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tenderness in winter

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His master is king now. At eighteen his face has yet to form a wrinkle and his brother's mantle falls spaciously across his smaller frame. (His father's was ruined in the war.) His pallor is rosy with health and he walks, always, with his hands crossed behind his back to press his chest forward with pride.

King Leon has a country at his command and no shortage of anything for his personal comfort. He has two siblings in Shirasagi who send enough grain to Nohr to see the people through the winter.

He spends his nights restlessly twisting the sheets.

Zero often brings him a glass of warm water without prompting.

“Thanks,” he would murmur as he'd sit up on the pillows, tucking his legs against his chest as Zero shakes out the blankets until they fall upon the bed in even layers. He would finish the glass, and hand it back to Zero silently as he slid back into bed, blankets pulled up to his chin, hair mussed about his face.

In the quiet of the night, Zero would leave with the cup and the lamp as if he were never there.

He learned silence from errands. He'd shim the locks, open the windows. Before the girl stirred from the cold, he was in her bed, stuffing a rag in her mouth, beating the fight out of her, wresting her fine smallclothes from her legs and pocketing them, splitting her legs and ramming his dick again, again, again—shoving her head in the pillow to make the bitch hold still—leaving sheets soiled with blood and cum, fingerprints on her arms and thighs, vanishing from the palace grounds before there was so much as the bark of a guard dog. The next day the guild would collect the other half of the promised sum from the lord who had been loath to marry her.

In the mornings Zero guides a comb through Leon's fine blond hair. As thin as it is, it always manages to be tangled on every side in the morning. Zero patiently works his way through without breaking a strand.

“Zero, if you take any longer, I'm going to be late,” Leon says. Other times it's You do know that I'm capable of combing my own hair? or My scalp isn't so sensitive that you can't work a little faster, a litany of complaints but never an order to stop.

Zero likes to run the comb a few extra times through his smooth, neat hair, for the feeling of its teeth tracing lightly over Leon's scalp.

“Just making sure you look your best, milord,” he says before resting the dark crown upon his head.

Today marks the end of the week. As he does at every week's close, King Leon goes to oversee the executions. His appearance is immaculate as he smiles to the hangman and goes to take his seat. Zero follows, standing behind him, a bow across his back and a dagger at his side—neither of which he's ever needed, with Leon's hand resting on Brynhildr balanced upon his crossed legs.

They file the prisoners out onto the platform, wretched half-naked creatures in prison garb, huddled in the bite of early winter, cold without consequence as the hangman places the loop around each one's neck.

As an official reads out names and crimes, one of the prisoners twists free from his guard's grip, darting into the crowd, screaming, “I didn't do nothin'! Help me! I didn't do nothin'!” The crowd parts from his path in fear—leaving him alone, an easy target. Zero reaches for an arrow, but Leon has already finished his incantation. Wood erupts from beneath the prisoner's feet, driving sharp and twisting branches through his flesh, raising him into the air before disappearing.

The prisoner falls to the ground from an incredible height. He doesn't move when he lands. Dark blood pools from his corpse.

Leon closes the tome and gestures for the official to continue. No one seems quite sure of which one the attempted escapee had been, but within a few minutes they're all dead anyway.

By the end of the day there are always a few stray locks flying over his crown.

Back at the palace, after Leon has handed off his horse, he turns to Zero and says as if in an afterthought, “You don't need to follow me to these events if you don't want to.”

“Why wouldn't I?” Zero says, privately ecstatic to hear the words.

Each night Zero dips his fingers in the bathwater to make sure it's just the right warmth.

“I don't need a private bath every day,” Leon vaguely protests, as if he doesn't always end up curled contentedly in the heated, scented water, sighing at the ceiling with all of the wet planes of his body in perfect proportions, like the muscle and the flesh of his body had been placed there to express some artist's ideal of youthful beauty.

Zero would've liked nothing better than to knead the soft muscles of his shoulders above the damp warmth and vague scent of fruit. But once when he had touched a hand to Leon's bare shoulder his master had jolted audibly in the water, saying calmly, “I'd prefer to bathe by myself,” and from then on without complaint Zero perched on the tea table by the windows, across the master room, where he only heard the lapping water and saw a vague reflection of the warm tones of Leon's skin against the polished bathroom wall.

In truth all he wanted was to watch him loosen and relax, become happy and content under his fingers. He didn't blame his master for thinking that his intentions had been impure. Bathhouses had been one of the best places to find men hungry for a fuck.

“Zero, will you bring me a towel?”

Zero goes to the bathroom and fetches the towel set from the other side of the room, bringing it to Leon as he rises from the bath so that he doesn't need to be cold for an instant longer than necessary. Leon takes one and wraps it around his chest, tucked under his arms—the other, Zero uses to rub water from his hair.

Without waiting for Zero, Leon tucks his feet into his slippers to make the short journey to his bed, indicating that he's done with having his hair rubbed dry.

Leon has never questioned Zero about taking on duties far more menial and personal than his post demands. Zero takes it as a sign that it pleases him.

Zero hangs up the towel. He joins Leon in his bedroom, blowing out the candles, lingering by the foot of the bed. Leon has already pulled the blankets around him into a tight cocoon. Every night, Zero waits for him to say That will be all, Zero, before leaving to stand watch outside the door.

Tonight his dismissal doesn't come.

After a long and uncertain silence, Zero comes around to sit on the edge of Leon's bed. His eyes are open, awake. He reeks of lonesomeness.

He would have been the kind of client Zero favored most. Wealthy, pitiful, hungry for someone to acknowledge the depths of their existence, desperate to be indulged at their most undignified. Animals dressed in silks, hair plucked and trimmed as if it could let them deny their nature, fishing little young things off of the street, boasting of their greatness, of their magnanimity, pleasuring themselves with a story where they were saving a poor boy rather than bending him to their wishes for a night, rutting against him on the furniture that wore his skin thin, groaning and panting and thrusting while he watched them for signs of their next whim, spilling spit and cum and shit on everything. Same as all the rest, but for their delusion. And their gold.

Once, he had thought that the second prince of Nohr made a lucrative mark.

“It's snowing,” Leon says.

There are clusters of snowflakes drifting past the window, visible as dark floating spots blocking out the faint moonlight.

“Odin would have something to say about that,” he continues.

Zero traces the curve of Leon's ear with one finger. “Yeah.”

“I never imagined you'd be the only one left.”

“I live for you, milord.”

Leon cups his hand over Zero's, over his ear, drawing it down to his cheek for a moment. His cheek is tender and smooth, shielded from the dry winds by fragrant wax. Zero imagines that his own rough skin snags against it where they meet.

“I can keep you company,” he whispers, drawing his thumb across his cheekbone.

Leon looks up at him, unreadable in the night, two dark eyes and a mouth.

“I couldn't ask you to, Zero.”

“You wouldn't need to ask.”

Zero kisses him lightly on the forehead. Leon's skin is damp and warm. His fingers curl around Zero's, light enough for him to slip free.