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When the Blue Lions make good on their promise to reunite at Garreg Mach it seems even more remarkable against the backdrop of the ruined monastery.

The shape of the stains still on the floor are legible in awful ways. There are pools tracked through backwards in retreat and paths the width of a body dragging itself. It tells the story not so old of their would-be graduation.

What was ceremony only in the way that battle is. The stables had burned and high walls crumbled. Their peers cut down in front of them. And what held the place up from within, its church and its people, had set out to fight but fled or died.

Seeing the aftermath now said it, loud as it had back then: certainty didn’t exist in the physical, and the bonds in which a promise lived were horrifyingly precious. They were here to make war, and were themselves the resources for doing so.

They meet and they go to work. The likeminded and the lost trickle in. They receive clusters of kingdom loyalists. They brought with them meagre forces of what could be diverted from their family’s armies. Civilians displaced by the war seek shelter. Suddenly, they have people to care for.

It requires a coordination of effort, living with more than oneself. They needed what they needed for food, sleep, bathing. Protection. The fucking roofs not caving in. In some ways literal and spiritual,  the force is fed on its own efforts. Doing what could be done, what immediately sustained them, buoyed and unified even the haggard among them.

It’s a kind of survival that is straightforward in the way that endlessly battling back the empire never was. You would dress one wound only to sustain another. Seal one crack in the dam, slay one head of the hydra; it was to say the fighting wasn’t every day, but the war was.

When Ferdinand and Felix work through  the debris in the kitchens, clearing the way for Ashe and Annette to kindle the hearths, the dinner they scrape together that night is a more heartening victory than any in recent memory.

There are places in the monastery the recirculating vitality doesn’t reach.

The figurehead of their collective, the supposed lynchpin of their success, has the curious effect of inertia and it stretches in a circumference around him. Those with the aplomb to try to clear the rubble from the cathedral learn fast what it is to breach Dimitri’s consciousness. Who he was five years before is a useless map for what he is now.

Work in the area stops before it is more than well-meant plans. When driven away, the good samaritans pass unknowing through the swath of Felix’s observation.

Felix is watchful with the resolve and intensity of a smoldering thing. Quietly, and without action—for the time he is there among the dark of the pews, not breaking the skin of his palms hauling or repairing or training—he is constant.

Maybe while he sits, he hates to name it though it is, vigil, he thinks of insults spent failing to understand Dedue’s unflagging devotion to Dimitri.

If Felix thinks of this and feels shame, it is in equal parts for his actions then and now. How he hates hypocrisy in others and doubly in himself. Especially when he can’t find any other path, currently. It feels like a defeat to be at a standstill. The best he can do isn’t the confrontation he is prone to but instead playing poorly at a keeper.

Dimitri is a relief when there is less to look at. When he is not snarling at people kind or unwitting enough to approach him. He is right now as he largely always is: still for long stretches then violently alive with sudden movement.  His back to every exit except the sky, he stands attendant to the rubble at the far end of the cathedral, though there is no one and nothing present in the pile of dirt and stone to explain what motion he is tracking, or why he will take up conversation with the air, his voice a low rumble. Felix knows why but wishes he could claim not to.

Sometimes Dimitri paces the perimeter of the wreckage, pausing to look aimless into the hole where the ceiling caved sometime during the siege. Sometimes he goes to his knees as in prayer. Felix knows Dimitri not to have prayed for years, at least the years Felix knew him to be alive, and Dimitri kneeling still keeps his spear clenched tightly upright in one fist.

Other times, Dimitri will curl over and in on himself, and Felix takes it as a personal challenge that he never cover his ears to the screaming that comes then.

Today has been quiet. What should put Felix at ease has never once seen the tension out of his body in this place. From a distance Felix hears the heavy scrape of a door. Footsteps draw close from behind. Lighter than they could be, deliberately not silent. One row back the pew creaks and Felix waits.

“He do anything interesting?” Sylvain asks. Felix narrows his eyes. Doesn’t turn his head. He catches red hair in his periphery. Sylvain has leant forward, is speaking quietly, though they’re not particularly close to where Dimitri stands, still for the moment.

“He’s an idiot, not a jester. I’m not here to be entertained.”

Sylvain hmphs airily, not quite a laugh. “I know you’re here for his health, not yours.”

Felix turns a quarter at that.

“I’m not doing anything at all for him,” he says, irritated, though it isn’t clear with whom. He doesn’t say I wouldn’t know how. I’ve never soothed a bear trap; I’ve never been elbow deep in a wasps nest with intent to shake hands. Nor could he bear: I’m closer to being these things than pacifying them.

Sylvain tilts his chin, his mouth tightening and his eyes dip briefly to the floor. His eyebrows do something between acknowledgement and retreat.

“It’s past dinner,” he says. “Have you eaten?”

A short exhale from Felix. No, he hasn’t. Somehow twinned with the thought is: neither has Dimitri.

Sylvain stands, having retrieved his answer in Felix’s lack of one. “We can eat in the garden,” he says, tipping his head in the entreaty he doesn’t voice.

Felix turns his whole body to face him, blocking Dimitri from his sight for the first time in hours. Looking at Sylvain straight on, Felix takes in the way his hair is pushed up off his forehead, styled by sweat and dried that way.

The dirt across his face, fingernails painfully split and knuckles cracked like arid earth. Weariness or ache or both overtake his usual posture. After working and before bathing or even eating, Sylvain, who hates being dirty, sought out Felix. Felix feels a complicated way about that. His instinct is to chastise the selflessness, the lack of self-tending. He pauses, ostensibly deciding, looking at Sylvain though not in the eye, and he registers that Sylvain could chide him the same: Felix who is similarly dirty from work though certainly less aware of it, not even ignoring hunger because he has attributed the gnawing in his stomach to something separate from the need for food.

“Fine,” he says, and rises to join Sylvain.

 

**

 

They take a simple meal outdoors, and a bath that is spent going through the motions with their heavy limbs. Sylvain, moving slowly beside him, doesn’t even attempt to flirt in the fatuous way he is wont to.

For a few minutes, chest deep in water Sylvain heated with the sigil for fire, Felix just sits with a washcloth over his face. Head titled toward the ceiling and breathing slowly. There is perhaps no one else he would trust with his blindness save for the man next to him.

When they separate for their rooms, there is a moment after they’ve bid goodnight, when Sylvain looks like he has something more to say. He stands facing Felix even as Felix makes to leave. Midway through the motion, Felix pauses, one eyebrow arched as a question.  Sylvain gives the smallest shake of his head, the corner of his mouth tilting up. He raises a hand in goodbye. Felix shoots him a nonplussed look but keeps on with his leaving.

Felix spends an idle half hour tending to his swords and the knife from the sheath on his thigh, and the smaller knife from his boot.

There isn’t much to be done because of the same meticulous routine he’s performed the night before and each night before that. For now at least he is more likely to wield a shovel than a sword but it would be unthinkable to be unarmed, hasn’t been since the war started.

When the edges shave the hair off his arm at barest pressure, Felix makes an honest run at sleeping. The fruit of the endeavor is a restless few hours tossing, trying not to think and thus thinking, in circles, passing over itself and again, concluding nothing.

He curses under his breath and rises, shrugging a cloak on over his nightclothes, dagger strapped beneath it, and makes for the kitchens.

 

**

 

The cathedral is a larger place at night. It sows a bounty of shadows and in them could be anything. It puts Felix on alert. He likes to think it good instincts more than an old fear of meeting the dark.

There is a moment where, as Felix makes his way toward the small mountain of rubble, he thinks Dimitri may have actually left. He had not seen it happen so far but it was foolishness to expect a pattern never to break. It’s still a startling notion for reasons unclear. But drawing closer Felix finds the shadow that resolves into his shape: the man who would perhaps live to be king if he managed to live at all.

Dimitri is sat on the ground, his knees drawn up, a lance lain across his lap behind them. Felix’s approach, not at all silent, must startle him, and Felix is not sure what restraint keeps the lance pointed at his throat rather than speared right through his face. Maybe it is simply that Dimitri didn’t feel like rising into a throwing position.

“It’s me, Boar,” Felix says, not looking at the weapon, and he drops smoothly to the floor. The glint of the lance tracks him the whole way down.

Once seated Felix looks to his face, checking for sign of recognition there. He can’t make out anything with certainty.

Dimitri grunts, lowering his weapon back down beside him.

Felix shakes his head but doesn’t say anything as he withdraws a cloth napkin from his pocket. He unfolds it and places it in the space between them, a gap measured by the length of Dimitri’s spear. Sitting in the moonlight between them: bread and hard cheese, jerky, and a handful of berries to stave off scurvy.

“I have no idea how you’ve managed so far,” Felix says. “But you need to eat.”

Mercedes and Annette had tried, the week before, to bring him a tray bearing an actual meal. At first Dimitri ignored them. When pressed, he riled quickly into yelling. From his place at the back of the cathedral, Felix heard it as it peaked— “Out. There is no point to this! Out!”

His rage, the violence poised beneath it, was enough to drive them off, even more a threat for how no one could know when the scarce charity of Dimitri’s restraint would evaporate.

They left the tray at his feet anyhow. They passed within a dozen feet of Felix on their way out: Mercedes’ hands on Annette’s shoulders. Annette frustrated to tears and Mercedes’ mouth set in a grim line.

Felix doesn’t expect his chances are better in persuading a beast to eat. But even as he thinks this, he finds he has to amend: an animal’s rage is in service to its own preservation, and so this thing before him that refuses even that must be human.

Dimitri says nothing, makes no move toward the food. Felix fights down his rising impatience. He chose to come here.

Felix helps himself, breaking off a corner of the cheese, a bit of the bread to go with it. He’s not hungry, but he feels compelled to demonstrate it’s not poisoned. The royal family have always had safeguards against assassination attempts of this nature, but that’s a life so far apart from the one Dimitri is now living that Felix isn’t certain it’s among his concerns.

Felix swallows thickly around the bite of bread and cheese and wished suddenly that he’d thought to bring water. Unsure if Dimitri was seeking out even that much. But he must have developed some habits to keep himself alive in the intervening years. Though Felix suspects it is the grace of his crest that bore Dimitri through most of it.

Felix reaches for a berry and chews it slowly. It’s more tart than it is sweet. His display probably isn’t having any effect soothing or otherwise, he decides. He eyes Dimitri’s face. The crumbled ceiling lets the moonlight in but Dimitri sits just beyond it.

The shadows aren’t kind to him, hollowing out the bone beneath his eye, making him look as though he’s lost them both. Felix knows it’s the limit of his own perception in the low light. He still would rather not look, if this is what he’ll see.

“Eat,” he says again. “How do you plan to cut your way forward without any strength?”

He’s pandering but it’s a fair point. Felix hasn’t seen sign of Dimitri’s obvious mistreatment to his body, he is never without heavy cloak and armor, but his cheekbones cut through his face, and the dark circle beneath his visible eye never fades, purpled like a bruise.

“Why are you here.” Dimitri’s voice is startling, abrupt in the quiet.

There’s many dozen strings knotted, each an answer to that. Felix doesn’t know each of them for what they are but he can feel them there inside him. A bigger mess than he’s ever learned how to look at.

“You’re weaker than you ought to be. You’d do well to eat more.” And sleep. And speak to anyone besides ghosts.

Dimitri huffs out something like a laugh, no trace of joy in it. “None of whom I’ve murdered would claim to know anything about my weakness.”

“And you think slaughter is the only strength,” Felix says, acidic, unsurprised. “You’ve left to rot every part of you that’s ever tried to keep your savagery in check.”

“Of course,” he bites out. “Of course I have. It’s what’s required. There is nothing left in me to need for anything. The dead arrange my priorities.”

“Do they ever tell you to eat?”

“You just have, though it is a first.”

Felix shakes his head in a tight movement. “I’m not dead,” he grits. “I’m right here.”

“I was there, I saw you die,” Dimitri says. It sounds worn with repetition. “I saw your flesh bubble, Glenn. The only difference between us is my corpse can be of use a while longer.”

Felix feels physically struck, his vision narrowing momentarily to nothing, and the overwhelm is the only thing that stills him long enough for Dimitri to finish his sentence.

He is on his feet, head buzzing. “I’m not him, damn you, I’m not Glenn!” He stoops for the napkin, scoops it up with its contents, and flings them at Dimitri. He won’t be the only one to have his misguided kindness thrown in his face.

“You’re fucking pathetic. Claiming to be a corpse doesn’t absolve you of what you owe the living.”

Dimitri just looks up at him, food strewn around him.

“Say something you fucking animal. Speak!”

Distantly, resigned, Dimitri says, “You didn’t used to sound alike, but after you died, Felix took so much of you onto himself. Direct like you, but so much harsher.”

Outside himself, Felix screams and throws himself upon Dimitri, pinning him to the floor where Dimitri’s head smacks against the stone. Maybe it’s the daze from hitting his head, but he doesn’t stop or evade Felix as Felix rears back and punches him: once, twice, splitting his lip, the blood running into his mouth and filling the spaces between his teeth.

Dimitri’s gaze focuses on Felix’s face as Felix pulls his fist back for another blow. “It’s you,” he says. “Felix.”

“Don’t you fucking use my name now,” he snarls. Flecks of his spit land on Dimitri’s face. “Fuck you, fuck your dead, your father, your mother—they’re as useless now as you are.”

Dimitri’s eye narrows. Felix finds himself subjected to Dimitri’s sudden and brutish strength as the boar flings him bodily away.

He lands hard on his side and Dimitri is upon him instantly, lowering to meet him, and he returns the blows Felix dealt in kind.

The first crack of Dimitri’s fist upon his jaw rattles him badly. The battle composure he’s honed for so long falters. There is a moment where he isn’t in or outside of himself, it’s almost as if he’s gone, the place in his skull he occupies whited out by pain.

When his awareness slips back in a fraction of a second later, he misses that obliterated place. Not because it was painless but because the pain required nothing of him. Nothing to prepare for or push through. It wasn’t a relief that had ever before occurred to him.

He blinks up at Dimitri, the body bracketing him, the man he shaped his fighting around. Each time Dimitri laid him out in the dirt through sheer power, Felix stood back up with a new measure of himself. It wasn’t that Felix was weak. Life, Dimitri somewhere near the center of it, had demonstrated to him he needed something beyond strength.

With Dimitri to measure against, Felix became quicker, more astute. In training, then in battle, he assessed his opponent’s weak spots as second nature then tore them wide. He’d built himself on knowing and seeing, making his own advantages, exactly because there was always a point at which enough power could force him to yield.

Dimitri punches him again, and when he can think once more, he recognizes this isn’t that power. The one with no room for quarter. If Dimitri cared to do so, or really, if he paid no mind at all, there’s no doubt that he could simply shatter Felix’s skull.

Before another blow can land, Felix rears up and headbutts Dimitri, giving him enough of an opening to scramble out from under him and rise to his feet. Dimitri does not follow him, kneeling motionless on the stone where they both were a moment ago.

There is a silence in which they simply watch each other, Felix breathing hard and Dimitri slightly less so.

Dimitri raises a hand to wipe his bloodied mouth. “You should kill me,” he says.

Felix’s muscles tense and thrum. He gnashes his teeth and it sends pain shooting up through his jaw.

“You should eat,” he spits back.

 

**

 

The return trip to his room isn’t slow or fast but that is because Felix’s presence of mind is such that he can register his disorientation but not care for its consequences.

That is, until he is passing by the dock, and hears someone utter “Ah,” softly from his right.

His hand flies to his dagger, heart rate kicking up, and he should have been more alert, damn him and damn the boar.

Knife in hand, he wills himself to focus past the ache in his head and survey the threat. He finds it is Ferdinand, looking not much a threat at all, empty palms raised in conciliation, appearing more perplexed than afraid.

“Felix,” he says, inclining his head in greeting. “What are you doing awake?”

Felix glares for a moment before sheathing his weapon, then heaves a sigh. “What are you doing there?”

Ferdinand lowers his hands to his lap. “I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “I thought I would get some air.”

Felix shakes his head in a short motion, as though brushing off the irritation of his previous overreaction. “It’s none of my business, actually. Goodnight.”

“Wait,” Ferdinand calls as Felix makes to leave. “Felix, what’s happened to your face?”

Felix pauses, annoyed he hadn’t had the cognizance to at least wipe the blood from his nose. “Nothing’s happened. It’s fine.”

“Mm,” Ferdinand hums. “Well it is seems like nothing has gone and bashed you about the head.”

Felix snorts a little in spite of himself, the gesture stirring up no small pain.

“Sit a moment, please?” Ferdinand says mildly. “I’m no healer, but I have magic enough to take the edge off, I think. It should be enough that you might yet stand a chance of getting to sleep.”

Felix pauses, and finds that no particularly strong mistrust or dislike rises to object. He joins Ferdinand on the bench tucked into the corner where the stairs meet the dining hall courtyard.

“Are you concussed?” Ferdinand asks, not touching Felix at all by way of assessment, in fact he is merely looking, his hands still in his lap.

“No,” Felix bites out instantly, for no very good reason. “Maybe,” he amends after a beat.

“Hmm,” Ferdinand has leaned down slightly to consider Felix’s right eye. From the tenderness there Felix can assume it’s blackened.

“Unrefined as my skill is, it will be more effective if I touch you. Is that alright?”

Felix knows this about healing already; his is shoddy enough. “Fine,” he says stiffly.

Ferdinand cups the side of his face so lightly Felix can barely tell he’s being touched at all. Naturally he looks anywhere but Ferdinand’s face. A faint glow lights the space between them and a kind of warmth spreads from the point of contact. It’s warm like sitting with your back to the sun.

Felix feels the worst of the pain receding. Its lessening makes clear how badly he felt prior. Definitely concussed, at least mildly.

Even so, even with the warmth, the healing lacked the kind of escape, however brief, provided by the violence that necessitated it. Felix has the thought and hates the thought and shoves it down and away. Just what the fuck was wrong with him.

“Alright, I think that’s about the limit of what I can do,” Ferdinand says, pulling his hand away. “Mercedes could certainly handle the remainder in the morning.”

“It’s fine. It doesn’t need it.” Felix is just satisfied to have the ache in his jaw dulled to something ignorable, and his good sense returned with treatment of his concussed brain.

“Your eye looks better, I think.”

“I don’t know what it looked like before.” A pause, then: “Thanks,” he says, willfully less grudging than he is prone to, and even then only managing somewhat.

Ferdinand quirks a small smile. “It isn’t any trouble at all,” he says, and turns to look out across the water of the pond.

It’s a natural opening for Felix to leave, but he stays seated a moment more. “Will... Are you going back to sleep soon?”

This makes Ferdinand turn his gaze from the water back to Felix. His features betray faint surprise before he smiles again, both softer and larger than the first.

“I certainly should try,” he says, a little rueful.

Felix knows enough to know that asking anything else would be prying. There is another moment of silence where Felix just listens to the almost inaudible shifting of the water, and even quieter than that is Ferdinand’s breathing.

Felix stands up to leave. “I uh. Hope you get some rest,” he says.

“You too, Felix,” Ferdinand answers, and raises a hand in goodbye.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Felix could feel worse. He rises near dawn, ignoring what isn’t exhaustion but is more than tired. His right eye socket is colorful. He spends just a moment looking it over in the small mirror atop his dresser.

There is very little swelling. Ferdinand had done well; what remains is yellow and light purple, with a smudge of red at the bottommost curve of the socket, like someone swiped a thumb of paint there. It almost intersects with the bruise on his cheek, this one even further along in its healing.

This morning, he doesn’t stop by the kitchen though he’d usually swipe some bread before the day’s work. He pockets some of the travel rations from a rucksack he’d never unpacked upon returning from a skirmish. He takes his sword, and his dagger, and leaves his room quietly.

 

**

 

Garreg Mach is too large to ever be fully secure. That is Felix’s sense of things. It would be different if it were populated as it used to be, with a full garrison of Knights of Seiros and rotating guard duty. Rag tag as they are there is no telling what threats could reach them by squeezing in through a gap.

Felix walks the outer perimeter of the monastery, eyeing the walls, looking for signs of a breach. The work they’d done so far was largely inside Garreg Mach, on the facilities that serviced their basic needs. But the destruction of the battle five years ago had happened outside-in, and while Dimitri held his own in the time he’d spent holed up here, it was only his own. Everyone needed protection. Security not being the same as overpowering the already-present threat.

Felix finds a section of stone that is partly crumbled along the northwest wall. Spanning a little more than three meters across and a few heads taller than himself. It made sense they hadn’t noticed. It opened out into the space behind a building tall enough to hide it. Somewhere behind the defunct sauna, he estimates.

He sets down the tools and materials he carried with him: shovel, pickaxe, trowel. The sack containing a mortar base of sand and lime slumps over when he drops it beside the oilskin sack meant for mixing it with water.

The pile of rubble is large and the sun not high at all. He goes to work.

It is about the time he is cursing himself for forgetting to bring gloves, once again, that he notices it. He wipes the sweat threatening to trickle into his eye before taking a better look. As though he needs a better look.

He’s seen bodies in all states of decay. The arm he has just barely uncovered is little more than bone. Sure of it now, he stops, looks upward at nothing, then back down at the large pile of what he broadly considers work.

He moves every piece of rubble into a heap beside the gap in the wall. He intends to fit them back in place later. Some work takes precedence.

The body wears an officer’s academy uniform. It isn’t that an imperial soldier would be better exactly, but save for a select few, Felix wouldn’t have cause to try and wrack his brain for a face, for some way to identify the person that wore this uniform, personalized in the ways they’d all taken to.

Maybe there is something that would be telling. Something identifiable. It crosses his mind unbidden that it would be a disrespect not to try. He breaths out one short exhale and sets to looking. The body was sheltered from larger animals like wolves and foxes but few things could stop rats and insects. Even most of the hair had been scavenged by something.

Felix is sure of only a few things: it is a girl’s uniform, they had long, dark hair, and there is nothing to indicate a name, neither family nor given. One hand bore a ring, silver. The inlaid red jewels, crusted with dirt, don’t catch the light.

There is a standard issue short sword that he finds a few feet from the body. The fact that they aren’t wearing armor but have a weapon is a small puzzle. It’s as if they weren’t prepared to fight. But they all were, that day, and Felix finds himself standing, looking down and thinking. Why? Why did you stay if not to fight?

He would say he isn’t one for speculation but still answers occur to him as questions. Could you not decide? Was there someone you hoped would leave with you? Did they refuse?

He closes his eyes, exhales with force for want of expelling the line of thought.

He opens his eyes again and starts in on digging a grave. Not his first, and to hope it would be the last could be taken as a curse as much as a plea.

 

**

 

Chest deep in a hole shaped for a body, Sylvain finds him.

“Fuck,” is what he says first. “Fuck, Felix, what...?”

Felix doesn’t look up or stop digging at the sound of his voice. The explanation is laid out on the ground and doesn’t require him.

Sylvain comes to stand beside the grave. Felix, with his back to him, knows this only by sound and the weight of presence. If he’s waiting for Felix to look at him he can keep waiting.

“Felix,” he says, after a moment of presumably just watching. “Buddy,” he says, after Felix doesn’t answer. Another thing to which he does not answer.

“Stop? Please? Your hands are bleeding.”

They are. And his back and shoulders ache. He is sweaty, and dirty, and in a distant way, he recognizes he is thirsty. None of these seem like good reasons to stop. So he doesn’t, not until Sylvain gets a hand on the shovel and holds it still.

Felix whips around to look at him then, nostrils flaring. Sylvain sucks in a breath as a hiss.

“What the fuck,” he says. “That wasn’t there last night.”

Felix just blinks. Sylvain must read into this.

“Your eye,” he says by way of explanation.

Felix tugs on the shovel.

“Okay,” Sylvain says. “Okay.” He lets go of the shovel and hops down into the grave.

Standing right in front of Felix, very close to him now, Sylvain says, “You look fucking tired. Take a break. Please. Let me finish this.”

When Felix catches his face, it is almost by chance, his eyes seeing more than they are looking. The expression there latches in him, fits into his understanding without him trying. There will be a fight if he refuses any farther.

“Fine,” he says, setting the shovel aside. His limbs are stiff as he climbs out of the grave. There isn’t anywhere to be that he can’t see the body. He sits down against the wall. He finds that Sylvain is looking at him from the hole.

“Here,” he says and tosses something at Felix. He catches it without thinking; it’s a water skin. “I doubt you brought any.”

Felix did but also he didn’t; the water for mixing the mortar isn’t potable. Felix takes a drink, then another. His hands burn where he’d gotten blisters and ignored them as they broke open.

It isn’t in him to sit idle. Or he especially can’t stand it right now. After a few minutes watching Sylvain dig, feeling far away, he gets to his feet and starts arranging the rubble into a wall again.

“That’s not what a break is, Fe,” Sylvain calls.

Felix begins making rows and stacks of stones in the gap, selecting for compatibility and stability. There might be some artistry inherent to the process, were he someone else. If he were himself but different. As it is, he will do it until it is done. After, there will be another job and he will do that too.

The stones are stacked four rows high when Sylvain calls to him that he’s finished.

The next job. He almost let himself forget it.

He has to move the bones one by one. There isn’t a better way with what resources he has at hand. Sylvain seems to realize this at nearly the same time as Felix.

“I’ll get in there and you can hand them down to me,” Sylvain says.

Felix shakes his head. “You hand them to me,” he says, and climbs down.

It is nothing like laying stones. Felix can’t stop himself registering every way in which it is different. Weight, shape, fragility; the arrangement no longer requires structural stability and yet the configuration still matters.

Felix shovels the dirt back in while Sylvain makes himself wordlessly scarce, poking about in the woods. He returns as Felix is smoothing the soil, tamping it and making it compact. He has a large rock beneath one arm and a small bouquet of yellow wildflowers in his hand.

Sylvain gives him a sort of questioning look. Felix doesn’t think he needs permission but he nods anyway. At that Sylvain sets the rock at the head of the grave. It is dark stone, half covered in moss. He keeps ahold of the wildflowers.

Felix places the ring he’d found at the base of the stone. He looks at the short sword and finds himself hesitating. He had no guidance here; was this person a warrior? Would they have wanted to be known as one in death? What would Felix be honoring to mark their grave in this way?

The blade was clean of any sign of blood left to dry on its surface. It seems they didn’t get a chance to kill; it seems they were killed without even being noticed, in hiding behind a building. Incidental.

Felix rises to his feet and tosses the sword in the direction of the rest of his supplies.

Sylvain watches him and says nothing of the action. He bends to place the flowers on the grave.

“Do you want to say anything?” he asks Felix.

Felix looks at him blankly. “No,” he says. Then: “Sorry.” But the second part doesn’t seem directed at Sylvain.

There is silence for a moment. Sylvain reaches out to touch Felix’s arm, using the back of his hand, like he were checking his temperature. Felix steps away without looking at him, and returns to the wall that isn’t yet repaired.

Sylvain heaves a sigh as he trails after him. “Really? This isn’t enough for one day?”

“I’m not going to rest knowing there’s a sizable gap in our defenses,” Felix says, adding a stone. “I should have found this sooner.”

We should have found it,” Sylvain says, and he squats to sort through the pile, looking for the next usable stone. Neither of them talking just about the wall.

 

**

 

Sylvain accompanies him through the mundane necessities of bathing and eating once again. Felix doesn’t need guidance. But it might be that he does a better job under Sylvain’s gaze. What passes for fine by his standards earns him a sideways look by Sylvain’s. Fall too short and he might get a talking to, or worse, a gentle expression of outright concern.

What’s irritating is Felix knows that Sylvain is the same about caring for himself when Felix isn’t around. Hypocrisy in others, hypocrisy in himself. As much or as little as they can, they elbow each other toward a middle ground away from outright self-neglect.

They share in their meal with Annette and Mercedes and, unexpectedly, Linhardt, who has been generally solitary or simply exists on a different schedule. He has the air someone roped into joining. Given who he arrived with this probably is the case.

There is some concern that apparently must be immediately expressed about the state of Felix’s face. Like he hadn’t fielded enough already.

“It’s fine, it’s already fine,” he says in response to Annette’s determined line of questioning.

“Oh, is it Felix? Is it fine?” she says, slightly heated. “Or are you just being tough by never needing anything?”

This could be an excellent, protracted fight if Felix had an ounce of the required vigor left anywhere in him.

“I could heal it for you, if you like,” Mercedes offers, tearing a piece of bread in her hands.

“It’s been healed already, he says,” Sylvain interjects with a theatrical sigh. Traitor.

“By who?” Linhardt asks, curiosity apparently piqued.

The two of their chief healers sitting around the table, and neither having a hand in assisting Felix, this suddenly seems a very interesting question to everyone. Dealing with the full focus of the group isn’t easy on him.

“Ferdinand,” he says, and fills his mouth with a tough cut of steak to avoid speaking further.

Sylvain says “wow,” softly, at the same time as Linhardt goes “hmmm” and rotates his goblet of water by the stem.

Felix rolls his eyes. There is nothing interesting about this. He swallows and says, “I just ran into him.”

“Into his fist? Is that how it happened?” Annette asks.

“No, of course not,” Felix says.

“It makes sense,” Linhardt says. “That it isn’t fully healed. He only has a mastery of the basics. Enough for a little field medicine.”

“It was kind of him to help,” Mercedes says, smiling, but her eyes are sly with knowing. She’s someone with too much firsthand experience wrangling Felix into accepting help he didn’t think necessary.

He was literally not in his right mind when he took Ferdinand’s offer. He isn’t going to say as much.

“But Felix, what happened in the first place?” Annette asks, her concern writ large. Maybe it is Felix’s fault for not telling more lies. A slip-up on the training grounds wouldn’t warrant all this chatter.

Felix shuts his eyes briefly. Anywhere but here. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

It is maybe the uncharacteristic quiet with which he says it that tables the subject. From the corner of his eye, Felix can see Sylvain looking at him. From the corner of his eye, he can’t say for sure what the expression on Sylvain’s face is supposed to mean.

 

**

 

When Felix is alone again he scarcely knows what to do with himself. Inspects his swords. Tries, listless and unfocused, to read for a little while but stops when he realizes he isn’t absorbing anything. There’s a part of his routine he has skipped today and it’s bothering him like an itch. In a last ditch effort of avoidance, he starts to tidy his room.

Tidy. A few steps below actual cleaning. Consolidating a sprawl of items into slightly neater piles for quick reference. Nothing actually has a place, just general areas. Books in a stack, not a shelf. His swords leant against the head of his bed, between the bed frame and the night table. He crouches to sort through the dirty clothes that have accumulated over the past week or so. He bunches the work clothes from today in his hands and pauses.

The dirt of other days is just dirt but this is grave dirt. Underneath the muddied clothes is a short sword. He had decided it was a poor monument for a grave but neither did he part with it. He carried it back with him, still in the mode of task completion, and tossed it aside while he picked up clothes for after the baths.

Still crouched there, he forces himself to consider the afternoon’s activities. It’s like pressing a bruise if the point of the bruise was to ensure you could still feel properly, or at all.

It shouldn’t have happened is a strange thought to have about something that had taken place half a decade ago, uprooting it in time, feeling responsibility over justice that wasn’t yours to arbitrate. Is that how he feels? Responsible?

It’s a replacement for a worse feeling. It’s control of the worse feeling—

It’s a terrifying amount of self-examination for him. He stops pressing. He feels vaguely dizzy. If the silence before was uneasy it’s oppressive now.

Control of the worse feeling. He hasn’t seen Dimitri today.

Already sore from the day, he goes to the training yard and runs through drills until it hurts to so much as lift his arms.

Chapter Text

It hadn’t been judged safe to reopen the market within the walls of the monastery. Nevermind that they could do with the easy access, and vibrant local trade was itself sign of life and health—there just weren’t the merchants for it. Not for how dangerous it had been in the area.

The stories of the monster that stalked the monastery and spit out bodies mangled beyond recognition didn’t help. Even if the rumors said it was only out for imperial blood and scoundrel’s flesh. Evil is the thing that produces the most viscerally ugly results, and the state of the corpses that had been found here put off merchants and would-be followers alike.

Beyond the lack of people was the security of the endeavor. They didn’t have the manpower to vet traders and merchants throughly or at all, and this was to say nothing of the patrons. If there was a certain paranoia in this thinking it was preferable still to an oversight. Their caution kept the main gate closed and the gatekeeper busy overseeing comings and goings.

This meant purchasing supplies from the surrounding hamlets and townships depending on the need. Felix sets out mid-morning on a task for Annette. A stop-gap for things required in the kitchen before the next wagon of provisions. Sacks of flour and salt—things that were too heavy and many for her to make the trip herself. Typically, as a precaution, no one went to town solo. True to form Felix hadn’t asked anyone along.

He could have taken a horse but it wasn’t that they had many to spare. And the walk, a bit over a mile, was nice for how rote it was to travel. He doesn’t particularly enjoy riding anyhow.

He moves briskly, his awareness largely and automatically on his surroundings. He didn’t venture out alone because he was careless but because it would be more effort to be vigilant with someone chattering to him; more effort and higher stakes if he needed to defend them both from attack.

As he nears the village the foot traffic goes from non-existent to sparse. He greets those he passes with a perfectly unremarkable nod. Regardless of whether he thinks them a threat, and in this case, none of them appear to be, he still trains his hearing to them after they pass, poised and wary until they are beyond perception.

He itches a little in a crowd. He’ll be fine; it’s simply a lot to assess at once. Sylvain is much better at a kind of casual watchfulness, always looking while appearing not to. Something about his natural duplicity. Or maybe it wasn’t his nature, just honed and habitual. Surely Felix wasn’t born as he was now. Unrelentingly sharp. Clipped and so often, without intending, harsh.

He huffs out a breath of displeasure with himself. For his mind, arriving traitorously at Dimitri’s word for him. The sight of the market mouth helps turn him away from himself, from having to think the thought or quash it.

He presses forward, eyes sweeping the surroundings. They catch on a shade of purple that is unconsciously familiar. In a niche to the side of the main path, Bernadetta stands not-quite shrinking from two men that are clearly intending the seemingly nonchalant way that they tower over her. Felix can’t see her face from this angle, but in the faces of the men he reads fake-sweet; delight in power; delight in fear.

Felix lays a hand over the pommel of his sword, deliberately relaxed, like it was just a place to rest his grip. He’d love a fight. It was a bad idea to have one.

“Bernadetta,” he says as he approaches.

It’s not a question.

She jumps slightly, turning her head to him.

“Felix,” she says, her surprise competing with another emotion. A complication of anxiety and relief.

The men look to Felix and their expressions divulge contempt in the moment it takes them to shutter it. They are probably around Felix’s age, probably local, not dressed for travel.

“Let’s go,” Felix calls to Bernadetta. He doesn’t need to acknowledge the men at all unless they chose to press the issue.

Felix spots movement. Bernadetta stowing something away behind her back in a subtle maneuver.

“Ah, sorry,” she says to the men, giving a nervous little laugh and no further explanation. She steps sideways out and away from them. Felix steps forward so she doesn’t have to move very far.

“Where are you off to so quickly?” one of them calls, a false little whine in his voice.

“We wanted to get to know you,” the other says.

Felix feels his face pinch down into something angrier. He flicks his gaze down to Bernadetta at his side, gauging whether this was the moment to intervene. Once he starts to trade words with them all bets at a peaceful resolution are off the table.

“I have to go,” she says, looking down and to the side. A brief pause. “I want to leave,” she says, with discernibly more grit, raising her eyes to them.

Felix almost smirks at the men, and even as he represses it, raises his eyebrows slightly as if to say, would you like to have a problem with that? His hand on his sword decidedly less casual than before.

The men make a choice, clearly, and probably their first correct one of the day. If not longer. But their expressions turn unreservedly bitter and they make their noises of contempt and dismissal. Egos in salvage, they’ve decided retroactively that Bernadetta was the unwanted one.

A few steps gone from their presence and Felix hears one of them mutter something crude, directed at Bernadetta and pointedly loud enough to carry. Felix pauses in his stride. Bernadetta, who has not stopped, looks to him and whispers, “It’s fine.”

It’s at her discretion that he keeps walking. They could do a lot less and deserve a beating, by his measure.

They walk well out of sight, Felix twitching with his senses trained to their backs, sure that if there were ever cowards enough to attack from behind this would be them. No attack is forthcoming. Bernadetta, to the side and a step in front of him, has a fine tremor running occasionally through her shoulders.

“Do you want to sit down for a second? Or something?” he asks.

She turns to look at him, her eyes wide and brows drawn like she were on the brink of tears but there aren’t any. She nods twice without speaking.

Felix directs them off the main road to sit with their backs to the wall of one of the shops permanent enough to have a building instead of a stall. A pub.

For a short stretch they sit in silence. Felix eyes the street up and down for sign of the men from before or new problems in wait.

“Are you alright?” he asks after a moment of watching her sidelong. She’s sat with her eyes screwed shut and blinking rapidly in turns, her hands gripped tight in the fabric of her trousers.

“Daaaahhhh,” she exhales, a noise of nervous energy and the act of trying to move past it. She closes her eyes with force one more time and opens them again. “I-I have all this adrenaline still,” she says. “I hate adrenaline.”

Felix doesn’t. It has kept him alive countless times by now. “That’s fair,” he says.

She takes a few large, deliberately slowed breaths.

“What were you doing in town alone?” he asks after a few minutes in relative silence.

“I didn’t,” she answers. “Or I wasn’t. Well. I came with Ingrid. But we split up, I wanted to spend more time—there was a lot of new embroidery thread. She needed to go to the smith.”

Felix nods. It’s reasonable enough. He isn’t sure he would or wouldn’t have done the same, splitting up, but he came alone to avoid that kind of decision.

“Thank you,” she says, a little calmer. “For uh. Stopping.”

It’s so meager, his act of good. And apparently unexpected. “I wouldn’t just leave you in that situation,” he grumbles. “They were obviously assholes.”

Bernadetta squeaks a surprised laugh. “Yes, they were.”

The mood levels out a bit with that, the fear visibly abating in the way Bernadetta’s posture softens. Adrenaline. Felix has seen confrontation do all kinds of things to a person’s reasoning. He’d seen other soldiers lose all logic: forget their training and run, or worse, lethal, go completely still in the face of a threat.

Felix knew what it brought out in him. As a child, when the threat appeared imminent, his sense of panicked helplessness was unbearable. The fear all-encompassing. His instinct was to look to someone for help. His instinct was Glenn, or Rodrigue. Even Sylvain and all two years of his seniority were a precious boon. Dimitri, matching him in age and stature, could still be counted on for how he seemed to feel a natural inclination toward protection, how he appeared to forget himself in his own indignation.

Felix changed gradually, wanting with age to project composure and bravery. The change crystallized with the events at Duscur, and then Felix would never again be the child who wanted for someone else to fight his battles.

“What were you planning to do with that knife?” he asks.

Bernadetta pauses, seeming just a little caught out. She looks down at the cobblestones and then back up. Meets his eye. “Whatever they made me do, I guess.”

Felix blinks. Nods. Then stands. He jerks his head toward the building against her back. “They have good meat pies in there.”

 

**

 

They eat while walking. Felix had finished one pie before stepping out the door of the pub and was working on a second. Bernadetta walks just a bit in front of him again. He considers the apparent habit like he would the favored stance of a fighter.

Maybe she did it to avoid eye contact? Was it that he was trusted at her back? Or was there something about the implications of walking side by side: being equals, being wanted there. He could assert these things, they are true, but his isn’t the place to force the issue.

He keeps pace a half step behind her and no further. Keeping her in front of him was ultimately a tactical advantage, allowing the range of vision to lookout for  problems. And he didn’t like eye contact either.

They’re looking for Ingrid, but the boisterousness of the market has grown  with the approach of noon. Loathe to be in a crowd, but still he has no intention of leaving Bernadetta to be found by anyone other than Ingrid. Not that she was defenseless. He’d seen her fight. He’d just seen her about to fight.

In her familiar role as an archer she had an acute eye for precision and with it a gift of mercy. Her shots were uncannily good at seeking places that meant a swift and mostly painless death.

“Did you—have you done much close quarters fighting?” he asks. His small talk, he knew, left a lot to be desired. Often too small or the opposite, and tailored to himself more than his company.

She glances at him over her shoulder. Swallows a bite of pie. “You mean with the Black Eagles?”

In their current formation she was stationed on the back line. Her range made the position fairly deadly for the opposition while keeping relatively guarded.

He jerks his head, giving half a shrug. I suppose so.

She nods, considering, and faces forward. “Only once on the battlefield.” Her voice is steadier when she’s not looking at him, he notices. “I really thought I was going to die, honestly. I didn’t have a weapon besides my bow on me. I was stupid.”

She shakes her head in a quick motion.

“I ended up stabbing them in the eye with an arrow before Petra rescued me,” She glances at the sky briefly, and touches her knuckles to the small of her back, where the holster sits under the hem of her shirt. “It was after that fight that Edelgard gave me this dagger.”

“Smart of her,” Felix supplies. The story is more than Felix understood he was asking after. He finds he is glad to know.

She glances back at him and laughs just a little. It sounds dismissive, self-effacing. Maybe she isn’t use to speaking at length.

“I’ve only ever had to use it once though,” she says. “When I left home.”

Felix turns his gaze from sweeping methodically across the crowds to stare at the back of her head. She doesn’t offer up anything further. His tactlessness knows limits; he doesn’t ask.

He remembers her arrival at the monastery some months prior, with Ferdinand in tow or the other way around. Linhardt had arrived alone, in the middle of the night. Felix wasn’t there to see it. He had however been there to receive the pair of them, further defectors from the Empire.

When word came from the gate, Felix, Sylvain and Ashe were the closest at hand. It wasn’t strange that they were generals, but it was strange being generals here, in the place where they’d previously been just children following orders. These had been their classmates, once.

The five of them crowded into a small office off the main hall, formerly belonging to one of the clergy. It was best to do this privately when none of them could know the outcome.

Shortly into talks and Felix moved from wary to deeply uncomfortable to realize he was being pled with. Him, overtly, with a desperation not shown to Ashe or Sylvain. Maybe he was regarded as the least merciful among the three. But permitting Bernadetta and Ferdinand entry wasn’t his decision alone to make, nor did he think himself the best to make it. He was rarely impartial, often disinterested. Sylvain had a better read of people’s motivations; Ashe knew when a second chance was merited. But it was Felix who Ferdinand addressed, all his and Bernadetta’s weapons at their feet.

“You may run me through now,” Ferdinand had said. “If you believe you will never come to faith in my good intent.”

Bernadetta offered no such thing. She stood there, eyes burning up at him. She answered every question as to why in a clear voice. She was shaky, she was exhausted, but her speech didn’t waver or trip over itself like she’d been prone to in school.

Edelgard started the killing; she never left room for another way—No one ever knows what she’s really thinking—There’s something important she wasn’t telling us; there’s so much she wouldn’t say.

That was one thing, Felix had thought, is that there were no secrets to Dimitri now. He was too far gone for pretense or disguises. It was possible that Ferdinand and Bernadetta were chasing the ghost of the boy prince from their school days, and his great show of competence and leadership.

“Why here?” he interjected.

She looked him the eye. Her face was pained. “War is happening,” she said. “I can’t stop that. But I can’t kill and not know why. I don’t want to kill who didn’t strike first. Everyone who died here at the siege... deserved better than not having a choice. Defending everything they’ve known without even knowing what Edelgard was fighting for.

“I still have choices I can make. If I hide in my room, either... Either the war will still be on when I come out again or I’ll have to face whatever is left. But I won’t be a hostage to its outcome. I’d like a say in what happens.”

There were more questions to ask. Further precautions to take. Even still. Felix looked sideways at Ashe whose brow furrowed in sympathy and consideration. Then Felix’s gaze found Sylvain’s. Felix didn’t have to say anything, nor did Sylvain even need to nod.

Chapter Text

Bernadetta reunited with Ingrid and supplies delivered to the kitchens, Felix aims to make his helpfulness a solitary activity for the rest of the afternoon. It’s a plan foiled almost simultaneous with its invention. He is passing by the greenhouse, moving quickly, and Ashe, face red with exertion and a bag of soil upon each shoulder, smiles at him. It’s as good as running headlong into him for all it suddenly obligates him to.

“Do you want me to take one of those?” Felix asks by way of hello.

Ashe grins. “No, but if you wouldn’t mind?” He jerks his chin in the direction of two other bags on the stone between the greenhouse and the fish pond.

“Wheelbarrows,” Felix mutters. “Don’t we have wheelbarrows for this?” He crouches to heft a bag onto his shoulder.

“We have wheelbarrows,” Ashe calls from just inside the greenhouse. “But I guess not for this. I have no idea where they’ve disappeared to.”

Felix gets an arm under the other bag and leverages it against his hip.

Ashe is dusting himself off when Felix steps in. “Could you put one in the far corner,” he gestures. “And the other you can leave just there?”

Felix deposits one bag adjacent to where Ashe is standing. A bag for each of the smaller plots and two for the one on the back wall.

Felix returns and stands watching as Ashe pulls a knife from his belt with a lively little motion and cuts open the top of the bag. Ashe looks up at him and smiles, sunny, both his eyes closed for a moment and then opening. It’s a fairly pointed blink but it leaves room for refusal.

“Fine,” Felix says. “But I know fuck-all about gardening.”

Ashe laughs. Felix doesn’t smile but doesn’t mind the sound. “You’re a quick study, though.”

In the adjacent plot, Felix mirrors Ashe as he empties the sack of soil into the part of the bed cleared of plants. It’s vaguely satisfying to feel the weight of the bag grow lighter in his hands as he goes.

Ashe smoothes the fresh earth into something level with a hoe. He hands it off to Felix to do the same on his side and makes for the back of the greenhouse. He returns with a pallet of potted plants, and then another.

“Okay, it’s time these guys had some space,” he says, pulling forward a leafy dark green something or other. There are many more like it among the rows of things to be planted.

Felix crouches, watching as Ashe thumps the sides of the pot all around. That done, he grips the plant at the base of its stalks above the dirt and works it free carefully. The dirt is dry, and mimics the shape of the vessel it’s pulled from.

It’s curious, to see the roots compacted and pressed firm, grown into edges and corners. Ashe gets a hand on the bottom of the cylinder formed by the roots and dirt.

“So these need to be uh, well. Tickled. So to speak,” Ashe says with a little laugh. “Pried apart, but gently. So the roots know they have space to spread out when they’re planted again.” He digs his fingers in and works the roots loose with mindful force.

“It doesn’t need to be especially thorough, you just have to free it up a bit so it doesn’t stay in this shape,” he says, holding up the apparently finished one in demonstration.

“Then,” he says, turning to the plot of soil. “You get him a little place to be.” He sets the plant gently to the side and digs into the dirt with his hand. “You can use a spade for this part! But the soil we just poured is loose and the stuff underneath it is damp so there’s a lot of give.” He does use the spade, at a certain depth, just to finish off the shape.

He settles the plant into place, then sweeps the dirt back into it. When it’s filled in, he presses firmly around the plant, packing the earth down with his fingers and palms.

Something about it gives Felix a flash of sensation. It isn’t something about it, it’s this exactly—the last time he worked with dirt, the last time he dug a hole. This exact motion on opposite scales to opposite ends. A huge hole dug for what wouldn’t grow again. The recollection doesn’t even have a particular feeling attached, not an instantaneous one. There is, reactive, a sense of foolishness: the admonishment he gives himself for making the association, unwilling, unbidden.

“You have to pack the dirt in around it,” Ashe is saying. “It’s bad for the roots to have pockets of air around them.”

When Ashe sits back up and says, “That’s about it!” Felix nods, and turns his back to dig out a space in his own plot. He isn’t distracted. He isn’t thinking of anything save for how he can’t help but think about it, making more tethers from this moment backwards into the other.

When he goes to coax the roots out of their held shape, he finds he digs in too hard, not sure about the amount of force required. Ashe said tickling, Ashe said gentle. Felix is doing something akin to clawing before he even notices it.

“I tore the roots,” he announces. Shoving his mistake forward. Nowhere to hide from a job done poorly.

Ashe glances over at the plant Felix is holding. “Oh, it’s fine,” he says cheerfully. “It’ll still grow. It’s got a lot of roots to choose from.”

Felix must have some kind of dubious look on his face. Ashe gives him a thumbs up. “Nothing lost,” he says.

Felix is more deliberate, almost comically careful with the next plant he pulls free from its pot. After he has a few in the ground, and with only the sounds of work between them, Felix figures he may as well ask.

“What does it do,” he says. “Does the plant do something?” It doesn’t have any flowers of yet, and they are so plain and so many that they probably aren’t just for display.

Neither of them turn to the other to speak, preoccupied, but Felix can hear the smile in Ashe’s voice. “Eventually, they’ll become one of the effective ingredients in antitoxin.”

Oh, Felix thinks, looking down at the plant in his hands. Impressive, for some leaves.

“I can’t make it on my own, Mercie and Linhardt will have to help,” he says. There’s the slightest pause. “Dedue knew how. On his own.”

Felix tenses a little. Never sure what to do with this kind of talk. Astounded Ashe even wants this with him of all people. “Yeah?”

Ashe hums in the affirmative. “I didn’t get to ask him where he learned. He made one that was more a salve than a tincture. Topical, for infections. I don’t know if anyone here knows the recipe.”

Felix looks over at the back of Ashe’s neck. Ashe’s hands haven’t stilled in their work.

“I miss him,” he says, and it’s the simplicity of that which seizes Felix, makes his muscles clench involuntarily.

There’s a long beat of silence. Felix moves slower than before, has to; he’s in the topic at hand more than he’s in his actions. An uncomfortable place for him. At least the quiet has no expectation. Ashe knows Felix well enough that he isn’t waiting for a response.

“He was a good man,” Felix says, because whatever way in which he feels Dedue’s absence, and he does, he knows he is an intruder to the sincerity of Ashe’s grief. His mourning is stranger, less worthy. He didn’t do right by Dedue while he lived. He has no chance to do differently now. “An uncommonly good man,” he underscores, gruff and awkward.

“Yes,” Ashe says, almost a little absently, and then nothing more for a while.

Felix is digging out a space for the final plant when Ashe speaks again.

“Felix,” he says. “What will you do when the war is over?”

“I don’t know,” he says instantly. “I—,“ 

The truth is that he doesn’t know what he will be when the war is done, because he doesn’t know what circumstances he will emerge into on the other side. If he will make it at all. If he does, knows not what he will have done to get there, and who will be beside him still.

“I don’t think of it,” he says, and it is sort of true, with a lot of room for the lie, the terror that rises and he shoves away time and again. “And for you? Knighthood?”

Felix glances over when Ashe takes a minute to speak. Ashe’s head is tilted up, as though there is something to be seen in the angle where the greenhouse wall meets the ceiling.

He makes a soft sound of mirth in his throat. It’s near to a scoff but tempered. “I really did want that. Being a knight. I still do, I think,” he says. “But the fact that I have to think about it, I wonder if that means I don’t, really.”

Felix hears the gentle clicking of the pots being set back into place in the emptied pallet.

“I wonder if I felt like that’s what I had to do? To... I don’t know, to make it worthwhile. Everything that people have given to keep me alive, to get me to this point.”

“You don’t owe anyone,” Felix says, forceful and sudden, surprising them both.  He realizes he is looking at Ashe when Ashe looks back at him.

“If what people gave you wasn’t freely given, it’s on them for having expectations,” Felix says, sounding irritated and feeling embarrassed. “None of it could be worth your life.”

Ashe simply looks at Felix in answer, not smiling, not even meeting his eye directly,  an unspoken consideration for Felix’s predilections. He seems solemn. He seems weighed down.

“There’s a lot of worthy things to be,” Felix says. It’s strange, to feel as though he is trying to convince someone.

Usually, he’d let them make their own mistakes. Ashe’s notions of what is in essence servitude jostle Felix, however. Not just for his qualms about the ideals of knighthood. Felix thinks of Sylvain, of Dimitri. Dedue. He thinks of his father, and of Glenn.

Expectations. Dedication and its returns.

Ashe smiles crookedly, a little wry. “You know, I think Dedue said something very similar to me once.”

Felix turns his head away, face screwed up and soured suddenly. Dedue spent his words carefully in all things. He knew what to say to Dimitri, what and when not to. Dedue was a good man. Felix doesn’t weather the comparison.

Ashe stands up, eyes dragging slowly off of Felix. He is to the other side of the greenhouse, knifing open another bag of soil when he says to Felix,

“If you do think of it,” contemplative, light, “what you’d like to do after the war—I’d like to hear it.”

Felix sits and blinks for a second before his expression closes itself. It’s been a long day, stretched out by the amount of talking he’s done. Unused to needing to get the words right, still finds them leaving his mouth before he’s done with them, and even this is more care than he knows how to render.

He fills in the last hole, presses the dirt down into place. “No promises,” he says.

Chapter Text

No one is asking, and he wouldn’t permit the question, but Felix would say his self-understanding is a working relationship. Intended for utility. That he knows what he can expect from his own abilities. In this way, there are things he knows very well. Things he could count on himself to do in a dead sleep.

What he couldn’t say is about other things, other kinds of consideration he stores someplace he won’t or can’t access. To varying degrees of success.

The answer all ultimately depends on whether you can trust the man to see himself clearly. He is the best and worst person for the job. The only one who can really say, but with the disadvantage of trying to see the whole from within it. Or ignoring it.

He does know that he has been avoiding Dimitri. The concern never fully leaves him: of what might happen with Dimitri left to his own devices. Possibly, Felix has realized that he has been circling his concern in a physical way. During the errands of the past few days, he walks a looping path. Daily it closes in tighter and tighter on the cathedral.

It’s selfish, in one sense. When he confirms for himself that Dimitri is alive, though unwell, it momentarily stifles the powerful and ill-defined unease he feels toward the man and his condition. But his watching doesn’t help Dimitri; sickeningly, he fears he is helped by him. Is hurt by him. One more than the other but often in the same action. To be pained by Dimitri is to know he is still here to do so.

They have a war meeting that morning. Dimitri is absent. He has not attended a single one so far. The rest of them, for what good it does, go over supply lines and skirmish debriefings. They can hardly make good progress forward when Dimitri their sovereign will only insist on the end of things. Edelgard’s head pried from her body and the dead sing a song of rejoicing—there is no strategy within him of late.

They have sent word to Rodrigue and wait on his reply. Felix despises the whole process while knowing it is the most sensible thing to do. The Kingdom can count on Rodrigue. He would forever be the last bastion of Faerghus and damn the cost.

It will at least be interesting, Felix thinks, to see in what manner his father contorts to aid Dimitri while the prince is snarling threats. Witness how the man you would put on the throne refuses to save the very people he’s meant to serve. Watch him turn adamantly away from the brutalization Cornelia passes as rule upon his homeland.

Whatever additional forces Fraldarius can muster are a boon to those seated at the table. It is a reason among scarce reasons to look with some hope toward the bloody endeavor in front of them. Felix does not expect that Rodrigue will be able to set Dimitri right again but that is the wall they all throw themselves against. Not abating and never seeming to gain ground. It resembles their war effort at large.

When they call to a close Felix ignores the friendly chatter and sets off immediately, stiff from sitting so long and prickling with the agitation thinking of his father incurs. If someone calls for him it is not quick or loud enough for him to have to acknowledge it.

He doesn’t have a destination but the choice is made in smaller choices, taking turns at random until they are not. It is on  the bridge outside the cathedral gates that he can hear the yelling.

This is not an abnormal event regarding Dimitri but the volume and number of voices raises an alarm. By the time he processes the sound Felix is running. Emerging from the back of the cathedral, it is immediately clear Dimitri is not under attack but is the threat himself. He holds a man by his collar, dangling him several feet from the ground. The man is unarmed and unarmored. A woman and another man are screaming to unhand him but are wise or scared enough not to try and physically intervene.

BOAR.”

Dimitri doesn’t turn to look at him but the two still on their feet do. Felix’s rage scrambles some of what Dimitri is saying to the man. Or it was already incoherent. Felix parses insults and threats, coward, rat, put to death for less—

Felix has had sword in hand since the bridge. His presence gone ignored, he puts the blade to Dimitri’s neck with no pressure. Let him realize what it is on his own. He is unquestionably acquainted with the feeling.

Dimitri does look at him then.

“Boar,” Felix says again. The stillness of his hand and the look in his eye should indicate the real threat here. It is not the bare-handed and cowering man.

Dimitri, with an animal’s priorities for danger, or a man’s sense of challenge, lets the man go like an afterthought. None of his attention on the person he terrorized a moment before.

Felix recognizes the man as one of the former members of the church. He picks himself up from where he has been dropped and spends only a second wide-eyed at the how the conflict has evolved before gathering himself and the others to make a quick exit.

“Attacking the clergy now, are we, beast?” Felix watches Dimitri assess the danger of him. It’s the longest, the most direct that Dimitri has looked at him in all their time reunited. His stare is cold.

“He spoke as though I couldn’t hear him, about what I fail to do. About what I used to be,” Dimitri says.

“And so he deserves what. For his skull to be crushed under your hooves?”

Dimitri’s eye shifts to stare at a point beyond Felix.

“He was goading, making a show of his mettle for his friends. I gave him a chance to prove himself.”

“That’s not what you were doing. Weak men talk to hear themselves, not to be listened to,” Felix says. “You used to know this.”

“Oh, but I am a monster, with no obligation to suffer weak men who put themselves in my path.”

Dimitri looms, expression dark, but he raises his chin in a distinctly imperious gesture, making his neck an expanse of  target for Felix’s sword. It is a challenge.

“For all the time I wanted you to admit to being a boar, I didn’t think doing so would make you give up so throughly on being human,” Felix says, and none of it is I miss you, all of it too bitter for the sentiment, the years so far gone.

“You didn’t know what it was you were asking for.” Dimitri curls a hand around the blade, halfway down its length. He does not move it from his neck.

Felix doesn’t look at the hand, would feel he was losing at something if he did.

“What will you do now that I’ve given up, as you say? How many times,” Dimitri says, low and raking, sliding his eye back to meet Felix’s “—will we have this conversation?”

Felix’s hand is steady. His glare redoubles at the provocation. The way forward is largely on him. It’s as he says: Dimitri only troubles himself with what puts itself in his path. Felix even being here still, attendant to the unmoored prince, once a friend—it is a fight.

For reasons outside reason Felix keeps putting himself here.

Dimitri tightens his grip on the sword. “It is your chance, Felix. Make the future safe from me.” The blade bites into the leather of Dimitri’s glove.

Felix imagines the movement of it. He knows the force and follow-through it would take to remove Dimitri’s head. The rest of Felix’s life, an aftermath of that moment.

In the lapse of the second it takes Felix to picture it, Dimitri’s blood wells up under his glove and wastes itself against the floor.

Felix relents. He lets go, leaves the whole weight of the blade in Dimitri’s hand and kicks him squarely in the stomach with the flat of his boot.

“You’re such an asshole,” he spits, while his sword clatters to the ground, and Dimitri is stumbling a step back, one arm curled reflexively around his middle.

Dimitri looks up at him, eye narrowed as if to say, I understand now what this will  be. He straightens. Gets a hand around his silver lance. Felix draws his second sword.

Dimitri takes a step toward him. “You’ll fight but you won’t finish it, is that right?”

“If I wanted you dead, boar, you would be,” Felix says. “You’ll have to trust in that.”

Dimitri heaves a sound from his throat. Grating and derisive with just the bare edge of mirth.

“Felix,” he says it like a statement unto itself. A complete sentence. “I am counting on it.”

He throws himself at Felix then, his lance glinting with speed. This, Felix’s blood can answer to. Metal for metal.

He will not kill Dimitri. Nor will Felix allow himself to be killed. A fight that falls short of that however is something they’ve both earned. A thing they make between them that he can finally understand, see the parameters of. It is a relief.

Felix raises his sword to block without a conscious thought. Dimitri could press the issue but falls back. It leans closer to a battle than a spar thus it is the kind of spar Felix is always after.

Dimitri takes aim at points of his body that would debilitate him if ever the strike were to meet: his lungs, kidneys. When he slashes at Felix’s neck, and he does so only once, Dimitri doesn’t smile exactly but his eye is half-lidded and darkly amused. Tit for tat.

Felix is forced into the defensive at a ratio frustratingly high. Everything familiar about Dimitri’s maneuvers are a step to the left of complete recognition.

This is the first time Felix has gotten to fight him proper—it’s nothing on their little brawl over food and the dead. Dimitri’s form is no longer the textbook stances of their academy days, enacted like a diagram, rote and perfect. Felix ducks under a wild swing. The Dimitri who feared his own strength must not have been enough for the Dimitri who needed to survive, crazed and alone.

Felix rises back up and parries Dimitri’s lance, scoring the flesh on the inside of Dimitri’s elbow where the armor is jointed to bend. Felix preempts the speed with which Dimitri pulls away; this and instinct keeps the wound from running too deeply.

He is matched, more than matched, met and challenged. Not one for eye contact, true for both of them now, but their eyes meet anyway in the automatic ways: silent regard for skillful maneuvering, flashing a glare of frustration. Small conversation about immediate things, and it turns out they are more fluent like this, no arguing, no words.

They trade minor injuries while their breathing turns labored. Felix is at a disadvantage in many ways, some he is familiar with. Up against armor where the weak spots are few, and striking them takes force, precision and speed. He knows how to slide a sword between the plates and into a heart. Knows how easily a throat is slashed. These won’t serve him here.

The face is of course the most vulnerable, and high reward. Felix won’t take that opportunity either, not how he would in a real battle. He wonders if that is perhaps what took Dimitri’s missing eye. Someone looking to put him down quick. How they must have felt when it didn’t stop Dimitri. Felix knows, if it were so, that it wouldn’t have stopped Dimitri.

Here, not friendly and not enemies, Felix is the one losing ground. He bleeds at his shoulder and right flank. It feels earned, he can’t deny. He is irritated at being caught by the lance but there is another feeling, far from frustration, that runs underneath that.

An almost unrecognizable kind of satisfaction is wrapped up with the pain of the wound. The way each moment and the next is consumed by the immediacy of his efforts and rewarded in kind. Both of them seeks to mark the other and each one evaded and especially one made—it’s proof of something and he doesn’t have a name for it.

When the balance tips definitively, it is not because Felix missteps. It’s that Dimitri surges suddenly, unpredictably. All at once Dimitri closes the gap between them, effectively sacrificing the strength of his lance’s range. It’s so quick and perplexing that Felix can’t even use it to his advantage. Dimitri this close seems larger, like he could block out all light. He takes the blunt end of his lance and slams it down near the base of Felix’s sword, disarming him. Hands emptied, his nostrils flaring, Felix hauls back and punches Dimitri hard in the chin.

Dimitri seems stunned for the barest second and shouts wordlessly in anger. He takes his lance one end in each hand and uses it like a crossbar, driving it flat against Felix’s collar and forcing him backwards until he collides solidly with a pillar. Dimitri holds him pinned there while he breathes heavily, nothing telling whether it’s exertion or he is just seething.

“That was a bit undignified for you,” Dimitri says flatly.

Felix makes it halfway to a sneer. It is maybe the pain the keeps him from doing so outright. The press of Dimitri’s lance is no small force.

“It was distracting, wasn’t it?” Felix says, and in his left hand, slides forward his dagger to poise against Dimitri’s throat, fully in his blind spot.

This puts them back at the start. Felix with a blade to Dimitri’s neck, waiting for him to react.

Dimitri takes a short, heavy breath out through his nose. “Vicious,” he says. It’s more appraisal than judgment.

“It’s not like you have a code of honor,” Felix says. Once, it was all that Dimitri had, lacing him together, the pretense he lived behind.

The comment drives the lance harder against his collar. He inhales sharply in pain. As close as they are even Dimitri isn’t oblivious, and he eases his hold dispassionately. Felix is still effectively trapped, but the force scales back from grinding to merely bruising.

“It is a good thing in combat. To be vicious. To lack a code. The person with honor has fewer resources.” Dimitri’s eye moves back from someplace distant to look Felix in the face. “So we share some resemblance after all.”

Felix urges the dagger forward warningly. Indenting the skin, just this side of not-drawing-blood.

“You won’t,” Dimitri says soberly, in answer to the action. “You should but you won’t.”

Felix finds he has little to say to that.

“You’ve had so many opportunities, and you stay your hand each time.” Dimitri looks at him with some searching, overpowered still by the deadness of his face. “You must have some belief in me yet.”

Felix’s indignation flares sharply into rage. Makes himself look Dimitri in the eye. “Let me go. We’re done here.”

Dimitri does in fact. He takes a step backward, looking cold and unimpressed.

“Felix,” he speaks again, while Felix gathers his swords. Felix doesn’t answer, his back turned. Felix moves to leave. Dimitri’s voice follows him.

“Your belief,” he says. The throat of a harbinger. “Kill it before I can.”

Chapter Text

The next time Felix sees Dimitri, Dimitri doesn’t see him.

The following day, early in the morning, before the air has warmed out of being a stark presence in the lungs, he slips quietly into the cathedral. He stands for several minutes and then sits, midway back in the rows of pews meant for services they haven’t held in their weeks occupying the monastery.

The chill works its way up his fingers. It is the kind of weather he’d like for training, would be leveled out from bracing to invigorating by the heat of movement. Here, where he is still against his nature, he resists even rubbing his hands together for warmth.

The movement would pull at the wounds he collected in this place the day before. He’d given in and tamped the pain down a bit with a mouthful of vulnerary. Even that much seemed frivolous. They don’t have medicine to spare.

The wounds are one thing. Moreover, he doesn’t want to hear the dry scrape of his chapped skin were he to coax blood back into his hands. The daybreak quiet of the cavernous room has its own supply of noises, and the notion of his added to that irritates him—for no artful reasons, it just seems wrong. And. There is something already he is straining to hear.

A low stream of whispers that could be rustling, by fabric or leaves. Felix knows it to be Dimitri. Dimitri hasn’t moved since Felix stepped into the room some half hour ago. Hasn’t moved, save to look down, or up, like he cared to see the sky slowly gaining color with the sun. Felix is sure he doesn’t.

Dimitri nods in the gaps between his whispering and it looks dutiful, his head hanging over-low and his eye cast off to the side.

Felix can’t hear anything he’s saying, except for the occasional, yes, clear for how the word stands alone, but soft like a child trying to mitigate a volatile scolding.

It makes Felix feel a little sick. Reminded, forcibly, of a much younger Dimitri, always penitent and malleable when faced with disapproval. How to reconcile the memory with the ache over his bruised collarbone and the places his flesh has been cut into; how he as much as asked for them, saw no way through save to fight a man who doesn’t seem to even exist in this shade of day.

Felix stands and crosses the distance. Places himself where he could be seen if Dimitri were looking. Felix stands and he watches the sunlight fall over the matted cloak at Dimitri’s shoulders. It casts shadows in places where his armor is dented, highlights the notches of blows meant to breach it.

Felix is close enough to see where the scar over his blind eye trails out from under his eyepatch, taking on the light with a dull shine. It has no color left to it. What Felix knows of monitoring his own wounds, ones untreated by white magic, would say that Dimitri had gone at least two years now with his vision in half.

He drops his gaze down. Dimitri’s arms limp at his sides. His head bowed and frozen in acquiescence. The prince, would-be commander in the civil war, unkind executioner to countless, speaks in such a small voice Felix would find it hard to recognize, if he didn’t know it from childhood as different from every other sound in the world.

“Yes, father. I will do better.”

Felix’s brow furrows. You, he thinks, vicious in one syllable, the nonsense looping itself. You you you you.

He does this not thinking of succeeding; he does this as a test he knows they’ll both fail, and he does it in a whisper:

Dimitri.

For a moment, Felix doesn’t watch to see it land. When he does look, Dimitri is staring unseeing up through the gap in the ceiling again.

Nothing in his face or body suggest he’s heard the name Felix hasn’t used since they were what could be called children. Back before they rode to their maiden battle together, and Felix rode back alone, except there was someone beside him, and if Felix called him by his name it would mean that Felix knew him, and if Felix knew him then he had always known him, but Felix didn’t know anyone that could laugh through a mouth full of another person’s blood.

On that march, Felix did not sleep the three days it took to return to Fhirdiad. Neither did the man he doesn’t know.

How he knows the person he rode back with didn’t sleep either: the bedroll laid out beside his, the two sharing a tent set aside for them as young nobility.

On the first night after the battle, the company he is bound to returns to their tent later much later than Felix, later than the entire camp has settled in. Felix goes to bed with his sword beside him on the bedroll, the pair tucked in.

He lay alert and pretending not to be, turned to face the canvas wall. He’d like to be looking, would feel safer that way, but he’s a bad liar; he’s sure his face would give away that he isn’t asleep at all.

When the tent flap shifts open Felix feels all of himself strain to listen. He isn’t scared, no, he’s aware. The problem is there’s nothing to hear. No sounds to indicate shuffling through a nighttime routine.

It drags out for minutes too quiet. The blankets on the roll adjacent don’t rustle and no one settles in beneath them. Despite himself, he casts a look over his shoulder. To his credit Felix doesn’t scream.

The body of his childhood friend, animate but foreign, kneels wide awake at Felix’s bedside. His hands curled in fists atop his thighs with his legs folded beneath him. Felix doesn’t know how he got there silently. Maybe Felix fell asleep for a second and now his punishment is dreaming.

His eyes are fixed on Felix’s form beneath the blanket. When he sees Felix is awake, or perhaps when hears his great rasp of his inhale, his gaze locks to Felix’s face. He is bloodied like the enemy dead they left in the field. His hair almost wholly black with it in the moonlight. But the battle has been over since midday.

He watches Felix, intent, staring wild and wide, like his face has been startled into that position and held this way for no telling how long. The blood’s run down his forehead and over brow bone. It makes his eyes stand out fiercely, gone an indiscernible pale color in the low light.

It is all Felix can look at, the unabating intensity of his stare. The Felix of today can attest that he’s never forgotten the image.

“What—“ Felix’s voice cracks on the word. He’d drawn himself upright and pressed himself back into the canvas when he realized how close sitting brought him to the other’s face. “What the fuck are you doing?”

Doesn’t answer. The tense quiet stretches out like hairline cracks forming on glass.

Felix watches with an unwittingly matched unblinking stare, not sure if he’s more scared that the other will move or that the stillness will go on forever.

Felix inches his hand toward grip of his sword, hoping his shifting goes unnoticed.

“Checking,” the other finally says. Fear jolts through Felix before he realizes it isn’t a bizarre indictment of Felix reaching for his sword, but is an equally bewildering answer to the question Felix had asked.

Felix stands, his blanket draped over the shape of his blade, as if that could disguise it. His old friend’s stare, detached from anything his friend was, tracks him while Felix collects his things.

Felix pauses at the tent flap, facing away, knowing better now than to check if the other looks at him. He thinks that he wants to say something. Don’t follow me. Or, go wash. Who is this?

What have you done?

He finds he can’t make himself say anything. The feeling is like everything is competing explosively for space in his throat, and in his indecision he denies the meaning of any of them.

He shakes his head, still not looking, and goes to lay out his bedroll under unfriendly stars. Without the shelter of the tent, his sword is very cold beside him and he himself is no warmer.

Chapter Text

Presently, Felix hasn’t bathed in two days.

He isn’t precious about his own hygiene, not in the way Sylvain is, but even then, Sylvain can bear through any condition as they all could and have. The difference was the awareness and how much discomfort it wrought.

Felix could be aware that he smelled, his hair was tangled, that he had blood on him he’d never be able to trace back to who it spilled from, and be largely fine. He could not make it this far without being able to bar his mind from certain kinds of wandering.

The problem here was that he technically had access to the baths and was still restricted. Never mind that he was the one not allowing himself; it was other people that presented a problem by always being around. He couldn’t rely on his comrades to keep their mouth shut when it came to perceiving him to have some need unmet.

The marks he bore from his encounter with Dimitri were were still lurid and wildly indiscreet in a setting like communal bathing.

He has been waiting for his chance to bathe and not be pestered by well meaning curiosity and offers of help.

He sounds like an asshole even to himself, thinking this way. Oh poor Felix, cursed with people to care about you. The mocking comes in a timbre not quite his own. An amalgam of who could be counted on to poke fun at him probably.

It’s been two days of Felix doing truly odd jobs, shoring up the gaps where a body was needed. He’d done his best creating a makeshift fix where the stone of the roof above the Golden Deer classroom had taken to leaking water whenever it rained. Why fix it? had been one thought prominent in his frustration. Why let it rot? was just as hard to justify.

He’d found himself waist deep in the fishing pond, collecting algae that was apparently invasive, as he was told, and couldn’t be allowed to grow rampant for the danger it posed to the native aquatic life, and by extension, a staple of their supply of food. However necessary it was, it was also fairly embarrassing. Sometimes dignity was a hindrance.

At the very least, Linhardt didn’t seem to take amusement at Felix’s expense. With Linhardt’s supervision, which Felix could and did roll his eyes at, plus Felix’s effort and the two from Ingrid’s battalion assigned to the task, it only ate up several sodden hours of Felix’s second unwashed afternoon.

Linhardt took samples of the algae and the water itself and breezily claimed an additional hour of Felix’s time, recruiting him to move some rubble from the mostly untended chaos of Hanneman’s office that impeded Linhardt’s access to some section of something. Maybe the solution to the purportedly crucial issue of the invasive aquatic plant life, but Felix doubted it.

So Felix has been sweaty, and wet, met with pond scum and algae, dried but not cleaned, then sweaty again. It was taking a toll. He felt itchy. It was a little horrifying to consider what could stick to his skin from venturing into the pond.

The baths this night, quite late, were empty. This mercy was not afforded the night previous, when Felix attempted the same tactic of an unconventionally late hour for bathing. Peering in from the doorway, he could see Ferdinand’s long hair dip dyed a darker shade of orange from the water. The consolation was that Ferdinand did not see Felix on his reconnaissance, nor notice him displeased and skulking away.

But this night he was finally free to wash in the privacy he’d sacrificed his comfort for. The problem was waiting for him, he would find, at his bedroom.

Hair damp and loose around his shoulders, dressed in his nightclothes, Felix would very much have liked to be out of the chill and exposed space of the hallway and into his quarters.

Sat between him and rightful passage is Linhardt, back against the door to his bedroom, looking placidly up at him from his reading with no acknowledgment of the literal stumbling block he’d made of himself.

“Hello,” he says, and then, “There’s something wrong with you.”

The fact that Felix’s hand isn’t instantly on the dagger he’d brought along to the bath is something he’d like credit for. No one ever rewarded or even seemed to know of his vast patience.

“Move,” Felix says.

Linhardt stands, meeting the request but not its obvious implication.

“Do you really want to have this argument here?” Linhardt asks, airy, unperturbed. “With all the trouble you went to to get the baths to yourself?”

Felix’s face stops by surprise on its way to incredulity and anger. “It’s none of your fucking business,” he mutters but he’s outmaneuvered by the staging. He doesn’t want anything to do with whatever Linhardt was after but especially not out in the hall, undoing his recently exerted efforts at privacy.

Anything Linhardt knows Felix resents him for.

“Fine, whatever. We’ll talk. Let me by.” Felix may just slam the door behind him and let the nuisance in the hall do what he will.

Linhardt smiles a closed mouth little smile and reaches behind him to turn the doorknob without showing his back to Felix.

“You’re a fucking menace,” Felix says watching the door he’d absolutely locked swing open, and Linhardt proceed to slip through it.

“I would have waited inside,” Linhardt says as Felix follows after. “But with your reflexes, that might have killed me.”

“What the fuck is your sense of boundaries,” Felix says but it’s rhetorical. “Why are you here?”

Linhardt lights the sconces all at once with a easy wave, the room cast in warm orange and yellow with rich shadows. Felix throws his dirty, pre-bath clothes in a pile on the floor.

Linhardt takes a seat on the chair at the end of Felix’s bed, rests an elbow on his knee and his chin in the cradle of his hand.

“You’re hurt,” he says.

Felix squints at him suspiciously and with a great deal of irritation. “Even if that were true, why stake me out?”

For someone famously disengaged, Linhardt’s stare is unsettling, taking everything in and giving little back.

“Why indeed,” he says. “It’s your shoulders, no? Mostly the left.”

Felix doesn’t say anything. His face still asking So?

Linhardt gets to his feet. “Letting me heal it would be the fastest way to get me to leave.”

Felix’s eyebrows rise, unhappy but considering. It’s a solid argument and free healing, but costs him something, he’s sure. Privacy was apparently already out the window.

“I should stab you anyway,” Felix says finally.

Linhardt smiles as he recognizes acquiescence. He waves one hand in a gesture at Felix’s collar.

Felix rolls his eyes and unbuttons his sleep shirt enough to slide it partway down his shoulders.

He knows it looks bad and it hurts about the same. He’s bruised spectacularly and it tapers into a shape nearly recognizable for the weapon that left it.

“Hm,” Linhardt hums, though his face is impassive. “Collarbone then.” He raises his hand and quirks an eyebrow at Felix who huffs and nods his assent.

Linhardt steps forward, decidedly in Felix’s space, and Felix finds himself freshly irritated at the inch of height Linhardt has over him.

“The bone is bruised, I think,” Linhardt says, unbruising it as he speaks. Always an odd thing, someone’s magic reaching inside you. Like being dirty, it was easier when not thought of. Linhardt’s magic is both chiller and gentler than most. Gentle wasn’t quite the word but. Smooth. Deft and unstuttering.

Maybe it is that he is feeling better from being finally clean and also, he grudgingly and privately concedes, that there is suddenly less pain where there was pain before—but Felix finds himself asking again, with intent to get an answer this time.

“Why are you doing this?” he says, with scaled-back accusation. “Suddenly you want extra work?”

“I do plenty of work unasked,” Linhardt says. “It just isn’t often appreciated. Much like this.”

Felix grumbles. “I didn’t say that. It’s the chasing down I don’t appreciate,” he says. A beat. “And it’s disturbing that you just know things.”

Linhardt smiles a little. “I thought it might be troubling you when you were clearing the pond.” He shifts his hand to the what is presumably the less damaged side, based on how it had felt. “Really, I owe you this much, considering I probably made it worse when I asked you to do more labor on my behalf.”

“You had me haul rubble for you just to prove a theory?” Felix snaps.

“You’re actually fairly surreptitious, for all anyone would guess,” Linhardt says. His magic under Felix’s skin makes Felix feel at a disadvantage. “Unfortunately, I do find interesting what people would hide.”

Felix’s feels his spine prickle.

“This is not from training.” Linhardt’s gaze flicks languorously up to Felix’s face.

“Watch it,” Felix says, his agitation gathering like a static.

“I like to know things to know them, not to share them,” Linhardt says. And then, strangely: “Caspar used to injure himself all the time. In training, out of training. Every battle, without fail. He liked to meet challenges bodily. His way of knowing things, I think.”

Felix’s roiling energy is overtaken by wary surprise. Linhardt moves his hand to Felix’s upper arm, set about healing the gash he hadn’t been told was there.

“He was unselfconscious about it. Beautifully, even. Quite a way of being in the world,” Linhardt’s voice is even and nearly casual, but not quite. “Though he isn’t in the world, now. He too ran up against something bigger than himself.”

Linhardt moves his hand to the wounded space between Felix’s hip and ribs, not touching, but the distance is charged with the strangeness and intimacy of almost.

“There’s just the one person in this monastery that could best you in combat,” Linhardt says.

Felix pulls in a sharp breath through his nose. “He’s not going to kill me,” Felix spits.

Linhardt looks at him, quiet and slow and assessing. “He could.” A pause while the unadorned fact works its way between them. “He’s threatened all of us with it at least once. But I guess that makes it less trustworthy, ultimately.”

Felix is at a loss. Make it hurt, a part of him instincts. Make whatever this was, care, a semblance of friendship, go away. He balls his fists. Linhardt keeps talking.

“Edelgard, or I guess Hubert, really—they never needed to put a threat to words. I find both of them much more frightening.”

“And?” Felix seethes at a distance that Linhardt can’t help but see and so must be ignoring.

Linhardt’s magic on his flesh smoothes over itself in layers like water into water, or the motion of a bandaging.

“I know you think he’s there still. You wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t hope for that,” he says. “Nor would I. And you would know better than me.”

Felix scoffs. “I don’t hope for shit,” he says. “He is there. That thing, that’s him.”

Linhardt looks at Felix, raises an eyebrow in a compact gesture to say is that so? Always one to pick his battles, already in the midst of one, he doesn’t challenge it. The light from his magic subsides, and Linhardt draws his hand back from Felix’s torso.

Gallingly, he begins to button Felix’s shirt.

Felix moves to stop him. Linhardt tilts his head to one side and gives him a flat look, so devoid of ulterior intent that Felix feels almost embarrassed, like he’s overreacted.

The ways in which Felix finds himself quelled here are maddening, like the attack is coming from inside, him intervening against himself. He drops his hands.

“I don’t need this,” Felix says. “I’m not a child.” His muscles tensed under the potential threat of an errant brush of skin.

“Yes, and there is no reason besides utility for anyone to touch.”

Even as the lilt to his voice made to mock Felix, it was true that Felix was at a loss to interpret the physical.

Gestures like these were a thing people unlike him did, meaning to speak something into touch. He stood, scowling, and tolerated the attention, wondering what the act meant in a way that he would do nothing to actually figure out.

“If nothing else, let me say that there is no need to walk around injured,” Linhardt says. His fingers work in slow and precise movements with an air of unhurried gracefulness. “Should you require this again, I won’t ask questions.”

“I’m not letting you say anything, you just keep talking,” Felix mutters. “I can’t stop you and leave us down a healer.”

Linhardt quirks a small smile and it provokes a glare from Felix, knee-jerk. He feels strangely drained, a little jittery.

The interaction has gotten away from him. Dancing always on the wrong foot, into unbalance, because he can’t wrap his anger around Linhardt’s cool comportment, and because Felix isn’t a willing dancer.

“Forgive my concern for you.” Linhardt slips the final button home. Smoothes out the fabric over Felix’s shoulders. “Or just ignore it,” he says, removing his hands. “But I hardly need to request that, do I?”

He steps back, retrieving his book from the chair at Felix’s bedside. Felix stands, rolling his shoulders minutely, testing for pain he’d already grown accustomed to but was no longer there.

“I’m sorry about Caspar,” Felix says, blurts. Linhardt stands at the door considering him. “I am sorry. But I’m not him.”

Something cold surfaces on Linhardt’s face. It’s the first time Felix has seen anything like it.

“I know this, Felix,” he says. “Caspar never felt the need to poison a kindness.”

Felix stares at him for a moment, dumbstruck or incensed, then moves past him to throw the door open.

“Thank you for the healing,” he says acidly. “Get out.”

Linhardt does, moving slowly, and shakes his head.

“I’m sorry it hurts so much still,” Linhardt says, and Felix slams his door shut in lieu of parsing that.

 

**

 

Felix trains hard the next morning. Skips breakfast, beats the sun to the sky, and throws himself through forms. His exacting personal metric means any misstep sees him starting again at the top of the set. If the practice dummy were a man he would be dead one hundred times over before the birds started the morning’s calls.

He chose the knight’s hall for its relative privacy but when anyone else enters, perhaps a few not even intending to train, he looks at them over the end of his sword point and conscripts them to their own ass kicking.

His fifth challenger of the morning is on their back in the dirt when Sylvain steps into the ring. Felix hadn’t seen him come in, preoccupied as he’d been.

Sylvain hasn’t come to fight. Of course. He helps the man opposite Felix to his feet and offers a heartening clap to the shoulder as consolation for his efforts.

Felix lets his sword hand drop as Sylvain approaches. For all his interruption should have meant a spar was owed, Sylvain was prone to making himself more trouble than that particular argument was worth.

“Saints, Felix, there’s a broken hearts club outside.”

“You’re sure they’re not yours?”

“I leave them sweaty but not complaining,” he answers loftily and Felix could smack himself or both of them for how easily he let that happen.

“What the fuck are you talking about,” Felix says, mildly for him, while dusting dirt off his pants. “They should have a box for complaints against you, maybe then we wouldn’t all have to hear them.”

“You know,” Sylvain says, fingers laced behind his head. “I saw Lin leave your room last night looking like he might want a comment card himself.”

Felix rests a hand on the grip of his sword reflexively. Spies, fucking spies everywhere. “That—“ he starts to answer, with what he isn’t sure, probably has nothing to do with you, but Sylvain cuts him off with two palms up flat.

“It’s fine, I don’t need details, but good on you,” he’s using his joking voice still but it’s one Felix hates more than average, like Sylvain has one thing held out and one thing held close. He’s a street performer doing illusions, all misdirection.

Not that Felix is keen to keep on the subject himself.

“Why would you be here taunting me if not for a beating?” Felix asks, a spade is a fucking spade, and Sylvain isn’t so bored these days that he comes around solely to irritate.

Sylvain sighs, rocks back on his heels a little, a tell of reluctance.

“Well, and please bear in mind about messengers and how this one is an underpaid little scamp deserving of no, okay, minimal, ill-will—“

“Sylvain.”

“—but your father has answered the call, and we’re to meet him in Ailell before the week is out.”

Felix shoves his thumb nail into a groove in the leather of his sword grip, right beneath where it meets the pommel. It’s a perfect fit, dug himself.

“Ailell,” Felix echoes.

“He wants to give us troops away from potential intervention. We leave the day after tomorrow.”

Felix’s mouth tightens. It’s tactically sound, a midway point between them, and not even the border lords send patrols out that way. No one is generally desperate enough to come by that path. They are.

“It’s going to suck,” Felix says.

Sylvain nods in sympathy for their oncoming fortune. “It really will,” he says, and then with false cheer: “But afterward, we’ll have the resources to make more war!” He does a little dance step and shakes his splayed fingers in a ta-dah.

Felix looks him over with requisite disapproval but it’s familiar and a little fond besides.

Left alone, they would both have to think about how the influx of troops marked the beginning of an endgame. And they would think it silently and separately, without Sylvain’s willingness toward morbid flippancy. It was his way, to move about the knife by juggling it for show.

“He’ll come back with us, you know,” Felix says. “My father.”

Sylvain hmms. “He hadn’t said so in the letter, but, well, I wouldn’t bet against you.”

“With the boar back, he won’t stay away,” Felix says, flinty and sure.

Sylvain sighs but it isn’t the theater it often was. Just a breath for how things move unstoppably forward in their routes.

“Hey Felix, don’t say no immediately,” he says.

Felix is accustomed to this plea. “What.”

“Come out with me tonight,” he proposes, and when Felix opens his mouth, he throws a hand up in petition. “Just us, no pick-ups, nothing devious. I’d just like to get out of here for a little. Before,” he says, and needn’t elaborate which deadline.

Felix takes a second, eyes leveled at Sylvain’s chin. “Fight me and win.”

“Felix.” That’s the whole statement, said like: you know me, I know you, and those aren’t fair terms.

“You’re not even going to try?”

“The effort it would take to beat you would make me completely useless for the march. I’d have to go like. Fifteen rounds.”

“Only fifteen huh?” And he clicks his tongue, thinking of how Sylvain could within five, within three, probably even one, if stakes were high and the stars in favor.

“C’mon Fe, is it groveling you want? I’ll pay for dinner,” Sylvain says, earning a point for not whining it.

Felix considers. The night before a march was for the army, for the collective and their preparations. But the night before that was for the soldier, to spend however would take their mind off it, or would content them in the possibility they met death. Sometimes the same activity.

This isn’t even a battle that they’re facing, at least not literally. It still signified death, and bloodshed, with a surety neither of them could crawl out from under on their best days.

“Three rounds,” Felix says. “And you don’t have to win.”

Sylvain grins and it crinkles his eyes. Not just for show, then.

Chapter Text

A night out with Sylvain was variable and some would say that was the fun of it.

The number of those variables Felix would disapprove of runs high. But let it not be said that Sylvain was unaccommodating. His attentiveness that had wiled him into any number of beds could be put to many uses, sometimes even good ones.

And all told, if never said, Felix likes Sylvain’s company, when it doesn’t involve Sylvain bent on self-destruction dressed up as casual dating.

Their friendship wasn’t circumstance but continually renewed choice. Felix wouldn’t submit to anything else.

Sylvain, handing Felix a skewer of meat, mindful of how it drips, earned it often enough in actions like these. Felix takes it with a thanks.

Sylvain’s snagged a single mug of spiced wine from the same stall as the meat, and drinks from it while Felix chews, passing it over when he’s swallowed. It’s a gesture to how he knows Felix appreciates the flavor of wine and meat together but hates still to be too deep in his cups in public. At its best, it’s easy as anything, knowing each other.

They browse the wares packed into either side of the laneway, eating and chatting. Sylvain is a discerning shopper, casual as he goes about it, doesn’t own much despite his family wealth and what he does have he’s selected for quality and a hard to define charm.

Felix just likes when stuff he has fits well, works unobtrusively, and can take a beating before it falls apart. He leaves their drifting to Sylvain and lingers where he lingers.

Even with company Felix’s uneasy vigilance in a crowd is not silent but held at the periphery. He sees Sylvain perform the same visual sweep as him at regular intervals, but where Felix is discreet Sylvain is utterly casual. Felix is once again impressed in a way that would make him call Sylvain a bastard, admiringly.

Sylvain pauses so they both pause, to browse a stall with leather goods lining its display and more still on a rug on the ground around it. Before nearing the merchandise Felix wipes his hands clean on his pants.

“I have a handkerchief,” Sylvain says.

“I’m aware of that.”

Sylvain closes his eyes a second overlong, his own brand of hands-off exasperation. He’s smiling when he leans over to consider a row of boots.

Felix crouches to look at the belts displayed no less carefully for being on the ground. He doesn’t need a new belt, but they’re nice enough, and Sylvain is turning over a boot in his hand so he has time to kill.

Beside the belts are gloves arranged in a thoughtful gradient from the darkest to lightest grain. The gloves he wears to battle are the same he has been using for work around the monastery and they’ve pulled their weight and then some. He takes a pair from the darker end of the spectrum.

They’re a rich brown, near in color to the pair he already has but unquestionably nicer and they reach a bit farther down the arm. He turns them over, examining the stitching like he knows about stitching, rubbing circles over the texture of them with his thumb. They feel good under his hands at least. Maybe that meant something.

“Can I see?” Sylvain is looking over his shoulder, no telling for how long now.

Felix hands them over and stands to watch Sylvain examine them, going so far as seeming to smell them.

“They’re nice,” he says.

“Yeah,” Felix concedes, because it is really only Sylvain’s assessment that has told him so.

Sylvain looks for a moment at Felix’s hands, mouth bowed lightly in thought.

“Yeah these’ll fit,” he says, and turns to the merchant. “I’ll take these.”

“Sylvain,” Felix says pointedly.

“Hm?” Sylvain says in a pleasant imitation of a man who knows not what he does. He is already handing over payment.

“I can buy my own gloves.”

“I can also buy your own gloves. Same difference.”

What is Felix to do with logic like that? Argue.

“But you didn’t want the boots,” he says like an accusation while they continue on their way.

“Weren’t as nice. They were a different craftsman.”

Felix huffs a breath. Sylvain holds the gloves out to him.

He narrows his eyes but takes them in hand. Looks down at them a moment and stows them in an inner pocket of his coat.

“Don’t make this a habit,” Felix says.

Sylvain hums. “I think it’d be fun to while away the family fortune on annoying you.”

Sylvain.”  He pauses. “Dinner would really piss me off.”

Sylvain grins. “I can’t believe nobody knows you’re funny,” he says.

 

**

 

When Sylvain steers them to a tavern that has seen better days, with boisterous noise spilling out to announce itself at a distance, Felix stops walking to give him a flat look.

“Okay, but listen,” he says. “If we’re talking strictly food, you have to trust me that this is better than any upscale establishment.”

They’re aren’t any upscale establishments around here anyway, but Sylvain has literally dined with at least one king and countless nobles. In all things except perhaps company, he does have taste.

Felix doesn’t argue, just looks at him to communicate what he has so many times before. You better not be fucking around.

Sylvain also answers wordlessly, points at Felix emphatically and then gives an equally forceful thumbs up. You got it.

The food, it happens, is amazing. The atmosphere is an acquired taste. The center of the room is a boozy pit of a dance floor moving to the players in the corner offering up barroom classics. Easy to stomp to and everyone knows the words.

Felix chews a hunk of sauced potato and eyes Sylvain, who is smiling at the crowd; a woman is tossed in the air at a particularly raucous turn in the dance. She whoops with startled joy and is set back on her feet laughing.

Sylvain sees Felix looking.

“I know,” he says. “But it’s kinda nice isn’t it? All that—“ he waves a hand vaguely “—unfettered merriment?”

From the sound of it, Felix suspects merriment isn’t the word Sylvain is really thinking.

“I’m sure they have some fetters,” Felix says dully.

“Haven’t we all.” Sylvain cuts and spears a piece of meat but his actions are too deliberate. He’s going to say something dumb momentarily.

“Say, Felix,” he ventures.

Felix blinks slowly at him, impassive.

“Your footwork is pretty impressive, huh? All that training—“

“Absolutely not.”

“Hear me out?”

“I’m not dancing with you.”

“You could dance for me?” Sylvain puts his chin on top of his laced fingers, gazes up through his eyelashes.

“Sylvain.”

“What! Are you not the rightful winner of the White Heron Cup, 1180? And the legs that won it! It’s a shame—“

Sylvain.”  Felix brings his glass down hard on the table.

Felix opens his mouth to cut back at Sylvain, who had surely anticipated this amount of quarrel if not greater. But—

“I’d like to hear more about the legs, actually,” says a man from Felix’s left.

Felix blinks once. When he looks over his face is sharp and cold.

“Why talk about what you could get up and show us?” The man’s companion offers. His smile is sloppy and wide and drunk.

Felix marked them on the way in, the table closest to theirs, two men playing cards and drinking deeply from tankards. Obnoxiously loud, ruddy-faced and large but not, to Felix’s mind, a threat. No armor, no obvious weapons. He and Sylvain could have sat someplace else but this was the only table free with a wall at their backs and a view of the whole room.

Sylvain takes the rebuttal onto himself. “Fuck off.”

Felix was set to cow the two into recognizing they were outclassed, or maybe staring unimpressed until they crossed a line that would justify using force. But he looks to Sylvain and Sylvain is visibly, uncharacteristically, angry.

Usually he’s one to smooth things over. Sweet talk people down or run away, as he had with spurned bedmates and their angry relatives. But Sylvain laughs now and it is unkind. “Listen,” he says, like he’s explaining the joke. “You’re not fit to drink his backwash, let alone look at him.”

Felix almost snorts. There’s something very bizarre, hysterically so, about how this is happening. But no one is smiling anymore, drunkenly or no.

“What, are you marking your territory?” The bearded of the two leans forward on his elbow.

The tension has ratcheted up beyond being called tension.

“Let him speak for himself,” the second clown spits. Shorter, hair a dull wheat color. “Maybe it’s just you he doesn’t want to dance with.”

“Or for,” Beard offers.

“What’s it gonna take for you two to shut the fuck up,” Sylvain says lightly, shaking his head, playacting disbelief. “Does anything about this look like you’re wanted?”

One of the men stands, perhaps to make his answer, and the other follows quickly to his feet. Felix stands too, between Sylvain and the men. People nearby have tuned in, eager for conflict and staring openly.

“Let’s take it outside,” Felix says, completely unmoved by the two attempting to maximize every inch of height they have on Felix. He makes a path through onlookers to the door. Not overly concerned about his exposed back, not when Sylvain is there.

 

**

 

Felix feels pretty satisfied, maybe more so than usual, to hear his knife hit its mark with a dull thunk. He hadn’t thrown in a while. It’s good to know he hasn’t gotten rusty.

He cants his head to watch Sylvain, muscles straining under his own challenger. The bigger man of the two. Bearded and sweating, he relents under Sylvain’s grip and comes back up cursing.

The crowd around them, drawn in by the prospect of violence, hollers and jeers. Five attempts and five defeats.

Felix rolls his eyes. It was a laughable miscalculation to take on Sylvain at arm wrestling.

Though Felix could imagine how a betting man would wager on the wrong side. Sylvain had broadened into his own since leaving the academy but his bulk was largely camouflaged under his fur-lined clothes.

In the time before they knew Dimitri to be alive, in the time when they were told he was dead and believed it or didn’t, Sylvain and Felix many times fought together at the front against the Faerghus dukedom. Sylvain no longer had the luxury of skipping out on training now that his training was battle. If he fell, a pillar of the already hobbling resistance would come down with him and, circumstances depending, Felix besides.

It was a contradiction, one of the little pockets built on dissonance people made to hide in, that Sylvain had shirked his training because he would later have no choice but to fight like he was going to die. Violence was fast coming for him, indifferent to his lack of preparation. Bloody was the mantle of the unyielding border lord Gautier.

Felix made a pact with Sylvain at a time when he imagined that a single additional loss of someone important to him would undo him completely. That if anyone else was taken, Felix would not recognize himself or the world, and would not abide either any further.

He didn’t expect that years later, not even very many years, their promise that neither would die before the other would be a sometimes desperate tether. Sylvain on the battlefield, fighting with a reckless lack of regard. Sylvain with his worst smile, dead drunk after hours, moving carelessly like he’d already left his body behind.

Felix didn’t know how often he would have to call on a promise between children to stymie the panicked nausea of Sylvain cutting it too close in combat or otherwise. But Sylvain, twelve and visiting Fraldarius with a broken arm, too sore everywhere to roughhouse, Sylvain screaming his voice gone at the bottom of a well—maybe Felix should have expected to have exactly as much fear for Sylvain as Sylvain lacked in the face of his own death.

What the promise meant to Sylvain, Felix would have to wonder. Hated beyond being able to stomach it that Sylvain might really be thinking take me, not him. Felix forced to do the same to counterbalance. Felix willing to do the same, terrified not to.

Sylvain and Felix went to the frontlines together, their survival never assured, and the pair were sharp and desperate.

It happened more than once, Felix is a little embarrassed to admit—not that he didn’t have his own record of saves and assists. But the memory of each of near-thing is impressed upon Felix: a moment’s danger he was or wasn’t aware of, an attack from the front or behind poised to overwhelm him, and then the enemy suddenly sprouting a javelin where a javelin ought not be if one wanted to live. And somewhere within hearing range of the death knell would be Sylvain, leant forward in his saddle, eyes serious like they never are, watching to see his mark hit true.

The man who could do that with lethal accuracy at a distance was not phased by something like arm wrestling.

This night, Felix has handled his end of things tidily, with minimal shit-talking. Though upon winning Felix smirks at the man who has lost their game, the wooden target before them thoroughly gouged, and the man seems to find him less attractive than whatever initial impression made him speak up before.

“This is bullshit,” he mutters, casting his eye away from Felix, and doesn’t elaborate.

Felix moves to join Sylvain, who is facing the audience, making faux-humble little bows that threaten the relatively peaceable resolution they’ve accomplished. That Felix brokered, making bets with men who were gambling in more ways than they knew and were too drunk or arrogant to recognize a hustle.

Felix glances over Sylvain’s still-seated opponent with the sore arm, a prominent vein throbbing in his forehead. Sylvain and Felix had done much worse to men in order to claim what was called victory, always a euphemism—this one being almost a joke by comparison.

“Enough already,” Felix says to Sylvain’s back. But he himself isn’t recognized for being magnanimous. “You’re acting as though you’ve done something challenging,” he says airily. He hears a chair scrape like someone has stood up suddenly but he doesn’t look.

Sylvain laughs over his shoulder. He blows a kiss to strangers, signaling the end of his ingratiating to the crowd, who will move to other amusements the second he’s out of sight.

“Time to go?” Sylvain says. The bet was thus: if Felix and Sylvain lost, they would hand over gold plus the cost of the men’s dinner and drinks. If Felix and Sylvain won, the men would fuck off, per Sylvain’s original request.

Sylvain throws an arm around Felix’s shoulders and with the same hand uses a few fingers to wave goodbye to the losing pair. Sylvain’s smile is mostly a show of teeth.

They’ve gone half a block when Sylvain says, sotto voce, “They would fucking love to murder us.”

Felix shrugs out from under Sylvain’s grip. It’s too awkward of a way to walk. “The point was made that it would be stupid of them to try.”

“Their lives to lose,” Sylvain says, and there isn’t much joking in it.

They walk for a span of minutes and there are no jokes forthcoming; nothing is spoken at all. Felix would be happy to have quiet if it wasn’t distinctly counter to what he expects from Sylvain with recent cause to be very smug.

Felix doesn’t bother being discreet when he looks to Sylvain for a read on what’s happening here. Sylvain carries tension in him still, his shoulders and gait tight. His expression unusually displeased for a man with a smile honed to every purpose.

“What is it,” Felix says.

Addressed directly he pulls on a grin, papers over his face with it. “Thinking about you roleplaying a pragmatist back there,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you advocating non-violence.”

Felix grumbles. “It wouldn’t have been a fair fight anyway.”

“Sometimes people should get what they earn though, huh?” He sounds off, a chord of bitterness run through his voice.

For a moment Felix lets the statement lie amid the sound of their footsteps on the road.

“You were angry,” Felix says.

“I’m never angry! One of my numerous charms.”

It’s true that Sylvain rarely wore his rage plainly or directed it outward. Seeing him openly riled didn’t sit comfortably—part of why, if Felix had to account for his choices, he was compelled to manufacture a solution that didn’t involve a fight. Too many unknowns in what Sylvain would do, as the version of himself unhindered by his own persona. And little to be gained from a fight besides self-satisfaction.

“I guess the public humiliation counts for something,” Sylvain says, his hands laced behind his head. He lengthens his stride casually to get a step or two ahead.

Felix frowns warily at the back of him.

“What’s going on? Without the bullshit.”

Sylvain just laughs.

“I don’t know what you mean, Fe! I’m the same as always,” he’s overshooting jovial, landing somewhere uncanny beyond it.

“And how are you always?” Felix asks, voice straining with the discomfort of playing along.

Sylvain looks over his shoulder at Felix, grinning terribly. “I’m the fuck-up—Fodlan’s biggest fool.” He turns back around. “It’s a good thing you were there to clean my mess up tonight! Who knows what would have happened. Goddess forbid I be in bad shape to be broiled alive at Ailell.”

“If I weren’t here tonight, there wouldn’t have been a mess,” Felix reasons irritably.

“Exactly,” he says, not looking.

Felix makes an exasperated sound and takes a few quick steps to get in front of Sylvain. Stopped, Sylvain isn’t smiling anymore. His face has gone cold and something in Felix chills to see it,  a dread sitting heavily in him.

“Quit with the fucking doublespeak,” Felix demands. When Sylvain tries to get around him to keep walking Felix is too fast, too annoyed, to let him.

This close, Felix has to look up to really see him. He hates that.

“How far are you gonna take this?” Sylvain asks.

And Felix just stares, feet planted, every bit as obstinate as he knows Sylvain can expect from him.

A minute passes. Sylvain huffs a bit. His audible breaths are intermittent, short and expressive like an agitated horse. Maybe he would lash out, from the cruel and removed space he departed for when there appeared no reason left to be human.

Felix had borne it from him before. More recently than Miklan’s death but that is the one that springs up red and bright in his memory. But it was an exceptionally rare occurrence, and Sylvain doesn’t seem so far gone as that. Though all his small, uneasy motions suggest energy withheld. When they eventually settle, the time it takes for him to will them down, he speaks.

“I fucked up.” He says so in a voice flat like he’s trying to smother something. “I gave them a reason to look at you like that. To think about you that way.”

“What?” Felix thought he had no expectations and he is still taken by surprise. “You’re joking. You want to take responsibility for others that badly?” He has to fight to not roll his eyes and really make a mess of things. “You were being annoying but you didn’t fucking—offer me up to them.”

“I knew better.”

“You’re smart, you always do,” Felix says, snappish, like it’s a fact they both know. “But they made this problem, not you.”

“Felix,” Sylvain says, pointed, believes he is calling Felix out on a kindness he does not deserve.

Felix is already exasperated, having navigated this far. He’s the one who deserves to use that tone. “Do I mince my words, Sylvain? Does that sound like me?”

“You’re not known for your delicacy, no. And you’re a shit liar, which seems related.” He probably sees Felix’s point in the making.

“So then you know that I don’t believe you’ve wronged me.”

Sylvain scrubs at his face with both hands in frustration. “Didn’t I set you up to be wronged?” It’s progress; asking a question means some willingness for an answer. “Just by being the way I am?”

There’s a war on. They’re generals on a losing side. Unassailably large and true, Felix narrows these facts out of view for a moment. He can’t allow Sylvain to be blotted out, won’t assist Sylvain in his pursuit of it.

He grabs Sylvain by the wrist. Sylvain seems not to know what to do with this change of tack, and simply follows when pulled along. Head cocked and seeking, they don’t have go far before Felix spots it. They turn a corner and stop. The path here is empty and unremarkable, not generally what qualifies as a destination. They’re on the side of a building; it’s another tavern. Light from its window cuts a square into the dark.

Felix, not looking at Sylvain, guides the hand he held Sylvain by to rest at his waist. Assumes a stance. This is perhaps when Sylvain realizes that what’s important in this alley is what can be heard, and music from the tavern overcomes wall and window to provide for them.

“Felix—“ Sylvain says. It’s clear he means to refuse a gift chosen of obligation.

“You couldn’t force me,” Felix says. “You know this.”

Sylvain looks to Felix’s face for reinforcement. Felix is looking off beyond Sylvain’s shoulder. Embarrassed. He had after all walked them past the window, to the dark on the far side. He is not perfectly visible but every line of him counts. He doesn’t know it, but he grounds Sylvain on earth, where people are, invited to count himself among them because their least likely envoy has put out a hand to him.

“You wanted to dance didn’t you?” Felix spits reflexively, sapped of heat. He means to prompt Sylvain to take them the next step. This far is all Felix can manage.

“Okay,” Sylvain says, and his smile  is small and disbelieving.

He catches Felix’s other hand in his, holds it not firm and not loose. Both their hands are chapped and rough and the contact is wonderfully solid, making flesh a fact where before it was abstraction.

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” Felix says irritably, trying to temper the discomfort of the admission.

Sylvain assumes Felix means the dancing when it could be any part of the last few minutes. “You don’t dance pairs is why.” He sounds like he might think it’s a dumb thing to say.

Felix hmphs quietly at that. Sylvain wears some of his nerves on his face, a rare look. It seems he asks one more gesture of faith from tonight when he moves to lead.

It’s a little stiff, and a little awkward. Felix struggles with being in a position to follow but he isn’t wholly inexperienced. His form, like anything he ever aimed to succeed in, is still good. Sylvain’s even better. There’s been no cause for dancing of late but he relaxes into it more readily than Felix, as in most things.

As disinterested young nobles they’d been been instructed in the styles of the court. Sylvain draws on this, and that accounts for what is familiar to Felix about it, but both then and now Sylvain wants to be freer, and their feet move quick and light. They swing centrifugal with one another for leverage. Sylvain must be making most of this up on the spot. Felix has to watch carefully to move with him. Felix wouldn’t be himself, not to rise to a challenge, but on his terms—

“You’re not tossing me,” Felix says, and Sylvain’s eyes go wide for a moment, as though shocked to be assessed correctly, and then he breaks into a smile. It’s too fast and big to be fake.

The pair of them are clumsy to be sure and it is better than being beautiful, better than being correct because it is fun. Felix smiles in spite of himself, a closed mouth smile while he looks down at their feet kicking up dust with the clever rapid steps Sylvain has encouraged them in. In someone else’s life, this would be more natural than fighting.

Sylvain twists him in a move that puts Felix’s back to Sylvain’s chest and pauses him there a moment before unfurling him.

Felix, always holding on to more then he’d ever like to, suddenly remembers from the night before no reason besides utility for anyone to touch.

Felix finds a natural pause and extends it, stopping them moving but their hands are still connected, still poised to continue that way. Sylvain looks at him, waiting, something pained slightly and sweetly around the eyes like he is all but resigned to a moment’s happiness being already over.

“I’m not—“ Felix begins, and struggles. He lets go of Sylvain’s hands to cross his arms. Too much, to touch and also speak. “I can’t, and I don’t want to just. Slice off parts of you that get annoying. I would mess up. What’s good about the whole, I would mess it up, if I did.” He punctuates the speech with a huff, like he’s annoyed, but that doesn’t touch the reality of it.

Chewed up by the silence that follows, he glances unwillingly at Sylvain.

Sylvain’s expression is still, as though it’s been vacated. He’d angled to look down at Felix but he’s staring to the left of him, at the dark behind Felix’s back. It’s concerning, Felix doesn’t know the face—the closest he has for reference is the moment of being dealt a wound: the body clenching around a shock, the pain inarticulate, yet to be parsed by the mind.

A moment of Felix peering openly at him, self-consciousness overtaken by puzzled concern, and Sylvain comes back with a weak little smile. Imperfect with genuine if indecipherable feeling. Sylvain looks worn out all of a sudden. When he moves, Felix feels strangely that he should brace to catch him, but there’s no real reason to expect that Sylvain would stumble.

Steady, Sylvain steps forward and Felix doesn’t step back. He puts his chin atop Felix’s head and makes a movement like a nod that buries his nose and mouth in Felix’s hair. He says nothing, asks for nothing but what’s already here.

Felix is frozen but not altogether tense. He’s out of his element but it is so unheard of, that Sylvain should take of anything in a real way. Not skimming the surface on his way someplace else, grinning lazily as if to say oh, you know me.

Unsure what he should do if he moved, Felix opts not to. Sylvain doesn’t stay long. He pulls away and he is backlit by the window. It limns his hair and leaves the center of him dark.

“I’m good,” Sylvain says. “Are you good?”

Nonplussed with the turn and not fully at rest, Felix can scarcely understand why he’s being asked.

“I’m good,” he says.

 

**

 

It isn’t until they’re well into their march that Felix realizes what Sylvain’s done.

Mercedes hands him a small package, brown scrap paper repurposed from the kitchen and tied with a deep green ribbon.

He frowns questioningly at the package, then at her. “It’s baked but it isn’t sweet,” she says, smiles and leaves it at that.

A few miles further, Annette comes up beside him, minding her feet on the unpaved road and the procession around them. When she has his attention, she slides a flower behind his ear and grins.

His can feel where his face flushes lightly and wonders whether it isn’t because he has no other recourse. Won’t be happy and he can’t be mad, not at Annette, constant bright thing she is. He glares at her because he knows it doesn’t daunt her at all.

When Ingrid pushes a handful of jerky at him and he finds it isn’t rations but spiced game hard to come by and impossible to supply to an entire army, his suspicion demands address.

“What—?” he begins, and Ingrid just looks with purpose at his new gloves.

He whips his head around, seeking.

“You’re a bastard,” he spits, marching up to Sylvain, who turns away from his conversation with another mounted unit beside him. He looks unsurprised to see who has come to curse him this morning.

“Yes, Felix dear?” he says, happily feeding a fire he doesn’t even know the cause of.

But Sylvain spots the flower in Felix’s hair and grins widely. “Annie?” he ventures. “My girl’s done good, it’s definitely your color—“

“Fuck you,” Felix says. They can’t stop their moving, being in the middle of everything. Felix walks awkwardly beside, going briskly to keep pace with the horse.

“Ah yes, I’m a monster,” Sylvain says with a burdened sigh, leaning back in his saddle. “Tricking you into celebrating your birthday.”

“You should have asked.”

You should have remembered the day,” Sylvain counters. “Wouldn’t have been so defenseless.”

“I—That’s—“ Atop his horse Sylvain is an awkward height to cast murderous looks at. “There’s a war, Sylvain!”

Sylvain nods as though Felix has made a sound argument. “Too true, too true,” he says. “Look, given it wasn’t actually your birthday yet, can’t we overlook my betrayal?”

Ashe turns up beside Felix. Maybe he hadn’t heard the conflict or maybe he thought it was a handy segue.

“I have a book for you, when we get back to the monastery,” he says. “I would have brought it, but the packs are heavy enough as it is.” He smiles at Felix and Felix feels sure Ashe knew exactly what Sylvain was getting yelled at for.

Felix throws his hands in the air with a frustrated noise. Glares at Sylvain, intimating: see what you’ve done?

“I didn’t tell them,” Sylvain says chidingly. “Everyone knows your birthday but you.”

Felix sucks his teeth. “Thank you, Ashe,” he says, not ungraciously. He gives Sylvain the finger as a parting gesture.

“Nice fit on those gloves, babe!” Sylvain calls out, Felix rapidly putting distance between them.

Chapter Text

It was a mistake is what Felix thinks, the last thing he thinks—clear, addressing everything—before conscious thought becomes a luxury.

Somewhere among their ranks a mistake had burrowed in, was making them suffer from the inside. Information was passed to Cornelia’s forces. This explains what they’re staring down now.

The banners of Rowe seem a mistake but they are not. For every Kingdom territory that turned traitor, there was a lifetime’s familiarity that still saw the Houses’ seals as home for a second before they registered as enemy.

It was madness to have ignored a warning as stark as a name, to think The Valley of Torment would fall anything short of what it announced itself as.

Felix is cutting his way through a landscape that refuses all attempts at orientation. It’s hell and it won’t stay still. Acrid smoke and the stench of sulfur announce fire spit up from the earth. The ground is molten in places with no warning, a dire misstep waiting to happen. This place draws out every bit of self-preservation simply by being, and most sentient things answer to it by leaving the way they came.

It’s unclear whether Dimitri is even phased by the deadly anomalies around them. He saw Gwendal and then perhaps could see nothing else, just the human obstacles at the end of his lance. He was still wearing his fur mantle and cape. Unthinkable. Idiotic. Felix could track the blue of it like nothing else, however.

“Your feet, boar,” Felix screams to be heard. At Dimitri’s back he stabs through the neck of a soldier bearing a mace, once intent on Dimitri but now bound for nothing.

Dimitri doesn’t acknowledge the warning but still skirts where the ground is burning. Felix wants to grab him and scream, do not fucking die here. The thought isn’t meant to be an action, it’s just the shriek of adrenaline responsible for every move Felix made to preserve select life by taking others.

It’s a mage that first separates him from Dimitri, that and Dimitri’s singleminded pursuit slowed by nothing, not even the ground split open to drown them in fire.

Felix doesn’t do all that well with mages. The tactic is to press upon them faster and more insistently than they can cast. Even so dark magic sizzles past his ear and if he let himself have fear it would seize his chest, just how close. Count every near miss like that and he may as well lay still and do the enemy’s job for them. Instead Felix cuts the mage’s hand from their arm. Distraction enough to skewer their heart in the next moment.

There’s a witness, another mage, emboldened by what’s become of their comrade. They scream in what Felix recognizes as grief that wants for blood. Felix just barely moves fast enough to avoid their cast. It puts him out of range; the mage seems viciously pleased with this. Felix throws up his left hand, sends thoron into their chest. When they drop to their knees, he cuts their head from their shoulders. Somehow it’s the kindest death he has to offer. It could be him, gifted that kind of perverse mercy, and one day it probably will be. Should be. If he’s made to answer for all he’s done.

 

**

 

The physical conditions, a baseline of extreme discomfort, conspire to be what gets Felix killed, even as he ignores them. He’s fighting in shirt sleeves and leather armor, all outer layers removed, and this offers barely any relief. Sweat beads steadily from his hairline. But this is a good thing. When he stops sweating it means his body can no longer even attempt equilibrium. Problem being the sweat is running in his eyes, and he’s trying to watch two backs at once. It’s looking after his own that gets him in trouble. It’s too much to be here at all. His footing, the beast on a rampage, the oppressive heat, the spouts of fire—he is too insistent in looking forward and this is how he is disarmed.

He turns sharply, at the last second before it was to be a lethal dose of inattention. He can’t brace well enough against the heavy swing of an axe, and just blocking it rips his sword out of his grip. It lands, severely unlucky, in a wellspring of magma. Felix ducks the next strike, all instinct, and there will be no better opportunity than this moment,  wherein the man facing him down thinks Felix at a disadvantage.

Felix presses close, awfully intimate, would feel the heat of the man if there weren’t such all around them. He unsheathes his second sword and in the same motion draws it against the man’s stomach. It happens in seconds. Felix darts quickly out and behind the man, lest he try to land another strike before realizing he needed to hold his intestines in. It is an awful way to die. Felix has wasted too much time already.

His delay in reaching Dimitri is at least to advantage, just this once. He cuts through an archer as she pulls, sights on the boar pulling his lance up from where he’s pinned a man through to the ground. Her shot goes off but weakly, lands a dozen paces from Dimitri’s boots.

Felix comes up on his good side and circles into his blind spot. Putting himself there without somehow alerting Dimitri could have deadly consequence, and the man can’t be counted on to recognize any name he is called.

Again, Felix thinks, taking up position. Another chaotic half-thought, savage in tone. It might mean, try, again, to kill us. Repeat the motion that may put us on the other side of this once we’ve exhausted it. Maybe a demand for himself. Again, again, the only thing there is to do, the use he is come to.

 

**

 

Battle was finite. Living through it felt otherwise, but the resources within and without could not last forever. Even a moving target like Gwendal would be more and more plain to see as the concentration of bodies thinned.

Rowe, it seemed, was better supplied than they were on this point. Only one of the two of parties came certain there would be a battle. There are still forces swarming around them, the density suggesting that Dimitri’s instincts on where Gwendal might be were astute through his battle madness. What they were working through were troops forming a perimeter around their general in the way Dimitri would not permit of his own. He has barely had a glance for Felix, obdurate on his right side. It was just as well. They had nothing approaching coordinated maneuvers, and what kept them from injuring the other incidentally could be credited to Felix’s already taxed awareness.

They are beset suddenly by what feels like a tactical push, deliberate; they must know who Dimitri is. Throwing bodies at the problem of him but Dimitri tills all under with indiscriminate violence. He isn’t happy, is one thing. The unhinged glee from the Western Rebellion is nowhere on him. He is a force and a terror; he doesn’t hand down commands, doesn’t speak but to scream. Will accept any wound short of one that would stop him. Why Felix is here: he doesn’t trust the boar knows where that line is.

They are surrounded. They move on instinct begot by training and a lifetime anticipating violence. Their crests activating alternately, almost never together. Dimitri gives a roar that must shred his throat to hell. Hardly a sound a human should be able to make. He spears one man clean through and doesn’t stop—runs through a second and then uses his boot to slide their bodies from the end of his lance. A third, backing away, Dimitri skewers imprecisely in the face and through the skull.

Felix grits his teeth against his own heartbeat and summons a thoron to fell a swordsman in Dimitri’s blindside. He had to be precise, not to catch Dimitri himself with it, and the time it takes costs him. He catches a blow over the ribs that wheezes the air from his lungs, and he is still moving his sword arm through that seizing pain. The woman with the cudgel who struck him has her face carved through in a diagonal from the right of her jaw to her left eye. Not the kind of move Felix would have made had he any choice. He cuts her throat and has to fight not to grip his side. It wouldn’t ease the ache to hold it and would announce his weak point. He needs to make it through this wave of combatants and free up a moment for a vulnerary.

He’s forced to use another spell while he presses forward to keep up with Dimitri. Unable to turn away from his opponents but moving backwards is a weak striking position when he has to glance constantly down to avoid puddled magma. His arm prickles uncomfortably; he’s not overdrawn yet but that was two casts close together and he’s approaching his limit.

Three more soldiers set upon him at once and he has to plant his feet and fight. He maneuvers through the sharp pain in his ribs, dispatches of them with exacting speed, but the wild-eyed dying glance of the third over his shoulder tells him there’s a fourth behind him.

He spins to face them, a blade swings down on him and is in position to cleave his arm from his shoulder. The speed of his instincts keeps him in one piece but the man he faces isn’t slow. It would be a matter of skill then, and Felix submits to the dance. They trade blows and test for power and technique.

Felix cannot afford to draw this out nor can he expect aid. He lays down a series of strikes in quick succession, his crest flashing at least once, and it sends harsh reverberations down the metal of their swords. The blows are designed for overwhelming force and as such are not sustainable, but it sets the man expecting a pattern and so he is taken off guard when Felix pulls back to strike wide at his torso.

Defending against the onslaught of Felix had pushed the man back a step or half-step at a time, and the sudden broad sweep sees him jumping backward to avoid it. He screams when his feet are engulfed by molten earth. He cannot stop screaming, and Felix needs the sound to end. He stabs into the man’s heart with some kind of feeling he can’t afford, and there is no karma for the death he led this man to but there is, suddenly, a hand in his hair. Felix is wrenched backwards so forcefully his grip loosens, and his sword stays embedded in the man’s chest.

Felix’s feet scrabble for purchase. Dimitri is nowhere in sight. It’s been minutes since Felix was even able to look around for him. He can’t think of any of this right now, the useless hope of assistance. He pulls his dagger from his thigh holster and cuts blindly backwards at the hand that holds him. He’ll likely only get the one chance so he goes for force. A cry and Felix is released but not before the blood runs into his hair and down the back of his neck.

He wheels around to face a man cradling his wrist to chest, his other hand curled around a lance. His bone gleams dully through the wound. Good, Felix thinks harshly.

It is the only thing that is good, a petty little blessing next to the fact that Felix has only a knife against this man’s several feet of iron. The corpse that houses Felix’s sword is already cut off from his view entirely, the distance between filled with other warring bodies. No way back and a bad way forward.

Felix has to be quick. His disadvantage is too obvious. He feints like he means to charge in and when his opponent braces, Felix throws his knife into the man’s face.

He only knows that it hits, not the extent of the damage it does, when he ducks to pull his backup, his last-resort of a knife from his boot. He moves in with haste; the man is yanking the knife from his eye so he is not dead nor injured enough yet, and Felix means to seat his next strike in the man’s throat.

It does not go to plan. Resilient or benefitting from shock, the soldier has his lance up and it slices through the meat of Felix’s upper arm. The next best he can do, Felix slams the back of his knife down on the man’s uninjured wrist. He drops his lance. Felix just barely manages to kick it away before the man, with rage and abandon, tackles Felix to the ground.

The weight of him is immobilizing. Felix has some grappling experience but that had technique, decorum. His ribs sear with pain. The man is screaming and bleeding and he intends to kill Felix with the knife Felix lodged in his face.

Felix brings his arms up—the best advantage he has, with the use of both intact. It is a contest of power alone, to stop the downward push of the knife toward his face with only the strength of his arm. He doesn’t have the focus for a spell and pressed this close he risks hurting himself just as badly. He’s waiting for his crest, pulling for it, and where is it? The knife inches down toward him and his heart beats hard but forgotten. It doesn’t feel like death yet but maybe it should. The man’s ruined eye looms over him, leaking blood and fluid. Then, the eye is even closer, and the body it belongs to slack, and the man doesn’t even scream, but he smothers Felix with his corpse in a death faster than pain.

Sylvain rolls the body off of Felix and grabs him by his shoulders, holding him there and assessing.

“Oh thank fuck,” Sylvain says, sounding a little hysterical but his face is creased and determined. He looks like any of them look but mercifully whole, or appears that way. Felix scans him with a hard look. A streak of blood across his forehead. The same smeared beneath his nose. His horse is panting behind him, overtaxed in a way that Sylvain never pushes his mounts to. Felix knows he rode hard to get here; he has no idea how Sylvain even spotted him.

He presses a sword into Felix’s hand. “From your father,” he says.

The sword is etched with a crest, the blade flat at the end in the style executioners favor.

“Moralta,” Felix says. So the old man made the meeting after all. Was in this mess somewhere.

Felix rises to his feet and can’t stop the hiss of pain when the motion flexes his ribcage. Sylvain raises his eyebrows.

“I’m fine, it’s my side,” Felix mutters, and reaches for the pouch at his hip where his vulneraries are stored. Then he aborts the movement unthinkingly, thrusts his arm past Sylvain’s head and fells a soldier on course to bring their blade down on Sylvain’s back. The thoron feels ripped from him. He grits his teeth against the pain of it.

“We’re one for one,” Felix says, cutting off the concern primed on Sylvain’s face.

He shoves in a hand searching for a vulnerary and just as quickly withdraws it. A new cut over the pad of his finger oozes blood in a mockery of the larger situation. Crushed, all his tiny bottles, from the impact of being tackled, likely.

Sylvain has his back to Felix now. Lance of Ruin in hand and he’s scanning for threats like the one he’d already missed. He pushes a bottle from his own supply into Felix’s hand without looking.

“Sylvain—“

“I have more, I promise you.”

Felix doesn’t have faith in this. If it were Felix he wouldn’t lie, but he would find a way to do the same. It wouldn’t feel like a sacrifice but like the right answer.

“Drink,” Sylvain says. “We’re needed.”

“Fuck,” he says quietly, bitterly, and does.

Bottle empty, Felix reaches a hand behind him. He raps a knuckle twice on the armor over Sylvain’s forearm. “It isn’t today,” he says. His voice is firm and forbidding, not permitting any other outcome. He looks where he has to, ahead; not at Sylvain, but at the bloody sprawl of fighting. He is vigilant and exhausted and not done.

Sylvain blindly squeezes Felix’s wrist to answer, two twin pulses. “Not today,” he agrees.

 

**

 

Felix had experience with Moralta, but not in battle where it counted. Heirloom to the Fraldarius line apparently meant something more than the flesh that was to inherit it. The sons went to fight and the steel stayed safely behind.

It was heavier than he typically favored, and while the flat tip would do blunt damage, such was harder to make immediately lethal. Wouldn’t stop a man quickly and completely the way being run through did. Moralta was a sword one would evolve an entire style to match. Felix was. Improvising.

He had caught a glimpse of Dimitri, between smoke and bodies, hundreds of yards between them. There were soldiers in Fraldarius blue mixed in among them now, at least, and despite this Felix feels a pang of feeling he can’t attend to. His old man would be holding his own. Was not known as the Shield for nothing. He wouldn’t be surprised if when he found Dimitri, he found Rodrigue too.

 

**

 

It is the sword’s fault. It is a poor killer that blames their knife. It is Felix’s fault. There is more death here than adrenaline alone can will him through.

He’d spilled blood all across the divide between him and Dimitri’s right side. He’d even caught his eye, Dimitri sparing him a nod while he heaved for the space of a few breaths, bits of gore bright against his hair.

“He’s close,” Dimitri says, and the way he says it, it isn’t for Felix, but for Dimitri and whoever conducted him presently. His pitiless phantom tacticians.

Dimitri presses forward and Felix flanks him. Gwendal is distant but visible, handing down blows and orders from atop an intimidating warhorse. The moves Dimitri makes in sighted pursuit are even more artless, near desperate, and the sheer brutality is effective. It’s hard to even get close with his lance sweeping bloody arcs around him.

Felix feels heavy, clumsy and out of order. Not so badly as to be stopped but it pulls at him. Makes him worse than his best. But for moment it’s almost as though there’s a break in the opposition’s momentum, like with his frenzy Dimitri has cut them out a circle in the center of a storm.

To be here is not Felix’s job, or if it is, he assigned himself to it. To assist, to prevent. If it is his job, he nearly fails it.

Too slow, too much focus spent avoiding the backswing of Dimitri’s lance. Too hot and so long. A brawler strikes for Dimitri’s neck from behind. Felix a step too far aside, he only just catches the movement in his periphery. It is a moment of nerve-shearing alarm; the time it takes to get himself in front of the threat is spent like he is on fire, his mind made only of imperatives to urge his personless body. Go, get, must, now.

He manages; it would have been smarter to strike from the side, but he needed to be between; he means to gut the man on the end of his sword, but—

it is flat; the executioners never wrung out and scrabbled for a death, they were a bygone conclusion, a final act of gravity—

the soldier with his clawed gauntlets cuts through the air as he is forced backward by Felix’s sword, and still his arm has momentum; he has his own set of imperatives. The collision happens too fast to be more than culmination of their opposing instincts and luck. Felix feels the pain of the blow over his face and then comes the blood.

Not halted, in the next second Felix severs the man’s carotid. It almost feels easy, or it has a certain weightless disbelief to it. As though the motion of one wound dictates that it be met by another, running so close together as to be one long and single injury.

After the brawler’s body crumples Felix is forced to deal with another soldier that springs up behind. The blood is quickly becoming a problem. It makes the confrontation longer and more difficult than the matchup of skill should require.

He can’t even gauge the breadth of the injury. It burns and throbs in a streak over the left side of his face. He knew he had blinked, bracing uncontrollably, when the brawler brought his claws down, and there is a distant shock and a more distant relief that he didn’t lose the eye. The burning is above and below it, though, and so he owes to the bone of his eye socket and happenstance that his vision is intact.

When he disentangles from the second bout, Dimitri is already gone. Felix would not be what stopped him, he is not the end goal. The adrenaline of such a close call runs at a high scream inside him still. It points itself at Dimitri. Is it fear, is it rational? Neither question gets an answer while he can still move.

But, the blood. It’s running down into Felix’s eye, and when Felix licks unthinkingly at what would run into his mouth he flinches at the sting of a cut lip. One end of the injury but he still can’t map the shape.

He’s blinking blood out of his eye to little relief, running down what he assumes is Dimitri’s path marked by a wake of bodies. Scanning wildly, intent to not be taken unawares or near to it again, something clicks in his brain seeing one of his allies and he detours. With a two-handed swing he decapitates a soldier advancing on Ferdinand and he hasn’t the time to wish for dispassion when he sees the head roll and the body drop. It gets stored in him. It all does, always.

“Ferdinand,” he rasps out, when they are momentarily in the clear.

Ferdinand whirls on him, eyes running the same course as the blood from Felix’s wound. He wears all signs of struggle, least of all is his hair, sweaty and disheveled, strands flying mad about his face.

“Do you have magic left?” Ferdinand fought with an axe; if he knew combat magic Felix wasn’t aware of it. It was a question then of how much he’d played medic in this battle.

“I—“ Ferdinand knows better than to make inquiry or take any time more than is strictly needed. “Yes. Your face?”

Felix nods.

“Felix,” his voice is tight and worried for more than the chaos around them. “I am not good enough. It will scar.”

“I don’t care,” he spits. “If you can do it then do it. Quickly.”

He’s getting farther away. A disgustingly clear thought. It could happen again.

Ferdinand for all his goodness still looks conflicted. “Don’t close your eyes,” he says, grim but firm. “We need a lookout.”

Felix squints against the glow upon his face but is alert through it, eyes held open, he thrums with a strange contention of nerves and exhaustion. Ferdinand’s grip on his face is not careful, the circumstances don’t allow it. When he pulls his hand away it comes back bloody. He glances once more over his work with a complicated if subdued expression.

“I’ve done what I can. Go,” Ferdinand says.

“Thanks,” Felix says. And before turning away, with eye contact he’d avoided thus far: “I will see you after.”

Ferdinand’s mouth quirks, jaw set and resolved, somehow still amused—probably at the audacity of what amounts to a demand on Felix’s part. The only way he can bring himself to ask for anything.

Ferdinand firms his grip on his axe. Felix is folded noiselessly back into the wretched landscape once more.

 

**

 

Felix had known Gwendal. An annual relationship, like that of an imposing and distant uncle, they might see one another when Rodrigue traveled for Kingdom affairs and deigned to bring Felix. Glenn was the one who was to observe the bureaucratic proceedings as part of his duties alongside knighthood. Felix, then the second son, could not find the sense in nor patience for dry adults in ornate chambers, talking for twice as long as anything important could ever take to say.

Gwendal was not dry. Broad, muscled and scarred, when Felix tip-toed into the training grounds of their host’s keep, he let Felix use live steel for as long as it took his arms to shake from the weight of it. He’d have to pluck it back out of Felix’s hands, too, since Felix even then would rather injure himself than admit to his limits. Something about second sons.

Gwendal would replace it with a training sword, still too big for Felix, and with no condescension and minimal adjustments for Felix’s size and ability, he walked Felix through forms he still knew today. Things he’d learned from Glenn, and things his instructors would later expand upon, but the difference was the respect.

Gwendal had no funny twist about his mouth while teaching—no half-hidden sign that Felix’s efforts were amusing to him. Or worse, cute. Sweet-to-see-him-try-so-hard. Felix knew what it was to be looked down on, even without ill-intent; he hated to be the punchline just by being. He couldn’t control being small, or quick to tears, or, as Glenn’s younger brother, the knight who would never be needed. And Gwendal’s regard of him didn’t involve any of those things which Felix would wish away, would that he could.

While Gwendal was firm in his guidance, he took to the craft and its instruction with a gravity that extended to Felix himself. He was not lesser for being a child. It left  an impression on Felix, the treatment and demeanor, as though Felix was being shown by example the magnitude of the choice one made when holding what was meant for killing. It was not a celebration of noble duty. It was not prideful. There was burden to it, a weight taken onto oneself.

It would be scant years before Felix’s muscle had developed enough to hold a real sword the entire length of a bout. A few years still that they wouldn’t tremble with exertion for hours after.

 

**

 

Felix finds them just as Dimitri unseats Gwendal from his horse. He hits the ground hard. Nearby, allies are fighting to keep back Gwendal’s soldiers, his would-be rescuers. Dimitri pushes more off still, cutting at encroaching bodies while his focus is on Gwendal, who takes advantage of the interventions to rise to his feet and ready his axe. If he had a shield, he doesn’t now.

Felix doesn’t stand still to watch any of this. He was a part of the fray as soon as he’d come upon it. He tracked Gwendal’s effort to stand between clashes with a swordsman that he makes quick work of. Felix doesn’t see it when Dimitri puts Gwendal back down. The dreadful power of his crest in action. Gwendal is a fully armored man decades his senior and it isn’t minutes before Dimitri lays him out on the blackened ground.

With no way to rise, Dimitri wrathful above him, Gwendal speaks. He goads Dimitri, even from flat on his stomach—

Don’t. Don’t Felix thinks, even though he understands the impulse, finds it horribly resonant with something inside himself.

Still engaged, Felix tries to circle closer to where Gwendal and Dimitri are, a dozen feet away.

He doesn’t manage to close the gap by much—a woman with an axe is too relentless and skilled, and there are tens more like her around them in combat with other kingdom loyalists. They make a wall around their future sovereign. 

Felix hears the first blow but he doesn’t see it. The short and terrible shriek of metal piercing metal, then the sound in reverse when the invading metal is withdrawn.

It happens again and it incites other sounds: choked pain, sounding hacked out like a cough, unwilling. A rejoinder of screaming from Gwendal’s soldiers. Intermittently, the tell-tale crack of the Blaiddyd crest, like limb breaking from a tree.

The worst of it are the sounds of bitten-back cries that say Gwendal is dying. Or it is the puncture and scrape of metal that means killing. Or there is no point in making these things separate, and the whole of it is an intolerable song, so many verses long that no one remembers it save those who are present to hear it, and they take it to the grave.

Felix allows himself to be pushed back as he fights, moving closer to what must be called the center for how everything else happening seems pulled toward it.

He glimpses it, when he’s able: Dimitri using both hands to drive his spear into Gwendal’s armored back, yanking it backward with a force that requires his whole body, repeating, repeating.

Felix is close enough to hear when Gwendal speaks again. He wheezes. Felix knows the timbre of last words by now.

Gwendal thanks Dimitri.

It’s so absurd it barely registers at first. Then it crashes into sense. Gwendal came looking to die, expecting . Hoping, possibly.

There was no place else he would find an end acceptable to him. Nothing else he could imagine or tolerate.

The notion gains density rapidly, compacts and sinks down into Felix. It bypasses even judgement in the shock of knowing that this was what a man at his end wants to say.

The only silence that follows Gwendal’s words is his own. The groans of pain stop, but the sounds of breaching metal, the wet squelch of gored flesh, do not.

“Enough!” Felix screams. His back turned, fighting still. “That’s enoughbeast!”

But it goes on. And Gwendal’s soldiers that remain are locked in combat, knowing now that there is no hope and no retreat.

Gritting his teeth, Felix calls again, taking the risk of looking away from his opponent just briefly, to better direct his voice at Dimitri.

Stop, you animal—you’ve done it, he’s gone!”

Felix wants to tackle him, wants to wrench him bodily away. Wants to, in some horrible parallel, knock him to the ground. Be the stopping force.

But he can’t, and all he knows are the somehow foreign contortions of Dimitri’s back, broad and dark and unassailable, a wall that kept man out so the creature on the other side could carry out its work unhindered. Felix lives outside that wall. What he used to know of Dimitri does, too. The boy he once was who could not imagine the violence he would later grow hands large and scarred enough to carry out. Before he saw what could be done to people by people, and his place among a world like that was lost, was taken, was held absent in the space where he stood before.

Felix fights with neither version of Dimitri in mind, or with both of them, but indistinct, knowing only the urge of what he has to do and not why. The why is enormous. It could eat him whole.

He has to ignore the why to continue to move, especially now, when ensuring no soldier reaches Dimitri means being unable to stop Dimitri himself. It means what Dimitri is doing, Felix is allowing. Felix makes this atrocity possible.

Felix creates more dead. The clamor of battle becomes a quieter thing, shifts into the sounds of troops withdrawing interspersed with sporadic flare ups of stragglers’ last-stands.

The soldiers in their allied colors around them retreat and Felix doesn’t miss the way they look at Dimitri, who has gone quiet, and who Felix hasn’t looked at since he has. Among whatever else they saw here today, Dimitri is what scares them. Their king.

Felix has no such fear. Not for himself. For everyone else, and, in the locked-up part of him, for Dimitri, he does fear. Moving through him into the world, though, the fear becomes something else.

“Disgusting,” he spits out in a whisper. A word for Dimitri, and for what he can see of what’s been done to Gwendal’s corpse. There are holes bored into his back, they cover it; when just one blow was enough for killing, this many achieve a purpose Felix does not wish to understand.

Dimitri is on his knees in the blood he spilled. He curls over Gwendal, his hands folded over the back of Gwendal’s head. Dimitri bent close, whispering like he is conferring with the man.

Felix can’t hear most of it but a morbid, under-controlled part of him wants to know. He listens deliberately for just a moment, and what he can parse is how Dimitri speaks with a pronoun for the multiple.

“We deserved this... We faltered. We betrayed. But we will see it through, and then, we will burn for it.”

It isn’t an accident or just a ghoulish place to rest, that Dimitri, resembling prayer, huddles over the back of Gwendal’s skull. It becomes clear to Felix very quickly—unnerving, that he should understand anything of Dimitri—that Dimitri speaks for himself and for Gwendal and for the dead on his back. The soldiers felled around him. The killer and the dead merged by guilt, by duty and by madness. Dimitri’s agenda is too clear and his heart is not his own.

Felix turns away, looks out at nothing and sees the wasteland they crossed to end up here, and the place has no passion for them, the ground takes the blood they give it and nothing changes.

While Dimitri whispers Felix wants to scream, or never speak again, walk straight ahead with no destination, but rather a length of time and the limit of his ability: as far as he can go and for as long as he can move.

But he won’t. They have to clear the bodies. He needs to find every person he has left to care about and see them breathing. The work is nearly done and the work will also last the rest of his life.

He turns back to Dimitri, who has not moved, who is still speaking quietly to himself and what he can see. He could die this way, Felix imagines it easily. Not the death itself but the stillness, Dimitri posed eternally in contrition. Sorry to all the wrong people and unaware of or hostile to what life remain around him still.

Come back. There is an instinct in Felix left over from childhood, and now, grown with him as he has grown, it is like violence. It was then, too, and that was so rarely acknowledged, the way a feeling too large tore at the body that had to translate it.

He wants to hurt the message into Dimitri. Come back. Shake him against the earth, press it onto him with the grip of his hands. He could barely stand to think it; he won’t be able to say it.

And he knew, from as far back as the Western Rebellion, maybe sooner—when he’d tried to tell everyone, anyone, what somehow only he could see: Dimitri was going away, Dimitri was already gone in the ways that mattered. He knew from his history of knowing, that with no one to listen, there wasn’t a point to speaking anyway.

Chapter Text

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 Dimitrino 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.

“Felix!”

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.

“Don’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.