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It was well past midnight when Estinien arrived in Ishgard, hopping up one of the city's side walls after skirting around the main entrance, relying on years of jumping up sharp peaks to guide his steps. He didn't want to deal with whoever would've interviewed him about his identity, origin, and purpose if he'd passed through the Steps of Faith the traditional way. Too much trouble when half of Ishgard probably thought him a monster and half of the remaining population looked at him as though he'd been sent by Halone. Frankly, the guards who spat at his feet and called him traitor were far preferable to the young Temple Knights who stopped him and pestered him with endless questions about his dealings with Hraesvelgr and the defeat of Nidhogg. At least the first interaction ended fast enough.

Going in the back way was the best. So Estinien slowly made his way along the edges of Ishgard, having leapt off the bridge leading into the city just before he reached the gates so he could climb up the harsh stone peaks the city had been built on. He briefly apologized to whoever was on guard duty that might have seen him make what would have been a suicide jump for most men. He just didn't have the time or patience to deal with people at the moment.

The bells indicating the hour began to ring when Estinien's eyes finally landed upon his destination, two echoing clangs reverberating through the stone city as the de Borel mansion came into sight.

"Why in the world must you live in such an inconvenient place," Estinien muttered, choosing to walk the last minute to the mansion rather than simply jumping over to save time. 

Aymeric was Lord Commander. Speaker of the House of Lords. Though he kept his house staff small, there were probably guards stationed somewhere out of sight to keep him safe, especially after the assassination attempt so many months before. Better to be a man in full armor walking around as though he belonged than someone hurrying through the night like he meant to do harm.

Once he made it to the side of the manner, running along the wall that marked the edge of the city, Estinien did a quick sweep of the area to make sure no guards could see him. They couldn't. So, he leapt up onto the balcony he knew led to Aymeric's study, testing the door and finding it unlocked.

How irresponsible, Estinien thought. He hadn't given any indication he would be appearing that night, even if he had mentioned he would be coming back to visit Ishgard 'soon' in the last letter he'd sent. Estinien would need to have a word with Aymeric about his safety and self-preservation practices. Any half-competent dragoon or rogue who was simply good at climbing could break in. Which Estinien was not doing, as he had some sort of standing invitation to enter and had avoided the front door only because he didn't want to disturb whatever staff might still be in the mansion so late at night. He had permission.

He also could've camped outside the city for another night and waited for first light to enter, a time by which most noble servants were already bustling about. But then it would be harder to enter the city unnoticed, so Estinien chose to enter when he arrived instead, which just so happened to be the dead of night.

He was about halfway through removing his armor when he heard the creak of the mansion's front door opening, freezing him in place. He slowly and silently set down his shortened cuirass, careful not to let it make contact with the gauntlets, pauldrons, or couters that he'd already removed. His lance was in his hands a moment later, eyes trained on the study door.

When it opened about two minutes later, it was to reveal a sleepy Aymeric who somehow didn't notice Estinien's presence until he lit one of the sconces by the door with the small candle he'd brought with him.

Then the light of the flames licked at Estinien's skin and Aymeric jumped, nearly tossing the candle he held and very much tossing the papers he'd had pressed between his left arm and side.

"Estinien!?" Aymeric exclaimed, something half between a whisper and a shout. A noise of shock that was still semi-aware of the fact that there was probably someone sleeping in the servants' quarters two floors below. "Why…what...when...?"

Estinien chuckled at Aymeric's sleepy blinks and wide eyed expression, setting his lance aside and crossing his arms.

"It's good to see you again too," he responded, a sly smile creeping up his face.

Aymeric hung his head for a moment, moving to set the candle on the table before kneeling to collect the papers he'd dropped. Estinien moved to do the same.

"No, no, it's wonderful to see you. I simply...it has been…" Aymeric trailed off, murmuring something under his breath.

"I came in unannounced and scared you. The fault here is mine, so don't worry yourself about whatever you've done," Estinien replied, eyes catching on the slight trembling of Aymeric's slim fingers as he picked up fallen documents.

"No, I knew you would be coming sometime this week. And as I said, it’s most wonderful to see you again, unannounced or not. It was my own-"

"Aymeric." Estinien put his hands over the other man's, voice firm and gaze strong when they made eye contact. "I do believe it would be best for you to sit down and let me do this. The circles under your eyes are worse than those under mine, and mine are half-hereditary."

Though he opened his mouth as if he had some sort of retort, Aymeric soon closed it and rose to his feet, Estinien offering his hand to push off of. As Aymeric settled into one of the plush chairs by the fireplace, a knock came from the hallway, followed by the appearance of one of Aymeric's servants in the open doorway, firewood in hand.

"Laurentien, you didn't have to, you know," Aymeric sighed, frown visible.

The old man simply smiled in return, setting the wood down in the fireplace and lighting it a moment later.

"You are not nearly as quiet as you believe yourself to be, my lord. I was already awake so I found it appropriate to help out. There is water set to boil in the kitchen, and I will bring tea up shortly," Laurentien offered back, a glint of something fatherly in his eye.

Aymeric sighed once more, a smile on his lips even as he shook his head. "Oh all right, if you insist. Could I perchance trouble you to make a second cup? We appear to have an unexpected visitor."

Laurentien bowed. "Of course. Madeleine is already preparing his room as we speak."

Estinien blinked. They had noticed him?

Laurentien winked back. "I am afraid you are not quite as quiet as you believe either, Ser. But you're much better - my lord has been hopelessly noisy since he was a child, and I doubt there's anything that can be done about it."

"Laurentien!" Aymeric cried back, a faint pink dusting his cheeks.

The man let out a hearty chuckle. "I must collect the tea now, but I will be back shortly. It is good to see you again, Ser Estinien. Though he may not admit to it, Lord Aymeric is always in a far better mood when you're around."

As Laurentien walked off Aymeric leaned back in his chair, sliding down it slightly so his back was at an angle. "Really...I am no longer a child! There's no need to make fun of me so…"

Estinien raised an eyebrow. "You are his employer. You could tell him to stop if you really wanted him to."

Aymeric hummed. "What happened to your disdain for lords who ordered their servants around like livestock?"

"As someone who grew up caring for livestock like my own siblings, I take offense to that comparison," Estinien shot back, smile growing wide. "But you're right - the noble bastards who treat their servants like shite deserve no respect and then less. I only joke because I know you won't. In the ten years I've known you I've seen you treat the servants better than some of the pompous cravats treat their own family. Though the distance of respect is there, if I didn't know better I might think Laurentien an odd grandfather." Estinien paused for a moment, trying to judge whether his joke would come across well or not, and whether he should keep it to himself. He decided to try anyway, hoping to lighten the move and erase the expression that threatened to give Aymeric permanent frown lines. “Then again, even the noble bastards know what proper respect is. They could do to learn a thing or two from you lot.”

Aymeric spluttered. “Estinien!”

It seemed his gamble had paid off. So often mentions of Aymeric’s father could sour the mood, but this was vague enough and far enough removed from the previous archbishop that it seemed catastrophe had been averted. Good. Estinien wasn’t sure what he would’ve done had the joke failed.

“I suppose it’s the figurative bastards who are the bad ones, not the literal ones. Most of the bastards I’ve had the pleasure of knowing have been fairly great. They tend to be wonderful fighters - so much more to earn, so much more to fight for. I’m sure you’ve observed the same,” Estinien said with a shrug.

Aymeric sighed. “So much more, yes…”

The conversation died off, Aymeric staring out the window as Estinien finished picking up the scattered documents. He set them on Aymeric’s desk, not bothering to read any of the text they bore. If it was anything that would remotely interest him, Aymeric would let him know. The man had always been good at gauging Estinien’s interests and feelings - it was why they’d gotten along so well after they’d finally spoken for the first time. 

Unlike the soldiers who’d shunned him for daring to take the glory of killing a dragon as a mere commoner, the spouses and siblings who refused to meet his eye after he survived when their loved ones did not, or the young recruits who marveled at the fact that two men barely into their twenties managed to take down such a beast on their own, Aymeric had actually cared to give Estinien the level of attention he wanted. That was, the offer to talk and be there when needed, without the pressure of always standing at his side. 

Estinien had never been the most chatty person. When he was a child, back when he had actual friends and family (more than just one for each, more than just Aymeric and Alberic - when he had tens, dozens of people he enjoyed spending time with at least occasionally, even if he still relished the time alone with the karakuls in the hills), he’d participated in town gatherings and family dinners. He greeted the village elders as he passed by. Sometimes joined the other kids when they played silly games pretending to be knights or heroes. He didn’t completely isolate himself, even if Hamignant was far more popular with the rest of the village than he was.

But then Nidhogg had happened, and everyone he’d ever been close to died. Their conversations died with them. Maybe if Alberic had been a little less awkward and had tried a little harder to talk to Estinien those first few months instead of rushing away to training in the morning and standing in the doorway like he had something to say but wasn’t sure how to say it in the evenings, Estinien would have gone back to his old ways. Conversations when polite. Chatting when the moment arose.

But Alberic didn’t, and Estinien didn’t want to talk, and so he didn’t. And by the time he finally felt like it again, he had nothing to say. He’d gotten used to silence. He held few if any similarities to the people who tried to talk to him. He saw no reason to speak to them if it was going to waste his time and energy contributing to a conversation that was going to die as soon as whoever was speaking to him realized Estinien was a terrible conversation partner. 

It was a bit pretentious, Estinien realized so many years later. Poor effort on his part. A bad attitude. But it was too late to change the past.

So for years he kept quiet, usually only responding when directly spoken to and even then trying his best to be blunt enough to end the conversation as quickly as possible. Not rude, if he could help it. He often failed.

Aymeric hadn’t minded, though. He’d respected Estinien’s silence and love of privacy. He let Estinien do his own thing most of the time, but he didn’t give up on him like so many others had. 

He would come by Estinien’s bunk in the barracks, mentioning the other members of their squadron were going out for the night and that Estinien was welcome to join if he so pleased. If Estinien declined, he would politely nod and walk away. If Estinien joined, Aymeric would steer most attention away from him, allowing Estinien to experience some camaraderie without being shoved headfirst into a boisterous crowd that wanted too much of him. When Estinien disappeared after a battle gone...not ever as terribly wrong as that first one, but not well either, Aymeric would seek him out on whatever rooftop he'd escaped to and sit by his side, available but not pressing the matter either. Even before he’d been transferred from the Temple Knights to the Dragoons Estinien had worked long and hard on his jump, and he knew it was no mean feat for Aymeric, who could jump no higher than your average soldier, to reach whatever out-of-the-way locations Estinien liked to run off to.

Things like that were what got Estinien to finally open up, so many years after he’d resigned himself to the fact that he’d likely never have a true friend again. Alberic was a father figure, and though he grew better over the years, always held a slight awkwardness or hesitation when dealing with Estinien that he never figured out (at least, not until the Warrior of Light appeared and the truth eventually spilled). Aymeric, though, was his age, and held no such awkwardness. He was a perfectly fine people person. There was a reason he’d risen through the ranks so quickly, and why he was such a fabulous politician in the current day. He had a way of seeing right through you, while having the mindfulness to not expose whatever he’d seen unless you gave him permission.

All in all, Aymeric was the best friend Estinien could ask for. His closest companion. One he never wished to let go of, so long as Aymeric would allow him to remain by his side.

Ysayle had been a good travelling partner, once he’d finally gotten over his preconceived notions of her. Most likely would have been a true, wonderful friend had she survived. Alphinaud was a delightful young boy, and though he and Hamignant held few similarities, was still like a little brother Estinien loved to tease but felt a need to protect. The Warrior of Light had needed no such protection, but had been a constant presence at his side for so many months, and was a second Azure Dragoon he sometimes felt was far worthier than himself. He was glad for their company, and hoped to see them again sometime, when they had finished the adventures that so often called them away or simply ran into Estinien mid-journey.

But Aymeric. Oh, Aymeric. 

Aymeric was something else entirely. He hadn’t the words to describe how he felt about Aymeric, intense and wonderful as it was.

Papers out of the way, Estinien sat on a chair matching Aymeric’s, located on the other side of a small table in front of the fireplace. They were only about a yalm apart. He watched the slow rise and fall of Aymeric’s chest as he fought sleep, eyelids and dark eyelashes drooping slowly before shooting back open as Aymeric blinked to keep himself awake. His curls were falling into his eyes, somewhat flattened. Had he been resting with his head in one hand, pen in the other in his office in the Congregation? How long had he been exhausting himself for?

Estinien didn’t get the chance to ask, Laurentien returning with tea a few moments later.

He set a small tray down on the side table, two steaming teacups on wide saucers, a matching teapot, and small containers with syrup and milk on top. All had a swirling floral design painted on the delicate porcelain. Estinien recognized them as something Aymeric had mentioned belonged to the late Viscountess Borel.

Aymeric thanked Laurentien, Estinien doing the same. With that the man departed, leaving the two alone.

“This better not have any sort of stimulant in it,” Estinien muttered, sniffing his tea before tasting it. City Ishgardians tended to like their food and drink absolutely full of flavor, to the point it was overwhelming. Too much or too many at once to appreciate any one on its own. Some might call Coerthan food bland, and he wasn’t one to argue with them, but he preferred bland to ten onzes of salt for a single bowl of soup. 

“It doesn’t,” Aymeric responded after a long inhale following his first sip, letting the steam brush against his face. Estinien swore he could see a few tiny droplets of vapor condense to sit upon his eyelashes, blinked away a moment later. “I can’t recall the name at the moment, but I know the taste well enough to say it won’t be helping either of us stay up until dawn. I think it’s a chamomile relative, in fact, so mayhap I’ll drift off in the middle of our conversation, falling all the way over onto your shoulder dead asleep.”

Estinien huffed, bringing the teacup up to his face to hide as much of his expression as he could while also getting a taste of the surprisingly mild tea. “You are permitted to go to bed, you know. You don’t have to remain awake simply because I’ve returned. I won’t disappear before sunrise, I swear. I mean to remain in the city for at least a few days this time.”

“Only a few days?” Aymeric sounded disappointed.

Estinien bit his lip. The sound of dejection hurt far more than it should have, coming from what should have been a perfectly innocent question.

“At least, not only. I can stay longer, if you wish. So long as you promise to sleep properly. If my presence causes you to stay up until sunrise on a daily basis when you already seem to be getting far less sleep than is healthy, I may have to see myself out.”

“No, no, I won’t make a habit of this. It’s simply…” Aymeric trailed off.

“Simply…?” Estinien repeated, trying to encourage Aymeric to continue.

Aymeric took a deep breath. “It is simply that I have something very important to say tonight. Something to say before news breaks in the morning. Something I must say to you, because I dearly wished to tell you the moment I confirmed the situation that allowed it to come to be, and somehow Halone has granted my wish to have you here now, the day that came.”

Estinien’s eyes narrowed. “Please don’t tell me war has broken out,” he breathed, setting down his cup and rising for a moment before kneeling at Aymeric’s feet. The fire felt warm at his back. “Have the Dzamaels finally rounded up enough idiots to launch an actual attack on the dragons that I haven’t heard about? Are they ejecting you from the House? Have they decided to eliminate the House of Commons? Has the Alliance been broken, or the Archbishop declared he isn’t content as merely a religious leader and desires the political authority his predecessors-”

“Estinien!” Aymeric shouted, reaching down to grasp Estinien’s hands, free of gauntlets but still covered in the thin black gloves he wore underneath. “It’s nothing so dire. Nothing so negative. Besides, I doubt I would learn of any special news about the dragons before you. You have a way of spontaneously manifesting when anything of import happens with concern to them. And politicking is going well enough. In fact…” he looked away, swallowing hard. “Really, I’m so good with words most of the time, and yet now when it truly counts they seem to fail me,” he mumbled.

“You needn’t make whatever you’re saying elegant just for me,” Estinien insisted, rubbing the backs of Aymeric’s hands, wishing he could feel the skin instead of just the fabric of his own gloves. “Just spit it out. I’d hate to have you collapse on me mid-sentence because you spent so long considering your words exhaustion won out.”

Aymeric nodded. “It’s more an issue of deciding where to begin, truly. But please rise. If either of us should be kneeling now it should be me.”

One of Estinien’s eyebrows shot up. He stayed still otherwise. “What does that mean?”

Aymeric cleared his throat. “Are you aware of the issues the Houses have been debating the past few weeks, or has word not reached you during your travels?”

“I’m not, and it hasn’t. All I know is that Ishgard continues to recover, participating in the Alliance and rebuilding the Firmament all the while. That, and what you’ve mentioned in your letters.”

“I see. Most of our recent debates have been about establishing social order in this time of turmoil, trying to create a system that does not totally strip the high houses of power while also not leaving the lower class to grovel in the streets because nothing has been provided for them. Ways to fix employment so women’s wages and permissions are not tied to their fathers or husbands or sons. Ways to create opportunities for citizens to raise their own social status without relying solely on handouts while not being left entirely alone either. Ways to make the House of Commons and its decisions respected by the House of Lords, ways to keep the archbishop in a position of power the devout desire without handing over the reigns, ways to assure the people their faith is not wrong despite the lies that the church perpetrated for so long, and so on.”

“Quite the plate you’ve got there.”

“Indeed. And most recently…”

“...Most recently?”

“We’ve been working on marriage laws. The disparities between hyur and elezen in Ishgard are well known, and well visible. Unlike Ul’dah, where the government is dominated by Lalafell but hyur, Roegadyn, and others still have the chance to rise to power if they meet the monetary requirements, hyur have no chance in Ishgard due to the outdated laws that decree only elezen - the rightful descendents of Haldrath, his remaining knights, and their people - can hold high office. Though the House of Lords is still elezen-only, the House of Commons is not. Thus did the Commons propose striking down the outdated laws barring hyur from certain jobs and positions, and the Lords agreed. 

“What followed was a large review of laws and decrees relating to hyur-elezen relations. Early last week, a law barring the marriage of hyur and elezen was brought up. Upon reviewing the scripture and the earliest documents remaining from our nation’s founding, it was decided the law had no firm reason to exist and was struck down. Largely by push from the House of Commons, which made a near-unanimous vote in favor of doing so, confirmed by the House of Lords which had a slight majority in agreement. Ultimately signed by my hand.”

Aymeric closed his eyes, hand going slack in Estinien’s fingers, which had never let go.

“Not to lessen the benefits of this decision, but what does this have to do with what worries you?” Estinien asked, puzzled. He said there was no fear of attack or retaliation against him currently. What could have him so worried?

Then something clicked. It didn’t really make sense, but it was the only thing Estinien could think of. “Unless...you plan to marry Lucia, for some reason. Last I checked she wasn’t interested in men, though. Has her mind changed, or is this part of some plot I’ve missed out on while I was gone?”

Aymeric spluttered, jerking back momentarily and eyes wide, mouth agape in confusion. “Marry Lucia!? No, that isn’t who-” he inhaled sharply. “Yes, we ruled hyur and elezen may now marry. I am glad of it, and would have things no different. But unless things have changed since we last spoke you’re right about Lucia, and though she’s a dear friend I don’t have any plans of taking her as my wife. And please don’t mention this part of the conversation to her. I don’t imagine she would be very happy with you suggesting such things.”

Estinien breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay, you and Lucia aren’t getting married. Good. Some of the Temple Knights are about to lose a few hundred gil, whenever confirmation of that gets out. But you’re rambling. What do marriage laws have to do with anything?” he pressed, unsure of why any of this was relevant in any way other than proving just how amazing a politician and person Aymeric was, which he knew regardless.

“Once the old hyur-elezen law was struck down, other marriage laws came under consideration. And it was decided if there was no wrong in people of those two different races marrying each other, then there should be no wrong in any two people marrying each other, regardless of race or origin or-” his breath caught, “-gender.”

Estinien blinked. Aymeric’s breaths had become rapid.

“What I’m saying is-” Aymeric sighed. “Really why do we need to be in these positions already, and not the reverse,” he mumbled once more. He cleared his throat, raising his voice. He lifted his chin up, straightening his back, tilting his head to look down at Estinien over his soft, round cheeks. The firelight reflected in his bright blue eyes, his curls bouncing ever so slightly as he moved. “What I’m saying, or really asking, is this: Estinien Wyrmblood, my closest of companions, my dearest of friends, and so much more, will you marry me?”

Estinien’s eyes went wide, body going stiff. Aymeric’s fingers closed around his own.

“The Houses have confirmed the new ruling. Men may marry men, women women, and so on. Though the official papers have yet to be signed, the decision is made and the ruling absolute. Word will likely spread first thing in the morning, and I so dearly wished to let you know before the rest of the public was gossiping about what this meant. So please, Estinien. I have loved you for years, even if at first it was only a platonic love that with time grew into something so dear to me and so precious I’ve never felt such a thing with any other. Now...you are all I wish for. You needn’t accept if I have misjudged your feelings in return, but-”

Before Aymeric could finish his words, Estinien launched forward, letting go of Aymeric’s hands so he could wrap his arms around Aymeric’s body, right arm curling around to hold Aymeric’s right hip while his left reached up and held the back of Aymeric’s neck, stabilizing him for the kiss Estinien planted firmly on his lips.

He could feel Aymeric’s pulse racing even through the fabric of his gloves. It was faint. When he pulled away a few seconds later, staring at the bright red blush that covered Aymeric’s cheeks and the tips of his ears, he moved to tear them off, throwing them over to the pile where half his armor lied. 

“Of course,” Estinien whispered, leaning back in to press his forehead against Aymeric’s, holding his neck with a feather-light touch that was now skin-to-skin. “Really, there was no need to draw this out so long. Had you simply shouted ‘will you marry me’ as soon as you entered the room I would have agreed.”

Aymeric relaxed in his grip, letting go of the tension in his body as he put all of his weight on Estinien. “Would you not have questioned how it was possible, had I not explained?”

“I would have eventually. I’d have agreed first, though. You’re quite adept at getting yourself out of troublesome situations, so I’d have trusted you had some sort of plan to make it work regardless of what the laws were at the time.” Estinien chuckled. “It’s nice to know that’s already mostly sorted out, though.”

“Really, to agree so quickly…Part of me wonders whether this is a dream that I conjured up after passing out in the Congregation from sleep deprivation.”

“For both of our sakes, I hope it isn’t. While I agree it would be a lovely dream, I’d much prefer it be a reality.”

Aymeric laughed, a warm, comforting sound that Estinien loved so much. “That’s it then? You’ll do it? Become my husband, and I yours? This isn’t too sudden?”

Estinien leaned half a yalm back so he could look Aymeric in the eyes. “Of course it’s sudden. I certainly wasn’t expecting a proposal of all things when I snuck into Ishgard tonight. I was hoping you’d be asleep when I arrived, and thought I would get an earful from you about sneaking around at best. But though it took a while for you to finally spit it out, you did lead up to the proposal well enough. And the time you took rambling thereafter was good enough to consider the proposal and make my decision.” 

Estinien snorted, shaking his head. “Dearest friend this, closest companion that… We both have said such things many a time, to each other and to others. But though I tried to hold myself to that, to an at least partially professional standard, I heard the whisper of the other knights. Of the bored housewives and children gossiping on the streets about the ‘tenderness in your gaze and touch’ or whatever it was when you carried me back after the scene on the Steps.

“I knew well enough that some people thought you held affections for me. I knew you loved me dearly. But it’s as you said - it was something platonic, at first. And I dared not hope my more-than-platonic affections were returned. Especially when I spent so many years locking away my emotions, trying to shield any feelings I felt from Nidhogg and his rage that I feared I might never be able to feel properly again. Maybe I was mistaking what I felt for you as love because I had spent so long trying to feel nothing at all that I was blowing simple admiration out of proportion. Maybe I was simply desperate, having been apart for so long.”

Aymeric reached forward to take Estinien’s cheeks in his hands. “But now?”

Estinien cocked his head to one side. “You know the answer.”

Aymeric’s smile grew wide. “Perhaps, but it’s always nicer hearing it from the real man rather than the construct that lives in my head.”

“Ha! I suppose so.” Estinien let his hands slip from Aymeric’s body, gently taking Aymeric’s in his own as he slid them down from his cheeks into Aymeric’s lap. “Now, I have no dragons threatening to rip my mind from me for allowing myself a moment of happiness. No ancient beings bent on revenge that try to turn my every thought against me. And so now, I may love and be happy as I please. Now, I can admit it to myself. And you too, of course.”

Estinien took a deep breath. “I love you, Aymeric. And there is nothing I could think of that would make me happier than being yours, now and forever.”

“I love you too,” Aymeric breathed back, leaning forward until he fell off the chair and into Estinien’s arms.

They held each other for a minute or two. Just kneeling, just leaning, the crackling of the fire at Estinien’s back and the sounds of their breaths the only noise in the room. Estinien rubbed circles into Aymeric’s back, feeling the warmth of his skin through the fabric and trying to work out some of the tight knots that had formed there. Aymeric held Estinien tightly, as if he’d disappear the moment Aymeric let go.

Not this time. Not anymore. If he had a true reason to leave, he would, but not without word. He couldn’t run away from his problems anymore. Aymeric didn’t deserve that. Nor did anyone else he’d ever abandoned without a moment’s notice, but especially not Aymeric.

As Aymeric’s breathing slowed once again, more and more of his weight resting on Estinien’s chest, Estinien moved to stand, sweeping Aymeric’s feet out from under him to put the man in a bridal carry.

“What are you doing?” Aymeric asked, blinking rapidly.

“We can hug all we want in the morning,” Estinien told him, exiting the study and heading for Aymeric’s bedroom. “For now, you need some sleep. I’d hate to think of what Lucia might do to me if you stumbled in late tomorrow morning because you spent all night mumbling the long beginnings to a proposal, and then giggling like a fool once you got your yes.”

“I haven’t giggled.”

“No, but any less sleep and you might get delirious enough to start.”

“You haven’t been around enough to know how much sleep I have or haven’t been getting.”

“Maybe not. But I can see the effects nonetheless, and now that I’ve finally returned I do plan on making sure you don’t become a total insomniac.”

Estinien sat Aymeric down on the plush bed pressed against the center of one wall, moving to remove his boots.

“I can do that myself,” Aymeric protested, gently pushing Estinien’s hand away. “I appreciate the aid, but you needn’t treat me like an invalid. Please.”

“Of course.” Estinien stepped away.

As he began to remove the rest of his armor, Aymeric began to speak.

“How long do you plan to stay this time? You said you would be staying for at least a few days, but if you have any greater timeline…”

Estinien raised an eyebrow. “Really? Do you think I’d accept your proposal and run off as soon as the ceremony ends?”

“Of course not,” Aymeric replied, setting one armored boot aside and moving to the next one. “But I know your tendencies. I don’t expect you to change overnight. I considered this before I proposed, and while I’d appreciate you staying around, I won’t force your hand.”

Estinien looked down. “I can’t change completely overnight, no. But I can try.” He looked back up, eyes following Aymeric’s hands. “I’ve settled my issues. My demons, figurative and literal in the sense of Nidhogg, are dealt with, as well as they can be. Ishgard still sets me on edge, to an extent. Being back in the city is odd. Uncomfortable, in some sense of the word. But there’s nothing for me to run to at the moment, so I have little reason to leave you behind. Certainly not without a word, despite my past actions.”

His eyes drifted to Aymeric’s face, examining the dark circles found there. How hard had Aymeric been working in his absence? Could he have taken on some of the load had he not been on the run for so long?

“Besides. What I wish to protect most is here in front of me. I see no need to leave when my current dreams and goals are right here.”

Aymeric smiled. “Quite the romantic now, aren’t you?”

“Oh you be quiet. You wax poetic all the time; am I not allowed to try to return the favor?” Estinien frowned back, fondness building in his chest regardless of his expression.

“No, no, you are,” Aymeric insisted, clearly fighting back laughter. He rose, stripping the rest of his clothing and changing into a nightgown. “I’m just not used to it coming from you.”

“Then you’re in for a change. I’ll never try to emulate the sort of sappy words Haurchefant’s younger brother - what was his name again? Emmanuel? Emm-something - that he likes to use on anything with a pair of tits and a smile. But ‘twould be rude of me to never give you any kind of affection,” Estinien said with a shrug, now standing in only the black top, pants, and socks he wore under his armor.

Aymeric, meanwhile, was near-doubled over in laughter, hand clamped over his face. 

“Estinien!” he exclaimed, “you shouldn’t say such things about Emmanellain.”

“But they’re true!” Estinien shouted back, internally apologizing to Laurentien and the rest of the house staff when he realized he’d raised his voice more than he’d intended.

Aymeric took a few seconds to respond, desperately trying to smother his laughter. “Not anymore. Emmanellain has his heart set on dear Laniatte de Haillenarte, and hasn’t so much as flirted with another woman since being assigned to Dragonhead. Not even the particularly well endowed traveler, from what I’ve learned in the conversations I’ve had with Artoirel and passing messengers.”

“Laniatte is the one managing Cloudtop, right? Doesn’t he realize she isn’t the slightest bit interested in him?”

“He’s changed a lot, these past few months. The incident at Falcon’s Nest and...and you-know-what hit him hard. Though he’s far from a first class knight, he’s taken on more responsibilities and has performed astonishingly well for someone who until a short time ago seemed completely uninterested in anything that came with his status other than the name and money. In a few years he’ll be a fine commander if he continues at his current pace.”

“Good luck to him, then. And good luck to Laniatte for having to put up with him. Though now that he’s stationed at Dragonhead I expect he’ll have fewer chances to visit than he used to.”

“Most likely.”

Aymeric looked toward his window, glass shut to block the cold Ishgardian air but blinds open to let in the gentle glow of moonlight and welcome the sun when it was time.

“Here you are, lecturing me about needing to go to sleep one minute and keeping me up with gossip the next. Since when have you been such a hypocrite?” Aymeric asked, eyes gleaming.

Estinien huffed, walking up to Aymeric and tipping him onto the bed. “All right, you win. Now get in and close your eyes. I swear the third bell will be ringing any moment now.”

Aymeric did as told for the first instruction, but kept his gaze on Estinien. “Though I’ve yet to bathe and thus may not necessarily be one to talk, I did at least change so I don’t feel quite so hypocritical about telling you that you may not get in my bed wearing the dirty, sweaty clothes you wear under your armor all day long.”

Estinien blinked. “Get in your bed?”

Aymeric frowned. “Well, yes. It’s more than big enough for two, and we are engaged, are we not?”

Estinien looked down at his garments. He’d washed them the morning before, but...it had been a while. And many bloody monster fights in the middle, which tended to end in something or other slipping through the gaps in his armor to the cloth below. He didn’t necessarily want to get that on Aymeric’s sheets either.

“Do you-”

“You can borrow one of my nightgowns or collect some nightwear from the room you usually stay in while here."

“I’ll grab my own. Be back in a moment.”

With that, Estinien left to change.

When he returned, Aymeric was fast asleep, head smushed into the pillow and sheets only half over his body.

Estinien smiled at him fondly, creeping over to close Aymeric’s blinds before slowly and quietly crawling into bed beside him. Aymeric latched onto him a moment later, hugging the closest warm body in a movement he’d been famous for in their days sharing a tent together. He’d always been so embarrassed by it, tending to bring an extra pillow or some other such human-substitute, but Estinien had always found it sweet.

And it was especially sweet being the object of his tight hold.

He inhaled deeply, feeling Aymeric snuggle closer to his chest. It was odd, being so close to another person. It didn’t feel right. Not in a bad way, but...like it shouldn’t have been allowed, after all he’d done. Maybe he would regret this in the morning. Not because he didn’t want it, of course, because more than anything he did. But for trapping Aymeric with someone like him, half-incomplete and missing a part of ‘himself’ that had never really been him save for a few months (or years, but to a much lesser extent) of his life that he would rather not think about. Prickly, distant, unsure.

But Aymeric knew all this. He knew, and he had proposed anyway.

So it would be fine. In the morning, far after the sun had risen behind the blinds as long as none of the servants barged in to wake Aymeric and ruin Estinien’s plan, news of the expanded marriage laws would break. Aymeric, once up, would go back to the House meetings and possibly announce his engagement, possibly not. And Estinien would do whatever it was Aymeric saw fit for the moment.

So long as the dragons had no new crises for him to deal with, he was available for most anything. He had his preferences, of course. Things he rather would or would not do. 

But he had no plans for the future. Nothing concrete. 

Just lying in bed with Aymeric, holding him tight, allowing himself to finally call a place and a person home. Somewhere to return to. Someone to love.

It was a most wonderful thing.