Chrom goes running in the early mornings, when fog hangs low over the capital and the sky has not yet decided on a shade of blue.
The council members find his restlessness endearing. Most of them are not awake at such an hour to witness it for themselves, but word gets around the castle. Peacetime has made the servants’ tongues looser, and in any case, Chrom makes no attempt to keep his habits a secret. It lets the council believe that they understand him, that they know where his mind wanders during meetings.
He must miss the open roads, they say, the muscle-soreness of regimental training. After all, he is the kind of exalt who is best suited for making legends, not mandates. Or, more to the point: once a soldier, always a soldier.
They don’t see that it is the opposite, that he runs to make himself a different man. Because who he’d been during the wars was not enough.
He is tired of arriving too late.
Chrom faces directly into the headwind. The air currents are vicious at this altitude, stinging his face, but he does not blink. All of his focus is drawn toward the nape of the Fell Dragon’s neck.
He doesn’t know how Robin got so far ahead of him.
Falchion falters in Chrom’s grip. He is shouting, but his words have no voice. All around him the battle is equally silent. Steel strikes steel, tomespells burst with light. Robin, he tries to cry out. Robin. No sound.
Sometimes Chrom realizes it is a dream. Sometimes he does not. It always ends the same, either way.
Wood crickets sing summer up the Highroad.
Another search. Another dead end. Chrom twists the leather of his horse’s reins, smiling through disappointment. He would have expected Frederick to be more reproachful, to say something about the waste of time and resources, or the unnecessary exposure to danger, but he is unusually silent.
Chrom still tries to explain.
“I know,” he says, not meeting Frederick’s eyes, “that he is strong. That he doesn’t need us to save him.” Chrom clenches his jaw, stopping to breathe and gather up his words. “I don’t want him to be lost, and feel that no one is looking.”
Frederick does not respond, though his silence softens. Later, when they are riding on the road back to Ylisstol with the other Shepherds, he suddenly speaks.
“Milord, about Robin,” he says, voice lifting in query, but he never finishes his question. He stops when he sees Chrom’s face, considering him quietly before turning away.
He used to dream about his sister, too. Bright, violent nightmares that left him shaking, jaw chattering so wildly he thought his teeth would crack.
War trumpets blaring. Enemy arrows and javelins raining through the dust clouds. The Plegian courtyard stretching into forever. His senses would flood, flitting to each detail one by one, never able to focus, never able to take in the whole picture. Like trying to fit a puzzle together when the pieces are too large for one single image.
The scrape of sand beneath his boots. Lissa’s scream. Emm in the distant sky, tumbling and tumbling, pale hair glowing in the sunlight.
The new dreams are different, he tells himself, dutifully weighing the details against one another. Where there was too much sound, there is now silence. Where the colors were once blinding, now everything is pallid.
He refuses to put these nightmares in the same category. To accept that they are the same is to accept that this is grief. And why should he be grieving when Robin is not dead.
He can tell, some mornings before he goes running, that Sumia is awake. Though she does not speak or shift between the sheets or even open her eyes, her breathing changes.
He tries to apologize once, pressing a kiss to her shoulder as he whispers a sorry. She still does not respond. But while he is turned away to dress himself, he can feel her staring through the dark.
Robin disappears in pieces.
His feet lose substance, shimmering in place before going translucent, and finally darkening to black. Next his ankles go, and then his shins, and it continues, traveling up past his knees until his legs are just columns of smoke. Then his stomach, his chest, even his robes.
Chrom urges his own body to run, to cut through the thick air step by step, straining until it feels like his muscles are on fire. he still moves at the speed of cobwebs.
Robin shuts his eyes and is gone.
Lucina is old enough to cry, but not ask questions. Cynthia will forget completely.
The pages handle Sumia’s personal belongings so carefully, as if they haven’t seen her dropping those same objects left and right. A seashell comb with missing teeth is laid onto a pillow before being packed. Piece by piece, they empty her presence out of the royal chambers, to be relocated to the southern wings.
Watching them reminds Sumia of the apricot orchards next to the Pegasus Knights’ garrison. How in the summertime, you could watch a parade of ants steadily pulling apart fallen fruit until nothing was left but the dry stone.
She still loves him. She could have kept him if she loved herself less.
“A damn shame it had to happen this way,” Sully says over breakfast. Even at six months, her belly is barely showing. Strange to realize such a tiny baby will grow up to be a woman like Kjelle. “Friend or no, I have half a mind to run the dastard through with my lance. I know how you wanted him.”
Sumia doesn’t answer right away, pushing the food on her plate to the edges and then back to the center. The pause swells to fill the empty space of her new chambers. The nursemaid in the corner is listening to the conversation so intently that her spoon misses Cynthia’s mouth. The baby cackles raucously, mashed oats smeared across her cheek. Sumia almost laughs herself, but it might be taken the wrong way.
People always seem to remember the deep infatuation she once cradled close to her chest. But when she recalls what she’d hoped for as a young woman, she is not so sorely disappointed as they might imagine. In her best dreams, she was always poised on the back of a pegasus, not a throne.
Chrom is so close this time.
Were you lying, he wants to ask. Were you lying when you promised you wouldn’t do this on your own.
Robin raises his hand in farewell. Just one more step. Grima’s body sways beneath their feet.
Did you always mean to carry the whole burden. Or did you only give up when you realized I wasn’t strong enough.
Chrom reaches out his arm and it passes straight through where Robin’s ribs should be.
Discreet missives arrive to the castle regularly, bearing seals and stamps from around the continent and even across the sea from Valm.
'I regret to report that—'
'—and while presently, our search has yet to yield—'
'Sorry, Blue. No luck.'
Chrom pulls parchment and proceeds with the routine replies.
The news does not burn the way it used to. It is the kind of injury a man carries into old age—a bad knee, a shoulder that creaks in the mornings. A dull ache so constant his body reads it as numbness.
The harvest chill is thick in the air, nearing the edge of winter. The nursemaid carefully bundles Lucina in layers before Chrom is allowed to take her out. He has little time to spare away from council meetings, so they stay within castle grounds, only going as far as the maple grove by the eastern wall.
Lucina's hand is so small inside of his own, but her voice when she says “Father” is as severe as her older self, even without the weight of a broken destiny.
This week, Cordelia has been paying visit to the castle; the notes of her harp float down from the nearby guest chambers, echoing through the courtyard and filling in the spaces between the trees. The trill of a flute joins in like birdsong. Lucina raises her head, turning left and right, as if expecting to find the source of the music somewhere in the branches.
Chrom lifts her into his arms. If he were a better father he would not still feel so alone, but he does not know how to stop. He holds Lucina close, letting her head rest on his shoulder, so she will not see his face. He can smell the gentle flower water that the handmaids brushed into her hair; it blends with the autumn scent of damp soil and moss.
They turn in slow spinning circles, because Chrom never learned how to dance properly. His feet were only ever deft at battle. The wind rattles the trees, and leaves fall around them like rain.
A single maple leaf catches on Lucina’s hair. It is the color of fire.
Robin is saying something, but there is no sound.
There is too much smoke. Chrom can’t even read his lips.
The heat of scandal dies down, but the whispers continue. The halidom is perplexed.
Where is the mistress, they all want to know. Because why else would the queen consort step aside. Every chambermaid to change the exalt’s bedsheets becomes a candidate for gossip; every newborn at the castle, a speculated royal bastard.
We all know something is rotten. Just air it out already.
The council worries that their new exalt has a heart too easily swayed. “No, no, it’s not his heart that’s the problem,” the more salacious members say, guffawing with wine-breath; meanwhile, the quieter council members make contingency plans for shifting the balance of power.
Chrom visits Emmeryn and asks for her advice; his questions only echo back at him from the shadows of the mausoleum walls. The feeling is oddly familiar. He had never understood his sister's lessons.
Sometimes after he goes running, Chrom stops to gather the small white flowers that Cynthia loves—round-headed clusters that grow wild in the fields. Lissa joins him, checking for caterpillars before he showers the bundle into his daughter’s crib.
Cynthia pulls the blooms apart with relish. Her tiny fingers grasp the petals in clumps and tear them off the main stem, mimicking Sumia’s flower fortunes.
“Do you think you could tell me,” he asks, resting his arms and chin on the edge of her crib, “if I am a fool to still be waiting?”
Chrom can sense his sister tensing up beside him; he does not look at her. He has never been the sort of man who could hold his tongue, always mixing honesty with recklessness. So how is it that he has come to this point, holding all these unspoken thoughts inside of himself for so long that they’ve festered into poisons?
Cynthia swivels her head towards him, but only for the space of a few curious blinks. Her attention quickly returns to the half-bald stem in her hands. She is ruthlessly thorough, leaving nothing unplucked. Chrom smiles and tousles the growing locks by the nape of her neck, wispy waves, so unlike the unyielding straightness of Lucina’s hair.
Later, Lissa helps gather up the flower carnage.
“We all want to see him again,” she says, rolling a petal between her thumb and forefinger. “He was an important friend to everyone.”
She is too kind, making room for excuses. But the way Chrom has been living is not the only way to be. He doesn’t need to keep reaching in the emptiness for someone who will not come. There is wanting without waiting.
Chrom knows his morning habit of running is just that. A habit. It is not something that can make himself more than what he was. It is not a path to repentance. It is simply something he does to fill the gulf of time. Feet find a pattern of action—left-right-left-right—tricking his body into a sense of normalcy, an illusion of movement. All the while, memories of Robin cycle in his mind, carving out deep and familiar paths for regret to travel.
This is not the way to move forward. He doesn’t know that he wants to.
“I love him,” he says, suddenly.
Lissa’s hands pause, a few petals fluttering back onto the crib bedding. When they were younger, the etiquette master would always scold her for never being able to restrain her reactions. She still hasn’t learned.
“Don’t look so surprised,” he says, eyes lowered. His heart swells too large with each beat, a sharp feeling inside his chest, like it’s trying to burst. He hasn’t felt anything this vivid in so long.
Lissa watches him cautiously before her expression relaxes into a smile. She shakes her head. “It’s just the first time I’ve heard you say it out loud.”
Chrom clenches his eyes shut and wills them to stop burning.
The air thickens, and everything turns elastic. A moment’s hesitation stretches out to years-long regret. Chrom’s boots stride the Fell Dragon’s back in decelerated rhythm, counting down to disaster.
Step. Robin’s form shimmers and blurs. Step. His feet begin to vanish. Step. Body dissolving into sparks and darkness. Step. Chrom can see straight through Robin’s chest. Step.
The scene continues as scripted; he will arrive too late. There will be nothing to cling to, hands passing through open air. But he will still reach out, because he always does. He will always run. He will always try to call out, even if he will always fail—Robin, Robin, Robin—straining his throat for noise in this dream-silence world.
Robin turns, now completely engulfed in black smoke and stars, as if he were an elaborate doll filled with cosmic fire and little else. But Chrom has seen him bleed. And Chrom has seen him shed tears. Even with years of missing memories, Robin has more life inside of him than most could wish for; Chrom knows this without doubt.
He will never stop chasing.
Step. Robin raising his hand in farewell. Step. So close now. Step. Robin’s lips moving—still no sound. Step. Don’t go. Step. Don’t go.
Chrom stretches his arm out, lunging through the air. And this is where Robin vanishes, or where he fades far enough that Chrom falls straight through him. This is where the color leeches out of his vision and leaves behind a dust-colored peace.
Instead, this time, incredibly, their fingertips touch.
Chrom wakes the way a bubble pops.
His body moves automatically, performing the morning routine. Rising out of bed. Stripping off his sleepwear. Pouring the ewer into the raised basin to rinse the sleep from his eyes.
Outside his window, the sun has not yet broken the horizon, but Ylisstol is beginning to wake. Scattered cook fires raise smoke in the lower town, calling early morning laborers to breakfast.
As he washes his face, he remembers—just before waking he’d seen Robin’s expression. Eyes wide, like a mirror of his own. Chrom does not know what to think of this. But he knows what he hopes, because it’s the same thing he’s always hoping for.
His stomach feels light, like the sensation of falling, and he cannot bring himself down.
The weight of Robin’s body—it comes as a shock. And when he helps Robin to his feet, Chrom goes dizzy with vertigo. Something inside his chest has been knocked out of balance, and will not right itself again.
On the road back to Ylisstol, Chrom’s hands keep finding themselves on Robin’s shoulders, or clapping him on the back, or dusting off the soil and dried mud from the back of his robe. Multiple times, he asks to see the empty space where Grima’s mark has vanished, marveling at the smoothness of the skin there; he grasps Robin’s fingers, feels the knuckles beneath the skin. His fascination with the solidness of Robin's body is too obvious, but he cannot help himself.
“You seem well,” Robin says, voice on the edge of laughter and curious amusement twisting his brows.
But I haven’t been, Chrom almost says out loud. And from the traded glance between Lissa and Frederick, it is clear they are thinking the same thing. For so long he had guarded the half-empty cup of his heart, holding it close so he would not spill another drop. But now the cup bubbles like a wellspring, fills itself and overflows.
Every reply wants to rise out of him at once, but his throat tightens. There will be time and time to share it all—stories, memories, all the secret words Chrom had wanted to say but never did. For now, it is enough that there is hello after goodbye.
“I had a dream about you,” he says in a quiet voice, and brushes the grass out of Robin’s hair.