Spring will come and so will happiness. Hold on. Life will get warmer.
Sylvain can’t remember the last time that he slept properly. His bed remains made, the comforter perfectly tucked into the mattress, pillows undisturbed. His office is in contrast. A pile of furred blankets is thrown onto the couch. There’s a cylindrical throw pillow, more suited for decoration than resting on. A fire roars in the fireplace, barely chasing away the Gautier cold.
It’s been like this for months, Sylvain awake late into the night, pouring over reports and letters. He thinks and tinkers with ideas. He plots actions and writes responses; everything carefully worded, as he stands on thin ice because the days that follow the end of a war are always the most important. And the hardest.
Sylvain wants to feel satisfied; he wants to feel like he’s making a difference. It’s a well-worn mantra that he repeats daily, but the more it’s said, the less he feels it.
It’s now the far end of winter. The Gautier Fortress stands eerily still against a backdrop of snowdrift. The cold permeates his office, even with the fire blazing, and the blankets, and the furred collar of his jacket. It doesn’t help, Sylvain thinks. He still feels frigid down to his bones.
He’s reading a missive, the curled handwriting of Ingrid neat and tidy, despite the rows tilting to the side. Ingrid’s never been one for perfection, and Sylvain smiles at the thought. The letter is nothing new. Updates and kind words, and a Merry Yuletide that’s about three weeks too late. Mail comes slowly this far north.
Unless it’s from Sreng. Sreng messengers ride hard, deliver quickly, and expect an equally fast response. Still, it’s better than the alternative. Sylvain’s done a lot to undo the damage that his father had.
It isn’t going so terribly.
Which brings him to his next letter, the words looping in a complicated script. It’d taken some getting used to. Sylvain reads it once, and then again. And then a third time before dropping the parchment. He rubs at his eyes tiredly.
“What would Felix do?” he asks himself quietly. Sylvain isn’t sure if it’s the lack of sleep, the time of the night, or if he truly has no honest answer.
Sylvain pulls his hands away and finds his mother there, standing by the fire. She leans against the mantel in her nightclothes and a heavy silk, fur-lined robe wrapped around her thin frame. Were his father alive, he’d never have allowed such a thing outside of their bedroom, but Sylvain doesn’t care. She can do as she wants.
Truly, his mother is thriving, and there isn’t a doubt in Sylvain’s mind that it’s because his father is gone.
“Not bad,” says Sylvain, digging the heels of his palms into his eyes once more. “Just exhausting. The Sreng Ambassador wants a solid account of what supplies we can spare. Quantity as well. I’m still trying to figure out what we’ll send.”
“And you think that the Duke is a better option to talk to them?” His mother chuckles at that. “He’s terrible at public relations. At least you know how to smooth over someone, even if it’s to delay.”
Regrettably, something Sylvain learned from his father. “Felix is better at being harsh.”
“And you need to be harsh?”
Sylvain sighs. “No, but there isn’t a doubt that they think I’m a pushover.”
His mother thinks for a moment, her gaze settling on the fire. The silk exterior of her robe reflects the firelight in hues of orange. “I would think they assume the opposite. Considering your father,” she adds as an afterthought.
“I refuse to fight with them,” says Sylvain, tersely.
“I think that they know that as well,” says his mother. “Otherwise, they would never have agreed on peace talks. Your father loved war, and so do the Srengese. For them to agree to amnesty is not only interesting but quite an accomplishment.”
His mother is right. Sylvain’s father always lived for the battlefield, so when he’d been removed from the fight, he’d only moved it elsewhere. Sreng isn’t a barbarian nation, it is full of good and even kind people, but their culture and traditions bind them tight.
Fighting back against his father had been ceremonial, almost, in nature. Sylvain admires that and oddly, pushes his desire for a treaty to its limits. That, and well, he’s tired of war.
“Felix doesn’t handle people well,” says Sylvain after a long moment. “But, despite that, others find his cynicism a charm.”
Sylvain’s mother raises an eyebrow at that, teasing. “I think that you are the only one who thinks that,” she says lightly. Sylvain huffs, waving her off. She offers up a small smile in return before crossing over to his desk. “Sylvain, don’t work yourself to death. Get some rest and revisit in the morning. Sometimes all you need is a night of sleep for a fresh perspective.”
Sylvain looks to his mother, and though he sighs, he smiles softly at her. “As always, your advice is the most sound. Perhaps I should let you look over this instead.”
At that, his mother’s face wrinkles into distaste. “I think not. I’ve played enough politics to last several lifetimes. I deserve my rest.”
She does. His mother endured years under the looming threat of his father, and while the former Margrave never harmed her personally, his decisions often left a sour taste in the mouths of those around him. His mother was often left to pick up the broken pieces left behind.
“Goodnight, mother,” says Sylvain kindly.
“Goodnight, Sylvain.” She drops a kiss onto the crown of his head before taking her leave.
“Rest,” murmurs Sylvain when his office is empty once more. “Easier said than done.”
Still, he sets his letters into neat little piles, blows out the candle on his desk, and stands. He unlaces his tunic, dropping it into another chair before falling onto the settee. It’s too small for him, and he knows that his legs will be cramped, but it’s warm by the fire.
And, it’s not as lonely as his bed.
The ride from Fraldarius to Gautier is long, arduous, and cold as hell, even when nearing spring.
Felix has always hated it here, he thinks as he sits astride a bay-colored destrier. He’s been scowling for what feels like weeks because he hates horses. And traveling. And the cold. He wants to hate Sylvain too, but even he has his limits. He’s apparently attracted to insufferable idiots, no matter how much he’s tried to pretend the opposite.
One look at Sylvain nearly changes Felix’s mind. Sylvain is pale, and not in an I’ve stayed inside all winter kind of way; this is something deeper and darker, the kind of sallow coloring that comes from ill-health.
Felix frowns. Sylvain has never been good at taking care of himself. It seems that the Margravine’s letter hasn’t been entirely wasted.
“Felix,” says Sylvain as he drops from his horse. “This is a surprise.”
Felix halts at that. “Did your mother not tell you?”
Sylvain cocks his head to the side, but his eyes tighten. Apparently not, then. “My mother?”
“She sent a letter,” says Felix, simply. There isn’t a point in pretending otherwise.
“I see,” says Sylvain, his posture tightening. “And pray tell, what did this letter say?”
Dear Felix, I write to you not as a Margravine, but as Sylvain’s mother, and I am worried about him , Felix thinks, having all but memorized the letter, even the way that the scratchy parchment had felt under his fingertips. It’s folded up and shoved into his breast pocket, near his heart.
But instead, Felix says, “Mentions of trade with Sreng.”
Sylvain blinks at that. “You came this entire way to help with trade negotiations? Felix, you could have sent a minor lord. This doesn’t warrant your attending.”
Felix is annoyed that Sylvain is being so insistently obtuse, but he also knows that when Sylvain is overwhelmed, he becomes prickly. It’d be worse to poke at the hornet’s nest.
“I have an idea,” says Felix, “best served in person, I would think.”
“Is it such a stretch to think that I might come to visit you?”
Sylvain’s mouth snaps shut, leveling Felix with a surprised stare. Then his face morphs into something softer, more tender, more easily recognizable. “Right,” says Sylvain quietly. “Right, I’m an idiot.”
“Always,” says Felix, but it’s not without a modicum of affection.
Sylvain reaches out and Felix meets his hand, their fingers curling around each other’s just barely. But it’s enough to relax Sylvain, bringing him back from whatever mood he’s been in. Then, Sylvain tugs him forward, pulling him into a crushing hug.
“I haven’t been myself,” says Sylvain into Felix’s ear.
“That’s what your mother said. I was concerned.”
Sylvain chuckles against him, fingers gripping Felix’s hair, just holding him. Felix’s fingers curl into the sleeves of Sylvain’s jacket. Normally, Felix would push him away at such a blatant show of public affection, but just this time, he won’t. Sylvain needs it, and Felix is surprised by how much he needs it as well.
The bliss of reunion lasts about an hour.
Felix and Sylvain are always prone to arguing, often at each other’s throats and never agreeing on things. Even when they should. Even when it’s a matter of life and death or the end of a war. This time it’s less about a difference in opinion and more about Sylvain’s absolute refusal to just listen.
“Felix, you can’t--”
“I can’t what?” Felix stands before his desk, arms crossed and tapping his foot in annoyance. “I can’t help you secure peace with a country that’s been an enemy of ours for decades?”
“You can’t give up these resources.”
Felix scoffs, a loud snort as he throws up his arms exaggeratedly. “We’re closer to the capital, and we’ve got more trade routes. The amount isn’t an issue for us.” Even with his reassurance, Sylvain frowns, not entirely disbelieving.
“Our winter crops harvested well,” says Felix. “Kale and spinach. Onions, even turnips. Are the Srengese particularly meat eaters?”
“Not to my knowledge--”
“Then, moving on,” Felix continues without a beat, “Fabrics. Silks? Cotton?”
“They have an abundance of furs,” says Sylvain.
“Bolts of cotton then. Do they need livestock?”
“Why your hesitation?” asks Felix. “Is there something you aren’t telling me? Is Sreng asking for something that you cannot give them?”
Sylvain is quiet for a long moment before he says, “It has nothing to do with Sreng.”
Felix is confused. Felix is utterly, wholeheartedly confused, his chest tightening with annoyance as he tries his damndest to stay calm. Sylvain must see it because his mouth tips open as he thinks about his response.
“I wonder if I’m enough to secure this treaty,” he says finally.
Felix laughs; he can’t help it. “Absurd,” says Felix. “Goddess, you are a moron. What could have possibly led you to this conclusion?”
“I am my father’s son,” says Sylvain quietly, as if it’s the most obvious thing.
It isn’t the answer that Felix expects. The moment drags on forever, both of them stewing in their silence. Sylvain internalizes a lot of things, but his father has always been the worst of all.
“Sylvain,” starts Felix, his voice soft like he’s addressing a child, “you are nothing like your father.” Felix knows that Sylvain is wary of believing that, haunted by his lineage. Sylvain also believes that he’s more like Miklan than not, so perhaps his reflections of self-image aren’t to be trusted.
Sylvain doesn’t immediately reply. He doesn’t look at Felix either, busying himself with arranging letters and memos. The air in the room is thick, like stormy, untested waters.
“I wish that you could see yourself the way that others do,” says Felix. And then, he crosses the break, pressing into the unknown to continue with, “The way that I do.”
Sylvain smiles, a tiny thing, and just like that, the weight in the room seems to lift the tiniest bit.
“I thought that things would be easier,” says Sylvain, his voice small. “We’ve won our war, that’s said and done with, only that it’s not. If anything, things are worse. Too many loose ends, too many stragglers, too many things to tidy up. It’s a never-ending slog, trying to sort through it.
“Am I doing this correctly? Should I pardon this person or that? Have I offended the Srengese Ambassador by talking to his wife?”
That last one seems to have personal meaning, and Felix has no doubt that Sylvain likely had. Sylvain presses the heels of his palms to his eyes, digging them in harshly. Felix only watches.
“I never sleep. I’m haunted by memories of cutting down friends and foes. I worry that this peace with Sreng is tentative at best. I constantly wonder if I’m suited to be the Margrave.”
“Do you think for a moment that I’m suited to being a Duke?” asks Felix, well familiar with self-inflicted feelings of ineptitude.
Sylvain chuckles. “Undoubtedly.”
Felix doesn’t doubt for a moment that it’s an honest answer. Sylvain’s always had a wild imagination with his overestimation of Felix’s character. Still, the thought warms him, even if he’d never admit to it.
Felix’s gaze slides to the couch that he stands next to, piled high with blankets and a pillow ill-suited for sleeping. He nudges at the piece of furniture with his boot. “And this?”
Sylvain’s eyes fall slightly as he thinks about his next words. “It’s lonely up here.” And then he adds, “And, in my bed.”
Oh. Felix’s mouth twitches slightly at that, just the tiniest bit. He understands. When you spend days and years and months sharing a bedroll thinking every night might be your last, you get used to it. And when that person leaves, you’re left bereft, wanting, even, especially on the coldest of nights.
Faerghus is cold and Felix misses that shared warmth too.
Felix lets out a long sigh. “When I read the letter from the Margravine, I was filled with worry for your sorry ass. I haven’t come only to yell at you, I’ve come to help. Honestly, and truly.”
“I worry that it won’t work.”
“You’re worried that nothing will ever work,” amends Felix, giving him a disapproving glare. “Sylvain, you’re annoyingly accomplished when you put your mind to it. Perhaps one day, it’ll get through your thick skull.”
“Always the kindest of words from you, Felix,” says Sylvain, smiling. “How I’ve missed them.”
Felix snorts at that. Sylvain stands and crosses the room, stopping just short of him. Immediately, Felix reaches out, curling his fingers into Sylvain’s jacket sleeve. The article is undone down the front, hanging open freely and showing off a linen undershirt. Sylvain’s barely put together, even in private.
“We’ll figure it out,” says Felix, soft in a way that’s rarely heard from him. “We’ll go over the trade proposals, we’ll offer up some ideas and we’ll send those off. We’ll have a nice dinner and we’ll retire to this ridiculous couch where you’ll read some tawdry romance poetry aloud while I sneer the entire time.”
“Sounds like a fun way to end the night,” says Sylvain, earnestly.
“And then, when all of that is over, we’ll retire. Properly. You’ll finally get your sleep because you won’t be alone.”
Sylvain gazes down at Felix, eyes having gone soft. “My mother knows, you know.” The about us goes unsaid.
“I know,” says Felix, licking his lips. Waiting. And then, “You haven’t seen her letter.”
Sylvain looks like he wants to kiss him and Felix will let him. But he doesn’t, settling for a short hug instead. “Thank you, Felix,” says Sylvain, face pressed near Felix’s ear. “You’ve always kept me on my toes.”
“Someone has to.” Felix hates the affection that creeps into his words. “Now, about those memos.”
Felix hates paperwork and doesn’t consider himself good at it. Sylvain is a natural at it, really, and it’s easy for them to conclude sooner than later. One day, Felix thinks, Sylvain will finally be able to see himself as something worth a damn, but until then, he’ll just have to be reminded.
It’s a mantle that Felix doesn’t hate taking up.
“What are you doing up?”
Felix is bleary with sleep, not yet angry, and only wondering. Sylvain had woken in the middle of the night, warm and comfortable in his bed, but his mind prickled with thoughts. Not bad thoughts, though, a small relief.
He’d wondered if he’d ever have a happy thought again.
“Can’t sleep,” says Sylvain, honestly. He’s wrapped in a heavy robe, lined with soft fur. Not warm enough for the night, but Sylvain’s too lazy to dress any further. He’d put on his boots at least.
He turns to find Felix standing there, also in his boots, the heavy comforter of the bed pulled tightly around his shorter frame. Sylvain smiles as Felix shuffles closer.
“You’re an idiot,” says Felix with absolutely no context. How very like him.
“I know,” says Sylvain.
They stand there in the quiet, enjoying as the sky lightens, casting pinks and purples as the stars slowly disappear.
It’s cold, but not nearly as biting as it has been.
“You’re my idiot,” says Felix, a little bit later.
Sylvain wraps an arm around his shoulder, pulling him closer. Felix doesn’t fight it. “I know,” says Sylvain, quieter this time, pressing a kiss to his forehead.
When the sun finally crests the horizon, Sylvain realizes something. “There isn’t any snow falling.”
“It’s inevitable,” says Felix.
Sylvain laughs. “‘Behold, friends, the spring is come;’” he quotes, “‘the earth has gladly received the embraces of the sun, and we shall soon see the results of their love.’”
Felix snorts at that. “You and your hideous poetry books.”
“Actually, that would be the southernmost Srengese clan leader. He’s one for idioms.”
“I have one for you, then,” says Felix. “‘Get off my lawn.’”
Sylvain laughs, content. “You don’t have a lawn,” he says, thinking about the Fraldarius Estate.
“It will come when springtime is in full bloom.” To Sylvain, he sounds gloomy at the mere idea. “Fine, another one then,” says Felix. “‘In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.’”
“Who said that one? Loog?”
Felix is quiet for a beat, and then, “Glenn.” Probably a quote about getting down and dirty while training.
Sylvain’s mouth snaps shut and he slides a hand up Felix’s shoulder to squeeze it tightly. “He’d be proud, you know." Felix hums at that. “I’m proud of you.”
Then, Felix does something nearly incomprehensible. He turns to look at Sylvain, meeting his eyes fully, and says, “I’m proud of you too.”
Sylvain’s at a loss for words, so all he does is smile back.