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Warm Beneath the Winter

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The King was staring.

Felix watched him over the shoulder of the new Lord Charon, eyes narrowing and brow furrowing. His Majesty, Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd, ruler of the united Fodlan and beloved Savior King stood, immobile, in the middle of the floor, his fine fur cape trailing listlessly behind him. His face tilted upward, hair fallen over his face as he gazed up at the sparkling chandelier hanging above him as if it held all the secrets of the universe.

Worrisome.

“.. grace? Your Grace? Duke Fraldarius!”

Felix blinked, bringing his attention back to the young blowhard who’d succeeded Catherine’s father. He frowned. “What?” he demanded flatly.

Lord Charon’s hands fluttered about like confused butterflies. “Er, that is -- that is! Something really must be done about Lady Daphnel! You have read the reports, yes? She calls my actions encroaching, which is surely not the case! She wishes me censured! Surely you will stand for the lords of the Kingdom before those of the Alliance…”

Felix sighed. Right. This situation. “You really ought to bring this to the King,” he said.

“Er. Yes! But, ah. I have, Your Grace.”

“And?”

“And… ah. His Majesty insists that distinctions between Faerghus and Leicester are a thing of the past, and that there must be some obvious and peaceable solution to the entire affair.”

Of course he did.

Felix looked over Lord Charon’s shoulder again. Dimitri was still standing there, staring upward. His face was curiously blank, his one eye shadowed, so stockstill Felix couldn’t even tell if he was breathing.

“Surely you don’t expect me to overrule His Majesty, Lord Charon,” he said absently, watching him. The delicate champagne flute looked miniature in his large hand. The liquid within didn’t so much as waver.

“Er, well -- no, of course not, Your Grace. Not at all! Not… precisely. But, ah, I have heard that if someone wishes a more… forthright approach, a somewhat, er, firmer hand, one might come to you? And ask you to counsel the King, you see. Surely you understand that the circumstances require some, ah… more forceful means than simply admirable and lofty statements about peace and unity?”

The aging Duchess Gideon approached the King, her wrinkled face fixed in a smile. Felix watched her mouth move. No reaction from Dimitri.

“What do you suggest, then?” Felix demanded, barely half paying attention. “Do we mobilize troops and declare war? That certainly sounds in keeping with His Majesty’s approach to governance, now doesn’t it?”

“Now, I hardly suggested…!”

Duchess Gideon laid her hand upon Dimitri’s forearm, gazing curiously up at him with her large blue eyes. He saw her lips move. Your Majesty? Is everything quite all right?

Dimitri did not move.

Felix clenched his jaw. He looked away from the scene, directly into the face of Lord Charon, and the young nobleman quailed in the face of his full attention. Well, good. That was the benefit of avoiding this sort of directness. Really shock someone when you finally deployed it.

“I think the King’s ethos is admirable, actually,” he said. “Enviable, even. And I think, in this case, he’s right. Cooperate with Lady Daphnel. We’re all on the same side, now, and there’s nothing more pathetic than a warrior who shows the edge of his sword to his own allies. Now, if you’ll excuse me. My lord.” He added the last reluctantly. Pathetic was perhaps slightly harsh, he supposed, from the way Lord Charon sputtered.

He stepped around him, headed toward the King.

Duchess Gideon looked up when he approached, fixing those sweet eyes on him. “Duke Fraldarius,” she said, and her gaze flickered toward the King. “What a lovely celebration this is. I was just telling His Majesty the same.”

As many words were left unspoken as those she said aloud.

Felix swallowed, and then swept into a flourishing bow. “Your Grace!” he said, forcing warmth into his voice. His cheeks heated to match it. “You honour us with your compliments. I can only hope all the Lords and Ladies of Fodlan are having an equally fine evening. His Majesty did so want to celebrate Unification Day in grand style.”

Ugh. He knew all the steps of this courtly dance, but somehow, he always felt like everyone had gathered to watch him trip over his feet. Dimitri did it far better… when he did it at all.

“Everything truly is beautiful,” the duchess said. Felix could only hold her gaze for a moment. Her expression spoke volumes.

“All because of his tireless work,” Felix said, and linked his arm with Dimitri. Still no reaction. “Which never ends, I fear. We just had word of a minor emergency. Even now, he’s lost in thought pondering how to address it. I, uh…” He faltered, feeling like an imbecile making excuses when the King was clearly not simply lost in thought. The duchess would be justified in being offended at being treated like a child.

But she said nothing, merely smiled in quiet understanding, and Felix squared his shoulders.

“We should return in short order,” he said loftily. “Excuse us.”

None of it was anything close to believable. But she was diplomatic enough not to point it out as he pulled Dimitri away, across the shining marble floor, past the curious stares of onlookers and out the stained glass french doors, into the royal gardens beyond.

The frigid air hit them in a blast. Felix hunched his shoulders, gasping. Colder than he’d expected. He was suddenly very glad for the high fur collar and thrice-lined cape that had been sweating him out all evening.

He wasn’t the only one who reacted. Finally, almost as soon as the cold night air touched his face, Dimitri stirred.

He made a quiet sound in the back of his throat, blinking and stepping away from Felix’s side. He took a few slow steps forward. Snow crunched beneath his polished boots. His cape left a trail behind him. He raised a gloved hand, and caught a spiraling snowflake in the palm of his hand.

“What a lovely evening,” he murmured.

His quiet, wondering voice snapped the tether of Felix’s patience.

“Are you drinking your tea?” he barked, harsher than he’d intended. “Twice a day, morning and night, just as Dedue and Mercedes told you to?”

Dimitri turned, cape fanning out behind him. His one eye shone large and guileless, so much like the boy Felix remembered. The question seemed to have caught him off guard. “I…”

And he flushed, lowering his eyes.

Felix narrowed his.

“Of course,” Dimitri said lamely.

Felix was not sure he could have been less convincing.

And oh, he wanted to rail at him for it!

Half a dozen terse, furious rejoinders piled up at the back of his tongue, and it took all his self control to snap his teeth closed and grit them tight, keeping all those words locked inside. He breathed in through his nose, deep and even, and then out. Slowly.

He stepped forward, slipping his gloved hand into Dimitri’s. He could feel the warmth of him even through the layers of fine, soft leather, and heat rose in his face as he walked onward, pulling Dimitri behind him. He followed obediently in his wake.

They moved out of the light streaming from the hall and past marble statues of rampant griffons covered in a fine dusting of snow. The pine hedges, still thick and dark, framed the path deeper into the gardens, and Felix maneuvered them between them. Cypress trees towered to either side of them, their branches reaching toward the clouded sky. They passed a fountain that would spill crystal water from the mouths of fierce lions in the summertime, but, instead, was covered in brown, sleeping ivy.

Felix took them to a marble bench beside the grasping, thorny bramble of a wild rosebush. It appeared dead, but he thought of Dedue using a knife to peel away bark to reveal the sticky green heart within.

Sometimes, he had said, in that infuriatingly even voice of his, that which appears too far gone is only dormant. A soft hand and gentle care is all that is needed to ensure it will bloom again.

An unsubtle metaphor, to say the least.

Making a face, Felix wrapped his arm in his cape and swept it across the bench, brushing snow aside. He took a seat, one leg tucked beneath him so that they could face one another, and Dimitri echoed him dutifully. His expression was as guileless and sweet as Duchess Gideon’s had been, and Felix instinctively looked away, warmth climbing his neck.

He sighed.

No. Some things required eye contact.

So he forced himself to do just that: to look up at Dimitri, meeting his brilliant sapphire eye, even as heat rose in his cheeks, all the way to his scalp and ears. To make the point, he took his face between his hands, leather against rough, bearded skin.

He breathed out, slow.

Then, he spoke.

“For all the Saints’ sakes,” he breathed. He was impressed at how even his voice sounded, when he still wanted to scream. “Dimitri. I love you, but you have got to start giving yourself half as much care as you do every other living soul in Fodlan.

He had the singular pleasure of seeing the King look very abashed.

“I have been drinking it,” he said, his lips curling downward into a thoughtful frown. “I am not lying to you, Felix, I swear it.” He winced, and dropped his gaze, breaking eye contact. It was a relief, more than anything. “Merely… exaggerating, somewhat.”

“You forget,” Felix said.

Dimitri nodded.

He sighed, releasing his cheeks and dropping his hands down into his lap. Not half a moment later, Dimitri caught them, and for a moment, Felix could only wonder at the sight of their intertwined fingers, black gloves and white, his own hands dwarfed by his king’s. Such easy, thoughtless affection…

No. He wouldn’t be distracted. He squared his shoulders, looking up.

“You can’t forget,” he said. “One missed dose is all it takes. It’ll keep you steady, but only if you always drink it when you’re meant to!”

He tried to speak in gentle tones, the way Dedue had when he had first explained the tea he and Mercedes had worked together to brew. It was a poor imitation.

“I understand,” Dimitri said.

“Do you?” Felix demanded. Much too harsh. Well. He was not Mercedes, and he was certainly not Dedue.

“Yes,” Dimitri said.

“Then… promise me you’ll try harder.” No, that wasn’t right. He ground his teeth, looking away. “And -- I will, too. You need to be reminded. Goddess knows I’m in your room in the morning and evening often enough I ought to be forcing you to drink it in front of me before anything else.”

Dimitri laughed faintly, a low, sweet chuckle that sent a dizzying little tingle all the way down Felix’s spine and settled at the base. He swallowed.

“Of course,” he said. “But -- it is my responsibility.”

Felix shook his head, not quite meeting his eyes. “It’s both of ours.”

“Nevertheless. I promise.”

He shouldn’t have asked for the vow, and yet… and yet, hearing it made him feel as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. He smiled faintly, nodding more to himself than to Dimitri. “All right,” he said. “Well… good. Honestly, the way you run yourself ragged for everyone else! LIke I said. You can give yourself at least that much consideration.”

“Ah,” Dimitri breathed, and then he was raising their linked hands, and Felix near burst into flames when he pressed his mouth against both sets of gloved knuckles, one after the other, his kiss warm even through the leather. “But that isn’t all you said, is it?” he breathed. “Say it again, won’t you? That you love me…”

Heart thudding in his throat and the frigid gardens suddenly feeling very warm, Felix snatched his hands back so quickly he near lost his gloves. “Ridiculous,” he muttered, and sprang to his feet.

For a moment, he simply stood there, shifting from one foot to the other, painfully aware of Dimitri’s gaze on him and trying to find anywhere else to look. From the direction of the palace, where light spilled from the great hall and the celebration continued, strings of music began to wind through the air, violins and piano and flutes all raised in pleasant harmonies.

The hair on the back of his neck stood up.

He blew out a harsh breath, sending his bangs dancing. “If you’re feeling more like yourself, we really ought to get back,” he said. Ugh. He sounded so marble-mouthed and sullen. He tried to inject a little bit of fucking dignity into his voice as he continued, to little success. “At this rate, we’re going to have an invent an actual emergency to explain ourselves.”

Dimitri just sat there, staring up at him. Felix didn’t dare look at his stupid handsome face. He thought he could guess what he’d see: that same painfully sincere adoration he sometimes had the misfortune of witnessing when he woke in the King’s strong arms.

He made a disgusted sound. His cheeks burned. “Or just sit here by yourself, if you want,” he muttered. “I’m freezing my ass off, and I promised Annette a dance.”

He turned on his heel to go.

Dimitri seized his wrist. “What about me?” he asked. His voice was very soft… ah, but the thread of authoritative power in it made Felix’s breath catch.

He swallowed. “What?”

Dimitri made a considering sound in the back of his throat, and Felix finally dared to look at him to see him staring up, blinking guilelessly. Utterly irresistible. “I don’t quite feel like myself, after all,” he said, slow and thoughtful. “I believe I may need a little more support from my most trusted advisor.”

“You’re ridiculous,” Felix scoffed.

“Dance with me,” Dimitri said, unfolding from the bench to his full height.

Felix swallowed. Hah. All this time, and he still felt a flutter in his chest and a little tightening in his abdomen at how the king towered over him like that, broad and vast and blotting out everything else. He was so focused on it that he almost didn’t truly hear the request.

He did, then. And snorted. “You can’t be serious.”

“Mn, but I am.” Dimitri tugged on his wrist, and Felix allowed himself to be pulled forward, stumbling against his bulk. His other hand was on his hip, then, searingly hot through all the layers of his finery. “Listen. Can’t you hear the music?”

“I can. There are half a dozen dignitaries waiting to dance with you.”

“And yet I can only think of you.”

He shouldn’t let himself be affected by such words… and yet. He allowed Dimitri to pull him in even closer, to adjust their positions so as in preparation for the first steps of a waltz, hands clasped, cradling his waist. Warmth in his chest fortified him against the cold.

“Please,” Dimitri breathed, his breath hot against his ear. The scratch of his beard tingled his skin. “Everyone may know the truth, but I am not quite bold enough to do it inside. Let me have this. It truly will steady me.”

Felix breathed slowly, letting his eyes fall closed. He slid his hand up Dimitri’s chest, curling it around his shoulder, and wrapped the other around his back. He blinked slowly up at him. “Fine,” he murmured. “One dance.”

They swept through the steps together, falling into the rhythm. Their boots crushed the snow beneath their feet, capes sending up swirling eddies of crystal dust. It was nearly as familiar as the steps of his sword forms, and Felix could not help but think, with a sort of wondrous, fierce pride, that there may be some validity in the idea that the world was a better place with more of this, and less of that.

Dimitri had built that world. And he had helped. What could possibly stand in their way, in the face of that undeniable reality?

Dimitri shifted his grip on him as the waltz within the hall slowed to a sweet, mournful rendition of an old Faerghus folk song. He pulled him in close, resting his chin on the top of his head, and Felix sighed and let himself relax fully into his arms.

It wasn’t so cold, in that secure circle.

“Ah, Felix,” Dimitri breathed against his hair. “I would do anything for you, you know. Anything you asked at all.”

And Felix smiled, feeling the corners of his eyes crinkle.

There was something to be said, really. For being really, truly happy.

“Anything?” he asked.

“Anything,” Dimitri echoed.

And he sighed, a sound of pure bliss. “Good,” he breathed. “Then -- please. Please. Do something about the new Lord Charon, before I pull a sword on the man.”

Dimitri’s surprised, open laughter mingled with the music and the falling snow, floating away into the darkness.