When Felix was six, he had a favorite book that he read again and again with an insatiable appetite. He loved that book, loved it so much that eventually the spine creased, the cover wore, and the pages had frayed at the edges. Upon seeing the wreckage of what was once an immaculate artifact, his father had lectured him about his carelessness. He told him that books were delicate creatures, as easily torn or bruised as a butterfly’s wings, and in need of the utmost tenderness. Books were not playthings for the rough hands of little boys, they were a world which must be glimpsed with a gentle touch.
Felix had scoffed because he didn’t understand the point of a book if you don’t read it, nor that it was possible to read a book without damaging it. In response, Felix had had his library privileges placed under the watchful eye of his older brother. If a book was old enough to be his father, then Felix was not allowed to touch it. He was only allowed to look.
Naturally, this parole was met with much resistance. Glenn didn’t want to spend his time babysitting, and Felix felt that he was far too old to be babysat. So, they fussed, and they complained, but each held the secret of quietly enjoying the closeness of a library chair and the time spent together as siblings. The book would be placed on the desk, and with hungry eyes Felix would devour it. Meanwhile, Glenn would wait for the command to turn each page.
It was a large book, its cover splashed with brightly colored images, along with golden lettering. A King’s Tale. That was the name of Felix’s favorite book. He could never figure out if that meant the stories were for about the king or for the king’s listening pleasures, and Glenn wouldn’t answer without making fun.
In A King’s Tales were dozens of stories, all full of bravery and love; pride and hubris. Each story was populated with a rotating cast of characters. Rarely were they named, and instead they were simply “The Young Knight” or “Golden-Eyed Witch” or, most powerful of all, The King.
The King could change age, shape, morals, and love at a moment’s notice. He was a young man yearning for a princess who cried venom. He was a spiteful man who snatched away the children of villagers. The King could be a wise old leader, or a foolish child. In some stories he was handsome. In some his evilness reflected on his soured face. In one story he spun words like silk and honey, and in another his tongue would be snatched away for its cruelty.
Each story had a beginning, middle, and end, and when it reached its individual conclusion and it was time to flow into the next Once Upon A Time, then The King was born anew. Ready for his next role. Ready to impart a new lesson for the reader.
“Who should be The King?” Ingrid would ask for fairness sake while all heads turned to Dimitri.
The moments Felix would have of play when he’d visit Dimitri’s castle were often in short bursts between training and lessons. None of the children were allowed to spar with Dimitri, with the exception of the older and more agile Glenn, but they could still play. Someone would recite a story, sometimes historical sometimes mythical, and then roles would be divvied up among them. Most often these were the same characters: The King or The Prince. The Princess or The Maiden. The Knight or The Dragon.
“I was him last time,” Dimitri would lower his voice in faux embarrassment. “Felix, do you want to–“
“I want to be the knight,” Felix would say and that alone would kick off a fierce argument of all his friends clamoring for their position at The King’s side.
And then the games would begin.
The King would declare war against the underthings of the soil, and Felix and Sylvain would crawl on their hands and knees, yelling in a made-up language of what they thought underthings of the soil would sound like.
The game would start anew, and this time Felix would be stabbing a training sword at Sylvain’s torso, but not quick enough to avoid his dragon flames.
The game would begin again, once upon a time the ultimate do-over. Now Felix and Ingrid were bandits! Stealing the wares of The King and his jester.
When Glenn would play along Ingrid was somehow even less willing to act as a princess, and their game would switch roles to that of four knights and the singular King looking for a lost mystical item hidden in the castle’s depths.
Sometimes Sylvain, who preferred to play the villains and dragons and bandits and horrors, would roar his antagonistic roar while Ingrid roared back to protect Her King.
Sometimes Sylvain, who also liked the role of the romantic rival, would dip Ingrid deeply in a ballroom scene while The King fought Glenn and Felix just outside the imaginary castle gates.
Once Felix tried to carry Ingrid as if she were a bride, but fell over in his attempt, and so the game began once more with their roles reversed.
Only Dimitri’s role was permanent, after all.
Whenever they played these games, Dimitri would cease being Dimitri at all. He was simply, humbly The King.
The King would wring the dragon’s neck with his bare hands. The King would shake the ground with a single word. The King would save all the land from a forever frost. The King would challenge the sky and come out on top.
The King would.
The King could.
The King will.
The King straddled the line of folklore and history. The King could only be played by Dimitri. Dimitri blurred the line of legend and forewarning. The King was both villain and hero. Dimitri was both man and animal.
Dimtri was The King.
The King was Dimitri.
The King was gone.
The King! The King! Where is my King?
That was the line that opened the story of Felix’s favorite Once Upon A Time. Nestled further to the back of the large book was the story that spanned only a handful of pages.
The King! The King! Where is our King? A man asked while wandering the streets. He had been looking for him everywhere. He missed him dearly so. Have you checked in the palace? a potter would say, and the man would search and find nothing. Have you checked in the woods a knight would ask with a sympathetic frown, and the man would search and find nothing. How about the mountains? What of that cave? Have you searched the lion’s den?
The man followed each suggestion without fail, until eventually a bear had told him I saw The King, yes, I have. I saw The King at the bottom of the river.
How horrible! How awful! The man moaned and groaned and cried and fretted at the idea of His King sunken to the bottom of a river. Drowned and never to rule again. He would search the river, nonetheless, for he was His King, after all. If he was dead, then he had the duty to bring his corpse home. To allow the people to bury their lost, well-loved leader.
But he was so scared to look. His fingers itched and his knees shook, and his chest tightened to the point it felt like something inside would snap.
But he was His King. He would do anything for His King. So, the man crawled on his hands and knees through the mud to the shore. He peeked at the water, only one eye opened, and he searched for His King in the clear, rippling river.
Only his reflection looked back.
The King! He moaned. The King! He groaned. Where is my King? The King cried as he walked away to continue his search.
“That’s horrible,” Glenn had said the first time Felix made him read it.
“It’s funny,” Felix had replied.
“It’s depressing,” Glenn shook his head. “The knight should’ve kept him in the castle. He should’ve made him go to bed or called a doctor. If he were My King–“ Glenn began his lecture and Felix tuned him out while tracing his finger along the picture of the water. It’s deep blue, interrupted only by The King’s anguished reflection.
The King! The King! Where is my King? The words knock around in Felix’s head like a mantra. On the battlefield, in the halls of the monastery, late at night with the wall that separates him from his answer.
Felix knocks twice against the wall. Hard enough that it’s impossible for Dimitri to miss. There’s a long quiet and then an unsure voice.
“I don’t want to knock back,” Dimitri says through the wall.
“Okay,” Felix says and actually gets up to go to his room.
The door is unlocked. Dimitri sits up in his bed, his now long hair tied back into a ponytail that almost resembles Felix’s own. He isn’t wearing his eyepatch at the moment, but he keeps his eye closed anyways. The lid is scarred and puckered with two sharp gashes.
“Good evening,” Dimitri says.
“Okay,” Felix says back, his focus on anything but him, while chewing on his thumbnail.
Dimtri’s never been good at small talk. His awkwardness long predated any trauma or mental illness, and in fact, his self-consciousness has only increased as the years waged on. It’s not a good match with Felix’s own disagreeable personality, and they stare at each other for far too long before Felix realizes that Dimitri will continue like this all night unless he says something.
“Good evening,” Felix says.
“Yes,” Dimitri nods. “It is.”
“I wanted to check that you were here,” Felix admits.
“As in physically present?”
Dimitri moves over so Felix can sit beside him. Neither moves to turn on a light. The wind echoes hollow in the halls.
“Shut up,” Felix interrupts him. “I’m not looking another apology.”
Dimitri sighs and turns away. He speaks to the desk facing them. “Then what are you looking for,” he asks.
“I don’t know,” Felix says.
Felix sits on his bed for a while longer, bouncing his knee instead of talking while Dimitri counts the number of floorboards in his room.
Felix leaves when the sky begins to look more pink than black and neither says goodbye.
Felix knocks twice on the wall separating his room from Dimitri’s. Dimitri knocks back and a small puff of plaster falls on Felix’s head.
Felix is still dusting the plaster from his hair when he enters Dimitri’s room. This time he doesn’t wait for Dimitri to make room for him, he just takes his seat beside him as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Dimitri doesn’t say hello, he sits and he waits and there is quiet.
“How much longer do you think the war will take,” Felix asks.
“The war will never end,” Dimitri’s voice is as casual as if he were talking about the dining hall’s food. “But as for defeating Edelgard? A few months. Maybe less.”
Felix nods. “What will happen after?”
“You still talk like a crazy man.”
“It’s fitting, I suppose.”
Felix leaves before dawn.
Felix knocks twice on the wall between them and doesn’t wait for a reply this time.
“Do you remember the story about the swan who swallowed the princess?” Felix asks while taking his place at the foot of his bed. Dimitri is curled up along the wall. He leaves as much space between them as possible.
“Yes,” Dimitri confirms, his voice unsure of what direction this conversation will go. “The swan wanted to be just like her. She admired her beauty, so she swallowed her whole.”
Felix nods. “Isn’t that fucked up?”
Dimitri laughs. “Yes.”
Felix is still chewing at his thumbnail. He’s still bouncing his leg.
“The swan loved her.”
He’s ready to sit in silence for hours more but is interrupted by Dimitri clearing his throat. Generally, Dimitri doesn’t speak unless he’s spoken to first when it comes to casual conversation. It leaves a lot of empty pauses between the two.
“What about the one,” Dimitri’s eyebrows are furrowed as he slowly weaves his sentence into the stale air between them. “What about the one where the princess is saved by the dragon? The one where the dragon dies so she can live?”
Felix remembers that one too. He remembers all of them. “That’s fucked up too.”
“It’s kinda sweet.”
“If you say so.”
“Not even dragons are immune to the chivalrous whims of fate, I suppose,” he cuts to the core of Felix’s distaste.
It’s only a little while later that Felix is slinking his way out of Dimitri’s room. He stops at the door, his feet tripping over an imaginary blockade as he steadies his breath.
“I think,” Felix says to the door. “I think the swan loved her more than the dragon did.” He closes his eyes.
“Is it a competition?” Dimitri asks.
“Then I think so as well.”
“So, The King is left to wander, forever searching for his own shadow,” Felix finishes the story as Dimitri listens intently.
“There’s a theme here,” Dimitri says.
Felix scowls. “A theme of what?”
“A theme of all these fairytales being extremely depressing.”
Felix rolls his eyes. “They’re not depressing.”
“A swan ate a princess, the forest was built on the tears of giants, and The King is mad.”
“So, some of them are a little depressing,” Felix allows.
“I suppose there’s a lesson here,” Dimitri’s voice is heavy with distaste. He spits his words as if they were the bitter, unwanted pit of an olive. He leans back against the wall, his eyes closed tight enough to crinkle at their edges, and his chest rising and falling at a too quick pace. It’s an expression Felix had grown use to. The one that says Dimitri’s frustrated and angry and doesn’t know what to do about it.
“So,” Dimitri says.
“So what?” Felix asks.
Dimitri doesn’t answer because he doesn’t need to.
“Sorry,” Felix finally relents. “I shouldn’t had picked that one.”
He watches Dimitri’s face as he takes steady breaths. In through his nose. Out through his mouth. Just like how the professor told him. When his lips stop twitching, he finally speaks.
“Do you think I’m lost?” Dimitri asks. “Forever?”
Felix shrugs before remembering that Dimitri can’t see the gesture with his eyes closed. He leans against the wall with him, their shoulder brushing, and dawn foreboding his eventual departure.
“You know,” Dimitri says finally. “There’s a school of thought that The King is actually dead. Not a ghost or a figment of the man’s imagination.”
Felix looks over at Dimitri and comes face to face with his intense stare. The switch to complete, unwavering eye contact is sudden, and Felix holds back the urge to squirm under his one eye gaze. “What do you mean?” he asks.
“Some scholars theorize that The King had perished some time before the tale’s beginning. That the man is his close companion, perhaps a loyal knight, a son, or a brother. That he is incapable of accepting not only His King’s demise, but his own title as the heir to the throne. When he peers into the water, he faces his own reflection. He feels unsuitable to the throne.”
Felix shakes his head in confusion. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Yes, it does.”
“It’s the same story either way.”
Felix groans and leans forward to rub at his temples. “How’d you even know that? What people theorize about some old story? It’s just a kid’s book.”
Dimitri laughs. “I had to take literature lessons as a child. Didn’t you?”
Felix shakes his head. “Not really. My father just let us learn whatever we were interested in at the time. On top of our usual training, I mean.”
“So, you just read these for fun?”
“That’s what they were written for.”
“You know, my stepmother hated that your father was lax with that stuff. She said it was unbecoming of future knights.”
“Your stepmom sounds like a bitch.”
Dimitri lets out a surprised chortle. One that quickly turns into genuine laughter, but then continues on for longer than it should, devolving into something darker than that. Drawn out chuckles that shake from his shoulders and stretches his lips thin in a humorless grimace. He laughs and laughs as Felix waits the fit out.
“Sorry,” Felix says when Dimitri finally calms himself and catches his breath.
“It was funny,” Dimitri defends himself too sharply and he realizes this. He puffs out in frustration, a sigh that sounds almost like a growl, and he flops back against the wall with his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
“I want to go to bed,” he doesn’t state, he commands.
“Okay,” Felix says without moving. He sits still for a moment longer, waiting for a response that will not come, before finally relenting and heading for the door.
“The King. The King. Where is My King,” Dimitri’s voice echoes in the still, dark room and Felix’s chest seizes at the sound.
Felix knocks twice on the wall between them and receives no response. He creeps past Dimitri’s door and finds him lying in bed facing away from him. His form is too stiff to be asleep. Felix sits on the edge of the bed, not touching him just in case, and waits. Dimitri says nothing.
“I like the story where,” Felix voice breaks from his throat in a wavering tone. “The King sings to the woman who cries venom.”
There’s no response from Dimitri, and Felix closes his eyes and bites his thumbnail and tries not to think too much.
“Her eyes are constantly puffy and pink, and there’s permanent trails etched onto her cheeks from the venom’s bite. It hurts. Crying venom. It hurts her, so she cries more, which hurts her even more. It’s a shitty cycle. The King feels bad. He sends her gifts. He sends her musicians. He sends her jesters and animals and gold. She cries more and more and more until her whole face is red and swollen. He feels awful.”
Beside him, Dimitri fidgets in empathetic discomfort at her plight. Felix turns so he’s mostly on the bed beside him, one leg pressed against Dimitri’s back, the other foot hanging loosely off the side of the bed.
“He sang to her. Out of options he sang to her. Nonstop, even throughout the night. Without end for three days straight all he did was sing and all she did was cry. Finally, he saw that her tears had turned a yellowish color and terrified he tried to call out to her, but his voice was so hoarse it was just a pathetic croak.” Felix shakes his head, trying to dredge up his memories of the old children’s tale.
“She laughed,” Dimitri says.
“Yeah,” Felix confirms. “She laughed and told him that she was crying because she was happy. The venom had turned to honey. The King had been so kind and so gentle that he turned her tears to honey.”
Dimitri turns over and looks Felix in the eyes. One eye a clear sapphire blue, the other milky cornflower. “I’m a terrible singer.”
“Yeah, you kinda really suck.”
“The professor keeps making me go to choir practice anyways. I think they just find it funny.”
“Just like the princess.”
“Yeah. You know, that story is about virginity,” Dimitri says so suddenly that Felix sputters.
“What? No, it’s not. Shut up!”
“She cries honey, Felix. It’s a representation of springtime, youth, and vitality. So, virginity.”
Felix whacks him on the arm. “What the fuck is wrong with your tutors.”
“Every fairytale is either about religion, hubris, or virginity.” He sits up, his hair messy and in his eyes. “Oh, and paying taxes.”
Felix shakes his head and looks away from him. “That’s awful. I hate that. Wherever you found this sense of humor from, you should return it.”
Dimitri laughs again, his shoulders hunch over, and their proximity emphasized even more so.
Facing each other in the dark feels a lot different than their usual positioning of staring blankly at the farthest wall. In his room, Dimitri looks younger. His large figure blurring in the moon’s obscuring glow, and his face more childishly open. Past the tired under eye bruising, the chapped lips, and roughly chopped hair is the same Dimitri that Felix had met before his memories even began.
Dimitri looks down, the same bashful energy that is ingrained into him no matter how much war he faces. He is completely and utterly incapable of not being embarrassed by his own existence. It’s a familiar charm that kicks Felix squarely in the chest. It’s an entirely Dimitri-like response. A Dimitri shade of blushing red and a Dimitri huff of self-consciousness. It makes Felix’s skin tighten. It makes Felix’s throat dry.
He doesn’t know how to stop himself from pushing aside the uneven bangs from Dimitri’s eyes. Dimitri shudders at his touch, and the motion sends shivers throughout Felix’s entire frame, leaving him shaking alongside him. Felix pushes Dimitri’s bangs back, he runs his fingers through his hair, along his scalp in a tender graze to find its way cupping the back of his head.
“I don’t understand why you’re here,” Dimitri says.
“I want to make sure you’re still here,” Felix replies.
“Something like that.”
Dimitri shakes his head, and Felix tightens his grip the slightest bit causing Dimitri to sharply inhale.
“I want to go to bed,” Dimitri says.
“Okay,” Felix replies.
Felix stands up on unstable legs and takes methodical steps away from Dimitri and his unrelenting stare. His hand shakes as he brings his thumbnail up to nibble on. The floor feels like it’s tilting as he reaches for the door.
“Good night,” Dimitri’s voice barely drowns out his thundering pulse.
“Yeah,” Felix bids him farewell.
Felix doesn’t knock on the wall. He listens with his ear pressed against the wall. He hears Dimitri turn in his bed. He hears Dimitri sit up. He hears Dimitri walk to the other side of the room. He hears Dimitri press his ear against the wall. He hears Dimitri hold his breath.
He hears Dimitri hold his breath.
He hears Dimitri hold his breath.
Felix knocks twice.
Dimitri is just standing there when Felix opens his door.
“Goddess above–“ Felix swears and jumps back. “Dammit, Dimitri.”
Dimitri takes a step back to give Felix room to enter. “What?”
“You scared the shit out of me.”
“Sorry,” he sounds entirely too genuine in his apology.
“It’s fine,” Felix says while stomping past him. He falls on to Dimitri’s bed without ceremony and lies flat on his back staring at the ceiling. This time Dimitri sits at the foot of the bed, staring down at him.
“What?” Felix snaps at him.
“Are you that mad at getting spooked?” He sounds entirely too amused in his question.
Felix scowls and kicks at him. “Shut up,” he says while giving a half-hearted attempt at shoving Dimitri off the bed.
“Are you trying to push me off of my bed?” Dimitri asks bewildered.
“It’s like the dragon and the knight. Off the cliff you go.”
“Wait, who got pushed off the cliff? The dragon or the knight?”
“What does it matter?”
“It matters, Felix.”
Felix kicks at his shoulder even harder.
It a long while later that Felix sits up. The sky outside isn’t just a slow brightening, but the beginning of a vibrant pinkish orange.
“Dammit, Dimitri,” Felix says blearily while sitting up.
Dimitri frowns from his same sitting position at the foot of his bed. “What?” he asks.
“I fell asleep.”
“That sounds like a personal problem.”
“You’re rude today,” Felix complains while standing up.
“Sorry,” he sounds entirely too chipper in his apology.
Felix slams the door on his way out. He waits a second then he opens it again. “It was the dragon that got pushed off the cliff. The knight built up all his rage and channeled it into strength. The dragon never stood a chance.”
He slams the door again for emphasis.
Felix knocks twice on the wall and this time Dimitri thinks better than to stand silent behind his closed door. He’s sitting at the foot of his bed again, and Felix sits beside him.
“Why do you keep coming here,” Dimitri asks. “Other than to make sure I’m still here. Physically or otherwise.”
Felix shrugs. “Good conversation, I suppose.”
Dimitri doesn’t laugh.
Felix sighs. “What do you want me to say?” he asks him.
“You never tell me what I want you to say.”
“It’s part of my charm.”
“I want to go to bed,” Dimitri cuts him off with his eyes squeezed tightly shut.
Felix looks down. He bounces his knee, accidentally knocking into Dimitri’s. “What do you want me to say?” Felix asks and doesn’t expect a reply.
Dimitri doesn’t give one. He breaths in through his nose. Out through his mouth. His lips are in a tight, unpleasant line.
“I want to make sure you’re still here,” Felix says quiet enough that it could be a resigned sigh.
“Oh, where is My King,” his voice is a ghost.
Felix bites hard at his thumbnail. Swears when it draws blood and shakes the pain off it. Dimitri opens his good eye at that. With a surprising quickness he circles his hand around Felix’s wrist. Felix holds his breath, Dimitri feels his pulse.
“What about the story where those who bite their nails will have goblins eat their thumbs at night?” Dimitri asks.
“I don’t know that one,” Felix admits.
“I made it up,” Dimitri says and without warning nips at Felix’s knuckle.
Felix yelps and pulls his hand back. “What was that for?”
Dimitri doesn’t answer.
“You have no impulse control, do you?”
Dimitri shrugs. “I do well enough.”
They sit quietly for a few minutes more before Felix stands to find his own bed.
“You don’t–“ Dimitri starts in a panic. “You don’t actually have to go. I mean–“ He reaches a hand out just shy of Felix’s own.
“It’s fine,” Felix reaches past Dimitri’s hand and cups his jaw. “It’s fine,” he runs the pad of his thumb across Dimitri’s cheek. He watches him close his eyes at the comfort of his palm. Felix leans down. Close enough that his nose brushes the top of Dimitri’s head. He splays his fingers wide, runs them down Dimitri’s neck, and pulls him closer so that his lips are pressed against Dimitri’s forehead. He doesn’t kiss him. He just stays still. Breaths in. Feels the way Dimitri quivers at his touch.
Dimitri knocks twice against the wall, and again it causes plaster to fall on Felix’s face. He sits up and shakes the dust from his hair and sees the shadow of Dimitri’s figure standing outside his door. Felix stands and opens it. Dimitri stands there without moving.
“Good evening,” Felix says and Dimitri nods.
“Yes. Good evening.”