There is a river—barely that, a stream—and it straggles through the ground, cutting to one side of the Valley like it intends to avoid the trouble all together. It’s where their soldiers gathered water to boil in their cookpots, hardly waiting for it to cool from scalding before they drink. One of them had pointed Felix the way, and he knelt over it now.
He can’t see himself in it. The quality of light, the quality of water, some factors unknown to him, make his features too dim to make out, like he were scrying with a dark gemstone. Distortion, and just the suggestion of his shape.
He collects water of his own. Back at camp Mercedes attended to Dimitri—no telling what he might be hiding, neither of them say.
Are they—? Felix asked.
They’re here. They’re okay.
He never gets more graceful with the question, and the tired guilt of it can’t reach him fully: that who they asked after was not everyone but an immediate group of someones, losses that would threaten collapse. Not for the war effort—fuck the war effort. For him, for them.
He clenches his fists, the exhaustion that threatens him intensified by relief. If strings held him from above he may have cut them in that moment just to be allowed rest, collapse. But he’s like the inside of a piano: all wires, all internal, taut to exactness.
A lot of blood on your face, Felix, she’d said, and knew it was his.
It’s been seen to, he said, and the sheer amount must obscure the fact that it’s healed. He’s—grateful. He hasn’t looked yet, has no means to. Always others see his face before he does, and more often. It’s a horror, being responsible for something he can’t really even know.
Skirting the makeshift camp he feels on edge, or secretive, or nothing. Potable water under one arm and medical kit in the other.
He settles among a copse of trees, a little ways behind a row of tents hastily erected to shelter the worst injured among them. He sheds his armor. Marks what pains him as he moves. His left arm is stiff and spasms when he isn’t careful. It’s a hurt he’s known for hours now.
His empty sheaths are an insult. Never, never in his life had he lost both his swords in battle. Who was he today, that this had come to pass. Anything short of death. However he’d made it, he made it. And yet.
Moralta, its blade the length between him and the grave, hung heavy and uncovered from his belt. He sets that down too, and then begins to work his sleeve up gingerly. His face hardens when he peels the fabric from where it’s dried stuck to the wounds, protective like skin. It opens some of them. He knows what he’ll see, and he’s had worse. Worse of this exact same; these will be new scars over old.
He’d overused his magic, gotten tired and then sloppy, and the lightning slipped its course to overrun his arm. Excess had to go somewhere, had to find its own way out. He pulls his shirt off over his head one-handedly. Lifts his arm and finds what he expects. The skin of his underarm is pitted with burns, on the verge of melting in places. This is the worst of it, the exit point for the ricochet of magic. The rest of it is much the shape of the lightning itself, burns that run lines down his arm and end their crawl around his fingers. There isn’t much bleeding, sealed as it was by burning.
Felix sets to cleaning it. He holds willow bark in his teeth and grits down on it as needed. It will take the edge off the ache in time but for now it is mostly somewhere to put his focus and damp the reflexive noises from the pain of cleaning. He washes and salves the wounds with indelicate touches. He wraps his arm with a roll of bandage, halfway down each finger, then ties it off at the shoulder, pulling the knot tight with his teeth.
There are other wounds, none so extensive, and they will need attention before the day is out. Later. He spits the shredded bark onto the ground. Thinking of nothing, he dips the rag he’s already put to use back into the pot of water and wrings it out. He drags it over his face and watches it redden anew. He doesn’t do an exceptional job. He’s not exceptional, least of all with himself. He wipes down Moralta, the stains in the cloth from his blood overlapped by the blood of others. Dries the sword on his pants, and then angles the flat of the blade to look into it.
He doesn’t see himself, even when he does. Only a slice of his face visible, the width of the sword. He sees himself but the image doesn’t return as something known, something sensible.
They take up nearly the whole of the reflection, the new scars that run the left side of his face.
There are three of them, none the same length. The longest, most inward on his face, runs through his eyebrow, mercifully skips his eye, then gouges all the way to stopping halfway through his top lip.
The next a little shorter and it lay a few centimeters from the corner of his eye. The outermost is shortest still, and it skirts the edge of his cheekbone, a bit more than an inch from his ear. Jagged, unpleasant. Parallel but not symmetrical. Unignorable. They’re a third of his face.
He touches his fingers to them. Watches his reflection execute the movement. They don’t hurt. It doesn’t make sense that they don’t hurt. He didn’t expect them to yet he still thinks they should.
He lays his sword down. His head plays a loud volume of nothing with a high ringing overlain that. He wipes his face dry with the cleanest part of his dirty shirt then pulls it back on.
The trees on the outskirts of Ailell look as though they’d been stuck in the ground already whittled. Spindly and sharp with no leaves to speak of. The truth of it is that they must have grown this way, in the hard dirt that, scant miles east, gives way to ash. Felix looks at the water muddled to copper with diffused blood. Then he looks to the trees. Alive, he supposes. A short assessment. The harsh lines of them, bare and alive.
He refills and drinks through his waterskin once more, then takes it with him back to the battlefield.
The diptych of killing that is burial is a consequence he can walk himself through, will take responsibility for. There are other tasks alongside. Resource recovery. The utility is undeniable when everything is scarce but it feels like looting because it is. He picks pockets, he digs graves. When the throbbing from his arm becomes too much to work through, he takes a vulnerary from one of the stockpile of salvage. Then he works some more.
Those working around him are not those who would know the difference in his face from before the battle to now, or, if they do, don’t feel comfortable remarking on it. He takes his distance as he can, but digging is a slow job done alone, and no one seems to feel like talking much, anyway.
Night comes to get them and by then the pain in his arm is insistent and flares with every movement. Baser needs foreground themselves. Food, rest. Water and more fucking water.
He heads back to camp. He needs a bath or whatever he can approximate of it. But his arm is near useless, as much as he hates to admit it, and it feels stupid to waste supplies when they have healers for this purpose.
If he’s lucky, he’ll find Mercedes or maybe Linhardt alone. He will be unlucky eventually. Soon. In that people will... look at him, and he can’t do anything about that or whatever comes after.
His return is noted almost immediately. What he was going to do for discretion in the first place, he hadn’t articulated that much to himself.
His friends circle a fire. It’s almost ritual by now, the way they gather around one the night after a day of battle. Warding off what lay beyond it for each of them.
Unlucky boy, blessed with people happy to see him.
It’s Ashe—makes sense, with his eyesight—that calls out to him. Felix tenses. Mercedes is there, too, and with little choice he makes himself walk forward into the light, expectant but not prepared.
Every face is turned toward him. Even without meeting anyone’s eye it is impossible to miss the way things shift as they take in the sight of him.
Rodrigue—Felix hadn’t even noticed him—is at his side immediately.
“Felix,” he says, unbearably soft, terribly concerned.
Felix doesn’t even look at him. More than is even typical of him, he finds he can’t.
“I—Are you alright?” His father is trying to look into his face and Felix holds stiffly forward, the light of the fire on his face but none of the heat.
“I said don’t.” Stern, gripping for control. “I’m fine. It’s nothing.”
The rest of the group is quiet, cannot even pretend at conversation or anything other than rapt attention. Some of them had risen as if to greet or surround him. In avoiding his father’s gaze, or with a magnetism he can’t control, Felix catches Sylvain watching him, still seated, his hands clasped tightly together.
Sylvain looks—Sad? Pitying? Pained. And the accommodation of pain, like he is trying to make room for it. Felix has seen the look. Never has he wanted to.
Felix keeps deliberately blank as he looks away, insofar as his blank is anger at large.
The light over him is interrupted. Dimitri stands in front of him. He must have been lingering nearby, so rarely part of a group these days.
Dimitri has more focus than Felix would have expected of him, at the end of a day like this. He stares impassive at Felix.
“They nearly took it from you as well,” he says in a low voice, almost contemplative, speaking as if it is just the two of them. He taps a finger on his cheekbone just beneath his eyepatch. “Who would have thought.” Something cold creeps in. “You, as weak as me.”
Felix whirls on him, sifting quickly through anger— boar, bastard— and nonsense— why would I be stronger than you. When have I ever been stronger than you.
Before Felix can decide what he’ll do to him, Dimitri stumbles, rather, he is pushed, staggering a step to the side and nearly collides with Rodrigue, who braces him immediately.
Annette stands before him, so angry she is nearly trembling with it.
“What is wrong with you.” She’s yelling. It could be funny, if it weren’t dangerous and brave: Annette, more than a foot shorter and probably a hundred pounds lighter, facing down the mad prince.
Dimitri’s lip pulls back, the makings of a snarl. He would never hurt her— would he never?— but let him try; as if Annette wouldn’t spell him onto his ass faster than Felix could put him there himself.
“It was for you,” she spits. “I was too far away to help, but I saw it. He took that hit defending you. You would have died, if it weren’t for him!” Her fists are clenched so tight it looks painful. “He saved you, Dimitri. And all you can do is call him—call yourself—weak?”
Much of the rest of the group has come to stand around them. Mercedes with her hand on Annette’s shoulder; Bernadetta flanking her other side and watching Dimitri carefully, like she is assessing risk. Sylvain beside Dimitri, poised like he means to hold him back, if it comes to that. Ingrid ready to do the same. Ashe looking between them as though he wants an answer other than confrontation.
But when she says...what she says, everyone looks to Felix once more.
“I didn’t do anything for you,” he hisses, addressing Dimitri, for he is at least just one man, and not everyone Felix cares about, gathered to witness his failings.
“I asked nothing of you,” Dimitri says, flat, a little distant.
What’s so awful about that is it’s completely true.
It is easy, preferable, to look away from him when Dimitri doesn’t particularly care that he’s there anyway.
“Mercedes,” Felix says suddenly. Can’t help but spit it, harshness not intended at all for her. “Can I speak to you. Privately.”
Mercedes glances between the conflict before looking back at him. Dimitri is already easing away, drifting as he is wont, though his face says he is aware if not disdainful of the situation around him still.
Mercedes squeezes Annette’s shoulder, some communication passing between them.
“Of course,” she says and makes to follow his lead.
Felix does not miss the way Rodrigue looks after him searchingly.
“Attend to your king, father,” he says, low and venomous. “He’s the one that needs it.”
Rodrigue’s face twists into something a bit wretched. He stares a moment longer at Felix, traces the scars over his eye with his looking, then turns to follow after Dimitri’s retreating back. Felix is vindicated and a bit sick. Something far down in him is validated to see his father go—it’s a larger belief, one he’s housed for years, that eats the proof of things so he need not feel them.
“My arm,” he says to Mercedes, the moment they are a good distance away.
His abruptness in the face of her calm, attending gaze makes him reassess. She doesn’t deserve this.
“You’re—probably exhausted,” he begins again, and Mercedes intercedes rather than watch him struggle.
“I have it,” she says, firm and understated. “For you, I have it. Show me.”
Felix sighs shortly, worn remarkably thin and in a bad position for expressing gratitude. He works his arm free of his sleeve and lets Mercedes undo the bandaging. It would need changing anyway.
She doesn’t say anything by way of how bad it is, how reckless he was, but her face creases along the fault lines of her brow to see it.
“Any numbness?” she asks. Nerve damage, his brain supplies.
“Just stiff.” Painful.
“I can imagine.”
One of her hands hovers over his shoulder and the other grips his wrist lightly. Her magic comes over his flesh like a cool linen sheet. He thinks of clotheslines and breezes. He thinks he must be worse off than he even knows, for his mind to let that kind of frivolity in.
“You want to say something,” he says, taking in the troubled way she frowns over his arm. It’s more than just focus.
“That may be so,” she says, and pauses, her hand trailing lower down his arm. She does look tired, so tired up close. Her skirts are singed. She doesn’t seem to have the energy to keep her face to the standard pleasant and impassive.
“I don’t know that it will do any good,” she says. “I’m not in the habit of wishing things were other than they are.”
“Whatever it is,” he says. “You can say it.” It’s the the smallest grace he can offer with nothing else to barter.
He’s braced himself, anyway, for what platitudes he expects: I’m sorry. Thank you for saving him. No one really believes you to be weak.
His brain, squirming against him, saying things she wouldn’t, using her voice: Everyone can see the way you struggle with yourself.
Did you think he would thank you?
“There are no lesser deaths,” she says instead. His eyes snap to her face at the firm clarity of her voice and she is looking down still at the work of him.
“I wouldn’t find it preferable, your death for his life. His death for yours. I don’t find either acceptable nor is either less important,” she says. “Maybe that makes me a traitor. That I should think the king just a man, with life of equal weight.”
She circles both her hands around his damaged one without actually touching. The burned skin at the tips of his fingers mending, her magic winding down with the light. “Equal,” she says, quiet but distinct. “Not greater.”
Felix stares and doesn’t know he’s doing it. His eyes fixed and slightly wide. He knows he agrees. They could find so little to bury of Glenn—his grave had more than enough room for precepts of king and country that Felix was as much as teethed on.
A king worth no more than any one of his people. Life as no substitute for more life nor the death of another. It is true—but if it is true—then what does his face say? The state of it, marked, indelible and obvious. He has no desire to die for his king.
Felix’s face scored into testament of what he hasn’t allowed himself to consider. Felix might have died. Dimitri: the man or the beast, but not the prince or the king—for him, he almost did.