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Each time Sylvain traveled to Derdriu it got harder to leave. Here the air was just warm enough for comfort, wet enough for skin to glow in the sun, and the people were cheerful and beautiful enough to keep him in high spirits no matter what his reason for being there.

This trip was no different as he studiously avoided his business with a charming merchant’s son he’d found at a textile stall, selling rugs that Sylvain had slyly suggested he’d like to see him spread out over. It would look better on my bedroom floor didn’t work so well when it was something that would, actually, be on a floor somewhere at some point.

The merchant’s son had blushed prettily and his father had almost hauled off and struck Sylvain, howling at him to make himself scarce, but a wink, a jerk of his head toward a nearby tavern and a mouthed later had pulled a nod from the young man.

Now, later, sequestered at a booth camouflaged by crowd and noise, Sylvain had a hand at the back of his neck and another on his thigh, enjoying the flush of his body and the gleam of his slowly intoxicating eyes. Irresponsible for the heir to the Gautier territory, such as it was under their old professor, clearly inspired by King Claude “open borders” Von Riegan? Maybe so. But from what Sylvain had gleaned from his father’s cageyness before he’d left what once was Faerghus this time, he didn’t have much time left to mess around. Certainly not like this.

The shell of the man’s ear was goosefleshed under his lips where they ghosted over it, disguised with the pretense of a chaos too noisy for normal conversation, and his head pressed almost imperceptibly towards Sylvain’s. He wanted this, maybe to spite his father, maybe because, goddess-willing, Sylvain still had some modicum of charm or good looks left after the grueling five-year war his continent had been put through. One or two of the scars he had now maybe even enhanced his pull, magnetic when he wanted it to be, almost as deadly a weapon as the pulsing Relic he could feel like a tug on his gut upstairs in the room he’d rented for his stay. A backup, of course — a guest as celebrated as Sylvain Jose Gautier, hero of war and heir to a territory, was of course expected at the Derdriu stronghold where Claude, the returned king of newly-incorporated Almyra, was supposedly present.

But, for this first night, a full day earlier than he was supposed to arrive, Sylvain had no plans but the tavern and the merchant’s son and a bed where no one would wake him in the morning. And so all three he had.

The man’s name was Philip, as it turned out. Sylvain recited it satisfactorily in the night and forgot it quickly in the morning as he woke and readied himself alone, gathering his belongings for a second entrance to the city. The water at the edges of Derdriu lapped calmly at the docks as Sylvain let his horse pick her way over the cobblestones. He’d looped around the tavern to a less obvious exit through the city wall and had spent as much time as he felt he could spare circling back around to the main gate, now in his sights at last. He wondered idly what his father was thinking back in the former Holy Kingdom, what he might be hoping for. He’d barely concealed his disappointment when Sylvain had returned from the war without a wife (weren’t any of your old classmates appealing? surely some of them had Crests), but Sylvain had had a fairly foolproof response to that: at least he’d come back at all. Not even merely in the ultimate coin toss of living or dying, which people like he and Ingrid had theoretically won and people like Dorothea had lost.

His heart clenched at the memory, seeing her in Enbarr where he’d long since sided with Claude, and he wondered not for the first time if she’d been the one to lose after all. She hadn’t been like most of the nobles Sylvain knew from Adrestia and Faerghus, raised to expect war and fighting at every corner whether with other people or with the environment, and from what he remembered about her she hadn’t taken to it. He didn’t dip farther down the path his thoughts bent toward, unwilling to consider those who had just… left. Their coin had landed face-up and they had thrown it back in his face.

Well, maybe not everyone who had left. Just one person specifically.

Sylvain shook his head as if it could scatter the fog of his thoughts and raised his hand to the gatekeeper, announcing himself loudly enough to be heard. His name still carried a level of recognition sufficient for entry without questions, though apparently not enough for friendliness from the soldiers along the wall. No matter — his social energy would surely be better served in his meeting with Claude, although he did spare another wave to the men as he passed, now sure he should make a beeline for the keep before he got distracted again. Truly, the people of Derdriu were a special kind, so many different faces to admire and accents to blend on the air and sparkling eyes to look to Sylvain with all the feelings he liked to see reflected there.

Just thinking about it made him want to turn right again, toward the markets where there was music and lively conversation and goods from, increasingly, all over the world, but with the fortitude of St. Indech he managed to keep his horse on track to the castle.

Claude was waiting for him at the drawbridge over the moat, and as soon as he felt it Sylvain realized he should be disappointed in himself for being surprised that he already knew he had arrived. The Claude he had played dozens of board games with over the years, casually at the Academy and then with the weight of irresponsible escapism and the excuse of practicing tactics during the war, had always been at least one or two steps ahead of Sylvain. And, in fairness, his father had written with an estimate of the day he would arrive. So there was that too.

“Handsome as ever, your majesty,” Sylvain called, dismounting his horse to meet Claude where he was on foot, looking small without the wyvern Sylvain had seen him on so many times before.

“Look who’s talking!” Claude replied, but Sylvain was honestly half-breathless looking at him, the kind of easy charm and beauty that frigid, warlike Faerghus could never have nurtured. He’d grown out his beard a little beyond the ridiculously extended sideburns of his war days and was dressed formally but not too formally, crown foregone in favor of a slim golden circlet that reminded Sylvain a little of Seteth. When Claude reached out to embrace him he came close enough for Sylvain to note a gleaming pale purple stone mounted asymmetrically over his forehead. “Byleth’s,” Claude explained, pointing to it with one of the hands freed as they separated. “The ring Jeralt left them didn’t come close to fitting these sausage fingers.”

The finger aimed at his forehead didn’t look meaty to Sylvain, rather deft and even a little wiry, but his days of disagreeing with a king were long over. “I can imagine,” he said instead, passing his reins to a kind-looking stable hand and grabbing a bag from the saddle, kissing his horse on the nose quickly before she was led off for some hopefully indulgent care at the Derdriu stables. “I still can’t believe they let you get away with fucking off to Almyra right after you got engaged.”

Claude shrugged easily. “That’s love for you.” And maybe it was. Sylvain followed Claude inside, responding to his friendly questioning about his trip and his father and his territory a little mechanically, mind elsewhere for a moment. Claude had left after the coin toss, true, but he’d always planned on it, and then he’d come back. Something had brought him back. “So,” he began, and the sound of Claude closing a door behind them returned Sylvain to the moment, flashing a grin as he dropped into one of the chairs arranged around the table at the center of the room they were in, “what brings you to Derdriu this time? Hopefully not just bedding anyone willing and Crestless you can find.”

Sylvain winced, only stretching his smirk farther for a moment. “Smart as ever,” he replied. “But you should know me better than that — I never come here with only one goal.” He reached into his bag for the letter he’d somehow managed to resist the temptation to open the entire trip, the one his father had handed to him, sealed, to deliver to and discuss with Claude in person. His father had eagerly drafted it the moment Sylvain had delivered the news that the king of Almyra had returned to Fodlan, reunited with many of the members of the former Alliance army on the battlefield to suppress the remains of Those Who Slither in the Dark. Sylvain had been there, seen Claude and the Almyran forces crest the hill and seen Byleth’s face light up under the blood running down it, gleaming in the orange glow of the Sword of the Creator. Sylvain remembered too who he had looked to next. But that was months ago now, he’d wasted as much time as possible on what he’d described to his father in letters as royal business but what was really mostly just avoiding responsibility before he’d finally returned to what had been Gautier territory when Faerghus as a concept had existed. “Seems like my father has some sort of proposal for the King of Unification. That's what they’re calling you now,” he added, watching Claude slide one of his apparently too-big fingers beneath the seal, breaking it easily.

“Is it?” Claude replied, distracted already by the contents of the missive. Sylvain took that as a distinctly bad sign and steepled his fingers over his chest, slumping back in his seat. “Shouldn’t Byleth get some of the credit on that front?”

“Sure,” Sylvain agreed. “Together they call you the Rulers of Unification.”

“Creative,” murmured Claude, then continued — or rather, dangerously, changed topics — in a voice that made his hackles raise. “Sylvain, did your father discuss this with you before you left for Derdriu?”

Unruffled mask plastered on for dear life, Sylvain shrugged. “I had just returned when he sent me out again. We didn’t have time to talk much at all. I got an… impression.”

Claude studied him for a moment, letter dangling in his hand in a way that seemed weightier than any piece of paper should. “Your father is proposing that you wed someone from Sreng to open talks for reunification.”

It took everything Sylvain had in him not to choke on his own spit. So his father had been more irritated than he thought that Sylvain had come home unwed from his most recent foray into his old friendships. He had had a while to let his disappointment fester since the war, Sylvain supposed, so it must have been quite a slap in the face. His surprise must have shown, because Claude’s brow furrowed a little under the circlet. “Well, that’s showing more cooperative spirit than my old man has in a while.”

“I’ll say,” Claude replied with reserve, like he was waiting for Sylvain to set the tone, and to take a step in the right direction Sylvain conjured up a tight grin. “Is this something you two had ever considered?”

He could feel the grin becoming a little grimace-like under Claude’s perceptiveness, and tried to conjure up his poker face from their days bent over tokens and strategies. “You mean re-annexing Sreng? Or me getting married? Because yes to both, just not at the same time. He must be getting desperate, Crests are pretty uncommon in Sreng.”

It was Claude’s turn to grimace. The priorities of the Gautier formerly known as Margrave were a poorly kept secret, whether Sylvain liked it or not. “Huh. Well, I know every family in old Faerghus is legally required to be deeply fucked up, yet you guys keep surprising me.”

Sylvain snorted. “You’re lucky Ingrid isn’t here. When she and I get together it’s like the non-stop bad dad bonanza.”

“And I thought Lorenz had the worst parent situation,” Claude said, shaking his head. “The north is terrible.”

Sylvain shrugged, wheels still turning on his father’s proposal. Maybe this was the best he could expect from his family, honestly; the promise of a life spent in the north, a territory away, the power of a foreign dignitary and the force behind it to dictate who he would and wouldn’t interact with, the potency of the expectation of his Crest and his biological legacy diminished by the potential of his historical impact. And he knew from experience that the people of Sreng were wild, a challenge of his favorite kind. “You know,” he said slowly, “why don’t I do it? My father is going to hound me until I’m married to someone, somewhere, and it might as well be someone far away that I’ve never met. If it helps you and the professor then I think I want to do it.”

“We’re not in a war anymore,” Claude replied, voice light but with an undercurrent of gentleness. “You don’t have to keep throwing your life away.”

“What are my other options?” Sylvain said with a little too much gravitas. To course correct, he continued, “Ingrid would never have me. And you’re already engaged.”

Claude did laugh at that, setting the paper down on the table between them. “If Byleth hadn’t come around…” he began, letting his voice trail off cheekily before schooling his expression to seriousness again. “I don’t know, Sylvain. I know you don’t mind strangers but to build a life with someone you’ve never met?” He shook his head. “That doesn’t sound like you at all.”

And once again, Sylvain had to paste the grin onto his face, because Claude was right. Ever since he was a child there was one person he’d envisioned spending that much time with, putting that much effort into, trying that hard with and committing to, one person he thought would always be at his side one way or another. But he was more out of reach than ever, even farther than a stranger in Sreng no matter where he was physically. “Hey, only a total stranger would be willing to even make an attempt at marrying me at this point.”

“Maybe if I wasn’t already taken,” Claude said sadly, but the joke in his voice didn’t stretch to his eyes. “Well, if you insist on being dramatic about it I guess I can’t complain about stronger ties in the north. But don’t go by yourself, okay? I’m hoping you’ll do me a couple favors on your way up and I don’t want you dying alone on a mountain somewhere.”

“Wouldn’t that be just like old times,” Sylvain chuckled, not sure when his brother’s attempt on his life had become a joke in addition to a never-ending source of repressed trauma, but here he was. “Okay, but I don’t want some giant retinue. If you’re going to make me your errand boy — by the way, I should have known you wouldn’t cave so easily if you weren’t looking to get something out of it — I want to move quickly.”

“You wound me,” Claude said, but he didn’t really seem that hurt at all. “Why don’t you head down to the mercenary guild and see if there’s any loners looking for a long walk and a wedding? I’ll get everything together so you can leave whenever you’re ready.”

“Getting rid of me so soon?” Sylvain exclaimed, widening his eyes comically. “I just got here!”

“Oh, no, please stay as long as you like,” Claude replied, rising and pocketing the letter. “Derdriu could stand some Gautier money lining its pockets.”


When Sylvain stepped through the swinging saloon-style door of the mercenary guild Claude had pointed him toward, it was much later in the week and the pockets of Derdriu were indeed more thickly lined. He’d been all over town picking through merchant stalls, scouting vendors to secure provisions for when he left to head north.

People milled about, gathered in small groups or standing alone at various papers plastered to walls and wooden pillars rising to the ceiling advertising the services of more self-promoting mercenaries. Sylvain didn’t even really know what he was looking for, where to start, so he made his way through the room casually, unfortunately drawing inevitable attention with his height and his hair and the quality of his clothes. He was sure he looked how he felt: like a patron.

There was a counter of sorts toward the back of the long room, and a bearded man stood behind it, looking over a ledger with a few people whose faces Sylvain couldn’t see where they were turned away from him. He idly scanned a few of the plastered papers as he headed back toward the group, hoping to see something that might catch his eye, but the faces printed there blurred together with the words into a meaningless haze. He needed something to focus on.

The sound of voices started to reach him from the group at the counter as he made it to the halfway point of the room. The way the bearded man was nodding and smiling made Sylvain think their dealings were almost done, and as he saw the stirrings of a few people moving in his direction he made more of a beeline toward the back. By the time he made it there the group was moving away from the counter and toward a door at the side of the room, where they disappeared a moment later.

“Something I can help you with, red?” the bearded man called, and Sylvain stepped up to the counter, planting his palm flat against it and leaning over to emphasize his height advantage. He didn’t love it when people referred to him by the color of his hair.

“Maybe,” he said easily, glancing over the ledger. More names, more prices, more qualifications people might be looking for, like a catalog of people and swords. “I’m looking for a mercenary.”

“Well, you’re in the right place,” the man scoffed before he could finish, and Sylvain shot him a grin that didn’t reach the hardness in his eyes. “Anything more specific than that?”

“Someone who can travel quickly, preferably someone without a group. I’m looking to make my way somewhere a little wild so they need to be a good fighter. Better than good,” he added, for emphasis.

The man considered him thoughtfully. “Someone just rolled into town who might fit that description. But he’s not cheap. I’ll need to know your price.”

“Let’s just say it doesn’t matter if they’re the right person for the job,” Sylvain said easily. Surely if Claude didn’t have the funds his father would be happy enough that Sylvain was finally going to do something he wanted him to do that he would spare no expense to keep his precious Crest — er, son — alive. “Is he in this book somewhere?” He waved a hand vaguely around the room. “Or on a flyer?”

The bearded man shook his head. “The guy’s a bit of an oddball, doesn’t advertise, relies on me or himself to sniff out work. He’s particular, hope that won’t bother you.”

Some strange, primal sense of recognition had started to stir inside Sylvain, making his heart beat a little faster than usual, surprisingly unsteady considering this was a business discussion. “I have a lot of experience dealing with that type,” he said. “Any way I could learn a little more about him before I blindly fork over my gold?”

“Well, as a matter of fact there is,” the bearded man said, gesturing toward the door the previous group had gone through. “He’s here right now, probably sharpening his sword. That’s all he ever does when he’s here. It’s like clockwork.”

The flame of familiarity was rising through Sylvain now but he hardly dared to hope, trying to manhandle his pulse back to normality while simultaneously his mind commanded the conversation to be over immediately. “Right,” he said, tapping his fingers on the wood of the counter, smooth from who knew how many elbows pressed against it. “I’ll take a look. How will I know which one he is?”

The guild leader chuckled. “I have a feeling you’ll know. Once he satisfies your curiosity meet me out here and we’ll settle up.”

Strange, but Sylvain nodded in agreement and made his way toward the door, closed probably to keep noise in he surmised based on the voices and the sound of metal he could hear behind it. He decided whoever looked the most intriguing would be who he would talk to, regardless of who the bearded man had intended him to actually potentially hire. His guidance had been vague enough to leave Sylvain somewhat irritated, so sure, maybe it was a little spiteful of him but he felt justified. And money was money to most mercenaries and guild leaders so he couldn’t imagine anyone would be too upset.

Sylvain pushed the door open, eyes scanning the room, which had the air of a holding cell and no specific purpose he could easily divine, and seeing face after unfamiliar face. This was, somehow, even more difficult than he’d thought.

And then, suddenly, it wasn’t anymore. Suddenly it was the easiest thing in the world, because as it turned out not every face in the room was unfamiliar.

“Felix?” he said, voice far quieter than he had planned, but somehow the dark head bent over a sword and an oily cloth jerked up all the same, sending the sharp amber gaze Sylvain knew so well burning through him. If there were other people in the room, other things, a fucking dragon, Sylvain didn’t see them anymore as he made his way over to where his friend was standing now, sword still in hand. Which, in retrospect, should have probably made Sylvain nervous but was somehow reassuring. Same old Felix.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, edge of accusation in his voice.

Sylvain frowned. “No hello? It’s been months, Felix. And like a year before the last time, too.”

At that, somehow, Felix sheathed his sword, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’ve been busy.”

Sylvain just stared at him for a moment, but the increasingly determined set of his pointed chin told him that Felix wasn’t planning on elaborating further. “Busy,” he repeated. “Well, good thing you’ll have plenty of time to explain that.”

Felix raised an eyebrow, looking puzzled for a moment, but as Sylvain waited patiently the other shoe dropped and a shade of something like rage came over his face. “No,” he said, shaking his head, hand back on the hilt of his sword as if he planned to draw it again. “You can’t be serious.”

“The guy with the beard recommended you specifically,” Sylvain insisted, grinning innocently, spreading his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “And Claude says I need to take someone with me.”

“Absolutely not. I’m… I’m busy.” Felix looked away, breaking eye contact for the first time since Sylvain had spotted him.

“Sure, sure,” Sylvain said, taking Felix by the wrist and leading him toward the door. People in the room were starting to stare, which Sylvain thought might be why he was being compliant, not pulling away or trying to smack his hand. “That’s definitely why the old man said you were available. I’m sure of it.”

“Let go of me,” Felix murmured, voice quiet and deadly in a way that sent goosebumps up Sylvain’s arms that definitely had nothing to do with their first skin-on-skin contact in over a year. Nothing whatsoever. But Sylvain held on for dear life.

He squared away quickly with the bearded man, ignoring Felix where he stood to the side with his arms folded huffily, like his father and mother might have when he was a child and they were talking business. Part of Sylvain curled up in disgust at how easy it was to buy Felix’s sword, his life, for an indeterminate amount of time, at a fixed rate, with a certain amount up front. Then again, he reasoned with himself to quiet that part down enough to carry on with the deal, most people hiring mercenaries didn’t have the literal king on their side to vouch for them.

“Pack your bags, boy,” the bearded man said to Felix as Sylvain signed one last piece of paper with a name he forged out of sheer boredom, and the anger he felt rolling off of Felix made him feel angry too. Again he pushed it down. “It’ll be a long walk.”

When the two had moved away from the counter, positioning themselves in front of a poster of a pair of mercenaries that looked surprisingly like Shamir and Catherine, Sylvain had the pleasure of receiving at long last the full force of Felix’s glare. “Thanks for that, boss,” he spat.

“If I have to pay to see you again, then so be it,” Sylvain replied, wishing already that his voice had sounded less serious. He didn’t try to grin, though; Felix was pissed enough as it was. “In all seriousness I really do need someone with me on this trip. Claude said he’d kill me if I died on a mountaintop somewhere.”

The joke didn’t change Felix’s expression. “You are in a mercenary guild. There is no shortage of other blades to hire. So tell me why the fuck I’m supposed to be getting packed up to go with you to the goddess knows where.”

“You came highly recommended,” Sylvain said by way of explanation. “Come on, Felix, aren’t you even a little glad to see me?”

“Normally I may not mind having to look at your idiotic face again, but under the circumstances forgive me for not leaping into your arms.”

“Would you otherwise? Let’s do this whole thing over again,” Sylvain said, self-preservation evaporating in the face of the footage his brain unhelpfully supplied of Felix, in fact, leaping into his arms. In reality he was still and unfriendly as stone, glaring angrily. Sylvain belatedly took a step back, not quite out of range of the elbow that came flying at him with a speed that took his mind back to sparring at the training grounds, although not as much as the ache that followed did.

“You’re as much of a pain as ever,” Felix said. “Fine. If you insist on forcing me to work for you then get the hell out of here so I can prepare. When are we leaving?”

Sylvain frowned. “You don’t want to know where we’re going?”

He shrugged, not meeting Sylvain’s eyes. “I don’t need to know where you’re going to know when I need to leave.”

“Fine,” Sylvain replied. “Okay, then should we say… tomorrow morning? I need to get everything from Claude first. And, of course, I just got here.”

“You don’t want to stay longer? Sleep around more?” Felix asked, voice barbed.

“Hey now,” Sylvain said, “keep talking like that while we’re coworkers and I’m going to have to make an HR complaint.”

“We’re not coworkers. You’re my employer.” Felix turned on his heel, toward the end of the room where Sylvain saw another door that he had to assume led to wherever Felix was boarding. “See you tomorrow.”

“Bright and early!” Sylvain called to his retreating back. He was at the doors of the keep within the hour, greeted by Hilda, who had become something of a fixture in Derdriu since Claude had returned from Almyra.

“Hey Sylvain,” she called, waggling her fingers as she led him into the castle, depositing them both in a sitting room directly off the main entrance hall. “Claude says you’re getting married, huh?”

Sylvain nodded. “To a total stranger, waiting for me in beautiful Sreng.”

“Ugh, my brother would never let me get married to someone I didn’t know,” Hilda said, wrinkling her nose. “He’s so picky.”

“Too bad I’m newly committed,” Sylvain said, reaching out to take her hand and bring it theatrically to his lips. Hilda covered her mouth dramatically with her other hand, crinkling around her eyes betraying the smile behind it. “Anyone in your sights these days?”

She shook her head, something about the gesture free as a bird. “Nope, not at all. I’ve mostly been focused on staying here as long as Claude will let me. He has to go to Byleth eventually and I’m hoping he’ll just leave me the castle at that point.”

“If he left it to anyone it would probably be you. Or Lorenz, I guess,” Sylvain replied. “What a bunch of clowns you three were at school.”

Hilda snorted. “Yeah, we were a real Sylvain, Felix and Ingrid.” She winced then. “Sorry, Sylvain, I know Felix is a sore subject.”

“Not at all,” he said, emphatically. “I saw him today as a matter of fact.”

Hilda’s mouth dropped open, comically wide, and she leaned forward in her chair. “You what?”

“At the mercenary guild actually,” Sylvain explained, voice casual. “I hired him.”

“You what?” she repeated. “Hired him?”

“Claude says I need to take someone with me so I have a lower chance of dying,” Sylvain explained. “So, when I saw him at the guild I figured I already knew he could fight and wouldn’t bail.”

Hilda looked thoughtful as she closer her mouth, sitting back again. “I guess that makes about as much sense as anything else,” she said. “Although it kinda seems like bailing is Felix’s thing these days, huh?”

Sylvain didn’t really know what to say to that, but luckily, with his usual impeccable timing, Claude arrived at that exact moment.

“Long time no see,” he teased, squeezing Hilda’s shoulder as he passed her chair. “Sylvain, I have everything together for you to take along your way. I hope you won’t mind stopping by Garreg Mach, I know it’s a little inconvenient.”

“No trouble at all,” Sylvain said, winking. “Hope I’m delivering a love letter.”

Claude just grinned. “I have a message for Lorenz, too. And something to send to Ingrid, but their territories are more on your way.” Sylvain nodded. “Well, did you find everything you were looking for? I hope you’re not leaving too soon.”

“Tomorrow, actually,” Sylvain said, and Hilda groaned. “You could say I got what I needed. And if I’m going to be stopping in half the territories in Fodlan I don’t really need a lot of supplies at once, huh?”

“And thank you, by the way,” Claude said, voice teasing but face serious. “For being a messenger and for… everything else. If you find a way to start the conversation about opening the border with Sreng without throwing your whole life away up there, please try that instead.”

Hilda nodded in agreement. “If anyone could convince them, it’s you.”

“Wow, enough praise,” Sylvain said, throwing his hands up defensively. “You guys will be really disappointed when I come back in pieces or something.”

“Not with Felix along for the ride,” Hilda argued. “He’d never let anything like that happen to you.”

“Felix?” Claude repeated, voice sharp. “What does he have to do with anything?”

“Didn’t Sylvain tell you?” Hilda asked.

“You saw me walk in here after you,” Claude replied, and Hilda giggled.

“That mercenary guild you sent Sylvain to had someone very familiar for hire,” she said, winking.

Sylvain rolled his eyes. “Felix and I have worked together before, Claude. I know I can trust his skill, unless things have changed dramatically since we were at war, and it didn’t seem that way when I saw him earlier.”

“How was that? Seeing him again, I mean,” Claude asked.

Sylvain shrugged. “It was fine. I mean, it hasn’t been that long since we’ve seen each other, right?”

“Don’t be stupid, Sylvain,” Hilda said. “It was messed up the way he left after Nemesis, right? We all know it.”

Claude said nothing, even as Sylvain looked to him, a move that felt calculated. Sylvain sighed. “He lost everything when we won. Faerghus was the only thing from Felix’s life that was still around, and whether he’d admit it or not I don’t think it was easy losing that.”

Hilda shook her head, unusually tenacious. “You lost all that too, but you stayed. Ingrid too. Even with your families being… the way that they are.”

“Well, our families are still alive, Hilda,” Sylvain snapped. “That’s something Felix didn’t have.” Hilda and Claude both winced at that, Claude rubbing the back of his neck where he was perched in another chair. “Sorry, I don’t mean to be like that,” Sylvain sighed. “I guess it brought up old stuff after all, seeing Felix again. It kind of felt like old times a little. He’s still rude to me, you know? And I still don’t mind, still stick up for him to you guys, who have always been way nicer to me. I don’t know what’s up.”

Hilda opened her mouth but Claude cut her off. “It’s tough for all you northerners. You guys are all trauma bonded together, you’ve lost a lot. We don’t get that in the old Alliance crowd.”

“It was kind of like being smacked on the head when I came over to your class way back when,” Sylvain admitted. “You’re all pretty well-adjusted, even though Lorenz’ dad could give ours a run for their money.”

“And he’s the most uptight of us all,” Hilda said. “Sorry for pushing you, Sylvain,” she added. “You guys will be fine. And you’re right — if there’s ever really trouble, Felix doesn’t back down. Not like me, running away from all that.”

Claude scoffed. “Miss Hilda Valentine Goneril, well-known helm cleaver on the battlefield, running away from anything? No way.”

Hilda flipped her hair idly. “Those days are way behind me, thank the goddess. Now the only time I have to cleave anything is when my brother makes me fight off bandits.” She turned to Claude, batting her eyelashes. “You’ll let me stay here in Derdriu, right? My brother would never dare to ask me to come home if the king of Fodlan, and half of anywhere outside of Fodlan too, wanted me to be here!”

Claude chuckled. “You know I’m not going to be here forever, right? You’re probably not going to be too far ahead of me, Sylvain. At least for part of your route.”

“Big plans?” Sylvain asked, rising from his chair, suddenly feeling unnecessary. “Maybe a trip to the monastery?”

“Maybe,” Claude said airily. “You’ll join us for dinner, right? I’d hate to miss out on how charming you and Hilda are when you have a little wine in you.”

“We’re angels,” Hilda said, waggling her eyebrows. “See you later, Sylvain — maybe we can all convince each other we’re marrying, or not marrying, the wrong person.”

Sylvain joined Claude in his laughter at Hilda, but her words felt strangely weighty as he left the room.

Chapter Text

Dinner with Claude and Hilda was in fact extremely charming — far too charming, as it turned out, because Sylvain felt keenly the absence of their conversation as he and Felix rode off together from the gate of the keep in the early morning. It felt surreal to be side by side again, something that hadn’t been the case since the war. Even during the battle to suppress the last of the Agarthans, they’d been spread out and Sylvain hadn’t really seen Felix except to verify he was alive afterwards. Then he was gone again.

“So, how’s being a mercenary?” Sylvain asked once they were outside the city, in the quiet enclosure of the woods around their path. After a brief consultation, they had concluded that while the main road might be fine when traveling through what used to be Faerghus, in the less familiar former Alliance territory they’d be better off on the side roads Claude had graciously, and tipsily, marked off on a map for Sylvain immediately after their dinner the previous night. So on a side road they were.

“It pays the bills,” Felix said shortly.

“What bills does the former heir of Fraldarius have?” asked Sylvain.

“I have to eat, don’t I?”

“Okay, so food and probably a significant ‘ridiculously overpriced decorative weapons’ budget,” Sylvain teased, and Felix scowled at him in a way that made him feel right at home. “What else do you spend your money on? Don’t tell me you’re a drinker now like dear old Jeralt.”

The scowl deepened. “Never,” he said.

Silence stretched between them for a few moments, and anyone who knew Sylvain knew that he couldn’t leave a swath of quiet unbroken. So really, Felix didn’t need to jump quite so obviously when Sylvain said, “Might as well get this out of the way now. Why did you leave?”

But jump he did, startling the horse beneath him. “What?” he snapped, rubbing his hand up and down the horse’s neck in an attempt to soothe it.

“You know what,” Sylvain retorted. “Why did you just… leave? After the war.”

“Isn’t it too early in the morning for this conversation?” asked Felix, a little acerbically. “And in this trip, for that matter. Shouldn’t we go back to the small talk for at least a day or two?”

Sylvain shrugged. “If we cover the difficult stuff first it’s not too much of your time wasted. I’d rather have you decide this isn’t worth it for you when we’re less than a day out from Derdriu, it’ll be way less effort.”

“You think I would just abandon this job?” Felix asked, sounding offended, which Sylvain found pretty ironic considering the conversation they were having. “You’re paying me to be here.”

“Technically I’m paying the guild leader so far,” Sylvain said. “And while I hope you got a cut of it before you left the city, you’re changing the subject. What happened after the war?”

“That’s a different question,” Felix said.

“I don’t think it is, even if the answer is different,” Sylvain replied.

“Whatever. I see your blather is still as senseless as ever,” Felix said, almost rote, as if he had to. But then he spoke again. “There wasn’t anything left for me in Fraldarius, whatever that even means without Faerghus. My uncle was handling the territory just fine, still is from what I’ve seen when I’m up that way. What would I have stayed for?”

“For me,” Sylvain said, half sad that he had to. “For Ingrid. We needed each other after the war, after everything that happened with Dimitri. We needed you. We didn’t even have time to think about losing him until we could take a breath after Nemesis.” He paused. “Did you need us too?”

Felix was silent. “I’m still here, aren’t I?” he asked after a moment. “So I guess I didn’t.”

“The outcomes aren’t just living and dying,” Sylvain said. “There’s a lot of grey after the coin toss.”

Felix didn’t look too interested in his analogy, although Sylvain remembered quickly that that imagery hadn’t been something he’d explained outside his own head. “Grey doesn’t matter.”

Sylvain decided to change tactics. Felix wasn’t wrong, they had a lot of time ahead of them for him to beat his head against the wall of Felix’s emotional and social blockage. “Okay, we’ll talk about that later then. So, where do you live these days?”

“Wherever I’m working,” Felix replied, quickly, as if he had the answer prepped.

“Sure, but where’s home base? Are you always coming back to the scenic Derdriu mercenary guild?”

“There are worse places to be,” Felix offered, and as the most open-ended and promising thing he had said so far Sylvain had to, by law, press him on it.

“Really?” he asked. “What are some of the places you’ve been that have been worse?”

Felix rolled his eyes. “Come on, Sylvain. We grew up in the north, everywhere there is worse than Derdriu. Anywhere cold and not surrounded by the ocean is worse.”

“Maybe to you,” Sylvain retorted. “I happen to like the cold and snow. I’m sorry you have to go back up there now, though.”

Felix shrugged. “It pays the bills,” he repeated, and Sylvain felt a pang of terrible sadness that, like most things to do with Felix, was mingled with a soupçon of anger. “What are you doing these days? Still being lazy with that Margrave money?”

“Nah, I’m using it for better things now,” Sylvain said, winking at Felix. He wasn’t looking at him, though, and didn’t see, keeping his eyes forward. “I worked in Fhirdiad for a while, helping to beat out the last of the enemies there and set everything right again. Ingrid and I were a force to be reckoned with, you should have seen it. But she’s not as much of a procrastinator so she went back to Galatea first.”

“I know,” Felix said, exasperated, but then his eyes went wide and his mouth clamped shut. As if he’d made a mistake.

“You know?” Sylvain repeated, nudging his horse forward a bit to keep pace, looking directly at Felix. A flush spread across his cheeks under Sylvain’s scrutiny, the color of guilt. “Did you see Ingrid? Were you in Galatea?”

“I… I just returned from a job in Itha,” Felix admitted, voice low. “I stopped at Ingrid’s on my way back. I needed… supplies.”

“For you to stop somewhere you know you’ll see someone from the old days you must have needed them pretty desperately.” Sylvain’s voice was clipped, harsher than he would have liked, but the feeling of ice water spreading through him was pervasive, infuriating. “Itha is practically in Gautier territory, Felix, you didn’t think to write? I would have come to see you, would have come anywhere.”

“I know you would have,” snapped Felix. “That’s why I told Ingrid not to say anything.”

Sylvain’s mouth dropped open. “So,” he said, voice measured to keep it from spilling over, “not only did you not send word that you were so near Fhirdiad, in the house of our oldest remaining friend…” The words stung, and he knew they stung at Felix too by the stiffening at the corners of his mouth, but Sylvain needed him to feel what he’d done. “You made that friend lie by omission to me about it. And you know Ingrid hates lying. She’s probably still seething about it, huh? Flying around on her pegasus just fuming at old pal Felix Fraldarius over a —”

“Enough,” Felix said, and his voice was quiet enough that Sylvain clammed up in response. “Sylvain… I didn’t go to Ingrid by choice.”

There was a silence, broken only by the sound of their horses’ hooves hitting the ground, the leaves rustling, the birds chirping in the trees overhead. “Well, I’ve got nothing but time to listen to you explain yourself,” Sylvain offered finally, after what felt like eternity but was probably just the longest five minutes in human history.

Always one to push the limits of patience and ability, Felix was quiet for another moment. Then, he spoke. “The job itself wasn’t in Itha. It was outside it, in the countryside a ways. I took the job from a troupe that had nabbed it and then failed to deliver in return. It wasn’t a difficult mission, just killing off a few demonic beasts in the wilds preying on hunters and their quarries. I took them out one at a time, working with a group I had partnered with before and planning to split the reward. As long as I got what I needed to pay my bills they were good enough people, and we didn’t have any trouble. We returned to Itha, heads in hand, and collected our earnings. The group wanted to celebrate a little so we played a bit fast and loose with our safety, I suppose.” He paused. Sylvain had been looking at him consistently, trusting his horse to make its way safely down the path with minimal guidance, and something about the way Felix’s eyes looked like they were clouding over as he spoke didn’t settle right in Sylvain’s stomach. Felix let out one brief, sharp exhale before continuing. “It was a massacre. I was lucky I was outside in the alley, lucky I never formally aligned with the group so they didn’t know they had missed me. The clan who had been given the job initially killed them. My… my allies. One of them had a daughter he sent money to every week. One of them had a sister she talked about constantly, another had a husband to get home to. They were gone in an instant. All for money.”

“Felix,” Sylvain breathed.

“They got me when I went back in,” he continued, voice hardening a little, back in the realm he was comfortable with — his own pain and suffering. “They still didn’t recognize that I knew the people involved, they thought they were just intimidating a witness. I laid out in the woods outside Itha for a day or two until I could move, and then I went to Ingrid. By the time I got there the infection was so bad I was delirious.” Perversely, the corners of Felix’s mouth turned up at that, the sentence that felt the most like a knife as it landed in Sylvain’s mind. “I thought Ingrid was Dimitri, blonde hair and kind words and strength. It was hard waking up from that.”

“Goddess, Felix,” Sylvain said, again, because what else was there to say. “I’m so sorry.”

He shrugged. “If their lives were forfeit to money then mine would be as well. So I keep selling my sword. And Sylvain… I didn’t want you to see me like that because I didn’t know if I would be strong enough to make that choice.”

Sylvain was silent for a moment at that. It was so like Felix to see things in stark black and white, but so unlike him to dwell so long and so fully on the past. He must have been lonely after the war, on the road on his own, maybe still the little boy who had trailed behind Glenn and Sylvain and Dimitri looking for something to latch onto. “I understand,” he said, and maybe he didn’t really but what he did understand was that Felix needed someone to — and Sylvain didn’t think the horses could communicate that concept as clearly, so really he was the only option. “Thank you for telling me that, and I’m sorry for giving you grief.”

Felix snorted. “I don’t usually think of grief when it comes to you,” he said, then clamped his mouth shut again with that same I’ve made a terrible mistake air as earlier. But Sylvain didn’t press this time, just took it at face value.

Night fell eventually, and looking at Claude’s map together over the small fire Felix had capably and graciously built, with minimal grousing at the way Sylvain set up the rest of their camp, they both agreed they were about a day and a half away from the Daphnel and Gloucester border at the pace they had kept most of the day.

“Perfect,” Sylvain said, dangling a piece of bread from one of the rations Claude had sent him with from Derdriu over the fire in hopes of making it edible through application of warmth. “I can’t wait to see Marianne again, even if it means I have to see Lorenz too.”

“Right,” Felix said, and Sylvain wondered privately which of the two names he’d mentioned Felix was trying to pin to a face in his memory. Considering how close Marianne and Dimitri had been for a time, Sylvain’s money was on Felix forgetting Lorenz — even though they’d fought together every step of the way in the Alliance. “He was the… purple one, right?”

Sylvain let out a burst of laughter at that unexpected and vague, but apt, descriptor. “That’s one way of putting it,” he said, scrambling to keep from dropping his bread directly into the fire and making it somehow less appetizing. He decided to bite the bullet, almost literally based on the first bite he took which he was sure would crack his teeth. “I’m impressed. I thought you didn’t think about the past that way.”

“Back in school I wanted to know who was so important that you and Ingrid left me behind with the boar.” Felix’s tone was light, surprisingly so truthfully, but Sylvain felt the words like an insect bite at the back of his neck, sending shame into his brainstem. “Imagine my embarrassment to find that Lorenz was one of them.”

Sylvain pasted a grin onto his face at that. This was Felix trying, trying to cross the gap between them, and Sylvain had to appreciate it or risk digging it wider. “You can’t deny he was far more noble,” he said. “If not better-looking.”

Felix raised an eyebrow. “Than me?” he asked, taking another bite out of the dried meat he had taken from his own supplies. “Interesting.”

“Hey, I said if not,” Sylvain replied easily. “No need to get an ego about it. Or more of one.”

Felix chuckled, and Sylvain heard the sound reverberate through his vague and unquiet dreams.

Chapter Text

The next day and a half was more of the same, Sylvain filling long silences with information about Lorenz and Marianne and Gloucester territory, so hopefully should Felix make the regrettable decision to speak he would at least be somewhat aware of the context. There were many good qualities Felix had, many that Sylvain had appreciated for years and had undoubtedly carried their relationship through the wild ride that had been the war, but diplomacy was not one of them. In fact, like a miasma rolling off of him as they approached House Gloucester proper, Sylvain could feel Felix’s hackles rising, nerves tightening.

“Be cool,” Sylvain said as the gates came into view, and Felix glared at him. “I don’t want to look like an aggressor even if they know me here.”

“What should you look like?” snapped Felix.

“Just like… I don’t know. Like someone traveling with an old friend. They don’t need to know you’re with me as a mercenary right?” Sylvain tapped his chin thoughtfully. “That’s not a bad thought, honestly. We both can fight, you don’t have to do any tough bodyguard acting until we’re really in the wilds.”

“Hmmph,” Felix grunted, his patented noise, but he didn’t argue further and he didn’t make a fuss as Sylvain adjusted his horse’s position to bring them right in step with each other.

The first person they saw after the guards admitted them through the gate (Claude’s name was a golden ticket anywhere in Fodlan, but especially in the old Alliance territory) was Marianne, who was picturesquely cutting lavender in a garden far in front of the main house, hair down and humming audible. Sylvain practically leapt off his horse to call her name, and her smile as she turned to him was blinding.

“Oh, Sylvain!” she called, waving to him with the hand not carrying a basket in the crook of her elbow, nose crinkling in the sun. Felix hung back as Sylvain met her in the flowers, caught her up in a hug, and she laughed like music as he spun her around. “You look wonderful.”

“You too, Marianne,” he replied, hands on her shoulders as he studied her at arms’ length. And indeed she did look wonderful, face dusted with freckles and eyes free of the pain he’d seen there in school. “Where’s that stick in the mud husband of yours? I have a message from the King of Unification.”

Marianne chuckled. “He’s inside,” she said, gesturing behind her before waving to the swordsman Sylvain had left in the dust. “Hello, Felix!”

Sylvain looked back over his shoulder to see Felix’s head whip around from where he was diligently passing the horses off to a stablehand, perhaps rightfully surprised that Marianne had recognized and remembered him. “Uh. Hello,” he said, waving a tentative hand in return.

“Come on, Felix, Marianne has the best stable in Fodlan, they know what they’re doing,” Sylvain called, beckoning him over before turning back to the horse whisperer herself. “He’s shy, you remember.”

“I remember,” she replied, eyes twinkling for a moment, “something like that. Come on, both of you can follow me this way.”

Sylvain tugged Felix ahead by the wrist as he lagged behind, letting go just as quickly when Felix slapped at his hand irritably. Together they followed Marianne and the scent of her lavender up the path to the main house, grand as Sylvain would have expected knowing Lorenz and the history of the Gloucester family the way he did. Somehow though when Marianne opened the door in front of them, showing them in, it felt like she was letting them into a home.

“Lorenz!” she called, waving as she passed to a woman hanging fresh curtains over the windows of a sitting room off the hallway. Sylvain looked around curiously, a bit more eager than he’d expected to see what kind of differences former Alliance nobility had evolved in their decor and furnishings compared to Faerghus, although their separation into different nations had been relatively brief in the grand scheme of things. He tugged Felix forward one more time, not letting his hand linger to be cuffed again, just long enough to bring them to an even footing as they made their way up the hallway. “Remember,” he murmured under cover of Marianne calling for her husband again, “in here you’re just my friend.”

Felix pressed his lips together, but at the very least he didn’t fight.

After a moment, Marianne ducked her head out of a room at the end of the hallway,  waving them forward. “He’s in here!” she called, smiling before disappearing again.

Lorenz Hellman Gloucester looked almost identical to how Sylvain remembered him, maybe actually a little younger without the weight of war on his shoulders, much better suited to the politics of peacetime. He rose from the desk he had been sitting at, pen and paper abandoned, to greet them, offering a prim handshake to Sylvain and a nod for an unreceptive Felix. Sylvain smiled easily, hoping it spread wide enough to cover for Felix’s prickliness, the way it always was. “Good to see you, Lorenz,” he said, clapping him on the shoulder with maybe just a touch more force than he might have used otherwise. “I see you’ve had better luck in love than you had in school.”

“The best,” Lorenz replied, and between the surprising earnestness in his voice, the softness in his eyes on Marianne, and the blush that touched her face at his words Sylvain couldn’t find it in his heart to tease him anymore. “And you, Sylvain? Surely you’ve found someone with standards low enough by now.”

Sylvain winced — and then something unexpected happened. By his side, he felt Felix’s hand on his arm, not to comfort but to resist lashing out, fingers gripping tightly. If he hadn’t already been grimacing at the barb of Lorenz’ hopefully well-meaning teasing he certainly would have at the iron vise of Felix’s hand. He shot Felix a look, momentary, and saw his brows knitted together in anger and his mouth parting as if to say something. Time to act fast, whatever the hell was happening. “Ouch, no need to hit where it hurts,” Sylvain said, tugging his arm meaningfully free to mockingly clutch over his heart. “As it happens I’m on my way to find such an easily satisfied person.”

“Is that so?” asked Lorenz. “Who is the lucky lady?”

“You’re going to marry?” asked Marianne. When Sylvain looked at her, her eyes were thoughtful and directed at Felix, who was scowling helpfully at the ceiling.

“Yes, ma’am, though I’ll never find anyone as lovely as you,” Sylvain replied, winking at Marianne, who gave him a gentle smile in return. Lorenz cleared his throat pointedly.

“So? Who is she?”

“Remains to be seen,” Sylvain said, dropping into a chair in front of Lorenz’ desk and willing Felix with all the telepathic ability the goddess had granted him, which was to say none but he’d like to think there was something there, to sit in the other one. He did not, instead coming to stand behind it as if he was designing the situation to be as uncomfortable as possible. Sylvain sighed. “My father offered me to Claude as a peace offering with Sreng, to get the borders open up there.”

Lorenz raised a brow, aristocratic as ever. “And… Claude agreed to that?”

“You don’t think I can do it?” Sylvain asked, grinning at Lorenz, purposefully ignoring the actual question below the surface. “Come on, I’ve charmed my way to far more difficult outcomes.”

“I… have no doubt,” Lorenz began, but Marianne cut him off before he could continue.

“And what brings you to us, Felix?”

Sylvain practically felt Felix jump out of his skin, startled at being remembered. He wished they had practiced this part. “I… I’m on my way to the old Fraldarius territory,” he lied, painfully obviously, but Marianne and Lorenz both continued smiling, oblivious. “Sylvain and I ran into each other in Derdriu and I thought it might be time to… visit.”

“There are many memories there for you, I’m sure,” Marianne said diplomatically, and Lorenz nodded approvingly.

“It is a noble’s duty to preserve the memory of what once was. Even in the world of unification we must recall tradition and family.” Pompous ass that he was, there was a softness in Lorenz’ voice that Sylvain couldn’t help but notice anyway. He appreciated it, and maybe Felix did too, because his hmmph in response was very under his breath. “Well, surely you must be exhausted,” Lorenz continued magnanimously. “Please, share Claude’s message and then I hope you’ll rest here for the night and let us catch up.”

“We’d love to sleep somewhere that’s not the ground,” Sylvain admitted, reaching into his pocket for the letter Claude had given him for the Gloucester territory.

“Isn’t that the truth?” a voice boomed from the doorway, and the grimace that passed over Lorenz’ face was one that Sylvain hoped would stay in his memory for a long time.

“Ah, yes,” Lorenz said, gesturing toward the entrance of the room. “I suppose you remember Judith of House Daphnel.”

“Damn right I do,” Felix said, looking the happiest Sylvain had seen him the entire trip — which was to say he wasn’t actively looking angry. Before Sylvain could even turn around he was striding toward her, and by the time he looked over his shoulder Felix was actually shaking her hand.

Judith’s eyes were twinkling. “I remember you, boy,” she said, voice devoid of the usual semi-condescending edge she had when talking to Claude or Lorenz. Felix actually went a little pink, or Sylvain’s eyes deceived him. “Felix, the master swordsman.”

“That’s right,” Felix replied, never one for false modesty, and she outright laughed at that. Sylvain rose, wondering for a whimsical moment whether his marriage was the only one they would arrange on this trip.

“And you, the ladies’ man,” she continued, reaching out to clasp Sylvain’s hand in a grip as firm as if he were the hilt of her sword. “Though I don’t remember seeing you with many ladies. Mostly this one —” She gestured to Felix. “—and that niece a hundred times removed of mine.”

“Ingrid, right,” Sylvain said, tugging his hand back to rub the nape of his neck. “Times change, Judith. You’re looking lovely as ever though.”

“Save it for the one who really wants to hear that kind of thing,” she said, pointing to Lorenz, who flared at her a little. Marianne put a hand on his arm. “I’m only here to say I’ll be on my way now. Thank you for the shelter, House Gloucester.”

“Anytime,” Lorenz said stiffly, manners only failing him a little. “Safe travel to House Daphnel.”

“Maybe we’ll catch you there on our way to Galatea,” offered Sylvain. Felix was looking a little like a dog who had just had a toy taken away, which was making it harder to focus on the task at hand if Sylvain was being completely honest. He hadn’t realized just how much Felix had looked up to Judith — just one more thing to ask about to pass the time as they traveled on. “We’ll pass through there soon to see Ingrid.”

“What a grand adventure you two are on,” Judith replied by means of an answer, and then she was waving to Marianne, and then she was gone.

Sylvain turned back to the desk, leaning over it to tap the letter in Lorenz’ hand. “Come on, Sir Lorenz, crack that bad boy open. I want to know what we came all this way for.”

Lorenz did as he was told, moving a little bit mechanically to reach for a fancy-looking penknife as he recovered from his interaction with Judith. His wife leaned over his shoulder, curious to see too. Felix was still standing a little huffily by the door and did not seem to give a single shit about what the king of the free world might have had to say to Lorenz Gloucester.

Sylvain was watching though, watching as Lorenz’ eyes widened and as Marianne’s did too and shone a little in the light streaming through the windows. “Why, Claude has asked me to stand beside him at his wedding to the — to Byleth.”

Sylvain grinned, clapping him on the shoulder where he still leaned over the desk. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said. “Good thing it was an important message. Wouldn’t have wanted to come all this way for nothing.”

Marianne kissed Lorenz’ cheek, taking the letter from him to read it in full herself. “Lorenz, what an honor,” she said. “You two will look wonderful up there with the professor.”

“I… I certainly hope so,” he replied, and Sylvain thought maybe he sounded a bit choked up.

Later in the day, Sylvain found himself alone with Marianne where she was reviewing some tax records from the livestock farms she and Lorenz managed. Sylvain didn’t know much in this world, but he knew a bit about math and accounting, so he took it upon himself to give her a hand. If it was mostly to avoid Lorenz’ preening, which had started in earnest once the shock at being asked had faded a little, that was for Sylvain to know and no one to find out.

“You know, it really is so nice to see you again, Sylvain. Felix too,” she added, glancing out the window where he could just be seen at the door of the nearest stable, keeping company with their horses the way he never would with people.

“I could say the same about you two,” Sylvain replied. “You seem really happy here.”

Marianne nodded, jotting down one last figure before she put her pen down. “We are. I am,” she said shyly. “I never thought it would be like this — that I could help people, live a meaningful life, contribute to society. You always saw that possibility in me, so thank you.”

“Aww, come on Marianne, anybody could see that in you,” Sylvain replied, grinning at her. “Lorenz obviously did.”

“Maybe so,” she agreed, ducking her head a little. She was quiet for a moment, but this silence felt different than the ones he’d had lately with Felix. Sylvain didn’t feel he had to fill this one, no crawling edge of anxiety squirming in his stomach, no irrational fear that they might have just exchanged their last words to each other. Nothing to lose. “I don’t want to be rude,” she continued, something that was not possible for Marianne von Edmund, “but I did want to ask. Do you want to marry someone from Sreng?”

Sylvain shrugged. “There’s no one else out there, right? I mean, you’re already married…”

She blushed then, prettily, but spoke resolutely. “Are you sure? Marriage is a difficult thing. It’s not all Crest babies and long rides at sunset.”

“Are you… teasing me?” he asked, and she laughed a little behind her hand.

“Maybe a bit,” Marianne conceded. “But really, I just want to be sure you won’t regret it. I know you can endure a lot, but it shouldn’t have to be about enduring anything.”

“I’ll be fine, Marianne,” Sylvain said, but for the first time in a while the lie didn’t come out quite as convincingly as he’d hoped. “There are plenty of beautiful people in Sreng, I’m sure of it.”

“I’m sure there are too,” she replied. Out the window, which was where Sylvain’s eyes had somehow turned during the course of the conversation, Felix was rubbing his horse’s nose, leaning in surprisingly close, and although Sylvain couldn’t actually see whether his face was soft he could easily imagine that it was.

Chapter Text

Sylvain was surprisingly loathe to leave in the morning, even though they were replenished with rations by Lorenz’ far superior kitchen, holding Marianne for a moment longer than he expected from himself as Lorenz waved from nearer the house.

“Be good,” he said, close to her ear, and she smiled. He felt it against his face.

“You too,” she replied, squeezing his shoulders one more time before moving to Felix. “It was wonderful to see you. Who knew you were so talented at cutting food with your sword?”

Felix made a tsking noise in his throat, but he also bypassed Marianne’s proffered handshake for a brusque and one-armed hug, so Sylvain counted that as a minor miracle. “Keep that husband of yours in check.”

Marianne smiled and made an X gesture over her heart. And then they were on their horses, waving and then gone on the road to Garreg Mach.

“She is irresistible, huh?” Sylvain asked once they were under the shade of trees again. Felix didn’t respond but he also didn’t disagree.

The morning started off sunny but by midday it was raining, hard, making the horses probably almost as miserable as Sylvain felt. Felix pushed on stubbornly, silently insisting that they keep the same pace even as the path, still unbeaten, grew soggier below their horses’ hooves. Sylvain finally put his foot down, just slightly earlier than they would usually stop, when they came across a humble village that boasted one incredibly modest tavern with a few rooms to rent.

“We are not sleeping in this mud, Felix,” he said. “Consider it a bonus for the great work you’ve put in so far on this trip.”

“I don’t usually make my employers pay for my room and board,” Felix argued stiffly, stiffer maybe than their backs would be if they slept on the terrible ground that night. “And I also haven’t had the chance to swing my sword.”

“Then pretend I’m just your friend again,” Sylvain sighed, too tired and too damn wet to fight any harder. But Felix relented, and together they found an overhang to tie their horses under and trudged the rest of the soaking way to the tavern. The innkeeper was helpful but apologetic, only one room left for the night, she was sorry but there was a hunt in some nearby woods that had been derailed by the rain and the members had taken almost all of her available space.

“As long as whatever you have left is dry and not cold we’ll take it,” Sylvain said. “Maybe you have a cot we could put in there too.”

She nodded, running off with a promise of a cot and an in-room fireplace to dry their clothes at. When Sylvain turned to Felix, ready to assess the damage of unilaterally making the call that sharing the room was okay, he was surprised to find him looking fully away from the conversation, hand on his sword hilt but eyes too unfocused to be assessing a threat.

“What?” Sylvain asked.

“If you’re going to make me sleep with you at least buy me a drink first,” Felix said, voice curt and flush creeping over his face and down his neck.

Sylvain chuckled. “Did you learn how to joke around while you were gone?” he asked, trying not to think of everything that gone meant between them now. “I’ll buy you a drink without any strings attached. Let’s get out of these sopping threads first, though, so we might have a shot at enjoying it.”

Having a drink with Felix was in fact more enjoyable once they stripped out of their wet armor and traveling clothes, down to the slightly more preserved tunic and leggings each of them wore underneath out of habit from growing up cold. At first Felix was loathe to lower his alertness at all but Sylvain put on his persuasive tone, not the one he normally used but the one he’d honed for Felix specifically through years of friendship, confident and compelling for whatever reason to the swordsman. Felix agreed to one drink. In the end they each had three.

“You’re not flirting,” Felix said, about halfway through the third. If he was feeling at all like Sylvain he was warm and comfortable and just worried enough about someone recognizing them and something going wrong to not feel weird about leaning in a little closer to the one familiar thing in the tavern, and maybe he was because Felix’s shoulder didn’t shy away from where Sylvain was pressed against it.

“With you? I can if you’d like it,” Sylvain said, and winked with only slightly less precision than usual.

Felix flushed. “That’s… not what I meant,” he insisted. “The innkeeper, or the bartender, or anyone else in here. There’s good-looking people, right?”

“At least two,” Sylvain replied, voice teasingly serious.

Felix frowned at him. “Huh? Who?” He glanced around the room and Sylvain had to try really hard not to let his exasperation stick long enough for Felix to catch it when he finished his survey to turn, puzzled, back to Sylvain.

“Well, one is me, obviously,” Sylvain said, cocking his head to one side and rolling his eyes, getting the same in return from Felix. Then he went serious again, the way he knew Felix could respond to, respect, and brushed a brave thumb over his chin. “And one is you.”

Felix pulled away from the contact, but only a little, not like he used to, like he was jerking away from a flame. The movement was gentle, sad almost, regretful maybe, and Sylvain felt hope again, like he’d felt in the mercenary guild. The bridge between them wasn’t completely in ashes. It was still walkable. “I thought we were done with that,” he muttered.

“I thought you wanted me to flirt,” Sylvain countered. He was far past the point of flirting, still, always, too overwhelmed with just seeing Felix again, being in his presence, hearing his voice sometimes, the way he had at school and in the war — when they had trusted each other, when they had been afraid to be away from each other. But somehow he didn’t feel like anything heavier would make any headway, so he bit everything else back for the moment.

“Tch,” Felix replied, in the way only he could, a little noise that by rights should not be able to contain so much contempt. But they finished their last drink together in peace, tipping as well as Felix would allow Sylvain to do without drawing undue attention.

“Here’s hoping our things are drier, huh?” Sylvain said, to have something to say to cover their walk up the stairs and down the hall to their shared room. They’d been sleeping close on the trip so far out of necessity but something about having four walls and a roof around them made it seem so much more momentous to share a space, even though it would be less personal than beds they’d shared before through force of circumstance or loneliness. They had the protective distance of separate mattresses. “We were down there long enough.”

“We were,” Felix agreed. “Too long, maybe. Who knows if we’ll make it to Garreg Mach tomorrow?”

“With you waking up at the crack of dawn, making the same amount of noise whether you’re alone or with someone else? We’ll get there,” Sylvain replied.

“I don’t have to be that loud,” Felix said suddenly, surprisingly.

Sylvain turned away from the door where his key was in the lock, letting shock play openly on his face. “You mean you do it just to irritate me? I’m stunned,” Sylvain said, grinning, and the corner of Felix’s mouth turned up too, just a little more than usual. Sylvain opened the door, bowing elaborately to usher Felix into the room ahead of him, and unexpectedly Felix complied, sweeping in with unsurprising grace. He made a beeline for the fire, burning just below his cloak where it dangled over a makeshift drying rack, pressing a hand to it and making a satisfied noise at what Sylvain had to assume was the dwindling level of dampness. From there he dropped unceremoniously to the cot, kicking off his shoes.

“You should take the bed,” Sylvain said, gesturing to emphasize the point. He tested his own outerwear, lingering a little when he found it sufficiently warm and dry. “You’re working so hard trying to keep me out of trouble on this trip.”

“It’s a difficult job,” Felix said dryly. “As the employer though you should have the better spot.”

“What if someone tries to kill me in the night?” Sylvain asked, innocently, melodramatically. “They’d expect me to be in the bed, you’re really putting me at risk.”

“You’d rather they kill me?” Felix asked, voice like stone, and Sylvain winced.

“No. Are you kidding? I tried to make this trip on my own, I have no self-preservation,” he said. “I just don’t want your reputation to suffer. What’s a mercenary with a dead contractor?”

“Maybe wealthier if they found a better price,” Felix snapped. “Not that I’d do that to you.”

“Generous of you,” Sylvain said, and decided with that tender admission to throw all caution to the wind. “Should we just both sleep on the cot then?”

Felix rolled his eyes, haughty, disdainful, but not quite dismissive. Not yet. “I can sleep on the floor if you really think the bed is the root of your problems.”

“Nonsense,” Sylvain said, perching on the cot next to Felix, close enough for him to push away if he really felt it was necessary. He didn’t. “There’s plenty of room for both of us, right? And you always get cold in your sleep.”

“There are blankets and a fire,” Felix muttered, looking away, hopefully thinking back fondly on mornings waking up with Sylvain’s arm thrown over him, pressing them together. Sylvain was a cuddler, what could he say?

“And one could call you insatiable in your pursuit of warmth, if one were so inclined,” Sylvain countered. “Will all that be enough or do you need the added comfort of our lifelong friendship?”

“You’re teasing me,” Felix said, as if he were just realizing it. But he still didn’t move away, or drop stubbornly to the floor, or (what Sylvain privately thought was the most likely outcome) push him off the cot.

“Do you like it?” Sylvain asked, before realizing he probably didn’t want to hear the answer one way or another and pressing on. “Well, time to stretch myself out on my deathbed. Can you do me a favor and just make sure I look great while I’m lying there? I want you to be able to give a good description to the portrait artists later on. Make sure if you can’t get Ignatz himself that you can at least get someone from his school.”

“Idiot,” Felix snapped, and it felt like a caress, familiar and comforting and predictable enough to bring a grin to Sylvain’s face. “If you’re going to make such a fuss about it you can sleep here. But I will shove you out, assassins or no, if you even think about snoring.”

“You’re a good mercenary, Felix,” Sylvain said, laying himself out so he was propped up on one elbow, indulgent for a moment in just looking up at Felix, frowning above him, long and sharp and beautiful in the firelight. “You are definitely getting a bonus after this trip. Maybe I’ll buy out your contract.”

“So I can play concubine for you and your Srengi partner?” His tone was the edge of a sword, sharp and pressed to Sylvain’s throat tight enough to make him stifle a gasp. Felix seemed to know he’d maybe taken a step too far, bit his lip, but the words were out and there was no taking them back and Sylvain in all honesty probably deserved them.

“Yeah, okay Felix,” Sylvain said. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking — I still haven’t totally gotten used to the idea that the end point of all this is finding me some unfortunate soul in Sreng to wed and open Claude’s borders for him.”

“I understand,” Felix said in a tone that was not especially understanding, but Sylvain wasn’t sure that was what he should have anyway all things considered. And he still hadn’t been kicked onto the floor, which seemed like a victory. “Just don’t… toy with me.”

The blade pressed a little harder, just breaking skin. “Felix,” he said, voice half a breath, “I swear I’m not trying to… to play around. The last thing I want to do is hurt you.”

“Hmmph,” he huffed. But Felix stretched himself out compliantly next to Sylvain all the same, rolling over to put his back to him and, true to form, taking more than his share of the blanket with him even though he was closest to the fire. “Go to sleep, Sylvain.”

“Your wish is my command, boss.” Sylvain didn’t bother trying with the bedding. He knew a losing battle when he saw one.

“You’re the boss here, remember?” Felix said, but his voice was already heavy with sleep, and Sylvain didn’t find it hard to follow him into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

Felix did wake up, loudly, before even the crack of dawn, so somehow the two of them found themselves despite the delay at the doors of Garreg Mach monastery before dark had fully fallen. The ride had been relatively quiet — not quite anger still between them but not exactly the easy peace Sylvain had been hoping they would fall consistently back into after their time apart. Not the worst outcome, Sylvain thought as he led the way to the still-open gate to the marketplace at the foot of the old grounds, where a few merchants were visible. The old armory didn’t seem to be there, one more sign of the finality of their last battle with the Empire and the Agarthans.

“Greetings!” called a familiar voice from the front entrance, and Sylvain smiled in response.

“Remember us?” he asked, raising a hand as he dismounted, guiding his horse by the reins up the stairs to meet the gatekeeper. “It’s good to see you’re still here.”

“Of course I do!” the gatekeeper replied, watching as Sylvain and Felix behind him handed their horses off to a scurrying stablehand. “Welcome back, sirs. Are you here to see—”

“Sylvain!” A voice, familiar and cheerful and loud, interrupted, and Sylvain turned to see a blur of orange before something small and warm hit his side.

“Annette!” He wrapped an arm around her, tousling her hair with the other hand and grinning at her answering squeal. “How’s my favorite professor?”

“Don’t say that too loud,” she replied, smiling up at him all the same, “our professor will get their feelings hurt.” She turned to see who was with Sylvain, and her eyes widened, fingers gripping Sylvain’s cloak in shock for a moment before dropping completely. “Felix?”

“Annette,” he said, and Sylvain thought he heard a lump in his throat. He glanced over at Felix, trying to be sly, worried about overwhelming him with too much attention, but he needn’t have been concerned. Felix’s eyes were locked only on Annette, soft and a little sad. Sylvain didn’t stick around to pry into the rest, instead telling the gatekeeper he’d see the professor — well, the ruler of Fodlan now, but here at the monastery “the professor” still seemed to be enough of a title — a little later, at their convenience.

His beeline for the infirmary was unproductive, no sick or injured students needing attending to, and maybe it was a sign that the new guard of leadership was a bit more cautious in their training and missions than the old group. But the walk to the cathedral was more purposeful, now that he’d narrowed down the possibilities to one, and when he arrived at the church he stopped in the doorway for a moment, steeling himself against the goddess, scanning the backs of heads for the light-colored bob he knew so well. She was in the back row, sitting on her own, even the indicators of her posture exuding a calmness that had never faltered, and when he slid in beside her she rested her head on his shoulder as if she’d been waiting for him to arrive.

“Hello, Sylvain,” Mercedes whispered, and Sylvain felt such overwhelming belonging as he propped his head on top of hers that he got a little choked up. They sat like that for a long time, listening to the ambient sound of music from students and townsfolk alike singing to the goddess, before Mercedes squeezed his hand softly and led him out of the cathedral.

Leaning against the edge of the bridge, it was easy to remember the long, light or heavy or both chats they used to have in their school days, the two oldest students from Faerghus, lives in various stages of shambles thanks to the Crests they bore. After Ingrid, it had been Mercedes that Sylvain had first discussed transferring to the Golden Deer. Looking back it had seemed like such a tiny decision, just what color he might be wearing on graduation day, but he had agonized over it. Mercedes had already been considering it after reconnecting with Lorenz. Talking with her had set him at ease, as it did so many times, even after that decision became one of the most important he had ever made. In the end, all the northern students made the same choice, just at different times. All but one.

“So how are you?” Mercedes asked, after a long moment of admiring the view, sunset mostly gone but orange fingers of light still touching the scenery enough to make it visible.

“I’m… all right, all things considered.” More so even than Felix, gentler and more penetrating, Mercedes could see through him, so Sylvain didn’t try as hard to mask his feelings. When he was younger he tried harder, which had only lead to failing harder. At this point they were old enough to dispense with that. “Tell me how you are, what you’re doing, and then we can get into the whole mess of my life.”

Mercedes chuckled. Sylvain’s voice was light, honestly light. “All right, then. I’m afraid it’s probably a little dull for someone of your prestige. I’ve been working here at Garreg Mach in the infirmary, sort of taking Manuela’s old spot. But I don’t teach, only heal, so I also work a bit at the orphanage in town.”

“You’re even more of a saint than you were at school then, huh?” Sylvain asked, and Mercedes blushed, mouth turning up before she could hide it behind her hand.

“I’m just doing what I can,” she said. “It’s so wonderful to be near so many familiar faces. Annette especially.” The smile at her name was wide and fond, unhidden now.

“Who else is here? All the kids who were actually good at school, I’m guessing,” Sylvain teased.

“Well, Annette and I, Linhardt, and Bernadetta.” Mercedes ticked off the names on her fingers. “And the professor. Er, ruler. Oh, dear.”

“It’s strange they decided to set up their throne here,” Sylvain remarked. “I mean geographically it makes sense. It’s just… it feels weird.”

“I know what you mean,” Mercedes agreed. “It feels odd sometimes. Like we’re just back at school all over again. There’s less killing now though.”

“Thank the goddess for that,” Sylvain said, surprised for a moment at his own fervency.

Mercedes nodded. “So, Sylvain, I’m sure whatever brings you here is far more interesting than the day to day of a nurse,” she said.

“I don’t know about all that from what I remember of Manuela,” Sylvain said, winking, but he knew that wouldn’t fly under Mercedes’ patient radar, so he continued. “Well, for the past year I’ve been trying to avoid all my responsibilities in Gautier with varying levels of success. My most recent level of success, in fact, may be my absolute lowest ever.”

“Goodness!” Mercedes exclaimed, always the perfect audience. “What does that mean?”

“Well,” he said, and something about it being Mercedes he was talking to or something about it suddenly all hitting him at once, the whirlwind of duty quieted for the brief respite planned at Garreg Mach, or something about the long and tiring day of riding suddenly had Sylvain’s voice cracking over the words, embarrassingly vulnerable, “I’m on my way to find a spouse.”

“That’s… find them?” Mercedes asked cautiously, planting a soft hand on his arm. “What do you mean?”

“My father cooked up some scheme to have me wed someone in Sreng, to make inroads toward opening borders.” And when it was laid out like that it did sound like just another roundabout way of taking another blow for another someone he cared about.

“Claude agreed to that?” Mercedes asked thoughtfully. “He’s quite the tactician, but I thought he would have more respect for his friend’s wishes.”

“I sort of… said I would do it.” Admitting it to Mercedes, Sylvain felt strangely ashamed. “What other options do I have?”

“Well, to be honest, I always assumed you’d either keep on your merry way, or marry Felix or Ingrid,” she said, voice frank, as though she was introducing the simplest possible idea into the conversation. Sylvain almost choked on his own spit anyway.

“Marry Ingrid?” he said when his voice returned. “Good one. Can’t imagine how fun it would be to be scolded every day of my life, for the rest of it. Felix too, I’d probably wake up each morning with a knife at my throat.”

“You know neither of those things are true,” Mercedes said. “But I haven’t seen Felix in a long time, maybe he’s changed. Not since the last battle, and I didn’t even see him properly there.”

Sylvain paused. “Well, if you want to see him, he’s… actually here with me.”

Mercedes gasped, properly surprised, something that was nearly impossible — Sylvain felt almost proud. “Felix is here? With you?”

“That’s what I said,” he replied agreeably.

“Well, where is he?” she asked, looking around as though Felix might be hiding in the lengthening shadows of the bridge. Night had fallen around their conversation but the lights along the walls were lit.

“With Annette if nothing’s changed since I came to the cathedral,” Sylvain said, and Mercedes nodded.

“Makes sense,” she said. “Well, I’m sure I’m keeping you from the professor. I can take you to them if you like.”

“You’re not keeping me at all, but sure, I should probably see them. And give them Claude’s letter,” he added, realizing he’d almost forgotten about the sealed parchment in the pouch at his waist, half the reason he was on this journey in the first place. “We already presented Lorenz with the news that he’d be the best man in the wedding.”

“How wonderful!” Mercedes exclaimed, smiling. “I do hope they’ll let me do some of the cooking.”

“Who could resist?” They walked slowly along the bridge, toward the stairs to the audience chamber where Rhea had seen visitors for so long and where Sylvain had to assume Byleth now presided over Fodlan. Just before they turned the corner to the doorway, Mercedes placed her palm against Sylvain’s arm again, using no force but holding him in place all the same.

“Sylvain,” she said, and her voice was surprisingly firm, “it’s your business of course what you do with your life. I think peace and open trade with Sreng is an admirable goal. But… it’s not your only option. Your Crest and your lands and your duty are not your fate. Not in the world Claude built.” She smiled, small, and the weight of her hand on his arm was warm and steadying. “Plus Sreng is so far to travel to attend a wedding. I’d much rather you had it nearby.”

Sylvain grinned at her. “If that’s what you want, I’ll make whoever the unlucky winner is come all the way to your front door,” he said, placing his own hand over hers for a second, and then they were through the entrance to the audience chamber, and there was Byleth.

They stood toward the far end of the room, back towards the two of them, but face turned their way over their shoulder at the sound of them entering. Claude used to say the professor had grown more expressive since coming to the monastery all those years ago, and maybe he saw some secret openness from them that Sylvain was not privy to, but he still found them disturbingly hard to read most of the time. As it was, at the sight of a student Byleth hadn’t seen for any length of time in a year, all Sylvain got from them was a tiny almost-smile and a slightly less blank look in their eyes.

“Hey, Professor, looking gorgeous as ever,” he said, bowing, not really sure how proper to be. “Ruling really suits you. As I’m sure being engaged to the most eligible bachelor on the continent does too.”

Byleth’s expression didn’t change as they turned to face Sylvain and Mercedes. “Hello, Sylvain.” They beckoned him forward. “And Mercedes.”

“I’m just here to drop him off, professor. Er, your majesty. Ugh, I’m sorry,” Mercedes said, hanging her head a little. “I’ll never get it right.”

“We’ve covered this before. You may call me Byleth. I don’t mind at all.” Their voice was blank the way it always had been, but something about it was calming now. Sylvain waved to Mercedes, who waved back and disappeared through the doorway, and stepped closer.

“I bring news, or something, from Derdriu,” Sylvain said, fishing the letter out of his pouch and handing it over.

Byleth took it and broke the seal with ease, skimming it quickly. “And what brings you here besides Claude’s machinations?”

“Actually, both reasons are kind of down to Claude, your majesty,” Sylvain said. He’d called one royal friend by their title once upon a time, what was one more? “I’m en route to Sreng for another try at opening borders there.” He left out the details. Byleth didn’t need to know about Sylvain’s wreck of a personal life and he was getting a little too uncomfortably vulnerable in the face of everyone caring enough about him to not want him to throw his future completely away.

“I’m glad you have another reason for making such a long trip,” Byleth said, though their voice didn’t sound especially glad, turning the parchment toward Sylvain without ceremony. Sylvain read and tried to stifle his sudden urge to warp back to Derdriu and strangle his old friend.

Hey Teach, Long time no see! Sorry I was in Almyra for so long, and Derdriu even longer. I’ll see you real soon. Anyway, I’m just writing more of this so Sylvain doesn’t get suspicious. Talk some sense into him if you can, huh? — Claude

“Who has ever been able to talk sense into me?” Sylvain asked, when the murder fog had faded a little.

“Not I,” Byleth replied, placing the letter into a pocket of their outfit. It was refreshing to see how plainly they were still dressed, a golden circlet similar to the one he’d seen on Claude the only indicator of the power they held. The stone over their forehead was green, matching the stone in the ring on their finger. How romantic. “So, is there anything else we should discuss for now? Felix is waiting for me in the training grounds, I have no doubt.”

“You saw him?” Sylvain asked, a little thrown. “I can’t believe Annette let him out of her sight.”

“She didn’t,” the professor replied calmly, heading for the doorway and indicating to Sylvain that he should follow. “In fact I’d be surprised not to find her in the training grounds as well.”

Sylvain did follow. “Right.”

“You and Felix are welcome to stay here in the monastery. We have an empty guest room in the professors’ area on the second floor,” they explained, gesturing to the relevant hallway as they passed it.

“Do you have two?” Sylvain asked, self-sacrificially.

Byleth’s eyes widened just a fraction. “Do you need two?” they asked, and boy if that didn’t sting. But they didn’t press further.

They parted at the dining hall, Byleth waving shortly, Sylvain flexing his most convincing grin and hoping Mercedes was somewhere around for the emotional healing that was even better than her physical kind. Instead, for the second time that day, someone with a high-pitched voice called his name from a level much lower than his own head.

“Sylvain!” came what honestly sounded like a squeak, and he suddenly remembered the names on the list Mercedes had rattled off to him earlier.

“Bernadetta!” he said, grinning when he caught sight of her by the entrance to the dining hall nearest the officers’ academy, waving to her and pleased to see her shyly return the gesture. “On your way to dinner?”

“Uh huh,” she responded, nodding with some force as he came close enough to talk comfortably. “Wanna join me?”

“A beauty like you? This is my lucky day,” Sylvain said, no heat, just to watch her blush and squeal.

“You’re just the same!” she said, stomping her foot before she whirled around to march into the dining hall. Sylvain grinned after her and followed.

They sat across from each other at the end of a long and largely empty table, some sort of fish fry dished out between them. It smelled great, or maybe nostalgic, and Sylvain didn’t want to consider too deeply which so instead he dug in.

“So, what are you doing these days, Bernadetta?” he asked, and was happy to see that she didn’t even flinch at his voice, instead smiling up at him over her own plate.

“I’m a teacher! I know, hard to believe, right?” she added, but Sylvain shook his head in disagreement. “I teach archery. Linhardt and Annette help me a lot when I have to give lectures. And the professor is here too most of the time if I really need help!”

“You’re not as nervous as I remember,” Sylvain said, voice and heart equally soft, and Bernadetta blushed.

“I… I feel safe here,” she admitted, looking down at her plate with shyness that was charming rather than limiting. “And I’m actually pretty good at teaching! We mostly practice with targets and hunting now, it’s nice. No more real battles.”

“That is nice,” Sylvain echoed from his conversation with Mercedes earlier in the night. “Does that mean you have more time to work on your writing?”

At that the flush on Bernadetta’s face deepened almost to red. “Um. Well, I… actually…”

“So you have!” Sylvain crowed, finishing a fillet with gusto. “You’d better be thinking of ways I could read it. You know, this trip is long — I really could use something to take my mind off the road.”

“Isn’t, um, Felix with you?” she asked, and Sylvain wondered how the hell Felix had managed to make the rounds of the entire monastery before he’d seen hardly anyone. “Actually, never mind. He still doesn’t seem like he’s much for talking to fill the time.”

“You are correct,” Sylvain said, and it was at that moment that Linhardt dropped into the seat next to Bernadetta, yawning as he did.

“Sylvain, right?” he asked, smiling sleepily and waving a little from across the table. “I’m Linhardt. Remember me?”

“Uh, yeah,” Sylvain said, and Bernadetta giggled. “Hey.”

“Hello,” he responded, with the air of that being the only attention he would pay Sylvain, and underscored that impression by turning to face Bernadetta in his seat. Sylvain watched in amusement, tackling his fish without contributing much, as the two professors sorted out their next weeks of lessons. Both of them had really come a long way from what he remembered, two kids who needed coaxing just to make it out of their rooms during the day. They were smart and considerate of their students, receptive to each others’ ideas, clearly competent in what they taught. Sylvain smiled in silence.

Just when he was thinking he’d have to go to the training ground himself to rescue his mercenary, Felix fell into the spot next to him — almost literally. He looked exhausted, but his eyes were on fire, lit from within.

“They can still crush you, huh?” Sylvain asked, low enough to not interrupt the conversation across from them, and Felix nodded, digging in hungrily to his food.

“Felix!” Bernadetta squealed. “You’re back. You remember Linhardt, right?”

Felix gave Linhardt a measured look. “No,” he said, more brusque than Sylvain maybe would have ideally liked, but Linhardt seemed unruffled, and in fact yawned behind his hand.

“Where’s Annette?” he asked instead, casting his gaze around the dining hall for her.

“She said she had an early lecture tomorrow,” Felix answered. “She went back with Byleth.”

“First name basis, wow,” Sylvain teased. “It must have been a good fight.”

“Huh,” Linhardt said, as Felix nodded in confirmation. “Well, I suppose I ought to get some rest too.”

“You’re not eating?” Sylvain asked.

“Oh, he never eats at normal times,” Bernadetta piped up. “You know Linhardt!”

Sylvain didn’t really, but he did remember him keeping odd hours in the library so he supposed it wasn’t out of the realm of likelihood. He waved as Linhardt made his way slowly out of his seat and away from the dining hall.

“So, um, I hate to be blunt, but… why are you both here?” asked Bernadetta, cheeks tinting pink.

Felix’s left hand where it rested on the bench next to Sylvain’s thigh clenched into a fist. Sylvain took a chance and dropped his own palm over it, just for a second, just to apply some comforting pressure.

“We’re on our way to Sreng,” he said, easy smile crossing his face. “Claude didn’t want me to die on the road so he sent the best candidate for preventing that to go with me.”

“Oh! What’s in Sreng?” she asked, voice bright. Sylvain thought he remembered Bernadetta being very interested in foreign lands for someone who could accurately be described as a recluse. “I remember going there a few times with the professor but we didn’t spend much time looking around.”

Felix’s fist pressed into Sylvain’s thigh, willing him to keep fielding the questions. To underscore this he took another bite of his dinner, which was rapidly disappearing. “Heh, they did like to scout weird metal up there, I remember,” Sylvain said. “Nothing so exciting as that this time. I grew up near there, so Claude and my father thought it might make sense to send me to start talks with the Srengi people about opening their border with Fodlan.”

“Wow, your father?” Bernadetta repeated quietly. “I figured you’d do what I did and just… leave your house after the war.”

Sylvain had thought about that possibility, certainly. Every day of this trip he’d been wondering how much easier it might be to get himself lost in the woods, come out on the other side somewhere he’d never been, and start everything over again where no one had any expectations for him. But there was Felix to think about, and his duty to his friends, and really Claude was right — it was time to make peace in Sreng, to end the forever war Faerghus had them locked into. He boiled this all down to Bernadetta the simplest way he could, with a wink: “Hey, there’s still time.”

She smiled uncertainly but left it at that with a regretful announcement that her lecture started around the same time as Annette’s and she should be making her way to bed too. “Will you be here tomorrow?” she asked, stepping around the table to stand behind them both.

“For a bit,” Sylvain answered, rising too. “We have to get some of this great food to keep us pressing on.”

“Well then,” she said, bending down a little and planting a surprising peck on Felix’s cheek, “it was nice seeing you! You too Sylvain,” she added, and it was his turn to stoop to her flushing face. “Uh. Bye!”

When Bernadetta had scurried out of the dining hall, and only then, Felix’s hand brushed against his cheek where her kiss had landed. What a softie.

Sylvain sat back down next to him, watching him eat with a weirdly soothing rhythm. It was oddly relieving to be next to him again, like it had been when they were fighting, even though the chance of something bad happening at the monastery was minimal. The way Felix jostled his shoulder against Sylvain’s, shooting a glance at him from under his training-mussed bangs, indicated that maybe he was feeling the same way.

“So, how’s Annette?” Sylvain asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral, but he felt Felix’s cadence falter all the same. He braced himself for a snapped reply.

“She sang the whole time Byleth and I were sparring,” Felix murmured after a moment. “It was like being back on the battlefield again.” He speared the last of his dinner on his fork but didn’t raise it to his mouth. “I missed her.”

“We’re getting soft under all this peace, Felix,” Sylvain said, deciding on the spot to offer some openness of his own while he could in the face of Felix’s vulnerability. “I thought I might cry just seeing Mercedes again.”

“You love her,” Felix said, decisively, taking his last bite and swallowing.

“Duh,” Sylvain replied, following Felix to drop off their used dishes in the back where an unfortunate group of students were elbow deep in wash buckets. Sylvain grinned at them apologetically, their answering looks of despair almost making him chuckle. He’d always hated dish duty too, and had done more than his fair share of it if Hilda had given him those wide-eyed looks of helplessness he was so weak to.

Felix followed him upstairs, letting Sylvain guide them the way he had when they were kids. “Byleth asked me something earlier after our fight,” he said suddenly, as they made their way down one of a few branching hallways, the way the professor had gestured toward earlier in the evening. Sylvain paused, turned to face Felix, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “They asked if I liked being a mercenary.”

“That was nice of them,” Sylvain said, rather mindlessly, just to have something to say. He thought Felix had more he wanted to discuss on the matter but didn’t want him to feel he wasn’t listening.

“I suppose,” he replied. “In any case, I realized I had never thought about it before. Whether I liked it or not. It seems like a waste of time even now considering it’s just a job, but I’m still thinking about it.”

“Have you figured it out?” asked Sylvain.

Felix was silent for a moment. Torches burned around them, catching notably on the metallic labeling plates on the guest rooms toward the end of the hallway they stood in. “I don’t especially enjoy being a mercenary,” he said slowly, “but I don’t think it matters. The things I do enjoy are out of reach now.”

“What do you enjoy, Felix?” Sylvain prodded, gently, softly. He was leaning toward Felix, gravitationally pulled as always to look at him.

“I enjoy listening to Annette sing,” he said, voice so quiet Sylvain had to bend further to hear him. “I enjoy sparring with Byleth, trying to beat them, knowing there’s always a chance I could — slim as it might be. Don’t let it go to your head but… I’m enjoying this stupid trip with you.”

“Those things don’t have to be over,” Sylvain said. “You don’t have to keep running away from everything, Felix.”

“Is that so?” His voice sharpened. “Tell me, Sylvain, what would you have me do instead?”

Sylvain stared down at him for a moment. Felix was angry maybe but more than anything he was hurt and he was vulnerable. He had made himself vulnerable to Sylvain. He had to think very carefully about what he said next, or risk doing incomprehensible damage between them. So Sylvain did what he always did — he understood Felix, he knew him, and he acted accordingly. Which is to say that he didn’t think at all before he spoke. “It’s a long ride to Sreng,” he said. “We can figure it out on the way.”

Felix’s answering look was measured, but he didn’t snap or run so Sylvain must not have completely put his foot in it. “It is a long ride,” he said. “A lot can happen.”

“Including, hopefully, some sleep for both of us. You should thank me, I asked their majesty for two rooms so you could get a break from all my snoring.” Sylvain winked to punctuate his statement.

“And bed hogging,” Felix added, sending a frisson down Sylvain’s spine at the implicit assumption that they would be in the same bed as long as they were in the same room. Old habits died hard, so he’d heard. “Some bodyguard I’ll be, away from you at your most vulnerable.”

“Surely a warrior as disciplined and skilled as you are can look after me from a door or two away,” Sylvain said, grinning. “Plus I’m not completely helpless. Just because Claude thought I couldn’t cut it out in the wild doesn’t mean I’ll be easy prey in a heavily guarded monastery.”

“Let’s hope, since you’re so desperate to escape me,” Felix said, and there was something odd about his voice and his face in the candlelight, even aside from the strangeness in the words themselves. Like he was hurt, like he was trying to hide it.

“Not at all,” Sylvain said, scrambling mentally to catch up to whatever was going on in Felix’s head. “Just figured you’d like a break from your oldest and most irritating friend.”

“I suppose it can’t hurt,” Felix replied, but Sylvain still heard something edge into his tone that indicated maybe it could. “Good night, Sylvain.”

“Hey, Felix,” he said, catching him around the wrist to turn him back towards him, just for a moment, still trying desperately beneath the ever-present casual exterior to force himself to actually think about what he would say before he said it. “I’m enjoying this too. They say it’s about the journey, not the destination, but I really mean that. I’m not looking forward to this being over.”

Felix studied Sylvain briefly in the torchlight, his eye contact more frank than usual, and Sylvain felt oddly shy under it. “Sleep in my room,” he ordered, brusquely. “I’ll feel better knowing I’m earning my coin.”

“Your wish, my command,” Sylvain said, grinning down at Felix in the giddy afterglow of saying the right thing, braver now that his sunset eyes were focused huffily on the floor instead of seeing through him. “I’ll even sing to you if you want, although I’m not nearly as good as Annette.”

“If you even think about it I will run you through myself, gold be damned,” Felix snapped.

“It’s good to have you back, Felix,” Sylvain said, and the night passed peacefully in their beds on either side of the room.

Chapter Text

The stop they made in Charon was brief, and bittersweet in every sense of the word. They hadn’t planned on stopping at all — Felix had suggested, actually suggested, not demanded, they continue straight through to Galatea and rest and restock there instead, and Sylvain had agreed, eager to see Ingrid and shocked at Felix’s diplomacy. There was, also, the memory of Annette stopping her lecture to run out to the gate of Garreg Mach to tearfully wave them off, which was making Sylvain feel quite content to go along with… well, anything really. But as they passed down the main street, such as it was, of a town off the beaten path, Sylvain caught a flash of unusual hair down a side street, disappearing into a doorway.

Felix’s hand was on his arm before Sylvain could turn to him, and when he did turn Felix had already dismounted. It had been her then, Felix’s quicker eyes and keener sight catching more confirming details. He grabbed the reins for Felix’s horse, guiding both their mounts to the mouth of the alley and binding them to a post, disregarding the hollering of a shop owner who was quieted quickly enough with a little gold. Sylvain followed Felix’s disappearing form, down the cobbled pathway and into the door that had closed behind him — the door to an apothecary. The clinic was small, one room that was cluttered enough with medicinal paraphernalia to make Sylvain feel like he ought to stand very still. Felix was just steps further into the chaos from Sylvain, eyes on the curtain of white hair they had both seen in the street, where its owner was in conversation with an elderly man.

“Lysithea?” Sylvain asked, scared it might not be her, scared of what that possibility might even mean, but the woman whirled around, one hand already shimmering with gathered magic. It luckily dissipated when she recognized who stood there, and she smiled weakly.

“Don’t scare me like that,” she said, and the old man behind her nodded in agreement. “Wait for me outside, you’re crowding me in here.”

Sylvain nodded, tugging Felix by the elbow to follow him, and they made their way into the alley slowly. They were silent for a moment, Felix leaning against the wall of the apothecary, arms folded, Sylvain in the middle of the alley glancing vaguely toward where their horses were tied.

“She didn’t look…” Felix broke the spell between them but didn’t finish his sentence, instead bracing himself differently against the wall, like it could support him in the face of what he had seen.

“Yeah,” Sylvain agreed, hand clenching emptily around where his lance had hung so many times, side by side with either of the people he’d seen that day. “Yeah, Felix.”

“She—” he started, but the door opened and Lysithea reappeared, looking staid and carrying a pouch.

“What on earth are you two doing here?” she asked, and the naturalness with which she reached out to hug Felix, the simplicity of expecting a gesture most people couldn’t from him, made Sylvain’s heart lurch in his chest.

“We’re on a long walk,” Sylvain said, easily gathering her in his arms in his turn and feeling with another pang how light, how transparent she felt. He held her just a little tighter before letting go. “Just like old times, running errands for Claude.”

“Still causing trouble,” she said fondly, shaking her head. “Typical Claude. Are you staying in Charon?”

“No,” Felix said. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m sure that dulcet tone really brings back old memories,” Sylvain said, addressing Lysithea directly, but she didn’t seem to mind at all.

“I’m visiting Catherine,” she explained. “She’s here on an errand for Lady Rhea, wherever she is. Which, incidentally, is the only thing I think would bring her back to Faerghus after all this time. While I was staying with Lorenz and Marianne they were informed she’d be nearby, so I decided to meet her while I was closer.”

“We just saw the Gloucesters a few days ago,” Sylvain said. “What were you doing in their neck of the woods?”

This was the wrong question to ask, or maybe Lysithea knew she had the wrong answer to it, because something shuttered behind her eyes and Sylvain felt rather than saw Felix tense up against the wall he still leaned on.

“I’m not alone much these days,” she said, and the smile she gave to accent her words was tight and sad. The moment passed as she inhaled sharply and solidly changed the subject. “So where are you walking to?”

“We’re riding,” Felix said, voice surprisingly taut, “to Sreng. Sylvain has business there.”

Lysithea’s mouth dropped open. “Sylvain? Applying himself?”

“Hey, maybe you rubbed off on me a little bit,” he said, bumping her just a touch with his elbow, and Lysithea chuckled.

“Well, what kind of business? Skirt-chasing like the old days?” she asked, and this again was a wrong question, but Sylvain was a little better at hiding himself, so he only felt one of the two stiffen, again.

“Not quite, although you’re not far off.” Sylvain decided to address later what his rubric was for who he was completely honest with about his journey and who he was more reserved around, but for the moment he simply plowed forward. “Claude, my father and I have cooked up a scheme. I’m going to Sreng to forge a political alliance in hopes of opening the borders.”

He sounded too formal and strange about it, he knew the second he spoke, but Lysithea’s reaction still seemed a little disproportionate as she glared at him, hard. “That is ridiculous,” she said. Sylvain looked to Felix for support but all he got was Felix looking at Lysithea with something approaching a fond smile on his face. It was too nice a picture for Sylvain to be upset at the outcome. “There are at least a dozen other ways to accomplish the same thing. Don’t you remember how miserable you used to be, thinking about how the only thing in your future was an arranged marriage? And you,” she continued, rounding on Felix, leaving Sylvain shaken in her wake, the smallest tornado in Fodlan, “I don’t know what on earth you’re doing going along with this, but I’m disappointed.”

“I’m just getting paid,” muttered Felix, which marked the third wrong thing in this conversation, which had started so promisingly.

“You’re what?” Lysithea asked.

“Getting paid,” Felix repeated.

“Felix is a mercenary these days,” Sylvain explained further, when nothing was forthcoming from the quieter of the three of them. “I ran into him in a guild in Derdriu when Claude insisted I not make the trip alone.”

“So you’re telling me,” Lysithea said, her voice slow and deadly and fiery, like a poison that might turn you into a vampire after killing every cell in your body on the way, “that Felix, you ran away from everything, from all of us, to be a mercenary. And Sylvain, you still managed to find him, because that’s how you two idiots are, magnetized across time and space. And after all that, after a year apart and seeing each other and being together and again, I don’t know, actually being around someone you know for a while day in and day out, you are still going to Sreng to foist yourself on some stranger? And Felix, I guess you’ll just — what, run away again? You’re getting good at it, but not good enough to last,” she finished, pointing at Sylvain.

There was a silence that felt full of sound inside Sylvain’s head, and he had a feeling from the desperate look Felix was sending him that it was the same against the wall of the apothecary. “You’re… maybe not wrong, Lysithea. Shocker,” Sylvain said. “But I don’t have a choice. Claude needs—”

“Claude needs to be a good ruler and figure out a way to do this without hurting more people,” Lysithea said firmly, as if it were that simple.

“I said I would do it, Claude didn’t come up with the idea. He only went along with it,” Sylvain countered.

“Then you’re both fools,” Lysithea said, again straightforward, and Sylvain had to admit that under her glare he did feel foolish. “Felix,” she added, looking again at the person who, while a great physical bodyguard, Sylvain had to assume, had so far let Sylvain take the brunt of the emotionally incisive beatdowns on the trip, “do you have anything to say for yourself?”

“What’s wrong with running?” he asked, arms folded, defensive and, Sylvain thought, maybe a little scared.

Lysithea’s expression didn’t soften to that, an act of superhuman determination in Sylvain’s estimation. “If all of us could run from our problems, we would,” she snapped. “Don’t you think you owe it to the world you helped create to set it an example worth following?”

If anything still existed outside of this conversation, Sylvain didn’t know it anymore. It felt like the earth was moving under his feet, like things were coming into new focus. This time he looked to Felix for the answer and did not find him wanting.

“You’re right,” Felix muttered. “I’ll start by seeing this through.”

“That’s a start,” Lysithea said, firmly. “Now I’m sorry to cut this short, but I’m sure you have more ground to cover today and I have to get back to Catherine. I’m going to try baking a new kind of cake with an herb I found that only grows here!”

“That sounds delicious,” Sylvain said, diplomatically he thought, and very calmly considering Lysithea had just torn his scalp off. “I definitely don’t want to keep you.”

Lysithea stretched an arm toward each of them, watching with that peculiar knowingness she always had as Felix and Sylvain exchanged a look over her head before embracing her, one from each side, practically enveloping her at her small stature. “I wish I didn’t have to be so hard on you two,” she said, squeezing them each around the waist before releasing them, stepping back and leaving them half-pressed together where she had been. “Whatever is waiting in Sreng, take care of each other on your way there. And don’t waste any more time.”

“Always so wise,” Sylvain said, waving to her as she retreated back down the side street, elbow bumping Felix’s arm as he did. Felix waved too, just once, and when she was gone they stood there, close to each other, for a long time. Sylvain dropped his arm around Felix’s shoulders when they couldn’t see her anymore, half leaning on him and half knowing he would need to lean back, and he did, arms folded, elbow hitting the spot between Sylvain’s ribs that felt molded for his bony joint to slot into.

“Huh,” Sylvain said after a moment. “I feel like a worm on a causeway.”

Felix nodded. Without another word, they went back to their horses and rode for Galatea.

Chapter Text

Seeing Ingrid was always like seeing her for the first time in years. She hugged too tightly, her eyes shone too brightly, and Sylvain always felt reciprocally too intensely about it, squeezing her until she was breathless with laughter, dropping a kiss on her forehead and each of her cheeks, drowning in the tersely fond smile Felix gave the whole scene playing out in front of him. It felt heart-swellingly good to be with both of them again, it felt as right as it could be these days, and as Ingrid led them into the Galatea keep, petting their horses’ noses each by turn and smiling uncontrollably, Sylvain noticed that her land looked more bountiful than he remembered, people gathering grain and vegetables from dark, tilled earth. Of course Ingrid would be concerned more than anything with feeding her territory. He grinned fondly at her, unable to control it, and she wrinkled her nose at him in return.

“It’s so good to see you both,” Ingrid said when they were settled in front of a fire, wholly unnecessary in Sylvain’s opinion, but the other two had always been quicker to feel the cold so he didn’t complain. “I heard you were back in Gautier recently, Sylvain, but I didn’t have a chance to come see you.”

“It was a pretty quick stop,” he replied. “You know I don’t love being up there long.”

Ingrid nodded, wordless understanding passing between them. There was a lot of complaining they could do about their fathers any day, but with Felix with them it felt a little insensitive. Not that he’d mind, in all probability.

Speaking of, Felix piped up independently for maybe the first time on the entire expedition. “Guess where I’m taking Sylvain.”

“Guess?” repeated Ingrid, surprised but smiling at Felix. “Well, I’m thinking you didn’t just come here to see me. Though I wouldn’t mind if you did.”

“No,” Felix said, brusque as ever. If Sylvain had jumped in he could have handled it a little more dexterously, but Felix didn’t leave him the room. “We’re going to Sreng, to find him a wife.”

Sylvain had known Felix a long time. They had grown up together, gone to school together, fought an entire war together. They’d hurt each other and helped each other and always had each others’ backs. He felt a lot of complicated things about Felix, none of which were helpful on a long ride toward a semi-arranged marriage, and sometimes, like when Felix propped his chin on Sylvain’s shoulder to look over their map with him, or when he stretched his bedding out close enough to Sylvain’s to touch him when they made camp for the night, studiously not saying anything about it, daring Sylvain to make him clarify his intentions, he wondered if Felix felt anything complicated for him in return. But here, sitting in front of a fire only half as hot as the anger and shock in Ingrid’s glare, reflecting on the long history of their friendship, the one thing Sylvain couldn’t find in their past was anything he had done that was awful enough to deserve Felix tossing him so completely and carelessly to the wolves.

“You’re what?” Sylvain was scared, more so than usual when he was subject to Ingrid’s wrath, because her voice was quiet — a rarity when she was angry or disappointed.

“Well, that wasn’t how I pictured this conversation going,” Sylvain said, offering a glare to Felix, who was doing his best to avoid eye contact with each of them while simultaneously taking the whole scene in. It wasn’t really working for him. Or maybe Sylvain was just feeling less generous than usual. “I hired Felix to help me get to Sreng in one piece, both of which were motivated by Claude. Who has a message he wanted me to deliver to you, incidentally.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Ingrid said, voice still quiet, the way a predator is when its prey is in reach. “Explain what Felix said.”

“Okay. I should have a pre-written template I read this damn spiel off of,” he sighed, accepting that this was just one more in the string of psychological blows Felix was distinctly not helping him avoid. “So, my father sent me to Claude with a letter that I, for once, didn’t read and re-seal on the road. The proposal was that I go to Sreng and form a political alliance there that could lead to opening the borders between us and them. Claude didn’t seem interested in the marriage part especially but you know how he feels about — what did he say that one time… ‘scaling the walls between us’. Anyway, I said I would do it.” Sylvain punctuated this with a shrug, as if it meant nothing that he was pinning his entire future on a person he didn’t know, a possibility that was far from a sure thing, a self he could barely imagine existing. “I found Felix in the mercenary guild Claude sent me to for hired muscle, of which he is laced with by the way, and here we are.”

Ingrid sat, unresponsive to his attempt at a joke or a cry for help, staring at Sylvain for a moment with a cold fire in her green eyes. Felix was a blur on the edge of his vision, barely part of the equation except as an underlying source of tension. Sylvain would have to cover with him later what the fuck he had been thinking, saying it like that. Not like Sylvain would have lied to Ingrid but he would have been judicious about it. When she did speak, her voice had passed anger and mostly disappointment, instead sounding sad, and Sylvain’s insides twisted with her words. “So, you’re going along with an arranged marriage.”

A punch to his impacted gut, delivered with precision. “Ingrid, it’s not like that,” Sylvain said, in a tone that could be described as pleading. “I made the decision to go along with it, my father just had the idea. I still have a choice.”

“Yeah?” Ingrid asked. “And if this hadn’t come up, you would have chosen to fuck off to Sreng and marry the first set of open legs you found there?”

“Okay, gross,” Felix interjected. The other two disregarded him.

“Geez, Ingrid, tell us how you really feel,” Sylvain snapped.

“How I really feel is that this sounds like a damn arranged marriage no matter how you try to rationalize it,” she said, temper flaring. “I really can’t believe you, Sylvain. After all the times my father tried to marry me off, after you saw how terrible it felt to be a bargaining chip in someone else’s game, after the struggle we all went through to reshape our own lives with Claude… you’re still doing this?”

“I’ve heard that before on this trip but it never stung quite this much,” Sylvain muttered. “I’ll give you that.”

“Maybe the sting will penetrate that thick head of yours,” she said, and the knock she gave his skull felt mostly fond. “I’m sorry to be so… dramatic about it. But I feel strongly about this, Sylvain.”

Felix stood from his chair and left the room, off to who knew where, obviously not needed for this part of the conversation. “Don’t go far,” Ingrid called, not looking away from Sylvain. “You’re next.”

A hmmph drifted back to them from beyond the doorway.

“Sylvain,” she said again, and her voice was softer this time, velvet over steel, “have you ever thought about what you would choose? Really?”

Sylvain gave the concept a moment to settle with him. Picturing his future when he was younger had mainly been a miserable exercise, nothing to look forward to but endless fighting in the frigid north with a nation of rightfully embittered subjugates, a lucky at best union with someone uninterested in him as a person, the gradual dissipation of his individuality into component monolithic ideals of chivalry to be passed down as idols until he was completely lost to time. Then he’d met Claude, someone completely on the outside of Fodlan’s traumatic past, someone who could see and help others see a new way of living, and while things didn’t go rosy overnight it at least didn’t feel like he was fighting to die, to dip out on a life with no hope and no promise. Where Claude had gone, Sylvain had followed, and now on the other side of the war and the reunification and the constant nagging feeling of there being nothing left after the battles were done it felt worth it. Sylvain could at least imagine a future where he might be happy, even if he couldn’t let himself have it. He could tell Ingrid though. “I think I’d choose to do a lot of things differently,” he said. “Maybe I’d try harder to help Dimitri, maybe I’d fight harder against what my father thinks he wants for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have let everything go after the last battles.”

“Everything?” Ingrid repeated. “Or everyone?”

“Both, I guess,” he concluded. “Things were better when we were all together. For the most part. Even though there was a war going on, it felt like we were working toward something, helping each other. I don’t miss the fighting but I do miss everything else.”

“Everything?” she said again, and Sylvain rolled his eyes at her. “Or everyone? Come on, Sylvain, let yourself actually want something for once.”

“Something, or someone?” he sneered, but she just looked at him, measured and staid. Ingrid was impossible to ruffle when she wasn’t in the mood to be. Sylvain sat in silence for a moment with her, letting his thoughts travel, and somehow they wandered to something he’d half-forgotten. “I heard you gave Felix a hand a little while ago.”

“Oh,” Ingrid said, flushing and breaking eye contact for the first time since they had started this conversation. “You heard about that after all. Yes, I did. Felix asked me not to tell you… I’m sorry.”

“Water under the bridge,” Sylvain replied, waving airily, just happy to be somewhere approaching the upper hand. “Sounds like it was a pretty dicey thing for a minute.”

Ingrid studied him for a moment, brow furrowed. “I’m not sure what Felix told you, but I think he was closer to death than that. He… he called me Dimitri for two full days before the fever broke a bit. It was not easy. Galatea’s healers are nothing compared to what we were used to in the war, with so many resources and so much talent… he was lucky to survive.”

Sylvain frowned. Ingrid had been right, Felix hadn’t made it sound that serious when he’d recounted the story on the road from Derdriu. “If there’s anything Felix knows how to do, it’s survive. But I’m sure he owes you a lot.”

“I’d do anything for him, you know this.” Ingrid smiled a little. “Either of you, no matter how hard you make my life.”

Sylvain’s heart swelled, and he grinned back at her. “And you know I’ve got your back,” he replied, and she nodded. Then he let his face school back to seriousness. “Listen, Ingrid, I know what I’m doing seems stupid. And the more conversations I have with people who also think it’s stupid, I’m starting to think it’s stupid too. But I do want to feel that way again, like I’m doing something that means anything, like I’m working toward something.”

“You could work toward your own happiness,” Ingrid said simply. “That could mean something.” But she didn’t push it farther, rising from her seat in front of the fire and stretching to her full length. “All right, your lecture is over. I’m going to find Felix — I’m guessing he’s still spoiling for a fight the way he always was in school, hmm?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Sylvain said, “though I’m sure he is. This trip has been a little dull, all things considered, for an elite mercenary like him.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Ingrid said, smiling once more before she disappeared through the doorway Felix had gone through moments before.

Sylvain had a lot of time that afternoon to think about what Ingrid had said; Felix was never one to shorten a sparring session. Think about it he did. Sylvain sat by Ingrid’s fire until he was hot enough to take off the heavier shirt he used as outerwear and thought about times he had been happy. There wasn’t a shortage of them to look back on, despite everything that had gone on for him. Thinking of his childhood, even with the oppressive shadow of Miklan looming in most of his memories, there were bright spots of eating meat skewers at festivals with Ingrid, sitting with Dimitri while Glenn read them whatever stories they could find, seeing Felix for the first time after he’d pulled himself out of the well and realizing that there were some people who felt things for him, good or bad, outside of the existence of his Crest.

At the academy, in some ways, things had been overall better; Miklan’s death was troubling, to say the least, but from another angle it had freed Sylvain from the horrifying weight he’d been writhing under for so long, and he’d been with his closest childhood friends, and he’d met new people and tried new things and heard new ideas. Sharing smuggled alcohol with Mercedes in the empty cathedral the night of the Garreg Mach ball, laughing until they could barely breathe; stable duty with Ingrid for weeks at a time when their professor started to notice that the horses were always happier after they were there; Bernadetta making him wear Ignatz’ glasses while he read her latest work, half admiring her writing, half watching her blush; hundreds of hours of sparring with Felix, watching the confident liquid lines of his body blur through the air, feeling all kinds of things that even as an adult he was still unpacking but cast his days at the academy in a dreamy haze.

And he’d needed all that through the war. There weren’t many good times to think back on from those years, mostly just muted moments of human connection — his rare visits to Fraldarius and Galatea during the five years they all spent scrambling under Edelgard, helping Claude with the Alliance infighting; holding Felix after they got the news of Dimitri’s death; locking eyes with Felix across the battlefield after Nemesis fell, and again after the Agarthans…

Okay, so there might have been a pattern, some repeating elements in the history of Sylvain feeling anything but latently suicidal and otherwise completely hopeless, beaten down physically by his own family or his opponents on the battlefield and in all other ways by the expectations, real or imagined, he was laboring under. Maybe there was a reason that even as everyone around him discouraged him from his current path, the devastating culmination at the end of the road, Sylvain couldn’t think seriously about the unknown at the finish line because who he was running alongside was so distracting, so engrossing, so tied to so many positive things in a lifetime with more than enough terrible things to counterbalance that nevertheless failed in the face of… this.

Sylvain groaned, face in his hands, sweat on the back of his neck from the gradually building heat of the fire he’d been sitting next to for who knew how long. What an unhelpful realization to come to on a quest to find himself a political partnership, to do a favor to the king and his family and, from all the conversations he’d had along the way, to absolutely no one else. It was Felix, it had always been fucking Felix, and as usual Ingrid had been the one to talk sense into him. At least he was alone for the moment. He had time to put his face back on before he saw Ingrid and Felix again, sweating and shouting at each other over who in fact had won their match. Dinner together after the three of them bathed was equally lively, good wine and the simple meats and vegetables Ingrid was so fond of, Sylvain trying to force Felix to eat anything that didn’t come directly from an animal, Felix laughing out loud when Ingrid defeated Sylvain in an ill-advised drinking contest, Felix and Ingrid collapsing onto a couch afterwards with Sylvain on the floor between them, arms folded on the cushions and chin propped on top. All three of their heads were almost touching, still half-breathless from laughter.

“It’s so good to be together again,” Ingrid said, tilting her head back to smile up at Felix, then to the side to catch Sylvain. “It feels like it’s been so long since the three of us were like this.”

Sylvain nodded, chin pressing deeper and shallower into his forearms as he did. “Not since before the Agarthans,” he said, “and that was — what, a year ago? Almost?”

“I’m losing track,” Ingrid said. “It’s strange, that was such a turning point, for us and for like… the world at large, but it’s slipping in my mind. Like it was just in the past and it doesn’t matter much beyond that.”

“I remember,” Felix said. Ingrid and Sylvain both turned bodily to look at him, and if Ingrid looked half as surprised as Sylvain felt he was sure his own eyes had to be the size of dinner plates. “What?”

“Nothing,” Sylvain said, as Ingrid said, “I just… didn’t think you cared.”

Wrong answer, Sylvain could have told her that, but Felix in another surprising act bit back what was surely a much ruder response in favor of, “It was an important day. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. It finally felt like you could be free.”

“Felix,” Ingrid said, voice soft, and the hand she reached up to touch his head was batted away with a huff so Sylvain knew some alien parasite hadn’t taken over Felix’s body. There was pink scattered across his cheeks, clearly a sign of how difficult it had been to express such a sincere feeling. The fond smile on Ingrid’s face didn’t fade at all as Sylvain stretched his own hand to rest against Felix’s bicep. He was not rewarded with a swat, but Felix did fold his arms huffily and maybe, maybe, Sylvain felt him flex under his fingers.

“All right, enough blathering,” Felix said, but all this led to was a change in direction of their blathering, to catching up and reminiscing and staying up irresponsibly late into the night, falling asleep right where they sat.

Chapter Text

Saying goodbye to Ingrid was always like leaving for a trip to the market, a quick kiss on the cheek and a wave and an exchanged “See you later!” like you’d be back in an hour or two. This time wasn’t much different, except Sylvain thought she squeezed them a little tighter in one arm each, heads pressed all together for the last time in a while.

“Take care of yourselves!” she called to their backs, the only hint that they wouldn’t see her again later in the day, and Sylvain blew another kiss over his shoulder, while Felix graciously waved exactly once.

It was almost immediately once they were properly out of sight of Galatea and the safety of Ingrid’s steadying presence that Sylvain realized that the rest of this journey was going to be infinitely more difficult than the beginning. Being alone with Felix had been confusing before but simple enough to handle, just a vague attraction he couldn’t act on, a distraction on the expedition to Sreng and a few annoyingly vague goals, but now it was like there was nothing else Sylvain could think about but the light reflecting on Felix’s dark hair, the shine of his amber eyes, the sharpness of his gaze to go with the cutting edges of his long and elegant features. Had Felix always looked this good? Or was there just a new cast to Sylvain’s gaze, a new lens over his eyes, that brought him suddenly into focus? He was like a stream flowing in front of Sylvain after days in the desert, a plate of hot and spicy stew after a long cold march, everything he wanted and couldn’t quite have to slake the hunger rising in him that he’d been fending off with meager scraps of nameless and faceless people, in Derdriu, in Gautier, in Fhirdiad, wherever he went. And Sylvain had to keep walking down a path that led to twin swords: Felix’s departure, maybe out of his life forever when this contract was up, and a marriage to an unfortunate victim of his father’s scheming. Margrave Gautier had never seemed this clever before Sylvain had become a seemingly unmarriageable war hero — maybe he looked up to Claude’s style more than Sylvain had expected.

“I’m surprised you haven’t started shouting at me yet,” Felix said, breaking what Sylvain now realized had been a stretch of silence between them.

“Huh?” he asked, intelligently.

“About telling Ingrid,” Felix explained. “I thought you’d still be furious.”

“Was I furious?” asked Sylvain.

“The way you looked at me…” Felix trailed off, shaking his head. “I haven’t seen you look like that ever outside of a battlefield.”

“Maybe so,” Sylvain agreed. “I guess I just wondered what on earth I had done to make you do something like that to me. Like, obviously I wasn’t going to lie to her about it but there was a better way to lay it out. You know how she feels about that kind of stuff.”

“I guess I did it because I know that,” Felix said, his tone surprisingly thoughtful. “I thought maybe she could talk some sense into you, and I could go do some real work.”

“Sorry this is boring you,” Sylvain said, trying not to let his anger for Ingrid rise too high. Using her like that felt profoundly unfair, though he was sure she would have wheedled the full story out of Sylvain one way or another, and he would have gotten the lecture no matter what. “Maybe we should ride a bit faster.”

“And tire the horses?” Felix huffed. “Besides, like I said before I don’t hate the part in between Derdriu and Sreng. It’s just either end that’s unpleasant. And,” he added, as an afterthought, “I guess it has been a while since I had a chance to swing my sword.”

He got his chance later that night, as it happened, and Sylvain was glad of it. They had ridden long that day and had finally stopped to tiredly make camp, Sylvain pitching a tent against the starless skies above them, Felix stacking kindling in a loose prism in optimistic promise of warmth. It was because in the moment he was so hyperaware of Felix, just enjoying being in his presence while he did something with easy skill, that Sylvain noticed immediately when he stilled.

“Sylvain,” he said, voice low and warning, hand going to his sword, and Sylvain reached wordlessly for his lance where it lay with his saddle and other gear. Their horses stirred uneasily and he tried to project calm for their benefit, but whenever Felix was on the alert he couldn’t help but feel the same.

The bushes to their left parted and Sylvain flashed back suddenly to countless days battling similar foes at the academy — a giant wolf. It was said that Edelgard had defeated a beast like this all on her own back then, but Edelgard was dead now and Byleth had always preferred to have their students fight beasts as a group, backed by battalions, and Sylvain suddenly, irrationally, felt scared.

He needn’t have. Felix called “Go left!”, dodging nimbly around a swipe of the wolf’s claws and cutting upwards with his sword into the tough meat of the beast’s back leg. Sylvain took off under cover of the animal’s answering roar of pain to drive his lance between its ribs where they stretched as it turned to face Felix, freeing another distressed cry and a lot of blood. Felix wrenched his blade from the flesh it had sunk into, grinning at Sylvain, a just like old times glint in his eye that made Sylvain wish that they were in a quieter setting where he could fully appreciate that look. Instead, he pulled his lance back and took aim, waiting patiently for a breath for the wolf to look his way, and drove the point into its eye. He felt a sharp sting of pain where he suspected he’d misjudged the armorless crook of his elbow and let one of the beast’s teeth pierce him as its head stilled and fell, lifeless. No matter, the threat was eliminated, and Felix was cleaning his sword with that grin still on his face, directed at the ground now, and Sylvain tugged his lance back and only winced a little.

“You’re bleeding,” Felix had sheathed his sword and now was looking pointedly at Sylvain’s arm. When he too looked down at it, the bottom half of his sleeve was stained red, but the wound itself didn’t look bad.

“So I am,” he said. “Good thing I had you along with me for that one, I’m slower than I used to be.”

“No you’re not,” Felix said, stepping forward and pulling a knife from his belt. He took hold of the sleeve on Sylvain’s injured arm and cut it neatly off above the elbow, presenting the fabric to him. “Put pressure on it with this for the moment. I heard a stream nearby earlier, I’m going to get water.”

Sylvain nodded, obeying, trying to discern as he sat in the door flap of their half-pitched tent why he felt so unsettled. Fighting beasts was nothing new, not even after the war — wild animals could still pose a threat to their territories, Crest stones or no. By the time Felix returned, he thought he had it figured out.

“Hold out your arm,” Felix commanded, and Sylvain complied agreeably, letting Felix wipe down the blood and the wound with water that he had a feeling was riskier for infection than just leaving it alone, but he thought he might rather die or lose the arm than have Felix stop touching him, pressing soft and capable circles into him to sweep away the blood that had already dried, one of his hands holding Sylvain’s to keep his limb steady. And again Sylvain had the luxury of just watching Felix, admiring him, as he tied the cut portion of his sleeve over the now much cleaner puncture.

“There,” Felix said. “Now try not to take any more damage or you won’t be able to find anyone respectable to marry when we get to Sreng. You’ll only attract weaklings.”

“Or maybe they’ll think I’m the weakling and I can snag someone who’ll protect me,” Sylvain said, and then because he had no sense of self-preservation and had lost a little blood, he continued, “You know. A real Felix type.”

Felix’s head snapped up sharply, locking their eyes in the darkness for a moment. “Enough nonsense,” he snapped, dropping Sylvain’s hand where he still had been holding it, which was not a turn of events Sylvain enjoyed. He glanced around then, glare still residually on his face. “We should find somewhere else to go tonight, shelter if we can find it. That wolf died loudly and the smell of blood could draw scavengers or worse.”

Sylvain thought back to his restlessness earlier and decided to just toss the idea out there anyway. Felix was right, they’d only be in more danger if they stayed. “I think we’re not far from somewhere that’s sure to have space,” he offered, and Felix looked at him again, this time with an eyebrow raised.

“Oh?” he asked, stooping to start gathering his bags, and Sylvain did the same, packing up the tent after. His horse did not look well pleased to be saddled again. “I thought we were fairly in the middle of nowhere.”

“We are,” Sylvain said, and offered nothing else as he mounted and rode, leading Felix behind him toward a location he thought he might never be able to forget.

Felix recognized it too, after a while, as they drew closer to where a break in the trees would reveal it. Sylvain could tell he knew because he pulled his horse up next to Sylvain, leaned over so he didn’t have to speak loudly as he said, “We don’t have to do this.”

“Between Miklan and, say, Dorothea, who do you think I miss more?” Sylvain asked, trying for lightness but hitting closer to clipped. “But I’ve been back to Enbarr since then. It’s fine.”

It wasn’t fine, but it was necessary, and Sylvain knew it as they pushed through the half-rotted door of the still-abandoned Conand Tower, leaving their horses tied in the entryway out of the threat of rain. Felix went back to the business of building a fire, using the kindling he’d already gathered and brought with him, and Sylvain spread their bedrolls out near enough to be warm. The tent felt unnecessary for a moment, until he stretched out on his back and could look up the winding stairs and see the landing where they’d stood a decade ago, knowing at the top of the tower was his brother, about to become a monster of another kind. He put the tent up. Felix didn’t say anything, just struck a match and blew at it until it was burning.

“Hungry?” he asked when Sylvain crawled out of the tent, bedrolls both stowed inside. Sylvain shook his head. “All right. I’m going to hunt anyway.”

“Be quick,” Sylvain said, half command and half beg, which he didn’t like to think about. But Felix nodded anyway and Sylvain set himself to keeping the fire burning.

Felix wasn’t long, true to his unspoken word, and he’d brought two rabbits despite Sylvain’s also unspoken word. He looked unhurt, which Sylvain was somewhat surprised to find himself noticing. The encounter with the wolf had rattled him more than he thought, or maybe just the ghosts of where they were sitting. His brother’s body was buried, unmarked and rotting to bones, somewhere nearby. It was strange to think about. Felix turned his makeshift spit slowly and they sat in silence.

“You should eat even if you’re not hungry,” he said when the smell of rabbit was almost unbearably heavy in the air, snapping the spit neatly in half to make skewers. Sylvain took the one he was handed, obediently biting down on the tough and not totally pleasant meat. At least it was hot. He could hear the rain the skies had promised earlier beating down on the roof of the tower, but the upper floor’s increased enclosure was doing a good job of catching any leaks the dilapidated structure might have had. Felix was chewing and looking at Sylvain with unusual focus, like he was a stretched rope that could snap at any moment.

“I’m fine,” he said aloud, and Felix jumped a little, turning down toward his rabbit, looking a little guilty. “I’ll be fine.”

“If you say,” Felix replied. “Have you been here since?”

“No,” Sylvain said. “But I’m fine.”

“The more you insist on that, the less I believe it’s true,” Felix offered, an unusually perceptive interpersonal observation from him.

Sylvain looked at him, really looked, Felix who had come back essentially from the dead and been compelled to flow back into the current of Sylvain’s life and despite all that, despite being back in the grip of everything he had left behind, willing and wanting, was watching Sylvain’s back, keeping him fed, asking after him in his own way. And in the face of all that what could Sylvain be but honest?

“It’s hard being back here.” He took another bite of rabbit to break eye contact, to run away just a little. “I know it’s stupid. Miklan was terrible, I know. I just… now more than ever I wish he could have lived. Maybe in Claude’s world he would have had a shot.”

Felix let the words wash over him, pulling the last of his meat from the skewer and tossing the bare stick into the fire. “I can’t pretend to understand how you feel,” he said after a while, long enough that Sylvain had time to wonder if he had made a mistake. “But here’s what I know. Plenty of people have suffered like Miklan and haven’t done what he did. What do you think would have happened if we left him alive? He would have kept coming, kept drawing you out, just like when you were kids. Trying to kill you. And your father would have kept allowing it to happen, pitting you against each other until you finally proved yourself in his tiny mind.” Felix took a breath. Sylvain was reeling. “I’m glad Miklan is dead. And I’m glad you’re alive.”

“Geez, Felix, you know how to make a guy feel special,” Sylvain said shakily.

“Like you need a bigger ego,” Felix replied.

There was another pause while Sylvain finished his rabbit and tossed his skewer into the flames. It sounded like their horses were already sleeping. Sylvain stared at the fire, trying to hypnotize himself to a quiet mind, picturing himself walking across an empty expanse of frozen lake, alone on the horizon on all sides, no brother, no Crest, no Sreng, nothing. It worked all right, knees bent, arms crossed over them, head resting against the muscle and bone there, eyes open and unseeing. He wasn’t sure how long he’d sat there in silence before he felt Felix’s weight next to him, then the space of a breath, then his head on Sylvain’s shoulder. It was easy enough to tilt his own to press them together, to picture Felix next to him on the lake, no father, no brother, no contract. Nothing to run away from.

“Let’s go to bed,” Felix said. And they did, and Felix didn’t say anything about the unnecessary setup of the tent, letting the fire die and the rain fall outside, and if Sylvain reached for Felix when the nightmare hit, clutching at anything that might pull him back from the familiar edge he’d teetered on the last time they’d been in this tower, Felix didn’t say anything about that either.

Chapter Text

A much less upsetting few days of riding brought them, scruffy and in need of a bath, to Fhirdiad. The gates were open, a sign of collaboration under Claude and Byleth’s joined rule, the last vestiges of turmoil in Faerghus put down for the most part. Though the city was no longer the throne of a king, no longer even much of a territory seat with the Blaiddyd line depleted, it bustled with a new kind of energy, merchants from all over, travelers who had come to Fodlan after the borders cracked open to see what it was like and settled there for good. Sylvain couldn’t help but let a grin pass over his face, waving at some of the guards on the wall as they entered the city, and Felix’s answering hmmph was hopefully not loud enough for them to hear from their lofty station.

“First things first, we both need a shave,” Sylvain said, feeling his own bristly jaw and chucking Felix under his chin, and his hmmph was louder this time, accompanied by a ferocious jerk of the head. “Luckily I did a little recon last time I was here and I think I have a place for us to stay. No money or anything. Not suspicious.”

“The way you’re describing it already sounds suspicious,” Felix said. Sylvain chuckled but didn’t answer, following his memory before he could follow his nose.

“Dedue?” Felix asked, when they were close enough to smell the air, and Sylvain looked over just in time to catch a completely disarming little smile on his face. It was a delicious smell. “Hmm.”

Sylvain nodded. “But not just Dedue,” he added, trying for mysterious but mainly just hitting excited. It really had been a while since he’d been to Fhirdiad.

The restaurant had a hitching post outside that they tied their horses to, Sylvain petting his on the nose a few times before heading inside. It wasn’t his horse but he was getting quite fond of the beast. One of these long soundless stretches of road he had to remember to start the conversation with Felix about what to name it. He was sure Felix would huff at him, say how stupid it was to give a name to an animal that he would be leaving at the end of their journey, how idiotic it was to name animals in general, and by the end of the discussion Sylvain would have chosen some arbitrary phrase Felix had said to be the name. And Felix would huff again about it, but by the conclusion of the trip he would have commissioned some fancy sword with the name engraved on it. It was with this charming thought bringing a smile to his face that Sylvain stepped through the door and immediately caught sight of a tall head of pale hair.

“Dedue!” he called, and Dedue swiveled at the waist, cooking implement in hand waving to Sylvain, a very tiny smile stretching his lips before he turned back to the pan he had on the fire.

“Sylvain!” called another voice, a smaller grey head bobbing in and out of the crowd in the restaurant toward him. “Hello!”

“Ashe, buddy, what’s up?” Sylvain called, reaching an arm out to grab him from between two patrons and squeeze him to his side. Ashe hugged him around the middle, pressing in tight for a moment before tilting his chin against Sylvain’s chest to look up at him.

“You will not believe who just walked in here,” he said, lips quirking up, and Sylvain chuckled and ruffled his hair, cuffing the back of his head before stepping toward where Dedue was cooking, tugging Ashe happily along where his arms were still wrapped around his waist.

“What’s a guy have to do to get some of whatever smells so good in here?” he called, and the side of Dedue’s face he could see cracked that same little smile again. “What about two guys? Hey, where did Felix even go?”

Ashe pointed with one arm toward a table in the center of the room where Felix was looking tremendously grouchy and uncomfortable, and as soon as he noted his position Sylvain grabbed Ashe’s wrist and pressed his arm back around him. Goddess he’d missed the little scamp, who laughed and squeezed tighter.

“I’m working, you know!” Ashe said, wriggling playfully in Sylvain’s grip as he pulled him bodily toward where Felix was sitting, dodging between patrons at other tables, which would have been hard enough with just one person to manage but required serious dexterity to handle with two.

“Can’t your boss let you take a break to see a couple old friends? What a hard ass,” Sylvain said cheerily, dropping himself into the chair across from Felix and dropping Ashe into his lap, respectively. Ashe flushed a little and wriggled again, worming his arms out from around Sylvain’s waist to settle one around his shoulders instead. Felix, who had been watching the display rather dispassionately, now looked rather annoyed.

“Do you have to be such a pig?” he asked.

Sylvain shrugged. “You know, once Dedue gets a second to himself you and Ashe are going to have to switch spots.” He winked. “I’m sure he’ll want to sit with his husband.”

“Husband?” choked Felix, eyes going wide, completely ignoring the other part of Sylvain’s point. Bummer.

Ashe nodded, flushing deeper, hiding his face in Sylvain’s shoulder shyly. “Yes, well, once we opened this place we… realized a few things. Like we didn’t want to wait anymore.”

“No invite to the wedding, huh?” Sylvain teased.

“It was uh… private,” Ashe explained, looking apologetically up at Sylvain. “Can I get down now?”

“It’s not my fault you put us at a two-seat table,” Sylvain said, but he did loosen the arm around Ashe’s waist. “Felix, looks like your turn is up.”

“Can’t Ashe just sit with me instead?” Felix asked, pink tipping over his cheeks. Ashe looked at Sylvain, who shook his head, and then looked to Felix and shook his own head. Felix only had time to glare at Sylvain before he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Generous with your space as ever, Sylvain,” Dedue said from above him, and Sylvain flashed a smile at him. “However, I must ask for Ashe back. I cannot handle the dinner crowd on my own. You may have him back when we clear out in a little while.”

“All yours,” Sylvain said, and the smile on Ashe’s face as he hopped up, looking up at Dedue, sent a beam of sunshine directly into Sylvain’s heart. The two disappeared into the crowd before their heads popped up again in the kitchen area. Sylvain turned back to Felix. “Offer still stands,” he said, patting his thighs.

“Hmmph,” Felix said, and didn’t relax his frown until the restaurant had cleared, leaving them with Ashe, Dedue, and no one else Sylvain could see.

While Felix pouted, Sylvain had watched the clientele, pleasantly surprised at the variety of people. The incredible smell of whatever Ashe and Dedue were serving felt like it could, in fairness, draw people from literally all over whatever constituted Fodlan now. The atmosphere was louder than Sylvain would have imagined anywhere Dedue wanted to be, but he and Ashe seemed to thrive, working in tandem, interacting with both people they seemed to know and people who seemed new to them. Everyone looked welcome and warm, happy and comfortable. And when Dedue and Ashe pulled two more chairs up to their table, dropping bowls of stew and tankards of something smooth and strong Sylvain didn’t recognize in front of them, Sylvain could imagine why. He practically had to hold back a moan at the first bite, spicy and wonderful and hot. Felix hummed as it hit his tongue.

“So,” Ashe said after they’d sufficiently praised the food, “I hope you don’t mind me asking what brings you here. Not that we’re not happy to see you!” Dedue nodded.

“Well,” said Sylvain, when Felix showed no sign of helping, as usual, “we’re sort of… on a mission.”

“Mission?” Dedue repeated.

“Yeah,” Sylvain said, nodding. It was really quite difficult to talk when what he wanted to do more than anything was nothing but eat the stew in front of him. “Claude has a new wall to smash.”

“He’s inspiring,” Ashe said, smiling. “Well, if you’re up this way it must be Sreng!”

“He’s cute and smart,” Sylvain said, winking at Dedue, and Ashe went pink under his freckles. Dedue smiled softly. “Yep, Felix and I are on our way to Sreng.”

“And will you two settle down there after your mission?” Ashe asked.

“Uh,” Sylvain said, choking down the sip of… whatever he had in his cup.

“One of us will,” Felix said dryly.

“Only one?” Dedue asked.

“And why not?” Felix snapped.

“Chill out, Felix,” Sylvain said, coughing his throat clear. “So. Claude and my father are sending me up there to potentially find a spouse in Sreng. You know, if that will help grease the wheels of diplomacy.”

“Will that really help?” Ashe asked doubtfully, and Sylvain tried not to be insulted.

“You are very diplomatic,” Dedue said. “I am sure you could work with them to achieve your goals.”

“But do you have to get married?” Ashe asked, eyes wide. “It’s just…”

“I know, hard to imagine anyone wanting all this mess,” Sylvain said, sweeping an encompassing gesture down his body. “I think it might work in my favor honestly, if they don’t know what they’re getting into maybe I can get peace talks going before they realize what they’ve done.”

Halfway through his sentence, Sylvain felt a hand on his leg, right above his knee, and what would usually be pleasant and maybe even a little saucy was inevitably painfully tight, blunted nails digging in, because it was Felix’s hand. Felix on his right, another moment of self-control like all those days ago in Gloucester, and Sylvain set his mind whirring to uncover the element of commonality.

“Sylvain,” Dedue said, disapproving. A small frown crossed his face.

“Don’t say things like that,” Ashe said, looking more sad than anything else.

Felix wasn’t looking at him, instead looking angrily off into the middle distance, left hand clenched against Sylvain’s thigh, right hand resolutely stirring the half bowl of food he had remaining. Sylvain was looking at him though, looking maybe a second too long, looking at his sloping brows and his amber eyes and his bristling scattered stubble and trying to put the strange pieces together into the puzzle he thought he’d solved a long time ago. Then he realized Ashe and Dedue had both spoken to him and turned back to the conversation.

“It’s fine,” he said inadequately, waving his hand in a gesture of dismissal. “You two seem busy and happy,” he continued, flipping the mirror of conversation around.

“Oh, yes,” Ashe said, smiling up at Dedue with those big green eyes. “Dedue is an incredible chef. People from all over Fodlan come to eat his food while they’re here, it’s amazing.”

“Ashe has talent as well,” Dedue said, and Ashe flushed and beamed and all kinds of good things.

Dedue praised like Felix, Sylvain thought, honest and unvaulted and to the point. Sylvain wondered if he would look like Ashe did, happy and content and well-loved, if Felix were to praise him like that. First he supposed he’d have to do something worth praising. Maybe his superior tolerance for death grips on his thigh could be what tipped Felix over the edge.

“We work well together,” Ashe offered.

“I didn’t know you were married,” Felix said, and with his sentence he also released his hold. Sylvain missed it immediately and smiled a little bigger to cover it up. “I suppose you’d have to work well together for that to happen.”

“I suppose so, Felix,” Ashe agreed.

“Which came first, business or pleasure?” Sylvain asked, laying his most lascivious wink against Dedue’s impenetrably dignified gaze.

He, predictably, did not react as expected, which is to say he didn’t really react at all. “Business,” Dedue said evenly. “Although everything I do with Ashe amounts to some sort of pleasure.”

“Dedue!” called Ashe and Sylvain simultaneously, Ashe flustered, Sylvain cheeky, but Dedue just gazed calmly between them. He’d finished eating on Felix’s right and was holding Ashe’s free hand on the table, which was equal parts adorable and maddening. Sylvain thought about grabbing Felix’s, just to tease the besotted freaks across from them, but then remembered that just because Felix could touch him without asking or clearing it first, not like touching a rat in a trap, didn’t mean it went the other way around. So he didn’t, though maybe his fingers twitched a little.

“You do seem happy,” Felix offered, three-quarters of the way through the drink Dedue had said he remembered being popular in Duscur. It was begrudging but that didn’t make it less sweet of him to say it.

“Well, when things go as swimmingly as they have for Dedue and I since we found each other again, you don’t let that go,” Ashe said, a peek at his old earnestness.

Dedue nodded. “It was… difficult after His Highness’ death,” he said, and Ashe squeezed his hand sympathetically. “I’m sure you both understand. Being with Ashe has helped. Carrying on my family and Dimitri in my food the way I have helped too.”

“Having someone who really understands you is wonderful,” Ashe said. “In the kitchen Dedue and I don’t even need to speak most of the time! We just know what to do.”

Sylvain turned that idea over in his mind for a moment, self-indulgently, taking a sip to cover himself. He thought about times in his life when he’d felt understood, deeply and implicitly, and as he flipped through his mental journal it was looking much the same as his reflections at Ingrid’s. Slowly, at the table in Ashe and Dedue’s restaurant, Sylvain’s eyes turned to Felix and found his dropping away, shy, but he had been looking. “I know what you mean,” Sylvain said, keeping his gaze trained on Felix, trying to be brave. “It’s not as idyllic but it feels that way when Felix and I are fighting, you know? Like we really get each other.”

“It’s less peaceful than cooking, but it feels right for you two,” Ashe said, smiling.

“You’re ridiculous,” Felix said, but Sylvain knew he was flushing because he hadn’t looked away, maybe couldn’t look away, from his face. He had been strong enough to speak but no stronger.

“Felix, what will you do after you deliver Sylvain to Sreng?” asked Dedue.

“Like I’m a package?” Sylvain asked. “Although you could certainly say I am the full package.”

“Stop that,” Felix snapped. “The emotional whiplash.” He turned to Dedue, leaving a very surprised Sylvain in his wake. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, selling my sword.”

“Have you been a mercenary all this time?” Ashe asked. “Since Nemesis?”

Felix nodded. He’d clearly said his piece, and drained the last of his drink. His bowl was long empty, and while this would usually be the part of a meal that spun easily into reminiscing and telling old stories, Sylvain felt keenly that there might be too much pain between them to look back in time. What did they have in common beyond a war and a dead friend they had all abandoned when he had the most need of them? Sylvain had left early, Ashe in the middle, Felix and Dedue late. If Ashe hadn’t caught up with Dedue after their fight with Edelgard, tended his wounds and reminded him of what was left in the wake of royal death, he might not have left at all.

“Well, as you can probably imagine, Felix and I are in desperate need of a mirror to guide our blades,” Sylvain said, shaking himself out of his thoughts and rubbing a hand across his chin. “Do you have one? And a bed or two might be nice as well.”

“We have one of each to spare,” Dedue said, and that wasn’t ideal but Sylvain didn’t have a backup plan this late in the evening. Fhirdiad was livelier than it used to be, sure, but it was no Derdriu — most inns were shuttered for the night at this point. Ashe tugged on Felix’s sleeve as they all rose from the table, and the two of them stayed behind talking in low voices as Dedue led Sylvain up a set of stairs to a cozy apartment that was clearly where he and Ashe made their home.

“You will stay in Fhirdiad for a while, I hope,” Dedue said, and strangely Sylvain felt like it wouldn’t be so bad to prolong their trip for a few days in the town they had spent so much time in growing up. He nodded.

“I hope so. Gotta get the boss’ approval first though,” he said, jerking his head toward where Felix and Ashe were, presumably, still talking.

“You are the boss, so to speak, are you not?” Dedue asked, voice completely even as always.

“Felix seems to think so,” Sylvain agreed. “Really it’s just my coin. In my mind it just feels like two friends traveling together.”

“That is what it looks like to me as well,” Dedue said. “I am happy Felix has found his way back to you.”

“I’m just happy he found anyone,” Sylvain said aloud to keep from following Dedue’s sentence all the way down whatever fantastical path he was sure his mind could come up with. “Well, see you tomorrow? I’ll make Felix see the light on breaking here for a few days.”

Dedue nodded. “You may shave if you so desire in this room,” he said, indicating a door to the left, “and you and Felix may use this bedroom however makes sense to you. If I may,” he added suddenly, maybe to preempt Sylvain’s quirking brow, “I would not shave just yet. It suits you.”

“Dedue,” Sylvain stammered, usual cheeky response swallowed by an unusual feeling that might have been close to embarrassment. Dedue just smiled his tiny, secretive grin and waved as he disappeared down the hallway into what must have been his and Ashe’s room.

The water in the washroom was warm, and while as Dedue had recommended Sylvain didn’t shave, he did take his time washing the grime of travel from himself as best he could, grabbing a set of underclothes he’d washed in Galatea which was, unfortunately, what passed for clean to sleep in. Felix could complain all he liked but Sylvain needed to face reality and save his more modest outerwear for when anyone who cared might see him. He was hoping Dedue and Ashe might find it in their hearts to lend them a sink and a washtub in the morning to make a dent in the slowly solidifying layers of dust piling up on everything.

Sylvain was already surveying the bedroom Ashe and Dedue had spared for them by the time Felix wandered in, smelling good enough that Sylvain assumed they had done things in the same order. Sadly, it looked like Felix had taken advantage of the polished metal hanging over the basin to rid himself of the stubble he’d been growing during their time between outposts of civilization.

“You still look scruffy,” Felix said by way of greeting, and when Sylvain turned to face him fully he noted a little pink across the high lines of Felix’s cheekbones. Unknown source, but nice to look at.

Sylvain rubbed his jaw in mock thought. “Hmm, I wonder if I feel as scruffy as I look.”

“Let’s find out,” Felix said, and then he was turning toward Sylvain, fast enough to almost send him jumping back but too fast to actually allow for that, palms raising to press against each side of Sylvain’s jaw.

It was a little embarrassing how quickly Sylvain felt his face heat up under Felix’s fingers, but not that embarrassing because Felix’s face was reddening too where he still wasn’t meeting Sylvain’s eyes. He rubbed his palms, childishly, against the red scrub on Sylvain’s face. “You’re bristly,” he said, accusingly, and Sylvain preemptively caught Felix’s hands against his skin before he could pull away. “Why did you leave it?”

“Uh,” he began, sharp intelligence showing through as ever, he hoped, “Dedue said I looked handsome like this.”

“Hmmph,” Felix said by way of a reply. “Well, he’s right.”

“Felix,” Sylvain said shakily, and if he’d felt shy with Dedue earlier he was completely disarmed in the face of Felix, “we already have to share the bed tonight, you don’t have to flatter me.”

“Enough of that, Sylvain,” Felix said. Sylvain realized it had been a while since Felix had said his name. It sounded nice on his tongue, even sharply as he said it now. “I’m tired of you acting like it’s impossible that anyone could—” He bit his lip suddenly, and the twin urges to hear the rest of his sentence and to take that lip between his own teeth rose abruptly and entwined like a pair of snakes inside Sylvain. He swallowed, hard. “Could care about you. Genuinely.”

“Felix,” Sylvain began, humiliatingly breathy, but Felix cut him off.

“Let me say my piece,” he said, and compliantly Sylvain obeyed. “If you haven’t noticed, almost every person we’ve spoken to on this fool’s errand has tried to talk you out of tossing your future away like a set of dice, no backup plan, no concern for your own satisfaction. If they haven’t spoken to you, they’ve asked me to talk sense into you. And you know,” he added, “I wish I could.”

Sylvain looked at him, hard, for a moment. Felix was glaring at the ground, as was his wont, and Sreng was so far away and Sylvain was so weak but the tide rising inside him was so strong. Felix didn’t even know that someone had already talked sense into him, it just needed time to permeate. “What would you say?” he asked. “To get me to see reason. What would you say?”

Felix groaned, tossing his head back in a way that exposed his throat enough for Sylvain to notice. His hands were still clasped to Sylvain’s face, under Sylvain’s fingers. “Here’s what I would say,” Felix said. “I would say you should have listened to every other person we’ve encountered on this stupid waste of your money and my time.”

“What if I need to hear you say it?” Sylvain asked, softly and in a rush, before he could talk himself out of it.

Felix shot him a look, studying him, angry and in pain and all kinds of things Sylvain didn’t like to see written on his face. “You’ll have to wait longer,” he said finally. “Long enough that it might be too late.”

Sylvain scoffed, he couldn’t help it. “Is that because you’re scared too?” he asked. “Are we both just dancing around this because neither of us know the first thing about seeking our own happiness?”

Felix stared at him, longer than usual, long enough that Sylvain felt his eyes might burn holes straight through him. Then, without another word, he pulled away from Sylvain’s face, climbing into Dedue and Ashe’s bed, scooting back to lean against the wall, and jerked his head at Sylvain, a beckoning, a reckoning. Sylvain followed, perching cross-legged across from Felix, who looked determinedly at the ceiling. Light from buildings outside poured in through the uncurtained window. “When we get to Sreng,” he said, “we’ll both have to make a call. But before that I have a responsibility to Claude, not to sabotage his dream.”

“His dream to make peace and destroy the walls between us,” Sylvain countered, gently. “My father’s dream is to know my Crest is passed down, to get me out of his hair and married off to someone sufficiently eligible.”

“And what of you?” Felix asked. “Do you even know what your dream is?”

“Do you?” Sylvain echoed.

“I thought I did,” Felix said. “I wanted to go on swinging my sword until it dulled, then sharpen it and swing it again. I wanted to make enough to live and no more. Even after everything that happened with my old group, with Ingrid… maybe I didn’t want that anymore but I didn’t have anything else to fill in, so I chased it still. Blood and death and fighting.” He paused. Sylvain reached out, hesitantly, to overlap his fingers with the hand that rested palm-down on the mattress. Felix didn’t pull back. “Now, with you, it feels like there’s another way. I’ve never wanted to go back to my territory and be a duke, the thought alone makes me sick and no one wants me as their lord either way. Glenn and my father are too fresh in the people’s minds. My uncle is too competent. But like this, traveling with you… we both have skills. We don’t have to go back. We wouldn’t need to kill for our coin.”

“You’d want a half-wit like me around?” Sylvain asked, trying and failing to pass it off as a joke. Felix winced.

“You may do foolish things sometimes, even now,” he said, “but you’re no fool.”

“You’ll make me blush,” Sylvain said, swallowing around the lump in his throat.

“So?” Felix asked. With what Sylvain knew was monumental bravery, he twisted his hand against Sylvain’s so they were palm to palm, fingers intertwined. “What do you want?”

Sylvain thought for a moment. “You know how when you’re a kid you want the wildest things? Like to be a king or a champion knight or a famous songstress.” Felix nodded. “I never had any of those ideas. I thought I’d be dead long before I could see any of those things come to pass. And then when Miklan was out of the picture I had this… void. I didn’t have any ambitions, any goals, but suddenly what I did have was an entire life ahead of me. So I just figured I’d make my goal to get through it. I had my promise to keep to you, I had my friends to protect. So through the war my drive was to fight like I wanted to die, but keep on living anyway. And then, the war was over and I had achieved that goal. I was still around. But now there wasn’t anything left to throw myself at. So then I thought I would just find someone to share the life I had somehow held onto with me. That was my dream.” He paused. “It was hard. I jumped at the chance to go to Sreng because I thought it might be my last option. Because I thought you were gone.”

“But I’m not gone,” Felix spoke plainly. “So what now?”

“Now it’s like you said,” Sylvain replied. “When we get to Sreng we’ll both have a choice to make.”

“I chose to run once,” Felix said. He was still looking at the ceiling, but his hand was warm in Sylvain’s. “Aren’t you scared I’ll do it again?”

Sylvain didn’t answer. Instead he held on to Felix’s hand as he stretched out next to him on the mattress, and kept holding on until he lost consciousness.

Chapter Text

They passed through Fraldarius territory mostly without incident and mostly without stopping. Sylvain had waited for Felix to make the call on whether they stopped at his family home, to see his uncle or stock up on supplies, and Felix delivered as expected.

“Fhirdiad was quite enough familiar faces for my liking,” he said, trying to pretend like he wasn’t stroking his horse’s neck. Sylvain didn’t acknowledge it but he did see it.

It was on the road through Fraldarius, with the goal of stopping in Itha, that Sylvain decided to broach the subject of names for the horses. He’d watched Felix’s face grow more and more tense and drawn as they progressed into the territory, purposefully opting to take the forested paths instead of the main roads where they might be recognized and guided right to the Duke they were choosing to avoid, and as always when Felix seemed down Sylvain made it his mission to change the course.

“So, I’ve been thinking,” he began, just to break the silence between them. The sky filtering through the tree branches above them was overcast, and Sylvain was a little tired of spending his mental energy praying to nothing that the clouds wouldn’t drop rain or snow on them. Felix was sensitive to the cold, a fact that his vaguely tense posture atop his horse played constant reminder of for Sylvain.

“Dangerous pastime,” Felix quipped.

“Don’t worry, nothing serious.” Sylvain did nothing to try to camouflage the chuckle that bubbled up, inevitable, in the face of an actual joke from Felix. He thought he might have been rewarded by Felix’s cheek dimpling just a shadow, bent by a bitten down grin, but he couldn’t be sure. “I’m trying to decide what to call this horse.”

Any smile wiped from Felix’s face in favor of an eye roll, overly dramatic in Sylvain’s opinion. “This isn’t even your horse,” he groaned. “Don’t get attached.”

“We’ll be together a while longer,” argued Sylvain, agreeably. “I don’t think it’s a waste. I’d like to have something to call him in the morning, he’s been a good boy so far.”

“A good boy,” Felix repeated, incredulous. “You really are beyond belief.”

“What’s wrong with being a good boy?” asked Sylvain. “Isn’t your horse a good boy? Aren’t I a good boy?” Another eye roll was the only answer he got. “All right, what if his name is Good Boy?”

“That’s dull,” Felix replied, clipped. “If you’re insisting on giving this animal a name, at least make it interesting.”

“You’re welcome to contribute,” Sylvain offered, grinning over at Felix, feeling that he’d already won enough by getting him to participate in the conversation. “Come on, Felix, there’s nothing else to do.”

“We could keep quiet and make quick enough time to get to Itha today,” Felix countered, but Sylvain shook his head.

“You know that’s not happening, no matter how much you push your poor horse. Who also should have a name, by the way,” Sylvain added. “Why don’t I name yours and you can name mine? You’re getting the better end of the deal, then, mine is a beauty.”

Felix sighed, but Sylvain could see his mind working, stretching over the distance still ahead of them, and at this point in their lifelong friendship he could even pinpoint the exact moment when Felix resigned himself to Sylvain’s point. “All right,” he said, and Sylvain mimed a cheer. “You’re welcome to name your animal but I won’t participate. Name mine as well if you must.”

“Aww, Felix, it’s not fun to do it by myself,” Sylvain whined. “Here, I’ll give you some ideas. Yours could be… Dirt.”

“Dirt?” Felix snapped, and Sylvain was tickled to satisfaction to see a hint of offense taken in his eyes. “What makes that an appropriate name?”

Sylvain shrugged. “Your horse has that brown dappling,” he said. “It looks a bit like dirt. If you don’t like it you could always make another choice.”

“This was your idea,” Felix said, shaking his head. “Pick another, that was a terrible name.”

“All right, boss,” Sylvain said. “What about Mud?”

“This is supposed to inspire me?” Felix asked. “Fine. Then yours could be named Felix.”

“There’s an idea,” Sylvain said. “Because it’s like your hair?”

“So now you decide to use your brain,” Felix said, another graceless eye roll to punctuate. The amber of his irises reflected the pale light of the sky, darkening gradually over them and threatening some sort of unpleasant precipitation more ominously, and Sylvain felt himself staring and trying not to stare with equal measure. By the time Felix’s gaze returned to earth, not staring had won. “You took to that too quickly, I don’t want you calling your horse after me. What about… what was the name of that horse your friend was always talking to at school?”

“My friend,” Sylvain repeated flatly. “The friend we spent an entire day with just earlier on this trip. You remember her name, right?”

“Of course I do,” Felix said, in a way that made Sylvain almost certain that he did not. “Anyway, name it after that horse.”

“Dorte,” Sylvain said.

“Unusual name,” replied Felix.

“No,” Sylvain sighted, “the horse’s name was Dorte. Her name is Marianne. I imagine you were too busy salivating over the Hero of Daphnel to remember.”

It wasn’t especially bright outside, so it was difficult to tell, but Sylvain thought Felix’s cheeks went a little pink. “I don’t know what you mean,” Felix said unconvincingly. “Name it Judith.”

“I won’t have my horse reminding you of your true love,” Sylvain replied, gallantly. “I can’t have you suffering like that. So don’t suggest Sword either.”

“Neither of those matter,” Felix said, then clamped his mouth into one tight line like a battalion against an onslaught.

“So then, what does?” asked Sylvain. “What shouldn’t I name my horse?”

Felix was silent, one brief moment. “You know what not to name it, you damn fool,” he said. “What about Ink?”

Sylvain chuckled. “All these great ideas, Felix,” he said, “and here I thought you didn’t want to be involved at all.”

“Well, you wanted me to help,” Felix said defensively. “I’m just as satisfied sitting it out, especially if you keep rejecting my suggestions.”

“Ink was good,” Sylvain admitted. “I just like something with a little more pizazz.”

“Well, then, something not related to its color?” offered Felix, as if the idea had never occurred to him before, like it was a strange thing to suggest.

“If you like,” Sylvain agreed. “For yours, how about Spicy?”

“What?” Felix asked, voice flat and incredulous. “I’ll bite. Why?”

Sylvain shrugged. “The kind of food you like? It should be named after something pleasant, I think. So you think of him fondly.”

“You are ridiculous,” Felix said, shaking his head despairingly. “I’m tired of this conversation. Spicy it is.”

“Lucky you, that I’m so clever,” Sylvain said. “Any last suggestions for mine?”

“I’ve given you some already,” Felix replied. “Take your pick.”

“All right,” said Sylvain. “Beyond Belief it is.”

Felix frowned. “That wasn’t one of mine,” he said.

“You said it earlier, and I liked the sound of it,” Sylvain explained. “Doesn’t it sound a little like a racehorse? Like they used to have in the Empire?”

Felix didn’t reply, just huffed. They had passed the Fraldarius homestead and despite the chilly dampness still hanging over them the air felt lighter.

It was nearly nightfall of the next day when they reached Itha, and Sylvain was tired enough to offer only one I told you so about the timing of it all. Felix fruitlessly argued that they could absolutely have gotten to town earlier, but the fact was that they didn’t but they were here now and Sylvain was distinctly not in the mood for a fight. What he did want was a hot meal and a warm bed, by his own devices or someone else’s it didn’t really matter, and luckily Itha was replete with inns of varying reputes and warmth. Felix turned down Sylvain’s first two suggestions before settling on a snug-looking place above a tavern. Sylvain didn’t bother asking for separate rooms when he approached the innkeeper, just a space with two beds, and he complied quickly, leading them upstairs to a plain but comfortable enough room with stone walls and a rug on the stone floor against the cold. The rain from the day before had left Sylvain’s bones stiff, so he dropped his bags quickly in favor of the aforementioned meal. Felix looked strangely hesitant but followed Sylvain back down to the tavern space.

It was livelier than he’d thought it had been when they entered the building, people drinking and shouting, a surprising number of beautiful women at the bar. Sylvain found himself mildly disinterested, a fact that might have surprised him in the pre-Galatea days, but maybe to set Felix’s mind more at ease where he sat stiffly at a table Sylvain flirted mechanically with one or two. Casual, low interest, just the smile and wink variety, but at least Felix’s rigidity was transforming into his more familiar irritation by the time Sylvain sat across from him, bearing two plates of the spiciest thing he could find on the menu.

“Back in your element,” Felix said, nodding toward one of the women still casting less than subtle glances Sylvain’s way.

He tore his eyes away from Felix’s face for a moment to grin at her, blow a half-hearted kiss, but his heart was pretty clearly not in it and she knew it, smile fading as she turned to the man sitting next to her and said something in his ear. Sylvain couldn’t really bring himself to care as he refocused on Felix. Right where he wanted to be. “I’m not really feeling it,” he said, shrugging. “Tired from the road, I suppose.”

“Well, I can’t complain if you’re not trying to stir up trouble,” Felix said agreeably, digging in to his food with charming gusto.

“You look like Ingrid over there,” Sylvain said, unable to keep the fondness out of his voice. “I must have made the right choice for dinner.”

“It’s… not bad,” Felix acquiesced around another mouthful, one cheek ballooned like a chipmunk, and that image was enough to keep Sylvain smiling through the entire rest of the meal.

It wasn’t until they got up to stretch and seek sleep that Sylvain noticed something off about Felix’s attitude, the way he was holding his body. He looked around the bar, hoping to see whatever Felix was seeing that was making him tense or anxious or wary, but didn’t notice anything — which, in testament to Claude’s colossal intelligence, was probably why Sylvain had needed a more watchful eye with him on this mission.

“Stick close to me,” Felix said, tipping his head ever so slightly toward a side door out of the tavern. This wasn’t ideal in Sylvain’s opinion — it was warm and comfortable in the bar, and there were beds upstairs, none of which was true about the alley outside — but he followed, obediently near Felix.

Almost as soon as he stepped out the door, shocked a little by the chill air in spite of his Faerghus upbringing, Sylvain felt hands against his chest, shoving him backwards. “You think you can just come onto my wife?” a voice, graveled and sober, cut through the darkness. “Who do you think you are, that Gautier bastard?”

Sylvain turned to face the man, trying to correct quickly from his stumble, and recognized him from the tavern immediately, picturing his face as the woman he’d disappointed with his lack of effort whispered in his ear. The other two that were with him he didn’t recognize, except as trouble. He’d lost Felix in the step or two back he’d taken, and he put up his hands defensively, defusing, in front of himself. But he didn’t have a chance to open his mouth, probably for the best overall, before Felix made his presence very known once again.

It was mesmerizing in a way it hadn’t been since the academy, watching Felix fight. During the war he had walked a line between chivalry and practicality, nothing especially graceful or brutal, doing what needed to be done. In the training grounds at Garreg Mach he had all the time and space in the world to stretch himself out, and Sylvain had thought of him back then as a river, cutting his way through anything in his path. Now, without the trappings of hypothetical knighthood, Felix was another force of nature altogether. He had left his most obvious weapons in their room, so he moved in close, fists and feet and the flash of a knife in the darkness, small enough that Sylvain could think of a dozen places he might have hidden it. There were three men fighting Felix, but they might as well have been fighting the wind. There was no use. Sylvain offered chip damage, an elbow to the jaw, a knee to the small of the back, but Felix was doing the brunt of the work, and he certainly didn’t need the help.

Three living but worse for wear bodies down later, the cyclone of movement stopped immediately, like it had been crushed underfoot, grasped in the iron fist of Felix’s self-control. The man himself was only breathing slightly heavier than normally despite the effective and powerful beatdown he had spent the past few minutes delivering, and as usual but more than ever Sylvain was having trouble looking away.

Felix flicked his bangs out of his eyes with a toss of his head and glared. “What?” he snapped, which only served to pierce whatever shield of self-preservation Sylvain had left to wield.

“Is it wrong to think that was hot?” he blurted, bringing a hand to his own hair in semi-disbelief at the unrequested curl of heat developing inside him.

Felix dropped his gaze almost faster than Sylvain could see it, but even in the relatively dim light of the alleyway he didn’t miss the blush that spread over his cheeks, painting the tops of his ears. “Enough of that, you idiot,” he said, and maybe it was wishful thinking but Sylvain thought Felix didn’t sound quite as angry as he remembered him being back in the day when he flirted a little too much. “It’s your insatiability that put us in this. Consider keeping a lid on it.”

“I see two possible options there,” Sylvain said, struck with sudden courage. The call they had to make was getting nearer and looming larger the more rumpled Claude’s map was getting, the closer the creases where they folded away places they’d already been crept toward the border nearest to the top of the cloth, and Sylvain thought he might know what his choice would have to be. “Either I keep flirting with anyone who has a pulse and you keep defending me over it until one of us dies, which means both of us die, or my purse empties, one or the other. Or,” he continued, shoving his hands into his pockets, taking a tiny step forward that Felix did not reciprocally fall back from, “you can let me save all that flirting for you. No more fighting, no more angry husbands and sisters and kids. Remember that time near Charon where that six-year-old —”

“I remember.” Felix cut him off. He stood in the torchlight, beautiful and dangerous, methodically cleaning the blade of his knife with a rag Sylvain suspected he probably kept hidden on his person for exactly this type of occasion. “I’ve never seen a child that committed to keeping their father single.”

“Every kid helps keep their parent single, whether they know it or not,” Sylvain offered in his infinite wisdom. “Don’t change the subject.”

“You brought it up,” Felix countered, but it was weak and he clearly knew it, because he continued, “I’d prefer you just keep your behavior to yourself. But if those are my only two options, I suppose I’d rather leave Gautier with money and you with teeth still in your skull.”

“You’re so romantic, Felix,” Sylvain chuckled, but something about his tone still left his heart feeling light as a feather. “Want to call this a loss and find somewhere else to camp out for tonight?”

Felix shook his head. “If this is the caliber of foes we’re dealing with, I fear you’ve wasted your money on me,” he stated, firmly. “They’re not coming back, at least not tonight.” He jerked his head again, like he had earlier, but now toward warmth and a bed instead of away from it, and again Sylvain followed, back to the double room the innkeeper had led them to earlier.

“You’re awfully blasé about three guys who were, at the very least, going to beat the shit out of you,” Felix observed as he turned the basic but still reassuring placebo pill of a lock behind them.

Sylvain shrugged. “Guys trying to kill me always turns out much better for me when you’re around,” he said, sitting himself on the edge of the bed closest to the drafty window. “I wasn’t too worried.”

The force of Felix’s tsk was enough to blow Sylvain’s hairline back. “After we find another unfortunate victim for your father’s little plot, I’m not going to be around anymore.” He sat on the other bed, pulling one foot up on top of his other thigh, across from Sylvain. “Take this seriously. It could be your life next time.”

Sylvain thought that one over for a moment, stripping off his boots to stall for time. He and Felix had essentially always known each other, and while they hadn’t been together every minute since they met Felix had always been within his reach, just a note or a ride away. They had climbed every tree in Fhirdiad, trained together at the academy, partnered against the Empire, mourned and vanquished together, obliterated a power that had only before been legend and a seething underground force together. And then Felix had split and for the first time they hadn’t been together, not really, and maybe not by coincidence that part of his life, despite everything Sylvain and his friends had achieved, felt the most directionless and empty. No wonder he’d opted so easily into this doomed mission, and no wonder too he had so easily wanted out of it. “You know,” he said, before he could stop himself, “it just doesn’t matter as much if you’re not in it, Fe.”

It wasn’t like they hadn’t come close to this subject before. They had made that promise all those years ago, a stupid, childish thing that had been weighted down with adult seriousness as Fodlan plunged into war, as the threat of death hung heavier and heavier over them and as they came back to each other, bloody and panting and wounded, time after time, battle after battle. Hell, a dozen times on this long walk alone Sylvain felt that they had tread the line between friendship and whatever else was smoldering between them, never too far but still not far enough. But somehow this time, laying it out there, it was like Sylvain had just tilted the earth on its axis. Felix gaped at him, eyes raised from where his hands had frozen on his own boots, looking for all the world like Sylvain had slapped him across the face, the face that Sylvain was currently mostly just thinking about cupping between his hands like he’d imagined more times in the last weeks than he wanted to admit, leaning down from the height he’d lorded over Felix as a child as soon as he’d hit it. Now it didn’t seem like something worth gloating about, being at just the right height to press his lips to Felix’s forehead, wind his fingers in the hairs at the nape of Felix’s neck, rest his chin on the top of Felix’s pate…

This was getting away from him. Felix was sitting back now, one boot tugged off and dropped to the floor, other foot still encased. “Sylvain,” he said, and his voice was low and surprisingly brittle, “think about what you’re saying.”

“I do. I am,” he said, leaning forward a little, still nowhere near close enough. “Felix, I…”

“Save it for Sreng,” Felix said, and his voice was harsh but his face was soft, looking down at where his fingers pressed to the side of his boot, ready to pull it off and roll over into sleep the way he instantly, enviably, always could. “Someone up there is waiting for you.”

“No one is waiting for me,” Sylvain said, uncharacteristically serious, “least of all you. Least of all myself.”

Felix stared down, hard, like the force of his not-looking at Sylvain could turn the tide of the conversation, change his mind. Like he was hoping he could through sheer will open a hole in reality and vanish through it. “I am waiting,” he said then, quiet enough that Sylvain stopped breathing to make sure he heard. “I’ve been waiting. I’ll wait until we get to Sreng, until we can make the call.”

“Felix…” Sylvain said, close to a breath, like a prayer in a chapel, but the goddess never seemed to hear him and Felix clearly did.

“Enough,” he said, firm but still with that softness on his face that made Sylvain feel wild on the inside, like a fire, like a wolf. “Go to sleep, it’s a straight shot to the border starting in the morning.”

Sylvain nodded, slowly. “Okay,” he said, stretching out on his back, not quite rejected but still tugged along by the string that had always connected them, tied deep down in his ribcage like a broken off arrowhead. “But I have something I need to do on the way.”

Chapter Text

Felix grew more tense the closer they got to Gautier proper, the more people they saw, the colder the air grew around them. Even if they hadn’t already planned to stop for the night, the snow falling consistently on and around them would have necessitated it. Beyond Belief was tired, Sylvain could tell, it leaned in to his every stroke of its neck, reacted to every soothing word spoken in its ear. And Felix hated snow, so even if they weren’t surely headed for a tense moment with the Margrave he might still have been in a bad mood anyway.

“Do you have to do this?” Felix asked, almost the moment they reached the outer limits of the small town that had risen up around the Gautier keep over time, blacksmiths and textile workers and livestock farmers.

“You don’t have to come with,” Sylvain said, although picturing himself unattended with his father made him feel a strange kind of nausea. He grinned, mouth tipping up at the corners, to cover whatever was driving that.

“Hmmph,” Felix snorted. “As if I’d let that fool alone with you.”

“Like father, like son?” asked Sylvain, about ready for his face to crack in two, but Felix glared at him.

“Don’t ever say that,” he said, seriously. “You’re nothing like him.”

“We’ll see,” Sylvain replied. The keep was closing in.

They were both recognized immediately, before they even made it to the front gate, village inhabitants waving and yelling by turns depending on Sylvain’s history with their more attractive family members. Sylvain kept his smile plastered on, shrugging or waving or reaching down for a handshake depending on what he felt they wanted to see, dread and anger roiling to a boil inside of him the closer they came to his house and his father, nothing else waiting for him but the cold and bad memories.

“Do you want me to do it?”

They stood just shy of the front gate, watching the guards work to raise the portcullis that, in typical Gautier fashion, was closed completely unnecessarily. Sylvain had both their horses held by the reins, gripping tighter than he had to, holding himself as much as them in place. Spicy nickered, quiet, tossing its head like Sylvain had seen its rider do once or twice to get his hair out of his eyes.

“Nah,” Sylvain replied, one or a series of long moments later. “It’ll be easier if you’re there.”

“Then I’ll be there,” Felix said, starting toward the bridge. Sylvain caught up, keeping pace, not wanting to lead or follow.

His father didn’t come to greet them, waiting instead to receive his own son and the son of the former most powerful house in the Kingdom in the room where Sylvain had waited dozens of times for the daughters of whatever nobles his father could get his claws into. It was ironic, thinking about it now, how his father could have had everything he ever desired if Sylvain had just opened his eyes a little sooner and realized that some of what he wanted himself was the last remaining scion of one of the wealthiest and most Crested families in Fodlan. Funny how things worked out.

The Margrave looked surprisingly pleased to see Sylvain, all things considered. It had been a while since they’d been together, more than a month going to Derdriu and coming back on their long and winding way, but this wasn’t unusual. If Sylvain wasn’t working with Claude and the professor — er, Ruler of Unification? — he was defending or negotiating at the border, bone lance and bone weary, so his father must have anticipated the direction of their travel.

“Son,” he said by way of greeting, extending a hand that was never warm. “And young Fraldarius. You look… rustic, the both of you.”

“It’s been a long ride,” Sylvain offered, stepping back farther from the miasmic aura of the Margrave. The man smiled a little wolfishly.

“Has it now?” He moved back around the desk he had been sitting in when they entered, a new addition to the receiving room since Sylvain had last waited in it, and resumed his perch, gesturing to them both to sit across from him in the uncomfortable wooden chairs he had graced Gautier’s guests with. “And to what do I owe the pleasure of this joint visit? It’s been an especially long time for you, Mr. Fraldarius.”

“I’ve been busy,” Felix said, curtly and perfectly. Sylvain found himself wishing for that out of the ordinary instinct he’d seen from Felix once or twice in conversation to reach out, to manage his emotion through connection, never something either of them had been good at in the past.

“I see.” The Margrave turned to Sylvain next, like an archer training a bow on his prey. “So, my son, what brings you back to Gautier?”

Sylvain swallowed under the grin, he couldn’t help it, and he thought he saw his father’s eyes flick like a cobra to the bob of his throat, sensing a weak point. “I’m actually only here to drop something off,” he said, clenching one fist where it hung, casual and hidden, behind the leg he propped on the edge of the seat, a barrier between himself and the overwhelming weight of his past where it sat personified in the chair in front of him, where it hung like smog in the air. “I don’t want the Lance with me in Sreng, and what better place to leave it than here?”

His father frowned. “You don’t want the Lance?” he repeated. “The Srengi are prone to violence, you know this.”

“If you antagonize them, sure,” Sylvain replied, “who wouldn’t be? And what could be less warlike than a trade offer from the King of Unification? Plus I have all the muscle I need right here,” he added, riskily, clapping Felix on the shoulder and Felix, goddess bless him, tilted his face toward Sylvain and actually offered him a little smile. Years of hearing secondhand about dealing with Sylvain’s father must have made their mark on his empathy levels.

“Ah, I was wondering why you graced us with your visit,” the Margrave said, voice like poisoned honey. “You always did tag along after Sylvain, did you not?”

“In everything except fighting skill,” Felix replied, which Sylvain intended to accept as a generous and wistful compliment and not as a diss against his lance prowess, which was maybe the thing he was second best at. So, you know, harsh.

His father smiled too but this did not fill Sylvain with the sweet confidence that Felix’s little grin had a moment ago. “I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “So, you think the Lance is safer here than with you, without someone to wield it?”

“You could,” Sylvain offered. “You have a Crest. And in any case I’m sure everyone in Sreng would have their teeth on edge at the sight of that thing based on the history there, which is not the vibe I want to set trying to crack open that border.”

“Knowing the values of that society, it may be to your benefit to display power,” his father said.

“Or, to set a precedent of not being in a forever war, I could leave our hereditary skeleton weapon here,” Sylvain replied, trying with mixed success to temper the edge in his voice.

“An interesting thought,” the Margrave said, sounding the opposite of interested. “If you insist I will keep it here.”

“That would be best,” Sylvain agreed, surprised but in that way he would be if Ingrid surprised him with a birthday gift, not like he would if an arrow caught him in the arm when he didn’t expect it. As if the thought had brought it on, the crook of his elbow where the beast had sunk into him near Conand Tower twinged in pain. “I’ll leave it in the vault. Thank you, we’ll be on our way.”

“So soon?” asked his father, quickly enough that Felix only had time to half rise out of his chair like it was lighting his ass on fire. He didn’t bother to sit back down, which Sylvain appreciated. “I was hoping to confirm your plans for a wife are appropriate.”

“Find one, open borders, Crest babies, got it dad,” Sylvain replied, pushing out of his own chair off the heel resting against the seat. “We’re still far from our destination so we have to take off.”

“Well then, I won’t keep you.” The Margrave didn’t rise to meet them, and something in his eyes was already leaving the conversation. “Ride quickly, and don’t screw this up.”

It wasn’t until they were out of the keep, on their horses and riding north, when Felix took his hand in an unusually tender gesture that Sylvain realized his fingers were shaking, and not just from the cold. “Sorry,” he said, trying to chuckle but mostly just grunting. “Being around him stresses me out.”

“Don’t apologize,” Felix replied. After a moment, he continued, bravely, “I don’t know why you don’t do what I did. Leave your house. Claude doesn’t need us for the ruling part of the job now that Fodlan is united again.”

“Bernadetta said the same thing to me when we were at Garreg Mach.”

“I remember.” Felix looked over at Sylvain, down from his horse’s back. “When we stop for the night, let me take another look at that arm. You’ve been holding it strangely all day.”

“It’s just stiff,” Sylvain replied, waving his other hand dismissively, but he knew Felix would do whatever he wanted regardless of what he said so he didn’t press it.

The snowfall, which grew in intensity as they rode, had them stopping far earlier than they were used to at one of the few outposts between the keep with its surrounding town and the Sreng border. They split at the gate, Felix taking it upon himself to find a place to stay for the night, Sylvain tasked with replenishing their rations one last time for the remainder of the ride, and when they met in the town center, such as it was, each had accomplished their tasks — and then some, by the look of the game bag slung over Felix’s saddle. Felix led them wordlessly to the boardinghouse where he’d managed to score a bed for the both of them, equally silently led him to it and shut the door behind them, and if Sylvain could feel his stomach rumbling for food he said nothing about it in fear of disturbing what peace they had.

Felix dug into the game bag, pulling out first a smaller and slightly cleaner-looking pouch, which he opened to produce what looked like rabbit jerky and some mushrooms. “It’s all I could find,” he explained, passing some to Sylvain, who was certainly hungry enough to eat them regardless of flavor. “Eat while I look at your arm, I had mine on the ride back from the woods.”

“What were you doing in the woods?” Sylvain asked around a mouthful of jerky. Felix rummaged in his bag a moment longer before answering, rising as he did to perch on top of the side table where Sylvain sat, brandishing a handful of something green at him.

“Looking for this,” he said, setting the bundle of what looked like some kind of plant on the wooden surface before reaching for Sylvain’s arm, unbuttoning and rolling up his sleeve to expose his bandaged elbow. “It helps prevent infection. I didn’t have time to find any at Conand, and I wanted to find some tonight before the snow got too heavy.”

“Thanks, Felix,” Sylvain said, inadequately, watching as he tore the plants into pieces, mixing them with water in one hand to make a kind of wet paste. Deftly with his other hand he unwound the gauze where his joint crooked, exposing the wound. It didn’t look good, but it didn’t look bad either, at least to Sylvain’s amateur eye. Felix’s face didn’t change as he inspected it, which Sylvain decided to take as a positive sign. “I wish I could remember more of that Faith stuff Byleth used to teach.”

“Me too,” Felix said softly. His fingers were gentle, surprisingly so, where they rubbed the makeshift salve into Sylvain’s arm. The wound smarted a little, but only just, and some of the stiffness had shaken out over the course of their ride, so by the time he had finished his dinner and Felix was winding another bandage over the broken flesh Sylvain wasn’t really feeling so bad. Even the lingering chill of their encounter with the Margrave was fading, helped along considerably by the warmth of Felix’s palms against his skin.

“So,” Sylvain said as Felix packed his things up, missing the closeness of his body and contact as soon as it was gone, “not that I’m complaining but you’re being awfully nice to me. Everything okay?”

Something passed over Felix’s face for a moment, like regret, but Sylvain couldn’t make heads or tails of it in time before it disappeared, replaced with neutrality. “There’s a couple things,” he said, standing again before settling back on the side table. “I know seeing your father is difficult, so there’s one reason I might want to rein myself in.”

“You don’t have to—” Sylvain began, but Felix spoke again, cutting him off.

“There’s one other thing,” he said, and for no reason Sylvain could divine pink spread across his cheeks, deepening as he continued, looking anywhere but Sylvain’s eyes with his fingers curled like roots over the edge of the wood, knuckles pale. “We’re very close to Sreng now. A night away.”

Sylvain nodded. “We’ve made great time,” he said, “all thanks to the world’s greatest mercenary and cruelest taskmaster, keeping us on track the whole way.”

“Your determination to achieve your father’s goal played an equal part,” Felix replied, softly, and Sylvain winced. Time for a change of subject, or really a reversal of his own ill-omened diversion.

“All right,” he said, properly cowed. “So what does that have to do with you being kind to me? Bringing me food and finding us a room and, like, hand-making medicine for me? I know your skills don’t come cheap but I wasn’t expecting this much.”

Felix looked down at the table, persistently, like someone was pressing his head down, turning his gaze toward the earth and away from Sylvain, but they knew each other inside and out and Sylvain was used to this. Seeing the amber flash of his eyes in the low candlelight of the chill room was intimacy enough. “I said I would wait until then for you to make your choice, as a favor to Claude,” he began, slowly and deliberate. “And I will. I’ll be by your side until we cross that border, watching your back and helping your cause. But…” The pause before his next words felt like it stretched an entire lifetime. Sylvain only realized he was holding his breath when Felix spoke again and he let it out in one long sigh. “I’d like you to know what choosing me might mean. What we could make it mean.”

“Fe, you don’t—” Sylvain began, but Felix glanced up at him then, and the heat in his gaze seared enough to cauterize the words in his throat, to shut him up, gaping like a fish around a sentiment that wouldn’t come.

“I do,” Felix said, curt, preferring instead as usual to act. And act he did.

Felix slid, graceful as water, off the side table, one foot touching the ground to push himself forward and across Sylvain’s lap, holding his weight nervously in his thighs where they rested on either side of Sylvain’s legs over his body. Sylvain felt his breath catch in his throat again, hands going without thinking to Felix’s waist, to pull him closer, to settle him more firmly. So strong was the tenderness that flooded him, the sheer power of feeling after all this time built up inside him with little outlet, that Sylvain almost felt his eyes water, bit his lip over his instinct to gasp in air. Felix took his jaw in his hands, one thumb running over the soft skin where his teeth sunk, tugging it loose, and Sylvain could do nothing but watch with overwhelming want as Felix’s eyes dropped to his mouth, then lidded fully before pressing their lips together.

Sylvain had expected, for the all of five seconds he had to prepare for it, that Felix might kiss like it was a contest, might use his tongue like a weapon, might sink his teeth in just this side of too hard, and Sylvain had thought he might be the man to handle that. He had experience walking the line between pain and pleasure, had bedded spitfires and challengers alike, and he had felt equipped to deal with it. What he hadn’t anticipated, couldn’t possibly have readied for, was how softly Felix touched him, how gently his lips moved against Sylvain’s, how it didn’t take long for him to squirm closer into the tightening ring of Sylvain’s arms around his waist. He didn’t know how he could have predicted the feeling surging through him like he was breathing air for the first time ever, like his entire life the oxygen he thought he’d been inhaling had been smoke, and at the force of it Sylvain gasped against Felix’s lips, breathing into his mouth, and Felix pulled back slightly, leaving his nose brushing against Sylvain’s, looking at him for a moment before dropping his gaze.

“Was that too much?” Felix asked, voice low, and Sylvain clutched at him where he had him held, sliding one hand up to tangle in his hair, to anchor them together at two points as though that might make it less likely they would separate.

“No, Felix, no,” he repeated, over and over again until the words were lost between the two of them, sounds between mouths as they met over and over, every way two people could kiss. When Sylvain ran out of breath, pressed against the back of the chair while Felix rolled his hips half-unconsciously against Sylvain, groaning into his mouth, he gulped in air before pressing his parted lips against Felix’s neck, breathing against his skin for a moment.

“I know I can’t give you Sreng,” Felix said above him, voice tight where his throat was stretched by his tipped back head, thrumming through Sylvain where they touched, hands wound in Sylvain’s hair, “but I could give you this.”

This, wrapped in his arms, pressed against him, felt like a hell of a lot, and Sylvain gritted his teeth to bite back an honest to the goddess moan at the sound of Felix’s voice above him, the feeling of him around him, the movement of them together. “Claude is going to be disappointed,” he said instead, slackening his jaw to nip at the tender skin of Felix’s neck, hearing and feeling him gasp.

“He may not be,” Felix replied, tugging at his hair, moving Sylvain to look up at him. “It depends on what you decide.” And then, as if to remind Sylvain that he was still dealing with the Felix he’d known for almost three decades and not some version of him conjured in a fantasy after a little too much time alone on the road somewhere, he stood up, lithe as a cat, careless of the gaping void Sylvain felt open inside him with him gone, and rolled himself into bed, back to Sylvain, definitely more than half the bedding thrown deftly over him.

For once and once only, in his entire life, Sylvain thanked the goddess that no matter how hard you tried no tap in Gautier territory would run anything but cold.

Chapter Text

Their ride the next day was marked with an energy Sylvain hadn’t really experienced before, but was certainly pleasant. Felix smiled at him often as they rode, side by side, horses deftly picking their way through the snowfall from the previous night. It was as though they were waiting for something, hearts racing in anticipation of what was coming. Sylvain already knew how it would go, or how he hoped it would go, once they crossed the border into Sreng, and he had to imagine Felix knew too and was just teasing him, keeping his contract, and not interfering with Claude all in one fell swoop, but it was… fun between them. Felix seemed more open to what he called “idle chatter” than usual, listening calmly to Sylvain tell story after story of life since Felix had been gone.

Amazing how a nice atmosphere could make time seem to pass more quickly. They were at almost the limit of their full day of riding but to Sylvain at least it had flown by when they found themselves in sight of the Sreng border, one long wall stretching for miles around the northern edge of Gautier territory. He knew where the main gate nearest them was like the back of his hand, and almost anyone patrolling there could recognize him from his hair and, usually, his lance, although this time it looked like the smudge of vermillion against the snow was enough.

“Hey!” he called in the little Srengi he knew from snatches of studying between battles. Of course it was only now that the war was over and he actually had time to learn the language that he was planning to leave it all behind, which was a funny thought to have coherently for the first time.

The man atop the wall waved, guarded but friendly enough, and the two of them approached the gate. “Gautier,” he said, and Sylvain hoped he hadn’t met him at a previous border crossing because he didn’t recognize him at all — which didn’t stop him from smiling like he did.

“Nothing to worry about this time,” Sylvain said as they pulled up to where the gate was still closed. Felix beside him was still radiating a mysterious kind of light-hearted teasing which was, again, difficult to understand but not unwelcome. “Felix and I are just here for a visit.”

“On what business?” asked the guard, but he moved toward the pulley to open the gate. Sylvain felt a surge of affection for and gratitude toward the people of Sreng, who had put aside a history of oppression at the hands of men Sylvain had known personally to, if not welcome him, begrudgingly allow him entrance, which was more than he deserved even considering his ambassadorial efforts.

“Diplomatic visit, of sorts,” Sylvain replied, watching the guard’s arms flex as he worked the crank to raise the gate. They were strong people, generally speaking, in Sreng — tough against the desert winds and the extreme temperatures, but there was a wild intensity about them that Sylvain could appreciate. Even if it sort of made him feel like he had been an idiot from the get-go thinking he’d be likely to find someone willing to share their life with him here. He couldn’t have been less like that.

“Well, good luck to you. And hey,” called the guard to his back as they passed through, “nice to see you without the lance.”

Aistulf was the leader of the town nearest the Gautier border, unsurprisingly high in the ranks of the Srengi overall considering how much fighting he had been through, how much wrangling with Faerghus he was responsible for overseeing, and Sylvain knew him well enough now that he waved off Felix’s uncertainty without hesitation.

“We go way back,” he explained, and it wasn’t exactly a lie. He’d been to Sreng more times than he could count, first as a child on visits that he didn’t understand weren’t exactly welcome, then as he grew older but not yet wiser as an emissary of his father, suppressing so-called rebellions and insurrections, then later as an apologetic seeker of peace. It wasn’t something he could mend alone, not in a lifetime, but a redheaded noble from Fodlan who didn’t come swinging a weapon went a long way. “He might even be expecting me.”

Aistulf was not expecting Sylvain, but he especially was not expecting him to show up with Felix and several days’ worth of stubble and, probably, significant baggage under his eyes. When the doormen showed Sylvain into Aistulf’s hall, where there was significantly more raucous feasting going on than Sylvain had seen in a long while, his eyes widened and he reached for the handle of his axe before he realized who it was.

“By all the gods,” he exclaimed, rising from his seat and, to the credit of Sylvain’s boast from earlier, looking friendly and possibly tipsy, “little Gautier! To what do I owe the honor? More bargaining for your shitheel of a father?”

“Let’s not get into family matters before I’ve had a drink,” Sylvain replied, letting Aistulf clap his back thunderously, resisting the urge to wince with inhuman perseverance. “But no, I’m not here on his behalf.”

Felix, next to him, who had been watching with slight apprehension, suddenly looked the Felix version of radiantly happy, which is to say his eyes pinched slightly at the corners and he looked like he was biting the inside of his cheek, flushing on the surface. Sylvain took an instant to smile back before turning his attention back to Aistulf, who played the gracious host by sweeping Sylvain away from Felix without a word to the swordsman, leaving him to find his own seating in the hall — which was plentiful, at least.

“So, if not your father then what brings you here?”

Sylvain had been well plied with wine, warmth, and recounting of several battles Margrave Gautier had lost over the years, all of which pleased him greatly. Aistulf was powerful enough to afford to be friendly toward Sylvain, if not the other Faerghus nobility, because he could snap his fingers and turn the whole arrangement on its head in a moment and everyone in his hall knew it, Sylvain not least of all. Though he certainly wasn’t looking to start a war, not now or ever again.

“Surely you’ve heard of Claude returning from Almyra,” Sylvain began, and Aistulf straightened in his seat, leaning forward. “You may have also heard that Almyra agreed, with Claude’s guidance, to reopen trade routes to the west. Because, you know, Claude isn’t looking to immediately aggress and conquer anyone who isn’t from Fodlan.”

“I have heard such things,” Aistulf said. “It’s about time your shitheel continent got a ruler who knew what they were about.”

“Your grasp of the Fodlan language is as expressive as ever,” Sylvain replied, genuinely, but Aistulf laughed. Sylvain had caught him on a good night, it seemed, although it helped that they had an established rapport no thanks to his, ahem, shitheel father. “In any case, Claude thought I might be the man to start that conversation on this side of the map.” Aistulf’s brows came together at that, earthy brown threaded with the grey of experience. “In fact,” Sylvain continued, sensing a possible entry point, “he suggested I find a lucky lady interested in strengthening the ties between our countries to seal the deal.”

He’d hit the jackpot. Aistulf laughed long and loud enough that Sylvain had time to scan the crowd for Felix, time enough to know he couldn’t pick him out among the other dark heads in the room with the music and laughter and movement oscillating through the hall. He turned back just as Aistulf set his rather overt goblet down to punctuate his hooting with a solid thunk of metal on wood. “And that is by far the most ridiculous thing I have heard today,” he said, and Sylvain grinned.

“Precisely what I thought,” he agreed, taking another calculated pull from his own wine. If Sreng respected anything, it was alcohol tolerance. “But, you know, I was on my way up here, working for the rulers of unification… you know that’s what they’re calling them in Fodlan?”

“Unification, eh?” Aistulf repeated.

“For once, not by conquering,” Sylvain replied. “I’m sure the tales of Byleth and their kingly partner have reached your ears.”

“I’ll admit, I’ve heard from more than a few men how fighting went with Byleth on the field,” Aistulf said. “A formidable force to be sure. Why didn’t your king of unification send them to seek a wife here? Or a husband, for that matter.”

Sylvain sighed theatrically. “I’m afraid Byleth is spoken for.” He paused, hoping for a dramatic effect. “By the other ruler of unification.”

Aistulf laughed, which wasn’t quite what Sylvain had hoped for but would do just fine. “Well I’ll be damned,” he said. “So instead, Fodlan sent it’s… well, not even second best, really. The remnants.”

“Hey,” Sylvain protested, “I’ve got a lot to offer. But,” he added, before Aistulf could rake him further over the coals, “the fact is that I don’t think I’ll be available to keep doing this for long. So I thought I’d come up here and propose the idea with a friendly face behind it, and I thought too I might let old Claude and Byleth know that you’re all interested in Fodlan’s best. Hilda Goneril is still single, I hear.”

“As long as you don’t expect me to force any of our people to be tied to a lowlife like you, I think we’d consider it,” Aistulf said, after a moment of thought. “Not saying Sreng is likely to love the idea. Just saying I’d bring it to the lords.”

“And what more could I ask for?” Sylvain replied, biting down the thrill thrumming through him. “As long as you’ll keep talking with Claude whether or not it’s my pretty face bearing the message.”

“Well,” Aistulf said, “undesirable as you may be for a husband you’ve wiped up a lot of the shit your father and his cronies have left. I’ll see emissaries from Claude, long as you trust him.” He paused for a moment, leaving Sylvain much too full of his own accomplishment to actually reply before continuing. “So what has you unavailable? You taking up a post somewhere else? Leaving the old man behind?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Sylvain replied, heart full to bursting suddenly, eyes sweeping the hall for Felix yet again and failing to find him. “Let’s say I’ve found a new career path. And if it pleases you to hear it it’s not one the Margrave would have wanted for me.”

“Oh, it pleases me,” Aistulf chuckled, running his fingers through his beard, wood and iron clinging to his chin. “Your mercenary friend left some time ago, by the by. Don’t let me keep you. Enjoy that new career path, little Gautier.”

Sylvain looked at Aistulf, really looked at him for a moment, warm terrestrial green eyes and broad jaw and lines along the creases of his laughter that signified a life underlaid by strength disguised as kindness, and once again felt a wave of affection for the people that had been his northern neighbors. He drained his glass suddenly, emphatically, and took Aistulf’s hand in a maybe too earnest shake. “If you could just point me in the direction he went…” he said, half embarrassed, half sincere, and Aistulf chuckled.

“It’s clear which one of you was hired,” he said, jerking his head toward an exit to the west, and Sylvain stood, pleasantly surprised at how evenly he could set his course toward his goal.

Felix was in an alcove outside the main hall, staring out into the night through the slits marked in the wall for archers. It didn’t take long to find him, like Sylvain had been drawn to him, like he’d been calling him and Sylvain had followed his voice. Alert as ever, Felix turned before Sylvain reached him, eyes glowing in the torchlight.

“So, how did it—”

“Let’s go,” Sylvain said, cutting him off before he could finish his sentence, unable to stop the grin rising on his face.

Felix frowned. “What?”

“Let’s go,” Sylvain repeated. “Anywhere. Everywhere. Morfis, Dagda, Brigid. Wherever you want.”

There were a lot more things Sylvain planned to say, and he would get to them at some point. Hopefully sooner rather than later, because he thought there were several especially good lines in there that he thought might get a rise or a blush or a glare out of Felix, any of which were good options in Sylvain’s book. But it would all have to wait, he realized, as he swallowed around what felt like a rock in his throat as he watched Felix’s face, because there was no way he was getting more words out just yet. Across from him, close to him, Felix’s eyes were crinkled at the corners by crows feet, the corners of his mouth were turning up in a smile he was only nominally trying to hide, an unobscurable and creeping joy spreading through his expression and knocking Sylvain half-breathless, and certainly speechless.

“So, the talks went well?” Felix asked, a crack in his voice that was blindingly endearing. He crossed his arms over his chest, then uncrossed them just as quickly, like he was about to shake out of his skin, restless.

“You could say that,” Sylvain said, eking the words out past the rising tide inside him. “I do have some bad news, though.”

It was strange, watching Felix try to frown, to fight through everything currently going on inside him and outside him. “Oh?” he said, rocking forward onto and back off of the balls of his feet.

Sylvain nodded. “I don’t think we can stay here tonight,” he explained. Felix was openly smiling now, which was distracting but also encouraging. “Aistulf will eventually sober up and realize he agreed to seeing other diplomats from Fodlan as long as Claude is the one sending them. He’s used to me by now, he’s not going to —”

“You were right,” Felix interrupted, and Sylvain raised a brow, mouth still open around his next planned word. “Let’s go.”

The hand he tugged Sylvain’s sleeve with, pulling him toward where they had left their horses and belongings, was warm and trembling, and Sylvain felt he’d follow that tug anywhere.

“My father does have a cabin of sorts somewhere around here, for our people to stay in when they’re scouting or hunting or whatever other darker deeds he has them get up to,” Sylvain offered when they were mounted and off, waving to Aistulf’s men. “Goddess knows the state it’s in, since it gets trashed almost every time he does something to upset people here, which is often. But it’s shelter.”

“Sounds fine,” Felix said briefly. In the same sort of anticipatory silence they had shared on the last stretch of road to Sreng, he followed Sylvain as he picked his way from memory to the cabin, which thankfully didn’t have any ominous carcasses lying outside or obvious structural damage. The key was still under the completely unconvincing sliding panel to the left of the door, and Sylvain rolled his eyes as he unlocked and let them in, horses tied under an overhang built for that purpose. It was cold but thankfully not snowing, and they would be all right for the night.

He turned the bolt carefully behind him, taking his time for some reason, maybe the sudden nervousness churning inside him, maybe the sheer anticipation of turning and seeing Felix in the new light of his decision, at what that might stir up, but it turned out there was nothing to fear.

“Say it,” Felix said, and Sylvain faced him. Light from the moon and stars outside streamed in through the one window in the simple building, hitting the left side of Felix’s face where he was looking at Sylvain. At him.

“Say what?” asked Sylvain. He took a step closer, then, compelled beyond his power to resist, took another.

“You know what,” Felix replied. His eyes shone in the dim glow of the night sky.

“I think there’s a few things I could say,” Sylvain said, deliberately, “I’m just not sure what order you want to hear them.” He paused, if only to shift toward Felix again, to be gratified at seeing him do the same, bringing them very close. “The first thing is that I’m sorry, because I could have saved us a lot of time by doing this in Derdriu, when I saw you again.”

It was like a dam breaking the way they moved together, meeting at the hips and the hands, the chests and the lips, as Sylvain bent down to pull Felix against him, to have him completely in his arms. The kiss wasn’t long, just water spilling over the rim of an overfull glass, but Felix still gasped deliciously as they separated, body autonomically chasing Sylvain as his eyes flashed open.

“What else?” Felix panted, then continued when he caught wind of the confusion crossing Sylvain’s face. “You said there was more you wanted to say.”

“Right,” Sylvain said, grinning, arms held fast around Felix’s waist, drinking in the feeling of Felix’s palms pressed to his chest without the inherent promise of a shove. “The next thing I’d like to say is that I hope you have another gig lined up after this one, because we’re going to need money.” He took a breath, feeling the weight of the words he had thought before but never spoken. “I think I knew I wasn’t going back to my house when I left the Lance with my father. I’m not going to need it.”

“And why is that?” Felix asked, weakly, sending a swiftly-suppressed shudder down Sylvain’s spine.

“Fe,” Sylvain said, weak in his own right, “and I can’t believe how much I sound like one of the heroines in one of Ashe’s little bodice-rippers, but I mean it: run away with me.” His hands clutched at Felix where he held him, as Felix’s hands rubbed against him without purpose, simply from want. “It can be like you said, just the two of us, making our way through the world. No more killing, no more fighting. No more having to be apart.”

Felix nodded, then nodded again, forcefully. “Any other bodice-ripping you’d like to cover tonight?”

“You have no idea,” Sylvain said, half a groan, “and we’ll get there. But first you definitely have to tell me you want this, because I’m getting kind of freaked out thinking I’m being—”

“Sylvain.” Felix’s voice was authoritative, enough to bring him to reverent silence. “Don’t be a fool. You think after all this time watching your back and keeping you fed and out of trouble, patching you up when you’re hurt… after all the time I spent without you to do the same for me…” He paused for a moment, staring hard at the ground. “You think I want anything else? You think I could live with anything else?”

Unable to resist, Sylvain held Felix tighter, clinging to him, secure in the knowledge that he was strong enough for it. “Felix,” he said, voice shot through with tenderness, “you can’t say things like that. I can’t…”

“We’re going to keep that promise,” Felix said, insistent in his words the way he was in his movements, fingers curling in Sylvain’s collar. “We’re going to live. Together.”

Sylvain was strong, even after the war’s end negated the need for incessant training and being in peak physical condition. He was strong from transporting supplies, strong from desire to attract, strong from necessity because weakness was the only other option. But when Felix pulled at his shirt, directing him downwards, angling their lips together, Sylvain felt powerless to resist. Felix wormed closer to him, pressing himself against Sylvain at every point of intersection, arms winding around his neck to pull himself upwards. Sylvain held one arm fast around Felix’s waist, sending the other crawling up his back to stroke over his neck, the bare skin there, to fasten his fingers into his hair, tugging until Felix moaned, until Sylvain could swallow it down.

“All right,” Felix gasped, pulling back just far enough to speak, not even trying to let go, “if we’re doing this then we’re really doing it. Now. Tonight.”

“Oh,” Sylvain murmured, pressing his lips to Felix’ cheek, the corner of his mouth, his jaw, open up and down his neck, drinking in the sounds he made, the sounds he could make Felix make, “we’re doing this. Anything you want. Everything you want.”

“Don’t forget about what you want,” Felix said, voice low enough to almost be a whisper, canting his hips up against Sylvain’s as if there was a modicum of a chance he might forget. Sylvain pulled him backwards, towards whatever flat surface they hit first. Let the whim of the goddess decide.

“Never again.”

Chapter Text

The Rulers of Unification received a lot of correspondence, especially once word got out that the king of Almyra was now the king of Fodlan as well. Typically their days were too crowded with other business to actually read any of those letters, so it became their habit to read them in bed, light burning low but not too low. Call it a wind down, call it esoteric foreplay — it was probably both.

“This one is from Ingrid,” Byleth said, scanning the neat handwriting. “She sends her regards, says she enjoyed the festivities, and wanted to thank you for… hmm. Quite a generous contribution to Galatea territory.”

Claude shrugged. “If she wants to keep ahold of her lands, she’s going to need some help. I don’t think she’s the type to adapt to a new framework so easily. Faerghus through and through.”

Byleth nodded, passing the parchment up to Claude where he stretched horizontally across the foot of the bed, Byleth’s head resting against his stomach. It wasn’t the softest support but it was the most comfortable these days. Claude let their fingers brush indulgently as he took the letter, grinning down at Byleth.

“Quit it with those smiles, you’re killing me,” Claude said, skimming Ingrid’s note and tossing it onto the pile of completed business. “Ingrid doesn’t need a response, we just saw her. I’ll write next time I’m looking for a lecture.”

“Next piece is yours,” Byleth said, pointing to the stack of unopened correspondence lying between them, golden ring a pleasant weight on their finger. Claude didn’t miss the glint of it in the firelight, nor the gentle flash of his own as he reached for the next letter.

“Seal isn’t one I recognize,” he murmured, “and there’s a box here too.”

“Could be poison,” Byleth deadpanned, as if they weren’t married to the unofficial winner of the Most Likely to Poison superlative in the Officer’s Academy graduating class of 1180.

“Could be,” Claude agreed, sliding a careless finger below the wax. He read a few words, then laughed aloud.

“Sounds like an interesting letter,” Byleth said.

“To say the least.” Claude stretched the parchment between his hands like a town crier might, cleared his throat. “Your royal highnesses,” he read, “hey Claude, hey professor. Sorry I couldn’t make your wedding, I hope the gift makes up for it a little. We’ll pay a visit when things are more settled.”

“Is this from—”

“Yes,” Claude said, shaking his head against the bed, mussing his hair. “Same as ever.”

“Good to know he’s alive,” Byleth commented. “I thought your little scheme about Sreng might have gone badly.”

Claude frowned. “You didn’t really think that.”

Byleth’s lips quirked, just a hint. “Maybe not,” they said.

“Well, I’ll continue then if you’re done interrupting,” he huffed before continuing. “I wanted to show up, goddess forbid I miss what I’m sure was the party of the century, but I doubt my father wants to catch wind of me showing up anywhere in Fodlan right now. You understand. Felix and I are fine — we’re in Morfis. He’s making money as a street performer, if you can believe it. You’d love the outfit. Okay,” Claude interjected, “I’m interrupting myself on this one — holy shit.”

“Surprised at that?” Byleth asked.

“Felix, a street performer?” Claude repeated. “We should make a trip to Morfis.”

“It would be a sight to behold,” Byleth agreed. “Go on, finish the letter.”

Claude nodded. “Unfortunately, I have more bad news for you. You’ll need to find a new emissary to Sreng. I really fucked up the mission you sent me on — turns out I was in love with Felix the entire time, so that one is on me for thinking I could, you know, make a political marriage work. Sorry king, thank Ingrid for the rude awakening. If it makes you feel any better, Aistulf just over the border is looking forward to the next diplomat you send. Maybe make it Hilda. Those axe skills are sure to impress, and I bet Holst is exhausted from having to wait on her hand and foot all the time. Can’t have Fodlan’s Locket underprotected, right? Who knows what might be east of Almyra? Anyway, enjoy the gift. And hey — if you’re ever in Morfis, look for a very hot sword swallower and a very smitten farmhand, or horse tamer, or whatever the hell I end up doing with myself. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, you crazy kid and you crazy being fused with the progenitor god. Sylvain.” Claude set the letter down, not yet ready for the completed pile, and sighed. “I need better friends.”

Byleth chuckled, one quick exhale, and reached up to pat at Claude’s sternum sympathetically. “His idea about Hilda wasn’t so bad, you know.”

“Sylvain is a tactical guy,” Claude agreed, lacing his fingers with theirs. “He managed to maneuver his way out of one marriage and, I have to assume eventually, into another without even irritating me. Even though he’s potentially set back our negotiations irrevocably.”

“That seems like a good piece of correspondence to end on,” Byleth said, rolling over to face their partner.

Claude smirked. “You don’t want to see the gift that’s good enough to make up for taking off, missing our wedding, failing to complete a mission from the king of unification, and delaying the reconciliation with Sreng?”

“We can look later,” Byleth replied. “Something to look forward to.”