He is four years old when he meets them.
It is his first memory. He remembers nothing from the time before, of when there wasn’t a ‘them’.
Three of them are two years old. Two boys, one girl. His peer —if four year olds could truly have ‘peers’— is the eldest Fraldarius boy.
His name is Glenn.
They pick up sticks they pretend are swords and whack, thwack, and yank, until he trips and his knee bleeds.
With tears trailing down his fat cheeks, he looks to his father.
His father doesn’t look back.
Instead, the girl cries.
She toddles over, her own fat cheeks marked with big blobs of tears, and cries for him. She reaches for his fingers, her chubby pinky crossing his.
Her name is Ingrid.
Then, a small boy trots over. He looks to his brother, hand reaching for his. Their grip is tight.
His name is Felix.
And finally, an even smaller boy, dressed in blues and golds and silvers, fumbles over.
He falls. All rush over to him. The maids, the knights, the nobles, even his own father, who should have rushed over to him.
His name is Dimitri.
They will all be friends for the rest of their lives.
He is twenty-five years old when he reunites with them.
Three of them are twenty-three. Two men, one woman. His peer has since long passed, and the sound of his voice, the sight of his face, the memory of his existence, is fading.
They pick up swords and fight. They fight to live. To protect. To defend.
By the end of the battle, he wonders the point of it all as he looks upon the phantom that is allegedly his friend, liege and lord.
Then, as he feels her hand on his, and another’s on his shoulders, he knows.
He will kill, he will fight, he will defend.
He doesn’t know if he’ll survive.
But all he hopes for is that they will.
He is twelve years old when they find him at the bottom of a well.
Why are they here? They shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t want them to be here.
He’s the eldest. They can’t see him like this; bleeding, drenched and starved.
“Sylvain!” Ingrid yells, face peering out over the well. “We’ll get you out! Then Glenn and I will beat up whoever did this to you!”
“Not if I get them first!” It’s Felix, but he can’t see him because he’s too short. “You have to take me too, Glenn!”
He sees Glenn say something. He doesn’t hear what, though.
But he does remember something. Right. He’s the eldest. Not him.
Still. They can’t see him like this.
He is twenty five years old when they speak about Glenn again.
Not all of them, though. Just the three of them, despite the fact that it should be four.
He’s the one to bring it up.
“...Hey,” he begins. “What do you think Glenn would think of us now?”
“...I’m not sure,” she says. Her eyes remain on the fire. “But I hope he would be proud. Of all of us.”
“Not of that rabid boar.”
A warning. This will likely be the end of it.
Then, she whispers, “...Do you remember?”
But it isn’t.
The iron of a sword clangs against a whetstone. “Remember what?”
Her eyes bore into the fire, ashes crackling. “When Glenn was first knighted. I remember it as if it were yesterday.”
“Yeah, I do. I mean, it was a big deal. Youngest knight in history and all.”
“...Yes, it was. Yet,” she says, then pauses. She bites her trembling lips. “Yet why is it that his face is so difficult to recall?”
She cries. He almost joins her. Felix doesn’t come close.
Still, they talk. Perhaps because it is the three of them now.
When it shouldn’t be, because there are four.
When it used to be five.
He doesn’t want it to become three.
So, he’ll fight for it.
No matter what.
He is fifteen years old when he becomes the eldest.
A tragedy. A conspiracy. A treason.
A betrayal. A war. A retribution.
He doesn’t care for any of the labels.
He cares for them.
Will they still be them?
When they are just four? When they were five? When the day will come when they will just be one?
He needs them to be.
He needs them.
And so, he travels from Gautier to Fraldarius, to Galatea to Fhirdiad.
Because they need him.
Well. He hopes that they do.
Because if they don’t—
He is twenty five years old and they still need him.
He is bleeding and on the brink of death, so it’s the greatest timing, really, to be informed of such. But with the way that Felix’s bloodshot eyes are glaring at him through tears, and with how Ingrid is sobbing over his bleeding and battered body and how the ghost —he— pauses to look at him, his one eye widening, lips parting, lance dropping to his feet….it just can’t be helped, can it?
They’ll always need him.
“Sylvain!” they yell.
He doesn’t reply. Instead, he thinks with such clarity only one near death can have.
Will he die? What will happen after death? Does anything even happen? If not, what will happen here?
Who’s going to be the eldest?
Oh no. He can’t let that happen.
That man is a disaster. Now, even more so. As the current, still-living eldest (though barely), he needs to prevent this.
And so, he tries to stand.
Emphasis on ‘tries’, because he ends up slipping on his own pool of blood and vomit.
“Sylvain!” they scream.
He is seventeen when he first faces mortal danger. When it happens, he is in a girl’s bed, enjoying her touch, her smell and her looks.
What happens, then, is that the Gray Lion bursts into the room, in the middle of their pleasure— or rather, the climax. Mutual, consented pleasure, but the Lord Gwendal doesn’t seem to care as his chest heaves, nose flared, a lance in his hand.
An actual lance. Not a stick that a child decrees one as.
A lance in the hand of the famed ‘Gray Lion’.
He will die. He will need to accept this.
Still. If he won’t give his damndest to avoid that fate, then what in hell is ever going to make him try?
And so, on the sixth day of the Ethereal Moon, bedsheet wrapped around his waist, he jumps out of the balcony and runs for it.
He runs by the chickens by the coop, by the guards by the gate who are too bewildered by the sight of Margrave Gautier’s son dashing past them —stark naked, because a goose kidnapped his remaining sense of decency— to accost him, and crashes back into his carriage.
He hides in his bedroom in Gautier for the rest of the month.
Once he hears how Ingrid sorted it out for him, he finally leaves his mansion.
Oh, how crisp the wintry air feels. How beautiful the melodious chirps of the winterbirds are.
Oh. How furious she looks. How ready she seems to sock him in the face.
She socks him in the face.
He is twenty five years old when he wakes up, surprised that he lived. Even more surprising is Ingrid, arms over his torso, sleeping on her knees by his cot. The moment he shifts, she wakes.
He croaks out, “Hey.”
“I hate you,” she says. “I hate you.”
“I know.” He strokes her hair. She doesn’t move away. His heart skips a beat, for some reason. “But I don’t hate you.”
He doesn’t hate her. He likes her. He thinks she’s pretty, in fact. But, does he—
“I know,” she whispers, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
With bitten lips, she buries her face in her palms again. She’s crying.
He never wanted her to cry.
He just didn’t want her to die.
He is twenty years old when he sees Felix again.
He smiles. “Hey.”
Felix nods. “Hey.”
They look to the battlefield. It has not begun yet, and so there is no death, but there will be. There will be blood scattered across the plains, human heads laying at their feet and the inevitable feeling of bile rising in their throats at the scent and sight of death.
Enemy or ally, it matters not.
Death is indiscriminate.
“So,” he begins, shrugging his shoulders, the Lance of Ruin loose in his grip. “Ready to kill some imperial bastards?”
Death should discriminate, however. There are people who deserve to die and people who deserve to live. If only Death were a woman— he bet she’d find him very convincing.
Felix smirks, adjusting Aegis. It shines, pulsing. By the end of this, it will seem more alive than those who will meet the end of its master’s sword.
They fight. They kill. They defend.
But it is not them when it is just two.
But he’ll fight for the other two.
The one who passed and the one who wishes she were here.
He will. For them.
He is nine years old when he begins to enjoy the sight of women. How soft their smiles are, how long their hair is, how they have such pretty faces. It is not just the sight of women that he finds mesmerising, however.
Smell, for example. How they often smell of flowers; lavenders, roses, jasmine. Of fruit; peach, pear, persimmon. The woods; patchouli, vetiver, sandalwood.
Not girls, though. Girls are weird. Like Ingrid. She’s not pretty. She’s a mess. Her smile shows her missing teeth, and her hair is so thick and choppy and straw-coloured and ugly. And her face. It’s so disgusting, with all the residue of pumpkin pie and caramel apples splattered all over her cheeks.
She perpetually smells like food or horses. She is also too scraggly. How is it that despite the fact she loves meat so much, it doesn’t translate to meat being on her?
She’s not his type. He’s only ten and he knows that.
Her grandmother, however—
He is twenty-five when he realises that Ingrid is beautiful. Not pretty, or cute.
How her smile is not soft, but still mesmerising nonetheless. How her hair, which is so short yet still so enchanting, shines under the sun while astride her pegasus. Gold against gold. Iron against iron. Fighting, protecting, defending.
Her face. She’s wearing makeup now, but even so, she looks too beautiful.
How is it that she is so beautiful now? Or was she always?
And he realises this in the middle of a war.
Goddess. He wishes he were ten again.
Things were so much simpler then. Not just this war, not just her.
Him and her.
If they ever become a him and a her, what about them?
“What’s the matter with you?” she asks.
He has no answer. He wishes he knew.
And so she swipes him off of his feet with her training lance, sweaty brow looking from above, fringe side swept, chest heaving.
She’s hot, too.
He is eight years old when the difference in their station becomes clearer.
Which, to say, is not drastic. He is not a peasant. He is to be a margrave.
And he is to be king. So maybe it is stark.
Still, it doesn’t feel like it.
Especially when he looks up to him, admiration in his eyes.
A future king, admiring a future margrave.
“Wow, Sylvain! Do that again!”
They are eight and six years old.
For now, it hardly matters.
He is twenty-five years old when he nearly breaks.
“....Don’t! Father, Glenn, I swear...that woman, I—!”
Because he’s broken.
He slinks away, hiding away in the shadows of the cathedral.
As he walks down the bridge, Ingrid passes by him, with a platter of food in hand. Some flatbread. Cheese. Dried meat. A pitcher filled with water.
His friend, his liege, his lord, his—
He is nineteen years old when he is at his most vulnerable. He is in his room. He is thinking.
“If you were never— if you hadn’t been born, I—”
A knock at the door.
“...Sylvain?” Her voice is soft. “I’ve brought you food. Can I come in?”
He opens the door. She seeks his eyes.
With a small thud, he lets his head fall against her shoulder.
He doesn’t cry because he knows she’ll understand.
He is twenty-five years old when he experiences the worst battle of his life.
He doesn’t. She doesn’t. The other two don’t die either.
But another does. One who reminds him of when five became four.
It is the most human he’s sounded in months.
Even so, he never wanted this.
He is fifteen years old when he ceases calling him by name.
“Why?” he asks because he doesn’t like it. It’s obvious.
“Because you’ll be king, your Highness.”
“Stop calling me that.” He clenches his fists and grits his teeth. Even so, he still looks so feminine. He looks more like a girl than Ingrid. “I hate it. Just call me Dimitri again.”
“I was always going to be king. You knew this. Why now?”
They both know why.
“Because my father’s dead? Did the realisation finally strike you that you were speaking to your future king? That I was never a mere child?”
He wishes that he never replied.
Because that day, he will remember his haunted expression when the words left his lips for an eternity. From this day forward, he will carry the regret with him till his deathbed.
Still. He can’t ever call him by name again.
He is their friend. Their lord and their liege.
He is His Highness.
He is twenty five when they become them again.
The one who wished she was here is here and the one who passed returned. But he returned as a separate entity who existed without them. A phantom. A husk of his former self.
He killed, but he did not protect. He did not defend. He murdered, he slaughtered.
But he is no longer that.
He is their friend. Their lord and their liege.
“Sylvain.” A tear trails from underneath his eyepatch, down his cheek. “I am truly so sorry.”
His friend. His lord. His liege.
“I know.” He lets out a shaky breath. “I forgive you, Dimitri.”
They are them again.
He is nineteen years old when he accepts that he is broken.
He is someone who can’t love. All he feels is its sinister cousin: lust.
He is incapable.
He can’t love her. Or her. Or her, or her, her, or her.
He can’t love.
He is broken.
But he can love them, can’t he?
“What’s the point of training if you’re going to space out like a slack-jawed fool? Get into position.”
Isn’t that enough?
“Sylvain...I speak from a place of concern. You truly must consider the effects that your lifestyle will have on your health! Notice that it is not a ‘may’. It is a ‘will’!”
Can’t that be enough?
“I can’t believe this. Give me a break already! I am sick of cleaning up after you!”
It should be enough.
Yeah. It’s enough.
He is twenty five years old when he falls in love for the first time.
And it’s her, of all people. What? How? When? Where? Why?
What? He’s in love with her. Yeah. He’s in love with her. Shit.
How? Well. How! How does one even fall in love? That’s a stupid question. Doesn’t it just happen? Not that he really gets it. Still, moving on.
When? Literally now. Just now. But who knows, maybe earlier. Maybe days ago. Maybe weeks ago. Maybe months. Maybe years? No. No, no, no not years. How daft would he have to be to not realise after years? Then again, he is pretty stupid.
Where? Here. In the cathedral. Or rather, there, because he was there and now he is running away at the speed of a flying pegasi — and why did he have to use that as a metaphor? Now the image of her in the skies is stuck in his mind again, replaying and looping and revisioning and rewiring. Damn it!
Why? Because she’s so beautiful and so comforting. So familiar. Maybe because she is a part of them.
That makes more sense that it should.
What, how, when, where, why—
He is twenty-two years old when he begins to really think about why he is the way he is.
Perhaps it is the war that causes the introspection. Perhaps it is the flask in his hand. Perhaps it is because he is with an old friend.
“...Hey, Felix. Why am I the way that I am?”
“What does even mean?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then why the hell did you expect me to understand?”
“‘Cause you always know these things. Sure, you’re an ass about it, but you’re always right.”
They continue to drink their flasks. Then, the war horn sounds.
Back to work. Back to killing.
After the battle, Felix turns to him.
“You don’t need to know all that stuff. Just protect my back.”
How is it that he is always, always right?
He is twenty five years old when he understands why he is the way that he is. It takes a lot of self-reflection, a lot of introspection, a lot of uncomfortable truths.
But he won't say.
It's his right.
It's his right.
(Miklan, hers, them—)
He is twenty-five.
He is twenty-five.
Not four. Not fourteen. Not twenty.
He is sixteen when he begins to categorise women into two categories.
One: that he’d fuck her. Two: that he wouldn’t.
Man. He is so fucked up.
He’s so fucked up, in fact, that he doesn’t even care.
Because why should he?
He is twenty five years old when he says too much.
“You’re important to me.” That part was fine. It was the next part that was too much. “More than you’ll ever know.”
He really hopes it is ‘more than she will ever know’ because the irony will not escape him if she does end up knowing from his statement that she will ever know—
He blinks. “What?”
“It’s nothing. See you, Sylvain.”
What just happened? Wha—what?
Did he really say too much? Because judging from her reaction— well.
It's almost as if she said too much.
...Did— did she say too much?
Somebody. Smack him.
He is fourteen years old when his father smacks him for the first time.
It is more shocking than he thought it would be — despite the fact that he knew this would happen. Isn’t that why he did it? So that he would be beaten?
So that Miklan wouldn’t be the only one?
“Disgusting." His voice is stone cold. It will never have passion. Snake. "The shame you have brought on our house is a stain that we will never be rid of.”
Yeah. He probably is.
He feels like it, anyway.
He is twenty five years old and she calls him beautiful.
It is the weirdest thing he’s ever heard her say. Him? Beautiful? What?
He says as much.
“I—” She blushes. She stutters. She’s...flustered? By him? “—just forget it.”
And now she expects him to forget it?
She called him beautiful. He will never forget.
“You know, if it helps, I think you’re beautiful too. More beautiful than anything in the world.”
She rolls her eyes. The blush is gone.
Damn it. “I was being serious. I meant every word.”
She blinks. The red of her blush returns tenfold.
He flustered her, of all people.
He is fourteen years old when his flirtations start to be taken seriously. Before, they all brushed it off. Now, they recognise his intent. Most shut him down. He is too young.
But some reciprocate.
That reciprocation becomes an addiction.
He is twenty five when he tells them.
He tells Felix first.
He merely nods. “Good luck.”
He then tells Dimitri.
He blinks, before then smiling softly. “I hope it goes well. Best of luck, my friend."
He tells her.
“I love you.”
She pauses. She blinks. She then nods. “I know.”
Oh. So she knows. Huh. Okay. Cool.
Then, she cries, her quivering lips formed into a smile. “I love you too.”
He grabs her, pressing his lips against hers. He probably should have been gentler, but she doesn’t seem to think so, by the way she grabs his collar and pulls him in deeper.
Now he feels like crying. But it’s okay, she’ll understand.
They all do. Always.
He is twenty-five years old and the war that he has been fighting since he was twenty is coming to an end.
The end to something that felt like an eternity. The end to something that he wishes to end in their victory. The end.
But there's always another beginning, isn't there?
When there is a new beginning, will they change?
It will because he wants her to be his.
But he also wants for the other two to always be by his side, even if they change.
What will them mean?
To be them.
He is fourteen years old when he first has sex.
He is probably too young. She is definitely too old. For him, anyway.
Still, he enjoyed it. So who cares?
He enjoyed it.
He is twenty-five years old when Ingrid is beneath him, in his arms.
It’s strange how she managed to cross the category.
Perhaps she’s, in fact, transcended any sort of categorisation.
Because simply, as she lies beneath him, calling his name, clawing at his back, fingers digging into his hair, a tear striking down her raised cheeks, smiling—
“Sylvain,” she says, “I love you.”
—he realises that he just loves her.
That’s it. Love. Not lust.
He is seventeen when marriage talks begin to appear.
Felix rebukes all. He is fifteen and devoted to his sword. He cares little for it.
His Highness considers it. He is the prince. He needs to. He cares more for it.
He ignores it. He is the eldest and therefore the likeliest to get married first out of all of them. He has to. He doesn't want it. He doesn't want to care for it.
Ingrid is brought up as an option for all of them.
The thought makes him more uncomfortable than he would admit.
Felix could never marry Ingrid. They already cemented their relationship as siblings. With her, his promised sister from birth, to marry to his blood brother. It did not happen but the bond was made. The adults can't ignore that.
His Highness could marry Ingrid but he won't. Her house provides little benefit to the dynasty. Plus, His Highness could never see her in that way and neither could Ingrid. What did the adults expect? They've known each other since they struggled to walk.
He could never marry Ingrid, either. He could never see her in that way. She is in category number two. He could never.
He loves her, sure, but in the manner that Kyphon loved Loog. Friends. Then again, those licentious novels disagree with that. But anyway, they're friends.
They’re just friends. They’ll always be.
He is twenty-five when he asks her.
It is the end of the war. It is the beginning of something else. He doesn't know what that will quite be, and so he asks, in an attempt to make something of it.
“Will you marry me?”
For her answer, she kisses him. Her lips are soft.
Oh. No, those are his own tears. He’s just crying. He’s so stupid.
She caresses his tears away from his cheeks but it just makes it worse.
He loves her.
She loves him.
He is twenty six years old when Ingrid gives him another to love.
She is small. She is fragile. She is soft.
She is theirs.
“Hello,” he whispers. Her finger tightens around his pinky. “Guess who I am?”
Her nail is so small, he can't even see it.
For some reason, that’s what makes him cry.
She is four years old when she meets them.
She picks up a stick that she declares a lance and challenges the Fraldarius son.
He accepts, picking up a branch and decreeing it an axe.
She cries foul. A branch is not a stick. Though, a stick is not a lance and a branch is not an axe in the first place. She looks to her father —him— sniffling and crying. He smiles, caressing the teardrops from her cheeks. It helps. She smiles, grin showing, giggles rising.
Then the other boy, dressed in white, blue and green, picks up a tree trunk from its roots.
The other two shriek in terror and run away.
The boy, who wished to decree his trunk as a weapon in the manner of his new friends, cries. Most rush to the boy. The maids, the knights, his own wife, his king and his queen.
But him? He shrieks also, following after his daughter and her newfound rival.
The little prince bawls.
He laughs, returning back with the children in tow.
“Sorry, Your Highness,” he says. “Forgive us?”
The prince hiccups and sobs.
Then, she reaches out, chubby fingers meeting chubby fingers.
Then, he reaches out, hand reaching for the Prince’s, as if they were brothers.
Will they become a 'them?'