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ma non troppo

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The beeping of the heart monitor is loud in the silence of the private hospital room.

If Sylvain were feeling especially morbid, he could laugh and call it a metronome measuring the orchestration of his days, forcing him to keep time as it counts down to his last breath. A metronome, interrupting the song of youth. A metronome—blind, unknowing, uncaring.

Soon there won’t be a beat to keep.

It’s okay as long as the metronome ticks for him and no one else. He’s had time to make peace with his death. Despite years on the waiting list and parents more than willing to bribe their way to the front of it, Sylvain has never matched with a donor. The only surprise is that it took this long for his kidneys to finally give up on him.

To think they’d outlast all everyone else who gave up on him forever ago.

But not Felix. Never Felix.

Felix had barreled angrily into Sylvain’s life a year ago, but it’s felt like a lifetime. Like Sylvain started anew the moment they met. Felix had marched right up to him on Garreg Mach’s campus and told him off without preamble, incensed for the sake of Sylvain’s cello. He’d loved Felix, even then. Sylvain’s world would be dimmer without Felix, irreplaceable and star-bright.

Felix’s sharp tongue and rapier wit; his inexhaustible passion for music, loudly denied and endlessly hidden—there was always something new to discover, always another facet to reel Sylvain in. Felix had been magnetic from the moment Sylvain met him, all keen edges and deep passion, his heart a well of contradictory love.

Love that belongs elsewhere, though Sylvain’s too selfish not to seek it.

Sylvain put Felix through so much these past few months. Dialysis after dialysis after dialysis, and other hospital visits besides. Felix stuck with him through it all. Sylvain has nothing to give him in thanks.

Not even music.

That might be what stings the most: that music, too, has been taken from him, and right as Felix is finally letting himself learn to love its melody again.

Sylvain doesn’t have the strength to pick up his cello anymore. It languishes in its case, stolen by his friends and hidden out of sight—Felix had Mercedes come to pick it up one afternoon after Sylvain had been caught out of bed playing it for the third time. It’s been gone long enough that he can’t remember all the notes of his last piece anymore. Sylvain’s fingers are losing their calluses and losing their control; the skill he’d taken years to hone drips away as he wastes away, trapped in this bed.

He can’t do anything but wait for the metronome to stop keeping time.

From where his head is pillowed in Sylvain’s lap, Felix grumbles an incomprehensible string of syllables and his nose scrunches. Something about Glenn and Franz and “idiot”, and he unconsciously grips tighter at Sylvain’s hand. He’ll have to wake Felix soon; visiting hours are almost over. The nurses haven’t come by yet and they like to bend the rules for Felix anyway, but he’s already stayed much longer than he’d originally planned. Not that Sylvain is complaining about the company.

His own eyes drift shut as he listens to Felix’s breathing and the still-beeping monitor, their sounds melding into a haunting, atonal lullaby.

Sylvain bites back a bitter laugh. At least he knows how his dirge goes.

~~~

With you I serve, with you I fall down, down
Watch you breathe in, watch you breathing out, out

~~~

♪ 213 ♪

Turn right at the corner of Pan Boulevard and Timotheos Way.

Felix glares up at the signposts above him, innocuous and wrong. He’d found Pan Boulevard fine, but this is Aubin Street.

He promised Sylvain that he would meet him at the dialysis center, but he took a wrong turn somewhere and his GPS is telling him that he's getting further away the longer he walks. Were Glenn here, he would laugh at Felix for being hopeless at directions. If Ingrid and Dimitri had come along too, Ingrid would cackle alongside Glenn and Dimitri would console him in somber, patient tones. Insufferable, all of them.

Felix has fifteen minutes before Sylvain’s appointment and no idea how to get there. He hates needing help, he hates talking on the phone, and he hates to admit it, but he’s at a total loss and he needs to call Sylvain.

Felix frowns more at the sign above him, seconds ticking by.

Fuck it. He can stake his pride either on not getting lost or on not being late, and he’ll take the latter.

The phone rings twice before Sylvain picks up.

“Felix?”

Sylvain’s voice is distant and tinny through the call, only a pale imitation of the warm but obnoxious tones Felix is so used to. He says Felix’s name, slow and syrupy, like it’s been drawn out. It’s the way Sylvain sounds when he’s just woken up and he’s decided to call Felix to wish him an overly sentimental good morning. Leave it to Sylvain to fall asleep at the clinic. If only that could teach him to keep to regular hours.

Or to care more about his health. Felix isn’t sure which it really is, nowadays. He’s not sure of much after the symphony hall incident that landed Sylvain in the hospital two and a half weeks ago. He still hasn’t forgiven Sylvain for everything that led up to it, but they’re working on it.

Felix grits his teeth, forcing the words to his lips. “How do I get from Aubin Street to Timotheos Way?” The words might be a little unintelligible, but it’s definitely Sylvain’s fault for giving him questionable directions, so he can deal with it.

“Uh… I think it should be three blocks east? Wait, how did you get to Timotheos?”

“Shut up. I’m on my way.” He turns right after checking his shadow for west. This is the way Felix came. He thinks. “I’ll be there in 10 minutes.”

Sylvain chuckles, and Felix feels the taunt coming. “So—”

“Shut up. I’m on my way.” He sets off at a brisk pace, almost jogging. There’s no one around to give him weird looks, and if there were, they would be welcome to fuck off.

Sylvain laughs harder. “Do you want me to stay on the phone with you? You can tell me the streets as you pass them, in case you get lost again.”

“I did not get lost.” Felix huffs. “I took a detour.”

“Sure.”

“Whatever. Just keep talking.”

Sylvain asks Felix about his day and about Glenn’s last therapy session, his voice soothing and breathy in Felix’s ear. Felix’s day was fine, just like every other Thursday. He’d had classes and he’d taken time between them to hang out in one of the practice rooms. Glenn’s wrist isn’t any better, not really, but it’s also not worse for the first time in months. Felix occupying the piano at home is good for something.

The streets pass. Felix turns onto Timotheos Way, correctly this time. After another two blocks, Felix finally sees a sign in the distance. Seiros Dialysis Center—Garreg Mach. It’s in front of a short, broad building, the outside painted white and unassuming.

The automatic doors chime cheerily as Felix passes through them, and the secretary looks up at him.

“Do you have an appointment?”

Felix opens his mouth to say that, no, he’s here for someone else, when an arm slings itself over his shoulders. The instinct to jam his elbow backward rises, loud and sudden, but Felix holds himself back with white-knuckled control. No matter how familiar Felix is with Sylvain’s unnecessary preference for contact, it always takes him by surprise.

“Felix! You’re here!” Sylvain’s voice echoes, discordant and out of time, through the phone at Felix’s ear. He winces and ends the call.

“I am.”

Sylvain turns to the secretary eyeing them with bored irritation written plainly on her face. “He’s with me.”

She waves a hand at them, already tired of Sylvain, and ignores Sylvain’s glaringly charming smile. Felix shrugs Sylvain loose, forcing him to drop his arm. PDA is uncomfortable and it draws attention. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop Felix’s fingers from flexing automatically, itching to grab Sylvain’s hand and clasp it tight.

It’s a small action, inconsequential and almost unnoticeable, but Sylvain must spot it because he laces their hands together after a light brush against Felix’s ass. The war between Felix’s indignation at having been groped in public and his childish desire to cling to any and all scraps of affection battle as they make their way to the waiting area, past scattered patients and their families. Felix’s clingy side wins in the end, but only because Sylvain pulls him onto a sofa and it’s too much hassle to get back at him when they’re seated.

Felix opens his mouth to ask Sylvain what dialysis at a clinic is like, but his voice dies in his throat as he spots Sylvain’s face. Sylvain’s gaze is unfocused and he stares blankly at a door across the waiting room. His leg is bouncing, agitated, in a way that Felix has never seen before.

Felix squeezes his hand. “Stop looking so worried.”

Sylvain blinks, breaking out of his trance, and he flashes Felix a smile, small and of questionable authenticity. “I’m fine.”

“You look terrible.”

Sylvain snorts. “Thanks.”

“I’m just—what are you worried about? You’ve done this countless times.”

“Yeah, but… I haven’t had anyone with me in a long time.” Sylvain flinches. “Don’t think less of me, okay?”

Felix frowns. “Why would I think less of you because you need to get your blood cleaned?”

“I don’t know,” Sylvain says, laughing shakily. “It always… I don’t know, it makes me cold and irritable. I don’t want you to hate me.”

“I don’t hate you.” Felix squirms for a moment. He should offer comfort, but he’s never been good at that. Felix eventually settles on scooting closer to Sylvain and leaning his head against Sylvain’s shoulder. “I won’t hate you.”

“Maybe not yet.”

“You’re being ridiculous.” He needs to do better, needs to convince Sylvain that he means what he’s saying. Felix glances around the waiting room, checking for prying eyes. Good, all five patients are occupied. No one is looking at them. Felix tilts his head up to brush a kiss against Sylvain’s cheek and squeezes their hands tighter. “I’m here for you.”

Sylvain goes almost boneless, and he flops against the back of the couch. His voice is still shaky when he speaks, but it’s no longer riddled with fear. “Fuck, you have to warn me before you do that.”

Felix raises an eyebrow. “You never do.”

“You’re so unfair,” Sylvain whines, but he laughs, genuine and warm, and he brings up their joined hands to press his lips against Felix’s fingers.

Felix’s cheeks warm, the clawing sensation of being in public pounding louder in his chest, but he shoves it down. He can be mad at Sylvain’s sappiness later.

Felix settles back alongside Sylvain, pressing their arms together. “I mean it. I’m not going anywhere.”

Sylvain turns to look at Felix, their faces so close that his eyelashes almost brush against Felix’s forehead. “Thanks.”

A moment later, a technician sticks his head through the doorway and calls Sylvain’s name, voice bored and flat. Felix jolts, hitting his elbow on the armrest and almost smacking Sylvain in the chin.

Sylvain pushes off the couch, repressing laughter, and he tugs Felix up with him. Maybe Felix almost trips as he’s pulled up and Sylvain catches him with an arm around the waist, but he won’t admit to it.

Sylvain’s hand is warm against Felix’s as they head into the back of the building, but his grip is purposefully loose. The message is clear: Felix can leave if he wants to.

Felix crushes Sylvain’s hand in his. He has no intention, now or ever, of letting it go.

 

♪ 1 ♪

The ride to campus is the same as always, the bus stuffed with harried office workers and sleepy-eyed college students lolling against each other, the vehicle pitching back and forth in time with its wheels’ grotesque shrieks. Mindless chatter echoes, grating and insipid—from the rear, a man yells over the phone at a customer service agent, and across the aisle, a girl squeaks as she jabs herself in the eye with a makeup stick.

Felix tunes out their noise, staring out the window, and the city passes in an unending stream of half-gray and muted brown.

Finally, the overhead voice announces over the din, cool and mechanical, “Garreg Mach University, Kyphon Square.” Felix can’t exit fast enough. He shoulders his way off, barely avoiding collision with a tall brunette giggling with her friend.

His first class isn’t far from the bus stop, at the edge of the science quad. Introductory single-variable calculus, the most useless of Felix’s required first-year courses. Of course it’s the one at 9am. He only attends because Ingrid is hopeless at math on her own.

The stoplight catches Felix before he can cross and he grimaces, pulling out his phone to skim the day’s headlines. The lull in traffic after the waiting cars have passed leaves a void of sound, and the ghost of a phrase catches his ear, shadowed by Kyphon Square’s ambient noise. Its quality—half-familiar and saccharine—sets Felix’s teeth on edge. But as quickly as the phrase caught him, it’s gone, and the only thing he can hear is the university’s high-strung heartbeat.

The light changes. Felix crosses, head down, and he resolves to make it to class without further distractions.

Felix makes it about five paces. He hears the melody again, louder this time—a cello dancing in its upper register. It’s mellow and melancholic. Gut-wrenching and sincere. He can’t name the tune, but there’s a distinctly Romantic quality; no doubt the piece is something his mother once played.

The music grows louder with every step. Felix squares his shoulders and beelines for his lecture hall. Like most mornings, he already had an unwelcome confrontation about music this morning with Glenn. He has no desire for a second.

He’s almost to his classroom when he stalls again. Only a dozen paces beyond the chemistry hall sits the asshole he was hoping to avoid. The man has his eyes closed as he plays, and he flaunts his cello into the spring air as though it’s not made of wood. His smile is carefree; he’s willfully oblivious to the damage he’s inflicting.

The edges of Felix’s vision blur red, and in a blink, he finds himself staring down at closed lids and auburn lashes, low-burning fury simmering in his veins. He’d stormed over on instinct, and he’s standing in front of the uncomfortable campus bench he’d been so hellbent on ignoring.

The idiot cellist has a serene smile on his lips as he sways in time with his playing, the rhythm of his body ebbing with the push and pull of every bow stroke. He’s completely heedless of Felix’s glare. Felix hovers over him, fidgeting and awkward, his foot tapping double-time, and he growls under his breath to announce his presence. The man continues to ignore him.

Felix crosses his arms. “Oi.”

The man pauses, blinking. Eyes of deep honey flick down to Felix’s feet and then back up, and a smirk breaks out over unfairly soft-looking lips. Felix licks his own chapped ones reflexively.

“Can I help you?” There’s a flirtatious edge to his voice, coy and sweet. A flytrap. Too bad Felix doesn’t have time for foolish games. A vein in Felix’s temple twitches in response to the man’s sugary tone.

“No. Take better care of your cello.”

The man frowns, his grip tightening defensively around the neck of the instrument.

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. It was barely above freezing last week, what are you doing with your instrument outside in this weather? Are you trying to damage it?”

The man blinks at Felix. “Okay, wow. Can I buy you lunch first?”

“The campus has practice rooms. Use them.”

“Maybe I just wanted to enjoy the weather,” the man says, an edge in his tone. “It’s a little chilly still, yeah, but it’s not like it’s bone dry today. Might even rain this evening.”

Felix scoffs. “It’s not that nice out. And no one’s listening. Don’t waste your time and mess up your instrument. Clearly, it deserves a better musician than you.”

Something like hurt flickers in the man’s expression, but then the smile is back, louder and brighter than before.

“You’re listening, aren’t you? Or—you were, before you interrupted me,” he says, mirthful. Felix squints at the implied mockery. “Like what you hear? I’ll happily play more for you any time.”

“You’re not bad,” Felix replies, shrugging, “but I’ve heard better.”

It’s not an exaggeration. Felix’s mother was better, but it didn’t mean she got to live a long and happy life. Music is a search for perfection that only ends in tragedy.

For a moment, the man’s face turns unreadable, his brows tightening, but that fake, easy smile returns and he pushes out another laugh. Guilt bites at Felix’s consciousness, like he’s about to get scolded by Ingrid again for his lack of tact, but he shoves it down. He hasn’t said anything wrong or untruthful.

“Yeah, I mean, I’m no pro.” He shrugs. “But you stopped for a reason, right?”

“Yes,” Felix says. It’s beyond annoying that he’s being forced to repeat himself again. “I stopped to tell you to take better care of your instrument because you clearly can’t on your own.”

The man rolls his eyes. “Right, well, thanks for the advice, uh…” He pauses, head tilted and thoughtful. “Actually, sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”

“I didn’t give it.”

“Okay, well, I’m Sylvain. Nice to meet you, ‘I didn’t give it’.”

Felix growls. “Felix. My name is Felix.”

“Okay, then, nice to meet you, Felix.”

Sylvain grins—wide and all teeth, full to the brim with victorious, vindictive joy—and the disappointment sinking into his gut informs Felix that he’s lost. At what, he’s not sure, but his competitive streak kicks in and he makes a mental note to take this guy down a peg. If not now, then in the future.

“So, Felix,” Sylvain says, his voice curling around the name, teasing. It sends a shiver down Felix’s spine. “I’m guessing you’re a student here, too. I’ll take your suggestion not to play outside—gotta get to class soon anyways, and you’re not wrong that too much exposure to cold is bad for my baby girl. She’s been through a lot with me, but I’d never hurt her.”

Felix snorts. He finds that hard to believe given Sylvain’s treatment of the cello today. Also, cellos aren’t female. They aren’t anything but crafted wood.

Sylvain continues. “Talk to me while I pack up. You sound like you know a bit about cello care. Do you play?”

Sylvain reaches for his cello case, flicking each of the latches. Now standing, he hovers at about a half head taller than Felix, somewhere around Dimitri’s height—taller than Felix had expected. It’s annoying. A not-so-small, petty part of Felix entertains the idea of standing on the bench to establish a height advantage.

“No,” Felix says, grunting. “Classical music is a waste. I want nothing to do with it anymore.”

Sylvain pauses, his microfiber cloth suspended over half-removed rosin residue, and he hums thoughtfully before resuming his task.

“Anymore. So… you used to play?”

Felix begrudgingly acknowledges the slip-up. “…Piano. And violin. Mostly piano.”

“Oh, nice! I always wanted to be better at the piano, but it’s just—never really had the time, you know?” Felix doesn’t, but he gives a noncommittal jerk of his head. “It’s so hard—too many lines to keep track of. And a bit too mechanical? I know you guys have those pedals, but music’s just not the same without vibrato.”

Felix frowns. There’s an echo to Sylvain’s words that sounds too much like his piano teacher telling him to loosen his wrists and play “with feeling”. It resonates across space and time, another reprimand for the ways he’s fallen short of Glenn’s standard. “You haven’t heard good piano then.”

“Hey, hey! No offense.” Sylvain snaps the last latch closed and props an elbow on his case, his weight shifting to lean against it precariously. “I mean it, I love the piano, I’m just shit at it. I’d love to hear you play sometime.”

“I don’t play.” Felix grunts, turning away. “I’m going to class. You’ve already made me late enough.”

“Yeah, sure, I’ll see you around.”

Felix rolls his eyes, turning away. “Whatever.”

Felix barely makes it two paces before Sylvain calls to him, waving him back. “Wait, hold on—! Give me your phone.” He grins at Felix, hand outstretched, like he’s hasn’t just said something suspicious.

“…Why?” Felix’s hand tightens around his phone.

“I mean—it’s not every day you meet another musician on this campus. I thought maybe we could hang out again later.” Sylvain beckons Felix again. “And I can play for you sometime, wherever you want.”

The offer is almost tempting. Almost. The promise of more music is abhorrent, but he finds himself wanting to say yes anyway. Sylvain, for his many obvious flaws, including lack of care for his instrument, has talent. And talking to him has been almost nice.

But: “We aren’t hanging out now.”

“Aw, aren’t we?” Sylvain’s lip drops into a slight pout, and Felix feels his defenses weakening. The look is less powerful than Annette’s—not least because it’s coming from a tall fucker and not a small girl—but damn if it isn’t working.

“Ugh, fine. Just make it quick.”

Felix pulls his phone out and shoves it at Sylvain with the contacts app open. Sylvain takes it, gleeful and almost giddy, his fingers light as he enters his number and sends himself a quick, single-word text. The odd shapes of the calluses on his left fingers stand out as Felix watches him type. They’re a testimony to time spent practicing. It’s astonishing that someone so well-practiced is also so careless about the state of his instrument.

Sylvain tosses Felix back his phone and slings his cello case over his shoulder, waving as he turns. “See you around!”

Felix offers a half-wave and squints at his new contact. Hot Cello Guy (Sylvain).

Heat rises in Felix’s cheeks. He’s not particularly interested in investigating why he’s flushing, but the delete button suddenly seems like an appealing option. The contact name mocks him, reinforcing the enormity of Felix’s mistake. But before he can make the choice to turn his encounter with Sylvain into a forgettable, bad memory, the old bell tower chimes the hour and Felix nearly drops his phone in alarm.

Shit. Sylvain really did make him late.

The next few days pass without incident. Sylvain won’t stop blowing up his phone with texts, but they’re harmless other than the occasional insinuation that Felix should play the piano for him. Sylvain's loud and inane, but Felix has caught himself grinning at least once, much to his horror.

Thursday afternoon finds Felix in the library, as is his habit. That it is his habit is also his downfall, because it makes him predictable to everyone who knows him.

A large, unwieldy body slides into the seat across from Felix’s and breaks his concentration. He looks up, intent on telling the other person off for invading his space—there are plainly other areas to sit in the library that don’t distract Felix—and Dimitri stares at him, brows furrowed.

Felix rolls his eyes. “Yes?”

“Oh. I was simply going to say hello and ask if I might work here as well.”

“Do what you want, just don’t bother me.” Felix scoffs and drops his eyes back to his laptop.

Dimitri nods, slow and solemn, and he opens his bag to pull out his own work. They sit in silence, Felix making progress on his calculus problem set and Dimitri doing whatever busywork he’s been assigned in management or economics, the quiet a facsimile of friendship and peace. If Felix weren’t in a rush to finish this, he’d leave to find somewhere more productive to work. He makes it through two problems before Dimitri clears his throat.

Felix grunts in reply but doesn’t look up.

“Ah, um, Felix—not that I mind sitting here in silence, but I was wondering if… That is—”

“Spit it out.”

“Is Glenn… well?”

Felix frowns. “Why wouldn’t he be?”

“He looked rather tired when we saw each other last—” a hypocritical statement, Felix thinks, given that Dimitri is well-known for sleeping no more than three or four hours a night, haunted by nightmares of the accident and crushed by the weight of living up to the Blaiddyd name “—and since you live together, I was wondering if you might know more.”

Fitting, that the man who was once Felix’s best friend would be more interested in Glenn’s wellbeing than either Felix’s or his own. Dimitri only learned the worst habits from Rodrigue.

“He’s still overworking himself, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“Yes. Right.” Dimitri’s shoulders slump, and Felix resists the urge to throw his laptop at Dimitri’s face. “I suppose that is my fault.”

Felix clicks his tongue. “It’s no one’s fault but Glenn’s.” And maybe mine, he doesn’t continue. After all, if anything was to blame for Glenn’s injury, it was the recital he’d been rushing to and the person playing at it. Glenn had compounded his usual reckless driving with the strain of overpractice. Dimitri being his passenger had nothing to do with that. “How many times do I have to say it.”

Dimitri lets out a small, humorless laugh, but his gaze meets Felix’s. “Perhaps one more.” Dimitri sighs, visibly forcing himself to relax. “I do miss Glenn’s playing though.”

“You would.”

“I know that we have had this conversation before, but truly, Felix, do you not?”

“No.” It’s a bold lie, bitter on Felix’s tongue, a denial refuted by the fact that he still keeps Glenn’s Tchaikovsky concerto performance as his morning alarm, but he pushes on. There are plenty of other reasons to keep it that have nothing to do with Glenn, or classical music, or least of all Dimitri. “I don’t miss it.”

“If you say so.” Felix can hear laughter in his voice and debates the merits of throwing him a middle finger where a librarian might take offense and eject him. Given that this is a university library rather than one with children, he’ll take his odds. Dimitri merely blinks in response. “I do hope Glenn’s wrist improves and he continues to do well with his therapy.”

“Is that what he told you?”

Dimitri blinks again. “Yes, is that not what is happening with him?”

The image of Glenn in their apartment’s bathroom flexing his left hand and flinching as it resists rises in Felix’s mind. That much has stayed the same over the last three years, physical therapy be damned. The sky was the limit for Glenn, their family’s golden prodigy, but when he’d proven Icarus flying too close to the sun, he’d decided he’d rather let his wings melt over and over than find a better altitude.

Felix has a fucking moron for a brother. And, because life’s a bad comedy and he’s the butt of the joke, Felix’s friends and father had all bought into Glenn’s desperate dreams of a miracle.

Felix scoffs. “If that’s what you want to think.”

“Glenn works very hard and—”

“—and nothing. He’s going to run himself into the ground again. And you’re just going to stand there and cheer him on while he does it. Disgusting.” Felix’s eyes narrow. “It doesn’t matter how much you miss his playing. You’re not helping, just soothing your own ego. But it has nothing to do with you, and you’re only hurting Glenn by encouraging him in all the wrong things. You and my father both.”

Glenn is far better off as the music teacher to a primary school than he’d ever been as a concert pianist. If only everyone else, Glenn included, could learn to recognize that.

Dimitri brings a hand to his chin, thoughtful, and gazes critically at Felix. The moment stretches long and uncomfortable despite their years of familiarity and the long-tread nature of their disagreement, and Felix releases a breath when his phone buzzes with a message.

Before he can fully immerse himself in ignoring Dimitri, Dimitri clears his throat and sits up, posture stiff and almost pompous. Felix mirrors him and straightens, challenging, even as his fingers flex toward the distraction of a less annoying conversation.

“I respect that you care for your brother, Felix, but know that you do not do him any favors by underestimating him. Nor by underestimating the value of your support to him. I have no comments for whatever judgment you might pass against myself, but Glenn worked hard to get to where he is, and he still works hard to recover. You should appreciate that.”

“He worked so hard that it took away everything he loved,” Felix retorts. “But he won’t learn his lesson, and you still keep encouraging him.”

“It is you who is refusing to learn.”

“You don’t know anything.”

“Perhaps. If that’s what you want to believe.” It’s Dimitri’s phone that buzzes this time. “Oh. I’m late to tea with Dedue.” He stands, collecting his belongings, and gives Felix a curt nod. There’s pity in his gaze, raw and peeling, and Felix wants nothing more than to swipe it away. “Please give Glenn my greetings, and I’ll see you both for dinner at Rodrigue’s this weekend.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Felix mutters, glaring daggers at Dimitri’s back as he retreats.

Felix’s phone vibrates again, and he finally picks it up, repressing a wince as he’s greeted by an onslaught of messages from a certain new number. He sinks into his chair, computer forgotten in his lap, and settles in for another rambling and incomprehensible series of messages about the overuse of Beethoven’s symphonies and Bach's fugues in big-budget cinema or whatever other new, inane topic Sylvain had decided to preoccupy himself with.

By the time he’s kicked out of the library at closing two hours later, his conversation with Dimitri is forgotten and he’s learned more than he cared to regarding the use of theremins in science fiction filmography.

 

♪ 254 ♪

Felix is late. He told Sylvain he’d be there for his dialysis today and he’s late.

The fucking bus was twenty minutes behind schedule by the time it picked him up and it spent an age and a half unloading and reloading passengers at every stop. It takes every fiber of Felix’s being to muster his remaining patience to not yell about incessant time-wasting and intolerable tardiness.

Were this a weekend, Felix could have asked Glenn to drive him, but it’s Wednesday and Glenn’s busy teaching at his grade school and the buses are fucked, so now Felix is late.

He charges off as soon as the doors open, resisting the urge to throw a middle finger over his shoulder, and he dashes toward the entrance to the dialysis center. It’s a thankfully short distance. He’s barely out of breath by the time he overbalances in front of the main entrance.

The clinic’s automatic doors inch open as though taunting Felix, unwilling to let him get to Sylvain even though he was supposed to be here half an hour ago. Felix texted Sylvain as soon as the bus missed its scheduled arrival and then another after he finally got on, but he hadn’t heard back. It’s not normally a big deal—even Sylvain puts his phone down sometimes—but Felix also isn’t usually half an hour late.

Felix rushes in, dodging the meandering patients. He throws a cursory nod to the receptionists. They know him by now, they’ll let him go back. Sylvain’s been given the same room every time he’s here, it’s not like he needs to stop and ask for anything, and he finally arrives at room 128b. The outside of the closed door looks the same as it does every visit, nondescript and unthreatening. There’s nothing to indicate that Sylvain’s inside, but Felix doesn’t halt. He knocks briefly, three quick raps, and lets himself in.

Sylvain looks up from his book, smile growing as he spots Felix, and he holds his hand out. The late afternoon light hits Sylvain’s hair at the perfect angle, lighting him from behind in a fiery halo, and Felix’s breath catches. It’s ridiculous, because he’s seen Sylvain lit like this at least a dozen times by now, but it never stops being new.

Felix walks over, mechanical and entranced, only vaguely aware of the door clicking shut behind him. He sinks into the visitor’s chair set up next to the dialysis machine and kicks himself into arranging his face into something marginally less stupid.

Sylvain laughs as he laces their fingers together. “Took you long enough.”

Halfway through the day’s dialysis, the only sound in room 128b is the hum of the machine. It stands, almost innocuous, beside Sylvain’s chair, pulling his blood from his body and cleaning it before cycling it back in. Felix will never get used to the cold lines of red feeding in and out of his arm, the reminder that his body was never as infallible as he pretended to everyone else.

Sylvain’s asleep in his chair, his fixed smile faded, and exhaustion hangs heavy on his face.

Most people look younger when they sleep. Innocent. Vulnerable. Sylvain’s muscles are relaxed, but he’s aged ten years without the facade that he’s fine.

Felix grips Sylvain’s hand tighter. He’s never believed in gods or divinity or fate, because what kind of supposedly-benevolent being could stand all the suffering in the world? Sylvain’s another case of that—a life dwindling through no fault of his own. But in this moment, with Sylvain’s presence so cracked and faint that he might fade away, Felix almost understands why some cling so desperately to prayer.

He can never say it out loud, he can never validate Sylvain’s worst thoughts, but there’s no merit in denying the truth: Sylvain isn’t getting better. Felix has done his research. Chronic kidney disease will never magically go away.

But even when Sylvain’s faith wavers, even when Sylvain doubts his own strength, Felix won’t let him give up. If there’s anything he’s learned from Sylvain, it’s that there are things worth holding onto, no matter how painful.

 

♪ 11 ♪

Sylvain invites him for coffee out of the blue a week later.

Felix’s reflex is to say no, but Annette gleefully steals his phone and replies with a “yes” and too many exclamation points before he can decline. Sylvain fires back a location and a time later that day while Felix’s phone is still Annette’s hostage, and she yells that he has to go and to tell her how it is. Which is, unfortunately, the end of that.

When he arrives, Fierce Fog is brightly lit, warm and cheery, at odds with its name. Between the pastel greens and purples that make up its theming, it’s no wonder Annette wants a review; the place is her aesthetic. Chalked in bright rainbow, the board on the sidewalk announces a series of new, colorful drinks. Even the names sound disgustingly sugary, and Felix cringes reading them. They’d better have normal coffee, and hopefully not burnt.

Felix makes his way in, the door jingling as he enters, and is assaulted by the sickly-sweet perfume of air freshener that’s been sprayed too liberally. He gags.

“Felix!”

Felix turns toward the sound, and Sylvain waves at him, beckoning him to join him at his booth. There are already two drinks on the table, along with a small plate of sweets. Sylvain pushes a coffee cup towards Felix as he sits, and he smiles, flashing perfect, white teeth.

“You seem like a black coffee kind of guy. Am I right?”

Felix narrows his eyes. “Who told you?”

Sylvain blinks. “No one? It was just a guess, given how bitter you are about everything."

“I’m not bitter,” Felix says automatically. It’s far from the only time he’s heard that assessment of his personality, and he scowls at the implicit insult. “I’m a pragmatist.”

“Sure.” Sylvain laughs. “In any case, I hope the coffee’s to your taste, but I’m more than happy to get you something else.”

“I can pay for my own drinks,” Felix protests, but he takes a sip anyway.

The coffee is a little cooler than he’d like—more likely an indication that Sylvain’s been here a while than that the café can’t manage to keep their coffee warm enough—but it’s not burnt and it’s not acidic. Perfectly serviceable. Glenn would go on about the chocolate notes or whatever hints if he’d tasted it, but to Felix, it’s just coffee that doesn’t suck. Though if he’d had to pick something on his own, he’d have gone for the cold brew tap.

Sylvain takes a sip of his own drink, chilled and notably sweeter than Felix’s, covered in some kind of caramel lattice, and raises an eyebrow.

“It’s fine,” Felix says, breaking eye contact.

He can see Sylvain smile out of his peripherals, the corners of his eyes pulling down to crinkle slightly. It’s the softest look Felix has seen on his face yet.

Felix takes another sip. “So? Why am I here?”

Sylvain tilts his head curiously, his stupid, tousled, fluffy hair flopping. “You’re here because you want to be? I mean, I’m not making you get coffee with me. You said yes.”

“Annette did,” Felix argues. “But I figured you had something you wanted to talk to me about.”

“I mean, we can talk about anything. I just want to get to know you better.” Sylvain hums. “I can start. Sylvain Gautier, at your service. GMU 3rd year, double-majoring in economics and management, hobby cellist.”

“Felix Fraldarius, 1st year, electrical engineering. I don’t play. Anymore.”

“Fraldarius…” Sylvain repeats, trailing off thoughtfully. “I feel like I recognize that name.”

Felix’s hands draw into fists and wills himself not to react. Of course everyone knows his last name, Glenn’s accident had been all over the news three years ago. Even people outside of classical music heard about it.

“My brother,” Felix says, unclenching his jaw one muscle at a time, “is Glenn Fraldarius. You probably heard of him before he had to retire. He doesn’t play anymore either.” Or rather, he shouldn’t, because further overwork would irreparably damage his left wrist, but Glenn’s never listened to anyone else’s advice.

“Oh, yeah! There was a lot of buzz about him as the new up-and-coming professional, back in the day. The interviews always made him seem super cool.”

Glenn had been cool. He’d been more than that, too—he’d been Felix’s idol and mentor. And look where that got them.

“He’s just Glenn. He has enough people putting him on pedestals that it’s long gone to his head, don’t add to it.” The pedestals also make Glenn want to go back to playing professionally when he shouldn’t.

“No need to worry about any pedestals here. Lots of people get those when they don’t deserve them. And lots of people who want them will never get them.”

Felix frowns. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sylvain smiles, but it doesn’t fit his face. There’s a sharp edge to it. “I have an older brother too, but we lost track of him a while ago.” Sylvain says, diverting. He laughs, quiet, but it's tinged with cruelty. “Miklan never was any good at violin, you know. Quit after only two years. I’ve still got a scar from when he smashed his instrument and one of the shards hit me in the shoulder.”

Sylvain takes a sip of his sweet monstrosity, his hand crushing the cup. He blinks at the crinkling sound it makes, and then the smile is back, righted. “Sorry, didn’t mean to talk about unpleasant things.”

Felix resists the urge to remind him that any discussion of classical music is unpleasant.

“Whatever. Talk about what you want. I don’t care.”

“Still, sorry! I didn’t invite you out for me to be gloomy.” The apologetic look on Sylvain’s face stretches taut and fake.

“I mean, this is a waste of my time either way, so you might as well talk about what you want.”

Sylvain shrugs. “I mean, what I want to talk about is you.”

“I don’t want to talk about me. There’s nothing to say about me,” Felix retorts. “Pick a different topic.”

“What, do you want to talk about chicks around campus or something? If that’s what you’re into, we can go to a bar to pick up girls next time.”

“Wh—No, why is that what you jump to?”

“You’re not giving me a lot of hints here.” Sylvain grins, leaning back. “If I’m going fishing for topics, I might as well start with the easy ones. Why electrical engineering?”

Because it’s as far from music as he can manage without sharing too many classes with Dimitri, but that isn’t something to talk about even with Annette, let alone with someone who’s barely more than a stranger.

“It’s a growing field, and the job security is good enough.”

Sylvain looks at him, unimpressed and a little sad. “It’s supposed to be what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, shouldn’t you pick something you actually like?”

“It’s fine. It’s not the most interesting thing, but whatever.” Felix rolls his eyes. “What about you? Economics and management? Those are incredibly boring.”

Sylvain’s eyes drop to the table. “Yeah, they are.” Sylvain swirls his half-finished caramel menace, the whipped cream dissolving further into the liquid that might once have been considered coffee. “They’re fine, I guess. But sometimes your future is just about what’s good for others.” Sylvain snorts. “As much as you can have a future.”

“It’s your future,” Felix says. “There’s nothing anyone else has to do with it.”

Sylvain looks at him, the hard, twisted look back. “I really wish that were true for everyone. You’re just lucky.”

Lucky? When has Felix ever been lucky? He’d been the cause for his brother’s permanent injury and his best friend’s crippling self-loathing. His father has never forgotten him, but Felix has always been a distant third in his priorities. Everything he’s had, he’s earned through hard work and by the skin of his teeth. He was only named for luck because his mother had been fortunate to survive his C-Section, and she’d still died young. He’s never once in his life been lucky.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Sylvain hums. “Maybe I don’t. We’ve got our own pain to hide behind, after all.” He lets out a breath. “I don’t want to get into it. We’re just here to have a nice time, right? Let’s talk about something lighter. Like… I don’t know, got any pets?”

Felix blinks at the sudden shift, but shrugs. “Yes. We have a cat. Franz.”

“Franz… as in Liszt?”

“Shut up. I named him when he was a kitten.” Sylvain laughs, and this time, it’s light. Relief spreads through Felix, and he grabs his phone. “I have pictures.”

“Sure, why not? I’ve got time.”

Felix looks through the Franz album for a good place to start. There are a lot of photos in there; the album takes up a good 30% of his phone’s memory. As much as Felix might regret Franz’s name, he’s Felix’s favorite asshole.

“You look a lot better like this,” Sylvain says suddenly. Felix looks up, eyebrows pinching in confusion.

“Like what?”

“Happy. Relaxed.” Sylvain offers him a smile. “It’s good to know that there are things that can bring you joy.”

Felix picks up the last of his coffee as a distraction. It’s barely lukewarm now, the taste distinctly more bitter, but he drinks it anyway to avoid searching for the right words.

“Here,” Felix says eventually, thrusting out his phone. “Franz. From when he was a kitten.”

Sylvain takes the phone, his fingers brushing against Felix’s, leaving an electric trail in their wake.

“Aww, he’s cute.” He glances up from the device. “Hey. I should say. Even if we got off on the wrong foot—thanks for coming out with me today.”

Felix looks away, staring at the bright, pastel menu over the cash register. “Yeah. Whatever.”

He can’t quite hold back the smile pushing at the corners of his mouth.

♪ 287 ♪

Sylvain’s text comes after dinner on a quiet Monday evening as Felix slogs through a systems problem set.

dipshit 💖: hey don’t freak out

Felix, not far off from giving up and falling asleep at his desk, squints critically at his phone. A typing bubble appears below the message, and Felix abandons the temptation to ask Sylvain what he means. He waits for Sylvain to finish. It’s never clear if Sylvain’s going to say something profoundly worrying or profoundly stupid. Or possibly both. Probably both.

Lately, though, even mundane “good morning” messages have skewed toward “worrying”. At least Sylvain wears his medical bracelet around now. He’s not hiding his illness anymore, not pretending it’s shameful to be so weak to have been born with kidneys that couldn’t sustain him. Admitting that he’s ill isn’t strength and it won’t carry Sylvain into the future, but it’s not Sylvain’s fault either, so Felix won’t blame him for it.

It still hurts to know that Sylvain had thought it more important to try to take Felix on dates than to be honest with him.

Finally, Sylvain’s follow-up messages come in. Felix blinks at the wall of text.

dipshit 💖: so i’m going to be out of commission for the foreseeable future. we might have to cancel that date to the cat cafe in the suburbs this weekend. I, uh, might have had to go to the hospital earlier today?? after they checked me in, they said i need to stay under observation for a while since this is the second time in a couple months. but they didn’t say how long?? don’t worry though

dipshit 💖: mercie drove me so no ambulances this time, but just thought you’d want to know

Felix reads them. Then he reads them again, just to be sure that they’re saying what he thinks they are.

Outrage burns through him as he finishes skimming them for a final, third readthrough. Oh, Sylvain’s hospitalized with no end date, no big deal. He’s just going to tell Felix over a casual text like it’s nothing? He can shove his “don’t freak out” up his ass.

Of course Felix is upset. And of course Sylvain would find the worst way to deliver the news.

Felix jabs the call button, vitriol rising readily to his lips.

Sylvain picks up on the third ring. “Hey.”

“‘Hey.’ Is that all you have to say for yourself?”

“I—what?”

“You’re at the hospital, under indefinite observation, and the only thing you can say is ‘Hey’?”

“Whoa, calm down, it’s not that big a deal—”

“Really. Really, Sylvain? That’s what you’re going for? You’re in the fucking hospital, how much more serious do you want this to get?”

“I didn’t want to worry you—”

“Oh, because it’s so much less worrying to hear that you got checked in to the hospital over a fucking text,” Felix snarls. “Were you even planning on telling me at all, or did Mercedes have to make you do it?”

“No, I—” Sylvain cuts himself off and lets silence hang across the call, taut and tense. It speaks volumes.

“Great, good to know you don’t care about keeping me informed about your health. I’m glad I’m that important to you.” Felix is shaking in his anger, and he’s sure Glenn can hear him yelling into his phone from his own room down the hall. He’ll never hear the end of it, but that’s far less important than telling Sylvain exactly what he thinks of his bullshit.

“I didn’t want to worry you!”

“So lying is the better alternative? What, were you going to tell me when you missed our date this weekend? Or just not show up?”

“I… I don’t know.”

Why is it so hard to just tell people when something is going wrong? We’re supposed to be your friends. I’m your fucking boyfriend! Can’t you at least tell me?”

“This isn’t about you!” Sylvain’s outburst is sudden and surprising, and it knocks the wind out of Felix’s anger. He hears Sylvain force himself to take a shaky breath at the other end of the call. “I—fuck, you know why I don’t like to talk about this.”

“No, I really don’t.”

Sylvain laughs, hollow and bitter. “Really? You think it’s that much a surprise that I don’t want to talk about the fact that I’m dying?”

“You’re not—”

“I am, Felix, and today is just more proof of it. I’m dying, I don’t know how many days I have left, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“You won’t die,” Felix says, quiet and horrified. You can’t die, he doesn’t say.

“You don’t know that. Actually, I’m pretty sure you know the opposite by this point, considering how long I’ve been on that goddamn list and never had any good news.” Sylvain sighs. “It’s time to face the facts—I’m going to die, and soon. Like, a couple months soon.”

“You have to—you can’t just give up. There are people who care about you.” I care about you, sticks in Felix’s throat, unwilling to let itself be voiced.

“Like I said… This isn’t about anyone else. But—I hope that all of you live long and happy lives.”

“Stop! Stop talking like you’re already dead.”

“I will be, soon.”

“No, you won’t. Because you’ll find that donor and you’ll get your transplant.”

“I—I really wish I believed that, Felix. Maybe I did, once. But not anymore. It’s too late for me now.”

“You don’t get to just choose to give up!” Felix knows that his voice is pitched to a whine now, like a bratty child complaining about his favorite toy being taken away, but Felix can’t lose Sylvain. For all his flaws and all his obnoxious attitudes, Felix had never thought that Sylvain could vanish from his life, just fingers pinching out a weak flame.

Felix never thought of Sylvain as anything other than solid and present and resilient. To think otherwise feels like his feet have been taken out from under him.

“You don’t get to choose for me,” Sylvain says, his voice suddenly soft. Felix almost misses the words over the rush of the blood pounding in his ears. “Anyway, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. It’s been a long day.”

Felix has a fist clenched so hard against the table his nails might start drawing blood. “Please—fuck, please. Don’t give up yet. You don’t get to give up yet.”

“Not giving up isn’t going to save me.”

“You’re not dead, so stop acting like a ghost. For—for me.” Felix chokes out a breath. “Please. I know you’ll pull through, so—you have to believe it too.”

“I can’t promise, but… I’ll try.”

Felix breathes heavily, his anger bleeding away into tired resignation and fear. Trying isn’t good enough, not by a long shot, but he’ll have to accept it. For now.

He’ll convince Sylvain that his life is still worth living, that he can find love in the dregs of loss. After all, wasn’t that the lesson Sylvain had tried to teach him?

♪ 34 ♪

dipshit: hey, i promised you that i’d play for you again

dipshit: still in?

The texts arrive on a Saturday at mid-afternoon as Felix is trying to make Franz get off his keyboard.

Sylvain’s messages are different from anything else he’s texted Felix about recently (what’s he eating for lunch, a weird flyer he saw on campus, things his friend Dorothea says, funny cat videos), and it gives Felix pause. He thought they’d gotten past all the music crap. They’ve settled into a pretty comfortable routine of Sylvain making inane comments and Felix ignoring him until he had a new picture of Franz to send back.

Felix had even fixed Sylvain’s stupid contact name after Glenn had peered over his shoulder one evening and asked who Hot Cello Guy was and whether Felix had finally found a budding interest in romance.

Which, no.

Felix finishes kicking Franz out of his room before replying.

Me: i wasn’t interested to begin with

dipshit: lol knew you were going to say that

Me: then don’t ask stupid questions

dipshit: hey, no harm in asking

dipshit: i’ve been trying a new etude arrangement

dipshit: i want you to play it for you

dipshit: and lol idk, i thought it might be nice to just hang out for a bit

The last message makes something twinge in Felix’s chest. He hadn’t seen Sylvain since their meet-up at Fierce Fog. But that’s fine. He has enough on his plate between his classes and Ingrid’s pestering about studying together.

Me: the practice rooms are locked on weekends

dipshit: oh, so you do know that

dipshit: you know an awful lot for someone who hates music

Felix knows the appropriate amount about the school’s music department for someone whose elder brother insisted they tour that before filling out any applications. Especially because the same elder brother had once applied to be faculty in said department, back before he’d been rendered unfit for such a role.

dipshit: don’t worry, i can get us in

Me: that’s not reassuring

dipshit: dorothea’s a vocal performance major

dipshit: it’s fine, she’ll tap us in

dipshit: so yes?

Sylvain’s playing isn’t bad and Felix wouldn’t actually mind hearing it again. That one refrain has been stuck in his head for the entire month. Felix can spare some time.

Me: fine

dipshit: great! meet you there in an hour?

Me: [Attached Image]

dipshit: aw cute, tell franz i say hi

dipshit: see you soon

Glenn gives Felix a weird look as he leaves. Felix ignores his brother in favor of promising Franz that he’ll bring home some nice wet food later. It’s not clear that Franz gets the message, but he leaves Felix with a small nip of his fingers and retreats to stretch out on the piano bench, effectively blocking Glenn from sneaking in any practice while Felix is out.

Felix nods, satisfied. Good cat.

“You going to be back for dinner?” Glenn asks before Felix can shut the door.

“Probably. Just order something in case I’m late—we don’t need you to burn any more pots while trying to boil water.”

“That was one—”

Felix shuts the door.

The bus is quieter on the weekend, no rush hour crowd to ruin Felix’s ride. He slumps in his seat, the easy, swaying rhythm of the bus almost calming without the crush of people. It's a better ride than it would be on his way to or from campus for class, and for once, he's not ready to stab someone by the time he disbarks.

The music department is in the opposite direction from the science quad. The humanities and social sciences buildings are unfamiliar as Felix passes them; he’s only been down this way a handful of times to meet Dimitri or Annette. They give off a sense of timelessness and olden days, cast in limestone and mimicking the Gothic style. The practice rooms are tucked away in an ivy-lined corner at the far edge of campus, inside a building that was renovated a few years back to finally install central air conditioning. Sylvain hovers by the entrance, an arm draped on top of his cello case as he scrolls his phone.

Felix pulls out his own phone.

Me: oi

Sylvain looks up, scanning the surroundings for Felix. He breaks out in a grin when he spots him, and waves enthusiastically.

“Felix, you came!”

Felix halts in front of Sylvain and raises an eyebrow. There’s a flash of annoyance as he’s faced again with the fact that Sylvain really is a tall fucker. And broader than Felix too. Asshole.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Sylvain scrubs a hand against the back of his neck. “I don’t know… Thought you might change your mind on the way over here, since you keep complaining about how much you hate music. And,” he says, his expression turning mischievous and his lips quirking in amusement, “my cello deserves a better musician, was it?”

Felix crosses his arms defensively. “Shut up.” So Felix had spoken a bit more harshly than he should have. What else is new? Felix glances at the door. “So, where’s your friend? I thought she was going to let us in.”

“Ah… ’Thea’s busy right now, but she lent me her ID with the promise that she would kill me if I lost it.”

Felix snorts. “I hope you treat other people’s possessions with more care than you give your own.”

“My cello was perfectly fine and happy to get to be outside, thank you,” Sylvain says blithely, picking up his case and slinging it onto his back. “Shall we?”

Felix shrugs and follows as Sylvain leads the way to the second floor.

It’s quiet inside; the only sounds are the muffed, dissonant trills of a violinist at one end of the hall and an oboist at the other. Sylvain brings them to the room at the far end, across from the violin practicing what sounds like a questionable rendition of the cadenza from the Beethoven concerto. A quick tap of Dorothea’s ID lets them in.

The room is spacious compared to most of the soundproofed closets that Felix has seen or used. One half is occupied by an old, worn-down Steinway, the other half strewn with chairs and stands. The remnants of a quartet rehearsal occupy the center of the space, abandoned by the room’s previous occupants.

Sylvain sets his case on the ground and grabs the piano bench. “Help me get the rest of this out of the way, will you?” He nods to the rest of the room.

Felix shuffles forward, begrudgingly dragging stands out of the way. It takes a couple trips to organize the space—really, had no one ever heard of common courtesy and cleaning up their shit?—but it’s easy enough to carve out room for Sylvain to set up with his cello. Once seated in a spare chair, Felix crosses his arms and taps his foot irritably, waiting for Sylvain to finish fidgeting with his rosin and fine-tuners.

“Are you just going to twiddle with those all day, or did we come here to actually get something done?” Felix drawls, and Sylvain shoots him a smirk.

“Don’t be fussy. Art takes time.”

Felix snorts in response, and Sylvain smiles beatifically at him.

Finally, Sylvain puts the distractions away and slips into a steadier posture, his shoulders settling and his expression drifting toward thoughtful. Sylvain’s eyes shut as he brings his bow up. All at once, the air in the room shifts, the atmosphere sucked out of it to center on Sylvain, and Felix’s pulse jumps, his heart pounding in his chest.

The first notes are a melancholic whisper, a dramatic plea. Sylvain leans into the sound, his body following each bow stroke. The music builds, turning sweeter and fonder as the theme shifts through a major key, and the corners of Sylvain’s lips tilt upward. Felix knows he should know what the piece is, its name tickling at his memory, but the title escapes him, and he lets the moment pass. He can’t concentrate on digging through his memory and analyzing the music at the same time anyway.

Felix always thought that string players over-exaggerate their movements, that they force themselves to play into some ridiculous ideal of expressiveness. It’s unnecessary and fake. So many of his peers think that playing to melodrama automatically improves a performance, but Sylvain sells it. The piece morphs, no longer a series of notes hamfistedly strung together, but a dance—Sylvain and his cello in perfect lock-step as they dip and sway together in harmony. Even the ridiculous way Sylvain’s hair flops as he plays is artistic, measured with the rising intensity of the theme.

Air seeps back into the room as the melody relaxes into its primary motif, a brief respite to let Felix catch his breath. The passion holds, building once more. The refrain repeats with greater conviction, dreading its lows and exclaiming its highs. Felix’s heart pounds in time. The final notes wind down to the quiet, moody tones of the opening, Sylvain’s expression is drawn in pain,a perfect mirror to the bittersweet ending—and the last notes drop away.

Sylvain exhales quietly, his eyes blinking slowly open, and he looks at Felix, gaze impossibly soft. His voice is rough when he speaks. “So, what did you think?” He throws Felix a grin. “Still not up to your lofty standards?”

Felix looks away. “That was fine, I guess. Not the worst thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Sure, whatever you say. Guess if you’re not interested, I might as well pack up,” Sylvain says with a yawn. He stretches lazily, his shoulders rolling obscenely as he twists from side to side, and he makes to stand, a shadow of disappointment crossing his face.

Felix fails to hold back an aborted noise, the sound escaping his throat almost like a whine, and he flushes.

“Hmm?” Sylvain raises an eyebrow at him, looking entirely too much like a cat that got the canary. Or, if the cat in question is Franz, like a cat that’s succeeded in chasing Felix out of the sunny spot on the couch. “Did you say something?”

Felix clears his throat. “Nothing. I said nothing.”

“Oh. Yeah, okay.” Sylvain’s shoulders sag, too theatrical to be truly convincing, but the image tugs on Felix’s chest. He can’t believe he’s feeling pity for this asshole.

Felix scoffs. “Fine. Sit down. Play whatever else you came here to.”

He drops back to the bench and leans forward onto his cello, his head tilted as he rests it against one arm. “Felix… I’m not going to force you to be here if you don’t want to.”

“You’re not forcing me to do anything. I said play.”

Sylvain gives him one last lingering look before placing his bow back on the strings. The piece is familiar, simple—Felix knows this one, has heard it far too many times as the accompaniment to droll, tacky movies.

“Bach suites. Really?”

Sylvain answers by playing louder, at odds with the expected performance of the piece. It doesn’t sound horrible, despite how blatantly wrong it is.

Felix crosses his arms and sinks back into his chair, staring stonily at Sylvain as he waits for the Prelude to complete. Sylvain reaches the end soon enough, his performance perfectly adequate, but makes no move to look up or pause in his playing, poised to enter the Allemande attacca.

Felix gives him a warning growl, and Sylvain laughs, holding up his hands in response. “Honestly, I was waiting to see how long you’d let me keep going.”

Felix rolls his eyes. “Asshole.”

“But you had fun.” Sylvain’s gaze turns knowing. “You enjoyed the music.”

“I said, it was alright.”

“Hmm.” Sylvain chuckles, and he drops his head forward to rest against the neck of his instrument. “You know, I used to think music was just okay too. Something to do, you know?”

Felix doesn’t, but he grunts. Better to let Sylvain get on with his point than to be forced to listen to another tangent.

“It’s like… It starts small, playing because you have to, because Dad hands you the quarter-size cello and sits you in front of some sheet music. It’s a little boring and a little annoying, but if you practice your one hour a day, you can go back to doing other things. It’s not a big deal.” Sylvain smiles wryly, lost in memory, and his voice trails off.

Felix crosses his arms, waiting for him to continue.

Sylvain sighs. “So you keep playing, for one reason or another. And it turns out you’re not bad. Maybe you’re even pretty good—not the best, but good. You win an award here or there. It starts to be a little fun, and you’re finding you really enjoy practicing. But not all the time. On the bad days, your brother resents you for having more natural talent, in a lot of things but especially in this. You can’t let it get you down, and anyway, all you’ve wanted is to play with him. But it doesn’t matter what Miklan thinks after a while, because he quits.”

Sylvain opens his eyes to stare vacantly into the distance. His hand drifts along the fingerboard, fingers tapping silently as it moves. “And then it’s just you and the cello. No ensembles, because it’s hard to find the time. Only you, the cello, and some sheet music.”

Sylvain looks up at Felix, expectant and vulnerable. Felix gapes back, at a loss for words, his insides turned out, and he feels naked and exposed. It’s nonsensical, because Sylvain’s the one who info-dumped his life story.

“And? What am I supposed to do with that?” Felix says at long last.

“And nothing,” Sylvain says, shaking his head and standing to pack his cello. “I know where you’re coming from about music, sort of. It hasn’t always been this important thing in my life. But music is… it’s expressive. It tells a story without needing words. It’ll paint you scenes and draw out emotions you never could have imagined. And sometimes, that’s really what you need.”

“I don’t need it,” Felix protests immediately, and he winces at the way it comes out whiny and pitched. He clears his throat. “I never needed it. I just didn’t realize that until it was too late.”

Sylvain gives him a strange look over his shoulder and closes his case with a snap. “Sure, Felix. Whatever you say.”

“The world would be a better place if everyone realized how to throw away that which doesn’t benefit them.”

Sylvain crosses his arms atop his case and drops his chin to rest on them. “Maybe there are things we need that aren’t just for survival.” He cracks a grin. “You know, it’s weird for me to be the one saying this, but it’s okay to find meaning in the things you like, no matter how ephemeral.”

Felix opens his mouth to protest again, but Sylvain waves him off. “That’s enough of me forcing you to put up with classical music for today. Come on, want to grab coffee or something?”

 

♪ 303 ♪

It’s not Felix’s first visit to Sylvain’s new temporary home, but he’s hit with a jolt of unease and unfamiliarity as he steps off the elevator anyway.

Bold auburn greets him in the waiting room, a match to the color Felix knows well, and the sight sets him on edge. A man hovers by the check-in desk, his back to Felix. His hair is the exact same shade of Sylvain’s—or rather, the shade Sylvain’s had been before his health started failing and his hair faded into a tackier, dirtier color.

Felix knows this red well. Knows it because it jumps out at him every time he looks at his phone’s wallpaper. Knows it from memories replayed over and over, even distorted through tangles of time.

Felix knows it, because he will not forget any part of Sylvain, no matter how much changes.

This man isn’t Sylvain, Felix is sure—he’s broader than Sylvain and the slightest bit shorter, and the curve of his spine is almost cynical where Sylvain’s is proud. But the color of his hair is undeniable and that can mean only one thing.

Miklan.

Felix has never met him, but his presence isn’t a good sign. Miklan never features well in Sylvain’s stories, strange and incongruous and not at all like a brother. Felix doesn’t know Miklan and Sylvain’s full history and he’s never tried to find out, but he knows one thing: Sylvain never sounds so fake and sad as in the moments when he talks about Miklan.

But he’s Sylvain’s brother, right? People don’t change, and when they do, it’s rarely for the better—but maybe Miklan has turned a new leaf and wants to reconnect. Or something.

The thought sounds hollow even in Felix’s head.

Miklan is talking to a secretary, asking for something and gesturing wildly. He points down the hall toward Sylvain’s room, emphatic and demanding, but the man behind the desk shakes his head and nods to the visitor sign-in sheet before picking up the phone to take a call.

With a growl, Miklan scrawls his name on the page and storms off, not bothering to wait for his visitor’s badge. The secretary puts the phone down on his shoulder and calls after Miklan. “Sir! Sir, you need a—”

Miklan ignores him and disappears behind a corner.

Felix’s feet are leaden, weighed down by the building dread in his gut, but he forces himself to move to head off Miklan. He dashes off his own sign-in and gets a wave of acknowledgement, a smile he ignores in favor of darting down the hall.

Felix spots Miklan again after he turns the corner. He’s made less progress than Felix expects, slow as he pauses at every door. He’s squinting at the room numbers as he paces, determined to decipher the secrets locked behind the unfilled nameplates. Felix passes him quickly, head down, and keeps himself as inconspicuous as possible. Miklan shouldn’t recognize him.

No such luck.

“Hey, you!”

Miklan’s voice is rough and oily, sharp and crawling with hate. He sounds nothing like Sylvain, and Felix finds himself grateful for it.

He doesn’t reply and speeds up, making a beeline for Sylvain’s room.

“Hey!”

Felix grinds his teeth and barks back, “What? I’m busy.”

“You’re that kid from the brat’s photos. Where’s his room?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Felix says, cold. He’s never been a good liar, but the biting anger in his voice holds any unease at bay.

Miklan sneers. “Yeah, sure. Just like one of his friends to try to lie to me like I’m stupid. He always did think he was the smart one.”

“Sylvain has never needed to sink as low as you.” The words are out of Felix’s mouth before he can stop them, dripping with contempt. He spits them on instinct, a reflex to defend Sylvain from the indignity of being insulted by someone as rotten to the core as Miklan.

He knows immediately that he’s also said too much.

Miklan smirks, his eyes squinting, and victory flashes across his face. They both know he’s gotten Felix to say what he wanted him to. “Whatever my shithead brother has said about me, I’m not as dumb as he and our darling parents want to believe.” He steps into Felix’s space, leering. “Where is he?”

Felix stands his ground, glaring up at Miklan. “Why would I tell you?”

Miklan laughs, jeering and cutting. “Fine, then. I’ll just go with you. It’s not like you won’t take me to him—you’re here to see him, too.”

Felix’s instincts scream at him to turn around and leave, to abandon Sylvain for the sake of denying Miklan—but he can’t. He only sees Sylvain once or twice a week as it is, and he does not actually want to give up today’s visit to spite Miklan. Who’s to say that Miklan won’t find Sylvain even if Felix does leave? At least Sylvain won’t be alone if Felix is here.

Felix grunts and turns on his heel, resigned. “Fine.” He leads the way down the ward, his anger at a boiling point, but he refuses to give Miklan the satisfaction of seeing how affected he is. He forces his steps to follow a steady pace, unrushed and unfaltering. He does not speak.

Miklan chuckles under his breath as he follows. The tense peace between them breaks after only a few seconds when Miklan speaks again, his voice casual and almost joking. “Did you know that dear, old Sylvie’s been on the waiting list for six years now?”

Felix doesn’t acknowledge him, intent on reaching the end of the hall where Sylvain’s room is.

“Hm?”

Felix scoffs. “Yes, fine. What of it?”

“Unlucky, isn’t it? The usual wait time around here is three years, and we all know my parents would buy Sylvain a kidney for being a good little heir.” Miklan snorts. “Hell, they’d probably have someone killed to be his donor if they knew they could get a match. Too bad they never got to test me. They disowned me two years before his diagnosis came in. Can’t legally put the kid you threw away under the knife.”

They reach Sylvain’s room and Felix halts, his hand outstretched toward the doorknob, his back to Miklan.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“No reason, really. Just thinking out loud. Too bad they couldn’t cut up the bad kid for the one they actually care about, right? Sylvain never would have batted an eye—ungrateful punk, getting everything for free.” Miklan growls. “He always took everything from me.”

“Sylvain—”

“You don’t know anything about him.”

“No,” Felix says, and he moves to fully block the door. “You’re the one who doesn’t know anything about Sylvain. You’ve never tried.” He bares his teeth. “He never likes to talk about you, and now I know why.”

Miklan grabs Felix’s shoulder and shoves him out of the way. Felix stumbles—Miklan takes him by surprise, and Felix curses his own more compact build—and Miklan gets his own hand on the door. “Stay out of my way. This is family business. Or not—since I’m not their fucking family anymore.” He laughs, hollow. “But you’re sure as hell not either.”

Miklan shoves the door open, his face painted into a wild grin, and he steps grandly into the hospital room. “Hello, brother mine!”

Behind Miklan, Felix sees Sylvain sit up on the bed, his eyes wide in shock, his face even paler than the tepid color it has taken in the weeks since his hospitalization. “Miklan…”

“It’s been a while since we talked, hasn’t it? Let’s catch up.”

Sylvain seems to shrink in on himself, his face closing with resignation.

“Sylvain—” Felix begins, and Sylvain blinks at the sound of his name.

“Felix. You’re here too.” His eyes dart to Miklan and then back to Felix. “Do you—sorry, can you wait outside?”

Miklan throws Felix a jeering smile. “Family business, no outsiders.”

Felix’s blood boils, but he holds himself back from lashing out. He will not let himself be banned from the hospital for getting into a fight—no matter how tempting. No matter how much Miklan might deserve it.

“Fine.” Felix pulls out his phone to check the time. “I’m coming back in at twenty past. 12 minutes.”

Sylvain flashes Felix a small smile. “Thanks.”

Miklan shoos out Felix roughly, his hand harsh and mocking as he flaps it, his grin a cruel slash promising pain, and slams the door behind him. Felix throws a middle finger at it, but he lets the tension drain out of him as he leans on the wall to wait.

He can’t hear them through the door, their voices distorted and deadened by the wood. Miklan does most of the speaking, his tone even more taunting to Sylvain than it had been to Felix. Sylvain is quieter, resigned, withdrawn—even more than he has been. It takes all of Felix’s self-control not to rip the door open and race in to plant himself between them. Felix would like nothing better than to order the older Gautier out, but Sylvain hadn’t asked Miklan to leave.

It stings to know that Felix is the one who had been shunted aside and thrown away.

It’s an irrational thought; Sylvain hadn’t chosen Miklan over Felix so much as accepted that he would have to deal with his brother first. But it still feels like a loss, and resentment wells inside Felix at having been the backup option, again.

Felix forces himself to breathe, and he pulls open his phone to scroll through his Franz photos as he waits. It’s not an especially good distraction, but it’s effective enough, and the sight of the familiar black fur makes him think of home rather than strangling Miklan.

Eventually, a cold, barking laugh cuts into the quiet of the hall and Miklan exits Sylvain’s room. The door slams as it drops shut and Felix’s eye twitches.

Nineteen past. Felix doesn’t know whether to be angry or relieved that he hadn’t had to charge in and eject Miklan himself. No—that’s a lie, he definitely would have preferred bodily removing Miklan.

“He’s all yours, punk,” Miklan sneers at Felix by way of goodbye. He heads out without a backward glance.

Felix mutters a “fuck you” before slipping into Sylvain’s room.

Sylvain has his head turned away, his gaze blank as he stares vacantly at the corner where his cello case rests. He flinches at the click of the door shutting behind Felix.

“Is—” Fuck, Felix isn’t good at offering comfort. He’s never been, instead too adept at piercing truths and caustic words. He clears his throat and forces himself to speak. The words are stilted on his tongue. “Is everything okay?”

Sylvain looks up at Felix, his face taut and grinning and fake, and it’s like Felix has been dunked in a pool of freezing water. He hasn’t seen this look on Sylvain’s face in months, and a single, brief meeting with Miklan has pulled it sharply to the forefront.

“Everything’s fine! Nothing to worry about. Just… sibling drama, you know.” Sylvain’s voice is empty as he says it, his false cheer saccharine and poisonous.

Felix loathes the sound. He’d wrench it straight from Sylvain’s throat if he could, replace it with the earnest care and curiosity he’s come to love.

Something snaps in Felix’s chest and he stalks the few paces to Sylvain’s bedside, blood pounding in his ears. “Don’t you fucking lie to me.” His fingers flex in sharp movements—uncontrolled, open shut open shut—and he forces out a breath to stop himself from punching a wall. “If you’re angry, or—or frustrated, or sad, fucking tell me.”

Sylvain’s eyes widen and the mask skews for a moment, but he rights it with another grin.

“Why would anything be wrong?”

“What isn’t wrong?” Felix throws back, a growl rising in his throat. “Brothers don’t act like that—they don’t say what he does about you. Stop pretending it’s okay!”

Sylvain looks away. “He’s not wrong, not really.” He sighs. “I don’t want to talk about Miklan anymore. He came by to ask for some money—that’s it.” Sylvain pats the bed beside him. “Sit with me?”

Felix fixes him with a look. “He’s not right.”

“Felix.” Sylvain sounds exhausted, even more worn than he is by the end of most of Felix’s visits. Felix wants to press the issue, to make Sylvain recognize that he deserves better than his brother’s loathing, but he won’t push Sylvain if it risks his health.

“Fine.”

“Thank you.” Sylvain pats the bed again, a truce and an offer for comfort. Not that Felix is the one who needs comfort, but he sits down anyway, pressing his side against Sylvain. “That’s better. Got any new photos of Franz?”

Felix sees the distraction for what it is, but he pulls out his phone anyway and scrolls the still-open photo album to its most recent entries. Franz is unequivocally cute enough to be an acceptable divergence. Sylvain tugs the phone free of Felix’s hands and leans comfortably against him, his voice low but animated. His running commentary on Franz’s misadventures is familiar and comfortable, and the sounds of Sylvain’s laughter at his own jokes unwinds the knots of Felix’s spine pulled tight by Miklan’s selfish cruelty.

Felix lets Sylvain lead the topic away, reluctant in his silence but determined to keep Sylvain’s own demons at bay. He’ll strike them down once and for all, but for today, he swallows his defeat.

 

♪ 60 ♪

The days become regular—or as regular as they can be with Sylvain’s eccentric schedule. Even among the chaos, there’s consistency: it takes embarrassingly little time for Felix to become used to Sylvain’s habits, and he finds himself typing out texts only to backspace more than he’ll admit. Despite Sylvain’s utter idiocy, Felix finds himself looking forward to their messages. He can’t say he hates the way that something in his chest flutters when Sylvain texts him good morning, sometimes at hours that are notably late in the afternoon.

It’s inevitable, then, that Glenn starts badgering him about it.

And, because Felix has never managed to successfully get his childhood friends to leave him alone, especially not on the family meal nights when they all pile into Glenn’s shitty car and drive to Rodrigue’s place out in the suburbs, Ingrid and Dimitri get to join in on the so-called fun.

“Felix, who the fuck are you texting?” Glenn asks, dropping his head onto Felix’s shoulder. Ingrid makes a noise of agreement somewhere behind him, her own curiosity piqued. “Oh! Is it that boy from before?”

Felix jams his shoulder upward, satisfied when it makes a crack! against Glenn’s chin. “Mind your own fucking business.”

Glenn lets out a dramatic noise and rubs at his face. “Always with the violence! I’m just looking out for my baby brother!” He grins. “Come on, out with it.”

Ingrid swoops by, chewing on some dish or other they’re not supposed to be eating yet, and snatches the phone out of his hands. She unlocks it handily and scrolls as she munches on a large slab of bread slathered in butter. “‘Dipshit’, huh? Do we know who that is?”

A few crumbs fly as she speaks, careless and absorbed in invading Felix’s privacy. Part of him wants to kick her back to the kitchen where Rodrigue’s probably still unboxing all of the takeout, Dimitri hovering silently over his shoulder like an incredibly muscular poltergeist.

“Give that back,” Felix says with a growl, and he makes a swing for her arms. She lifts them, mocking, high enough that Felix can’t get at her without giving up his seat and standing, and she smirks down at him, smug and self-satisfied.

If Felix wasn’t banned from getting into fights with Ingrid, he would absolutely take out her shins. So what if she’s on the water polo team and has a thing for dressage during the off-season? Felix isn’t afraid of her. It’s not like he doesn’t run regularly.

Ingrid holds the phone above her head, scrolling through his messages like the invasive non-friend she is. She pauses a few seconds in. “Who is this guy? Do we know him?”

“None of your business. Give me my phone back.” Felix makes another grab for it, and she dances away. He can hear Glenn guffawing somewhere in the background like the shitty brother he is.

“Wow, you’ve… talked a lot to whoever this is.” She pauses and shoots Felix a judgmental look. “Why don’t you reply to any of us this frequently?” She taps back and skims a different message, and her frown turns pitying. “Not even Annette.”

Felix tsks. “I would reply if you had anything interesting to say.” He swipes for it, leaning precariously over the back of the couch, and Ingrid leans away casually, not bothering to grace him with anything more than a roll of her eyes.

“That’s the thanks we get for having been your friends forever.”

“No thanks for family either,” Glenn adds through his laughter. Felix shoots him a glare. The traitor’s watching them like they’re one of the sitcoms he loves to force Felix to sit through.

“Fuck you.” Felix turns back to Ingrid. “Fuck you both.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Ingrid gives him another roll of her eyes and tosses the phone back. He catches it, barely.

Glenn’s suddenly in front of Felix, having come up behind him in the seconds it took to finally get his phone back, and he plops down, boneless, onto Felix’s lap. “So, Felix, time to dish.”

Felix shoves him off and he lands in a pile next to him on the couch, still grinning cheekily.

It’s that moment that Dimitri peers in to announce that dinner’s ready on the table, except he’s not Felix’s salvation because he sees Felix’s phone in his hands and asks, “Oh, are you texting Sylvain again?”

Felix flinches. “How the fuck do—”

Glenn kicks him. “Oi.”

Felix glares at him. “Fine.” He turns back to Dimitri. “How do you know Sylvain and why do you know that we’ve been…” Felix grunts, his voice dropping to a mumble. “Talking.”

Dimitri lights up. Or, as much as he can while maintaining the kicked-puppy look at all times. “He’s a tutor in the business department. He’s quite knowledgeable even though he does, ah… slack off a bit and show up to sessions late from…” Dimitri clears his throat. “Carousing.”

The image of Sylvain with tousled hair and covered in lipstick smears rises far too easily, not least because Felix has never seen him with anything other than perfectly arrayed clothing. It doesn’t surprise Felix in the least that this is how Sylvain wastes his free time, but it leaves something like disappointment in the pit of his stomach. He can’t tell if this is better or worse than the thought of Sylvain constantly wasting his time with classical music. There’s a part of him that wants to say it’s notably worse, but he ignores it.

“Get to the point.”

“Ah… Sylvain has been strangely cheerful these past few weeks during our sessions, so I asked him if he’s finally found someone, and he showed me a picture of Franz?” Dimitri brings a hand up to his chin thoughtfully. “I thought it was strange at first, that perhaps it was another similar cat, but then he mentioned that the cat was Franz, and… I suppose we found that we share a mutual friend in you.”

Felix can feel his cheeks warm. Sylvain, showing off pictures of Franz to other random people? Who gave him the right? Franz is Felix’s cat.

If there’s a tiny flash of elation at the thought of Sylvain wanting to show off Felix’s cat, he refuses to pay it any mind.

“Great,” Felix mutters. “Just great.”

Irritation roils in his gut at the thought of Dimitri having met Sylvain first, and he refuses to examine that closer either.

Glenn’s sending him an absolutely shit-eating grin across the couch, and Ingrid looks like someone gave her a particularly challenging math problem and it’s giving her constipation.

Her stomach grumbles, loudly, breaking the momentary quiet before Glenn can start in, and Felix scowls at Dimitri, definitely not desperate for a distraction. “Didn’t you say something about dinner?”

“Oh! Yes. It’s in the dining room. I believe Rodrigue’s waiting for us.”

Finally,” says Ingrid, and she marches away without missing a beat. Dimitri trails behind her, sending Felix a curious look over his shoulder.

Next to Felix, Glenn still has an eyebrow raised, but the topic is thankfully tabled as Felix pushes himself off the couch to follow the other two.

Felix doesn’t have to wait long for Glenn to corner him.

“So, Sylvain, is it?”

He’s leaning against the doorframe of Felix’s room in their apartment, later that night after they’ve dropped Ingrid and Dimitri off at their places. Glenn had been holding in the interrogation the entire car ride back, but Ingrid had thankfully kept the quiet filled with her prattle about seeing her horse tomorrow.

“So, learn to mind your own business, isn’t it?” Felix retorts.

Glenn steps gingerly over the piles of clothing on the floor and drops onto Felix’s bed with a muted flumph. Felix frowns at the way Glenn takes up most of the space, but sighs and sits, kicking Glenn’s legs away to clear some space for himself.

He hates that he’s never won against Glenn in anything. Not even the pettiest of arguments.

“What,” Felix says, flat, once they’re settled.

Glenn brings a hand to his face. “I’m not attacking you, ’Lix, I just want to spend some time with my baby brother. Is it so weird that I care who your friends are?”

Yes, Felix’s traitorous mind instantaneously supplies. When has Glenn ever seen beyond himself?

“Whatever.”

Glenn nudges Felix with his foot. “You know there’s nothing you can’t talk to me about, right?”

“Whatever,” Felix says again.

“I mean it.” Glenn pushes himself up so he’s propped on his elbows. “I’m always here for you. No matter what.”

“Fine.”

“Felix.”

The concern of Glenn’s tone, the way he makes it sound like he has the capacity to take care of Felix when he’s not even looking out for himself—Felix hates it. He’s hated it ever since his eyes were forced open to how breakable and fallible Glenn is, no matter how confident or cocky his posture.

Felix’s voice is barely more than a whisper when he speaks, but his whole frame shakes with repressed anger. “Take care of yourself first before you lecture me. I don’t need your coddling bullshit—I can take care of myself, far better than you’ve ever been able to.”

Felix catches himself, too close to saying something he can’t take back, and he clenches his fists, his nails digging into his palms.

The silence is loud. Felix breathes heavily—in out in out—and he does not look at Glenn.

The bed shifts beside Felix, at first tentative and then all at once dipping to accommodate a full person’s weight, and an arm drapes itself across Felix’s shoulders and a head leans heavily against his own.

“When did you get so old and independent,” Glenn says dramatically. “I miss the brat who used to follow me around holding Dima’s hand.”

Felix elbows Glenn in the ribs, but fails to unlodge him. “Get off me.”

“No, I don’t think I will.” Glenn’s good on his word, and he wraps his arms around Felix tighter, almost vice-like. “I like this better, it’s comfy.”

There’s no way in hell it is. Glenn’s absolutely doing this to piss him off.

“I said, get off, Glenn,” Felix repeats, brusque, but his lips twitch upward to betray him.

It’s weird to be in what ostensibly counts as a hug, especially with someone other than Annette, but Glenn’s always been the better at casual affection, even if he hasn’t shown it as much lately. It’s almost kind of nice, not that Felix would ever admit that.

They sit for a while, Glenn’s breath tickling Felix’s neck. Peaceful, like they’re back to when Felix was a kid and Glenn was the new face on the classical music scene, rocketing in popularity and aiming for the stars. There’s nothing to disturb them, the only sounds the muted chirps of cicadas out in the distance.

Enough time passes that Felix begins to wonder whether Glenn has fallen asleep on his shoulder, but then Glenn says, “I do mean it. I’m here for you, no matter what.”

Felix grunts, but relents. “I know.” He shakes Glenn loose and frowns at him. “But I also meant what I said about paying attention to your own shit first.”

Glenn snorts lightly. “I know you did. You always mean it, especially since the accident.” Glenn exhales, slow and content. “But—and we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to—whatever’s been going on has been good for you, I think. I mean, I’m glad you’re listening to music again.”

Felix stiffens. “Who told you.”

“Felix. We share an apartment.”

“Right.” Felix’s cheeks warm and he kicks Glenn for laughing. “Whatever. It doesn’t mean anything. What does matter is for you to take better fucking care of yourself.”

“What if I’m too busy taking care of you?”

“You shouldn’t be. I don’t need you to take care of me.”

Glenn hums. “That’s what you say, but it’ll always be okay to rely on me. I’m your one and only favorite brother, and you’re stuck with me.”

“Fuck you. Franz is my favorite.”

“He’s your cat. Or your emotional support animal, whatever. I’m way better than some pet who only knows how to ask you to feed him.”

Felix smirks. “You sure about that? Because I distinctly remember the time you tried to make pasta from scratch because Dimitri brought some over from Dedue and—”

“And good night!” Glenn jumps to his feet and makes for the door, his good hand rising to cover an ear. “I suddenly can’t hear you anymore!”

Felix barks out a laugh, surprising himself in earnest and open it sounds. Glenn pauses at the door and looks back at Felix, his own lips turned up in laughter. “Night, Felix. I love you.”

Felix turns away. “Whatever. Good night.”

Felix can hear Glenn’s eye roll, but his brother lets it go and retreats down the hall to his own room. About halfway, Glenn pauses, their building’s old wooden floorboards momentarily silent, and he calls out. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten about this Sylvain guy! You’re going to introduce me to him!”

Felix yells back, “Mind your own fucking business!”

Glenn’s snickers drift back behind him.

 

♪ 326 ♪

“Felix, I’m fine, it’s not going to hurt me to practice.” Sylvain tries to push past Felix, but Felix stands his ground and crosses his arms.

“I’m not going to let you injure yourself because you want to play.” Felix snorts. “I get enough of that with Glenn at home.”

Sylvain pouts at Felix, turning on the charm and using those horrible puppy-dog eyes that he knows Felix is weak to, and he makes a faint pawing gesture at the cello case behind Felix.

Felix scowls. “What are you, three? It’s not going anywhere just because you haven’t played in a few days.”

Felix,” Sylvain whines, his expression turning even more annoying and pathetic. It absolutely does not tug on Felix’s heartstrings, and he does not consider letting Sylvain have his way for even a second. “Come on, it’s been so long… It’s so boring. There aren’t even any cute girls to flirt with. The nurses all ignore me.”

“You’re going to make yourself waste away faster if you strain yourself. And you’d be less bored if you tried to keep up with your coursework. You still want to graduate, don’t you?” Sylvain ignores Felix and makes another vague gesture at the cello case. Felix bats his hand away. “Get back on the bed. And stop flirting with everyone you see to pass the time! I’m right here, asshole.”

Sylvain sighs dramatically but complies, stepping backward until his side hits the hospital bed, and he climbs back on. “I can’t go out, I can’t flirt with the nurses, I can’t even play my goddamn cello. I mean, really. It’s not going to hurt anything to take it out for an hour.”

“I was here when the doctor said you should rest to heal faster, idiot.”

Sylvain looks at Felix, sad and pitying, and Felix knows what’s coming out of his mouth next. They’ve fought about this so many times already, too many times—and yet, Sylvain remains determined to keep his pessimism. “Felix, do you really think I’m going to heal?”

The words are familiar, repeated over and over, their grooves worn into the steps leading to Felix’s heart, cutting deep and jagged.

Don’t say that!”

Felix is on him in a moment, his hand fisting into the collar of Sylvain’s hospital gown, heat stinging his eyes as he stares down at Sylvain’s face. Sylvain’s expression doesn’t change. His gaze slides past Felix, vacant and unseeing, a humorless smile twisting his lips.

“I’m trying to make the best of the time I’ve got.”

“Making yourself worse isn’t ‘making the best’ of anything!”

Sylvain sighs and removes Felix’s hand. He shuffles in painstaking movements, and he lies back on the hospital bed, still and gaunt. He takes up less space than he used to—not all that long ago, Sylvain could suck out all the air out of a room by walking into it, his presence expanding to claim the whole space as his. Now he looks thin and frail, like a breeze could shatter him and leave Felix behind with nothing but the memory that they should have been more.

“I don’t want to fight,” Sylvain says, quiet and flat. “When I go, I want you to be able to look forward and be happy.”

Felix sets his hands on the edge of the bed, his fingers digging into the fabric of its sheets. They won’t stop shaking. “Stop saying that. You’re not going to—You won’t—”

“Everyone dies someday.” Sylvain puts his hand on Felix’s and brushes his thumb against Felix’s fingers. Sylvain’s touch is ice-cold. Before, Sylvain’s hands had been warm, grounding and welcoming. Now they’re not. “I’m just going a little earlier.”

“Don’t—”

“And besides,” Sylvain continues, as though Felix hadn’t spoken. “Better me than you. I know that doesn’t mean anything, since you’re not the one with the chronic illness. But—”

Felix jerks his hands back. “Stop saying that,” he hisses, blinking rapidly. “You’re not going to die.”

“I am, Felix.” Felix hates the resignation in his voice. Sylvain should fight. Fight until the end, fight for the chance that he’ll find a donor, fight to live. Sylvain shakes his head and reaches out to Felix, a silent plea for him to come back. Felix follows despite his anger. He’s never been able to stay away from Sylvain. “But I’ll always love you anyway.”

Sylvain shifts, making space on the bed for Felix to curl up beside him, like the few times they’d done this before. It’s a tight squeeze, even with Sylvain’s weakened frame and Felix’s very average size. Once settled, Felix pulls Sylvain closer. Sylvain’s familiar scent of citrus and pine is gone, replaced only by cold sterility and creeping dread.

Neither of them says anything as Felix buries his face in Sylvain’s shoulder and cries.

 

♪ 63 ♪

Felix is halfway through pulling on his socks one morning a few days after their disastrous family dinner when he remembers what Dimitri had said about being tutored by Sylvain.

Me: you didn’t tell me you know dimitri

Sylvain replies almost immediately. Strange, considering it’s Saturday morning, but Felix has just accepted that Sylvain does not understand what the word “routine” means by this point.

dipshit: oh

dipshit: it didn’t seem like a big deal

dipshit: i think he’s doing okay in his classes without my help tbh

dipshit: it seemed like he’s really worried about not doing perfectly?

dipshit: he’s a good guy, but… stressed as shit

That’s one way to say “dealing badly with depression and misplaced survivor’s guilt.”

Dimitri’s better than he was in that first year after the accident, occasionally sleeping through the night and less likely to have outbursts, but he’s so fucking earnest and sad about wishing he could connect with Felix and Glenn over music again. Not that Dimitri would put pressure on them, of course. He’s just happy that Glenn is doing okay and that his wrist is better.

If Glenn takes that as a cue to try to play something, that’s entirely his own fault. Felix knows this, knows that Glenn makes his own shitty life choices, but he still can’t help but be mad at the both of them. Dimitri for his unspoken pleas, and Glenn for stupidly complying with them.

A bell dings, cutting into Felix’s thoughts. His phone screen lights up bright as a new text slides in.

dipshit: you still there?

Me: yes

Me: what

It’s almost embarrassing that Felix let himself get lost in the same thoughts he’s been having for years. Still not as embarrassing as Glenn’s inability to accept the truth about his wrist or Dimitri’s grotesque earnestness in the face of any pressure.

dipshit: i’m free this afternoon. want to get coffee again?

dipshit: or lunch, even

dipshit: can’t do anything after 4

dipshit: i solemnly swear i will not bring up music unless you want me to

That promise shouldn’t bring warmth to Felix’s chest or a smile to his lips, but he can’t stop the small laugh that bubbles up at the image of Sylvain melodramatically putting his hand over his heart.

Me: sure

Me: fierce fog, noon

Felix gets as far as tying up his hair and heading to the bathroom to brush his teeth when the next message appears.

dipshit: it’s a date 💖

Felix nearly drops his phone on his foot.

Felix arrives first to the cafe this time. It’s busier than he expects. Most of the tables are filled by students who live closer to campus looking for a trendy bite for the end of their long weekend.

Felix orders himself a black coffee and waffles and pauses, considering the menu for a long moment, and tacks on a request for the most sugary drink they have. He nearly gags when he hears the name (something iced with caramel and mocha and two shots of espresso), but he takes it all the same and makes his way into a newly-emptied booth. He owes Sylvain for that first time they were here. And the couple of times he’s seen Sylvain since—Sylvain really likes to pay for Felix’s food.

“It’s a date” rattles around in Felix’s head as he sits, his leg bouncing irritably and his eyes trained on the door for any sign of red hair and douchebag clothes.

Why had Sylvain said that?

Given what Dimitri mentioned about Sylvain’s tendency to show up to their tutoring disheveled and clearly bearing the signs of having been on actual dates, Felix has no idea why he’d go so far as to call hanging out with Felix a date. Getting lunch together is not a date. Letting Sylvain play his cello for him is not a date. Begrudgingly talking about classical music and looking through photos of Franz is not a date.

Except—and Felix hates that just the thought puts heat into his face, his usual ugly, splotchy red no doubt crawling up his neck and burning the tips of his ears—those things aren’t not dates either, especially since they often end with Sylvain buying him food. He’s heard all manner of useless drivel about romantic comedies and ideal date locations from Annette, and repeatedly spending time one-on-one with another person, often including food paid for by a single person has more in common with Annette’s movies than Felix would like.

Felix maintains that the fact that he goes out of his way to see Sylvain occasionally does not make these outings dates. There’s absolutely no romance in the time they spend together. They debate a bit, Felix feels the urge to punch Sylvain once or three times, they eat their food, and they go home. That’s all there is.

So why had Sylvain called it a date?

Felix finds himself staring into the depths of an empty coffee cup, having downed it in an anxious fervor, with still no Sylvain to show for the sugary, coffee-adjacent monstrosity sitting across from him. He takes out his phone to fire off a quick “where are you” to Sylvain, but slumps in his seat after more minutes pass with no response.

Sylvain charges in, twenty minutes late, out of breath and covered in a faint sheen of sweat. A few of the other customers turn to stare at him as he passes, and Felix pushes down the urge to scowl at all of them. It takes him a moment to spot Felix, but a smile breaks out over his face when he does, and Felix is pinned to the spot by the sheer radiance of it, even as Sylvain collapses into the seat across from him looking strangely worn out.

“What happened to you?”

Sylvain lets out a low groan as he drops his head into a messy pile on his arms. “Nothing. Sorry I’m late. I meant to get here on time…”

“Whatever. It’s fine.”

Felix eyes him critically, his gaze bouncing traitorously to Sylvain’s neck and back. There’s a flushed patch of red barely visible beneath his left ear, but from his angle, it’s hard to tell if it’s from the exertion or actually a hickey.

It only takes Felix a moment to catch himself staring, and he makes a noise of disgust, standing to give himself something to do. “I got you your hideous iced coffee thing, but it’s melted now.” His eyes dart to the line by the cash register. Thankfully short, for the moment. “I’ll get you another.”

He turns to get in the line, his stomach growling for actual food after the coffee he’d almost chugged, but Sylvain loosely grabs his arm.

Sylvain turns his head on his arms and gazes vacantly up at Felix, his breathing gradually returning to normal. “It’s okay, I don’t really want coffee right now.”

Felix’s sleeve burns him where Sylvain is touching it. It takes a couple tries to get his tongue to work. “Sandwich?”

“Mmm… maybe something sweet. A danish?”

Felix winces, the thought of concentrated sugar turning his stomach. “Fine.”

“Thanks, I owe you.” Sylvain’s smile is tired, and his eyes drift closed as he lets go of Felix’s sleeve.

He looks peaceful when Felix returns, his eyes still shut and his breathing finally regular. His face is back to its normal color. Like this, in the summer light blaring in through the window, Sylvain’s eyelashes look golden. It’s probably the calmest Felix has ever seen him; Sylvain always seems to be a mess of frenetic energy barely held together beneath a carefully curated surface.

He’s also ignoring Felix after having been the one to invite him out.

Felix places the order down none too gently, and Sylvain grimaces at the noise, pushing himself up to a seated position and taking in the sight of the food in front of him. Felix gingerly nudges the pastry closer to Sylvain, along with one of the two cups of water, and takes his own spicy chicken cutlet sandwich.

“You’re amazing, you know that?” Sylvain says, taking a bite from his gross sweet.

“Of course I am.”

“Of course you are.” Sylvain chuckles, and takes a drink from his water. “I love your absolute, brazen confidence. I wish more people were like that.”

The word “love” rings in Felix’s ears, and the words “it’s a date” flash through his mind.

Felix clears his throat awkwardly, nearly choking on a bite of his sandwich. “Sylvain.”

Sylvain makes an acknowledging noise but keeps his attention focused on his incredibly questionable excuse for a lunch.

Felix frowns. “Sylvain,” he repeats.

“Hmm? What?” Sylvain looks at Felix, his head tilted curiously.

“I—that is. You said—” Felix can feel the heat spreading through his cheeks, knows that he looks like some kind of tomato, and he’s still stumbling over his words. He looks away and spits out the words as fast as they’ll come. “Earlier, in the texts. You called this a date.” Felix clears his throat. “What did you mean by that?”

Sylvain pauses in his chewing and sets his half-eaten pastry down. “What do you want it to mean?”

Felix sends him a glare. “That’s not an answer.”

“Sure it is.” Sylvain’s smiling at him, but it’s plastic, not at all like the ones he shows when talking about music or listening to Felix talk about Franz. He decides he hates it. “You can call this whatever you want, Felix.”

“What are you calling it?”

It’s Sylvain’s turn to look away. There’s a bit of pink peeking above his collar, and it rises rapidly the longer he keeps his gaze fixed at the wall. It seems Felix isn’t the only one mortified to be having this conversation. Which should be a relief. Except, Sylvain started it, and he has no one to blame for himself for his embarrassment. Felix is just seeing the conversation to its logical conclusion.

“I mean… I think that’s obvious.” Sylvain takes a nervous sip of his water, and he still won’t look at Felix. “I wouldn’t call it a date if I didn’t want it to be one.”

“So this is a date.”

“It—it doesn’t have to be anything if you don’t want it to be.” Sylvain says that, but he looks sullen even as the words fall from his lips, the lower one protruding in a pout.

Felix lets himself take a gulp of his own water, mulling over his own response. Does he want it to be a date? He doesn’t hate hanging out with Sylvain, and he’s not not attracted to Sylvain. Sylvain’s stupid face is more handsome than it has any right to be, and every time he laughs, it pulls at Felix’s chest and makes him want to smile too.

“I guess it’s fine,” Felix mumbles, and he stares over Sylvain’s shoulder, unable to make eye contact.

“Do you… do you mean that?” Sylvain’s voice is rough, like he’s swallowed his tongue and now it’s lodged uncomfortably in his throat. Out of the corner of his eye, Felix can see Sylvain staring at him, eyes wide and jaw slack. “Like. You’re okay with this being a date.”

“Yes,” Felix says, a growl rising in his throat. “Don’t make me repeat myself.” He looks accusingly at the danish still resting in front of Sylvain. “And eat your fucking danish. It wasn’t cheap.”

Sylvain beams at him, his hands shaking as he picks up the abhorrent ball of sugar masquerading as food, and he takes another bite. Felix still can’t quite bring himself to meet Sylvain’s eye, but he knows anyway that he’s incandescent, Felix’s own brilliant sun.

He doesn’t flinch when Sylvain reaches across the table and laces their hands together.

It’s nice, the way Sylvain’s fingers slot perfectly against his. Slightly inconvenient, because Felix’s food isn’t really made for one-handed eating, but nice.

When Sylvain offers to drive him home, Felix doesn’t hesitate to push him up against his car and kiss him soundly. The food they pick up for Glenn on the way back sits cold in the backseat when they arrive, indulging again in each other.

 

♪ 371 ♪

Felix nods to Mercedes as she offers them a tiny wave good-bye, the cello case strange upon her back. She’s not dwarfed by it, but something about the way it sits is off-kilter; it’s perched between her shoulders, uncomfortable and unwieldy, borne clearly by someone not used to its weight, the opposite of the ease with which it had once been carried by Sylvain.

“You didn’t have to do that, you know,” Sylvain says, staring forlornly at the empty corner where his cello had sat.

“We should have taken it away weeks ago.” Sylvain had been practicing when Felix came in, sweat heavy on his brow, his face gaunt and exhausted. It’s a wonder the nurses hadn’t come in to pull him back to bed, but Felix wouldn’t be surprised if Sylvain had disabled all of the machines monitoring him.

He’d given Felix a sheepish smile before staggering to a stand to put the cello back into its case.

This marked the third time Felix had caught him. Who knows how many more sessions Sylvain had snuck in between visits?

“Yeah…” Sylvain’s tone is flippant, but Felix hears the sullen note beneath it. “Guess I can die of boredom instead of my kidneys now.”

Felix closes his eyes, counting to five. He will not rise to Sylvain’s bait. He cannot rise to it, not with the way things are now.

Sylvain has to come around, sooner or later, to the fact that Felix is right. He can’t keep pushing himself to play when all it does is make him sicker. Sylvain’s not the only one who misses his music, but Felix at least understands what priorities are. He may have accepted that classical music isn’t completely worthless, especially not Sylvain’s, but it sure as hell isn’t worth jeopardizing his remaining health over.

“You can stop being reckless,” Felix says after a long beat. He lets out a slow exhale, controlled, like Annette’s showed him. “I—I know you miss playing. But it’s not worth endangering your health for.”

“What else am I going to do? I’m stuck here all day, with no end in sight. Or, I guess, one end, but that’s not the one you’re interested in, right?”

“Don’t take this out on me,” Felix hisses. “I am looking out for you.”

“Thanks but no thanks. I’d rather die on my own terms. Then you’ll be free to do whatever you want. You won’t be stuck visiting this hospital anymore and you can live your life out how you want.”

“Fuck you.” Fury burns, white-hot and almost blinding. There are many things about watching Sylvain wither away that Felix hates, but nothing trumps Sylvain’s casual disdain for his own life.

Felix had intended to stay the remaining two visiting hours, but he’d clearly been mistaken about today’s visit. If Sylvain wants him to leave so badly, he’ll gladly comply. He doesn’t need to take more of this.

“Felix, no—wait.”

Sylvain’s words catch Felix by the door, his hand poised on its handle.

“What.” Felix beats away the urge to turn around and rush back to Sylvain’s side. He won’t bend himself to Sylvain’s moods; he can’t let Sylvain win their tug-of-war about whether he should give up on life. They’ve had this conversation too many times and he’s not going to have it again—if Sylvain wants to wallow in self-pity and take it out by hurting himself, Felix won’t have any part in it.

“Don’t leave, please.”

Felix drops his hand from the door. “What do you want me to do then?”

“Stay. Just… stay.” Sylvain’s sigh is audible. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you. I know you’re not doing this to hurt me.”

“Oh, really?” Felix doesn’t bother to keep the caustic edge from his voice, but he turns around anyway.

Sylvain sits curled over his hands, his eyes closed. His face isn’t as pale as when Felix had walked in, but there’s still an ashy, gray tinge to it. Reconnecting Sylvain’s IV and making him sit on the bed and wait for Mercedes’s arrival helped, but even “better” can’t chase away the way kidney failure is breaking Sylvain down, one day at a time.

It’s awful, no matter how much or how often Felix has to see it.

Felix walks back to the bed and leans against one edge, one palm face up behind him against the sheets. Sylvain places his hand in Felix’s, the touch gossamer and fleeting, a second from fading away into nothingness.

Felix grips it, grounding them both to the reality that Sylvain isn’t allowed to die on Felix’s watch.

“Hey, Felix?”

Felix grunts in response. Sylvain flexes his hand in Felix’s grip but makes no move to pull back.

“I—I’m sorry I lashed out at you.”

“I’m not sorry I asked Mercedes to come.”

Sylvain chuckles, small but honest. “I didn’t expect you to be.” He tugs on their joined hands.

“What?” Felix says, but he sits back on the bed and turns to face Sylvain.

“Thank you for being here. You should be out living your life, but you’re stuck here babysitting me.” Sylvain shudders. It reverberates down his arm and into Felix, and a knot forms in Felix’s throat. He hates this. He hates seeing this. “Fuck—fuck, Felix, I’m scared. I thought I was ready, but I’m not.”

“I’m—” Of course Felix is scared too. He’s been scared since that day Sylvain collapsed outside the symphony hall. “You’re not going to die. I won’t let you.”

Sylvain laughs shakily, his voice pitched to hysterical. “I don’t think this is something you get to just decide, Felix.”

“Shut up. It’s better than sitting around and feeling bad for yourself.”

“…I guess.” Sylvain won’t meet Felix’s eye as he says it, like he doesn’t believe it and he won’t let Felix convince him.

“You—”

“Can I ask for something?” Sylvain is almost back to himself, back to the way he was before, as he says it. Like he’s suddenly the same person he was eight months ago, playing up the act of carefree and careless, falling into the persona of fuckboy. It’s infuriating how easy it is for Sylvain to regress, effortless in projecting the air that his only worry is the how and where of picking up his next date.

Sylvain’s voice is light, but fatigue runs through it in an undercurrent. Felix isn’t fooled.

Age-old annoyance threatens to overtake Felix, to let him get dragged into Sylvain’s pretending. He forces himself to take a deep breath. Despite his first instinct, he does not actually want to smack Sylvain for his inanity.

“Drop the fucking act and just ask me.”

“Will you—”

“But I won’t do anything ridiculous, and I refuse to do anything that’s going to further endanger your health.”

Sylvain squeezes their joined hands and shakes his head. “It’s nothing like that. It’s only—before I go, I want to hear you play.”

“You’re not going to—” Felix starts automatically, but then he processes what Sylvain has actually requested. “Oh.”

“I never got a chance to see you on a stage, and I…I’m being selfish. If I can’t see you perform in a concert hall, then I just want you to play for me.”

Felix’s tongue rests uncomfortably in his mouth, his words choked as he tries to speak. “I—”

“You don’t have to. It’s just…I’ve been waiting to hear you for a long time, and I don’t know if I have much longer left to wait.”

“You’re not going to die!” Felix gets the words out this time, a flash of anger cutting through his shocked numbness. Playing for Sylvain is a dream out of reach—Felix has been practicing again for a few months now, finally settling back into the rhythm of warmups and scales as part of his daily routine, but he’s not polished and he’s definitely not ready.

Sylvain lifts an eyebrow, his lists twisting dryly. “Felix… We’ve talked about this before.”

Felix pulls his hand back, turning away from Sylvain to curl in slightly on himself. “You can’t die.”

Sylvain sighs, but stays silent.

Felix forces himself to relax, one muscle at a time, until he’s loose enough to sit fully on the bed and press his side against Sylvain’s.

“Will it help?” Felix says finally. “If I do this, will it help?”

Sylvain opens his mouth, no doubt to spin platitudes and lies, but Felix fixes him with a look and he wilts, his head turning away. “I don’t know, Fe. I don’t know if anything works anymore. But I want to have just this one thing.”

Felix rests his head against Sylvain’s shoulder and turns to brush his lips against the hideous off-white of the cloth of the hospital gown.

“Okay.” He lets out a breath and fumbles to find Sylvain’s hand again. “Okay, I’ll do it.”

 

♪ 82 ♪

Only the fact that Annette is his first and favorite college friend keeps Felix from ordering a drink just to throw in her face.

Annette’s smile widens as she stares, unabashed, at where Sylvain is clinging to Felix’s hand, his grip tight no matter how many times Felix tries to shake free. Sylvain also sports a shit-eating grin, absolutely on purpose, but given that it’s his normal smile, Felix is in equal parts aggravated and endeared. Curse his stupid heart.

“Mercie will be here soon! She just texted me that she’s driving over from her bakery and that we should order first,” Annette says, ushering them into a booth. Felix ends up squashed against the wall because Sylvain is sitting too fucking close, and Annette keeps up that horrible 100-watt smile as she slides menus across the table.

Felix grunts, flipping the page to search for the least vegetable-infested option. But because Annette chose their lunch location, this turns out to be none of them. He’ll have to settle for a random burger and pick out the nasty bits.

Annette’s stare burns against the back of Felix’s neck, and he doesn’t have to look up to know that her smile has turned appraising and a little wicked.

“Whatever you’re going to say, you’re wrong.”

“I haven’t said anything yet!”

“Keep it that way.”

“Meanie.”

Sylvain squeezes Felix’s hand. Felix looks over, eyebrow quirked. “What?”

“Nothing,” Sylvain says, grinning. “I’m glad it’s not just me you’re this rude to.”

“He is!” Annette cuts in before Felix can speak. “He’s the worst. You know he refused to talk during orientation group stuff because—and I quote—‘This is pointless, leave me out of it.’”

Her imitation of his voice makes Sylvain laugh, and Felix throttles the urge to kick them both.

“I can believe that.”

“I think our group leader might have reported him if I hadn’t convinced him to participate to get it over with faster.”

“Shut up,” Felix says through clenched teeth. “We don’t need to rehash that.”

“No, no, go on,” Sylvain says. “I want to hear more about how you two became friends.”

“Hmm… I don’t know that there’s a lot to tell?” Annette says, thoughtful. “After that first time, Felix just sort of stuck to me for the rest of that week and didn’t want to make any more friends. You know, he didn’t even tell me he had childhood friends in our class until they just showed up one day for lunch.” She sends Felix a frown. “That was pretty rude, you know.”

“I didn’t ask Dimitri and Ingrid to tag along.”

“Still.” Annette sighs. “Well, Ingrid’s fun, if a little horse-obsessed, and Dimitri’s super nice, so it wasn’t too bad. Sometimes I wonder how Felix grew up to be such a brat when he has such great friends.”

“That’s what you think of them.”

Sylvain’s knee knocks against Felix’s. “When do I get to meet your childhood friends? And Franz and Glenn, can’t forget them.”

“You’ve met Dimitri.”

“Yeah, he’s a good kid.”

Not really, not since he decided endless self-flagellation was the only recourse for an accident that wasn’t his fault. But Felix doesn’t want to talk about Dimitri.

“He’s Dimitri.” Felix says, noncommittal. He turns to Annette, his shoulders set, ready to change the subject. “How much longer until Mercedes gets here?” He glances between her and Sylvain. “I still can’t believe you two share a mutual close friend.”

“Yeah, small world,” Sylvain says. “It’s almost weird that you and I never met before that day on campus.”

“It’s Felix’s fault,” Annette says sagely. “Sylvain and I go to Mercie and Emile’s bakery all the time, but because someone hates sweets, you’ve never run into each other there.”

“I don’t hear you complaining about me disliking sweets when you get my dessert.”

She sticks her tongue out at him. “What, are you going to stop?”

“I should. Sylvain can eat the sweets for me.”

Annette’s betrayal shifts from Felix to Sylvain. Sylvain balks. “Hey, don’t drag me into the middle of this.” Felix stiffens, but Sylvain bumps his shoulder, gentle and reassuring. “But if you’re offering, I won’t say no.”

“Should I be? You’re awfully unwilling to take my side.”

“I’ll eat any food you want me to,” Sylvain says, beaming. Then he freezes. “Uh—within reason. No ghost peppers or anything. I like spice but I’m not you.”

“Just eat the stupid desserts.”

“You got it, babe.” Felix elbows Sylvain for the endearment.

“Aww,” says Annette. “Aren’t you two just—Oh, Mercie!” She waves, animated, over their shoulders. “Over here!”

Felix turns to see a blonde woman ducking around tables as she waves back. Her face is familiar; he vaguely recalls her joining him and Annette for lunch once or twice. Her hair had been longer then.

“Oh, hello, everyone! I’m so sorry I’m late. The morning rush lasted longer than expected, and Emile had a doctor’s appointment, so I had to stay until he arrived.” Mercedes slides into the booth next to Annette and offers the other girl a squeeze around the shoulders. “Have we ordered yet?”

“Not yet,” Sylvain says, “but I’m ready whenever you guys are.”

“Oh, give me a minute to look, but I’ll likely get my usual.” Mercedes skims both sides of the menu, humming as she reads. “Yes, I’ll have the pasta salad.”

Sylvain waves a waiter over to take their orders—Felix gets a burger with bacon and a promise that the patty isn’t turkey or vegetarian—and gets water for the table. The whole time, his hand never leaves Felix’s.

“Now that that’s out of the way, tell me about how you two met,” Mercedes says, smiling at them. Her voice is serene, but Felix can’t shake the feeling that she’s teasing. Thankfully, she’s looking at Sylvain and not him, so he’s more than willing to let Sylvain take the bullet.

“You know Felix came up to me on the science quad and started yelling at me?” Sylvain laughs.

“I didn’t yell.”

“Eh, close enough.”

“No, you probably just scowled at Sylvain and tried to make him give up on playing his cello, right?” Annette asks, snickering.

“So what? He shouldn’t have been playing it outdoors.”

“Oh, well… It’s nice to enjoy the weather sometimes, isn’t it?” Mercedes says. “If I remember correctly, he texted me after the fact to tell me that he’d met someone. I was so worried that it was another one of the flings he used to have.” She reaches out to pat Felix’s arm. “I’m glad it was you instead. You really tamed him.”

“That makes me sound like I’m some kind of dog,” Sylvain complains.

Mercedes laughs. “Is that so wrong? They do call them horndogs, after all.”

Sylvain grimaces. “Still.”

“He’s been much better behaved these past couple months, so I do have to thank you,” Mercedes says, a twinkle in her eye. “I know he won’t admit it, but he’s much happier.”

“Yeah, even I can tell,” says Annette.

A flush crawls up Felix’s neck. “Shut up.” He squeezes Sylvain’s hand. “I’m glad you’re happy or whatever.”

Sylvain laughs, soft and sobering. “Thanks, Felix. It means a lot.” His thumb brushes against the back of Felix’s hand. Felix gives him a small smile, and Sylvain’s face lights up, honest and warm enough to be scalding. That’s the only reason Felix’s cheeks are so hot.

“Mercie, aren’t they cute?”

And leave it to Annette to ruin the moment. Felix pulls his hand away and crosses his arms defensively. He hasn’t been cute since before his mother died, no matter what Annette would like to coo at him.

“This is nothing,” Sylvain says, the traitor. “Felix is the cutest when he’s listening to music.” He tilts his head thoughtfully. “Or maybe when he’s playing—I haven’t gotten to see that, much as I want to. But he gets really focused and thoughtful when he’s listening.”

“Ooh, get a picture next time.”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Felix hisses, glaring daggers at all of them. Mercedes hides a laugh behind her hand.

“Oh, that I could,” Sylvain says, hand clutching his chest. “But alas! I’m usually too busy playing to get my phone.”

Annette rounds on Felix, her mouth agape in outrage. “Felix! Is this why you’ve missed a few of our lunches? You’re listening to Sylvain practice?”

“No!” He hadn't, actually. Classes had gotten the better of him. Felix pauses. “But he’s not bad, I guess.”

Sylvain chuckles. “Only the highest compliments from you, as always.”

“Shut up.”

Sylvain slides his hand back into Felix’s and brings it up to press a kiss against its back. “I’m happy you’re there, just to listen to me.” His gaze softens, his eyes liquid honey, and Felix drowns in their light, almost forgetting where they are. “But you know… I really wish it wasn’t just me playing in those practice rooms.”

“What, are you looking for an ensemble?”

“Of a sort,” Sylvain says, his lips tilting into a grin. “We should play together. One day. I’d really like that. That first day in the practice rooms—I wish we could have played together. I could almost hear the piano there with me.”

Felix’s heart jumps to his throat. “I can’t—You know I don’t play anymore.”

“Sure. But be honest—do you really not want it too?”

Felix turns away. “I’ll think about it.”

“Thank you.” He squeezes Felix’s hand. “Really.”

“Oh, food’s here!” Annette’s voice cuts in, and Felix snaps back to their present.

Annette holds her hands out to the waiter, as cheerful as ever, and Mercedes looks from Felix to Sylvain, a half-smile on her lips and her eyes piercing. Her expression flickers to a frown, concerned and almost sad, but it’s gone as soon as the waiter offers her the pasta salad, and she turns to thank him graciously.

Strange.

Felix takes his burger and opens it to place the lettuce and tomato on Sylvain’s plate, and the conversation moves on, but Mercedes’s inscrutable look stays in his mind. There’s something Felix is missing, and it’s not music.

 

♪ 375 ♪

At least two nurses give Felix strange stares on his way in with the keyboard in tow. He glares back, daring them to say anything. It’s not against the hospital’s regulations, somehow—he’d checked with one of the nurses after Sylvain had made him promise to play. Or they’d taken pity on Sylvain and lied to Felix in spite of the rules. It doesn’t really matter as long as no one stops him today.

Despite countless eyes tracking his movements from the entrance to Sylvain’s room, no one accosts Felix or asks him why he’s carrying a cheap, shitty Yamaha with him. It proves a bit of a challenge to open the door when his arms are occupied, but after a minute of uselessly scrambling for the doorknob, a passing nurse takes pity on Felix and politely does not mention that he could have just put the instrument down for a moment to let himself in.

He thanks her and then almost takes it back when her smile turns knowing.

Inside, Sylvain’s eyes are closed. Between his pale skin, chapped lips, and unkempt, too-long hair, he barely qualifies as looking like death warmed over. Felix’s heart aches at the sight of him anyway. Sylvain’s eyebrows pinch and he turns from the sounds of the door, mumbling unintelligibly as he rolls away. It’s almost unbearably endearing—made intolerable in equal parts by how frail Sylvain is and how the sight tugs on Felix’s heartstrings.

After the year and change that they’ve known each other, Felix should have developed some level of immunity to Sylvain’s effortless charisma, but he hasn’t. It’s terrible.

Felix sets up the keyboard next to the bed, untangling the power cord as he looks for an outlet. The only one not occupied by the room’s machinery is the one that has Sylvain’s phone plugged into it. With a click of his tongue, Felix pulls Sylvain’s phone and charger out of the wall and puts them on the bedside table. Sylvain won’t like his phone not being in the exact place where he keeps it (nor would he agree with anything else in the hospital room being moved while he’s asleep), but he’ll have to suck it up. He asked Felix to bring the piano to him.

After a long minute of fussing to get the keyboard to reach the outlet without being too far from Sylvain, Felix drags over the only chair without armrests and drops into it. The light switches on as Felix hits the power button, and he sits at the bench, watching the movements of Sylvain’s sleeping chest.

The monotony of the silence is punctuated only by the clicks and hisses of the machines tracking Sylvain’s heartbeat and oxygen levels. It’s too still, and in a long beat where Sylvain’s breath catches on the way out, Felix’s heart jumps to his throat. It’s too easy to imagine the uneasy lull of the hospital room as the silence of a funeral. Felix grips the sides of his chair and stares at Sylvain, willing him to breathe. Slow beats drip by, and Sylvain’s chest does not rise or fall, until ten seconds and a lifetime later, Sylvain breathes again.

The adrenaline in Felix’s system drops out, and he’s left shaking in his chair. He doesn’t gasp as he struggles to regain his breath, but it’s a very near thing.

Sylvain’s breathing does not stutter again, and he wakes up shortly, blinking groggily over at Felix.

“Good morning?” Sylvain says, his throat scratchy. “I think an angel landed and is about to take me off to heaven.” Sylvain tilts his head against his pillow, a weak attempt at a shrug. “Or hell.”

“Don’t joke. And it’s not morning—dinner rounds start in an hour.”

Sylvain makes a noise, too quiet to be much more than an acknowledgement that Felix spoke, and he stretches, his back popping and his expression flickering as his muscles protest the movement. Felix still remembers the feeling of ice down his back when Sylvain admitted for the first time that his back almost always hurt and his feet felt leaden when he tried to move them.

“Whatever you say, angel.”

Felix rolls his eyes. The teasing lilt to Sylvain’s voice is barely a shadow of what it once was, and it leaves Felix with a bitter nostalgia. There was more confidence and a stronger edge to Sylvain trying to rile him up, Felix thinks. He’s not sure anymore; he can’t recall what Sylvain’s voice sounded like all those months ago when they’d first met. Felix’s chest aches. What had Sylvain sounded like as he’d laughed off Felix’s brusque criticism?

Felix shakes himself free of the cobwebs of remembrance and focuses on the Sylvain of here and now, the only one that matters.

Leave it to Sylvain to try to come up with horrifying new pet names on his sickbed. Felix bites his tongue to keep from protesting. Telling Sylvain not to call him something has only ever resulted in that nickname coming back with a vengeance. Best just to let him forget it.

Sylvain smiles at Felix and waves his hand to the keyboard. “What’s this?”

“Nothing,” Felix replies automatically, and he winces as he hears himself. The setup is very clearly not nothing and Sylvain isn’t blind.

Sylvain chuckles at the denial. “Okay. Are you going to do anything with that nothing for me?”

A part of Felix debates answering “no” to see if Sylvain will press him, but he lets it go. “Shut up. You know why I brought this stupid thing.”

“I do.”

Sylvain watches Felix and the keyboard, expectant, his eyes flickering between Felix’s hands and the unoccupied keys. Felix sighs roughly and brings them up to rest silently, not quite at the ready to begin playing, but a step closer to it anyway. “Happy?”

“With you? Always.”

Felix scoffs and turns away, hiding his flush. How does he still have no immunity to Sylvain’s words? “Incorrigible.”

“Whatever you say, Fe.” Sylvain’s smile is obvious in the way his voice caresses Felix’s name. The exhaustion cuts through anyway. Was it always this prevalent?

Felix feels the fight go out of him. He can’t—he can’t be mad at Sylvain, not anymore. “What do you want me to play?” It’s not really a reasonable question, because Felix’s repertoire is rusty even with the months of renewed practice, but he supposes Sylvain should have the right to request something if he wants. Felix is doing this for him, after all.

“Anything.”

“How unhelpful.”

“I mean it, though. If it’s you, I’ll love it no matter what. Even if you play ‘Happy Birthday’ or something.”

“I am not going to play ‘Happy Birthday’.”

Sylvain lets out a genuine laugh, but it’s small and so, so weak. The end of it sounds almost like a cough. Felix winces, and he’s overtaken by the urge to leave the piano behind to crawl into Sylvain’s bed and hold him. Just to prove he’s real and alive. He holds himself back.

Felix sends Sylvain a scowl. “Just tell me what you want.”

“Anything, Felix, really.”

Anything. Fine. Sylvain asked for it.

Felix exhales and lifts his left hand slightly before pressing into the introductory bass line, slow and expressive. The minor key sings as he pours the emotion of the months in the hospital, of the past year with Sylvain, into the theme. His right hand enters a few bars later with the top voice’s counterpoint and middle voice’s accompaniment, somber as they buoy the base.

Felix is vaguely aware of Sylvain’s sharp inhale, and his lips turn up in response. Good. Sylvain should recognize this piece—it’s the second thing he ever played for Felix, in that practice room not-date. It had taken Felix months to track down the piece, Étude Op. 25 No. 7, from Chopin’s piano études.

It had been familiar then in a way it shouldn’t have been, because Glenn had always eschewed the Chopin études and their mother hadn’t played them despite the number transcribed for cello. Sylvain had only played it for Felix once, but that once had been enough to bury it deep in Felix’s mind, played at all the worst moments. It had been such a pain to find—how was Felix supposed to know it was originally for piano?

But Felix had stumbled upon it while searching for new repertoire to work on his expressiveness, control, and voicing, recommended by a list of études for left hand proficiency. Felix had been numb with shock after reading the first few bars, and testing them against the piano with shaking hands had done nothing to contain the elation at having finally discovered the source of the piece that Sylvain had so rudely set to haunt his dreams.

And vengeance was sweet. The knowledge that he could finally pay Sylvain back for infecting him with this piece spurred him to lean on its highs and fall into its lows—Felix would prove that he plays the étude as well as Sylvain did that distant spring day.

Felix’s breathing is rough by the time he reaches the end of the piece, the intensity of playing with all of his emotion on his sleeve draining him as he plays the final dying notes. After a long silence broken only by the sound of the machines, Felix pulls his hand back and places them on his lap, waiting for Sylvain to speak.

Sylvain sighs, and then he does. “Felix…”

Felix takes a deep breath and turns to him. “What?” Felix says, more challenge than question.

“That was…” Sylvain blinks, and a tear trails down his cheek. His voice is thick with emotion, the eternal exhaustion washed away under the current of Felix’s performance.

“Yeah.”

“I… I didn’t know you remembered.”

Felix coughs. “Of course I did. How could I forget?” He drops his gaze. “It was the first time in years that I thought it was okay to not hate everything about classical music. That there could be something good buried under all the shit.”

Sylvain exhales, and Felix raises his eyes to meet Sylvain’s. They’re glassy and wet, and below them his cheeks are still shiny, but he’s smiling. Grinning so much that it has to hurt. “I’m glad.” Sylvain holds his hand out to Felix. “Come here?”

Felix swallows the reflex to hold back and stands to place his hand in Sylvain’s. Sylvain makes to pull him up onto the bed, too lacking in strength to be effective, but Felix shakes his head and extracts his grip. He nods for Sylvain to move over to make space as he climbs up, and they settle next to each other, Sylvain underneath the sheets and Felix seated on top of them.

Felix takes Sylvain’s hand again and rests his cheek against Sylvain’s shoulder.

“It took me forever to find that piece, you know.”

Sylvain laughs. “Yeah?”

“You would pick a piano piece to play on cello just to drive me crazy.”

“I didn’t mean to. But when you told me you played piano, I wanted to show you something that you might know, so I looked up transcribed piano pieces.”

“You made a good choice.”

Sylvain brushes his lips against Felix’s temple. “Thanks. It means a lot that you chose to play it for me.”

Felix tilts his face up, his gaze searching Sylvain’s for any hint of a lie. Sylvain’s affection lies bare, burning into Felix from too close, ready to scorch him to the core like it hasn’t already burned away all the layers of Felix’s shell, and Felix lets himself give in to impulse.

Felix winds a hand into Sylvain’s hair—in need of a haircut and so much drier than he remembers—and pulls Sylvain’s lips down to meet his.

The kiss is slow, careful. Sylvain’s lips are chapped. They whisper with that horrible, cool touch—now too familiar, now more known than the heat Felix had once thought he’d always associate with Sylvain. Felix pushes past it to the sensation of Sylvain’s hand drawing circles against the back of his neck, to the gentle buzz as Sylvain nips at his lower lip, to the consoling warmth of Sylvain’s breath against his cheeks. The kiss deepens in increments but never escapes their control.

They both know how to kiss with passion and fire, how to draw out quivering breaths, how to speak love into every press—but Felix holds back, unwilling to let desire win over good judgment. Even this much will drain Sylvain, Felix knows, no matter how much they both have missed it.

Anything Felix can do to make sure Sylvain holds on for another day and another chance is worth the price.

Sylvain will make it. Felix knows this.

He can’t consider the alternative.

 

♪ 109 ♪

Glenn is out—drinking with the other teachers at his school, he’d said, celebrating the end of another long week babysitting the horribly charming brats they see for 7 hours every day—and the apartment is empty save for Felix and Franz. And Franz had vanished into Felix’s bottom drawer after he’d eaten his dinner, content to curl up for the evening and rub his fur all over Felix’s clean underwear, so really, it’s just Felix.

Good, no witnesses.

I wish we could have played together.

The words ring in Felix’s head, as clear as when Sylvain first said them all those weeks ago. He hadn’t brought it up since, but he’s taken to humming piano repertoire under his breath every time they see each other, and Felix is starting to suspect it’s intentional.

Unfortunately, it’s also working, and Felix can’t get any of the pieces out of his head, least of all the Waldstein Sonata—the last piece he’d performed before he’d quit. He’s not sure who to blame for Sylvain knowing about the piece, and possibly why it was the last piece he’d played, but he’d hummed the main theme once and now it won’t leave Felix alone.

So he needs to get this out of his system.

Felix slides onto the piano bench, its uneven cushion unfamiliar beneath him after so many years away. It’s set too high—Glenn always preferred it that way, even when it angles his hands against the keys.

A quiet wave of nostalgia washes over Felix, but he gets up anyway and rolls the seat to a more comfortable height. As he drops backs down, he pushes back the fallboard and rests his fingers against the keys. They’re cold. Smooth and glassy, but ready to give in to the faintest pressure. They beckon Felix to play something, anything. The fucking Beethoven sonata that won’t leave him alone. That one cello piece Sylvain had played for him that’s haunted him for months. His fingers itch, energy burning under his skin, sparks of electricity sputtering between his hands and the keys; the desire to let the piano carry him away in the tide of its sound burns in his chest.

He rolls out a stumbled scale between both hands, his notes uneven in their strikes, and he winces at the terrible quality. He’d played better when he was seven—hell, there are average seven year-olds at Glenn’s school who play better than this, just normal, non-musical students at a normal, non-musical school. None of them have a background in music or expectations to bring them up and drag them down, and he knows they can do better than that.

The knowledge that untrained, undisciplined twerps who can barely reach a sixth might play better spurs Felix to start again, this time with more care. Simple, C major. The most basic of all exercises. It’s cleaner this time, and his wrists roll as he plays through the scale, obedient and pliant. Still imperfect, but a better start.

The other warmups flow more naturally from there—other scales, chord progressions, a simple Czerny étude he pulls from the books stacked beside the music rack. With each successive exercise, Felix’s fingers are a little looser and the sound rings a little cleaner. By the Bach Prelude and Fugue he digs out of his memory, the keys are almost familiar old friends again.

Three and a half years melt into nothing, and time slips past as Felix plays. His notes stay unsteady and his hands won’t shape the way he remembers, but a latch has been unlocked, and music ripples away, swelling into the quiet of their living room and into a gaping hole in Felix’s heart. He builds toward facing the Waldstein again, toward defeating the performance he’d never completed. Or maybe, possibly, potentially—the Tchaikovsky concerto that stands as the other piano demon haunting the Fraldarius home.

He’d never learned the concerto formally, but he’s heard it so often for so long that he knows every note of the first few minutes by heart. If he weren’t so out of practice, there wouldn’t be a doubt that he could play it from memory in his sleep. But no matter how the piece might lurk at the edges of Felix’s dream, no matter how he might toy with the thought of conquering it—in his heart, it will always belong to Glenn, and Felix will never be able to usurp that.

Besides, there’s a new piece to flutter through his sleep and echo in his waking hours: the unknowable cello piece that Sylvain had played him just the once. It’s been weeks and Felix hasn’t managed to shake it out of his ears.

How did it go again? He could have sworn it began on an A2.

Felix presses against the key, holding it, and he conjures the melody in his mind, humming it quietly under his breath. The next few notes are easy enough, slow and ringing, but as it dances higher into the cello’s register, he loses his grasp and fights against endless false starts.

This would be so much easier if Felix could find the sheet music. He’s searched for it in all the common Romantic cello repertoire he can find, but there’s nothing. It’s infuriating, not least because the earworm just won’t seem to go away. Not that he can tell this to Sylvain.

A heavy scratching noise scrapes at the lock to the front door, and Felix jolts out of his reverie. He blinks as he presses the home button on his phone and the time flashes at him.

10:23pm.

Shit. He’d meant to stop over an hour ago. The whole point of this activity had been to try to piano for a little bit with Glenn none the wiser, but music had managed to fuck even that up for him. There’s no time to rearrange the piano to hide the evidence that he’d played, and there’s no telling if Glenn had heard him playing from outside the door anyway.

Felix launches himself onto the couch, his phone in hand, and he attempts to arrange himself casually. The image would be more convincing if Franz were in his lap, but his traitorous cat is likely still in his room turning all his clean clothes into hairballs. But if there hadn’t been time to clean up the piano, then there definitely isn’t time to go fetch the cat, and Felix sinks into the cushion and swipes through his apps, determined to find an adequate excuse.

The door clicks open and Glenn walks in, his face more flushed than it should be considering he must have driven himself home from whatever bar he had been at. Drunkenness might not have been the reason for his first car accident, but Felix would have hoped he’d know enough to not let it be the cause of a second. He’s lucky he made it home in one piece. Felix glares at the blotchy red dotting Glenn’s cheeks and neck.

“Heya ’Lix, I’m home,” Glenn says, voice vacant as he toes off his shoes.

“Welcome back,” Felix grunts. “Don’t drive drunk.”

Glenn huffs a laugh. “Actually, Shamir gave me a ride because she doesn’t drink with us. Something about her wife? Don’t really remember, she’s a tough nut to get to talk about anything.” He shrugs. “I’ll take the bus in to pick up my car tomorrow.”

“Fine.”

Glenn squints at Felix. “Where’s Franz?”

“Underwear drawer, last I saw.”

“Mine or yours?”

“Mine.”

“Oh. That’s fine then.” Felix sends him a scowl and he snickers. “Just use the lint roller or do your laundry on time for once.”

“Or you could help me rather than just laughing every time he does this.”

“Nah.” Glenn drops onto the piano bench, and he drops an elbow onto his knee as he looks at Felix, affectionate and amused. He’s even more drunk than Felix thought; Glenn never looks at him with anything less than teasing mirth. “So, you want to tell me what you were playing on the piano when I got back?”

Felix stiffens and grit his teeth, but he does not jump and he will not give Glenn the satisfaction of knowing he’s caught him. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Glenn rolls his eyes. “Sure. That’s why the books on the piano are a mess and the bench is warm. And I heard you, you know.”

“You heard nothing.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Shut up,” Felix says, tearing his gaze away. He wills his cheeks not to heat, but it’s a losing battle. “So what? So I sat at the bench for a bit.”

“So you waited until I was out to play.” The truth stings, and Felix resents how perceptive Glenn is despite the alcohol in his system. Glenn sighs and stands, walking across the space between them to sit on the couch next to Felix. “You know, I’m not going to judge you.”

“Who said you were? The mood just struck me today.”

“Maybe. But I know you’ve been listening to music more.” He motions at his head, his hands cupped near his ears, and he mimes pulling off headphones. “You don’t always remember to plug in when you’ve got something playing.”

Fuck.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Felix lies. “You’re imagining things.”

“Okay. Well, doesn’t change the fact that you played the piano today for the first time in years.” Glenn pokes Felix in the side and chuckles as he’s batted away. “What changed?”

“Nothing,” Felix says, far too quickly. Glenn raises an eyebrow. Felix looks away. He’s normally for blunt honesty with no space for equivocations, but his inability to lie convincingly really bites him in the ass on occasion. “I just—Music has been in my head for a while, so I was getting it out of my system.”

“Felix, it’s been in your head ever since you were three and Dad sat you down in front of the keyboard for the first time.”

“No, it hasn’t.”

“Uh-huh.” The disbelief on Glenn’s face stings. “That’s definitely why you still have that old recording of me playing the Tchaik as your alarm.”

“That’s just—shut up. I keep forgetting to change it, I’ll do it later.”

Glenn slumps back against the couch and grins at Felix. “It’s your boyfriend, isn’t it? Sylvain? Didn’t Dimitri mention that he likes classical music too?”

“He’s not—okay, he is. But he has nothing to—!”

“So, that’s a yes.”

No.”

“Whatever you say, Felix.”

Felix kicks Glenn in the knee and grins as Glenn winces at the impact. “I’m getting the music out of my system. Maybe it’s Sylvain’s fault, but that’s none of your fucking business.”

“I know, I know.” Glenn rubs at his abused leg and retaliates with a flick of his own against Felix’s foot. “But if he’s helping you get over his weird complex about blaming music for all the world’s sins while also desperately missing it, I’m glad.”

“I do not miss—”

Glenn ignores him. “I always wanted you to come back around, because I didn’t want you to let the fact that I can’t play as much stop you.”

“You didn’t stop me from doing anything. It was my choice. I had my eyes opened, and I made my decision based on that.”

“You know it’s not that simple. I know you know why I push myself even though it’s not always the best for my wrist. Music—it’s love, made into something you can hear.” Glenn goes boneless, collapsing onto Felix and wrapping his arms around Felix’s middle. Felix bristles but resists the urge to shove Glenn off. “Just like how I love you, brat.”

Never mind. Felix does shove him off. “Gross.”

“You’re supposed to say you love me too.”

And that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? That Felix’s love for his brother and his love for music are at war with one another. That Felix gave up one to cherish the other. But maybe he can have a little of both. It’s what Glenn has been trying to tell him for years, even if he hasn’t always been right about it.

“I guess.”

“Aw, thanks.” Glenn sits up and flops against the back of the couch, no further quips to irritate Felix with. After a long moment, he speaks again, his voice low and without a trace of snark or sarcasm. “I think you should play again. It made you happy, and I miss hearing your music.”

Felix grunts. “I haven’t had a chance to miss yours. You’re still hurting yourself with unnecessary practice.”

“Way to break the mood, ’Lix.”

“You overwork your wrist constantly. That’s not my fault.”

Glenn flexes his bad hand, and they both watch its movements, weaker but not immobile. “It’s getting better.”

“It could get better faster if you focused on your exercises.”

“No matter what you say, I’m not giving up piano. It’s a part of me as much as it’s a part of you.”

It’s not a part of Felix, but he will accept that playing the piano is something he does not hate. He rolls his eyes and huffs. “Fine. But do it less.”

“Nah.”

Glenn.” Glenn has the audacity to laugh at him, and Felix kicks him again, light enough that it’s barely more than a tap.

“I’m glad you’re playing again, Felix. I really did miss hearing you play.”

Felix crosses his arms. “I’ve missed your playing, too,” he says begrudgingly. “I don’t want you to get injured again, but… I guess it’s okay if you play as long as you’re taking care of yourself.”

Glenn grins. “Yeah. You too.”

 

♪ 380 ♪

Felix runs into Miklan again at the entrance to the hospital. Or rather, Miklan is loitering in the parking lot, pacing back and forth at the far edge while smoking a cigarette, muttering darkly to himself, and Felix spots him as he exits the hospital. He stalks over, ready to chase Miklan away from whatever bullshit he thinks he’s going to pull. Sylvain doesn’t need the additional stress.

“Sylvain’s busy. You can fuck off.”

Miklan pauses in his pacing and looks over at Felix. “Oh. The brat’s boytoy. What do you want?”

“Didn’t you hear me? Leave.”

Miklan snorts. “You don’t own the hospital, you can’t tell me to leave.”

Unfortunately, Miklan isn’t wrong about that, but Felix plants his feet and crosses his arms, blocking the way to the entrance. “Why are you here? Come to extort Sylvain again?”

“Extortion? Is that what that brat has been calling it?” Miklan scoffs. “At worst, they’re reparations for everything he took from me when we were children. That thief stole everything I could have had. He’ll say that our parents disowned me for bad behavior, but it was only because he manipulated them into doing it so he could get everything.”

“You’re wrong.”

Miklan laughs, bitter and cruel. “Believe what you want. It’s all in the past, and it can stay there to rot for all I care. We won’t have any problems as long as the brat keeps up with his side of our arrangement.”

“Some arrangement, you bullying your chronically ill brother for money and telling him he’s worthless.”

“That thing is not and has never been my brother. Sylvain’s a goddamn leech, sucking the good out of the world, and one day you’re going to learn that too. You’ll never get it. You’re lucky, because he hasn’t hurt you yet.”

Not true, Felix thinks, but he doesn’t point it out. Miklan could never understand why Felix stood by Sylvain despite his flaws. Felix has only met Miklan twice, but he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s rotten to the core, incapable of love.

Miklan continues: “So I’m asking back what he stole. I’m proving to him that he’s not the angel everyone else thinks he is.”

“You’re delusional. Sylvain’s worth a thousand of you.”

“Maybe to a punk like you, who’s never had any hardships in life.” Miklan says, his eyes beady and cold as they rove over Felix, leaving a slimy trail clinging to Felix’s skin in their wake. “I bet you’re just like him. Mommy and Daddy always gave you whatever you asked for, huh? Well, I’m here to prove that doesn’t always work out. There are things you and darling Sylvie can’t have.”

“There’s nothing to prove. Leave.”

Miklan ignores him; there’s a manic glint in his eye, and he talks more to the air over Felix’s shoulder than to Felix himself. “Y’know, dear old Mom called me up the other week, promising to let me back into the will if I matched Sylvain and decided to give one of my kidneys.” He sneers. “It’s like I told you. Carve up the kid you hate to keep the one you like alive. But I thought, might as well. I don’t have to spite the rest of the world to spite the people who should be my family.”

“I don’t care about how sad you are that your mother and father never loved you enough—none of that was ever Sylvain’s fault, ” Felix says, already bored with Miklan’s self-pity. “Get to the point.”

“Don’t worry, I am.” Miklan snorts and reaches into his pocket, pulling out his wallet. “I came here to show off my new driver’s license. Looks nice with the organ donor symbol, doesn’t it? Mom and Dad always said that we didn’t owe our bodies to anyone else, but they changed their tune, didn’t they? But they were right about one thing: I don’t owe him anything.”

“Congratulations for putting yourself on the registry like so many other people do,” Felix says, flat and unimpressed. “It must have been such a trial to check ‘yes’ on that box of your form.”

Miklan growls. “Watch your sarcasm, punk.” He shoves the wallet back into his pocket.

“Why are you telling me this? I don’t care what you do with your body after you die.”

Miklan’s expression flits through confusion, fear, and anger in quick succession before settling on derision. He laughs, mocking. “It must sting to know that there’s someone who could help your slut but who won’t. It’s been so many years, and you know just as well as I do that he doesn’t have much time left. But no matter how much you or Mom wants—Sylvain can have my kidneys over my dead body.”

Cold sinks into the pit of Felix’s stomach. “You’re refusing to help your brother. That’s why you’re here. You did one good thing, and now you want to rub it in Sylvain’s face. You’re despicable.”

“He hasn’t been my brother since he stole everything from me!”

It’s laughable how Miklan can’t hear his own whining. “You’re blaming him for things out of his control and going out of your way to spite him. You’re pathetic.”

“You’ve been manipulated by him so that you can’t see the truth.”

“No. You’re lying to yourself to spare yourself from the truth—that your parents didn’t care enough, and it was never Sylvain’s fault.” Felix rolls his eyes, dismissive. “You’re nothing but a weak fool comforting himself with the lie that he deserved to be a great man.”

Miklan advances, his height and bulk threatening, but Felix stands his ground. “You think you know me, you think you know what I’ve been through, but you can just rub your privileged life in my face.” He leers over Felix, far too close, his face shiny with sweat. Felix scowls up at him, defiant. “Now you have to live with the knowledge that everything you and my brother and my parents have done—it’s exactly why Sylvain’s never going to get the help he needs. He can grovel, they can cry, you can threaten me. None of that changes anything. Sylvain is going to die, and it’s your fault.”

Felix spits in his face.

Miklan reels back, swiping at his cheek. “Ugh! I thought I could help you free yourself from Sylvain, but you’re just as delusional as he is.” Miklan centers himself, raising his fists. “I swear, I’m going to kick your—”

Two things happen at once: Felix side-steps Miklan’s wide, uncoordinated attack, and Miklan’s phone rings, loud and piercing. Caught off guard by both Felix’s movement and the sudden, shrill sound, Miklan trips over nothing and falls onto all fours.

“Shit!” Miklan scrambles for his phone, sparing Felix a dirty look. Felix glares coldly down at him, still standing sentinel in case he makes an unexpected break for the hospital entrance. “What, I’m kind of—” The voice at the other end cuts him off, shrill and commanding. “No, I can’t just—I’ll get it to you, just—Fine, I can be there in half an hour.”

He slams the end call button and turns back to Felix. “You’re lucky this time, punk. Just know: you and that brat and my parents, it’ll be your fault when Sylvain’s dead, because he’s not worth saving. If he’d been my brother, maybe I would have cared.”

Miklan pushes himself to his feet and leaves without another word. Felix exhales, slow and tired, as he watches Miklan’s retreating back climb into a dinged-up old sedan and drive out of the parking lot.

The confrontation with Miklan was unexpected and unwelcome, and it leaves an unpleasant slime over Felix’s skin. Stalling him was the right choice. There is nothing Sylvain can do with the knowledge that Miklan thinks he’s doing good by signing up for the organ donor registry. There is no goodness in Miklan, only pettiness and cruelty. It’s not Sylvain’s fault he’s ill, no matter what Miklan says or thinks.

Hatred boils in Felix’s chest at the thought that anyone could be so callous to their own sibling, so heartless as to wish them their demise. Felix locks the knowledge of Miklan’s “contribution” away; telling Sylvain would do nothing good. Time may be on the low side, but Sylvain isn’t lost, and Felix won’t weigh him down with more burdens.

Even if Miklan won’t offer Sylvain the hope he ought to, Felix will stand by Sylvain’s side, and they’ll make it through this together.

 

♪ 159 ♪

Sylvain talks his way into attending a Fraldarius family dinner three months after he and Felix start “officially”—Felix hates the term, even more than he hates being forced to acknowledge that, by most measures, he has too many feelings about Sylvain crammed together in his chest, all ready to burst out in a ridiculous, overly-emotional mess—“dating”.

Or, Glenn uses Dimitri to talk to Sylvain without Felix’s permission, intent on finally meeting him after having heard so much about him, and he only informs Felix that he’s done so after Sylvain has already offered a tentative yes. Same difference. Felix isn’t happy with either of them for a good three days, but Glenn’s Glenn and Sylvain bribes him with a new toy for Franz and lunch from his favorite kebab place, so he lets it go. For now.

The car ride out to Rodrigue’s is packed with Ingrid, Felix, and Sylvain crammed in the backseat like sardines, and Dimitri sitting in front, offering apologetic glances in the rearview mirror. As the guest, Sylvain is free of middle seat duties, and Ingrid refuses to third-wheel from between them, so Felix gets stuck sitting with his legs jammed up against his chest and Sylvain’s rumbling laughter vibrating through his right arm while Ingrid makes gagging noises from his left.

Felix hates them all, and he plots their murders for the full thirty-three minutes it takes to arrive.

Rodrigue ushers them in, full to the brim with overdone geniality, and he offers Sylvain a firm handshake as he solemnly informs him that they’ll be having food delivered from Felix’s favorite Dagdan place. He hopes Sylvain is alright with spicy, though he’s welcome to the less-spiced dishes if he’d like to fight over them with Ingrid. Sylvain nods along, bemused, and lets himself be tugged away so Rodrigue can pick his brain about his classical training and his favorite composers while they wait for dinner.

Sylvain throws Felix a wide-eyed glance over his shoulder, exaggerated fear drawn plain across his far too handsome features, but Felix doesn’t intervene. He can take care of himself, and better for him to be grilled by Felix’s father than by Glenn.

Felix piles with the other into the living room, ready to claim his usual spot on the couch, but Ingrid beats him to it and flashes him a victorious smile. He rolls his eyes and stands, paused, next to the piano bench as he considers his other options. Despite the urge to throw Ingrid out of his seat, he takes the magnanimous route and pulls the piano bench next to the couch and drops down onto it.

The action doesn’t go unnoticed, and two blonde heads turn to stare at Felix. Glenn, the traitorous asshole, starts laughing.

“Wow, you’re really on your best behavior since your boyfriend’s here,” Ingrid says appraisingly. “I didn’t know you had it in you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure.”

“It is rather strange to see you use the piano bench rather than insist on standing,” Dimitri offers. “I truly cannot recall the last time I saw you use it willingly.”

“You don’t know everything.”

“Aw, ’Lix, are you hiding the fact that you’re playing? What, are you embarrassed?” Glenn cackles. “I swear you said something before about becoming the best pianist. Are you scared, baby bro?”

“I did not—”

“You did,” Ingrid adds, unhelpfully.

“You said it quite a number of times when you were thirteen,” says Dimitri.

“Come on, you’ve been practicing, play something for us!”

Felix glares at Glenn and crosses his arms. He does not pout. “No.”

Glenn’s shit-eating grin gets wider. “So you are scared. It’s okay, we’re all family here, we won’t laugh at you.”

“Much.” Tough talk from Ingrid, the person who once joined a violin class and left with a request to not come back and the group instructor in tears.

“I will kill all of you with my bare hands.”

Dimitri looks at Felix, baleful. He’s known Dimitri long enough to know that it’s not completely genuine, but the tinge of true regret bleeds through and Felix wants to punch it off his face. “We wish only your wellbeing, Felix. If you have begun playing again, that is wonderful news, and something to be celebrated. In fact—”

“Don’t you fucking dare tell Dad. This has nothing to do with him.”

“Did you need to tell me something?” Rodrigue’s voice is mild, but just the sound threatens to jolt Felix out of his skin. How had he not managed to hear him walk in?

“Felix was just—” Glenn starts.

“I was just nothing,” Felix hisses.

There’s a tense pause. Rodrigue sighs. “I see. Well, we can discuss it another time. The delivery is here early, and I was hoping to have one or two hands to help me carry it in.”

“Oh, yes, food! Finally!” Ingrid jumps to her feet and makes for the front door.

Glenn snorts. “Sure, I’ll help.”

Felix does not look at Dimitri once they’re the only two remaining, but that doesn’t stop Dimitri from speaking anyway.

“I do mean it when I say I am glad that you have started playing again.”

“I don’t care.”

A pause. “Perhaps not, but… Is it because of Sylvain?”

Felix recoils on instinct. “No.”

“Ah, so it is.” Great, even Dimitri’s getting in pretending he knows everything about Felix and using it to make fun of him. He truly has only the worst friends and family.

“I just said it’s not.”

“If you insist.”

Felix growls. “You’re not listening to me.”

Dimitri has the gall to laugh. “If anything, Felix, you are not listening to yourself. It is quite alright to accept that you have changed, and to admit that perhaps Sylvain had some hand in it.” He hums thoughtfully. “Given how I met him, I was rather surprised that he was the one who managed to convince you to play again. I was underestimating him.”

“You would.”

Dimitri shakes his head. “I’m straying from my point. I only wished to ask if you might understand Glenn a little better now.”

Felix balks. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I only thought—that is, now that you have your own passion back, I had hoped you might understand what spurs Glenn to keep hoping for recovery even though you think it impossible. It is unkind to only ever assume the worst, especially when others desire to search for hope.” The sounds of Ingrid clamoring for a plate and fork drift into the living room. Dimitri offers Felix a wry smile. “Glenn and Dedue have always tried to tell me not to twist my burdens, that I need not bear those of others alongside my own. I admit, it is not always easy to take that step back and see beyond myself, not least when suffering comes to those I care about and I can do nothing to stop it. But there is something to be said about learning from the past and letting it rest.”

Dimitri stands, clapping a hand to Felix’s shoulder, and smiles. Felix glances up, and a shock runs down his spine as he realizes that he can’t spot bags below Dimitri’s eyes. When had that happened? How long has it been since he’s looked—really looked—at the boy he’d once called his best friend?

“You’re moving forward. There is no fault in admitting it.”

In those murky, inscrutable years since the accident, Dimitri had gotten wiser, and he’d left Felix wallowing in the past. It’s a horrifying revelation, and it clings to Felix’s skin like cobwebs in dire need of brushing away. Well, Felix can do that. He can move on. He’s never backed down from a challenge.

“Fine. So Sylvain had something to do with me playing again. So what?”

“So nothing. I am only glad you are allowing yourself to reconnect with music. You seem much happier for it. I’ll be delighted to hear you play again.”

Felix grimaces, the sour notes of the day’s earlier practice session ringing in his ears. “Not today.” He chances a glance at the piano behind him. “I haven’t practiced enough yet.”

“Well, all in good time.” Dimitri nods his head toward the dining room. “Shall we?”

The line of Dimitri’s back is confident as he leads the way, and Felix stands a little taller, light on his feet, as he follows half a step behind.

 

♪ 389 ♪

It’s a better day. Not a good one—there hasn’t been one of those in well over a month, as much as Felix can never admit that out loud—but Sylvain is more awake and less tired than he has been in a while. Enough to celebrate, at least a little, and when Sylvain asks if they can take a walk in the courtyard, Felix doesn’t think twice before saying yes. How long has it been since Sylvain’s gotten any real fresh air?

Time is dripping away with no good news on the horizon, and a cloying sense of helplessness blankets Sylvain’s hospital room.

The nurse who gets called in isn’t happy to be sent on a fetch quest to get a wheelchair, but he brings it back with no more than an eyeroll and a stern word to Sylvain about resting. Sylvain waves him off, leaning heavily on Felix as his feet find the floor, and Felix helps him land mostly gracefully into its seat. The nurse helps hang the IV bag and leaves.

Felix does not think about how light Sylvain is or the fact that he’s so thin Felix can feel his bones trying to jut through his skin. He isn’t as successful in preventing himself from staring at the way Sylvain’s skin is as gray as it’s been for months, almost translucent under the yellowing light of the hospital room, paper-thin and blossoming with bruises where needles have jabbed him over and over. His right arm is speckled with the marks, a tattooed galaxy of scars in place of the freckles that once dotted his skin. Felix hates them.

Sylvain is silent on the way down to the first floor, closed in, not even trying to flirt. He doesn’t make eye contact with the nurses and doctors as they pass, and he’s unresponsive to Felix’s two attempts to ask if he’s comfortable, instead lost in his own head and so quiet he’s barely even a shadow of himself. The fact that Sylvain’s not trying for his usual facade else sends a chill down the back of Felix’s neck, and he pushes the wheelchair a little faster toward the salvation of the outdoors.

The courtyard is almost empty when they arrive. It’s not the most visited corner of the hospital, but the couple of times they’ve come down before have seen more company than just the squirrels and sparrows. The only other human occupants are an elderly couple resting on a bench at the far edge nearest the visitor parking lot. Felix isn’t sure they’re even awake.

Sylvain’s voice breaks Felix out of his reverie. “You don’t have to waste your time doing this, you know.”

This again. It’s been so many months and Sylvain still falls back on the same, old patterns of doubt.

Felix rolls them over to a bench, and he drops himself onto it, across from Sylvain. “I decide how to spend my time. Besides, you should enjoy the weather while it’s here.”

Sylvain drops his head against the back of the wheelchair and glances weakly around, his mouth twisting in disdain. “I guess. Looks the same as every other time though.”

“You said you were feeling better today. You wanted this ten minutes ago.”

Sylvain scoffs. “I guess. But I realized on the way down—it’s always going to be the same, for however many days I’ve got left. The most I’ll ever see is that ugly mulberry tree and those sad lilac bushes. So what’s the point?”

Felix flounders for a beat. “You like the lilac bushes. You said so.”

“Did I?” Sylvain hangs his head. “I can’t remember anymore. The days are all just running together. It’s all so pointless.” He sighs and curls in on himself, his arms crossing his body protectively. “I keep making you spend time here, when you could be doing better things.”

Felix growls. “What better things?”

“Something. Anything! I don’t know. School, practicing, hanging out with your friends—they’re all better than spending hours in a hospital.”

“I don’t know how you haven’t got it through your head yet, but I want to be here. I wanted to be able to help you when you collapsed, I wanted to be there when you were told that you needed long-term care, and I’ve wanted to be here every time I’ve visited you since. Get it through your head: I’m not leaving.”

Sylvain shrinks further into himself. “Maybe you should. There’s no point. I’ll be dead within a couple months anyway. I’m not getting the transplant in time.” He glances up at Felix, his eyes a dull void. “Being sure isn’t going to magically make a kidney that matches mine appear.”

Miklan’s taunting face, leering as he tells Felix that he’s registered to be a donor, hovers behind Felix’s eyelids. The person most likely to match Sylvain, the man who could save his brother—the monster who relishes in watching idly as his kin wastes away. Felix ran into Miklan over a week ago, but he hasn’t told Sylvain that he saw him at all. Even Felix knows that it would only serve to make things worse.

The words are just behind his lips now, but he forces his mouth closed and bites his tongue. There isn’t any comfort to be found in the knowledge he holds.

“Don’t quit. Not while there’s still a chance.”

Sylvain blinks once and turns away. “I don’t know if I can do that.” He shakes his head. “Let’s go back up, there’s nothing here.”

Felix stands to wheel Sylvain back, and their return is just as quiet as the descent.

Despair stretches on the horizon, its yawning maw encroaching with every day. Its bitterness is beginning to settle in Felix’s heart too, and he has to dig deeper and deeper to find his own resolve. Felix had promised himself that he would never give up, that he would never let go of Sylvain’s hand, but every day now is a day like today, with hope little more than a faraway wishing star.

It’s not too late yet. Felix has to believe that.

 

♪ 195 ♪

Felix stares at himself in the bathroom mirror.

This shirt fit, once. Now, the cuffs leave an obvious gap at his wrists and the clothing pinches at his shoulders and armpits. That Glenn had been able to dig it out of Felix’s closet is nothing short of a miracle. But he can’t wear this out to the symphony. Not if he doesn’t want to be laughed at. Felix may care little for propriety or dressing nicely, but he grew up with this, he knows what the expectations are. And besides, as annoying and inconsequential as it is, Sylvain cares, the flashy bastard.

So the question remains: what the fuck is Felix going to wear? It’s not like he can go shopping for new clothes now, and he wouldn’t see the point of buying another dress shirt he’s never going to wear again either.

Felix tugs haplessly on the sleeves, to no avail. There’s no way to get them to cover his wrists.

Glenn snickers from behind Felix.

“Fuck off,” Felix says, not bothering to look at him.

“Aw, don’t be like that. It’s cute that you thought you could still wear clothes from four years ago.”

Felix grunts. “Got a better alternative, asshole?”

“Actually, yes.” Glenn props his elbow on Felix’s shoulder. “Just wear one of my shirts, dipshit.”

Felix wrinkles his nose. “I’m taller than you.”

“Barely.”

“Still taller.”

“Yeah, and my clothes are still going to fit you better than a shirt from years ago.”

Felix scoffs. “Fine.” He pauses as a terrible thought hits him. “I’m not wearing any of your pastels, though.”

“Wear whatever you want, my closet’s open to you. Just don’t ruin my shirt,” Glenn says, waving Felix out of the bathroom.

Felix clicks his tongue, but makes his way to Glenn’s bedroom. Franz meows at him, circling his heels, but Felix only stops to offer him a quick, apologetic scratch behind the ears. He can’t afford to get distracted. Sylvain will be here any minute, and Felix needs to get dressed.

Glenn’s bedroom is clean save for a sweater thrown over a chair and a pair of socks abandoned on the floor. The wardrobe is thrown open, Glenn’s shirts on display in rainbow order, and Felix skims past the brighter colors to Glenn’s few somber articles. For someone who only dressed in black as a teenager, Glenn really did grow up to eschew the color and anything similar to it.

Felix throws off his old shirt and grabs the sole navy button-down. It doesn’t sit quite right against his shoulders and it’s a little shorter than he’d like, but Felix will take what he can get.

The apartment’s buzzer sounds, jolting Felix and causing him to fumble the top button. Glenn calls out that he’s getting the door, and Felix rushes to finish dressing before Glenn can do something truly horrifying like pull out baby pictures or try to entertain Sylvain with his piano skills. Felix swears under his breath and runs back to his own room to shove his wallet and keys into the pockets of his best black jeans. He nearly trips over Franz—bad cat bad cat, not now—on his way to the living room.

Glenn’s chatting with Sylvain, his grin wide and awful, and he has an assessing eyebrow raised. He turns to smirk at Felix as he enters, and it’s about all Felix can do to resist telling him to get lost.

“Nice of you to join us, ’Lix. And here I was thinking maybe I should take your place since you’re so slow—it’s been a while since I went to the symphony too.”

“Go away, Glenn,” Felix says, and he shoulder-checks his brother in the good arm as he passes. “Stop bothering us.”

Glenn sighs, turning to Sylvain. “You see what I put up with every day? So much disrespect.” He shrugs, exaggerated and hapless, but retreats from the living room anyway, crouching at the exit to pick up Franz as he goes. “Don’t have too much fun, kids. Try to get Felix home before his bedtime, won’t you? He gets cranky otherwise.”

“Fuck you!” Felix calls at Glenn’s retreating back. Glenn’s cackles follow him out, disappearing as he shuts the door to his room.

Sylvain laughs and reels Felix in by a hand. Felix lets himself be pulled forward, and he studies Sylvain’s face. His skin is a warmer shade than it’s been the last few times Felix has seen him, but there’s still something disconcertingly gray about it. He’s dressed in a wine red shirt and black tie, his jacket over his arm. His slacks are neat and crisp, a set with the jacket and perfectly paired with the shirt and tie. Sylvain’s shoes shine despite the dull lighting of the living room. He’s the perfect image of a gentleman.

All at once, Felix is acutely aware of how underdressed he is.

“You ready?” Sylvain asks, pressing a kiss to Felix’s temple. His hand brushes along the collar of Felix’s imperfectly-fitted shirt. “You look great.”

It’s a lie, no matter how much it leaves warmth in Felix’s chest, but they have no time for Felix to call him on it. They’ll be late if they don’t leave now. “Shut up. Let’s go.”

Sylvain laughs and leads the way, his hand brushing briefly against Felix’s and sending a thrill up his arm. But he doesn’t take Felix’s hand and he continues past, fussing with his left cuff. He fiddles with it incessantly, unbuttoning and rebuttoning it all the way to the car, completely distracted. Felix blinks—it’s not any habit of Sylvain’s that he’s aware of—and he flexes his own empty hand at his side as he follows.

Sylvain lets himself into the driver seat and stares through the windshield, unseeing. It’s unsettling to say the least, but if he’s fine to drive, there’s no time to waste. Felix clears his throat loudly to remind Sylvain to unlock the car door, and he blinks sheepishly as Felix climbs in, looking him over critically.

The ride to the symphony hall in the heart of the city is peaceful, with Romantic piano playing on bluetooth from Sylvain’s phone—Schubert, probably, though Felix doesn’t recognize the repertoire. Nothing they’re listening to tonight; the concert is all chamber music from the last century or so. Not Felix’s typical fare, even within classical music, and if anyone else had asked, he would have said no, but before he could even process what Sylvain had been proposing, his traitorous tongue had already spat out, “Fine. Whatever you want.”

Sylvain glances over at Felix at every stoplight, a smile tugging at his lips like he can’t believe they’re actually going to the symphony.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Felix says after the fourth time, smirking. He laughs when Sylvain sends him a pout. “We’re almost there.”

“I can’t help it, I can’t take my eyes off you.”

Felix’s cheeks warm and he turns to stare out the window. “Again with the ridiculous lines.”

Sylvain hums in agreement, but lets the subject drop. They pass their destination, the entrance dotted with stodgily dressed men and women playing at aristocracy and wealth, and pull into a prepaid lot two blocks beyond. Sylvain flashes his virtual parking pass to the attendant and nods back as the attendant waves them in. He rushes to open Felix’s door, bowing like the stagecoach driver out of some Victorian novel, and Felix snorts as he takes his hand.

Felix can’t tell if it’s the shadows from the sunset or something else entirely, but the bags beneath Sylvain’s eyes seem to deepen in the dimming light. He looks like a ghost, gaunt and haunted, his face ashy. The image sends a chill down Felix’s spine.

“Come on,” he says, slamming the car door behind him. “We don’t want to be late.”

The car locks with a chirp and Felix lets Sylvain tuck their joined hands into his pocket. It’s not the most comfortable way to walk, distractingly close to the faint scent of Sylvain’s cologne, his arm bent at an odd angle, half distracted with not crashing into Sylvain with every step—but Sylvain grins over at him and Felix can’t bring himself to care.

They join the throngs trickling into the hall, their tickets conjured from the depths within Sylvain’s jacket. Sylvain leans heavily against him, sighing, and his hand glances against Felix’s hip. Felix throws him a frown. “We are in public,” he hisses, only half-joking.

“Sorry, just—give me a moment.”

Sylvain’s face is ashen again, and sweat is trickling down his temple as he breathes.

“Sylvain?”

“Hold on—”

Sylvain sinks more heavily against Felix, his arm sliding and his body falling limp. Felix grabs him in alarm, but the sudden weight drags them both to the ground. The crowd around them parts as Sylvain drops, and it’s all Felix can do not to fall over on top of him.

“Sylvain! Sylvain, say something!”

Whispers flash through the crowd, feet backing away as though standing too close to Sylvain will sully their evening best. The weight of their stares bear down on the back of Felix’s neck, useless and judgmental and uncaring. Why isn’t anyone doing anything to help Sylvain?

Sylvain heaves out a sputtering breath, but says nothing, and Felix’s hysteria reaches a fever pitch. Felix would normally hit something, break anything, in an attempt to claw back control—but is CPR even the best tactic? Does he remember it from that health class two years ago? What if it doesn’t—

A woman gently pulls him out of the way and presses her ear near Sylvain’s mouth. She turns to Felix. “He’s breathing.” Felix nods. “I’m a doctor. I’ll stay with him.” She checks his wrists. “He’s not wearing any medical identifiers. Does he have any conditions?”

“No—no.” Medical identifiers? Conditions? Sylvain didn’t have any of those; he’s just a college student, just overworked, like the rest of them. He’s not the most reliable person, but there’s nothing wrong with Sylvain.

The woman nods. “Call an ambulance.”

With shaking hands, Felix fumbles his phone. It takes a second try, but he manages to dial in 9-1-1.

Felix doesn’t stop shaking all the way to the hospital.

It takes over four, long hours in the waiting room before Felix is let in to see Sylvain.

Four hours is plenty of time for Mercedes—awoken at midnight by Annette—to call to explain “chronic kidney disease”. It’s also ample time for diving into the bottomless hole that is medical information on the internet. The only thing keeping him awake by the time two in the morning rolls around is the new information knocking around in his head.

Sylvain smiles at Felix in greeting when he enters the hospital room but falls silent at the look on Felix’s face. The air in the room is tense and awkward. Felix shuffles into a chair and stares stonily at the dialysis machine.

Felix is silent as blood cycles in and out of Sylvain’s body, dark and foreboding. Blood should be bright, vibrant, a reminder of life. Annette would go on about how blood turns different colors depending on its oxygenation, but Felix doesn’t care. This is blood, but it’s also sludge—a reminder of Sylvain splayed, pale and boneless, on the sidewalk.

It’s awful, but it’s keeping Sylvain alive.

Sylvain glance down at the book in his hands. Felix still doesn’t know where it was conjured from. “You okay there? I promise, staring at the machine can’t make it explode.”

“I know that,” Felix scoffs. He clicks his tongue at Sylvain.

Sylvain frowns. “Is something wrong?”

“Nothing.” Other than feeling like a fool for taking so long to learn why Sylvain tired so easily and was often unavailable on weekdays. How had Felix never connected the dots on Sylvain’s poor health?

The truths Sylvain didn’t tell Felix swim behind his eyelids. In every greeting, every smile, he becomes more brittle and bruised. The images all lead to the same end: Sylvain, hollow and lifeless, a puppet with his strings cut.

Sylvain’s smile has always verged on fake, because he’s a suave bastard who wormed his way into Felix’s heart with exceptional ease and a little too much charisma, but Felix thought they were past that. Apparently not. Knowing that he hadn’t been worth honesty chills Felix to the bone; what other lies swim beneath Sylvain’s skin?

Felix isn’t some princess in need of coddling. His frustration at Sylvain’s implicit denials only festered as the month passed. If Sylvain won’t say anything to clear the air, he will.

“Actually,” Felix says, glaring hard at Sylvain. Sylvain looks at Felix, faintly puzzled. “I need to say something. Don’t interrupt me.”

Sylvain tenses and his gaze drops. Felix’s chest clenches and guilt immediately twists under his skin, but he sets his teeth. Felix isn’t wrong. Even Annette and Ingrid acknowledged as much when he called them for advice. He deserves the truth, and he deserves an explanation.

Sylvain speaks before Felix can continue.

“Look… I get it. You don’t have to say anything. No one wants to be, waiting on someone who’s sick. If you want to go, just go.”

Felix frowns. “That’s not—I’m not leaving, but we need to talk.”

“What’s there to say? You’ve realized I’m not worth your time. That’s fine. I’m not going to make you stay.” Sylvain's shoulders sag as he speaks, the weight of his hopelessness bearing down on them.

“Will you listen to me?” Felix growls. Sylvain’s knuckles tighten on his book, but he meets Felix’s eyes. “I’m not leaving. That’s not what I was going to talk about.”

“Isn’t it? Isn’t that what it always is? That I’m a disappointment, a waste, a leech.”

“You’re not listening!” The urge to storm out flashes, but Felix takes a breath. And then another. And another. Breathe, just breathe, Annette’s voice says in his ear. You need to use your words. Easy for her to say, as chatty as she is. It’s not that easy for him, especially if he can’t just be angry.

“Felix?”

“Shut up.” Hurt flashes across Sylvain’s face and Felix grits his teeth. This is coming out wrong. There’s no way for it to come out right, because even if Sylvain’s being stupid and making ridiculous assumptions, a confrontation is still a confrontation, and Sylvain likes to run away. “I’m not—I don’t want to leave. I… I care about you. A lot. Way too much. So you need to understand, when you don’t tell me things, when you lie to me—that hurts. If we’re together, I need you to be honest with me.”

“What—Felix, no, I would never lie to you.” Sylvain reaches for his hand, but Felix pulls it away.

“Really? Then why didn’t you tell me about this,” he says, caustic, waving a hand at the machine, “until it was too late. Or, no, you didn’t tell me. You collapsed instead.” Felix clicks his tongue in disgust. “You all make the same mistakes and never learn. You, Glenn, my father—pretending things are okay doesn’t miraculously fix them.”

Sylvain looks away. His voice is quiet and trembling when he speaks. “You’re not different, you know. In pretending.” He snorts. “You want things to be easy, like my parents. You don’t want the truth. You want this to go away. Well, y’know what? I’d love that too. But this is what we’re stuck with. And if it’s not enough for you—there’s nothing to really say. The door’s there and I won’t make you stay if you don’t want to be here.”

“I already said that’s not what I’m saying!”

“Really?” Sylvain’s voice crescendos with anger. Like Felix is the one who’s wrong. “Because I get it. Who wants to be with someone who’s chained to a dialysis machine? Who’s going to die soon? Why waste your time? Believe me, I know. You don’t need to stick around out of pity.”

“I—what? I didn’t say any of that.” Confusion replaces Felix’s anger, and he stares blankly at Sylvain.

“You don’t have to hide between nice words. Leave that to people who are better at it.”

And the anger is back. Felix stands, pacing across the cramped space of the hospital room.

“You don’t get to put words in my mouth. I’m not trying to leave you. I don’t know how many times you want me to say it. I just—it sucked not to know about you, to watch you pass out and not know what was going on. I sat in the fucking waiting room for four hours. It’s 2am and I’m exhausted and the only thing I’ve been able to think about is being terrified about whether you’re going to make it through the night. How would you feel if you were in the dark until Mercedes called to explain why I passed out in the middle of a date.” He shudders out a breath. “I’m not leaving you. You don’t get to accuse me of that. Not when you keep leaving me in the dark.”

Silence reigns, the only sound Felix’s heavy breathing as he finally halts, his back to Sylvain. The quiet stretches, uncomfortable, and the fight goes out of Felix.

“If you want me to leave, or if you can’t be honest with me, tell me. I want to be here, but if you want me gone and are trying to make me think it’s my idea—”

“Felix, wait, no—” There’s a clatter and a hiss behind Felix, and he turns. Sylvain tried to get out of his bed, forgetting that he was still attached to the dialysis machine, and yanked it along behind him. His arm bleeds where the needle is misplaced.

Felix rushes back to his side. “You idiot, what are you doing?”

“Felix—Fe, please don’t leave. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” His eyes are pleading and his hand clutches tight at Felix's arm.

The weak part of Felix wants to cave immediately and hold Sylvain. To promise him that they’re okay and that everything’s okay. Except that’s not true, so Felix bites his lip. “I need you to mean it.”

“I—yes. I always mean it.” Sylvain says, smiling, watery and rueful. “Even when I shouldn’t. I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening to you.” He runs his hand through his hair and laughs, low and self-deprecating. “I’m always making things worse, aren’t I?”

“Do you really think—”

“But, somehow, I have you anyway, and you haven’t given up on me.” Sylvain shrugs. “That’s kind of a miracle. I never said anything because I kept waiting for you to realize that you were tired of me, or that you deserve someone better. No point in burdening you.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

“I know. I believe you.”

“So you have to talk to me.” This is the promise he needs to extract, this is what Sylvain has to change. If he keeps hiding, there's no way for Felix to be there for him when he needs it.

Sylvain stares at his hands, lost in thought. Felix follows the trail of blood winding down toward Sylvain’s palm, equal parts entranced and horrified. Finally, Sylvain speaks. “I’ll try. I’ll fuck it up because that’s what I always do—but I’ll try.”

“I can accept that.” Felix sighs and guides Sylvain back to his bed. “Let me get you one of the nurses. Don’t move.”

“I’m fine. Stay here.” There’s a pleading note to Sylvain’s voice, but Felix shakes his head, small and comforting. His chest is uncomfortably tight. They have more to talk about, but it can wait.

“You’re bleeding. It’ll only take me a minute.” Fear clouds Sylvain’s gaze and Felix represses a groan. “I’m not leaving the building. I’ll be back.”

“Okay,” Sylvain says, pouting as he finally agrees. The urge to kiss it off him rises, but Felix tamps it down and makes for the door. He can have that, later, after he gets someone to help Sylvain.

He pauses halfway across the threshold. “I’m here for you. Never doubt that. You can trust me like I trust you.”

Sylvain’s relief is audible. “Thanks, Fe. For everything.”

 

♪ 424 ♪

Felix’s phone blares the main theme of the New World Symphony next to his pillow, loud and unexpected. He blinks against the darkness of his room and gropes blindly for the screaming device. He gets calls so rarely he’d forgotten what it was set to. He never should have let Sylvain talk him into changing his ringtone.

The number isn’t in his contacts, but it’s familiar. He resists the urge to reject the call.

“Hello?”

“Is this Felix Fraldarius?” The voice on the other end is cool, clinical.

“Yeah, who’s asking.”

“I’m calling from the Lady Cethleann Hospital. Mr. Gautier asked that you be contacted.”

Felix sits upright, his heart pounding, dread pooling in his stomach. “Did something happen to Sylvain? Did he—”

He can’t bring himself to say it.

“Mr. Gautier is stable at the moment, but undergoing surgery at our sister facility.” Felix hears the smile in the voice at the other end. “He’s going to be alright.”

“Where?” Felix demands, hands shaking.

By the time the call ends, Felix can’t tell if seconds or hours of time have passed, but he stumbles out of bed to bang on Glenn’s door. He’s numb down to his fingertips and each step is a mile forward, hope fluttering in his veins. It’s a testament to the shock etched on Felix’s face that Glenn doesn’t complain about the hour or tease him about being afraid of the dark, only turns around to get dressed himself.

They drive in silence. It’s only as they’re pulling up to the visitor’s entrance that Glenn speaks. “Do you want me to come in with you?”

Felix shakes his head. “No, you have work in the morning. I’ll call a cab home later, but I need to be here now.”

Glenn yawns. “It’ll be okay.”

Felix exhales shakily. “Yeah… maybe it finally will.”

Glenn claps Felix on the shoulder and unlocks the doors. “Call me if you need me. I’m here for you, and for Sylvain.”

After almost getting turned away as he tries to figure out where to go, Felix ends up in an empty waiting room on the third floor. There’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to see Sylvain immediately, or even by morning. But he couldn’t sit still at home with no news. He needs to be here in case anything changes.

Felix settles in for a long, tense wait, with nothing for company but the half-light of a hospital asleep and the clamor of his thoughts.

He awakens several hours later to footsteps clicking closer against the linoleum of the hospital floor. Felix blinks blearily awake. He hadn’t even been aware of falling asleep; the last thing he remembers is checking the time at just past four in the morning and wondering how many more hours he’d spend waiting. His phone says it’s just before six now.

Felix sighs, fidgeting against the uncomfortable waiting room sofa. His back cracks loudly into the void.

The steps halt somewhere to Felix’s left.

“Felix Fraldarius?”

Felix grunts, turning toward the sound. “Yes?”

“Mr. Gautier is asking for you. His parents have just left, and we can accommodate you in his room now.”

Felix stands, suddenly very awake. “Take me to him.”

“Right this way.”

The walk to Sylvain’s new hospital room stretches for eons as they twist and turn. Realistically, they arrive in under a minute, but every heartbeat feels like another trial to cross, and Felix is shaking again.

The nurse knocks gently on a blank door before turning the knob and motioning Felix in. She heaves a sigh, the early hour weighing on her, and the door falls shut as she walks away.

Sylvain is propped into a sitting position on the bed. His head lolls against his shoulder, and he turns slowly to face Felix.

“Hey,” Sylvain croaks. “Felix…”

“Go back to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”

“Mmm… Wanna hold your hand,” Sylvain mumbles, already heading back toward slumber. He shouldn’t even be awake after his surgery, but leave it to Sylvain to endanger himself by waking up too early.

“Fine,” Felix huffs, and he pulls a chair from the wall to the bedside. “Now go to sleep. I’m staying right here.”

“Mmkay… Love you…”

Felix buries his face in a hand, his cheeks flaming.

Sylvain is more coherent when he wakes again just past noon.

“Felix… You’re still here.”

Felix frowns. “I said I would be.” He drags his chair closer and reaches for Sylvain’s hand.

“Yeah… I just. It’s a Friday, and you have classes.”

“I don’t care about that. I’d rather be here.”

Sylvain smiles, weak and strained, but honest. It lights up his face despite his pallor. “I’m glad you stayed.” He yawns, wincing as his back pops. “Thought it might have been a dream.”

“It’s not a dream.”

“It was a really good dream.” Sylvain squeezes, faint, against Felix’s hand. “It’s even better now that I’m awake.”

Felix huffs. “How are you feeling?”

“Sore. Still numb.” He looks away. “I still can’t believe it.”

“I told you.”

Sylvain hums. “You did.” He sighs. “I think—when my parents were here, before the nurses let you in. They mentioned Miklan.”

“What about him,” Felix says, flat. There’s no good reason for anyone to concern Miklan with Sylvain’s wellbeing. Sylvain is healing, and he’ll heal faster without needing to worry about the person who had made his childhood a living hell.

“I think—I’m not sure, I was still pretty foggy, but I think they mentioned… funeral arrangements. Drunk driving. A car accident.” Sylvain’s voice is barely a whisper, wretched and unsure.

The words are like a shock of ice, dousing Felix from head to toe. The timing is too convenient, and it’s the worst thing Felix has heard. It’s the universe’s idea of a cruel joke, to bring Sylvain back only to chain him permanently to his tormentor.

Felix clears his throat. “Did they say anything else?”

“No—I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

Felix squeezes Sylvain’s hand, tight but careful; Sylvain’s healing, finally, but only just. He has a long way ahead of him toward recovery.

“It’s fine. Don’t think about Miklan, you need to worry about yourself.”

Sylvain turns his head to look at Felix, and Felix turns away.

“Felix…” Sylvain’s voice is broken, a choked sob lodged in his throat, betrayal bubbling beneath the surface. Felix’s stomach drops out. “Felix, did you know? Did you know that he’s my donor?”

“I—”

“Felix… please. I need the truth.”

“I… He said he put himself on the registry, but not for you. Never for you. He said you could have his kidneys over—over his dead body.” Felix snorts. “Guess he got his wish.”

Sylvain trembles, his whole body wracked with shivers as he processes Felix’s words. He might be on the verge of tears, and Felix isn’t sure he can handle them. Felix brings their joined hands to his forehead and continues: “He told me, once, so he could taunt me. Taunt us. He was at your hospital right after he’d signed up, but he left.”

Miklan had run away, a coward with his tail between his legs, too cruel and too worthless to admit that he could save Sylvain, too heartless to recognize the role he should play as Sylvain’s family.

“He was right. He was always right, and now that truth is fucking stuck inside my body. I have the scars for proof.” Sylvain says, and he laughs, weak and broken. It shatters into a cough. “They’re never going to go away.”

“No. No, he was never right. Sylvain, you have to know that. He was a bastard, and even when he could have helped you, he wanted to hurt you.”

“I mean, I’m still taking things from him, even now that he’s… he’s—” Sylvain shudders, his mouth moving, but the sounds unable to find their way out.

“Dead. He’s dead.” And Felix wouldn’t mourn him in the least. The only downside to his death was that it had cursed Sylvain in an entirely new way.

Sylvain flinches. “It’s my fault, isn’t it?”

“No,” Felix says, blunt. “It’s not. Why would it be?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know, but it feels like it is.” Sylvain’s words are horrified, spilling forth faster than he can keep up, and his breathing is quickening at an alarming rate. “It has to be. It’s always been. It—”

Felix stands and grabs Sylvain’s face, staring hard into his eyes. Sylvain’s skin is clammy under his hands, and Felix hates it. He can only have faith that one day, soon, his sun will return.

“Sylvain, shut up.” Sylvain stares up at Felix, for once too shocked to speak. Or maybe too weak. Felix doesn’t think about that option. “Your brother was awful to you, and he went out of his way to hurt you. Constantly. It—it fucking sucks that he’s literally going to be part of you, but you can’t let that hold you down. You have to move forward. It’s not your fault, and you can only make the best of this.”

“How can I have that right? I keep taking and taking and taking—”

He’s the one who kept taking! You’ve given so much.” Felix brings his forehead down to Sylvain’s and closes his eyes. “Don’t say that. Not when you gave me back music. So don’t give up on yourself. I mean it, Sylvain.”

Sylvain’s breath is shaky, but present and warm as he exhales. “I don’t know.”

“Sylvain. P-please.” Felix cheeks heat and he screws his eyes shut. The words are like knives carving their way out from inside his throat, hot and blistering and impossible. It hurts to say them almost as much as it hurts to hold them in. “Please. Forget Miklan. Stay with me. There’s no point in looking back and no worth in holding on to the past, but we can build a future. Finally.”

Sylvain hiccups a sob, and Felix blinks. Tears swim and glisten in the corners of Sylvain’s eyes, shining like precious jewels of hope for days even Felix had accepted would never come. Felix’s chest burns, heavy and raw, and his vision swims.

“Hey,” Sylvain says, slowly raising a hand to brush against Felix’s wet cheek. “Don’t cry. I’m here.”

Felix chokes out a laugh. How like Sylvain to forget everything afflicting him the moment Felix shows a hint of emotion. “Big talk from you.” He wipes a thumb against a fresh tear track under Sylvain’s eye.

“Yeah. We’re quite the pair, huh?”

“So stay with me. Promise me—promise me we can stay together, no end date. You’re not going to die, and we can live together.”

“Felix…”

“Promise me. You’ve spent months giving up, and now it’s time to live.”

“Okay, okay.” Sylvain smiles up Felix, wobbly but incandescent. “I promise.”

“Good.”

Felix leans down to press his lips to Sylvain’s, and endless months of anguish and waiting uncoil when Sylvain leans up to meet him in the middle. The metaphors about angelic choirs under the opening heavens are bullshit, but maybe that’s because the real song is a cello, yearning, melancholic and sweet.

It’s the most beautiful silence Felix has ever heard.

~~~

Only twenty minutes to sleep
But you dream of some epiphany
Just one single glimpse of relief
To make some sense of what you've seen

~~~

Sylvain slides a hand along the fingerboard, letting the chrome steel of the strings guide him toward the bridge. His bow hangs loose in the other. The calluses of his fingers, renewed after months of practice, run against the metal. The ghost of their pressure is like an old friend found after a war—safe, at long last, with the battle behind him, filled with tears of joy and disbelief.

He’s missed this. A wave of emotion rocks through him, and he grips the neck of his cello tight, an anchor to keep him from drowning on his feet.

It takes a steadying breath, but Sylvain grounds himself. The music emanating from the stage is in his ears again. Felix is out there, and the Waldstein Sonata flies from his fingers, forceful and flighty, a spectre that haunted him for years now finally released. It sounds better tonight than every time he’s played it for Sylvain before and not because of the hall’s acoustics. It’s the culmination of everything Felix spent his childhood working for, every reason he suffered years of silence, every memory he has built and rebuilt. It’s all come to a head, and it’s paying off.

The Waldstein won’t be the only payoff—Sylvain used to dream of playing together with Felix, of sitting by side with him on the stage. Once an impossibility borne of Felix’s stubbornness and Sylvain’s own damnable weakness, now a fantasy about to come to fruition. Anticipation sings in Sylvain’s veins as he waits for his entrance.

Sylvain is so proud of Felix, and his heart sings with each brilliant run as it dances free off the keys. The smile on Sylvain’s face hasn’t budged since Felix stepped onto the stage about an hour ago at the beginning of the concert and opened with a Rachmaninoff Étude-Tableaux.

Felix turns the final, frenetic corner of the sonata, the sound ringing through the hall and racing toward the finish, and he lands in a glorious cadence of dazzling major key. The final chords strike bright in their resolution and hover in the hall for a long moment before applause erupts. The crowd—Felix’s crowd, and no one else’s—is of moderate size, maybe two-thirds of the seats filled, but their cheers permeate the space, expanding to fill the room better than many of the sold-out concerts Sylvain’s been to. He grins and claps along, less enthusiastically than he might without his cello in hand, but with as much vigor as he can muster. Felix deserves nothing less.

As the applause continues, Felix comes into view, walking off the stage with his chest still heaving from the exertion and his face set in its typical, irritated pout. His expression softens as he approaches, and he stops in front of Sylvain, his head jerking back behind him.

“Ready?”

Sylvain lets out a soft laugh and yanks Felix toward him in a one-armed hug. “Always. I’ve been waiting for this since the moment I met you.”

The click of Felix’s tongue is muffled against the shoulder of Sylvain’s jacket. “Ugh, sap.”

Sylvain tightens his arm in response.

Felix relaxes for a brief moment and Sylvain debates the merits of taking the chance to steal a kiss, but before he can do anything, Felix throws him off. “Let’s go.”

The tips of Felix’s ears are red as they turn around and stalk back onto the stage. Sylvain follows, chuckling under his breath.

The crowd greets them with a few polite, cursory claps, and they bow before taking their seats. Sylvain takes a moment to adjust his cello, finding a place for his endpin to rest where it won’t slip during the performance, and he glances back at Felix once settled, nodding.

Felix keeps his eye and he inhales, quick and sharp, his bow sweeping as he prepares the upbeat, and they land together on the entrance in perfect synchrony, the music sweeping them away. Mendelssohn’s Cello Sonata No. 2 pours forth, its theme dazzling and hopeful in a way Sylvain hadn’t thought he could feel again.

He can only see Felix out of the corner of his eye, but he knows instinctively that they breathe as one, carried away in the melody and dance of the interplay between cello and piano. There’s no metronome to keep time, no beating to count down the notes remaining in the piece, only him and Felix freed to sing to the heavens in the way they know best.

The theme weaves seamlessly, passed back and forth in an endless build toward the piece’s peak, and Sylvain could swear the rush of blood pounding in his ears is the sound of Felix’s heart in time with his own. His fingers flit up and down the fingerboard on instinct, trained and honed for this very moment, and they move effortlessly, every note coming to his command without hesitation or fault. The piano rings behind him, reverberates through him and into the hall—it’s Felix’s soul, entwining with his own.

It’s exhilarating—to play carefree, to play on a stage again, to play with Felix. He’s not supposed to be here; he shouldn’t have made it this far. But he has. This—this sonata, this duet, this sound—this is Sylvain’s reality. Maybe he should thank some god or other, or count his blessings from lady luck. Where would he even start? It was Miklan’s misfortune that gave him this chance, and thanking the gods for his brother’s death is questionable even by Sylvain’s low standards.

But it feels ungrateful not to recognize a miracle for what it is.

Sylvain blinks, and a tear slips down his cheek.

The rest of the performance passes in a blur, his eyes closed as he falls into the rush of sound and lets it wash him away into its current. He hears every phrase passed to him by Felix and he sends it back with twice the passion until his brow is flecked with sweat and it’s all he can do not to break out in sobs as he plays. The tears don’t stop, not at the second movement, not at the fourth, not even as he and Felix alight at the final chords, the sound resonating through the hall.

The crowd erupts, their applause peppered with cheers, and Sylvain hears Glenn and Dorothea catcalling from somewhere to his left.

He stands to take a bow, his cello shifting to his right hand to extend the left behind him to lead Felix forward so they can stand side by side. Sylvain bows first, waist-deep, with another sob biting at his chest, and he sucks in a shuddering breath as he stands. Beside him, Felix takes his bow, little more than a nod and a perfunctory tilt of his head, and looks at him. Felix’s eyebrows pinch in concern as he catches sight of the tear tracks no doubt mottling Sylvain’s face, but Sylvain can’t bring himself to care about how ugly and ridiculous he must look in this moment.

They did it. They made it.

Sylvain grasps Felix’s hand in his and pulls him into another bow, together this time, in perfect harmony despite the surprise that flickers across Felix’s face, and they bid their audience good-bye. They make it just off-stage when Felix pulls the cello from Sylvain’s hands and places it to the side. His hands rise to frame Sylvain’s face, their palms warm and slightly rough and so, so perfect against his skin, and his gaze meets Sylvain’s.

“You okay?”

Sylvain laughs, wet and just shy of hysterical. “Yeah… yeah. I just—I never thought this day would come. I’m—I’m supposed to be dead right now, and if Miklan hadn’t… hadn’t—”

“Don’t.” Felix’s hands squeeze, vice-like, squashing Sylvain’s cheeks. His gaze burns against Sylvain. “It’s not your fault.”

“Isn’t it?”

No. Today has nothing to do with him.”

Sylvain shakes his head. “You’re—you’re right.” He brings his own hands to cover Felix’s. “Today’s our day.”

“You’re damn right it is.”

“We did it.”

“Yeah.”

Sylvain smiles, the edges quivering as he blinks back tears threatening to pour anew. “I love you.”

Felix pulls him down into a searing kiss, the passion from the stage back in full force. He’s never been able to say it as easily, but Sylvain knows. He’s known it in the way Felix hadn’t given up on him, the way Felix hadn’t let him give up. The endless days and nights and aches and pain—Felix had sat by his side and endured it all. And at the end of it all, after there was nothing left but the eternity suddenly stretching before them, Felix had promised to stay by him for even longer.

Sylvain drops a hand to wrap around Felix’s waist, reeling him in. He threads the other through that damnably perfect ponytail, the one he still can’t believe he gets to see every day. These parts of Felix—his chapped lips, his sharp grin, his piano-weary hands—and every part of Felix—Sylvain can keep them all, without deadline.

Without a coda to herald the end of this piece, no metronome to count down his days. The melody he’d once feared as his final movement had been nothing more than a minor key intermezzo, setting up tension for the next act.

Sylvain’s crying and Felix is holding onto him for dear life, his weight real and indelible in Sylvain’s arms as he bears down on Sylvain’s cheeks, his neck, his lips. Felix’s hands are brands against Sylvain’s skin, pulling at his hair and scraping at his nape. Sylvain kisses back with all the affection he can muster, pouring back all of Felix’s ardor in equal measure, and in his mind, the sonata’s melody starts again, the perfect soundtrack to everything they’ve become.

Felix presses one final kiss to Sylvain’s lips before leaning back, his cheeks stained beautiful red and his eyes sparkling with their own wetness.

“I—I…”

“I know.” Sylvain relaxes, and he lets his hands fall away, the loss of Felix under his palms visceral and chafing. “Thank you. For—for always being here.”

“You weren’t going anyway. Of course I wasn’t going to let you go.”

The conviction in Felix’s voice is the same as it’s always been, a steady current buoying Sylvain, tethering him to a hope that had at points been dimmed to nothing, but he’s finally beginning to believe it.

“I’m not going anywhere.” He pulls one of Felix’s hands into his own. “I’m just going with you.”

Felix grins at him, flustered and impossibly warm. He doesn’t hold it for long, too impatient and too forceful to hold still, and he turns to pull Sylvain back toward the stage. “Come on. Everyone’s waiting.”

In the distance, the chatter of their friends trickling out of the hall and the low reverberations of their final chords dance off each other, a discordant symphony, filled to the brim with life. It’s as brilliant as any masterpiece by history’s finest composers.

Sylvain exhales and lets the sound carry him forward.