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(k)night(s) out

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Late afternoon in the capital of Lugnica was a lively affair of sight, sound and smell, of people rushing from one place to another, calling out to one another, and generally having time-critical tasks to complete that day. It made Subaru feel all the more out of place. He had requested that Emilia go on ahead after she finished her errands so that he could clear his mind before going to see Rem that day, but hadn’t anticipated how lonely he would feel. He had tried people watching, but it turned out that wasn’t something that was done in Lugnica and people thought he was strange.

He drifted down the main street, more to pass the time than in search of anything in particular. The street was lined with stalls selling fruits and vegetables, roasting meat fragrant in the air, and merchants calling out to people to admire their wares.

“Take a look! Buy a gift for the women in your life!” a demi-human merchant called out to the street, his fox ears flicking as people walked past his table of hair accessories. Subaru wandered over, more out of idle interest than any real intention of buying anything. He changed his mind when he saw one hair clip that he thought Emilia would like: a silver clip with a piece of amber caught in metal tendrils at the top. The amber caught the afternoon sun, making the jewel look like molten sunlight and the metal glow with its reflected light. The hair clip was more like a brooch than a hair pin, the kind of ornate and delicate piece of jewelry that Subaru thought a future King should wear. Emilia normally wore white, silver and purple, but he thought that she would appreciate the change. At the very least, she might like it because it was a gift for her without any strings attached; he wanted her to have it because he thought she would like it and it meant nothing more. Truly, it didn’t.

All of his hopeful fantasies of Emilia’s smiling, grateful face, were shattered when he saw the price tag. Being as he was paid only when Roswaal remembered to do so, and Ram did not trust him with the manor’s purchases, he wasn’t familiar with the currency of Lugnica. He didn’t need to be to appreciate that anything with that many zeroes after it was not an affordable price. He looked up, smiled awkwardly, and tried to step aside to let someone else have a look.

“Hey,” the merchant said abruptly, looking at him with narrowed eyes.

“Yeah?” Subaru asked, stopping in place. He didn’t recall wronging this merchant before, and in fact did not recall meeting him at any point during his time at Lugnica. He therefore had no idea was being studied with such careful attention. “What’s up?”

“Aren’t you the one who killed the White Whale?” was not the response he had expected. Subaru could feel the attention of people around him staring at him, the murmuring of people talking about him, and he wasn’t sure that he liked it. It was strange. He had craved respect and recognition from his peers back home, but now that he had it, he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“Uh, not really,” he said sheepishly, his hand buried in the hair at the base of his skull. “It was Crusche and her army that beat it.”

The merchant shook his head.

“No, it’s definitely you,” he said. “Face like a dumb thug, acts like an idiot, dressed like a butler.”

“Really?” Subaru protested, all intention of demurring his involvement knocked clean out of his mind by sheer indignation at the unfairness of the description. “That’s how I’m described now?! I can’t help how I look!”

He huffed in annoyance, scowling and folding his arms.

“Sorry, kid, I mean no offence,” the merchant said. Then, to Subaru’s surprise, he adds, “Take the hair clip. It’s a gift.”

“Are you sure?” If Subaru had learned anything from Lugnica, it was that nothing was free. It wasn’t that people weren’t kind to him, because they very much were, but that an overwhelming kindness that was offered with him asking for help either came with strings attached or outright murder. It had been a hard lesson to learn that when someone offered something too good to be true, there was usually a motive behind it.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” the merchant said, pushing the hair clip into Subaru’s unresisting hands. “Take it. You’re a hero of Lugnica.”

Subaru would be lying if he said that being called a hero didn’t make him feel a little lighter, a little like the world was finally recognizing his efforts and would stop punishing him for his stupidity. It also made him feel embarrassed, given that all he had done was weaponize the Witch’s miasma and run away on Patrache. He had been terrified at the time, as anyone would be, but it felt like abusing Return by Death and talking bullshit at people until they bought it shouldn’t be considered heroic. But, a traitorous part of him whispered, if it means getting a gift for Emilia…

“That’s putting it a bit high but … all right,” he said, closing his fingers around the hair clip. “I know someone it’ll look great on.”

The merchant beamed. “I look forward to seeing it on your girl. Make sure everyone knows it came from my store!”

Any resistance Subaru may have mustered towards a free gift was blown away by the sheer delight of someone referring to Emilia, even implicitly, as Subaru’s girlfriend.

“My - my girl?” Subaru stammered, blushing with embarrassed delight as he wriggled from foot to foot with glee. “Well I suppose that it would be all right, you know if that was what Emilia wanted, and maybe she does want that, but even if she doesn’t I am completely okay with that! Because one day I aspire to be Emilia’s loyal knight and that’s all I want!”

He finished his heartfelt, if very rapid, speech to the merchant, who was staring at him stony-faced. That happened a lot when Subaru started talking about Emilia, so he was no longer embarrassed about it. Let people stare, because Subaru was not ashamed of Emilia or his affection for her. She was, after all, perfect, from her long silver hair that fluttered in the breeze to her smile whenever he finally made her happy. She had been the best person he had ever met ever since he saw her on the first time loop, and one day he would convince her of that.

“You all right, kid?” the merchant said dubiously.

“For Emilia, I am!” he said brightly, only realizing as the words left his mouth that he sounded pretty stupid. “So, anyway, thanks! I’ll make sure she wears it!”

He waved jauntily at the merchant and then started to make his way back to where he and Emilia were staying.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t really paying attention to where he was going and by the time it was dusk, he had to admit that he was thoroughly lost. He craned his head to see where the castle was and started to work his way towards that landmark, cutting through alleyways as he moved forward. The first few alleys he’d been apprehensive before entering, mentally bracing to run into a familiar gang of thieves. By the fifth he no longer took a breath before racing through, and the seventh he had become blase to the risk.

It was, therefore, entirely consistent with his own misfortune that the ninth alleyway was where he heard someone drawl from behind him: “Hand over everything you have, and you won’t get hurt.”

Subaru couldn’t help but roll his eyes at the cliche line. While it didn’t sound like any of the three thieves he usually ran into when visiting the Royal Capital, as it was lower and raspier, that could be simply due to one of them having a cold.

“You guys again?” he complained, before turning around to learn that there were, in fact, at least six actives thieves in the Capital. The three men were all bigger than him, both in height and build. One was carrying a knife, another wearing brass knuckles, and the third needed nothing but his height as he was twice Subaru’s height and powerfully built.

Subaru took a step backward out of surprise.

“Oh,” he said stupidly. “You’re new.”

“Quit wasting time,” said the giant.

“It’s three against one, and we’re the ones with the knife,” said the one with the knife, which Subaru thought was a little redundant.

The old Subaru would have been quivering in fear. Hell, he remembered several timelines where he had done exactly that. This time around though, he had an ace up his sleeve.

“Oh yeah?” Subaru said. “Funny you should say that.” He took another step backward, this time so that he had enough space between him and his attackers to strike a suitably dramatic pose. He popped one hip while pointing at the sky with his hand, grinning widely as he did so. His assailants took a step backward, looking equal parts perplexed and irritated, which was what Subaru was counting on. He leveled his finger at them and said, “Take this! Shamac!”

At his shouted command, a plume of pitch-black smoke shot out of Subaru’s general area, thick enough to cut with a knife, to fill the entire alley. Within a second the late-afternoon sun was drowned out completely, leaving Subaru’s attackers disoriented.

Subaru was reminded a breath later exactly what Felix had said about using magic while his gate was being repaired: Don’t. He gasped as his gate spasmed, closing off the mana flowing through it in mid-stream. The plume of smoke disappeared just as quickly as it appeared, and Subaru fell onto his hands and knees, panting for breath. His fingers scraped against the rough stone underneath, as he forced himself to raise his head up and look at his attackers in the hope that the status effect had stuck to them permanently. Surely he would have that much luck at least.

Unfortunately, Subaru’s hopes were dashed immediately, as two of them had recovered already. The one with the knife was smirking, flipping the knife into the air and catching it in a way that was almost as intimidating as he obviously thought it was. The second one was cracking his knuckles, baring his sharp-filed teeth in malicious glee. It was only when something hit him across the back of the head that Subaru realized where the third had gone. He hit the ground hard, head aching from the impact, and not quite sure what had happened.

As he laid on the ground, curled on his side and trying to reorient himself, the thief with the knife came closer, with carefully deliberate steps. One step, another, and then finally he knelt down next to Subaru as he wheezed, blinking back spots.

“We’ll be taking this,” he said, pulling Emilia’s new hair clip from Subaru’s breast pocket. Subaru snarled and bit at his fingers.

“Was that so hard?” the thief said, his lip curling. “You should have given it over when you had the chance. Now I have to make an example of you.”

“You really don’t —” Subaru managed to get out, before the knife found its mark in his side, sliding between his ribs with a terrible tearing sound. He heard the sound before he felt the pain, and whimpered in fear of it. Then the pain struck. He could feel his lung fill up with blood, drowning in it, and he coughed to try and clear it. Coughing hurt so much that he saw stars, bright specks floating in a washed out sky. One looked brighter than the others, a different color, but before he could think too much more about it the second thief hit him in the chest, hard, and all rational thought was gone from him.

He choked around the hole in his side, the blood warm against his increasingly cold skin, and thought how horribly, awfully unfair this all was. He had just wanted to buy something nice for Emilia, as a token of his appreciation for everything she had done for him, and the universe saw fit to repay that by killing him again. It wasn’t as if he was doing something selfish. He was trying to do something right, and it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair and he didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to die, he didn’t want to die … Subaru kept muttering that as the world went dim and quiet, when everything seemed far away, until everything disappeared into the dark.

***

Return by Death. If there was something that Subaru was unhappily familiar with, it was the sensation of dying and returning. It wasn’t just the dying that upset him — though that upset him quite a lot when he stopped forcing himself to not think about it — but in the liminal space between death and resurrection everything was turned about inside his head. Everything was wrong, and it took him some time after a revival to feel like his body was his own once. It was terribly, uniquely disorienting, and he was braced for the exquisitely painful experience of waking up in the carriage next to Emilia and her not remembering Rem once more.

As such, Subaru was very surprised when he opened his eyes to find that he had not died and that he was lying on the rough stone of the back alley he was attacked in, soaked in his own blood. It was a mixed experience. On the one hand, he really didn’t want to die. On the other hand, he had lost so much blood that he could barely see and he kept sinking into semi-consciousness. He could sense someone nearby using magic on him, the wash of healing magic a welcome comfort against the the cold that gripped him. He could hear voices, but the urgency of what they were doing was lost on him.

When next he opened his eyes, he could see two men dressed in white, one with brilliantly red hair and the other lavender. They drew the eye by the way that they stood, commanding attention as if it was owed to them. The redhead was standing in front of Subaru to protect him, unarmed, but judging by the easy line of his shoulders he didn’t find his lack of a weapon a concern. To Subaru’s side, the man with lavender hair was holding a sword, with five glowing specks of light around him. If the redhead was untroubled, this man was as tense as a coiled spring. They were talking, declaratively at that, but Subaru couldn’t understand what they were saying. He let his eyes close so he could focus on untangling the sounds into words.

“I believe you have something that belongs to him?” The speaker was in front of him, so Subaru assumed it was the redheaded man. His voice was nice to listen to, warm and confident.

“It’s the Royal Knights!” Subaru guessed that was one of his attackers, maybe the one who had hit him on the head with a brick without warning. He sounded terrified, which was rather satisfying.

“I’d appreciate it if you were to return it to us,” the redhead said reasonably, as if people regularly did what he wanted.

“Here! Take it!”

Then Subaru lost the train of conversation. When he picked it up again he felt better; not well enough to open his eyes just yet, but a lot less fragile. Now, he could recognize Julius’ voice as he asked, “How is he, Felix?”

The naked worry in Julius’ voice was upsetting. Subaru was sure he was alone in the alley when he was attacked. He was sure of it. There was no one for Julius to be worried about.

“Nyating I can’t handle,” Felix said confidently. He was the person next to Subaru then, using his magic on him. That meant that the person Julius was worried about was Subaru himself, something that Subaru did not want to know. Everything was easier if they sniped at one another without concern for the other’s feelings. He didn’t want to know how he would think of Julius if they were anything other than reluctant allies. It would be better to think only of Emilia instead.

“It was fortunate you were watching him, Julius,” Reinhard was saying, which was confusing because Subaru knew that Julius had been nowhere near him when he was attacked. He wanted to protest this, ask Julius if he was spying on him or something like that, but the thought of speaking exhausted him. He did nothing, and let Felix’s magic wash over him.

“Look at him,” Julius said, his voice stripped of its sarcastic edge. Subaru wanted to squirm of embarrassment and shame for listening to it. “If not for Felix, it wouldn’t matter that I found him. He’s entirely too reckless with his own life.”

“I noticed that myself before,” Reinhard sighed. “There’s something about his eyes that suggests he’s seen things I could never understand. If only he would tell us what drives him so.”

“He’s waking up,” Felix said. He patted Subaru’s cheek. “Come on nyao, I know you can hear us.”

Subaru forced his eyes open, groaning at the brightness of Felix’s magic. He felt better now, merely pallid and washed out as opposed to being one breath away from death, but that didn’t mean that he was particularly thrilled at being conscious. He closed his eyes, breathed deep, and opened them again. As his vision cleared he could see Felix was kneeling beside him, looking rather smug. Above him, Reinhard was standing guard, looking down each end of the alleyway. Julius was next to him, cleaning Emilia’s hair clip with a handkerchief. It was the latter that drove Subaru to sit up, blinking away dizziness as he did so. He then pressed his hand against his face, the heel digging into his cheekbone, as it felt like his brain was falling out.

“What happened?” he asked, when he could trust his voice not to betray him. He still sounded a little weak, but it sounded better than he had any right to given that he had almost died. Felix had done good work. He turned to Felix to smile in appreciation, only to freeze in place when he saw Felix’s frown.

“Didn’t I tell you nyat to use magic?” he asked, seemingly sweet but threatening underneath.

“Yeah, but — how did you know I was here?” Subaru said quickly. “I didn’t tell anyone where I was.”

“It was Julius,” Reinhard said. “He sent one of his spirits, and they found you here. It was quite fortunate.”

“It was mere coincidence, I assure you,” Julius said sourly, which was far better than his sounding concerned. “If it weren’t that we have business with you, I would never have been looking for you.”

“Now now,” Reinhard said peaceably. “It was you who urged us to move faster to find him. There’s no need to be ashamed of that.”

“I simply didn’t want to spend the entire night running around the city,” Julius protested. “We have other things to be doing, Reinhard.”

“Sure, sure,” Felix chirped. “You don’t need to be so shy.” He laughed brightly and Julius sighed sharply in overt irritation but said nothing else in protest.

Subaru realized, and was immediately uncomfortable with said realization, that Julius, Reinhard, and Felix were friends. He supposed that that made sense, given that Felix and Julius had come as a pair to fight the White Whale. It seemed grossly unfair that Julius had friends, because in contrast to his undeniably pretty face, he was stuck up and annoying and probably kicked puppies and kittens that morning. Well, maybe not that last part, as Subaru had grown enough to accept that maybe he was being a little uncharitable towards Julius. It stung to know that the only reason he was alive was due to Julius’s contracted spirits, but Subaru was able to console himself with the thought that at least this also meant that Emilia’s gift was fine.

“Why were you looking for me?” he asked.

Reinhard smiled. “There’s a hot spring outside the capital for the exclusive use of the Royal Knights. We’d like to take you there.”

“And I need time to fix your gate,” Felix said with a pointed moue. “You undid all my work. It’s nyaver going to get better if you keep picking at it.”

Subaru grimaced. He’d already had a session earlier today of Felix touching him all over. He’d tried passing off his half-hard dick as being caused by something else, but he was pretty sure Felix knew exactly what had happened and why. Subaru knew that Felix was not a pretty girl, but apparently the rest of him didn’t agree with that assessment. His mind and body belonged to Emilia! Not to Felix or anyone else for that matter.

“You’re not a knight, but we can escort you,” Julius said, his pointed comment a bucket of ice water over any residual discomfort Subaru might be feeling. He glared hotly at Julius, who returned the favor with a disdainfully neutral expression.

“Ah, yes,” Reinhard said, either unaware of the tension between Subaru and Julius, or choosing to ignore it. “I have a letter for you from your King candidate.”

“What?” Subaru said. “Emilia wrote me a letter?”

Reinhard nodded and then retrieved from his pants’ pocket a pristine ivory envelope. Subaru wondered briefly how it could be so perfectly intact, given that it had been in Reinhard’s pocket for an unknown period of time, before dismissing that thought. Clearly, what had happened was that Emilia had used some kind of magic to protect the envelope from wear and tear. There was no seal on the back of the envelope, and the flap was just tucked inside, so Subaru slid it open with his finger. He then made a face, because that had smeared Emilia’s letter with his blood. Maybe the envelope wasn’t as protected as he thought.

The letter itself was written on thick, creamy paper marked with Roswaal’s crest, and Subaru was delighted at how Emilia’s handwriting was as perfect and amazing as everything else about her. Then he read it, and he was less delighted about its contents. He had not expected any missives of love and devotion. He had, however, hoped to keep his anxieties away from her. He winced as he read that she was worried about him and that he should spend time with the knights, as she had a meeting with the other King candidates to discuss future alliances. He had helped create such an alliance for Emilia to defeat the White Whale in exchange for help with the Witch cultists, so he couldn’t be unhappy that she was building on that.

“A king candidate meeting…?” he said aloud.

“Yeah, Miss Crusche is going to it too,” Felix said.”

“As is Lady Anastasia.”

“And Felt?” Subaru asked Reinhard.

“No,” was Reinhard’s reply, and the simplicity of his response said more than a long explanation ever could. There was something intrinsically hilarious about Reinhard, who Subaru suspected was able to do anything he wanted with an affable smile and gracious attitude, was unable to cajole his King candidate into behaving like anything other than what she was: a thief who wanted to burn the nobility to the ground because of how she had been raised in poverty. Subaru cracked a grin at the mental image of Reinhard, normally unflappable, becoming very much flapped as he tried to get Felt to join in the discussion between Emilia, Crusche, and Anastasia. If only to be a fly on the wall for that moment!

Then he sighed, because if Felix, Julius, and Reinhard were here, then that really meant that the King candidates wanted to be alone and there was nothing he could do about it. He could ignore Emilia’s wishes and return home anyway, tell Rem what had happened that day and awaken by her side, gritty-eyed and stiff from poor sleep and guilt. He should, perhaps, do all of those things because Rem was like that because of him and he was the only one who remembered who she had been. But he was sore and tired, and after almost dying he thought he was entitled to one night of selfishness.

“I guess, if Emilia’s busy, I shouldn’t trouble her,” he conceded. The concession didn’t make him feel that much better about himself and his choices.

“But we can’t take you looking like that,” Julius pointed out.

“Like what?” Subaru bristled. His butler uniform was perfectly acceptable, even if it wasn’t the uniform of the Royal Knights, and he was proud to wear it. Then he looked down. His clothing was soaked in blood; his white shirt dyed a dull maroon and the black suiting fabric now a muddy brown. He hadn’t realized until he looked down how much he had bled out, and felt faintly ill. “Oh. Yeah. That.”

“You are all right, aren’t you?” Reinhard asked, sounding genuinely concerned.

“I’m completely fine!” Subaru said quickly, waving off his concern with a series of frantic hand gestures. “Felix fixed me up, and now I’m as healthy as ever!”

“If you say so,” Felix said slyly. Subaru glared at him and Felix stuck out his tongue. “It’s nyet a good idea to lie to Reinhard. He can tell.”

“Can he?” Subaru wasn’t sure if Felix was pulling his leg or not. On the one hand, Reinhard seemed to be able to do everything, so his being able to tell if someone was lying didn’t seem that unlikely. Then again, Reinhard didn’t confirm it, and Subaru thought that he would if he could. He seemed like that kind of person.

“We should remove some of the blood first,” Julius said, ignoring Subaru’s question to his annoyance. Subaru decided he probably did that deliberately. “The rest, we can get removed at the hot spring. Felix?”

“On it!” was the only warning Subaru received before Felix drenched him with a torrent of water. He coughed and spluttered against the deluge, because while Felix was skilled enough not to hit his face directly with his spray of water, enough bounced off his chest into his face to make it very uncomfortable. When the water finally stopped flowing, his clothes clung to him, but were no longer the dull red of drying blood. There was still blood, but his clothing was merely tinged with it as opposed to being soaked through. If only being blasted with water wasn’t so cold, Subaru thought bitterly, folding his arms across his chest against the chill of the early evening breeze.

“Don’t worry,” Felix said cheerfully. “The cleaning staff are very good at getting rid of bloodstains from clothing.”

“Why do you know that?” Subaru asked suspiciously.

The three, white-clad, knights looked at one another.

“Oh, right,” Subaru muttered, feeling stupid. “I guess that makes sense.”

“The hot spring is just outside the city limits,” Reinhard said. “It’s a walk of medium distance, but a pleasurable one.”

“All right!” Subaru said, pumping his fists to get himself enthused. It worked. “Let’s go!”

“If only that part of you had changed,” Julius sighed as he strode out of the alley, leaving Subaru behind.

“Hey!” Subaru protested to Julius’ back. “You take that back!”

Felix grinned mischievously as he walked after Julius, and Subaru ran to catch up. It was when Reinhard took up position behind Subaru rather than next to him or even next to Julius that Subaru noticed that they were in formation around him. On the one hand, he had to admit that he was by far the weakest one of them. That didn’t mean he had to like it, and he allowed himself a brief moment of sulking before redirecting his attention to what was to come. He’d seen shared baths in Roswaal’s manor, but Roswaal was undeniably eccentric, so he didn’t want to assume that Lugnica hot springs were like an onsen.

***

As it turned out, a Lugnican hot spring was just like the open air onsen that Subaru had gone to when he was younger. He had braced himself for the blow of the unfamiliar, telling himself that it no longer hurt to be so far away from home. It was now, when things were similar to what he was used to that the homesickness struck him down, because it was reminded of him of how impossible it would be to go home once more. He sucked in a breath, blinked back tears, and told himself that he would not cry in front of Julius, Felix, and Reinhard.

“What’s wrong?” Julius asked, to Subaru’s complete and utter dismay. “Felix, you did heal him properly, didn’t you?”

“Of course I did,” Felix protested. “Even a weakling like him should be fine.”

“It’s nothing!” Subaru said, gesturing frantically to get them to stop talking about it. “Really! Let’s go inside.”

From the expressions exchanged between the three knights, they did not believe him. Subaru scowled, folding his arms and raising his chin in insouciant dismissal of their concern.

“As you say,” Reinhard conceded. He even sounded gracious about it. “Let’s go inside, shall we?”

The inside of the hot spring was operated by a human male attendant who exchanged nods with the knights. As Subaru walked in after them the attendant’s expression did not change as he took in Subaru’s blood-stained clothing. He offered merely a “It will be finished when you are ready to leave”. Subaru wondered how that could be possible, before deciding that it probably involved a kind of water or earth magic. He nodded awkwardly at the attendant, before deciding that that was rude and instead beamed at him while saluting with his fingers.

The bathroom was behind a curtain, and this at least was different to home. There were stone benches and rock pools to scrub off before going into the hot spring, quite a bit different to the plastic stools and shower head that Subaru had used at home. He wondered if there was some kind of ritual he was meant to follow, and stole glances at the knights. He blushed furiously as they started to shuck their clothing off without a moment’s pause, swallowing his mortification with a strangled squeak as he whipped his head around to strip off his own clothing. He then collected soap and a towel to scrub himself clean, refusing to make eye contact with anyone else and telling himself that there was nothing to be embarrassed about.

Once he finished washing up, he padded over on bare feet to the spring. Julius was already there, looking unguarded as he stared up at the night sky. Subaru slipped into the water, pleasantly surprised by the sting of mineral salts against his skin, and followed Julius’ gaze up to the stars. Even this close to the capital, there wasn’t enough light pollution to detract from the brilliance of the night sky. The view was stunning, all the more so because of how similar the sky was to Japan, and Subaru breathed through the sting of loss.

Then he felt the undeniable sensation of someone staring at him. He looked down from the sky to Felix and Julius already in the water, and Reinhard slipping him himself. All three were staring at him — or, to be more precise, they were starring at the bite scars on him. Subaru grimaced; he knew there were a lot, as he had been there and experienced every one. He knew it was a lot to take in, and while he was not ashamed of them, he didn’t like their expressions. They were a living reminder that his friendship with Rem had existed, and it was nothing to feel pity towards.

“What?” he asked, folding his arms and looking away from all of them. “They’re just bite marks, that’s all.”

“Yes, but a lot of them,” Julius said carefully. “Most would have died from that, you know.”

“I almost did,” Subaru said, matter-of-factly. “If it wasn’t for everyone, I would have. I don’t mind though, because I got them with Rem.”

Fortunately, nobody asked Who’s Rem?

“Yes, it’s quite fortunate,” Reinhard agreed. “Without you, the White Whale would not have been defeated.

“Aw, are you sad you missed it?” Felix said playfully. “If we had knyawn you wanted to come, we would have brought you!”

“No, because I was needed elsewhere,” Reinhard said. “It was defeated without needing me, and that’s not a bad thing.”

There was something dark and unhappy lurking underneath Reinhard’s calm answer, and Subaru wondered whether he should ask if something was wrong. He looked at Julius and Felix, and decided against it. They seemed to understand what Reinhard was not saying and had decided not to ask further, so Subaru made a note to ask later on once everything had settled down. Instead, he looked up at the stars again.

“Are you interested in the stars?” Julius asked.

“Yeah,” Subaru said, and he wasn’t even upset that it was Julius who asked this time. “My parents named me after a constellation, so I always liked them.”

“They did?” Reinhard asked. “Which one?”

This wasn’t the first time that someone in Lugnica had not recognized Subaru’s name. When Subaru had told the residents of Roswaal’s mansion, he had thought that they were teasing him. But now, faced with the blank looks of three people who really had no reason to mock him in that way, he thought that it might be that they gave their stars different names. If that were true, then how did Betelgeuse get his name?

“I was wondering about that,” Subaru said slowly. “Didn’t anyone think it was weird that the Archbishop of Sloth was also named after a star?”

“He was?” Julius asked.

“Yeah. That one.” Subaru pointed to the star. He then pointed to Pleiades constellation, sketching it with his finger. “I’m named after this one. Seriously, you don’t know these things?”

“No,” Julius said. “I’ve never heard anything like that before.”

“Anyaway, enough of that. Hold still, Subaru!”

“Wait - wait!” Subaru managed before Felix pounced on him and stared to use magic on him. The water must have amplified his healing ability, because it was much more powerful than usual, and also a lot more intimate. Subaru squirmed in discomfort as Felix methodically worked his way from his magic gate down to his toes, and then back up again. He hadn’t realized he had knots of tension everywhere until Felix got his fingers into them and teased them apart. He could appreciate how he felt better after Felix was done, his shoulders easing from their hunched guarding against pain, the nagging cramp in his thigh eased as if it had never existed, and he could breathe easily for the first time since he woke up in the alley covered in his own blood. He just wished that Felix’s healing wasn’t so tactile, as he didn’t know what to do with the sensation of Felix’s hands lingering on his skin.

“Is it always like this?” he managed, his voice higher than he wanted.

“Like what?” Julius asked, non-plussed.

“Like - like that!” Subaru spluttered.

“That’s … how healing magic works,” Reinhard said. “Haven’t you been healed before?”

“Isn’t that how Felix works?” Subaru retorted. “Because I’ve been healed before, and I think I’d remember Beato getting handsy with me.”

Subaru got his answer by the blank expressions of the knights, reminding him yet again that he did not understand Lugnica. He hunched his shoulders and muttered, “Never mind.”

The silence stretched out until, to his surprise, Julius broke the tension by saying, “I’m glad we had the time for this. It’s been very busy and we must rest when we can. Even you’re looking a little ragged, Reinhard.”

“I am?” Reinhard said. He leaned against the lip of the bath with a sigh. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Quite,” Julius said. “Felix too.”

Subaru looked across at Felix, surprised in spite of himself. He knew that Felix had been upset after Crusche was found without her memories, but he had thought that Felix had processed it and moved on. Felix’s smile was a little sly, now that he knew to look for it, and Subaru wondered: what else was Felix hiding under his mask? What was Julius or Reinhard hiding under theirs? Then he felt ridiculous - he had been trying to see people as people, and here he was, thinking he was the protagonist in an isekai light novel and everyone else was just an NPC.

“Do you guys come here often?” Subaru asked.

“Yes,” Julius said. He added, archly, “You should try resting while you can. I can practically hear you think.”

“What is that meant to mean?”

“Julius is worried about you,” Reinhard said.

“I am not,” Julius said stonily. “It’s merely that he worries his King candidate unnecessarily. It will spoil Lady Anastasia’s ascension to the throne.”

“He is,” Felix said. “It’s adornyable.”

Subaru, who was starting to squirm in mortification, sighed in exasperation at the pun. “Now I know you’re putting it on,” he said darkly. “Adorable doesn’t have a nya sound in it! Adornyable doesn’t even sound right!”

“It does nyaow,” Felix said, unrepentant.

Subaru couldn’t help but laugh at how pleased Felix looked, like a cat with a bowl of cream. Then he wondered if he was being bigoted against demi-humans, or just thinking about it too much. After all, he was pretty sure that Felix didn’t need to insert ‘nya’ into as many words as he could, and that he did it in part because it amused him to do so.

“That’s why we’re here,” Reinhard said. “You have to take breaks when you can, so that you’re sharp when you needed.”

When Reinhard said it like that, like it was the most reasonable thing in the world to do, Subaru wanted to believe it. It felt strange to be still, to not be ricocheting from one event to the next like a pinball. He had wanted a moment to catch his breath, and now that he had it he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He felt like he should be doing something more for Emilia, except that she had deliberately sent him away for the night and he was trying to recognize what she wanted. He felt like he should be spending more time with Rem, but

“Stop thinking so hard!” Felix said, leaning forward to poke Subaru on the forehead with a surprisingly sharp finger. “You’re undoing all my hard work. Miss Crusche is with her, it’ll be fine!”

“All right, all right!” Subaru said, putting his hands up in surrender. “I’m relaxing! Look at me relax!”

Julius looked at him pointedly, before drawling, “I think you need to stop talking for that.”

“I’m not talking now either! Starting … now!” Subaru mimed zipping his mouth closed.

The four of them fell into companionable silence. Subaru leaned back against the lip of the pool, sighing as he did so. It felt strange being this relaxed. He’d been on guard for something terrible happening to him since he worked out how Return by Death worked, waiting for the next horrible death or someone being hurt for his sake. He was exhausted by it now that the tension that had kept him going was unraveling.

“Maybe you are right,” he conceded.

“You said you weren’t talking,” Felix said lightly.

“Fine!” Subaru said, throwing his hands up. He let his head fall back and drink in the stars’ light. They really were just like home, and he wondered if his parents could see the same stars he did. Were they looking up at them and thinking of him? It was a surprisingly lonely feeling. But he wasn’t alone. He had to remember that. He had Emilia and Rem, and right now he had Reinhard, Julius and Felix. Even if he didn’t understand why they had brought him out tonight, he could appreciate that they had.

“You know,” he said, still looking up at the sky. “Thanks. For this. I needed it. I didn’t know it, but I did.”

“Just thank your King candidate,” Julius said. “She arranged all of this.”

“And yours, to get you out of her hair,” Felix said.

“I came because I wanted to,” Reinhard said. “But the sentiment remains. We have a great deal ahead of us. It’s best to recharge now.”

Subaru had to concede that they were right. Tomorrow, he and Emilia and Rem would head back to Roswaal’s mansion and try to find the missing villagers. Tonight was the best, if only, time to recover before throwing himself back into the fray. Subaru looked up at the sky that was so like home and told himself it was fine to take a night for himself. He had to, so that he would be ready for the next time he was needed.