Without any semblance of reasonable doubt, the corpse that lies rigid on the steel table belongs to Dimitri A. Blaiddyd.
Someone fixed him up real good before the gang got here. The cloth has only been pulled down to his shoulders but what’s visible doesn’t appear to be any shade of bruised or broken. His hair pools to his shoulders but not a single lock is matted. His lips are pursed tight, maybe too tight for anyone’s liking. He looks like he just had his soul sucked out of him through the straw of a Capri-Sun pouch, sure, but maybe that was just him in life, just as he is in death.
And he is dead. Definitely dead. Absolutely no question.
Sylvain has to remind himself of that fact as he steps out from one cold room into another, as if there was any margin of a chance that he could be wrong.
“Yep, it’s him,” he says to the other two. A part of him wishes he didn’t have to say that. The other part of him is glad to have some closure.
“Shit.” Ingrid props her elbow against her chair’s armrest, bringing her hand right under her nose. The entire room feels her exhale against her palm.
“What did he look like?” Felix’s voice has lost its edge. What spills forth in Sylvain’s direction is reduced to a mumbled slurry of a question.
“Do you want to see?”
“Do I have to?”
“It’s okay to say no.”
Felix sinks back further into the plush of his chair.
“Well, it’s Dimitri so he still looks like shit,” Sylvain continues. “But he’s, uh. He’s not mangled or anything. Or blue and bloated. He got some work done on him. He looks good. He really does.”
A few scattered sniffles fill in the gaps of silence.
“I’m truly sorry for your loss,” says the funeral home manager, positioned in the opposite doorway. He stands just as rigid as any other body that passes through his domain but his tone remains recognizably sincere.
The words “thank you” don’t come out of their mouths but a collective nod is enough to suffice.
“I think we’re ready to discuss logistics.” Sylvain takes the lead. He’s planning to do his grieving elsewhere. “We’ve already decided to take him back home to Fhirdiad and cremate him there. How do we get that ball rolling?”
“Well.” The manager takes a deep breath in before proceeding to hand the trio a printed sheet. “Our sole hearse driver returns tomorrow. Until then, be assured that your friend will be kept safe and sound here before he can be shipped up in the morning."
“So we’ll have to leave him for the night?” Felix crosses his arms.
“This is going to cost us thousands. We can’t afford to do this,” Ingrid whispers to Sylvain at her side. Her other hand grasps the paper.
“We can’t,” he whispers back. “But I do have an idea that’s quick and cost-effective. We’ll have to cooperate, though.”
They look into each other’s eyes until his idea clicks into her head.
“...You can’t possibly--”
“No, we can. I think we can do it.”
The rear end of a white casket hangs out the rear end of Sylvain’s hatchback Ford Taurus.
White was the right choice. White is like a Faerghus winter. They used to bury him in snow when they were kids. He would lay there, taking it in stride. He was no stranger to cold. Never was. Never will be.
It looks much too pure to be protruding out of an old wagon like this. Sylvain straps it in with a collection of hooks and bungee cords.
“He’s going to fly out,” Felix observes. “He’ll slide right out the moment we hit the interstate.”
“He’ll be fine,” Sylvain insists. “Look at all these bungee cords. I’ve carried furniture like this at 80 MPH all the way from the IKEA in Arianrhod.”
“What happens if, by any chance, he does fall out?” Ingrid asks.
“He’s dead. It’s not like he can get killed again. We’ll just pull over and scoop him back up,” Sylvain answers with an actual grin on his face. Ingrid refrains from slapping it right off but she does respond with a furrowed glare.
“Okay, fine.” He digs into the backseat for a roll of duct tape and proceeds to wrap numerous rings around the width of the casket. “If he takes a tumble, he can’t fall out.”
“Great,” Felix remarks. “It’s going to be a pain in the ass to get him out now.”
“Just burn him with the casket,” Sylvain waves him off as he gets into the driver’s seat. “Easy peasy.”
“Are you kidding?” Ingrid takes her post at the passenger’s seat. “We almost had to take out a loan for that thing. We’re pawning it off the moment Dimitri’s body hits the incinerator.”
The Tailtean Plains sure are… plain. They’re very plain. They’ve been plain on the long journey to and they’re going to keep being plain on the long journey back. The gang reckons it’ll be another few hours before anything interesting pops up on the horizon.
Nothing will stop Sylvain from trying to lighten the mood. He turns the radio down to a low hum.
“Let’s play I Spy.”
“There’s nothing here. No.” Ingrid leans further into the window.
“C’moooooon. Felix, wanna play?”
No response from Felix in the back seat.
“I know you’re pretending to sleep just to ignore me.” Sylvain reaches his arm back around to shake Felix by the knee.
“Fine,” Felix grumbles. “You first.”
“I spy with my little eye… something yellow.”
“It’s the plains ,” Felix and Ingrid answer in tandem.
“Great job, everyone. Ingrid, what do you spy?”
She takes a moment to look back. “I spy with my little eye… something white.”
“ Casket ,” Felix responds without missing a beat. “I spy with my little eye… someone who needs to shut the fuck up.”
“It’s me, isn’t it?” Sylvain smiles. “Nailed it. Good game.”
There’s a McDonald’s here. There’s a McDonald’s everywhere. Fast food is Faerghan food. This country hasn’t much else to offer in terms of cuisine when compared to its neighbors. The people of Faerghus are busy, practical folk, interested in making meals quick and easy rather than frilly and enticing. But McDonald’s does hit a bit different when you’ve been out on the road for a long while.
Sylvain takes the car into the drive-thru line.
“What do you guys want?”
“McGriddle.” Ingrid answers within a fraction of a second.
“McGriddle for the ‘Grid,” Sylvain quips back. “Just one?”
“Yeah, one is okay.”
“I’m going to order four for you.”
Ingrid resigns with a sigh. She definitely will eat four.
“Felix,” Sylvain turns to the back. “Whatcha want, bud?”
“ Five McGriddles.” Felix shrugs.
“Alright, fine,” Sylvain now turns to the white casket overtaking the seat folded next to Felix. “What do you guys think Dimitri wants?”
“Goddess, send us a sign,” Ingrid replies with a trace giggle. “Let it be six McGriddles.”
“ Oh, don’t mind me ,” Felix imitates their late friend’s voice. It comes out sounding more like Kermit the Frog. “ I’ll just have whatever you guys order for me. ”
Sylvain lets out a laugh. “Ugh, you’re right. You’re totally right, that’s him.”
Ingrid reaches behind her seat and gives the casket a couple of pats. “We’ll get him a large Diet Coke.”
Felix needed to pee, which is actually great because Sylvain needed to stop for gas and Ingrid was craving Pizza Combos.
The two leave him alone with the car and the casket to keep him company for the next handful of minutes. He guides the nozzle into the fuel receptacle and pumps the gas. As it fills, he takes a few steps around to the rear of the car
“Hey, Champ,” he says, placing his hand on the casket’s lid. “Hope you’re hanging in there. Great job on making it this far.”
A cold breeze passes through the gas station.
“Kinda wish you could have made it farther yourself, though. It didn’t have to be like this.”
The wind whistles.
“Nothing has to be like this. Everyone in my life needs to stop dropping like flies.”
He wraps his arms around the end of the casket and lays his head down. He can hear the sounds of his sniffles reflected against the lacquered wood finish.
“I miss you so much already.”
The sight stops Ingrid in her tracks, on her way back to the car with a plastic bag filled with much more than Pizza Combos.
“Are you ok? I can drive the rest of the way. Let me drive.”
Without a word, he tosses her the keys.
Ingrid’s a great driver. Absolutely unparalleled. So much of her lifetime has already been spent on traversing the continent by paved road.
Mostly alone, though.
Having to deal with the occasional banter from two more people in the automobile is somewhat of a new challenge now.
“I don’t trust any of you people to carry out my casket when I die,” Sylvain says. Mere moments ago, this was an earnest and solemn conversation about planning Dimitri’s funeral procession. He turned it into something it shouldn’t be. “You’re all going to drop me and my dead, fat ass is going to crush Annette. Bam . Now that’s another funeral we gotta deal with.”
“Fucking hell,” Felix groans from the back seat.
“So we just wheel you in?” Ingrid unwisely indulges him.
“Yeah, just roll me into the church like I’m one of those old television carts in elementary school. Play the Eyewitness theme as I come in. Actually, no. I’ve thought about this before. When my casket enters the church I want ‘All I Do Is Win’ playing. Everyone needs to hold their hands up in the air.”
Nobody knows if he’s being ironic or not. Not even Sylvain himself.
“...This is like a baseball player entrance.” Ingrid keeps her eyes on the road, grimacing.
“Exactly. That’s the vibe.”
“You say this like you’re the next one to go out of all of us,” Felix says.
“I mean, like, probably.” Sylvain tosses those words out too nonchalantly for anyone’s comfort.
“I’m dying with you,” Felix is quick on the draw. “I am never going to let you have the satisfaction of having your own funeral, you self-obsessed prick.”
“Is your casket going to be wheeled out at the same time as mine or--”
“Absolutely not. I’ll go right after you, to ‘Remember The Name’ .”
“Ingrid, do you want to join our death pact?” Sylvain turns to the driver’s seat. “We don’t want to be rude. I know this was kind of supposed to be a thing between me and Felix but there’s always room for you at our funeral.”
“I mean, I don’t really want to but sure,” Ingrid begrudgingly replies. “I’ll follow right after you guys to ‘When I Die Young’ by The Band Perry.”
Sylvain and Felix let out a cacophony of groans.
“I bet you want a horse to carry you out, huh,” Felix says through gritted teeth.
“No, you have to follow our baseball walk-up theme,” Sylvain says while giving her a playful punch to the shoulder. “No yee-haw shit.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll take ‘In Da Club’ .”
“Does Dimitri have a will?”
Felix’s question comes and breaks the welcomed silence.
“When he died, he was 23 and addicted to crack,” Sylvain quips. “I don’t think he was in sound mind and body to sign anything.”
“Hold on, you know how his family is,” Ingrid cuts in. “The reading was huge when Lambert died. They must have had to draft something for Dimitri back then too.”
“Wait, no. I remember something.” Something in Sylvain’s head clicks. “I actually had this conversation with him before, back in Garreg Mach. We got absolutely sauced and started joking about who’s gonna take our stuff when we die. Y’know, just things Faerghus lads talk about on a regular basis.”
“Think that’s going to hold up with a lawyer?” Ingrid asks.
“Sure, let’s fuck around and see what happens when we put a single piece of wide-ruled filler paper through the probate process.”
“So who gets his Xbox?” Felix is inclined to ask.
“Oh shit!” Ingrid grins. “We can finally play NBA 2K with Dedue!”
“Yeah, Dedue gets the Xbox, the truck, the estate, the Blaiddyd family artifacts, the business, the everything.”
“Oh, that’s good.” Ingrid cruises along. “He deserves it.”
“Did he want to leave us anything?” Felix digs in.
“Actually, yeah,” Sylvain answers. “He said we can have all of his Pokémon cards. Wait. No, that might have been for Ashe."
“Let me drive,” Felix has been insisting for the past thirty minutes. “I’m bored and my Game Boy just ran out of battery.”
Felix is, without any reservation or doubt, the worst driver in the group. He can have an empty mile-long space for him on the curb to parallel park into and he’d still manage to hit the car behind him. So many of the mailboxes in his hometown are gone because of his carelessness. He’s technically not even supposed to be driving right now. He’s in the middle of fighting a ticket for going forty over the speed limit posted in a school zone.
Even though Ingrid and Sylvain have been driving nonstop for hours without rest, they are desperate to keep their little firecracker friend away from the wheel.
“No, I’m fine,” Ingrid insists, as she jerks the car back into its lane after accidentally drifting off.
“Actually, no. You’re not,” Sylvain tries to say through a yawn. “I hate to say it but we have to let Felix drive.”
“We can’t. He’s gonna get us pulled over for something stupid.”
“We need sleep, ‘Grid. You need sleep.”
She pulls over.
Approximately half an hour later when Felix decides to approach an interstate loop at Daytona-level speeds, the gang hears the sound of Dimitri’s wooden vessel firing out of the trunk, crash-landing into a nearby ditch.
The sights worth seeing in Faerghus are few and far between. Everything that isn’t a whole metropolis city is an old war fort. Or a world-record ball of twine. Or yet another corn maze.
Or a collection of massive life-size dinosaur statues a couple of hours out from the Fhirdiad County limits.
At Felix and Ingrid’s request, Sylvain pulled the car into this tourist attraction. The trio sits beneath the shade at the foot of a Brontosaurus, staring at their friend's casket from across the parking lot.
“Do you think we could have saved him?” Ingrid asks, whether or not she’s ready for an answer.
“Ingrid.” Felix bites at her name until Sylvain reaches for his hand.
“No, it’s ok,” he says. “I think we can have this conversation.”
“It’s just that…” she continues, staring at the ground. “There wasn’t anything we could have done about Glenn and Miklan, y’know. This is different. I’ve never had regrets before. I keep thinking that we could have done something.”
Those names send a frigid, cold arrow through their hearts.
“Hey,” Sylvain tries to reach her eyes. “We didn’t kill him. Don’t you ever let that idea fester in your head.”
“But he didn’t have to die.” She tries to muffle her sobs into Sylvain’s sleeve. He cradles her head and runs his fingers through her hair. She doesn’t see tears rolling down his face.
“I’ve been thinking about it too.” Felix takes her hand. “It’s all I could think about ever since we got the call. Ever since he left the city, actually. I could have saved him. I could have stopped him.”
He pauses to wipe his face with his other sleeve. “But he would have never blamed us anyways. He’s our friend. He’s a stupid, stubborn bastard but he is our friend.”
They all cry in a huddle at the dinosaur’s toe.
They needed this.
Some familiar sights start to roll into the horizon. The city of Fhirdiad remains only an hour and a half’s distance away.
“Dimitri and I went to that Chili’s.” Sylvain points at a large sign passing the gang by from out the window. “We were coming back from a trip to Lake Teutates a few summers ago. They let him order mac & cheese from the kids menu.”
“Oh, he did the same thing at the IHOP outside Garreg Mach one night when we were in a study group,” Ingrid adds. “They even gave him crayons to color the paper menu with.”
“I honestly don’t think he was ever going to outgrow the kids menu,” says Felix. “I thought he was going to die from his eating habits first before anything else.”
“Aww, man.” Sylvain pouts. “I’m gonna miss the way he crawls into the back of my fridge and eats all of my shredded cheese bags.”
“If we were recounting all of this to literally anyone else, they would have thought we just lost a child or a large dog,” Felix chuckles. “I mean, that’s all Dimitri. Same shit.”
“When we get home, let’s cover him in shredded cheese before we send him into the incinerator,” Ingrid suggests, as if she had a good idea.
“I feel like that’s something he would have probably wanted,” Sylvain is inclined to agree. “That’s going to make his ashes harder to scatter but at least he’ll come out looking like a Hot-N-Ready Pizza. It’s a fitting tribute. He’d love it.”
“Where do you think Dimitri is now?” Ingrid asks. She doesn’t even need to turn down the radio. It’s been at a steady whisper for as long as this trio has had the need to discuss anything at all this entire trip.
“...Like. right now? He’s in the car with us,” Felix says from the backseat, giving the casket a hearty slap. Some of the duct tape is peeling off and the surface is marred with skid marks but it has otherwise held up nicely from its tumble off the interstate.
“No, like… the afterlife. If there is one, at least. I forgot how it goes. Does he reach purgatory first or is he somewhere else?”
“Felix, put your hand on the casket again to see if it’s hot,” Sylvain digs in for yet another joke. “Maybe he’s burning in hell.”
Ingrid gasps in horror, turning her eyes away from the road for once. “ Sylvain! ”
“Ok, I’m sorry!” He laughs as he fends off her hand, pulling away from the wheel to claw his face off. “I don’t know how it goes. Maybe it’s a 40-days-40-nights thing. Maybe it’s 50 days? Maybe a thousand years?”
“Oh…” Ingrid pouts. “That’s a wide range. We should probably pray and get him outta there.”
“I’m not praying. That’s going to be too much effort. Let’s just assume he’s in heaven and everything is fine. All dogs go to heaven, right?” Felix says all of that, somehow with utmost sincerity.
“I don’t think we can just will it into existence… or non-existence. Fuck, I don’t know.” Sylvain shrugs. “But that sounds good. I don’t want to worry about it and I think he wouldn’t want us to worry about it either.”
“Dear Goddess,” Ingrid has already signed a cross. “You don’t hear from me much and I doubt you’d ever want to hear from me ever again ever since you watched me eat a girl out in a motel room one time but, fuck , don’t send our friend to hell. He’s a really nice guy and he deserves better than what we were able to provide. Amen.”
The other two chime in. “Amen!”
It’s about an hour to Fhirdiad. The gang finds themselves stuck at the side of the freeway with smoke exuding from beneath the hood of Sylvain’s car. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Ingrid pops the hood open to splash some water and coolant all over the steaming mess.
“We have to stop driving,” she says. “You’re overheating bad. We’re too far from home to take any more risks on your car.”
“That’s okay. Everything is going to be okay.” Sylvain pulls a card out from his wallet. “I have a AAA membership. I think we’re in range for someone to tow us all the way back.”
“Are they going to take the body too?” Felix asks.
“I’m pretty sure they’ll have to.”
“Aww, this sucks. This all sucks,” Ingrid says, fanning smoke away from her face. “But I’m sure Dimitri’s going to appreciate being transported on a tow truck.”
It puts a smile on Sylvain’s face. “Yeah, I think that’s going to fulfill one of his childhood dreams.”
“I’m not sharing this journey with a roadside assistant.” Felix leans on the rear of the car. “Let’s phone in some more help. I want to get out of here.”
“Who’s gonna want to help us?” Sylvain throws his hands up. “Annette’s at work, Mercedes is in Adrestia right now, Ashe doesn’t even have a car.”
He then cocks his head. “Unless…”
“We’re not calling Dedue.” Ingrid peeks out from behind the smoke.
“I thought you guys smoothed things out already!” Sylvain yells back.
“We did! We absolutely did! It’s just… you know.”
“Okay, yeah. He is in pretty bad shape. He took the news harder than anyone. Maybe we shouldn’t bug him.”
“But right now, he’s the closest.” Felix puts his foot down. “He’s our best bet. He has the keys to Dimitri’s pickup. The casket can fit and we can get on with our lives.”
“Okay,” Sylvain says. “You call him.”
“ You call him. He likes you better.”
“He’ll know something’s up if it’s you calling him.”
Felix steps away with a huff and dials Dedue from his list of contacts.
It takes three tries to get him to pick up the phone.
Dedue must have been driving at Felix-level speeds to get here so fast. He looks like he just crawled out of bed. His hair is untied, tousled over to one side of his head. His sweater has mustard stains on it. He’s not even wearing shoes. Nobody has ever seen him like this (if anyone ever sees him, like, ever ) but it all checks out for someone who’s been crying nonstop for 24 hours.
Dimitri’s truck still smells like him. One stale air freshener isn’t enough to cover up tens of little cigarette butts and thrift store baseball hats. It’s like he’s still here.
And technically, he is. He’s underneath a cover, strapped into the bed like a piece of furniture. His friends take their places in the interior.
“Thanks for coming, Dedue.” Ingrid’s voice barely projects over from the backseat. “Sorry about all this.”
“It’s fine,” Dedue replies. "Why didn’t you people let me handle all of this in this first place?”
“We’re not letting you carry that burden.” Sylvain turns to him from the passenger’s seat. “Especially not alone.”
“No, you’re not,” Felix says. “None of us are.”
The tension thickens.
He continues: “But you’ve already lost so much. You can trust us to pick up some of the pieces.”
“Clearly, I can’t. You dropped him once already.”
“No man is an island, Dedue.” Felix reaches for his shoulder. “Not even me. I don’t know if I’m the one you need to hear this from but we’re here. We’re here for you. You don’t have to ask for help. Just know it’s there.”
Dedue wipes his nose on the sleeve of his sweater.
It’s quiet, beyond the sounds of stifled weeping and cars passing by.
Too quiet for Sylvain’s liking. He turns on the radio and fixes the tuner on the first station that produces the least amount of static noise.
“Oh, this is a banger!” He shouts before singing along. “Too-ra-loo-ra, too-ra-loo-rye-ay!”
He turns to Dedue. “C’mon, man. You know this song. Dimitri loves Dexys. Sing with me.”
“He thinks ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ is better than ‘Too-Rye-Ay’ ,” Dedue states, matter-of-factly.
“Ok, whatever, Eduardo . You know him better than us. I’m asking you to sing.”
Dedue sighs. “And you’ll hum this tune forever.”
“YES!” Sylvain pumps his fists in the air.
“Come on, Eileen,” Ingrid mumbles from behind.
“Felix, now you gotta join!” Sylvain reaches to jiggle Felix’s leg.
“Who the fuck is Eileen?”
“That pretty red dress,” Dedue keeps singing in his low growl.
“Come on, Dimi.” Ingrid smiles as she riffs on the lyric.
“Come on, Dimi.” Felix smiles.
The truck erupts into a wall of noise. Every voice unites with the radio.
“Now I must say more than ever!”
“Things around here have changed!”
“Come on, Dimi, tah-loo-rye-ay! Come on, Dimi, tah-loo-rye-ay!”
They don’t notice they’ve already passed a sign welcoming them into Fhirdiad.