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The Lords’ war ended with epic battles, the grand finale of which consisted of slaying a dragon — a feat worthy of epic ballads performed by bards and embellished in stories for centuries to come. There was a massive celebration throughout Elibe, and the Lords’ focus gradually shifted toward repairing the damage wrought during wartime. After a while, the world settled into peace.

It was not so for Guy of the Kutolah.

He was not satisfied with slaying a dragon, or with taking down a corrupt organization, or ending a war, or saving all of humanity. All Guy ever wanted was to be the greatest swordsman in all of Sacae, until his ambition grew to encompass the rest of the world. The war did not provide him with that title, so he continued his search with renewed fervor.

He left without a word, not wanting to draw attention to himself or deprive anyone of the merriment they were enjoying, celebrating the end of a long and grueling campaign. He was happy for them and their achievements; it was not any fault of theirs that his ambitions lay elsewhere. He repacked his small travel bag, and slipped quietly out of the castle in the midst of the festivities.

His absence was noticed a couple hours later by one former thief, and a few days after that by the Lords and a few of their world-saving cohorts, but Guy’s ambitions — and lack of appreciation for large social gatherings — were not a secret, and they were unconcerned.

Well, mostly unconcerned. The thief-turned-spy was not convinced the abrupt departure was purely a disinclination toward parties, but he was unable to follow him, as his Lord kept him quite busy, even though his skillset as a spy was rendered largely unnecessary after the war ended. Matthew still owed Lord Hector quite a lot, and wasn’t about to shirk his duties on a whim. So he remained at the castle, assisting the Lords with whatever they needed, while Guy continued on his journey to become the greatest Swordmaster in all of Sacae.

For a while, this meant seeking out the strongest warriors he could find, and challenging them. This quickly proved to be a fruitless endeavor, as most of the strongest warriors were those he’d already fought in the process of saving the world. Those he hadn’t already fought were the dregs left behind after the war, far more effort to track down than was reasonable, the resulting match often less than satisfying. Guy found himself chasing down bandits, recently deprived of war-torn villages as convenient targets for ransacking and pillaging, slowly forced farther and farther outside the cities as a result of the return of peace, order, and the justice system.

Chasing them down was exhausting, and defeating them was hardly a challenge. Guy needed to find another way to prove himself.

One year following the end of the war was fast approaching, and Guy knew of only one way to truly measure his improvement, and resolved to meet his old reluctant mentor and challenge him to a duel once again. He’d only just decided to search out Karel when a note found him at the local inn he was staying at; a note with Lord Hector’s seal on it, the first communication with anyone from the war since Guy had slipped out of the castle and set off on his own.

The note was not actually from Lord Hector, however, despite the seal.

He’s back in Sacae, if you’re still looking for a rematch.

Can’t say I recommend it, but I know you’re going to do what you want, regardless of what anyone tells you. Good luck. Don’t die, you still owe me four favors!

M

Guy wasn’t sure how to deal with the cascade of emotions that crashed over him upon reading the note. Settling on a familiar combination of irritation mixed with exasperation and shoving the rest aside, he crumpled up the note and was about to toss it into the fire crackling in the hearth of the common area before he hesitated, and with a sigh, stuffed it into a pocket on the side of his pack instead.

Then he saddled his horse, and took off for Sacae.

 

-

 

Karel was not the same person Guy had studied under more than a year ago. They both walked away from the battle alive, and, in Guy’s case, unsatisfied. He was also less one braid by the end of the duel, which irritated him almost as much as the hollow victory. He had become as skllled as the famed Saint of Swords, he had bested his mentor and idol, and instead of feeling fulfilled after achieving his lifelong goal, he merely felt completely and utterly directionless.

He wandered back home in a daze, his childhood dwelling a mere three days’ ride from where Karel had settled down. He finds his mother, aging but still full of energy and with plenty to spare on fussing over him. She welcomes Guy home, having heard all about his feats during the war and his role in seeing it ended, and then goes on a lengthy tirade, furious with him for disappearing afterward and barely taking the time to write her — Guy realized he’d written his mother twice, maybe three times since he left the castle, and felt suddenly horrid about it.

But she told him she was well looked after, between Lady Lyndis and that fine young gentleman who occasionally dropped by from the castle.

Guy looked up at that. Fine… young gentleman? He’d asked, barely daring to believe it.

Yes, she’d said, smiling warmly. He was very helpful, always offered to get me anything I needed, made sure to help me with the house and garden whenever he dropped by.

Matthew, I think his name was?

Guy hadn’t any idea what Matthew’s motives were, in secretly visiting his mother. He wondered if it had to do with the favors he still owed him, and shuddered at the thought. Of course Matthew would refuse to let it go.

He really should’ve known better.

 

-

 

Barely a week had gone by, since Guy made it back home, before he received another note.

Heard you beat the Saint! Does that make you the new Saint of Swords, then? Should I adjust your plaque in the grand hall, to reflect your new achievement, Master Swordsman?

Your mother is lovely, by the way. Should she require more assistance with her roof, please let us know.

M

Guy fumed. Was this a warning? A threat? Was Matthew reminding Guy that he owed him, and expecting something in return? Was he suggesting that he would hurt his mother, if Guy didn’t settle his debt?

How dare he. Guy was not about to let the scrawny, foul-mouthed little criminal threaten him, he was the Saint of Swords and he had earned that title, even when it didn’t feel like it. Guy would teach him that he couldn’t threaten the greatest Swordmaster in the world without facing serious consequences.

Guy apologized to his mother, and told her he had one last thing he had to do.

After all, there was still one person in the world he hadn’t yet managed to defeat, and it was past time for a rematch.

 

-

 

Lord Hector was busy ruling Ostia, but even so, he made time to see Guy soon after he arrived at the castle.

“Guy! It’s been a while, heard you finally beat old Karel. How’s your mother doing?” Hector was friendly and loud and welcoming, more or less exactly the same as Guy remembered him.

“She is well, my Lord,” Guy said, dipping his head respectfully.

“Oh please, don’t give me that. We fought a damn dragon together, let’s dispense with the formalities, I have enough of that to deal with during my endless meetings,” Hector complained, with a dramatic sagging of his shoulders, and Guy couldn’t help but laugh.

“Very well then, Sir Hector,” Guy said with a mocking grin, and Hector smacked him on the shoulder, and began relentlessly teasing him about disappearing for a year. There was no trace of bitterness, which put Guy more at ease, and they fell into amiable banter for a while as Hector lamented the difficulty of overseeing repairs in some of the towns on the outskirts of Ostia. He was finding it troublesome to coordinate rebuilding efforts with the neighbors on every border except for the one they shared with Pherae.

Guy could not imagine a task he was less suited to than politics, and was quick to tell Hector as much. Hector laughed and admitted he often felt the same, but that Eliwood’s attendance, which was frequent, made it a great deal easier.

Guy felt a little bereft, seeing how easily Hector and Eliwood had maintained their friendship over the years, and couldn’t help but wonder if he’d made a mistake, leaving everything behind a year ago and missing out on that camaraderie. Travelling had been a lot louder and slower with a the army, but the food had definitely been better, and he had to admit the company was not as abrasive as he’d found it in the early days of their campaign.

In fact, he’d quickly forgotten that he’d been coerced into joining up, and soon took on the army’s mission as his own, and wondered when he’d decided that wasn’t enough for him.

Maybe he was a bigger fool than any of them.

 

Guy found out, when he finally admitted to Hector the purpose of his visit, that Matthew wasn’t currently at the castle but was due to report back in two weeks’ time. Hector assured Guy he was welcome to wait for him, and to spend his time however he liked in the meanwhile, with all of the castle’s substantial resources at his disposal.

Guy decided that wasn’t going to work for him, and set out to intercept Matthew on his way back. He would apologize to Hector later if he maimed the spy badly enough to delay his return, but convinced himself it was ultimately worth whatever price he’d have to pay.

Of course, Matthew was a former spy, and a talented one at that, so tracking him down was far from easy.

Once he made it to the town Matthew’s last note had orginated from, Matthew was long gone. It took the better part of a day to locate the citizens he’d been sent to check on; they tried to convince Guy to stay for a meal, insisting on treating any allies of the Ostian crown with the utmost hospitality, and Guy was almost surprised into accepting their invitation. He hadn’t expected such a warm welcome from a family recently visited by a former thief-slash-spy.

But he still had a his blackmailer to track down, and he wouldn’t be dissuaded easily. He pressed on, with Matthew’s next destination in front of him, and urged his mount faster, to a pace he hoped would be enough to make up some of the distance between them.

Of course, Matthew didn’t give an accurate destination, which Guy realized after a fruitless day searching for him without encountering a single individual that had seen him. Guy spent a good few minutes having a small temper tantrum, outraged at how difficult the man was to chase, and then reasoned that it was possible Matthew had heard some of the same rumors he had on his way here, of a village plagued by a mysterious villain, and had gone to investigate.

Guy felt gratified when he got there and was informed that Matthew had indeed taken the detour, solving the village’s predicament promptly before pressing on again, but that was days ago, and Guy had barely gained any time catching up to him at all. He tried not to dwell on the fact, and continued his chase.

Then, he got lucky: Matthew spent a few days at his next stop, running various errands for the people he was sent to check on — one who’d lost several family members during the war, and who Matthew seemed to make a point to visit regularly, to ensure they weren’t wanting for anything. Guy was a little taken aback when he met two of the smallest children, as he was on the receiving end of their exuberant description of their most adored visitor, who always played fun games with them, often teaching them new ones, and frequently brought them treats.

Guy tried to match this friendly visitor with the ruthless and conniving spy he’d known, the same man who would gleefully blackmail someone into joining his war, and had trouble reconciling the two versions. He thanked the family for giving him Matthew’s next destination, and once more refused their insistent offer of hospitality. He would never catch Matthew if he dawdled chasing him, and he needed to settle his debt. He was owed a rematch.

Guy was sure he had him in the next town; he talked to a baker who had seen him just the previous day, and then a florist who informed him he’d passed through not long ago, and a blacksmith who had just sharpened his weapon for him. But Guy ran out of leads soon after, and didn’t discover his next destination until the following day, at which point Matthew had certainly left for it already. Guy sighed, and got back on his horse.

He was beginning to get sore from the long hours of rigorous travel.

 

-

 

In the end, it took Guy almost the full two weeks to catch up. His time would have been much better spent at the castle, rather than riding ceaselessly and chasing after his elusive quarry, who had a habit of veering off course more often than was reasonable.

The whole chase just made Guy more and more furious, to the point where, finally catching sight of him, he had to resist the temptation to urge his horse faster and trample him underhoof. That never would have worked, of course, because Matthew noticed him long before Guy was able to get close. Godsdamned thieves.

“Guy?” Matthew said, eyes wide in disbelief as Guy approached him, sliding off his horse and almost faceplanting into the dirt as his legs wobbled precariously beneath him.

“Whoa, steady there. You alright? Hey, where’s all your hair?”

“Get off me,” Guy snapped, smacking Matthew’s outstretched hand away, and Matthew seemed to finally notice Guy’s mood, the amusement fading from his expression. “And stay the hell away from my mother.”

Matthew’s mouth fell open and his jaw worked for a moment, words seeming to fail him for once. “Uh?” He managed, brows pinched together in confusion. “Did — is something wrong? Is she okay?”

“She’s fine, you don’t need to threaten her anymore, I get it. I still owe you. What do you want?”

Matthew blinked. “Threaten?”

Guy felt the anger, boiling under his skin for the past two weeks — for longer — start to erupt, to leak through all his cracks, spilling out and consuming him.

He shoved Matthew, hard, and Matthew staggered back a few steps, finally giving Guy enough room to breathe. “Don’t play dumb with me, dammit, I’m not an idiot!” He shouted, swaying wildly from side to side as he tried to maintain his balance, which was rapidly deteriorating. Maybe he shouldn’t have ridden quite so far, or for so many days in a row.

His anger was quickly being smothered by a heavy wave of exhaustion, and his head began to swim.

“I’m not — you’re — shit,” he said, and was vaguely aware of the world tilting dramatically and the ground rushing up to meet him, and then his vision faded to black.

 

-

 

The first thing Guy was aware of was a nasty headache. It stabbed behind an eye, and every time he moved it would shoot to a new area of his head, throbbing sharply before settling back into a quieter background thrum of agony. It was extremely unpleasant.

And yet he nearly forgot about it entirely when he realized Matthew was seated in a chair, eyes closed, within arms reach of the bed he was currently laying on.

He jolted back against the wall, thumping his aching head, and clenched his teeth as he endured the new surge of throbbing in his skull.

The noise was enough, it seemed, to wake his overseer.

“Mmh? Hey, you’re fine, it’s just me.” Matthew’s voice was pitched low and soothing, and Guy had to admit he appreciated the low volume when his head felt as though hot pokers were being shoved repeatedly through it. “I brought you to an inn to sleep, you were exhausted. How long were you riding for? Nevermind, doesn’t matter. Are you okay? There’s water here, do you want me to see if the Innkeeper has anything that might help with the pain?”

Guy could barely parse the onslaught of questions, and let out a groan in response.

“Okay, yeah, I’m gonna see if she’s got some tea or something. I’ll be right back.”

“Don’t want tea,” Guy mumbled, not quite sure if it was true or not. His head hurt. His whole body felt heavy and sore and unruly, like it wouldn’t listen to him if he demanded it get up and strangle the man in front of him, and he didn’t like it. He very much doubted tea would help him.

“Uh, okay,” Matthew said slowly, doubt dragging his words out. “Water? You definitely need water. Here,” he said, and reached for a large waterskin on the small table near the bed.

Guy was pissed, but he knew dehydration wouldn’t help him, so he took the offered container and drank from it.

He drank a lot. Damn, he was really thirsty. When was the last time he stopped to take a drink?

“Better?” Matthew asked when Guy set the empty water skin back on the table, unable to completely suppress a smirk.

“Shut up,” Guy replied eloquently.

Matthew let out a small huff of laughter at that, but it was short-lived. His gaze dropped to the floor for a moment before he took a breath, running a hand through his hair and looking back up at Guy.

“Okay, I don’t know what I did, but — I mean, new. Recent. I don’t — ugh. Will you just tell me what I can do? I don’t — I don’t want to fight.”

Guy looked at him, eyes narrowed, silent as Matthew squirmed in his chair, studying the floor and then his own hands, gaze flicking quickly up to Guy before returning to the floor again.

He really was uncomfortable, and also not running away. Guy thought for a minute, trying to sort out an answer to the question, but he wasn’t sure he actually had one.

“You’ve been to my mother’s house,” Guy started, not quite a question, and then trailed off, unsure how to continue.

Matthew nodded, slowly. “Yeah, Hector has me check up on a few families regularly since the war ended. I just drop by, make sure they’re okay, you know. I also visit Leila’s —” His voice broke a little on her name, and he looked down again, swallowed. Guy felt something twist in his chest.

“Oh,” he said, not really understanding, but recognizing that this wasn’t easy for Matthew.

Matthew let out a breath and a hollow laugh, low and harsh. “Sorry, it’s been a rough day. I’m usually not — y’know. I visited the orphanage she used to, uh — to send money to, before. It brought back memories.” He shrugged, helpless and tired, and Guy felt the inexplicable urge to reach out to him, for a reason he coludn’t quite identify.

“It’s good to see you, though,” Matthew said, looking back up at Guy, plastering a fake smile on his face. “It’s been a while. I wasn’t sure if — if you’d be okay, after seeing Karel.”

It was Guy’s turn to drop his gaze and look away, frustration bringing a pink flush to his face. “I’m fine,” he said, twisting the sheet in his fist. “He wasn’t the same. Neither of us are. But I won, so it doesn’t matter.”

Matthew frowned. “You don’t really sound happy about it. Wasn’t that like, your life’s mission?”

Guy felt the rage return, full force. “Yes!” he said, and slammed a fist into the mattress next to him, which didn’t do a thing to make him feel better as it just bounced off the fabric, harmless. He wanted to maim. “It was everything.”

“Was?”

“Is,” Guy corrected him, but something about it felt wrong, and he frowned. “Or… I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t anymore.”

Matthew hummed in response, not saying anything, and Guy was glad there weren’t more questions for a moment. He needed to think, maybe. What was he doing here?

“Well, I need to get back to the castle so I can report in. Think you’re well enough to travel again? At a reasonable pace, this time?”

Guy blinked, and then looked up at him. “What?”

Matthew grinned. “You’re not doing anything right now, right? Come back to the castle with me. We can catch up more on the way. I’m dying to know how your mom’s garden is doing, it was too early for her tomatoes to be ripe when I was there last. And Rath! Have you talked to him at all? Asshole won’t tell me anything, however many times I ask, he’s a goddamn brick wall.”

Guy felt something in his chest loosen, and as all the emotions settled down the fatigue started creeping back in, but he’d already slept quite a lot and thought moving sounded better. “Yeah, we can go,” he said, giving in. “As soon as I get something to eat.”

“Oh, I like that plan. They have great food here, I always stop on my way back from the orphanage, we can get something from the innkeeper before we leave. Come on, let’s go!”

And with that, Guy was dragged along with Matthew, back toward the castle.

 

-

 

“Sometimes I think it was… simpler, during the war. You know?” Matthew said, out of the blue, between telling Guy about his last assignment for Hector, the one he finished before visiting the orphanage.

Guy was having trouble finding a response, but Matthew didn’t seem to need one as he continued. “We had enemies to fight, and there were always so many things to do — gather resources, collect intel, fight bad guys, defend innocents, plan our strategy. I miss… the routine, I guess. The certainty. And everyone. Being around all the time, helping each other. It seems so far away, now.”

Guy hummed in acknowledgement. He knew all about that, actually. He was so unwilling to give up on the fight, he found a way to keep going with it long after the need had expired, because he had no idea what to do with himself if there wasn’t a battle to win.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Matthew said, turning to him abruptly, a glint in his eye. “You still haven’t fought me and won, have you?”

Guy’s eyes narrowed. “Watch it.”

Matthew laughed. “I’m not making fun of you, it’s true!” He yelped when Guy reached over to smack him, and danced neatly out of reach.

“See? I’m still agile, even in my old age. Let’s spar! When you win, we’ll consider the debt canceled. Sound fair?”

To Guy, it sounded like Matthew was doing him another favor. But he couldn’t think of an alternative that would free him from his debt and give him a new goal, so as much as he hated it, he was willing to take advantage of Matthew’s offer this time. Even if it felt like a trap.

“Fine,” Guy said, reaching for his sword.

“Shit, not now! Come on, I’m way too tired, we’ll start when we’re back at the castle. Don’t wanna wear me out and make me even later reporting back, do you? I’d be in so much trouble.”

Guy grunted, and let his hand fall to his side, away from his blade. “Fine.”

Matthew laughed again, louder, throwing his head back. “Don’t sound so grumpy about it! I said I’d fight you, didn’t I?”

“You didn’t say anything about fighting fair, but you’re shit at keeping your word, anyway, so there’s really no point,” Guy grumbled. He thought for a second he saw a flicker of something like hurt cross Matthew’s face, but it was gone in an instant, and he decided he’d imagined it.

“Hah! I am a spy, you know. Old habits.”

Guy didn’t have anything to say to that, so he didn’t, and eventually Matthew resumed talking about the assignments Hector had been giving him since the war ended, and Guy just listened to him talk, only interrupting every once in a while to ask a question or make fun of him.

Matthew was always so expressive when he spoke, using his hands and his whole body to add drama and emphasis. Guy couldn’t help but watch him, even as he fantasized about sparring with him, fighting until they were both bruised and sweaty, and finally being free of his accursed oath.

 

-

 

Most of the journey back to the castle was uneventful.

Guy found himself listening to Matthew talk a lot, which was normal. But very little of what Matthew said annoyed him, which was much less normal, and he wasn’t sure what had changed, but it made him feel constantly off-balance. It was almost like he had to completely start over figuring out who Matthew was, and what kind of relationship they had, and how he felt about him. About it.

They weren’t friends; they’d never been friends. Matthew was first his savior, rescuing him from starvation when he thought he’d met his end, and then his jailor, trapping with with an oath he would never violate because he owed him his life and Guy would die before he’d break his word.

But then the war was over and Guy left, and Matthew didn’t pursue him. Guy was sure if Matthew had wanted to find him, he would have been able to. He’d been able to find everyone else from their campaign, and Guy was far from the most skilled at evading detection.

But he hadn’t. He’d left Guy alone, except to check on his last remaining family. Guy was growing increasingly certain that it wasn’t meant to be a threat, either.

So what did that mean? Where did that leave them?

“So, are you going back to Sacae soon?”

Guy blinked, and had to catch up with the conversation he’d not listened to a word of. “What?”

Matthew grinned, wry and teasing, fully aware that Guy had not been paying attention to him at all. “I was saying, after we go back to the castle and I report in, and we spar and settle the debt, are you going to go back to Sacae? What then?”

Guy blinked, and frowned, and tried for a moment to imagine the scenario where he is able to best Matthew, to gain his freedom, and what he would do. He found he could not quite picture it; every time he tried it would dissipate, like the morning mist as the rising sun brings heat that burns the mist away.

“I’m… not sure,” he said eventually, without looking at Matthew.

Matthew stayed quiet for a moment as he searched his face, and then hummed, unusually thoughtful. “Well, Hector could always find a use for a mercenary, if you need — if you’re looking for something to do,” he said slowly, and looked at Guy out of the corner of his eye, his tone carefully casual.

Guy tried to imagine being a mercenary again, and wasn’t sure if it appealed to him. But… he might not mind, helping the Lord, using his skills for a purpose again. That part didn’t sound terrible.

“Maybe,” he said, finally, with a shrug of his shoulders.

Matthew grinned, tone light as he said, “It’s just an idea! You don’t have to decide now, or anything. It might be years before you can beat me, after all.”

Guy scowled at him, and Matthew laughed again, the sound louder and more tangible, more real, his nose crinkling with the bright smile that lit up his face. Guy felt drawn to him, pulled into his orbit, a lonely, desolate planet orbiting a shining star.

He swallowed, and tried to ignore the hollow ache that was growing in his rib cage.

Soon they would be at the castle, and then he could focus on training again, and everything would be make sense.

 

-

 

Guy spent the whole first day back at the castle running through as many sword forms as he could remember, relearning the movements and waking up his muscles after not using them this way for weeks, not since he’d first returned to Sacae. He was terribly sore by the end of it, and could tell he would be feeling it the next day, but he also felt good, and right. Back on familiar territory, with a new equilibrium.

Fighting was familiar, and it was his. He knew how to do this and it was part of him, an extension of his will.

By the end of the day he collapsed into his bed in the quarters Hector had provided him, and was asleep instantly.

That is, until there was the soft scrape of a pick working the lock, waking him up out of his slumber more effectively than the clash of steel, or the hiss of an arrow.

“What the hell are you doing,” he mumbled, not bothering to move as his door swung gently open. Matthew was crouched on the other side, pick still hovering in the air where it had been buried in the keyhole moments before.

“Uh, you missed dinner. I was worried?” He said with a shrug, reaching to grab a tray of food sitting on the floor next to him and bringing it over to the small table on the other side of the small room from the bed. “Besides, I wanted to see if you still slept like a bear in winter. I, uh, guess not.” He breathed out a soft laugh and grinned apologetically. “Sorry, I’ll let you sleep.” He shuffled awkwardly toward the door, and Guy felt like he was missing something.

“Did you eat already?” He asked, rubbing sleep from his eyes and sitting up.

“Oh, uh. Not yet, actually,” Matthew said, hovering by the door. “I’ll probably go get food now.”

“Don’t be stupid, you can have some of mine, since you brought it all the way here. I’m not that hungry.” The words left Guy’s mouth before he could really think them through, but he found, once they were spoken, it was true. He didn’t mind.

He didn’t want Matthew to leave just yet, either.

“You’re not — um. If you’re sure?”

Guy made a face, clearly unimpressed. “I offered, didn’t I?”

Matthew gave him a small, crooked grin, and closed the door behind him before dropping into the chair to pick at the food he’d brought Guy. “Have some fruit, at least,” he said, throwing an apple at Guy’s head, which he caught, as Matthew knew he would.

“Rude,” Guy muttered before taking a bite of the apple. It was chilled and crunchy, and perfectly ripe. Guy couldn’t remember the last time he’d had an apple that tasted this sweet, and this good. Perks of being the Lord and living in a castle, he supposed.

“So, why’d you track me down, if you knew I was coming back to the castle anyway?”

Matthew was staring intently at the food, motionless with forced nonchalance. Guy glanced over at him, and slowly chewed the apple as he thought about an answer he wasn’t sure he had.

“Didn’t want you running off before I could corner you,” he eventually grumbled at his feet, and it wasn’t sure it was true, but he didn’t have a better reason.

Matthew let out a graceless snort. “I’m not that one who’s prone to running off, as a matter of fact.” He shoots a wry grin at Guy, intending to take the sting out of the jab, but it didn’t work; Guy felt the accuracy of the accusation like an arrow to his chest. He had run away, like a coward.

Matthew sighed and rose to his feet, crossing the room to drop onto the mattress next to Guy. “I get it, you know,” he says after a minute, staring at his hands in his lap, fiddling uncomfortably with the fabric of his cape. “I still remember how it felt, when Leila died. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, or deal with anything. I just… put all my focus into the work, and shut everything else out. I ran away, too, even if it wasn’t literal.”

He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. Guy watched him out of the corner of his eye, not acknowledging him, but not stopping him, either.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with… stalling, you know, until you’re — until you can process it. However long that takes.” He shrugged, and gave Guy another pained smile. “I certainly have no right to judge. And I don’t think anyone can blame you, for leaving. But,” he said, and paused, hesitating, before deciding there was no point in stopping now. “It gets lonely, after a while, running and avoiding everything. So… if you ever want someone to talk to, or if you need help, or anything at all, we’re here. All of us. If you need it.”

Guy felt a kind of pressure, in his chest, that grew and felt like it was choking him, and was horrified when he felt hot tears well up in his eyes. He took a shaky breath, willing them to not fall, determined to retain at least some of his dignity, as pointless as he knew the effort was. Matthew leaned into him, just a little, an offer of support. Guy froze for a second, and then slowly, inch by inch, let the tension fall away, and deflated. There was a weight that he’d been carrying for a very, very long time that suddenly fell away, and he leaned back against Matthew, and sank into the warmth of the contact.

He suddenly felt exhausted, despite just waking up, his eyelids drooping heavily. But he knew he was safe here, and he was tired, so tired, and he allowed them to drift shut.

 

-

 

When Guy woke up, every muscle in his body ached, and he was starving. He was laid down on his bed, a blanket on top of him, still in his clothes from yesterday. Gross. He really needed to stop making a habit of passing out on people.

There was some bread and more fruit and a wedge of cheese on the table, and it looked new, not part of the meal Matthew had brought him earlier. Yesterday? He wasn’t sure exactly how long he’d been asleep. He hurried to cram food in his mouth before leaving his room.

He realized he felt light, despite his aching muscles, in a way he hadn’t since before the war. There was a tightness in his chest when he thought about it that he wasn’t quite ready to deal with yet, so he decided to do what he always did when he needed to think, or avoid thinking.

He grabbed his sword and worked through some of his most physically demanding forms, slowly and with perfect posture, and it was much easier than it’d been yesterday, Guy realized with a fierce joy.

That was where Matthew found him, hours later, sweaty and in desperate need of a bath.

“I should’ve guessed this is where you’d be,” he said with a grin, parking himself on a table nearby, his feet up on a stool next to it, and he started playing with one of his daggers, twirling it around by the hilt and tossing it between his hands.

As soon as Matthew distracted him Guy’s focus was broken, and he was immediately aware of how badly he needed a break, which he’d managed to ignore up until that point. He swayed a little, causing Matthew to jump to his feet, but he held up a hand and dropped himself to sit on the grass next to his waterskin.

“I may have gotten carried away,” he said after taking a long drink. Matthew laughed, all too aware of Guy’s habits.

“I thought you might. Guess you’re probably too tired to spar today, huh?”

Guy scowled. “Give me an hour and I’ll be good to go.”

Matthew barked out a loud laugh. “Ha! And I thought I was the workaholic.”

Guy frowned in thought for a moment before setting his waterskin to the side and getting back to his feet. “It’s not work for me. It’s who I am.”

“No, I know, it was just a joke. A bad one, I’ll admit,” Matthew said with a shrug. “I know it’s never been an obligation, to you.”

Guy shook his head. “I just mean — I know my limits, and I don’t push myself beyond them. I do what I know I can handle, and I push myself, but not to the point of injury. I know what my capabilities are.”

Matthew looked at him for a moment before nodding. “That’s good.”

Guy hesitated, fidgeting, before walking over to sit next to Matthew on the table. It wasn’t a huge table, so there wasn’t really room for Guy to sit anywhere except right up against Matthew’s side. The only indication of Matthew’s surprise was a very slight widening of his eyes, which he covered for immedaitely, but not fast enough that Guy missed it.

It pleased him a little, that he managed to surprise Matthew. There was a time when he’d wanted nothing more than to catch him off-guard, and was completely incapable of it.

“Thank you. For… what you said, before. I forgot that I wasn’t just… on my own. And it—” He frowned, searching for the words, and his voice felt suddenly stuck, the words trapped in his throat buried underneath an onslaught of emotions he didn’t know how to parse.

“Sure,” Matthew said, and cringed at how lame and insubstantial the response sounded while simultaneously trying to ignore the heat that engulfed his entire face. “I mean — I’m glad. That it helped. I meant it.”

“I know,” Guy said. Matthew looked over at him, and felt all the air rush out of his lungs when he caught a glimpse of the tiny, real smile on Guy’s face.

They sat like that, quiet and unsure of what to say, until Guy decided he couldn’t stand being in the clothes he was wearing for another second.

“I should go clean up,” he said as he got to his feet and strapped his sword back onto his belt.

“Oh, right. Want me to bring you something to eat, for after? You must be hungry after practicing for so long.”

Guy huffed out a laugh. “The way you keep attending me, I’m going to start feeling like pampered royalty. I can find the kitchens.”

“Oh,” Matthew said, and Guy wondered if that was actually disappointment he was detecting under the attempted casualness.

“If… you wait for me, you can show me where they are,” he suggested, hesitant, and was rewarded with a grin, bright and sudden and blinding.

“Sure! I’ll be here, take your time,” he said, and made himself comfortable on the grass, settling in to wait.

Guy left him there, head spinning a little from all the information he was trying to sort through in his head, from the way Matthew had smiled at him, to the knowledge that he was technically still in debt, which inevitably led to the prospect of potentially settling that debt and being free, completely, for the first time, to do whatever he wanted.

What did he want?

All Guy knew was that right now, he very much wanted to clean away the grime that was coating his skin, and to put on fresh, new clothes, and he would have to be satisfied with that for the time being.

 

-

 

Matthew held blades like they were an extension of his hands, a part of him, and wielded them with the skill of many, many years of focused practice.

Guy was also pretty sure that he’d trained with Legault and maybe also Jaffar since he’d last fought against him, because he’d picked up some moves and habits that were definitely not there before and reminded Guy of their fighting styles, not Matthew’s.

Of course, they were almost universally sneaky, underhanded tactics that had no place in a fair duel. Guy had been expecting them from Matthew, but was no less annoyed, especially when he demonstrated them in such a startlingly diverse variety of applications.

At least some things hadn’t changed.

“Hold still, you slippery little demon,” Guy cursed, lunging at Matthew only for him to dance out of the way, again, and circle around behind him with almost inhuman speed. He tugged at Guy’s shirt mockingly before skipping far out of reach, leaving no time for Guy to turn around and make contact with the wooden practice blade.

“Haha, you’ve gotten faster!” Matthew chirped from half the courtyard away from him, and Guy fumed.

“Shut up,” he growled, running after him, his only hope to win being in tiring out Matthew so he had a prayer of being slow enough for Guy to catch.

“Make me,” Matthew taunted, putting what seemed like no effort into moving just enough that Guy missed him and stumbled gracelessly to catch himself when his forward momentum met only empty space. The whole exchange caused a lot more movement and effort for Guy than it did for Matthew, and it didn’t bode well for Guy’s endurance strategy.

He couldn’t think.

“When the hell did you have time to learn so much from Legault? And did you train with Jaffar?” Guy blurted out, exasperated, as he realized he had yet to even touch Matthew.

“You do realize the war has been over for a year, right? Some of us kept in touch, and some of us convinced our friends to give us some tips, since said friends had an abundance of free time once all the fighting was over, and maybe needed a while to figure out what to do with themselves.” Matthew grinned, mischievous and carefree. “Legault and Jaffar were surprisingly patient teachers, actually, but I think Heath and Nino had a good influence on them, so I probably owe them more even though they weren’t the ones who actually taught me.”

Guy had not stopped trying to land a hit on Matthew through his entire explanation, and was no closer to getting one in despite his unsubtle attempts at distraction.

If anything, Guy was the one who was more distracted, unaccustomed to trying to carry on a conversation in the middle of battle. Not so, clearly, for Matthew.

Was there anything Matthew couldn’t do better than Guy?

“All my energy has to go into avoiding you, though, because the second it becomes a strength contest I am absolutely done for,” Matthew said with a wry grin as he continued to lead Guy in a merry chase he seemed to have absolutely no prayer of winning. “You have definitely put on some muscle in the past year, and frankly, I am frightened.”

“What, trained with Legault and Jaffar, but you didn’t find time to learn how to crush stone to dust with your bare hands from Hector?” Guy grumbled, not mollified by the admission of the strength imbalance. Strength didn’t win fights. Tactics and speed, in Guy’s experience, were far more important, and in both those arenas Matthew had him severely outclassed. Still. After a year of relentless effort toward being the best swordsman he could possibly be, he was still lagging behind, even though Guy had thought about little else.

“Oh gods, no,” Matthew said, horrified. “I can’t practice with Hector. Way too dangerous.”

“Worried you’ll lose a limb? Mar your pretty face?” Guy said, barely paying attention to what he was saying as he tried desperately to land a hit. Just one.

“Goodness no, I’m not worried about him hurting me. Hector is many things, but he’s not reckless. At least, not with sparring.” Matthew still danced just out of reach of Guy’s every lunge and strike, appearing as if it took no effort whatsoever.

“The problem is I can’t stay focused against him. Have you ever seen how quickly that man removes his clothing when he spars? Minutes in, and off the shirt goes. It’s incredibly distracting.” Matthew did a neat little spin move, flicking his dagger in a way that very nearly yanked Guy’s sword right out of his hand, and Guy tried not to let the irritation take over. “Try dodging that man when he’s sweaty and shoving his muscles and naked, sweaty skin in your face!” Matthew shivered, his cheeks turning pink. “I turn into a complete mess, he is a goddamn work of art without his shirt.”

Guy stopped moving as Matthew’s words sank in.

Distracted?

By Hector.

Without a shirt.

Guy ran over the words again in his head, willing them to make sense, because so far they hadn’t. Didn’t.

Matthew was too distracted by Hector to spar with him? But he wasn’t too distracted to spar with Guy.

Was it because he was sparring with Guy and not Hector, or was it because Guy didn’t have a tendency to spar shirtless?

How badly did Guy want to settle this debt?

“Hello? Hey, uh. You okay, there?”

Guy glanced up at Matthew, and realized he’d been standing still for almost a full twenty seconds. He also noticed that Matthew was a little short of breath, despite the brief break Guy had unintentionally given him, and Guy wasn’t.

No. He didn’t need to resort to… to underhanded tactics… to win. He could do it fair and square. Not only was he sure he could do it, but now Guy was absolutely determined.

Guy took a breath, and then snapped his practice sword out, managing to clip Matthew’s side before he had a chance to dodge out of the way.

“Whoa! Okay, I get it, I get it, geez. Serious mode now, huh? Were you that fast a minute ago, because I swear — eep!”

Matthew was unable to continue talking as Guy began a relentless string of attacks, utilizing every single style and type of footwork he’d picked up over his many years of practice, combining them, twisting them together, willing himself to use them in new and unexpected ways.

“Did I — do — something? Hey!” Matthew could barely get the words out between reckless, frenzied jabs from Guy’s sword.

When earlier Guy might have dodged, instead he parried and counterattacked. When he wanted to retreat, he sidestepped and moved in closer. If his instinct was to press his advantage, he’d take a step back, and circle to the side, try a new angle.

At first, it seemed things were going worse for Guy. He was clumsy and hesitated too much, and he couldn’t even get as close to Matthew as he had been getting before, despite moving more quickly and striking more frequently.

But slowly, as he put the pieces together and began to find the ones that fit, he stopped hesitating, and got better at following the different steps in the dance, shifting smoothly between styles, and then Matthew was reduced to wordless grunting and quick breaths of air because it was taking all of his concentration to avoid him.

Guy blocked out everything except for the battle, the dance of blades, determined to conquer his final obstacle.

Minutes went by, each feeling like an eternity while also flashing by in an instant, as Guy kept moving, never stopping, focused and resolute.

Matthew was soaked through from the effort of keeping up with him, and was steadily accumulating more and more bruises where he was just a fraction of a second too slow to dodge in time.

But he hadn’t surrendered yet, and so their match continued.

Then, as Guy took a step in, Matthew’s foot hit a stone that he hadn’t seen, and his eyes went wide, and he flailed his arms out but there was only air with nothing to hold onto as he fell backward.

Guy’s arm snapped out, grabbing a handful of the cowl at his neck, and tugged him forward, pressing his wooden sword into Matthew’s gut and holding it there, his breathing labored and quick, his arms starting to shake with the extended exertion.

But he’d won.

“Okay, okay, you win!” Matthew said, panting. “I wasn’t paying attention to my surroundings, that’s your victory, fair and square. Please don’t hurt me, whatever you’re upset about, I swear I’ll make it right, okay?”

Guy looked at him for a moment, still unmoving.

“The debt?”

“All gone! No more debt, I promise.”

“So I don’t owe you anything, any you don’t owe me anything.”

“Right. Totally unburdened, no more favors. I’m done. I’m sorry, okay? I considered us even as soon as you joined up, but it was so fun to mess with you back then, and I — I didn’t want you to leave.”

Matthew’s voice cracked a little over the words, and he squeezed his eyes shut.

“I’m sorry, I’m really sorry, I should’ve — said something, before. I didn’t think you’d take off so quickly. I was going to call it off, I really was, but you left before I had a chance.”

Matthew was staring morosely at the grass, running a hand through his hair. Guy finally let the practice sword drop to the ground, and took a step in.

“You could have said something in the notes.”

Matthew laughed, a humorless huff of air. “Yeah, I probably should have. That would have been the not-selfish thing to do.”

“So… you thought I would come find you, if you didn’t.”

Matthew winced, still not looking at him. “I… yeah, I guess.” He shrugged, and wrapped his hands around his middle, his posture hunched. “Pretty stupid, huh?”

“It worked, so. Maybe not.”

Matthew sighed, and finally lifted his eyes up to Guy’s collarbones, and then slowly up to his face, hesitant, as if afraid of what he’d find there.

“So... are you — are you angry?”

Guy thought about it, studying him. “I was pretty pissed, yeah.”

Matthew frowned. “Was?”

Guy nodded. “Yeah, that was kind of a shitty and manipulative thing to do, so it made me mad.”

Matthew nodded, gaze dropping to the ground again. “Yeah, that’s fair.”

“And then I thought about how you helped my mom when I wasn’t there, and eventually I realized it wasn’t out of obligation or to manipulate me, and it was kind of shitty that that's what I assumed. And I thought about how I took off without saying anything, and shut everyone out. And how when I got back home, your note found me there. And how you told me that I had a place here, if I wanted it.”

Matthew chuckled. “You thought about all that while we were fighting? How?”

Guy ignored him, unwilling to let Matthew distract him. “So I was kind of a selfish asshole, too. I figure we’re pretty much even, as far as shitty behavior goes.”

“...Okay,” Matthew said, rubbing his arm. “So what are you going to do now, then?”

Guy tilted his head a little, looking at him. “I was thinking about kissing you, if you didn’t object.”

Matthew’s eyes snapped up to his, and then he turned scarlet all the way to his ears. “You — what?”

Guy took a step closer. “Do I have permission?”

Matthew swallowed, then nodded. “Fuck yes. If you don’t, after all that, I might—”

Guy never found out what Matthew might do if he didn’t, because he pressed his lips to Matthew’s and Matthew found he didn’t have anything else to say.

 

-

 

“Hey, I know what you can do.”

“Yeah?”

Guy looked up from the whetstone where he was sharpening his sword, over to Matthew, who was laying on the grass, staring up at the clouds.

“You know how I told you you could work for Hector? Come with me. We can travel around, visit people, get paid? It’s not bad, he’s pretty flexible and doesn’t ask you to do anything you’re not comfortable with.”

Guy hummed, noncommittal.

“I know you’re all about the training and getting better and everything, but it could be a nice change of pace, you know? And it’s not like I never run into trouble, there will definitely be plenty of bandits and whatnot along the way. And then if you find something else, you can quit and go do that. Hector won’t mind. And I could — I could help you, if. If you wanted.”

“Mm, I don’t think so.”

Matthew let out a soft breath. “Oh. O-Okay.”

“I think I’ve had enough of traveling. I’d rather go back to Sacae for a while, spend some time with my family. At least for now. Plus, Rath and Lyn are there, and I haven’t seen them in over a year.”

“I see. That sounds nice.”

Matthew was trying very hard to be supportive, Guy could tell, but he was absolutely miserable. This new insight was something Guy was still getting used to. Also, Matthew being a blind idiot was something he wasn’t used to, either.

“I should hope so, from what I understand you still owe my mother several chores, and she’s promised you tomatoes. She’ll expect you to follow through. You always keep your word, after all, right?”

Matthew sat up, and Guy tried to suppress his grin but was having trouble managing it.

“Let’s leave tomorrow, I’m eager to get back home. You’ve earned a good long vacation by now, right?”

“Tomorrow,” Matthew repeated, his lips curling up in a bright smile. “Sure. Sounds good.”

Guy gave up holding back his grin, and when Matthew got up to walk over to him, set his sword aside so Matthew could settle into his lap instead.

He didn’t think he’d be needing his weapon for a while.