashe and Dedue and Dima and everyone else that they’re welcome to visit in a month or so, once Felix is feeling more like himself. Labor really took it out of him, and I think he’s still a bit self-conscious, so let’s not subject him to too many people just yet. Honestly, we’re both adjusting. I don’t think we’ve gotten more than a few hours of sleep a night since you left, even with a wetnurse and a nanny to help us. But that’s all right. Marius is worth it.
Give everyone our love, and our condolences for not putting in an appearance for Solstice festivities this year. I think you’ll agree we have a pretty damn good excuse.
In good cheer,
Sylvain J. Fraldarius-Gautier (and son)