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“I’m going to kill every single one of you for getting us into this situation,” Felix hisses from behind the dressing screen.

Someone hammers again on the chamber door, a dull, metallic sound that implies heavy Imperial gauntlets, and Sylvain says encouragingly, “Cheer up, Felix,” and gestures to the door with the hand not occupied prying off his left boot. “There’s a very good chance they might kill us all right now, will that make you happy?”

“We do not have time for this,” Ingrid whispers to them both, yanking on the ties of Annette’s borrowed corset with white-knuckled fingers to cinch it tighter around her waist. “Sylvain, shut your mouth and stop making things worse for once in your entire life, will you?”

Sylvain, who has failed to make things worse on at least three or four occasions in his entire life, finishes discarding his boots and puts his hands on his hips, waiting for her to look back at him so she can see how offended he is.

This situation is not his fault, anyway, or it is at least not entirely his fault, which he is very proud of, thank you.

Annette was the one who had ducked out to the high street in Daphnel, after their meeting with the fourth Alliance arms supplier Ingrid’s father had sent them after this month, in order to press her nose against a shop window advertising fancy cakes. Felix had been the one who insisted on going after her, and of course Ingrid didn’t trust Felix to go anywhere unsupervised.

And yes, okay, Sylvain had been the one who was recognized by Imperial guards on patrol as a Kingdom sympathizer, but that could have happened to anyone.

The real fault, obviously, lies with the Empire, who had taken over all previously neutral Alliance territories in a vicious coup only last night, a crucial change in circumstance which no one had had the courtesy to tell the four of them about in the intervening hours.

The soldiers in unfortunately familiar red and black livery were kind enough to bring them abruptly up to speed by shouting, “Kingdom spies! Seize them!” and veering their armored mounts around to race towards them down the cobblestoned street.

Sylvain had insisted, while hoisting Annette onto a nearby cart stacked with barrels so Felix could grab her hand and pull her the rest of the way up, that this was a wild overreaction: as if they had been discovered lighting things on fire or distributing Faerghus propaganda rather than admiring the delicate pink icingwork on a Gloucester sponge.

Felix had insisted that as this was Sylvain’s fault for “being conspicuous,” he should shut the fuck up and focus on not dying.

Sylvain thought conspicuousness was a bold accusation for someone wearing fur and tall boots in perfectly temperate weather, and told him so. Felix told him to get fucked.

A quick scramble up onto the barrel-laden cart had gotten them all up to the roof of the shop, and a wild sprint across precariously-shingled rooftops had gotten them here, halfway across the small town and well away from the mounted guard, to the first open window they could find and all haul themselves through.

To Sylvain’s delight and everyone else’s weary acceptance, it had turned out to lead into an empty room on the top floor of what was, judging by the noise downstairs, a very successful local brothel.

They had initially intended to hide there until the patrols moved on; however, that plan fell to pieces when a loud banging on the main door below heralded a very determined search party.

From there it was a matter of shedding their heavy traveling gear and following every rapidfire instruction Ingrid gave, some with, as Felix seems fully committed to demonstrating, more willingness than others.

“Done,” Ingrid says now, patting Annette’s waist in dismissal. She yanks the tie out of her own hair and drags her fingers through to loosen the plait. “Check on Felix?”

Annette, after pressing a palm flat to her newly constricted abdomen and raising an impressed eyebrow down at her breasts, makes a face and disappears behind the screen again.

“Is there time to come up with another plan?” floats back a second later. Her tone does not inspire a wealth of confidence.

Nor, for that matter, does the brief sound of a scuffle which follows, together with a muffled curse and the resultant wobbling of the wooden screen on its legs as something unseen knocks into it.

“Don’t be a baby,” Sylvain hears Annette tell Felix, matter-of-fact, who retorts, “Easy for you to say!”

Sylvain takes a moment to thank their lucky stars for the very audible music and laughter coming up through the floorboards, as it’s covering the distinctly un-amorous sounds of the argument.

“Oh, I’m sorry, do you want to trade?” Annette is asking. “Here, go on, help me off with this, I’ll lace you up.”

And oh, isn’t that a visual.

“In answer to your question,” Ingrid whispers, glaring at the screen, “There is definitely not time for another plan, or, for that matter, anything that is currently happening. Get out here and into the bed, both of you!”

While she’s talking she snaps her fingers at Sylvain, who banishes thoughts of Felix being laced into a corset and comes over obediently.

Ingrid goes up on her toes, barefoot, to thoroughly tousle his hair. He’s already shrugged off his jacket onto the floor along with his boots, and he nudges her hands away for a moment so he can wrestle her disheveled dress the rest of the way off over her head, leaving her in her slip.

He winks at her, and she gives his hair an extra vicious yank in retribution. Sylvain thinks this is unfair, as he is the only one cooperating and yet no one else is getting their hair pulled, and besides, she really does look so good in the slip.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she says, before he can say anything.

“Marry me,” he says fondly.

She smiles back just as fondly and jerks on his hair again, hard enough that he winces. “Still a no.”

When she untangles her fingers from his hair and he turns back around, rubbing his scalp, it’s to find that Annette has bullied Felix out from behind the dressing screen.

Sylvain promptly forgets how much his head hurts, and that Ingrid is a cruel, cruel heartbreaker.

The reason for Felix’s adamant death threats is vividly apparent: he’s been wrapped and tied into one of the silk dancer costumes Ingrid had found hanging up, together with a selection of undergarments and several pairs of drying stockings, when they’d first spilled into the room only a few minutes ago.

They’d used the same type of costume at school, for special events. As such the short sleeves, gold wrist cuffs, and matching collar above a swooping neckline that bares arms and collarbones alike; these are not objectively surprising components.

What is surprising is all of them, together, on Felix. Felix, whom Sylvain hasn’t seen out of a turtleneck in months if not years. He thinks probably years. He would have remembered the slow inexorable breakdown he’s having over the line of Felix’s neck.

He’s barefoot, and his dark hair is loose—Annette’s smugly wrapping the leather tie he uses to hold it back around her wrist and Sylvain wants to kiss her, but not as badly as he wants to kiss Felix, who looks livid.

Ingrid looks from Felix back to Sylvain. “Say nothing,” she says in a tone of deep and terrible menace.

Felix had argued vehemently, while Ingrid ripped the room apart to find clothing for them to wear and Sylvain listened at the cracked door to the soldiers downstairs informing the unimpressed brothel owner that they were conducting a routine search for spies from the Kingdom and would need access to all customer rooms, that there was no good reason he had to wear the costume and Sylvain got to keep (most of) his own clothes on.

Sylvain had—heroically, he thinks—refrained from saying either “You’re prettier” or “You’re so much smaller,” both of which are absolutely true and either of which would have earned him at least a minor stabbing.

The argument had been rendered obviously and savagely moot anyway when Annette held the top of the complicated garment up to Sylvain’s shoulders, staring Felix dead in the eyes, and it didn’t span the breadth.

“Do you have underwear on?” Sylvain asks now, raising both eyebrows as his eyes travel up, up, up the generous slit in the longer, asymmetrically wrapped blue-and-white skirt to where it gives way to the much shorter one at mid-thigh. Felix looks like he might pop a blood vessel. Sylvain thinks he might also.

For a moment Sylvain is sure this is going to be the fourth time in his life that Ingrid slaps him, but she only grits her teeth and says, “You are not helping.

Sylvain does not at all deny this, but he also doesn’t see how it is relevant.

He doesn’t get a chance to point out that Felix has not answered his extremely reasonable and important question because Annette interrupts by hissing, “Felix Hugo family name stricken due to our soon to be mixed company, get on the bed.”

And Felix, as always, does whatever Annette tells him to, which is, as always, a complete slap in the face to the two members of the room who did their time for years to be rewarded with nothing even resembling that type of consideration.

Felix stalks over to the unmade bed and throws himself onto it next to her. He immediately jerks the sheets up over and around himself, looking like nothing as much as an angry toddler being made to take a nap.

An angry toddler exposing a distracting expanse of white throat and toned pale leg whenever he moves. Sylvain wants to write the designer of the costume a formal thank you letter. He also thinks they need to be tried for war crimes, probably.

Ingrid crosses to the bed to grab Felix’s wrist and hauls him up on one elbow. “Not like that! Sheets off, lie on your side and close your eyes.”

“I don’t need to be told how to lie down,” Felix says, wresting his arm back and looking outraged.

“No, but from the looks of it you do need to be told how to look like you just got fucked,” Sylvain interrupts, because someone has to. He gestures to Felix’s right. “Fortunately Annette is a natural, thank you Annette.”

Annette, who had scrubbed fingers through her own neatly combed hair to dishevel it and is lying tangled artfully in the sheets with one bare leg dangling over the edge of the bed, gives him a thumbs up without opening her eyes.

Felix flushes all the way to the tips of his ears, because Felix blushes for anything, which would actually help them out if he would only cooperate in any way.

Someone knocks on the door again, a relentless, suspicious pounding now. “Open this door in the name of the Empire!”

“Here,” Sylvain says in a low voice, kneeling on the bed next to Ingrid and pushing Felix back down before Ingrid can point out again, correctly, that they do not fucking have time for this.

Felix stiffens all over, but Sylvain is stronger and far less interested in dying on principle and so he flattens one hand over his chest and puts his full weight behind it when Felix resists, pressing him back into the sheets.

Felix tries to shove him off but Sylvain catches his wrist with his free hand. “Felix.”

It comes out exasperated and, awfully, softer than he means to, like always, and after a moment of glaring up at him wordlessly Felix gives in.

Sylvain feels the fight go out of him, watches as he turns his head to one side on the pillow, breaking eye contact. He’s breathing shallowly from the exertion.

Sylvain does feel a little bad. It’s obvious Felix is embarrassed by the situation and even someone who hadn’t known him for going on two decades could tell you he’s not used to having to play pretend at all, let alone in this setting, but there’s really nothing else for it. Sylvain’ll apologize to him for the manhandling later.

For now, having gotten what he wanted, he tugs at the gathered fabric pinned up at Felix’s shoulder to free it and slips it partially down his arm. He plucks the sheets back from where Felix yanked them and arranges them so that they’re twisted low around his waist instead.

Sylvain’s still got fingers wrapped around Felix’s wrist and somehow hasn’t lost them yet, so he sets that wrist down on the pillow near Felix’s face, tapping his hand until he curls it in slightly, the way one might in sleep.

The most dangerous part comes when he pushes a hand through Felix’s hair—and goddess, it’s soft, just as soft as it always looks, as soft as it feels on the frequent occasions Sylvain gives into temptation and tugs at his ponytail only to be swatted away—to tangle it slightly and arrange it over the pillow.

He allows himself to run his fingers through it once, and only once. It’s an unnecessary indulgence as it is. He can’t let himself linger there, or he’ll get lost in the simple action.

He feels Felix’s eyes on him again, and looks down.

It’s a mistake, saints it’s a mistake.

Felix is always beautiful, has been for years, in a way that makes something familiar and huge ache in Sylvain’s chest when he looks at him too long, or catches sight of him when he’s not expecting to.

Gazing down at him now, Sylvain has never regretted his words more.

This is how Felix might look if he’d just gotten fucked, cheeks stained pink and clothes out of order, looking wide-eyed up at Sylvain knelt above him, pressing him into the rumpled sheets.

It’s a concept Sylvain tries very hard not to let himself think about, ever, not out of any sense of decency but for what’s left of his own sanity. Now he has no choice. It’s literally staring him in the face, and it’s no one’s fault but his.

This time it isn’t an ache. It’s like being lanced through the heart.

“Good enough,” Ingrid says, shifting over on the bed, and, mercifully, dragging Sylvain’s attention kicking and screaming back to the situation at hand. “Sylvain, the door. Felix, close your eyes and please, for all of our sakes, do not say anything.”

Felix mumbles something rude, but he does let his eyes slide shut as instructed.

Goddess, but he really does look exactly how Sylvain wanted him to. Sylvain is actually almost grateful for their potential impending deaths, because it means he can’t continue to dwell on what a catastrophe that is.

He leaves them all entangled on the bed and rolls to his feet, unbuttoning the rest of his shirt and steeling himself as he crosses to the door.

If there’s someone they know, or rather someone they knew, on the other side of it, they’re in real trouble.

It’s not too likely, since from what they’ve gleaned in bits and pieces, snatches of conversation overheard while shimmying down a drainpipe or judging the jumping distance between two buildings, Derdriu is still smoldering and Edelgard and her men won’t have moved on yet. But that doesn’t mean they can rule it out.

If that’s the case they’ll have to fight their way out for sure, and at a severe disadvantage, because one of the tenets of Ingrid’s insane, brilliant plan had hinged on them getting anything they could use to defend themselves out of arm’s reach.

“If you do not open this door, we will break it down,” someone shouts from the other side, with one last slam of a fist against the wood, hard enough to shudder the whole door as Sylvain reaches for the knob.

“By the goddess, what?” Sylvain says loudly, jerking the door inward. He leans heavily upon it. “I have paid for the full night, a considerable sum of money, might I add, practically highway robbery, and I do not appreciate—oh? You’re not the madam,” he says, and takes a deliberate second to focus on the man in black armor, squinting. “I don’t suppose you are the serving maid with the wine I asked for an hour ago?”

“We’re checking all the rooms,” the soldier—not, Sylvain had noted instantly, flooded with relief, the blonde who had spied them in the street, nor any one of their former classmates—says bluntly, shouldering past him.

He’s dark-haired and thick-chested, and looks to be in his early thirties. “Empire business.”

“Do you mind?” Ingrid asks, leaning up on one elbow. She makes a poor attempt to pull the sheet up in front of her barely-contained breasts.

Annette yawns and rolls over towards her, murmuring, “What’s all that racket?”

“We’ve been ordered to check each room for intruders,” the second guard says, with a note of apology in his voice. He’s even younger, their age if that. His fair coloring is flushed pink and he’s pointedly looking at the ground in front of Ingrid, or at the wall past her head, anywhere rather than directly at her. “Have any of you seen or heard anything suspicious?”

“I don’t think we’ve heard much of anything,” Sylvain says, and offers up the smile he knows from years of careful practice is his most obnoxious one. “There’s been a lot of screaming.”

“Wake them up,” the first soldier says, apparently less impressed than the second by Ingrid’s ample charms. He gestures impatiently to Felix and Annette. Ingrid huffs a sigh. She leans to shake Annette, then tugs meanly on Felix’s hair.

Annette does a fantastic job of coming awake convincingly, yawning and sitting up with languid movements and blinking in beautiful innocent confusion at the guards. The strap of her chemise is slipping down one slender, freckled shoulder. She looks like a heavy-handed oil painting about the dangers of amorality.

Felix, on the other hand, tosses the sheets off himself with no art at all, looking around watchfully. Sylvain is actively pained by how bad at acting he is. The only saving grace there is that the guard’s gaze drops immediately to his newly exposed thighs rather than his face.

If Sylvain’s does too, that’s neither here nor there.

“I would remind you that the penalty for hiding a Kingdom spy is death without trial,” the dark-haired soldier says, dragging his eyes from Felix to Annette, and then back to Ingrid, narrowing. “So we will ask one more time. Have you noticed anything unusual tonight?”

“We’ve been a bit busy,” Annette says, glancing over at Sylvain and giggling behind her hand. Sylvain is going to write her the most effusive, epithet-ridden ballad. He is going to sing it to her at the banquet he will be holding in her honor.

Felix only looks askance at the guards and shakes his head once, dismissive. He’s acting too arrogant for a whore by half; he has none of Ingrid’s imagination or Sylvain’s talent for lying or Annette’s willingness to playact, but somehow his regular unmasked disdain works with the image he’s providing without even trying. Aloof and unattainable.

“None of us has seen anything all night,” Ingrid answers for everyone.

Annette tips her head to one side, twinkling back at the guards. “Except a man with only one ball,” she contributes cheerfully, “but I don’t suppose that’s the sort of ‘unusual’ you mean.”

The dark-haired soldier is still looking around, and Sylvain’s heart skips when his gaze lingers on the dressing screen. The discovery of the discarded clothing, weapons, and traveling armor piled out of view behind it would be difficult even for Ingrid and Sylvain to explain away.

“If you don’t mind, no offense to the Empire,” Ingrid speaks up again, tone polite but edged, “some of us are trying to make a livelihood.”

For the few seconds of silence that follow, Sylvain thinks they might have gotten away with it.

Then, the soldier’s gaze returns to him and narrows, and he remembers luck is rarely on his side. “You. Make yourself presentable and come downstairs. I have some questions for you.”

“We’re sorry for bothering the rest of you,” the younger guard says hastily, still blushing. Sylvain would bet money he’s going to come back later to see Ingrid, possibly with flowers, and expects it’ll take him years to recover from his heartbreak when he finds she’s not here.

Both guards step back, floorboards creaking under their heavy boots as they retreat to wait outside the doorway, and Sylvain feels tension begin to ease out of his shoulders.

True, his own circumstances have not improved, but he’s rarely met a situation he can’t talk his way out of and at least, this way, the other three can get out and to safety.

He’s sure they can even come up with some heroic plan to rescue him if things take a turn for the truly dire. Ingrid loves heroic plans. He used to be afraid she was going to hand-deliver him trussed up to a dragon just for the chance to enact one.

The younger soldier departs back down the stairs. The other remains on the landing, arms folded and eyes still narrowed. His gaze keeps roving over the room, and over the four of them, as if he’s determined to find something out of place. Sylvain’s just glad the man’s not as good at his job as he thinks he is.

He had idly hoped they might be assured enough of his own cooperation that both men would leave and they could all make a run for it back out the window, but there’s no help for it. The others can’t get out unless he stays here and cooperates, and there’s no question that he’ll do whatever it takes to give them that chance.

He retrieves his boots and buttons his shirt back up, takes his time about it just to be annoying.

“I apologize, ladies, but you heard the man. It looks like I’ll have to cut our time short.” He leans to kiss Annette on the top of her head. “My dreams will be of you and nothing else until we next meet. I’ll write to you every day.”

Annette snorts and drops back into the wreck of sheets, curling up next to Ingrid, who turns her face up so Sylvain can kiss her cheek as well.

“Promise you’ll wait for me, darling?” he asks, tucking a strand of long blonde hair tenderly back behind her ear.

“You have our word of honor,” Ingrid says archly. “Be sure to look us up next time you’re in the city, mister sweet-talker.”

Felix’s dark head is bowed where he’s leaned over the edge of the bed, doing something that turns out to be retrieving Sylvain’s jacket from the floor.

The impulse to bend and press his lips to the line of Felix’s part is strong but mercifully fleeting. Even for the sake of the gambit, Sylvain would never escape without a broken nose.

Felix hands over the jacket, which is surprisingly helpful of him, but when Sylvain tries to take it from him, his fingers tighten their grip on the fabric of the collar. And then things make sense, because Felix is never helpful.

Sylvain, who had foolishly hoped this might somehow not be a fight, tries not to sigh aloud at the expression on Felix’s face.

“I’m not leaving you here alone,” Felix says in a low, furious voice, so quiet the guard couldn’t possibly hear over the rambunctious music and shouting now spilling in through the open door from downstairs. His amber eyes are flashing. “You’ll say something stupid and get yourself killed.”

Sylvain smiles down at him. “Worried about me?” he murmurs. His thumb brushes over Felix’s white knuckles where they’re gripping the coat. Barely; the ghost of a touch. Felix still twitches his fingers like he wants to jerk them away.

He feels his smile broaden when Felix scowls at the question. “I’ll be fine,” Sylvain whispers, and winks for good measure. “I made you a promise, didn’t I? I plan to keep it. No need for the dramatics.”

Felix’s expression darkens further, and Sylvain realizes as soon as the words are out of his mouth that he has made a grave tactical error.

Felix does not take well to being called dramatic. Felix is looking extremely like he’s going to make Sylvain regret doing it.

Sylvain is so used to ruffling those feathers on purpose, out of habit, that he’d for the moment forgotten that it’s not likely to be particularly to his benefit in this specific context.

“I’m staying with you, asshole,” Felix says through his teeth with a worrying air of finality, before Sylvain has time to backtrack. “Try and stop me.”

He lets go of the jacket with no warning, which sets Sylvain slightly off balance, and—before Sylvain can grab him back, because Felix is annoyingly fast—ducks under Sylvain’s arm, rolling off the bed to his feet and padding barefoot across to the open door.

Sylvain does not watch his hips move in the dancer’s costume. He does bite back a curse, because for all Felix talks about him being reckless and impulsive, of all the fucking audacity, he does things like this, and oh, if they both get out of this alive Sylvain swears he is never going to let him forget it.

The soldier waiting just outside looks startled, and then suspicious. “Hey!” he snaps, taking a step forward and reaching out to grab Felix roughly by the upper arm, arresting his progress. “You, where do you think you’re going? Everyone stays in their rooms until we’ve finished our inspection.”

Felix looks coolly down at the hand on his arm, and then glances over his shoulder at Sylvain, one eyebrow raised as if to ask, are you going to allow this?

Sylvain is, his body decides for him before his brain can catch up, absolutely not.

He’s closed the gap between them in an instant, putting himself between the man and Felix and wrapping his own fingers around Felix’s bicep directly above the guard’s. “I would appreciate if you wouldn’t touch my property,” he says with a wink. “You understand.”

It’s a wild improvisation, but a far more reasonable one than what had almost burst out of him in the seconds after it happened, a furious and utterly irrational get your fucking hands off him.

Still, he’s sure to make the warning note in his friendly tone obvious. The guard falters, dropping his hand. “Your—”

“I apologize,” Sylvain says smoothly, and tsks at Felix. “He doesn’t work here, he’s mine.”

Playacting or not, a thrill still runs through him. Pathetic, Gautier.

“Doesn’t always do as he’s told,” he adds with an indulgent smile. He lets go of Felix and drops an arm around his waist instead. “It’s my fault, I spoil him. Still, he goes where I go. So, downstairs?”

The soldier looks from Sylvain to Felix and back and seems to decide arguing the point is not worth any amount of his time, because he just turns away with a barely concealed roll of his eyes and gestures for them to follow him.

Sylvain glances back in the moment before the door closes behind him, and locks eyes with Ingrid. She mouths, “Thirty minutes.”

He can feel the guard watching him again from the stairs below and he can’t risk nodding, so he blows her a kiss instead. He shuts the door, but not before he can clearly see her rolling her eyes at him as well.

Sylvain feels the iron fist clenched around his heart relax just slightly at the sight of the closed door. The problem is half-solved; he’d bet the girls are already scrambling for their clothes.

There weren’t guards posted outside the building perimeter when they’d checked, so they’ll be able to go back out the window. From there it’s just a matter of finding a way to get back down to street level and then across town to the stables where they’d boarded Ingrid’s pegasus and Sylvain’s horse.

“Follow my lead,” Sylvain leans in at the bottom of the stairs to whisper to Felix, who tilts his chin up defiantly to give him a flat look.

“I’m sorry, am I not?”

Sylvain looks down at him, in silk and gold, barefoot and unflinching. He supposes he is, for all that.

“Remember you said so, that’s all,” is all he has time to murmur. Their chaperone has realized they’ve fallen behind, and is looking back impatiently.

They’re led out into the too-warm open space of the downstairs. It’s crowded with overstuffed chairs and sofas, all likely elegant once but now gone collectively somewhat to seed.

It’s very busy considering that dusk has only just fallen; full of laughing men and women in various states of undress, spilling wine and picking at platters of fruit and meat. Someone’s plucking a bawdy song on a harp on the farther end of the room, poorly, and there’s incense thick in the air. Sylvain can feel a headache threatening at his temples.

They’ve cleared customers and workers alike out of a space in one corner, where three other guards, two men and a woman, are waiting. It’s to this vacant spot that the two of them are guided.

Sylvain sits down on a worn velvet loveseat without being asked, putting his back to the wall. He can feel Felix’s momentary hesitation without looking over and saves him by reaching out to circle fingers around his wrist. He tugs him down, into his lap.

Since Felix has insisted on staying, Sylvain’s not going to give anyone the slightest opportunity to separate them. Ingrid and Annette would fight over who got to kill Sylvain first if he came back without him, and that’s leaving Dimitri out entirely. It’s unthinkable.

That’s one reason. The other, less noble one is obviously that Sylvain just can’t pass the opportunity up.

“Don’t be like that,” Sylvain murmurs, syrupy-sweet when Felix instinctually stiffens and tries to move away. He’s prepared for it this time, slides his other arm firmly around his waist again so he can’t go anywhere and touches fingertips to Felix’s chin to tip it up to his own.

He leans even further into Felix’s personal space, which has now become Sylvain’s personal space, to say quietly, but pitched to be audible to everyone present, “Did I make you jealous? Hm? You know the girls are nothing, baby.”

Felix huffs and looks away, but says nothing, either because he’s too pissed off at the situation or because he’s still taking Ingrid’s words about not speaking under pain of death to heart, it’s hard to be sure.

“Oh, I did make you jealous,” Sylvain says in a low, teasing voice. He brushes his knuckles down over the line of Felix’s jaw. “I promise I’ll make it up to you later.”

Felix still won’t look at him, but he does relax against Sylvain’s shoulder and, after some hopefully subtle tugging on Sylvain’s part, lets himself be maneuvered the rest of the way into Sylvain’s lap.

Sylvain pets through his hair for the effect, and then keeps doing it for no other reason than that he can, and the thrill of it is sending sparks like he gets from using fire magic up through his fingertips, radiating warmly out to his entire arm.

He never really sees Felix with his hair down; it’s always thrown up hastily in his usual bun or ponytail to keep it out of his face while he trains. Sylvain lives in constant fear that he’ll just get sick of dealing with it and hack it all off with a killing edge.

The rare times Felix gets up too early in the morning to be properly aware of his surroundings and eats his breakfast with eyes squinched shut, or takes his hair down at night before bathing, so that it spills down over his shoulders in wild dark tangles, it’s even harder than usual for Sylvain to stop looking at him.

This is the first time he’s touched Felix’s hair since they were kids that Felix hasn’t smacked his hand away with a cutting admonition, and that victory is honestly almost worth being under Empire suspicion.

Then one of the soldiers who’d been stationed downstairs waiting for them, arms folded over his chest, leans to his fellow and leers, “He’s pretty,” in a very audible voice, and just like that, all of his hard work is undone and Sylvain has to dig his fingers hard into Felix’s thigh to keep him on his lap.

Felix hates being called pretty, has ever since he was sixteen and new at the academy and everyone had realized that he was, all at once, to varying degrees of horror.

He looks undeniably like his brother, and they share many of the same features—the black hair so dark it’s almost blue in the sunlight, the pale skin, the sharp honey-colored eyes—but where Glenn had been broad and handsome, Felix is small and delicate.

Glenn was the spitting image of Rodrigue. Sylvain had never met Felix’s mother before she died but from portraits he remembers seeing around the Fraldarius manor when they were younger, he thinks Felix must have gotten his pointed chin and upturned nose from her.

Felix has heard comments on his looks before, certainly, but he’s never gotten used to it; he had demonstrably almost challenged Lorenz to a duel to the death for blowing him a kiss and calling him beautiful a few weeks before the winter ball when they were all back at school.

He would have gone through with it, Sylvain’s sure, had not an exasperated Ingrid intervened to drag him out of the dining hall to cool down.

“Isn’t he?” Sylvain says lazily now, leaning back against the cushions. “Used to have a bit of a mouth on him, but we worked on that, didn’t we sweetheart?”

He’s the only one who can see Felix’s expression at the moment, and so the only one who can see him seriously weighing the value of both their lives against the value of punching Sylvain in the face.

The former wins out after a fraught few seconds, but it’s clear it’s a near thing.

As much as Sylvain is enjoying being the recipient of the full viciousness of Felix’s glare—and he is, thoroughly—what he doesn’t actually care for is the way the soldier who had spoken is still looking at Felix where he can’t see, predatory and assessing. That just won’t do.

He’s not yours to look at, Sylvain thinks. It’s ridiculous, and he knows it is. He’s not Sylvain’s either, even if no one here but the two of them knows that. That doesn’t mean he’s going to allow it.

Sylvain slides a hand possessively down from between Felix’s shoulder blades to rest at the small of his back instead, pulling Felix in towards him, bunching the silk slightly beneath his fingers. The fabric is cool and slippery under his palm, but Felix is warm beneath it.

Felix’s breath hitches almost imperceptibly in surprise and then he scowls even more fiercely down at Sylvain where no one else can see.

He starts to squirm away, to put some distance back between them, then seems to remember he’s not supposed to be doing that and drops his head to rest on Sylvain’s shoulder with an annoyed sigh only Sylvain can hear. His hair tickles his neck.

Sylvain is going to get yelled at so much later. He is going to be eviscerated. It is going to be worth it.

“He doesn’t talk much,” the soldier who had called Felix pretty remarks, still watching too closely, eyes lingering too long.

“He doesn’t speak our language,” Sylvain says smoothly. He trails fingertips down Felix’s bare arm. “He’s from Dagda.”

He keeps his tone pleasant as he meets the guard’s gaze full-on and asks, “Do you want to know how I fuck him, too, or shall we move on?”

The guard flushes slightly, leaning back against the wall, and doesn’t say anything else. Sylvain keeps his gaze carefully away from Felix’s. He’s pretty sure the look he’d be met with would actually kill him dead.

“Now, do you mind explaining why I’m here?” Sylvain asks, turning his attention back to the soldier who had escorted them down to their rooms as he finishes muttering something to the fair-haired guard and re-joins the party.

“I was having quite a lovely, if expensive, time on my first visit to Daphnel, and now the Empire itself needs to have words with me in the middle of the night,” Sylvain goes on. “I feel very important, but you understand my confusion.”

He resumes his new favorite hobby of toying with Felix’s hair, twisting the silky ends around his fingers, trying to make it look like an idle habit rather than the high point of his life thus far.

“You match a description we were given,” the dark-haired soldier says, sitting down in the chair across from them. “Kingdom spies were sighted in the city earlier this evening. You will in turn understand why we would take that seriously, at a time like this.”

“A description—?” Sylvain feigns confusion. Only when the soldier’s gaze flicks up to his hairline does he let understanding register on his face. “Am I being held upon suspicion of having red hair?”

He’s met with a stony, unamused silence from the soldier in front of him and some uncomfortable fidgeting from the others. Sylvain throws his head back and laughs.

“How about your comrade in arms, then?” Still chuckling, Sylvain inclines his head towards the soldier with a ginger beard standing nearby, who looks stricken. “I do hope you’ve remembered to question him, if hair color is the only requirement for treason these days.”

“You said this was your first visit to Daphnel,” the black-haired soldier says, ignoring this aside entirely. His tone suggests he does not find Sylvain particularly charming. Sylvain supposes you can never please everyone. “What brought you here?”

Sylvain had been expecting this. “Business,” he says easily. “I’m a merchant, so I spend most of my time travelling. Of course, I barely recognize the continent anymore thanks to you lot. The Kingdom, and the Empire. You’ve carved Fódlan all to pieces.”

“A merchant,” the soldier repeats.

“Yes,” Sylvain says with a winning smile. “Textiles. My father’s trade. I’m afraid I couldn’t escape it, though saints know I tried. Are you in the market for any rugs?”

He thinks he hears the faintest huff from Felix, an aborted almost-laugh.

“When did you arrive in Daphnel?” the soldier asks in an oh-so-familiar tone which suggests he’s thinking wistfully of strangling Sylvain with his own hands.

No reason to lie about this one. “Two days ago, late at night. My men and I were hoping to make it earlier, but the rain slowed us down.” Sylvain shrugs. “You may check at the town gates for the exact time, if you like, I’m sure the gatekeeper will remember us.”

She likely would, so it’s good Sylvain’s fairly sure they’re not going to call his bluff; with the downpour, it wasn’t safe to ride either mount and so they were all on foot, completely soaked.

Annette had twisted her ankle in the mud and Felix was giving her a piggyback ride he was trying his best to make seem begrudging, while Sylvain and Ingrid had a heated disagreement about which direction their lodgings were in until, with an expression which suggested she was absolutely at her limit, she wrenched the sodden map out of his hands, turned it sideways, and handed it back to him.

It was perhaps things like this, Sylvain considered in hindsight, that had made Dimitri call a special counsel meeting last week to beg only one of them to go on any given outing.

“And how long is your stay?” is the next question directed at him by the Empire soldier.

“Necessity dictates leaving before dawn tomorrow, sadly enough,” Sylvain says. “We’re attending a market in the capitol the following day.”

“The capitol was just under siege,” the soldier says.

“And if war stopped the textile business, I’d really be in some trouble,” Sylvain replies cheerfully.

“Do you have a license to verify your profession?” the soldier asks.

“I don’t carry it on me during, ah, personal forays, nor any of my papers,” Sylvain says. “I’m sure you understand, it’s not wise to bring valuables into establishments such as this.”

He squeezes Felix’s hip, grinning. “This one is the only exception I’ll make.”

Felix leans into him for an immensely distracting second, breath huffing warm on his skin, to whisper in his ear, “I’m going to fucking kill you.”

“I look forward to that,” Sylain says aloud to him, and then, to the soldiers, with a lazy smile, “Did you have any other questions for me? Only, he gets bored easily, and I did make him a promise.”

“Just one more, I think,” the dark-haired soldier says, eyes sharp. “You don’t seem to care much about the war. With whom do your allegiances lie?”

And it’s good that this has fallen to Sylvain to answer, not Felix, or even Ingrid, whose willingness to lie will always be trounced by principle.

Sylvain has no trouble—looking around at the ring of enemy soldiers wearing the colors that have only meant a bloody death on a rainy field—laughing with no small amount of irony and saying with a shrug, “Long live the Emperor.”

 

*

 

“Do you think they believed you?” Felix whispers while the soldiers discuss whether or not to murder them, or drag them back to Enbarr in chains, or whatever they’re debating amongst themselves against the wall out of earshot.

Felix seems to have relaxed somewhat outside their scrutiny and has stretched one leg out across Sylvain’s lap, leaving the other one pulled up towards him with his arm looped around it.

It’s not so different from how he might normally sit, but he wouldn’t normally be in a skirt, a very short one, one that shifts tantalizingly higher every time he—

Sylvain,” Felix hisses, sounding cross. He jostles Sylvain with his bare knee to get his attention. His heel digs into Sylvain’s inner thigh, and Sylvain would very much like to know why the goddess is choosing now of all times to punish him for every bad thing he’s ever done.

Sylvain catches his leg before he can do it again. He cannot allow him to do it again, under any circumstances, or Sylvain’s going to end up throwing him down on the loveseat.

“We’ll find out soon if not,” he says, working on keeping his expression unconcerned. He can feel the guards’ eyes on them, periodically. “Stop fidgeting.”

“Can I at least get off your lap?” Felix huffs.

“Mm, better not risk it,” Sylvain says, patting his knee. “Shh, they’re coming back.”

The soldier returns to stand in front of them, arms folded over his chest.

“We’d like to apologize for any inconvenience,” he says. His tone and expression suggest he’s just swallowed glass. “You are free to go. You understand, we are on high alert in these dangerous times, and cannot be too careful when it comes to the safety of the Empire.”

“Of course,” Sylvain says magnanimously. “Quite all right, I’ve lost nothing but a bit of my time and a few hours’ company. You should really apologize to the girls, not to me. The time I was showing them, they’re owed it.”

He can practically hear the soldier grinding his teeth. Sylvain feels almost proud; he’s not sure he’s ever made an enemy quite so quickly.

“As an apology for the misunderstanding, and gesture of our goodwill, we would be happy to escort you back to wherever you are staying,” the soldier says, and offers up a forced-looking smile.

Sylvain smiles right back. “There’s that Empire hospitality I’ve heard so much about,” he says. “Very kind of you, but we aren’t headed out just yet. As mentioned, I have a promise to keep. Have a wonderful night, though, officers. Good luck with the war and all that.”

It’s clear the man is going to press the issue, but Sylvain doesn’t give him the chance.

Felix doesn’t protest as he’s spilled out of Sylvain’s lap and then pulled to his feet.

Sylvain keeps ahold of his hand even after he’s tugged him some ways away from the table, despite the fact that Felix is making no attempt to pull away this time, because he can see where Felix’s gaze is focused back over his shoulder, like a hunting dog’s, and does not care for it one bit.

“Don’t even think about it,” he whispers, squeezing his hand tighter to pull his attention back. Felix tears his eyes away from the guard who had called him pretty and gives him a mutinous look.

Sylvain raises his eyebrows and stares right back at him, thinking hard.

It’s very obvious that they’re going to be followed the second they set foot outside, just as it’s very obvious his story is under mild to moderate suspicion.

He’s not under the impression that Felix doesn’t know this; rather, he thinks Felix is likely in the type of mood that he’s spoiling for a fight, and will be even less inclined than usual to see the superior logic in avoiding one entirely.

Thirty minutes, Ingrid had said. How many have passed? Fifteen? Perhaps only ten?

Sylvain is sure there are more guards stationed outside the front and back doors, and the way up to the upstairs rooms is now blocked off, no one up or down while the search is finalized, which cuts off the roof as a feasible escape route.

That leaves just waiting for the girls to rescue them, then.

Sylvain has absolutely nothing against this in terms of pride, but he is concerned about keeping Felix cooperative and unarmed for that long.

So when he spies an unobtrusive velvet curtain in the opposite corner, nearly blending in with the other draped hangings, it’s with an overwhelming rush of relief at the realization that he may not have to.

He’s been in enough places like this in his life that he knows an employee exit when he sees one.

“C’mon,” Sylvain says, low, tugging at Felix’s hand. He pulls him off across the incense-hazy room, picking their way through overladen tables and girls with their breasts out and drunks who are somehow sleeping through the ruckus, both under and on top of the tables.

It’s too much to hope that they’ll lose track of him and Felix in the mess of people, but it’s loud enough and busy enough that it should at least provide enough cover to buy them a small amount of time.

To Sylvain’s immense relief, when he twitches aside the heavy draped fabric and gestures for Felix to go through it first—after a quick glance to make sure no one is looking too hard in their direction—they find themselves in a narrow hallway, dimly lit by a guttering wall sconce, leading out to what is presumably a back entrance to the place.

“Hurry,” Sylvain whispers, jerking the curtain back behind them. “We don’t have much time, they were watching us come this way for sure and it won’t take them long to figure out where we’ve gone.”

Felix is giving him an odd look, and it takes Sylvain a moment to suss out why but then Felix’s gaze drops and he follows it, and realizes he’s still got Felix’s hand in his, their fingers laced tightly together. He hadn’t even noticed.

He’s going to have to recalibrate, somehow; take the butt of a lance to the back of the head, or something like that. This is wildly unsustainable—it’s been less than an hour and he’s completely forgotten how not to touch Felix.

Sylvain lets go of him. He swallows the nonsensical urge to apologize and decides the best way to handle this will be, as with everything, to not acknowledge it at all costs and pretend it never happened.

He maneuvers around Felix and beckons for him to follow him down the passageway, putting a finger to his lips as they near the heavy outside door.

Would-be victory is wrested from his hands when he eases the door open the slightest crack and sees the bright red livery of a helmeted guard on the other side. He’d celebrated too soon.

The guard is facing out towards the street, mercifully, and so doesn’t see the movement of the door. From his relaxed posture, he doesn’t appear to be stationed there—Sylvain had been right, and the out-of-the-way alleyway may have escaped notice—but he’s standing right at the bottom of the steps, chatting up one of the girls who’d wandered out on a smoke break.

More importantly, he is directly blocking their way out, and Sylvain curses his luck yet again.

Dispatching one guard would theoretically be no problem, but with the girl there he can’t think of a single way to do it without someone screaming and an alarm being raised. Or without killing the girl too, and things would have to get much more dire before he’d consider that.

Sylvain jerks his head back the way they’d come and carefully pulls the door closed again, leading Felix several steps back, towards the curtained entryway.

This is bad, it’s very bad, because Sylvain has no doubt, as he’d told Felix, that the soldiers they left behind had watched them come in this direction, maybe even watched them duck through the curtain.

He prides himself on finding a way out of anything, but Sylvain can’t see a way out of this that doesn’t involve fighting outright, now.

The Empire soldiers are probably already on their heels, pushing their way through the crowded tables to follow them.

They’re going to come back here, and they’re going to find them, and there’s hardly an explanation Sylvain can give for why they made for an obvious exit seconds after he refused an escort and stated in no uncertain terms, throwing it back in the guards’ faces no less, that they intended to stay.

No explanation, Sylvain thinks as he looks back at Felix, heart doing a funny, desperate type of lurch in his chest, except one.

He hears multiple heavy footsteps approaching on the creaking wood on the other side of the curtain, and the decision is made for him. There’s no time at all to warn Felix what he’s about to do, but there’s nothing else for it.

All he has to do is keep them alive for another quarter hour or so. He just has to hope Felix won’t kill him before then.

He grabs Felix’s hand again—Felix makes a quiet, startled noise—and pulls him around, a half-spin like they’re dancing. He walks him backwards to press him to the wall by the sconce, crowding into his space so that he can’t get away.

What’s most shocking is that Felix allows it. He’s been so teeth-pullingly reluctant and slow on the uptake thus far that Sylvain wasn’t prepared to have him play along.

“There you are,” Sylvain murmurs, gazing down at him. He might get lost in the way the torchlight plays across Felix’s face. “Let me look at you.”

It’s for an audience but it also isn’t, it’s an act and yet it’s not, at all. It’s getting harder to keep those two things distinct.

He finds Felix’s gaze and holds it, pulling the hand he’s already holding up to his own lips and uncurling his fingers so he can press a kiss to Felix’s sword-calloused palm.

The curtain is jerked back, then. Light from the main room spills in across the floor, and Sylvain can see Felix’s expression clearly now, the shock written plainly in his wide eyes, his lips slightly parted as if he’s going to say something.

“Find somewhere else,” Sylvain says lazily over one shoulder, without looking away from Felix. “We’re busy here.”

He kisses Felix’s hand again demonstratively, turning it over to graze his lips over his knuckles. They’re marked with thin white scars from years of training.

There’s a muttered apology, the shuffling of footsteps, and then the curtain is pulled closed again, dropping them back into warm semi-darkness.

Felix’s expression stays open for only a few seconds before it turns into something else, something sharp-edged and far less vulnerable.

He whispers caustically, “Well, they’re gone, aren’t they? Get off me,” and shoves at Sylvain’s chest with his free hand. Hard. Like he might in sparring. Like he means it.

Sylvain doesn’t move. The footsteps have not retreated, and he’s not fooled.

He has the presence of mind to tighten his grip on Felix’s wrist, because he can feel the strain in it as the muscles flex, trying to slap him off.

Felix is better with a sword than him, and he’s much faster, but he’s not stronger. He’s not strong enough to break out of a hold Sylvain doesn’t want to let him free of.

Sylvain considers with a wrenching feeling of guilt that he must be trampling all over whatever invisible line Felix had drawn earlier, when he’d said he would follow Sylvain’s lead. Neither of them had known how much that might mean, or how far they might have to test it.

“Still mad at me, hmm?” Sylvain asks. They’ve been whispering but he raises his voice to a normal speaking volume now, willing Felix to catch up. “Are you going to let me make it up to you?”

Sound carries clearly down the narrow hallway. If anyone’s still eavesdropping, they’ll hear.

Felix makes a scoffing noise. It sounds like it gets stuck in his throat. “You really will fuck anything,” he whispers, staring up at Sylvain, looking embarrassed and mad and—hurt? No, no, Sylvain doesn’t like that, he can’t ever have Felix look at him like that. He can’t stand it.

Sylvain leans closer to say in his ear with a choking laugh, “They’re still watching us, Fraldarius, so do us both a favor and at least pretend like you like me. Unless you want to fight your way out of here in that outfit?”

Felix’s eyes have cleared in understanding when Sylvain pulls back, though he still looks vaguely panicked for no reason Sylvain can discern.

“Just trust me, okay?” Sylvain whispers. “And don’t knee me,” he adds with the flicker of a smile.

Felix nods once, jerkily. Permission or acknowledgment of trust, or both, Sylvain can’t be sure and doesn’t have the luxury of checking.

For a moment he almost wishes he’d gotten stuck in this situation with Ingrid or Annette instead, because Ingrid is fearless and Annette can improvise like anything, and this would be so much easier if Felix would just make one single attempt to help him sell it.

But then he looks down at Felix, beautiful in shades of black and white turned golden in the firelight; and horribly, guiltily, Sylvain knows he wouldn’t trade him being here for the world.

It turns out it’s easy to pretend to kiss him.

So much easier than imagining it every day for five years, and pretending every day for five years that he doesn’t want to.

Sylvain bends his head—slowly, so slowly, trying to avoid startling him—to Felix’s collared throat and ghosts his breath there, over the skin-warmed silk and sliver of exposed collarbone. The shadow of a kiss. To anyone watching, it would look like a real one.

It feels more like a real one than any kiss Sylvain has ever given, somehow.

Felix turns his head to the side, and on impulse Sylvain lifts one hand to stop him, cups his jaw, resting his thumb lightly over Felix’s pulse. It’s running wild.

He frees his wrist and lets his other hand slide down and around Felix’s waist, pressing a palm to the small of his back over the thin silk—and goddess, he must be freezing, Felix is always cold even in furs—and pulling him closer, flush against Sylvain’s own body.

Without Felix’s boots on, the difference between their heights is even more pronounced.

Felix inhales quietly, and then Sylvain feels fingernails scrape against his scalp. He’s briefly stuck breathless, dizzy at the realization that Felix, who doesn’t hug except under extreme duress and barely ever even lets himself be touched, has wound his fingers into Sylvain’s hair to further the pretense of an embrace.

He’s still stiff, the way he had been earlier when Sylvain had pressed him into the bedsheets without warning, but just like then Sylvain only has to breathe, “Felix,” wheedlingly, and he shivers—he’s cold, Sylvain knew it—and leans into Sylvain instead of away.

It feels right, is the awful thing. It feels like he belongs there.

He doesn’t, Sylvain reminds himself, reciting it like he might’ve done when learning penmanship back when he was younger, having to trace the same looping letters and words over and over again on curling parchment. He doesn’t, he doesn’t, he doesn’t.

“Ingrid and Annette should be back across town soon,” Sylvain says, so low no one but Felix could possibly hear. “Ingrid has a plan, though saints know what it is. We just need to buy them fifteen minutes.”

Felix nods again. His throat works as he swallows and Sylvain watches the movement, fights the urge to drag his thumb down over the line of it.

He moves his lips from near Felix’s neck up, up a hair’s breadth from the line of his jaw, across his cheek, until his mouth is hovering over Felix’s and they’re looking eye to eye.

Or they would be, except Felix is looking anywhere except at Sylvain. His cheeks are flushed, eyelashes fanned dark against his skin, and he’s breathing in huffs. He looks even angrier than earlier, somehow, as if this is Sylvain’s fault anymore than it isn’t.

“You’re beautiful,” Sylvain says, quiet, but loudly enough to be heard down the hallway.

It isn’t part of the act at all this time. It just slips out. If it sounds too honest, it doesn’t matter. Felix won’t notice.

Felix snaps his gaze up to Sylvain’s, and Sylvain winks, tilting his head a fraction back in the direction they came to remind Felix of their audience.

“Don’t,” Felix says in a low voice, turning his face away again. His jaw is set. “Touch me if you have to, I don’t care, but...don’t.”

Don’t treat me like one of your girls, he had snapped once, on their way back to the dormitory after dinner, years ago now.

Sylvain had been flirting with him, in the harmless way he flirted with everyone, because it was fun and it passed the time and it could make people do what he wanted them to if he used it right.

He couldn’t even remember what exactly he’d said, now, but he remembered the expression of white-lipped anger on Felix’s face when he’d spun around to confront him.

He had looked even madder at Sylvain than he usually did. He had, in fact, shoved him so hard he’d fallen back a step; no mean feat except that Sylvain had thought even then his body and soul might just be that primed to do whatever Felix wanted.

Why? Afraid you’ll like it? Sylvain had asked, laughing, misjudging Felix’s reaction the way he almost never did. In response, Felix had actually gone for his sword. He’d looked so upset that Sylvain had relented.

He’d given his word, and he had kept it. Usually. Mostly.

But Sylvain feels personally that these are extenuating circumstances, given that there are guards from the fucking Empire literally twenty feet away judging them on verisimilitude, and that there’s really no need for Felix to be quite as uncooperative as he’s being.

“Pretend I’m someone you like,” Sylvain says in his ear, because even he’s not stupid enough to say what he’s thinking—pretend I’m Dimitri.

He’d realized years ago what the way Felix has always looked at their one-day king means. He still doesn’t know if Felix has. Lie back and think of the Kingdom, and all that.”

“I’m not that good at pretending,” Felix says, caustic. He’s still trembling slightly beneath Sylvain’s hands, and Sylvain would do anything in the world to make that stop. He wishes that he had Felix’s own fur-lined cape handy to wrap around him now.

“No,” Sylvain agrees with a low laugh. “Fortunately, you have me. Follow my lead, remember?”

He tucks a lock of Felix’s loose hair back behind his ear, copying the gesture he’d made with Ingrid earlier. It’s easier if he thinks of it in those terms. If he forces himself to remember that this, all of it, is only for show.

“I said I would,” Felix says, still without looking at him. “Go on, then.”

He sounds like he’s steeling himself for a battle, and that should make Sylvain feel worse than it does. But he’s still got Felix in his arms, and he’s so warm against him, that guilt is having a difficult time coming out on top.

Go on, then. Unhappy or not, it’s impossible to doubt the conviction in Felix’s voice. Unlike Sylvain, he wouldn’t say it if he didn’t mean it. So Sylvain obeys.

“I’m sorry,” he says, low. “You can knock my teeth out for this later, I promise.”

Felix doesn’t say anything, but he also doesn’t fight it when Sylvain presses a leg between both of his thighs to nudge them apart. A slight inhale is the only sign that he’s even noticed. One arm is around Sylvain’s neck and the other hand is still wound in his hair, loosely, like he’s forgotten it’s there. He still won’t look back at him.

It’s been a long time since Sylvain had Felix in his arms, and it certainly wasn’t like this.

It was when Felix was six or seven, probably, shortly before he decided with a great deal of self importance that he was too old for that type of thing.

Felix would come running to find worldly nine-year-old Sylvain all the time back then, crying because Ingrid had said something accidentally blunt enough to hurt his feelings or Dimitri was too busy to play with him, or Rodrigue was leaving for the palace again and Felix always cried when that happened because he didn’t know how to tell his father he’d miss him. He still doesn’t.

Felix was just a small bundle of gangly limbs and sharp, bony edges then, usually softened by several layers of furs and thick mittens. He would let Sylvain gather him up into his arms and tell him jokes and funny stories until his sniffling gave way to a reluctant smile, or even, the reward Sylvain most treasured, a hiccuping laugh.

Sometimes he would fall asleep like that, nestled with his head in the crook of Sylvain’s neck, still gripping Sylvain’s collar with one small hand even in sleep.

Sylvain would keep holding him for hours because he was determined to protect him, just like he’d been entrusted to, and he didn’t want him to wake up alone.

Some of those things are still the same, now that he thinks about it. Sylvain still wants to protect Felix. He would still do anything to make him stop crying, anything that’s in his power and some things that aren’t.

But of course, more has changed than hasn’t.

Now they’re older. Now Felix doesn’t run to him anymore, or to anyone, no matter how desperately Sylvain wishes he would.

Now, Felix is beautiful.

He’s so fucking beautiful, so much so it hurts, and even though he would normally struggle like a trapped cat against the sort of hold Sylvain has him in now, he’s gone completely pliant in his arms, in a careless, trusting way that makes something hot and dangerous coil in the pit of Sylvain’s stomach.

He’s just letting Sylvain touch him, like he’s allowed to, and it’s making it so much harder to remember that he’s not.

How much time left now? Ten minutes? Can he keep a grasp on his sanity for ten more minutes?

Sylvain thinks it’s likely that Felix has just checked out of the situation entirely because he doesn’t want to have to deal with it, but it’s not actually helping with his distraction to have Felix draped up against him, breathing quietly but saying nothing, clinging to him like Sylvain’s the only thing keeping him standing.

It’s making Sylvain careless, too.

This time, when he presses a fake kiss to the side of Felix’s jaw, he miscalculates. His lips graze over warm skin instead of air and the intensity of the sudden, unexpected sensation is like lightning burning through him, rooting him to the spot.

And Felix—Felix moans, softly, and his fingers grasp tighter in Sylvain’s hair, a tremor going through him as if he’s been shocked.

Sylvain goes very, very still. He feels Felix tense up under his hands.

“Felix?” he asks cautiously, pulling back a fraction, enough that he can see Felix’s face.

“Shut up,” Felix whispers harshly, his tone unexpectedly violent. He’s blushing all the way to the tips of his ears again. It’s obvious even in the dim light.

“Did I—are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

“No,” Felix says.

Sylvain stares down at him. “Then—”

I said shut up,” Felix hisses, and this time there’s a note of panic to it. His cheeks are still burning, and now he’s starting to squirm, pushing at Sylvain again like he’s finally remembered where they are. “Hells, aren’t we done yet?”

Sylvain hears a rushing noise in his ears, faintly. If Felix isn’t hurt—if that wasn’t what that was—

He leans in and repeats the kiss; slow and deliberate this time, nuzzling the hollow of Felix’s throat, teeth dragging over his pulse.

Felix makes a wounded sound. He pulls at Sylvain’s hair so hard Sylvain thinks some of it might come out by the roots.

He barely even feels it, though, because every nerve ending is alight from that breathy little noise, from having been the one to make Felix make it.

“Felix,” he breathes again, not a question this time. He can hear the awe in his own voice.

He shifts his thigh higher between Felix’s, pushing aside the folds of the skirt, questing for...there.

“What are you—” Felix gasps, voice gone high with panic or perhaps something else, but it’s too late. His eyes flutter shut, teeth sinking into his lower lip.

Felix is unmistakably hard where he’s pressed against him, hard because of Sylvain. The force of Sylvain’s wanting almost unbalances him. It’s too much by half.

Sylvain wants so badly to touch him that he has to stop touching him, has to plant his hands flat against the wall and dig fingers into the rough wood to keep them from curling around Felix’s hips, to stop him from rucking up the silk, from dropping to his knees and—

“Don’t,” Felix says, low, and Sylvain freezes. It’s the confirmation he was braced for, the watchword he’s been waiting on from the very beginning. He has to take his hands off Felix, he has to, Felix doesn’t want them there, he’s gone too far.

As Sylvain levers himself back and stares down at him, Felix opens his eyes. There are tears threatening at the corners, and Sylvain feels horrified dark guilt roaring up to swallow him, and then:

“Don’t you dare,” Felix says through his teeth, “not finish what you started.”

“Oh,” Sylvain says, stupidly. His heart stops and then restarts again as the words sink in.

There aren’t that many things Sylvain wants anymore, since the war started. He wants a Kingdom victory, and he wants his friends to be safe, and he wants Felix.

He wants Felix more than just wants him, more than just like this. In a way that would be terrifying to say aloud and far more terrifying to hear.

The wants are categorized separately. Hypotheticals, and absolutes. Things he can be sure of and things he can’t.

They could lose the war. Any of them could die at any time.

He won’t ever stop wanting Felix. Not if they lose, not if he dies, not if they both die. Not if the Kingdom burns to the ground.

It takes him a moment, to reconcile all of that with what’s being offered to him. To realize that wanting and having could be the same thing.

With a slow, irrepressible smile, he says, “If you insist.”

 

*

 

In the back of his mind, Sylvain is aware of the sound of retreating footsteps on the other side of the curtain; the guards finally buying their elaborate charade, possibly, or being called off to interrogate another redhead.

Sylvain doesn’t actually give a fuck anymore because he’s kissing a line down Felix’s neck and Felix is gasping like he’s been shocked every single time and looking resultantly furious about it every single time, and it’s Sylvain’s new favorite thing he’s ever seen.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” he murmurs against Felix’s skin, tightening his grip on his waist.

“Don’t act like you didn’t know,” Felix accuses, and gasps again, a breathy, helpless sound, when Sylvain sucks another biting kiss into the hollow of his throat. “You—fuck, you had to, you had to.”

Sylvain brushes hair out of Felix’s eyes and smooths his thumb up over one cheekbone. He says honestly, awed, “I didn’t know. I didn’t. Tell me.”

“Tell you what?” Felix demands, because of course he’s somehow still managing to be combative at a time like this.

Sylvain gazes down at him, drinking in the sight of the red marks he’s left up and down his throat. They’ll darken like bruises by tomorrow. “Tell me what you want.”

“You, obviously,” Felix says, both like the answer annoys him and like Sylvain is very stupid, and Sylvain is so done for, honestly, because he doesn’t think he’s ever been more charmed in his life.

“Mm,” Sylvain says, tilting his head to one side. “I think I need you to be more specific.”

“Asshole,” Felix snaps, cheeks going even pinker. He tries to hit him again, but Sylvain catches his wrist easily.

There’s a beat where Sylvain thinks he’s just not going to answer, because goddess knows Felix can be stubborn as anything when he wants, but then he says, haltingly, “I could barely think when you held me down upstairs.”

He’s blushing so fiercely now it’s spread down his neck. Sylvain wants so badly to find out how far down that flush goes. Felix is still glaring up at Sylvain, as if daring him to make fun, as he adds, defiant, “I’ve thought about it for years.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” Sylvain murmurs, wondering. “All you had to do was ask.”

He grinds his own thigh more insistently between Felix’s, watching his beautiful mouth fall open, hearing him make a small sound that’s almost a whimper.

He bucks up against Sylvain, as much as he can with Sylvain pinning him back to the wall, which isn’t much. He’s seeking more friction, and Sylvain gives it to him because he isn’t cruel enough to deny either of them.

Felix’s lips are red where he must have bitten them himself, because Sylvain hasn’t kissed him yet.

The second he realizes that, he knows he has to rectify it. Felix needs to be kissed, it’s criminal, and Sylvain drops his wrist to cup his face instead, tipping it back so he can press his mouth to Felix’s, hungry.

It feels right, oh it feels so right, like slotting the pieces of a maddening puzzle into place, like all this time he’s been wandering around trying to figure out what he was meant to do it was this all along, not protecting the Kingdom or overthrowing the Empire but this.

Felix’s other hand comes up to fist in the front of Sylvain’s rumpled shirt, and he’s making all of these desperate, gasping sounds into Sylvain’s mouth and Sylvain feels like he might die.

He lets go of Felix’s waist too so he can get his fingers in his hair and really give this kissing thing his all, and Felix just melts against him, clutching at him, and it’s fucking amazing, it’s been no time at all and he’s already coming apart at the seams.

“I’ve been ruined over you since I can remember,” Sylvain says in his ear when they break apart, breathless because he’s kissed all the air out of both their lungs.

He says it because he can’t help it, and because Felix is being so beautifully, uncharacteristically open with him that he figures the least he can do is to repay it in kind.

“You,” Felix starts, and the next word dissolves into a soft gasp as Sylvain tips his head back and drops kisses featherlight over his cheeks, his forehead, his eyelids. “You hid it well,” he manages.

“No I didn’t,” Sylvain says. A desperate, helpless laugh pulls free of his chest. He presses his forehead briefly to Felix’s. “I didn’t, never. Not once.”

Sylvain has observed, from considerable past experience, that some partners don’t want him to talk to them in bed. Some of them would prefer that he just murmur sweet nothings, and some prefer quiet, and some—well, some like to be talked to a lot.

If he had to guess, he doesn’t think Felix wants him to be quiet.

He doesn’t know if he could be, anyway. Everything he’s wanted to say for months, for years, it’s all spilling out like a glass filled to overflowing.

“Has anyone touched you like this before?” he asks. He feels drunk on the way Felix reacts to every single touch, like he’s desperate for it, like he’s dying for it.

“I hate you,” Felix says fervently, although it loses some of the impact because Sylvain bends and kisses him again and Felix whines into his mouth. “I hate you,” he gasps again when they break apart. His fingers curl in the collar of Sylvain’s shirt. “You know no one has. You know.

But this is another thing Sylvain hadn’t known; he hadn’t been sure, anyway, not with the way Felix was with Dimitri or the way Ashe and Annette were with him, or the way all of the Lions have always been with each other, for that matter, tangled up together like spilled embroidery thread.

“No wonder you keep everything laced up so tight,” Sylvain says wonderingly. He drags a thumb over Felix’s swollen bottom lip and watches, fascinated and hungry, as his eyes flutter shut. “You have to. You’ll fall apart for anything, won’t you?”

He barely even knows what’s coming out of his mouth anymore but Felix seems to like his voice; his eyes have gone half-lidded like a sleepy cat’s.

He murmurs something, and Sylvain says, “What was that, sweetheart?”

“Only you,” Felix says again, and he says it like he has to force the words out, like he hates it, and that’s how Sylvain knows it’s true.

“Only me?” Sylvain asks. He feels elated. He feels dizzy with it. “So sweet of you to wait for me, all this time.”

He touches his lips to Felix’s again, asks in a whisper against his mouth, “Will you let me be sweet to you now?”

“I wasn’t fucking waiting—”

“Can you come like this?” Sylvain interrupts softly, pressing his thigh harder against him. Felix shudders all over at the question, and his blush only deepens. “Without me even putting my hands on you? Do you want it that bad?”

“Thought you were going….to be nice,” Felix says, panting and letting his head tip back against the wall.

“I am being nice,” Sylvain says, keeping up the slow grinding pressure. “Isn’t this nice?”

Felix is making the most beautiful broken noises Sylvain has ever heard. Sylvain had never thought he would be this loud, and he tells him so. Felix tells him to die, creatively, or tries to, except the syllables keep getting lost halfway out of his mouth.

“Does that feel good, baby?” Sylvain murmurs, and Felix chokes out something and digs fingers into his bicep as he squirms against Sylvain’s leg.

“Tell me what you want,” Sylvain says again, and this time Felix just says, “Sylvain, please.”

Sylvain can hear the tears in his voice, can hear how much he’s feeling, how too-much it is. His face is flushed and his hair is sticking to his face and looking down at him Sylvain is momentarily torn between the urge to protect and destroy, the out-of-control feeling he gets whenever he touches the Lance of Ruin.

Sylvain reaches down between them, getting a hand up and under the silk skirts—he was right earlier, no underwearand wrapping it around Felix, who jerks from the shock of skin on skin and moans again. He’s shaking apart.

The silk is damp, and Sylvain’s hand on him is too, and he hums in appreciation.

He’s desperate too. He doesn’t remember being anything that wasn’t comprised purely of the desperation to touch Felix.

“You’re okay, sweetheart,” Sylvain says, stroking him. “I’ve got you, you’re okay. Will you come for me?”

Felix is already nodding, trembling even harder, when Sylvain says in his ear, low and soft, “I wish Dima could see you like this,” and that’s it, that does it, Felix is shuddering against him, crying out, and he’s far gone enough that he doesn’t even try to stifle the sounds he’s making.

Sylvain is expecting it. He takes Felix’s entire weight easily, sliding a supporting arm around his waist and using the other to pet through his hair as he shivers, still clutching at Sylvain’s shirt. His eyes are wet.

The noise from the main room returns, gradually, as Sylvain becomes aware again of things that aren’t Felix saying his name or Felix gasping and panting and begging under his hands.

Felix’s eyes drag open again and they’re big and dark and out of it, and Sylvain is like a man possessed because he has to kiss him again, he just has to, he’ll die if he doesn’t. He leans forward to do it.

Then there’s an explosion, which would likely be more impactful under other circumstances.

 

*

 

For all that Felix is still wobbly from orgasm and Sylvain is abruptly coming down from the hardest he’s ever been in his life, probably, he thinks they get it together extremely admirably.

Felix only almost falls over once, and Sylvain only almost dies from how adorable that is about five times, and then there’s the bare minimum of straightening of clothes because an amount of damage has been done that they’re not going to be able to undo without magic and a bath, and then they’re ready to go.

Sylvain rips the curtain aside and is confronted with sheer chaos. Everyone’s running towards the back exit in the other corner, because the entire front of the establishment is, very notably and spectacularly, on fire.

The doorway is also wider by several feet, because something must have smashed through the wood and stone. Rubble is piled up inside, and the air is thick with dust as well as smoke. Sylvain doesn’t know how things could possibly have deteriorated to such an extent without them noticing.

“Did it look like this when we left?” he asks.

“You aren’t funny,” Felix says. His voice is ruined, and oh, Sylvain likes that a lot. He wishes the building they’re in was not actively threatening to burn to the ground so that he could drag him back down the hallway and ruin it more. “Is this the escape plan?”

“Either that or a marvelous coincidence,” Sylvain says, and then someone shouts “Bolganone,” audible even over all the yelling, and he feels a grin spread over his face. He shouts to be heard over the new explosion of flames, “Ah, I know that marvelous coincidence’s voice.”

The Empire guards have scattered to address the new threat, and none of them are remotely paying attention to Felix or Sylvain anymore. It’s easy work to make for the exit just like everyone else.

Or it looks like it’s going to be, until they’re at the door—freedom is so close Sylvain can actually taste it—and Felix slams into someone coming in while they’re trying to run out.

He stumbles back into Sylvain, who keeps him upright with a steadying grip on his arm, but the other party is knocked sprawling.

Sylvain’s first impression is of purple hair chopped off short, much more severely than it had been at school. It’s not a bad look for her.

“Bernadetta,” he says, staring down at their former classmate, too startled to come up with anything clever. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Sylvain?she asks, and then, gaze shifting, “Felix?” and then Felix is yelling, “Come on,” and dragging him away, and Sylvain remembers why “away” is a good, important thing because Bernadetta appears to be done staring at them in open-mouthed shock and is scrambling for the arrows that had spilled out of her hip quiver in the fall.

“Oh, fuck, oh fuck,” Sylvain says, and starts sprinting. How far to get out of arrow range? Definitely further than this.

Annette careens out of an alleyway on their right and throws her hood off, yelling accusingly, “Took you long enough!”

“This is not a subtle rescue,” Sylvain calls after her as she races ahead. For someone so small, she’s outpacing them with no difficulty at all.

“No one said it would be subtle!” she yells over her shoulder. She cups her hands over her mouth and shouts, “Lysithea!”

“Where is Ingrid?” Felix demands, whipping his head around, looking momentarily panicked at the realization that she isn’t here.

“Meeting point,” Annette calls back. “I convinced her that we should make sure at least one of Dimitri’s generals made it back, or I’d never hear the end of it.”

She shouts again, more urgently, “Lysithea!” and a shop door some hundred meters up ahead swings open. A white-haired head sticks out.

“Warp,” Annette yells. “Warp!”

Lysithea comes out further. Her hands are planted on her hips. She stomps her foot and shouts, “I can hear you, you are not all in range!”

An arrow zips past Sylvain’s ear so close he can hear the whine of it, and his life makes a valiant effort to flash before his eyes. The shock makes him stumble, and for a minute he thinks that this is it, this is how he dies.

Then Felix grabs his hand, dragging him forward and keeping him upright, and everything stabilizes.

“Lysithea!” Felix yells, Sylvain’s hand still clutched tight in his, and she yells back, “What did I just say, Felix Fraldarius?” which Sylvain takes to mean that they are still not in range.

Sylvain can tell when they are in range because he’s very suddenly tripping forward into nothingness and his stomach flips inside out and then things are dark and then they aren’t again, they’re light and green, and he stumbles slightly but keeps his footing on the leafy forest floor.

They can’t be too far from town; Sylvain thinks it’s likely somewhere in the forest immediately preceding the mountain range between Daphnel and Galatea. The sun is setting over the mountaintops behind them.

Ingrid’s pegasus is grazing tied off to a tree nearby, and Sylvain is relieved to see his own horse next to her, chestnut tail swishing, looking bored. Lysithea is nowhere to be seen, and Sylvain guesses she had had quite enough of them all and warped back to Fhirdiad without waiting.

That’s all he has time to make note of before he’s got soft, clean-smelling blonde hair halfway up his nose and an armful of Ingrid, who has thrown herself at him and Felix and hauled them both into a fierce, crushing embrace.

“Ingrid, saints, we’re perfectly fine,” Felix complains, squirming, but it doesn’t sound that heartfelt and he’s definitely not fighting back too hard against her campaign to hug him within an inch of his life.

Annette had played a good hand when she’d appealed to Ingrid’s sense of duty to their king and kingdom; anything else, and from her reaction now Sylvain’s pretty sure she would have insisted on coming along on the haphazard rescue mission anyway.

“You’re back,” she says into Sylvain’s chest. “You’re all back, thank the goddess, I thought we might have left it too late.”

“No,” Sylvain says, wrapping his free arm around her, dizzy with relief. He buries his face in her hair for just a moment. “Not too late at all.”

He lifts his head and looks over at Felix. Their hands are still linked. When Felix meets Sylvain’s eyes over the golden crown of Ingrid’s head, it creates a feeling like a flint striking tinder in his chest.

“Time to go!” Annette calls, from where she’s leaning against the pegasus’ folded wing and skritching its soft nose. “We can hug when we’re home! Felix, I rescued your clothes, you’re welcome.”

They all break apart. Felix laces his hands together into a foothold for Annette to step into so she can swing herself up onto the back of the pegasus, and then goes to rummage through the pile of his belongings.

Ingrid gets up into the saddle on her own, with an ease borne of years of practice.

Sylvain steps forward to grab the reins and hold the animal steady. She lowers her beautiful ivory head to examine him thoughtfully and he smooths a hand over her forelock fondly. She huffs air at him in response, bumping her enormous nostrils against his palm and then busying herself contentedly trying to eat his hair.

“You know, since you’ll be back so much faster than we will...” Sylvain starts, nudging the questing velvet-soft nose gently away with one shoulder and turning his most pleading expression on Ingrid.

“No, I’m not explaining this to Dimitri,” she interrupts, absolutely without mercy. “This mess is on you. I am going to get Annette back to Mercedes and then shut myself in my room and take a long bath. If you’re not back by sunset tomorrow, we’ll send out a search party.”

Women are so cruel. Sylvain has always said so.

“Don’t think I’ll forget you hugging me because you were so worried about my life, you minx,” Sylvain calls after her, hastily moving back several steps to clear the pegasus’ wingspan as she gets ready to fly.

She beats her huge wings once experimentally and then harder, creating powerful gusts, galloping forward and pushing off from the ground with sharp hooves to lift them all airborne, circling up through the gap in the treetops above them. Annette waves cheerfully down at them, copper hair gleaming in the light from the setting sun.

Sylvain turns back from watching them go to see Felix, changed back into the blacks and furs of his traveling gear, standing near Sylvain’s horse with his arms folded.

“Well?” he asks tartly. One booted foot taps impatiently against the ground. “Are we living here in the middle of nowhere for the rest of our lives? What are you waiting for?”

The high neck of his shirt almost entirely covers the bruises Sylvain had left, but Felix’s hair is still a wreck and his lips are kiss-swollen. Sylvain takes long enough looking him over that Felix’s cheeks are flushed again by the end of it.

“Nothing,” Sylvain says. Warmth expands out through his ribcage like a slow sunrise. “I’m not waiting for anything, anymore.”

He walks over and swings himself up into the saddle, holds a hand out to Felix to help him. But Felix reaches up, bypassing the extended hand entirely, and grabs Sylvain by the collar instead, yanking him down into a biting kiss.

Sylvain wasn’t expecting it, but somehow he’s ready for it anyway. He lets go of the breath he’s been holding since he’d let Felix out of his arms back at the brothel, not knowing for sure if he’d ever be back in them.

He cradles the back of Felix’s head with his free hand, threading fingers through his hair, but doesn’t tug, this time. He lets Felix control the kiss, lets him be demanding about it, sinking his teeth into Sylvain’s bottom lip and pulling him almost bent double on his horse’s back. Sylvain groans his appreciation into his mouth.

They break apart but Felix doesn’t let go of his collar, breathing shallowly against Sylvain’s lips, eyes closed. Sylvain, on the other hand, can’t stop looking at him.

He’d promised to die with Felix when he was thirteen years old, and he’d barely known what it meant. It turns out the more he understands, the more he means it. He doesn’t want to live without Felix, and he wants to live with him, for all the time between now and then.

“Thank you, sweetheart,” he murmurs, and Felix opens his eyes. “You’re not ever going to stop with that now, are you?” he asks, and Sylvain can tell he’s trying to sound annoyed but his voice is too raspy to sell it, and the tips of his ears are pink.

“Never,” Sylvain confirms, so fond he thinks his heart might burst. “Now, are you coming up, or are you going to maul me again?”

Felix heaves a sigh and extends a hand to take Sylvain’s so that Sylvain can haul him up onto the back of the horse behind him. His knee bumps against the back of Sylvain’s thigh as he gets settled on the horse, and Sylvain can feel it like a fresh spark landing on bare skin.

“Ready?” Sylvain asks over his shoulder. Felix nods against the back of his jacket, head turned to one side and resting between his shoulder blades. He wraps his arms tightly around Sylvain, hand clasped over the opposite wrist resting near Sylvain’s navel.

There’s a pause, and then, “If you don’t stop looking so fucking smug,” Felix says, sharply, “I will get off this horse and walk back to Fhirdiad.”

“It’s so far, though,” Sylvain reasons. “And your legs are so shor—ow,” he breaks off, as Felix elbows him hard in the ribs.

He can’t suppress his laughter, full of wild joy like he’s never felt in his life, as Felix wraps his arms back around his middle, muttering something about Sylvain’s breeding, and they start off on the winding path that leads home.