“I think you need to kiss him, sir.”
Hendrickson turns back towards Howzer, shooting him a glare. “That’s not helpful, Howzer,” he hisses.
The younger knight throws his hands in the air. “I’m just sayin’! Whenever I hear about these kinds of situations, that’s my first thought.”
He can already feel a headache coming on, and not just from their current predicament. “And where have you possibly heard about something like this before?”
Howzer considers that for a long moment. “I guess . . . from stories my mom’d tell me when I was a kid.”
Hendrickson pinches at the bridge of his nose and lets out a deep sigh. “That’s not helping, Howzer.”
Dreyfus crosses his arms, glaring at the two of them. Howzer immediately stumbles back, lifting his hands up as a sort of mea culpa. “L-Look, are you sure he isn’t sick or something? I mean, that whole battle was pretty rough.”
“He’s not sick,” Hendrickson responds sharply, lowering his hand. “Does he look sick?”
“Sick of me, maybe . . .” Howzer’s voice trails off as he scratches at his chin. “Sir Dreyfus, have you really lost your voice?”
Another glare is the only answer he gets. Hendrickson gives Dreyfus a sidelong glance before shaking his head. “This isn’t natural. If it were an illness, other symptoms would have manifested by now.”
It had happened so quickly that he’d still barely had time to comprehend it himself — but, then again, that could be the exhaustion talking. After Fraudrin’s defeat and Meliodas’s dubious return as well as the services for the fallen, Dreyfus had excused himself for the night.
“We’ll talk in the morning, Hendrickson,” he’d reassured him before leaving.
Morning came, and Dreyfus had found that he could no longer speak, his voice completely absent. Both of them had assumed it was merely a side effect and went about their day, with Hendrickson acting as his voice. Illness or no, Dreyfus wasn’t planning on waiting a day longer to shear away the remnants of Fraudrin.
Short hair had always suited him better, anyway.
But a few days had passed since then and there was no improvement whatsoever, which lead Hendrickson to one simple conclusion.
“It’s a curse,” he explains to Howzer, gesturing over at Dreyfus. “What else would it be?”
“Man, first Griamore and now Sir Dreyfus?” Howzer scratches at the back of his neck before sighing. “But this really is bad timing. We’re stretched pretty thin as it is, to be honest.”
“I know.” Hendrickson crosses his arms with a frown. “Do you have any idea when Lady Merlin is supposed to return? She hasn’t been around since the battle.”
Slowly, Howzer shakes his head. “No clue. She left with Sir Meliodas the day after — didn’t really say where they were goin’, either.” He scratches at the back of his neck. “I guess they’re rebuilding and everything? Pork said the tavern got wrecked.”
“Sir Hawk,” Hendrickson corrects him, rubbing at his forehead. “And I heard about that.”
“Yeah, well, given everything with Sir Meliodas, maybe this is for the better?” He shrugs his shoulders as he gives Dreyfus a sympathetic look. “—err, sorry, sir.”
Dreyfus sighs inaudibly, shaking his head. Hendrickson gives him a sidelong glance before clearing his throat, drawing Howzer’s attention back over to him. “If you happen to see Lady Merlin, can you let her know that we were looking for her?”
“Yeah, sure,” Howzer responds with a nod. “I think Princess Elizabeth’s still around, if that helps? Though she couldn’t figure out Griamore’s whole thing, so . . .” His voice trails off as he shrugs again. “Worth a shot?”
“Thank you, Howzer,” Hendrickson murmurs, turning away.
The timing is, admittedly, far from ideal.
Hendrickson tells himself again and again that it’s fine; it’s clearly some sort of curse, but they’ll get to the bottom of it together and remove it. At least Fraudrin is dead and gone and Dreyfus is alone once more in his own body. At the very least, if nothing else, he has Dreyfus back — mostly.
But he’d be lying if he said it didn’t hurt that he couldn’t hear his voice. There had always been something soothing about it to him, from the bass timbre to the fact that they’d used to spend hours on end talking about anything that came to mind. The fact that he had Dreyfus back but his words had been stolen from him is a crushing blow that Hendrickson doesn’t want to acknowledge.
And so, he doesn’t. They’ll figure it out, he tells himself. It’s fine, he tells himself — as always. He has to keep his chin held high, for Dreyfus’s sake.
“We can ask the princess if she knows when Lady Merlin will return if nothing else,” Hendrickson murmurs to Dreyfus as they walk along the streets of Liones, heading towards the remains of the Boar Hat tavern.
Dreyfus stares over at Hendrickson pointedly, as if he had something to say. Hendrickson glances over, curious. “Dreyfus?” It takes him a moment or two before he realizes his mistake — much like several moments he’s had in the past few days, as he tries to slip back into old habits once more — and he lifts his hand up apologetically. “— Ah, sorry.”
With an inaudible sigh, Dreyfus grabs Hendrickson by the wrist and tugs it over, tracing a few letters into the palm of his hand. The druid blinks, furrowing his brows as he follows along carefully. “Griamore?” he asks after a moment.
Dreyfus nods, letting go of his hand and crossing his arms. Hendrickson takes a moment to process that, realizing what it is that he’s asking. “— Of course we’ll get Griamore taken care of as well. That’s always been the priority, Dreyfus.”
The other man raises an eyebrow skeptically in response, causing Hendrickson to flounder about momentarily. “It— believe me, it has, even with everything else.” He composes himself with a sigh. “But even Princess Elizabeth was unable to figure anything out, and she was our best chance. This was before Lady Merlin had restored herself, of course, but still.”
Even if his companion couldn’t respond verbally, Hendrickson still let the silence linger between them out of respect. Besides, what would he even say? He has no chance of filling that space all by himself. And so, Hendrickson always waits, watching Dreyfus carefully for any nonverbal cues.
He gives Dreyfus a small smile after a moment. “I haven’t had the chance to say this yet since it’s far from ideal, but . . .” His voice trails off as he lets out a soft sigh of relief. “I’m glad you’re back, Dreyfus — for better or for worse.”
A fond sort of smile crosses over Dreyfus’s face at that, though his expression quickly turns to a mildly frustrated one when he opens his mouth to respond, to no avail. In the end, he reaches over, clapping at Hendrickson’s shoulder broadly.
Quietly, Hendrickson leans in to his touch, taking it in for all he can. He’s back. He’s back, and how can he be upset when he’s finally back? “We’ll need to figure out a better system of communication, though,” Hendrickson notes. “Until this is resolved, anyway.”
“How long has he been like this?”
Hendrickson lifts his head up at the question, turning his attention back towards Elizabeth. “It’s been a few days now,” he notes, considering that. “It started just after everything had been resolved with the Commandments.”
“I see . . .” Elizabeth pulls her hand back, pursing her lips.
“It’s out of my purview,” he continues with a sigh, rubbing at the back of his neck. “We thought asking you was a long shot, but we had to try regardless.”
“No, no, I’m glad that you did!” The princess smiles warmly over at him before it fades just a bit. “This is like Griamore, though. I’m not having much luck.” She hesitates before lifting up a hand again. “Maybe if I—”
Dreyfus reaches up to stop her mid-sentence by carefully placing a hand on her wrist, lowering her own hand down. Hendrickson chuckles softly as he dips his head. “Please, don’t push yourself, princess. Neither of us have the right to ask you to do that.”
“It’s not about having the right,” she starts, her voice gentle as she places her other hand over Dreyfus’s. “If you need help, then I should try my best, right?”
“Give it up, Ellie,” Veronica calls over from a chair nearby, giving her a grin. “Men are always going to be stubborn, no matter how hard you try.”
“V-Veronica!” Elizabeth turns, flushing slightly. “That’s not—”
“I know, I know,” her sister waves a hand idly, shifting her attention towards Hendrickson. “That’s my sister for you, though. She just wants to help, even if it’d take everything out of her.”
The Boar Hat tavern, though still under construction after its unceremonious demise during the attacks, had been slowly coming together once more. Elizabeth spent her days helping the remaining Sins and Hawk pull things back together, while Veronica came by to visit with her sister while she could. Both princesses had every reason in the world to hate the two of them and yet, Hendrickson found that they both seemed to enjoy his company, oddly enough.
“She keeps wanting to try again with Griamore,” Veronica continues with a sigh, shaking her drink. “But first of all, he’s only really letting his father and myself see him right now after . . .” Her voice trails off and she waves a hand flippantly.
“There has to be something I haven’t tried yet,” Elizabeth starts, looking down as she wrings her hands together slowly.
“And we’ll ask Lady Merlin when she gets back,” Veronica retorts. She pauses momentarily, as something seems to occur to her. “Although . . .”
“Although?” Hendrickson looks back over at her.
Veronica rubs at her chin in consideration. “Say, wasn’t that witch Vivian Lady Merlin’s apprentice back in the day?”
Hendrickson nods, glancing aside. “That’s true.” Vivian had been under Merlin, before he and Dreyfus framed the Sins and sent them into exile, and Vivian grew twisted under his own tutelage.
Elizabeth’s eyes widen as a sudden realization hits her. “Oh!”
“Well, our sister Margaret has been talking about going after her and getting Gilthunder back.” Veronica sighs, shaking her head. “Of course, no matter what she says, there’s no way she’s going unless she has a few knights accompanying her. And, of course, we’re pretty short-handed as it is, so she hasn’t had much luck.”
“But Vivian might know something about curses, right?” Elizabeth blurts out, brightening.
Hendrickson starts at that, exchanging a skeptical look with Dreyfus. “That’s— She’s a wild card, but that’s true.”
Veronica takes another sip of her drink, a small smirk of satisfaction crossing over her face. “So maybe you two could help our sister out and find the solution to your problem in the process. Two birds, one stone.” She looks thoughtful. “—three if she can figure out Griamore’s curse, too.”
Dreyfus nudges Hendrickson in the side, gesturing vaguely over at him. It takes him a moment to catch on before he lets out a silent ‘oh.’ “But would the princess accept our help?” Hendrickson asks quietly.
“I’m sure she’d be grateful for any help she could get,” Elizabeth replies as she smiles warmly.
“What, do you think you two are disgraced or something?” Veronica snorts at that, raising an eyebrow over at Hendrickson. “Get over yourselves. Everyone in the kingdom knows by now what’s actually been going on. How many times has our father publicly and privately welcomed both of you back now? Like Margaret’s going to be any different.”
Even as Hendrickson nods slowly in response, he glances off to the side. The fact of the matter — and the thing that he knows all too well — is that it is different when it comes to Princess Margaret. Both of their actions led to her current predicament, robbing her of ten years with Gilthunder in the process.
“Just ask her,” Veronica continues, pushing her glass aside. “There’s no way she’s going to say ‘no.’”
Hendrickson can’t exactly blame Princess Margaret for being on edge when they approach her and ask to accompany her. She immediately tenses up, scrutinizing them carefully in that calm, quiet way of hers as she purses her lips.
It’s a moment before she responds, measured. “You’re willing to accompany me?”
“If— If you’ll have us,” he stammers as Dreyfus nods sharply. “Even if we didn’t have a reason to confront Vivian, we would be more than willing to assist you in any way, Princess.”
Margaret looks up at Hendrickson, staring straight at him. He can’t help but glance away, shifting about awkwardly on his feet. “We understand, though, if you would prefer—”
Hendrickson snaps his head up in surprise. “’Alright’?”
Margaret nods slowly, clasping her hands together. “But I want to leave at daybreak tomorrow. Can you manage that?”
He doesn’t even need to look over at Dreyfus for confirmation. Hendrickson nods instantly. “We can have the necessary supplies assembled. May I assume you have some sort of lead, then?”
She purses her lips again, glancing aside. “I have an idea or two, yes.”
“An idea or two . . .” Hendrickson muses later as he packs away the rest of the supplies that he and Dreyfus had gathered. He glances over at his companion, raising an eyebrow. “Do you know what she was referring to?”
Dreyfus merely shrugs his shoulders in response. The druid sighs softly, tying off the last pack with one neat movement and shifting it into place. “Well, I imagine she’ll tell us soon enough. She’ll have to, if we’ll be traveling together.”
In the time since the battle against the Commandments, the two had settled in at Dreyfus’s old home. It gave them a small amount of privacy and separation from the rest of Liones, which was particularly good in times like these. It also meant that they would be wandering the streets at night as they leave from the castle, heading back towards the dwelling, depending on how long they worked into the late hours.
With another sigh, Hendrickson pushes the packs aside and rolls a shoulder. “We should head back for now. We have an early start tomorrow.”
As they walk back, Hendrickson finds himself quietly talking about nothing in particular, as he’s done for the past few days. He still had no chance of filling that space, but he felt compelled to try, to fall back into their banter as if no time had passed at all. And so much had happened over the years — how could he not?
“You’ll be surprised at how those three misfits have grown when you finally get to see them all together,” he says with a chuckle, shaking his head. “Griamore’s really followed in your footsteps.”
Dreyfus eyes him curiously, tilting his head to the side. Hendrickson smiles just a bit back at him, reaching over to tap at his own shoulder. “He let me have it when we first met again — once I was free.” When that earns him a concerned look, Hendrickson laughs openly. “Don’t look at me like that, he wasn’t wrong. He really reminded me of you in that moment.”
The older knight lets out an inaudible sigh, shaking his head as Hendrickson’s laughter tapers off. “But really, he’s still very much himself at heart,” the druid continues. “I can’t tell you how much he hovered over me once he realized everything about Fraudrin.”
Even in the dimly lit street light, he can still make out Dreyfus mouthing ‘good’ plain as day. The corner of Hendrickson’s mouth twitches into a small, self-deprecating half-smile before he looks away, back towards the stone beneath them. “It’s fine now, in any case.”
A hand rests on top of his head, causing him to stop in his tracks. Hendrickson looks over to see Dreyfus scrutinizing him carefully, eying his hair in particular. “That’s . . .” His voice trails off as he slowly realizes. “— ah, that’s right.” He lifts a hand up, tugging at a strand of his own hair as Dreyfus pulls his own hand away. “It used to be longer.”
Dreyfus frowns at him — questioning? Disapproving? Hendrickson can’t quite tell. He chuckles lightly, letting the strand fall from his hand. “I’ve let it grow out a bit since—” Since his liberation, since Fraudrin’s complete and utter rejection of him. “— a few months ago,” he continues. “But I like it better like this now. It suits me.”
After eying him for a long moment, Dreyfus gives him a small smile in turn, dipping his head. Hendrickson furrows his brows with confusion. “Were you concerned?” he starts, trying to meet his gaze.
Despite his best efforts, Dreyfus doesn’t respond. A look of mild frustration passes over his face as he shakes his head roughly, brushing past Hendrickson. The druid stares after him, bewildered, before he follows suit. “We really do need to figure out a better form of communication until this is resolved,” he continues, trying to placate Dreyfus. “Perhaps if we got you a journal, or—”
Dreyfus immediately shoots him a glare, and Hendrickson raises his hands. “Alright, alright. But it would be easier,” he notes, even as the other knight’s expression sours. He can practically hear Dreyfus grumble in his head and gives him a half-smile. “But I know you don’t want to be carrying those things everywhere with you.”
In an instant, Dreyfus grabs his wrist and traces into his palm again, all while glaring over at him. And though it takes longer, in a way, it’s almost easier for Hendrickson to slip back onto the same page as Dreyfus. His smile fades a bit when he realizes what it is that Dreyfus is writing in his palm.
Are you doing it for yourself?
“Am I—” Hendrickson pauses, glancing up at Dreyfus as he contemplates that before giving him a short nod. “. . . Yes, Dreyfus. Fraudrin doesn’t have a hold over me any more.”
Satisfied, Dreyfus lets go of his wrist. Hendrickson quietly rubs at his hand, watching after Dreyfus as he walks past him, towards the house waiting for them just down the road. “We can manage,” he murmurs to himself, still taking in the residual warmth from the other man.
They’re on the road for a few hours before Hendrickson musters up the resolve to question Margaret. “Do you know where to start, Princess?”
Margaret’s horse slows its pace at the question as she turns to look over her shoulder at him. Her expression is unreadable to him, as it has been for however long. “Yes, that’s right,” she muses quietly. “I should tell you.”
Hendrickson and Dreyfus exchange a knowing look, and Dreyfus waves towards Margaret, prompting the other man to approach her. With a sigh, Hendrickson nudges his horse gently, guiding him over towards her. “May we assume you have a lead?”
“I spoke with Lady Merlin before she left,” Margaret murmurs. When she speaks, her voice is soft, almost dull in a restrained sort of way. There’s a distance to it, as well as a regal quality. And then, of course, there’s all of their shared history that widens the gap between the three of them. “She surmised that perhaps Vivian would head towards a set of old ruins to the north, in the mountains.”
“To the north . . .” Hendrickson tips his head back as he peers off into the distance, where the mountains loomed. “Why did she think that?”
“Because it’s where they studied so many years ago, when she was still young and just before the Sins were formed.” Margaret turns to look back over at Hendrickson; it strikes him in that moment how much melancholy her gaze carries. “In a tower that stretched up past the skies, almost nigh unreachable.”
Hendrickson nods slowly, considering that. “And you feel certain that she’ll be there?”
“I feel . . .” Margaret pauses, as if she isn’t quite sure what she feels. It’s a moment before she lets out a soft sigh. “Even if she is not there, there is still a chance we can pick up her tracks from that place.”
“We may have to take measures against her, my lady,” he notes quietly, not wanting to elaborate just yet.
The princess’s eyes widen slightly for a moment before she reaches into her pack, producing a small silver bracelet. “I’ve come prepared, courtesy of Lady Merlin.”
Hendrickson leans over just a bit, squinting. “What is that?”
“It will block Vivian from casting any spells, provided we can get this on her wrist,” Margaret explains quietly, putting it back in her pack. “Though once it is on her arm, it will only come off at Lady Merlin’s command, so be careful.”
“Ah—” He smiles just a bit, softly. “Prepared as always.”
“I don’t intend to drag this out,” she responds simply, turning her attention back towards the path in front of her.
With a slow nod, Hendrickson falls back, keeping pace with Dreyfus. “It’s a sound plan,” he murmurs, giving him a sidelong glance.
Dreyfus raises an eyebrow in response, before nodding his head towards the mountains. Hendrickson furrows his brows with consideration. “Are you concerned that we may be going in the wrong direction? . . . It’s possible, of course, but if the information comes from Lady Merlin, it should be reliable.”
He can see the telltale signs of a huff as Dreyfus dips his head, shoulders rising and falling with annoyance. A small smile creeps across Hendrickson’s lips. “Let’s give it a chance, Dreyfus.”
He waits until Dreyfus heads off to hunt, leaving him and Princess Margaret by themselves to set up the campsite for the night.
“The village shouldn’t be too far,” she notes quietly as she stares down the small dirt path, past the flickering flames of the campfire. “We can restock there in the morning before heading into the mountains.”
With a sigh, Hendrickson sits down on a log nearby and scrubs at his face, before sucking in a bit of air as he gathers all his strength. “Look, Princess. I know you’re upset.”
Margaret stills in an instant, her gaze slowly drifting up to meet his. Hendrickson gives her the weakest of smiles before continuing. “Having to travel together with the person who caused you and Gil so much pain and suffering for ten years . . .” His voice trails off as he lets out a sigh. “And I have to take the blame for what Vivian’s become as well . . .”
She doesn’t respond, merely pursing her lips as she seems to stare beyond him. He closes his eyes, clasping his hands together. “The agony must be almost unbearable . . .”
A sharp stomping sound from behind him interrupts his thoughts, and Hendrickson turns to see Dreyfus standing behind him, his expression a mixture of alarmed and upset. He makes a frantic ‘no’ gesture at Margaret before pointing to himself. “Dreyfus—”
“You’re right,” Margaret starts, looking down at the fire. “I’m beyond angry and upset about it — because I’m powerless to do anything about it.”
The two men start at that, staring over at her. She looks up, meeting their gaze, and though her voice is quiet, there’s a restrained sort of fury about it — and all her rage is directed inward. “All this time, I’ve been helpless. How many times will Gil have to protect me again and again, while I’m unable to do anything to help him in his own time of need?”
“That’s—” Hendrickson begins before he cuts himself off, brows creasing with concern.
“You two are the only reason I can even go on this journey,” she continues, staring pointedly at him. “So please, regardless of how I . . . might seem, please know that from the bottom of my heart, I’m nothing but grateful to the two of you.”
He feels like he’s been punched in the stomach. Princess Margaret hating him would make everything easier; he’s certainly done enough to earn her scorn. But the way she smiles softly over at him reassures Hendrickson that no, there are no hard feelings there, that she accepts him fully and completely. He could cry — and he still might, even if she’s sitting only a few feet away. Instead, Hendrickson dips his head, carefully brushing a hand across his eyes to prevent anything from falling. “You’re welcome,” he manages to mutter after a moment.
A solid presence settles in next to him, and Hendrickson doesn’t even have to look up to know that it’s Dreyfus. He feels an arm drawn around him, tugging him in close, and he quietly allows it, letting the other man rub at his shoulder with his thumb.
“If anything,” Margaret starts after a moment, a sort of warmth beginning to creep into her voice. “I’m glad to see the two of you as you once were again.”
Hendrickson finally musters up the courage to lift his head, meeting her gaze once more. She smiles gently over at him, and in that moment, he knows it’s genuine. He lets out a soft sigh and glances over at Dreyfus, giving him a small half-smile. “Weren’t you going to hunt for food?”
Dreyfus rolls his eyes in response, pulling away after a moment. Hendrickson lifts a hand to his shoulder, taking in the fading warmth that had been there before letting out a soft sigh. As the other man walks off, back into the woods, the druid turns his attention back towards the princess. “I don’t know if we’ll ever truly be as we once were even again, to be honest.”
“No one can,” she admits softly, staring down at the fire. “I feel we all lost something that day.”
‘That day’ — the day he and Dreyfus drove any weapon they could get their hands on through Zaratras, leaving a bloody spectacle against the wall. The image still haunts him to this day. “I am sorry you had to witness that,” he murmurs.
Margaret purses her lips in contemplation before shaking her head. “It wasn’t you.”
“It was my hands,” he notes, holding one out to demonstrate. “I carried out those actions myself.”
“But did you?” She looks over at him, eyes narrowing slightly. “Can you truly say that was your own free will?”
Hendrickson hesitates. To say ‘it’s complicated’ would be putting it mildly; even in those early days, the foothold the demon had in him was strong, like a whisper in his ear steering him down the paths he took. He’d tried desperately to resist, but he’d never had the strength of will to surpass a monster like Fraudrin, exerting his overwhelming pressure. But still— “They were my hands. It was my fault.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Her response is quick, sharp. Hendrickson looks up and over, mildly bewildered as she stares back at him. “Because I saw you then — as Sir Dreyfus did as well, I can only assume, from beyond that demon’s grasp.” Margaret frowns as her brows crease slightly. “You were crying then, weren’t you.”
Even though his mind had fallen to Fraudrin’s thrall, as he stared up at Zaratras’s corpse — the man who’d once saved him from exile and taken him in and given him a life, the man who was now merely a bloody stain against the wall — he couldn’t help but break down as the sobs wracked his body, lamenting the loss — of his youth, of his innocence, of his friend, of life as he knew it. If there was one moment when he’d slipped through Fraudrin’s net, that was it.
And she had witnessed it in full.
Hendrickson looks aside as shame washes over him again. How many times had that happened in the past few months? It seemed to be his general state of being for awhile. “I still have a lot to make up for,” is what he musters up after a moment.
“I can’t imagine that’s possible with that monster’s sins weighing you down,” Margaret counters quietly with a measured response. “You seem haunted as it is, much like the rest of us.”
His breath catches abruptly as his fingers curl. How long had it been since someone had seen him so clearly? Dreyfus always did — still does, even if he can’t tell him as much. Dreyfus, and now the princess, who’d seen him at his most vulnerable. He can barely breathe but still, he tries.
“You may have a point,” he manages to admit as he stares off into the campfire.
Though an uncomfortable silence lingered between the princess and the druid for some time after his admission, the ice had finally thawed. That much was evident by the time Dreyfus came back with a large rabbit in tow, giving them a strange look as Hendrickson and Margaret worked in tandem to help serve up a meal for the three of them. It had been awhile since he’d seen a smile grace her face like that, let alone it being because of the two of them.
After determining that Dreyfus would take the first watch, both Hendrickson and Margaret retired to their respective tents to get a few hours of sleep. Or, in Hendrickson’s case, as much sleep as his mind would allow him. After a few months, the nightmares had become old hat. It had been embarrassing at first, just after he’d climbed out of Zhuhur Gorge through the sheer force of willpower and somehow managed to ingratiate himself with the three misfits, for him to wake up in a cold sweat, having to walk away from the group at least once a night. Gilthunder had been too polite to say anything. Griamore would give him worried looks before hovering.
Howzer wouldn’t shut up about it.
“A little bird told me you’re having trouble sleeping.”
Once they’d arrived in Istar, it wasn’t long before Jenna had confronted him about it, poking at his shoulder with her staff. “How long has this been going on?”
“I’m fine,” he’d murmured, trying to evade her eye.
“Ah ah!” She snapped as she shifted her cane to the side. “You can’t fool me and you know it, Hendy-boy.”
She was right, but wasn’t she always? And so, grudgingly, Hendrickson had told her everything — about Fraudrin, about everything he’d done, about everything that haunted his every moment since.
“The road to redemption is a difficult one, boy,” she’d mused, shaking her head. And though he’d expected disappointment from her, he couldn’t find a single trace of it. “But you’ll manage, as long as you keep going.”
And so, he kept going. And little by little, the nightmares didn’t lessen necessarily, but he lived with them.
Even now, months later and with Dreyfus back, it was no different. A large shadow always seems to loom in the corner of his mind, its horns twisted and yellow eyes piercing through and yet, he moves past it, little by little. He tries, anyway, even as the darkness threatens to encroach every corner imaginable, a dead zone setting in. He grimaces, pushing onward, even as a soft moan escapes his lips. A warmth seems to linger, enveloping him like a blanket, and then — and then, it’s easier, somewhat.
It’s almost strange to him when he stirs on his own, staring bleary-eyed towards his tent flap. How long had he slept, uninterrupted like that? Hendrickson pushes himself up and pokes his head outside to glance around and gather his bearings. The night is still crisp, cool, the faintest hints of early morning just on the horizon. Near the fire sits Dreyfus, stirring the embers up quietly.
He turns as Hendrickson makes his way over, sitting down next to him. “How long has it been?” the druid murmurs suspiciously, eying him quietly. “Weren’t you supposed to wake me up after a couple of hours?”
Dreyfus shrugs, not making eye contact with him as he focuses on the fire. Hendrickson tips his head back, taking note of the moon’s position in the sky. It had been more than a “couple” of hours, certainly. “Dreyfus,” he huffs, giving him a light nudge. “You need sleep as well.”
When Dreyfus turns to look at him again, there’s a sadness that lingers just behind his eyes. Hendrickson frowns, puzzled, as he stares back at the other man. “Dreyfus?”
He says nothing in response. And of course he says nothing; he can’t. Instead, his gaze flicks back over to the fire. Hendrickson furrows his brows with concern, leaning in. “What is it?” he asks, reaching over to rest a hand on his arm.
He can feel Dreyfus tense up in response, even as the silence weighs heavily in the air. His frown deepening, Hendrickson shifts his position, holding a hand out to him. “Tell me.”
Dreyfus eyes his hand quietly for a moment before he reaches over to take it by the wrist, tracing gently against his palm: Nightmares.
“Nightmares?” Hendrickson blinks with confusion, staring down at his palm before letting his gaze drift back up to him. “Who, me?”
Dreyfus nods slowly, releasing his wrist.
Hendrickson rubs at it quietly as he considers that. Nightmares. He had felt an encroaching darkness — usually the telltale sign of something to come — but it had left soon enough. It’s a minute or two before a new thought occurs to him. “Did you—”
A hand reaches over, resting on Hendrickson’s head lightly and brushing some of his hair back. The same lingering warmth that had enveloped him before returns, practically coursing through him, and whatever he was about to say dies out in his throat.
Dreyfus glances aside once more as he pulls his hand away, turning to stoke the flames once more.
Hendrickson stares over at Dreyfus for another moment before he reaches out, wrapping his arms around him tightly as he presses his face against the other man’s shoulder. “Dreyfus.”
The tension rises beneath his grip but he doesn’t even care; he’s not letting go. “You stubborn— foolish . . .” Hendrickson grits his teeth as he spits out the words, trying once more to will himself not to cry for the second time in a day-long period.
This would normally be the point when Dreyfus would take him to task, when he’d admonish him with a chuckle, and then the two would argue until they inevitably laughed it off in their own way. But he can’t, so they won’t.
So instead, he finally lets it out, crying softly into Dreyfus’s shoulder.
It isn’t his proudest moment by any stretch of the imagination. Hendrickson had never considered himself the most put together person in the world, but he at least was more than capable of handling himself and keeping a cool head even in a crisis. But now, after everything, after ten long years and this, after Dreyfus continuing to sacrifice for him again and again, he can’t.
The stick falls to the ground and Dreyfus shifts his position, pulling Hendrickson in closer. And he’s never felt so low, so pathetic until now, not even when having his psyche ground to dust underneath Fraudrin’s mental heel. But the weight of ten years, of the past week, of the past day continues to press at him, and even he can’t keep that in forever.
Dreyfus probably could.
“I’m sorry,” Hendrickson murmurs softly, staring downward at the fabric that lays over his armor, covering his shoulder and just barely soaking up his tears. At least it wasn’t fabric all the way through to his shoulder. At least Dreyfus couldn’t feel it. There were small mercies like that from time to time. “But you do need to sleep.”
Instead, a hand strokes at his hair lightly. Hendrickson can feel himself flush with mild embarrassment, and he lifts his head up slightly so he can wipe at his eyes with one quick swipe of his hand. “I mean it,” he continues, finally frowning up at Dreyfus. “Don’t think you can distract me.”
Concern is the only thing that meets him, however. The telltale signs of worry linger around the edges of Dreyfus’s face. Hendrickson can practically hear him in his head — don’t push yourself, Hendy or I’ve got this, Hendy — but he shoves those words out of his mind and narrows his eyes slightly at Dreyfus. “Get at least an hour so you don’t fall off your horse,” he grumbles, pulling away from him reluctantly.
Dreyfus’s gaze lingers on him for a moment longer before he nods slowly, standing up. Hendrickson’s hand slips away from his arm, resting in his own lap as he watches the other man sternly, keeping his eyes on him until he disappears inside the tent.
And then, a soft sigh escapes his lips as he dips his head, turning back towards the fire. He reaches up to rub at his eyes with his sleeve once more, brushing away the remaining tears that lingered.
“Pathetic,” he mutters.
Dreyfus emerges before Margaret does.
It shouldn’t surprise him, really. Off in the distance, he can see the faint sight of sunrise and, to his credit, Dreyfus had remained in his tent for at least an hour. He still manages to give him a sour look when the older knight sits down next to him. “Was that really enough sleep, Dreyfus?”
He doesn’t respond — and of course he doesn’t, how could he? — and instead, reaches over to brush a finger at Hendrickson’s cheek lightly, just below his eye. A bit of residual puffiness lingers from not that long ago, and Hendrickson lets out a small sigh. “I’m fine.”
Dreyfus knocks his shoulder against his in response, and the druid snorts lightly. Typical Dreyfus behavior. “If you fall off of your horse, I’m not taking the blame for it,” he mutters.
Not that Dreyfus would blame him for it, but still. It isn’t long before Margaret emerges, immediately assessing the tension between the two of them. She purses her lips as she sits down across from Hendrickson while Dreyfus shuffles about to attempt to prepare something for breakfast. “I could have taken a watch shift.”
“That won’t be necessary, Princess,” Hendrickson murmurs, clasping his hands.
She lifts a hand in response, shaking her head. “Hendrickson, while we are out here, please treat me as a traveling companion rather than as a princess of Liones.”
He starts at that, furrowing his brows as he looks back over at her. The idea was almost unthinkable, particularly when it came to her. “But— Princess—”
“Margaret,” she corrects him quietly.
Hendrickson scrubs at his face with a hand. How did he end up traveling with two of the most stubborn people in Liones? “Lady Margaret,” he settles after a moment as he lowers his hand, trying to keep his voice gentle. “If we were to be under attack by bandits, would you be able to repel them in any manner?”
Margaret’s eyes widen a bit at the realization. “That’s—”
He gives her a small, kind smile as he shakes his head. “I appreciate your offer — as does Dreyfus, I’m sure — but it isn’t merely because you’re a princess that we’re taking the watch to ourselves. Your strengths lie elsewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Disappointed, she stares down back at the dying embers of the fire and really, he can’t blame her there. “You know,” Hendrickson continues quietly. “The first time I went out with Dreyfus and Zaratras, they wouldn’t let me keep watch.”
“And how old were you then?” Margaret asks, eyes never wandering from the flames.
“That was . . .” He considers that with a hum. “I was thirteen, I believe.”
“I’m twenty-two,” she replies simply, raising an eyebrow at him.
The embarrassment hits him at once. “Th-That’s not to say that you’re—” Hendrickson stammers, the heat rising to his face. “I only meant that you haven’t— that is, you’ve—”
A soft giggle cuts him off as Margaret leans forward, resting her head against her knees as her shoulders shake — with laughter, though. Hendrickson’s protests die off in his throat as he stares over at her while she collects herself. “I know what you meant,” Margaret manages to respond after a moment, giving him a small, fond smile. “Despite the comparison, that is.”
It takes roughly a couple days of traveling by horseback before they finally reach the mountains.
“Is this where Lady Merlin was referring to?” Hendrickson asks as he stares up the mountains, frowning softly.
“It must be,” Margaret responds with a nod, brows furrowing as she scans the skyline. “But even so . . .”
“It seems difficult to believe?” The druid supplies helpfully.
The princess nods slowly, letting out a soft sigh. “Do either of you see any sort of facility?”
Dreyfus cranes his neck with a frown, eyes narrowing. Hendrickson gives him a sidelong glance. “Dreyfus?” he asks, curious. “Have you found something?”
The older knight gestures up at the top, growing more and more exasperated as Hendrickson stares vacantly back at him. Even Margaret, however, seems confused. “Is he trying to tell us something?”
“He’ll probably— ah, there we go,” Hendrickson notes as Dreyfus snatches up his wrist, tracing with irritation in his palm. “— Not visible?”
“I see,” Margaret hums, considering that. “Perhaps it’s there, but we simply can’t see it. That would make sense for some place that a mage would hide themselves away in, wouldn’t it?”
“I’ve never heard of it,” Hendrickson admits, tapping at his chin with his free hand. “But it’s entirely possible, yes.”
Annoyed, Dreyfus steps away from the two of them and picks up a rock from nearby. He winds it up and then hurls it up into the sky, squinting as it sails into the distance before ricocheting off of something invisible.
Margaret and Hendrickson exchange looks. “And by entirely possible, I meant that it’s most definitely possible,” Hendrickson sighs, shaking his head. “Dreyfus, how far did you throw that thing, exactly?”
He shrugs in response.
Hendrickson turns back towards Margaret, gesturing upwards. “We’ll still have a ways to go, in any case. Will you be alright?”
The three of them ride their horses up as far as the paths through the mountain will take them, before they grow too steep and winding even for them. Carefully, they dismount, tying off their steeds before continuing their trek upwards.
“Once we enter, the cloaking mechanic should wear off to us,” Hendrickson muses. “At least, our perception of it should shift.”
“Our perception?” Margaret tilts her head to the side, exchanging a confused look with Dreyfus.
Hendrickson nods once, giving the both of them a small smile. “Well, it’s something like . . .” His voice trails off as he looks around, before pointing at a cloud. “That cloud. It’s white, right?”
“Yes . . .” Margaret responds hesitantly, squinting up at it to make sure her answer was correct.
“Think about it this way.” He gestures towards the sun. “What if the sun were still rising? With how the light would hit it on the horizon, wouldn’t the cloud appear to be more pink or red?”
She pauses, then lets out a short gasp. “—oh, that’s true!”
“Depending on how and when we look at it, our perception changes,” Hendrickson continues, carefully pushing aside a branch from an old tree as he helps Margaret up the path. “The same concept holds true with invisibility spells.”
“Impressive,” she breathes, giving him a small smile before turning back towards Dreyfus. “I would never have considered that.”
Dreyfus merely beams with a quiet sort of pride, and Hendrickson can feel a warmth swell within his heart.
Hendrickson’s theory holds true sure enough, and the three of them find themselves at the base of a massive tower. As the gates close behind them, the doorway almost seems to vanish in midair. Margaret turns, startled. “That’s—!”
Dreyfus rests a hand on her shoulder abruptly, shaking his head, and the druid catches on in an instant. “It’s another trick of this place, Lady Margaret,” he says with a soft hum, turning his head back towards the winding staircase. “We’ll find our way out once we’ve investigated this area thoroughly.”
The other knight nudges him lightly at that, raising an eyebrow as he reaches for Hendrickson’s wrist. Can you sense anything?
“— something, yes,” Hendrickson starts, giving Dreyfus a small smile. “It’s faint, though.” He takes a step forward, looking up the stairs as they stretch upward, seemingly infinite. “And there’s a sort of undercurrent running through this place as well.”
“An undercurrent?” Margaret eyes him curiously as she follows along, brushing her hand against the side of the tower. “Of energy?”
He rubs at his chin, considering that. “These ruins are probably connected to the Goddess Clan in some fashion. Druids have a connection with them, so . . .” His voice trails off as he gives her another faint smile.
“In other words, a symphony is playing around you, all while you’re attempting to pick out one single instrument.” Margaret turns, a few steps up, and tips her head to the side. “Is that a fair assessment?”
Hendrickson stops in his tracks, staring up at her for a moment before he laughs softly. “That’s reasonable,” he admits. “Though truthfully, it used to be easier.”
From behind him, he can hear Dreyfus stumble over a step and turns to raise an eyebrow, even as Margaret considers that statement. “What changed?”
“That’s . . .” The druid glances aside briefly as his brows crease, and he lets out a sigh. With a nod, he motions for them to continue walking, waiting for them to clear a few sets of stairs before he starts again. “The demon blood dampened it for quite some time.”
Margaret glances back towards him wordlessly, and he can tell in an instant that she wants to ask more. But he can also feel Dreyfus’s eyes on the back of his head, staring intently at him as they ascend higher and higher.
Hendrickson purses his lips before he sucks in a bit of air. After everything, he owes Margaret at least this much. “When I— consumed the demon blood, it overrode a number of my senses. The red demon blood gave me access to a great number of things, but I also lost quite a bit as well.” He gestures at their surroundings. “Spells weren’t an issue of course, but anything innate was overridden and pushed aside, in a manner of speaking.”
“You lost it,” she murmurs, looking off to the side as she slows her pace, allowing Hendrickson to match step with her. “I’ve heard that druids have a connection with nature, but . . .”
“I lost it,” he confirms quietly, forcing himself to take step after step. “Or rather, it was difficult to draw back out once the demon blood had been purged from my system entirely.” The druid lets out a soft chuckle at his choice of words. “Frankly, I’m surprised that I was able to use ‘Purge’ as soon as I was after all of that.”
Margaret nods quietly, eying him with a careful gaze. “I can only assume that it’s been coming back to you.”
“Little by little,” he admits. The truth was more complicated in reality; part of his time in the druid village of Istar had been to regain what he’d lost as well as find some semblance of peace.
“Redemption, boy!” Jenna had shouted, waving her staff wildly. “The land will accept you once you learn to accept yourself! It’s that simple!”
It hadn’t been ‘that simple,’ but the lesson had sunk in, bit by bit. And though the symphony is faint at times, he can at least hear it now. A small comfort, that. He just has to ignore the dark shadows he sees looming in his periphery, the horned beast that lingers in the night.
He feels a sharp tug at his sleeve and stops in his tracks, turning to meet Dreyfus’s gaze. The other man stares up at him in muted horror as he makes a sharp gesture — Why didn’t you tell me? is all he can assume, in any case — over at him. Hendrickson reaches over with his other hand and places it over Dreyfus’s, giving him a bit of a smile. “It’s fine, Dreyfus. It’s been coming back to me.”
Dreyfus jerks his hand back roughly, turning his head to the side as he refuses to make eye contact again. With a sigh, Hendrickson turns his attention back towards the stairs, continuing his ascent. Margaret glances between the two of them, saying nothing.
The top of the tower isn’t quite what they’d expected it to be but, then again, this was Hendrickson’s first time encountering ruins like the ones they were in. The hallways twist and turn about endlessly, in a dizzying sort of maze.
As they step away from the stairs and gawk at their surroundings, it’s Margaret who stops to dig through her satchel. “One moment,” she murmurs as she sifts about before producing two items: the bracelet from before as well as a small piece of chalk. She passes the bracelet over to Dreyfus and then steps over to make a quick mark on the right-hand side of the hallway. “So we don’t get lost,” she explains quietly, keeping the chalk out at her side.
Hendrickson eyes the wall briefly as it clicks, and then nods slowly. “Good thinking, my lady.”
“Veronica and Elizabeth would always run off when we were children,” Margaret murmurs as they continue along, marking the side of the wall every few steps. “They got lost a few times, so I grew accustomed to bringing a bit of chalk along with me whenever I left the castle.”
With a soft chuckle, Hendrickson tips his head back towards Dreyfus. “We should have instilled that habit into the three misfits.”
But Dreyfus remains quiet — and not in the way he had been for the past few days, afflicted by the curse. Something remains muted about his expression and actions, as though he’s doing his best to not look directly at Hendrickson. The druid frowns, brows furrowing with concern. If they weren’t right in the belly of the beast, he’d stop everything and address it right at this moment. But he can’t, not when Gilthunder is at stake, and not when the princess could be putting herself in danger.
He can’t let his mind wander.
“Do you sense anything?” Margaret asks after a moment, marking off another wall.
“They’re here.” Even if his senses were still as faint as they’d been at the bottom of Zhuhur Gorge, he’d still be able to confirm as much. “Be careful.”
The pounding of footsteps against the stone floor echo in the distance, and Hendrickson stops short, closing his eyes to listen carefully. “They’re above us,” he murmurs after a moment, frowning. “But how?”
Dreyfus pushes past the two of them, reaching up to push at a few stone tiles in the ceiling. Margaret frowns, craning her neck. “What is he doing?”
“He must have found something,” Hendrickson responds as he rubs at his jaw, watching as Dreyfus moves about carefully, examining each stone with precision. “They had to have gotten up there somehow and if there’s no stairway . . .”
As he starts that thought, Dreyfus pushes a stone aside, revealing an opening in the ceiling above them. Hendrickson chuckles softly. “That’s one way, I suppose.”
Both Dreyfus and Hendrickson boost Margaret up into the shaft with ease, though it gets a bit more difficult when it’s down to the two of them. Dreyfus gestures towards the shaft roughly, indicating that Hendrickson should go first, while the druid chews at his lip. “Dreyfus . . .”
The other man crosses his arms, glaring at him briefly before he throws a thumb towards the shaft again.
“It will be easier to pull me up than you, though,” Hendrickson notes in response. “And that aside— are you alright?”
That earns him a scowl, followed by being firmly ignored as Dreyfus stoops down, ready to boost him up. With a sigh, Hendrickson shakes his head and steps forward, climbing up to the shaft.
“Is everything alright?” Margaret asks as he steadies himself, gathering his bearings. The shaft itself was at an incline, barely big enough for two people to squeeze through side by side; a faint light could be made out towards the far end of it.
“He’s—“ Hendrickson stops, rolling his eyes once as he kneels down to help Dreyfus climb up. “—stubborn. Dreyfus, take my hand.”
The other man ignores him, practically willing himself to get up on his own with mixed results. Hendrickson frowns sharply, eventually reaching over to help drag him up. “It isn’t a good quality,” he grunts as Dreyfus pulls away once he’s up with the both of them.
“It must run in that family,” observes Margaret as she turns, making her way up the incline.
“Perhaps— ah, my lady, wait!”
Hendrickson and Dreyfus follow after her as quickly as they can given the cramped space, with the druid managing to catch up in no time. He reaches over to grab Margaret’s shoulder to stop her in place as they get closer to the light, lifting his free hand up to his lips, indicating for her to remain silent.
“— Liones is done for, Gil! Face it!”
“Then you should have left me there with the rest of them.”
“N-No way! Someone has to tell people what happened, right? So— So that’ll be us, eventually!”
He can feel Margaret tense up instantly, and Hendrickson shakes his head slowly at her before moving past her, heading towards the light.
‘The light,’ as it turns out, is just another stone pushed aside, allowing for one to gain access to the top of the ruins — a massive open space with statues and architecture from days long since past. Hendrickson slips behind a statue, squinting around it as two figures argue.
“Eventually?!” Gilthunder shouts, voice shaking with a mix of fear and rage. He stands near the balcony, clenching a fist tightly. “Take me back now!”
“I can’t do that!” Vivian protests, waving her hands awkwardly at him. Hendrickson can’t see her face, given that her back is to him and the hole in the roof, but he can only assume based on what he knows about Vivian that she’s probably distracted.
He looks over his shoulder and gestures towards Margaret and Dreyfus, indicating that the coast is clear. The two slip out carefully, managing to mask themselves behind other bits of rubble.
“And why not?!” Gilthunder snaps, his gaze trained firmly on Vivian. “And you’d better give me a damn good reason for it!”
“B-Because . . .” Vivian wrings her hands as she takes a step forward. “I can’t let you die, no matter what!! That’s total suicide, Gil, and you know it!!”
Hendrickson glances off to the side at Dreyfus, who pulls the limiter bracelet out of his pocket, before nodding back towards Vivian. The other knight nods sharply, slowly creeping up on the mage from behind.
“It’s my choice, Vivian!!” As he clenches his fists again, the motion from behind Vivian catches Gilthunder’s eye. He pauses briefly, staring past her with a frown.
In an instant, Hendrickson pokes his head out from behind the statue and locks eyes with Gilthunder, gesturing at his neck furtively.
The knight frowns, sucking in a bit of air as his gaze flicks towards the ground. “How could you?” he continues, the rage in his voice seemingly softening.
“I did it for you!!” She takes a step forward, reaching out to him with a hand. “It’s always for you, Gil! Always—”
Before she can finish that sentence, Dreyfus grabs her arm roughly and twists it around behind her, slapping the limiter bracelet on before Vivian has a chance to react. The mage lets out a yelp, trying to struggle against his grip. “What— what is this?!”
“You—” Gilthunder stares over at Dreyfus in confusion.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Hendrickson reassures him as he jogs over, clapping at his shoulder gently. “He’s not Fraudrin anymore.”
“He’s . . .” His voice trails off as he purses his lips, eying Dreyfus quietly for another moment before letting out a sigh. “The same as you, then.”
“He’s our Dreyfus,” Hendrickson murmurs, a soft smile crossing his lips as he gives Gilthunder a onceover. “Are you hurt?”
The younger knight shakes his head. “No, I’m fine, I—”
Gilthunder freezes, looking up and over past Hendrickson with wide eyes as Margaret approaches the group cautiously. “Margaret? Wh— What are you doing here?”
Her eyes begin to water as she takes another tentative step forward, clasping her hands in front of herself tightly. “I had to find you.”
He pushes away from Hendrickson carefully, closing the gap between the two of them as he stares over at Margaret with wonder. Wordlessly, he reaches down to take her hands in his, squeezing them gently. “You really—” he starts before he lets out a breathy laugh. “I can’t believe this.”
“You would have done the same,” Margaret replies quietly, even as the tears begin to run down her cheeks.
“H-Hey!” Vivian snaps, trying to struggle out of Dreyfus’s grip. “Don’t— don’t be fooled by her—”
Once again, Dreyfus interrupts her mid-sentence, this time by cuffing her sharply at the back of her head, knocking her unconscious in an instant.
Hendrickson sighs, looking over at Vivian as Dreyfus hoists her over his shoulder carefully. “That could have gone better.”
Dreyfus raises an eyebrow at him before turning his head, looking back over at where Gilthunder and Margaret are embracing one another tightly, as though nothing else in the world matters in this moment. The younger knight’s hands shake as he clings tightly to the princess, whispering into her ear all the while.
A small, fond smile begins to form on Hendrickson’s face, and he gives Dreyfus a light nudge. “Then again, I’ve been known to be wrong.”
“So he can’t speak at all?”
Gilthunder eyes Dreyfus with concern from across the campfire as Hendrickson nods slowly, clasping his hands together. “That’s about the size of it. Believe me, if he could, he’d have a lot to say to you right now, Gilthunder.”
Like his brother’s final words to his son, Hendrickson notes quietly to himself.
After they’d made their way out of the maze-like tower, the four of them worked their way down to the base of the mountain before finally setting up camp and taking the time to catch up. Vivian was still out cold; probably for the better, even though Hendrickson desperately wanted to question her about Dreyfus’s condition.
There still was the matter of delivering Zaratras’s words to Gilthunder, but Hendrickson couldn’t imagine doing that without Dreyfus — not with the state he’s currently in, anyway.
Gilthunder continues to stare over at Dreyfus before he exhales slowly, closing his eyes. “But he’s himself again?”
“He’s back, yes.” The druid gives him a slight smile at that. “For better or for worse.”
Dreyfus had remained unnaturally silent throughout their conversation, and it wasn’t simply because of his curse. Even with his affliction, he’d always managed to be engaged somewhat in a conversation, either through gestures or his facial expressions or, if nothing else, by grabbing Hendrickson’s hand roughly and tracing out whatever was on his mind into his hand. But now, a strange stillness lingers about him as he stares into the fire.
“He’s been instrumental in helping us find you, Gil,” Margaret adds as she leans in against him. “I don’t know where I would be without either of them.”
Gilthunder places his arm around Margaret, holding her closer as his gaze drifts over to Hendrickson. “I’ve found myself saying that more than I thought I would over the past few months as well.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Hendrickson murmurs, looking down into the fire.
A soft moan interrupts his thoughts, and Hendrickson joins the other three in turning to look over at where Vivian lay nearby, tied up. She groans as she comes to. “Wh-where . . .”
With a sigh, Hendrickson stands and walks over, gesturing for Gilthunder and Margaret to stay behind him. “You’re awake.”
Vivian squints up at him hazily. “L-Lord Hendrickson? And—”
Dreyfus stands beside him, crossing his arms. Vivian lets out a small squeak, trying to shrink back. “K-Keep that demon away, he’s—!!”
“He’s fine now, Vivian,” Hendrickson sighs again, pinching at the bridge of his nose. “Mostly.”
That earns him a pointed glare from Dreyfus.
Ignoring him, Hendrickson stoops down next to the mage. “It’s over, Vivian. We’ve blocked your magic, thanks to a charm from your old master. His Majesty will be the one to determine your fate from here on.”
She stares over at him and sniffs, eyes beginning to water. “It— It’s not fair!! Why are they fine with you but I get ostracized like this?!”
“That’s a question I ask myself every day,” the druid mutters under his breath.
Her breath catches and she looks up to see Gilthunder standing over her, hovering behind Hendrickson, jaw set. “Gil! Gil, you can just tell them, right? I was only trying to help and—”
“Just stop,” Gilthunder sighs, shaking his head roughly. “Vivian, stop. This isn’t helping anyone.” He hesitates for a moment before adding, “Especially me.”
The tears come back to her eyes again. “G-Gil . . .”
“If you really want to make it up to me and show us you’re willing to change,” he continues, gesturing back towards Dreyfus. “You’ll help us instead.”
Hendrickson frowns, glancing over his shoulder at Gilthunder. “You don’t have to—”
“That’s why you two were determined to find her, right?” He smiles slightly down at him.
“We came to find you,” the druid insists as he straightens up, facing him fully. “If you think for a second that either of us were fine with leaving you behind—”
Gilthunder gives him a long look before his gaze drifts back towards Vivian. “Dreyfus is under a curse,” he states plainly, crossing his arms. “You know a lot about magic and curses, so if you really want to help me, you’ll start by helping them.”
Vivian lets out a soft whimper as she looks over at Dreyfus. “But Gil—”
When he says her name, it’s sharp and clipped. She flinches with a soft pout. “Okay, okay! But you’ve gotta let me look at him, at least!”
Hendrickson kneels down to help Vivian up into a standing position before leading her over to Dreyfus. She squints at him, tilting her head. “I think this bracelet’s—”
“Vivian,” Gilthunder repeats.
“I-It’s really hard, Gil!” she continues, reddening. “But I’ll do it for you!”
Gilthunder quietly rubs at his forehead while Margaret massages his shoulder soothingly. In the meanwhile, Vivian circles Dreyfus, scrutinizing him carefully under Hendrickson’s watchful eye.
“Well?” the druid asks after a moment.
“Um, he’s definitely cursed,” Vivian begins, running a hand down Dreyfus’s back as best she can, given that both her hands are tied together. He shifts about uncomfortably as he cranes his neck, trying to get a better look at her. “Probably from that demon.”
“From Fraudrin?” Hendrickson narrows his eyes a bit. Of course Fraudrin would leave some kind of parting “gift” like this. “What is it?”
“Well, I never really studied possession or the side effects of it under my master, and you—” At that, she points at Hendrickson. “— always discouraged me from looking into it, too. So I can’t say exactly.”
He vaguely remembers feeling compelled to dissuade Vivian from certain studies as he tried to steer her on track with their demon blood experiments. But Hendrickson can’t quite remember what his reasoning was or why he’d felt so strongly at the time, only that he had. “What can you say?” he murmurs after a moment.
Vivian takes a step back, trying to cross her arms with no success. “Well, I did read once about demons leaving fail-safe curses in the bodies of their hosts if they’re forced out. Usually, they’re activated by strong emotions and the curse uses that to fuel itself.”
“Strong emotions?” Gilthunder looks over at Dreyfus. “Would Fraudrin have done that?”
“He was petty enough to have,” Hendrickson notes as he rubs at his jaw. “What kind of strong emotions are we looking at, Vivian?”
“Oh, you know . . .” Her voice trails off as she glances upwards, thinking hard. “There was one once where a romantic was so overwhelmed by his feelings of love that he lost all of his emotions! And another one where a man was filled with such ugly hate towards his captor that he turned into a frog!”
“That’s horrible,” Margaret breathes, shaking her head. “And that is what happened to Sir Dreyfus?”
Vivian scowls over at her, turning to the side with a hmph. “Well obviously, not that! But it could be anything! Anger, fear, disgust, guilt—”
She stops abruptly, turning her head towards Hendrickson when he speaks. But he’s not looking at Vivian; he’s staring straight at Dreyfus instead. Of course it was guilt. Of course. Why hadn’t he seen it before? That day on the roof, after Zaratras had faded away and Fraudrin had been decimated, the immeasurable amount of shame that had lingered in his eyes was palpable. And yet, Hendrickson had said nothing. When he’d been questioned about doing things for himself, when Dreyfus had refused to wake him up for his watch, when Dreyfus stared on in muted horror after Hendrickson had related the side effects of the demon blood — he should have known, but he’d said nothing.
“How do we fix it, Vivian?” Gilthunder asks after a moment, trying to break through the tension that had suddenly filled the air. “There has to be a way to break the curse.”
She shrugs her shoulders in response. “I dunno. I never got that far in my studies.”
“But that’s—” Margaret chews at her lip, glancing over at both Hendrickson and Dreyfus as the two men stood in silence. “There must be a way . . .”
Wordlessly, Hendrickson steps over and grabs Dreyfus by the wrist, tugging him off in a direction, away from the camp. “We’ll be back in a moment,” he says through grit teeth as they walk away.
He can feel the tension coursing throughout Dreyfus’s body as he leads him away and normally, that would make him pause. But this wasn’t a normal situation and frankly, Hendrickson isn’t in the mood any more. Once he’s certain that they’re a fair distance away from the group, masked by the trees surrounding them, Hendrickson lets go of his hand and turns on his heels to stare up at Dreyfus. “Do you think I’m blind?”
Confused, Dreyfus tips his head to the side. Hendrickson rubs at his forehead as he continues. “Do you genuinely think I haven’t seen everything with you since you’ve come back, Dreyfus? Everything.”
There’s no answer, of course; only a sullen frown as the other man looks away.
“I’ve seen it.” His voice rises, wavering only slightly. “The way you looked at me when the princess and I were talking about everything that had happened. The other night, with our watches? In the tower, everything, I’ve seen it, Dreyfus.” He clenches a fist tightly at his side. “And now, you won’t even look me in the eye. Are you seriously letting your guilt control you that much?”
Dreyfus turns in an instant and though not a single sound is capable of escaping his throat, Hendrickson can still see the fire in his eyes and the loathing that lingers about him as he opens his mouth, trying to counter him in vain.
“Listen to me,” Hendrickson starts, reaching over for Dreyfus’s hand, only to be rebuffed as the other man jerks it away roughly, turning away from him once more.
And in an instant, a rage within him begins to boil over.
“Listen,” the druid snaps roughly, grabbing for Dreyfus’s shoulder. He doesn’t care about the tension, about how tightly wound every muscle in the other man’s body seems right now. His words hiss through his teeth. “Anything that happened to me? That was never your fault, Dreyfus. Never.”
Dreyfus’s lip curls with contempt — towards himself, of course, that damnable man and his damnable pride — as he continues to avoid eye contact. Hendrickson’s grip at his shoulder tightens. “What, is everything that happens to me your fault now?” He’d never known that his voice could get so guttural, so desperate without the influence of the demon blood until just now. He’d only heard it that way in his nightmares before. “Are we so intertwined that I no longer have the dignity of my own choices? Is that it, Dreyfus?”
And when the older knight finally looks back over at him, it strikes Hendrickson how tired he looks. Where had he seen that before? Right, in the mirror, when he finally mustered up the courage to look at himself after everything that had happened.
Hendrickson’s grip loosens and he shifts his hand, reaching up to rest it against Dreyfus’s cheek lightly. “Don’t you get it, you stubborn fool,” he murmurs. “Blaming yourself for everything pains me more than whatever it is you’re blaming yourself for.”
He’s never seen hesitation on Dreyfus’s face; frankly, he’s not even sure the man knows what it is. But a strange sort of uncertainty crosses over it as he gives Hendrickson’s hand a sidelong glance. The druid sucks in a bit of air as he shifts his hand back a bit, around to the base of Dreyfus’s neck, before leaning in to draw his other arm around him, hugging him as tightly as he can.
“I missed you,” he murmurs into the other man’s armor, letting out a shaky breath. “Every day, I missed you. I never blamed you for any of it, Dreyfus; all I did was miss you, again and again.”
Slowly, Dreyfus puts his arms around him, rubbing at his back in a gentle, circular motion. And it’s just like him, really. Hendrickson can’t help but smile slightly, his anger beginning to fade away. “You’re still feeling guilty about all of it even now, aren’t you,” he continues, sighing softly under his breath.
When that doesn’t get him a response — non-verbal, of course — Hendrickson pulls back just a bit so he can look up at him. “Will you ever stop being so stubborn?” he says as he holds a hand out to Dreyfus.
The older knight pulls back from Hendrickson and eyes his hand for a moment before taking it by the wrist. Carefully, he traces into his hand: Never.
“Man, I was startin’ to think we’d never see you again!”
Howzer slaps Gil broadly on the shoulder, giving him a grin even as the other knight sighs. “You and me both,” Gilthunder admits after a moment.
“Hey, but you had the princess on the case, right?” And at that, Howzer tosses a thumb over in Margaret’s direction. “You were in good hands.”
Margaret smiles softly over at him before turning her attention back towards Hendrickson. “I’ll have a word with my father about Vivian,” she notes, before smiling at him a bit more. “And I’ll see what he can do about getting a message out to Lady Merlin.”
“You really don’t have to, my lady,” Hendrickson quietly protests for both himself and Dreyfus. “We’ll manage, one way or another. We always have, after all.”
She reaches over and gently takes his hand in hers, giving it a light squeeze. “Just because you’ve ‘always managed’ doesn’t mean you should.”
He stares down at their hands in a muted sort of surprise, even as she rubs lightly at the back of his with her thumb. “Thank you — both of you,” Margaret continues, looking up at the two of them. “I’m so glad you’re both back with us once more.”
Carefully, she pulls away from Hendrickson and steps back over to Gilthunder’s side as the young knight directions the guards to escort Vivian to the dungeon for the time being. Howzer saunters over to Hendrickson’s side, leaning against him lazily as he looks over at Dreyfus. “So? How’d it go?”
Hendrickson heaves a sigh, allowing Howzer to remain where he is for the moment. “We rescued Gilthunder and apprehended Vivian, so the mission was a success.”
Howzer glances between the two of them before raising an eyebrow. “But, what, she didn’t have any idea how to fix things for Sir Dreyfus?”
“No,” the druid murmurs. “We have some leads, though. It’s enough for now.”
And, as they begin to walk back towards Dreyfus’s house, he slowly explains to Howzer what they’d learned — about the failsafe, about the curse, about the guilt that had been eating away at Dreyfus. Howzer listens intently for once, rubbing at his chin. “Guess you’re lucky you didn’t have the same thing, huh,” he remarks after a moment.
“Huh?” Hendrickson blinks over at him in confusion.
Howzer smirks, laughing a bit to himself. “Please. Do you even remember what you were like when we first ran into you in Byron? Sure, you saved us and explained things, but every other thing out of your mouth was—” He gestures flippantly at that, looking over at Dreyfus. “‘I’m sorry’ or ‘I understand if you want nothing to do with me’ or ‘let’s put a couple meters between the three of you and me in town so no one thinks you’re with me.’”
Already, Hendrickson can feel his face redden slightly. “I wasn’t that bad.”
“It was a nightmare,” Howzer continues, solely addressing Dreyfus now as they approach his home. “This guy? Total martyr complex. I thought Gil was gonna tear his hair out for awhile there.”
“You shouldn’t exaggerate, Howzer!!”
Hendrickson starts at the sound of that deep, familiar voice. “Griamore?”
The three of them turn to see Griamore — who is absolutely not a child, unless Hendrickson’s eyes are playing tricks on him — emerging from the house, hands on his hips. “It wasn’t that bad, Hendy,” he huffs, giving Howzer a stern look. “And if anything, it was more than understandable.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Howzer sighs, waving a hand. “Man, way to ruin the mood.”
Hendrickson and Dreyfus exchange equally confused looks as they both stare with wonder at Griamore. It’s Dreyfus who makes the first move finally, pushing past both Howzer and Hendrickson to approach his son, resting his hands on his shoulders.
A small smile crosses over Griamore’s face. “Father . . .”
Both father and son quietly embrace one another tightly, the tears beginning to well up on Griamore’s face. It’s hard to tell from where he stands, but Hendrickson could swear that Dreyfus is having a moment as well. He smiles softly to himself, taking a step back as he dips his head. Their reunion on the rooftop of the castle had been heartwarming as is, but there was something about seeing the both of them set right and reunited that soothes his heart.
It’s another moment before the obvious occurs to him, and Hendrickson glances over at Howzer. “So Griamore is . . .”
“Oh yeah,” Howzer muses, rubbing at his chin. “Guess I forgot to tell you.”
Hendrickson eyes him flatly. “You didn’t forget at all, did you?”
The younger knight gives him a grin in turn. “Look, it didn’t happen until after you guys left. I would’ve said something if it had!”
“You should have said something back at the gate.”
“Eh, it was sudden.” With a shrug, Howzer turns towards Griamore as he pulls back from his father. “Hey, Griamore! You wanna tell these guys what ended up fixing your curse problem?”
Griamore immediately flushes a deep shade of crimson, glancing aside. “Howzer! That’s—”
“Come on, you know they’re still trying to solve your dad’s curse, right?” Howzer points over at Dreyfus at that. “Give ‘em a hand!”
“If you don’t mind, Griamore,” Hendrickson adds softly.
“W-well, it was—” Griamore stammers lightly, scratching at his cheek as he looks aside. “It was when Princess Veronica gave me a kiss, actually.”
Hendrickson stares incredulously over at him while Dreyfus practically balks. “When what?”
Howzer leans in, resting his elbow on Hendrickson’s shoulder. “Ever heard of ‘true love’s kiss’?”
“‘True love’s kiss,’” Hendrickson murmurs, staring off into the distance as he works on unpacking, putting things back where they belong little by little. It had taken him some time to clean away the clutter in the house before; he isn’t about to let it accumulate again.
‘True love’s kiss.’ Funny, how Howzer had been right all along, that it had been all that was needed in Griamore’s case. He’d dismissed it abruptly outside, stating that the curses were different, but Howzer merely stared back at him with a knowing look before giving him a wave and heading off.
But what was ‘true love,’ anyway? Beyond some sort of concept only found in fairy tales, of course. Then again, ‘love’ had always been a strange concept to him, anyway. ‘Love’ for the druids seemed different than ‘love’ for the people of Liones and even then, what he’d seen throughout the kingdom varied vastly. There were times when it felt alien to him, a burning sensation in his chest that he couldn’t quite place.
It had brought about some awkward moments for him, such as mistaking a simple act of kindness for love. Only when he grew older did he realize the weight of the word, of the concept. And then the demon blood set in, warping all of his sensibilities.
How long had it taken him to pull himself back together? Howzer hadn’t been wrong; Hendrickson carried the guilt for all those ten years for some time. Even now, he still carries it, as he should. And ‘love,’ that concept that had been so foreign so long ago, still lingers at his periphery.
The truth is, he knows. And the truth is, his own guilt is what’s held him back for so long.
Hendrickson lets out a breath he didn’t even realize he’d been holding in. There was something liberating about that quiet admission to himself. He knows, he’s always known what it’s been to him, even if he didn’t have the strength to admit it to himself and, now, didn’t feel he even had the right to.
He stands slowly, turning. “Dreyfus?”
There’s no answer, of course. Quietly, Hendrickson walks out of the room and down the steps, peering into the main area where Dreyfus sits, staring over at the fire in contemplation. The druid clears his throat, mustering up his courage. “Dreyfus? We need to talk.” He pauses, flushing just a bit as he realizes what he’s just said. “— you know what I mean.”
Dreyfus turns back towards him, raising an eyebrow expectantly as Hendrickson shifts from one foot to another. A nervous sort of energy courses through him, and he takes a step forward. “Did you hear what Howzer said earlier? About Griamore.”
In an instant, Dreyfus’s eyes narrow slightly as he eyes Hendrickson with suspicion before nodding once. Undeterred, the druid continues to speak. “Look, Dreyfus, this is all we have to go on right now. Isn’t it . . .” His voice trails off as he spreads his hands out. “Isn’t it worth a try?”
All that meets him is an incredulous stare. Hendrickson falters briefly before coughing once, trying to regain some ground. “What I’m trying to say is— let me help you, Dreyfus.”
Silence persists as the other knight’s gaze drifts back towards the fire. Hendrickson eyes Dreyfus quietly and then, he takes a step forward so he’s standing next to him. Dreyfus turns back towards him just as the druid reaches over, taking his hand carefully into his own. “Let me make this clear,” Hendrickson murmurs, squeezing it lightly. “I love you.”
Dreyfus’s eyes widen slightly with surprise, even as he chuckles in a mildly self-deprecating manner. But how could he not? It’s taken him this long to be up front, and the answer had been laying under their noses the entire time. The other man’s expression softens, even as a frown passes over his face. Hendrickson smiles quietly at him. “I don’t know if I count. But then again, I don’t know much about ‘love’ in general, so I don’t know if this will work. But—”
As he starts to lean in, Dreyfus snaps his free hand up, stopping him. Hendrickson pauses, trying to bite back the initial feeling of disappointment as he looks into Dreyfus’s eyes, searchingly. That guilt — that damn guilt still lingers, even as he looks away.
He frowns. “Dreyfus, do you think I’m only doing this out of obligation?”
Dreyfus’s face twitches slightly, a tell-tale sign that he’d hit the mark. Hendrickson lets out a soft sigh of exasperation. “Did you even hear what I just said?” He pulls him in close with their entangled hands. “I love you.”
Silence is all that greets him.
Funny, how for ages, Hendrickson would gladly greet any moment of silence from Dreyfus, what with how the man would bowl anything and everything over through the sheer power of his voice alone. But now, with him silenced, reduced to this before his eyes, it just felt wrong. Hendrickson sucks in a bit of air, mustering up whatever courage he has left within him, and dips his head, leaning forward and pressing his lips against Dreyfus’s.
It’s a light, gentle kiss, and one that he lingers on for a moment too long. But he can’t help it at this point. He pulls back, closing his eyes as he exhales. “I love you,” he repeats after a moment. “Do you understand that?”
“. . . You’re a damn fool as always.”
The words are gravelly, his voice raw from disuse, but there’s still no doubt that it’s unmistakably Dreyfus. And yet, in that moment, Hendrickson finds that he can’t be too happy about it. It stings, that the first words out of Dreyfus’s mouth to him in practically ten years are almost dismissive at best. He stares over at the other man in muted shock, though he isn’t the only one. Surprised, Dreyfus pulls back in an instant, lifting a hand to his throat as the realization sets in.
The two of them stare quietly at each other, as if not certain what to make of one another in that moment.
Hendrickson eyes Howzer flatly from across the table as he sips his tea, avoiding answering the question for as long as humanly possible.
“How could you leave?” Howzer continues to moan as he throws his hands in the air, practically tearing at his hair. “What the hell, man?!”
“Leave him alone, Howzer,” Gilthunder sighs from where he sits, shaking his head. “Besides, we don’t have to talk about this right now.”
The other knight snorts, leaning over against Gilthunder’s chair. “You just don’t wanna hear about your uncle gettin’ any kind of action.”
“You’re right. I don’t.”
The druid stares down at his cup as the two younger knights continue to bicker in the background. Admittedly, it wasn’t his best move in the world, but what else could he do? Dreyfus had been staring over at him in confusion, and the only thing he’d had to say was what an idiot he was, and what else was new? Quietly excusing himself and heading off to the barracks seemed like a good choice in the moment; he hadn’t been expecting to get intercepted by Howzer, nor had he expected to get dragged off like this.
Moreover, he hadn’t expected to get dragged off to the Great Holy Knight’s chamber of all places, but life has a funny way of happening again and again to him.
Hendrickson rubs at his forehead quietly. As much as he didn’t want to talk about any of it, he hadn’t realized how much he didn’t want to be alone tonight until now. He smiles softly as Howzer and Gilthunder’s bickering continues, allowing it to carry on for a moment or two longer before clearing his throat. “I needed some air is all.”
“And that’s reasonable,” Margaret responds as she steps over to take his empty cup. “Anyone would.”
“Ah—” Hendrickson starts at that, looking up at her. “You don’t have to—”
“I don’t mind,” she states simply as she steps around the table. “Did you want anything else as well, Gil?”
He leans up and over to press a kiss against her cheek lightly. “No, but thank you.”
With a scowl, Howzer flops down in a chair next to Hendrickson, waving a hand dismissively in the couple’s direction. “You see what I have to put up with?”
“Your life must be so difficult,” he murmurs dryly in response, staring down at the table.
“Hey . . .”
The concern in Howzer’s voice is immediately noticeable, and Hendrickson snaps his head up to look over at him. The younger knight’s brows crease just a bit. “Look, ah—” he starts clumsily before shaking his head. “Are you gonna be okay?”
A soft chuckle escapes Hendrickson’s throat. “Are you worried about me?” he asks, even as a small smile forms on his face.
“S— So what if I am, huh?” With a huff, Howzer crosses his arms. “Someone’s gotta be.”
“We all are.”
For whatever reason, those words — Margaret’s words — hang heavier in the air than anything else. Hendrickson glances off to the side as a mildly guilty look crosses over his face. “Please, you three, don’t worry about me,” he protests quietly, clasping his hands together in his lap.
Margaret and Gilthunder exchange a brief look before she walks back over, taking the other seat near him. Carefully, she reaches over to place a hand over his clasped hands. “Regardless of what you say, we’d worry.”
Howzer nods sharply at that, leaning back in his chair slightly. “She’s not wrong about that. That’s how people are, right? I mean, that’s what got Sir Dreyfus into this whole mess.”
“It was his damnable guilt,” Hendrickson murmurs. “Blaming himself for everything—”
“What, you mad because he’s beatin’ you to it?”
Hendrickson flinches slightly at Howzer’s pointed assessment. From across the table, Gilthunder gives him a small frown. “Howzer . . .”
“He isn’t wrong,” the druid admits, though he leaves it there. Because it’s funny, really, how invested the rest of them are suddenly, and it’s enough to make him feel just a bit self-conscious.
“You’re forgetting something, though.”
He glances up, meeting Margaret’s gaze as she smiles over at him before she continues. “You broke the curse, didn’t you?”
Hendrickson’s brows furrow. He did, didn’t he? Dreyfus could speak — enough to say something so incredibly Dreyfus-like of him. So what? “I did,” he responds tentatively.
Howzer raises an eyebrow over at Margaret briefly before he shrugs his shoulders. “So it’s mutual.”
The younger knight lifts a hand to stop Hendrickson. “That’s what the princess is gettin’ at, alright? Look, with Griamore? It was Princess Veronica. You gonna try and tell any of us here that wasn’t mutual?”
“My sister would say otherwise, but that’s only natural,” Margaret muses, a small smile crossing over her face.
With a sigh, Gilthunder clears his throat. “I know the two of you are only trying to help, but—” He pauses, considering. “Well, Margaret is, anyway.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?!”
“But,” Gilthunder continues, reaching up to rub at his forehead. “We should call it a night here. I don’t think any of us have had a decent night’s sleep in awhile.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Howzer groans, rubbing at the back of his neck. Briefly, he looks over at Margaret as the two exchange looks in an unspoken conversation. He then gives Hendrickson a sidelong glance before throwing a thumb back at the room around them. “Hey, you can crash here for the night.”
When he’s greeted with a perplexed look from the druid, Howzer makes a small, exasperated noise in the back of his throat as he shakes his head. “Look, I don’t use this place ever and I’m guessing you aren’t goin’ back to Sir Dreyfus’s tonight, right?”
“That’s—” Hendrickson pauses, considering that quietly.
“Better than havin’ you try and find a room at an inn or some spare bunk in the barracks,” Howzer continues, lowering his hand. “Come on, just take me up on it already. It’ll make things easier.”
He glances over at Margaret and Gilthunder, who both stare back at him expectantly. After a moment, Hendrickson lets out a soft sigh and nods. “Alright.”
The shadow still looms, a dark presence hanging over him, even as the oppressive atmosphere intensifies. But these nightmares are nothing new; if anything, he’s grown numb to the trauma at this point, pushing himself onward regardless.
So when the warmth settles in once more, there’s something almost jarring about it in a way. At least, that, and the fact that he can feel a small pressure against his shoulder — a shaking sensation.
And then he snaps his eyes open.
The Great Holy Knight’s chamber is still dark, with only the faintest bit of light pouring in from the window nearby, indicating the impending dawn. Hendrickson squints as his eyes slowly adjust, trying to regain his bearings as the blurriness in his vision fades. He could feel the faintest bit of sweat on his brow, the clearest indicator to him that he’d been having another nightmare — aside from his racing heartbeat, anyway.
A hand reaches over to quietly brush it away from his forehead, and Hendrickson freezes in an instant. It takes a moment or two before his vision clears, and he sees Dreyfus looking down at him, managing to look both stern and concerned.
“D— Dreyfus?!” he stammers, pulling back in surprise.
“Don’t run off again, Hendy,” the other man mutters, shaking his head slowly.
Hendrickson sits up, composing himself quietly as he stares over at Dreyfus. The man’s voice is definitely back, the same bass timbre that he’d been longing for for some time now. The raspy quality seems to have smoothed out as well.
“How did you find me?” he murmurs as he reaches up to rub the rest of the sleep away from his eyes.
“Howzer told me.” Dreyfus tilts his head to one side at him at that. “He said that Princess Margaret would have words for me if I didn’t ‘collect’ you.”
He can already feel the heat rise to his face as the embarrassment sets in. He should have expected something like that from Howzer, yes, but Margaret’s involvement catches him off guard. “How does Gilthunder manage with those two,” Hendrickson grumbles to himself.
Dreyfus lets out a soft chuckle and sits at the edge of the bed, giving Hendrickson a weak smile. “We’d be lucky to have friends like that, frankly.”
“Mm . . .” The druid nods slowly in agreement as he gives Dreyfus a sidelong glance. “You sound better.”
The older man pauses, lifting a hand to rub at his neck. “Do I?” He clears his throat. “I spent some time with Griamore. That must have helped.”
A small smile forms on Hendrickson’s face. Despite the awkwardness that lingers in the air between them, he can still feel a warmth settle in his heart at that. “The two of you had a lot to catch up on, didn’t you.”
“Yeah.” Dreyfus nods firmly at that, lowering his hand. “Well, it’s been ten years, anyway.” At that, he pauses, looking over at him. “He’s not the only one I wanted to catch up with.”
The air stills between the two of them, and Hendrickson regards him warily. “I thought I was a fool,” he murmurs.
“You are,” Dreyfus says plainly, and Hendrickson can feel himself flinch internally. Leave it to Dreyfus, the most stubborn man in all of Liones, to double down on something like that.
But whatever misgivings he may have had die out as Dreyfus reaches over to rest a hand on his head, ruffling his hair lightly. “You’re a fool to go that far for me,” he continues, giving him a small half-smile. “You’re the only one that would do something like that.”
Hendrickson stares over at him quietly as he pulls his hand back. Again and again, he’d laid his heart bare, but he hadn’t seen how Dreyfus had been slowly pulling back the armor around his own. He really is a fool. “Dreyfus—”
Again, he’s beaten to the punch. Hendrickson’s breath catches as he’s cut off by Dreyfus’s abrupt apology, and all he can do is stare over at him in quiet wonder. In fairness, those were two words he hadn’t expected to hear from him — at least, not in this manner.
With a sigh, Dreyfus pushes himself up off the bed and stretches, looking around. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this place,” he muses, frowning just a bit. “But it’s the same as ever. Howzer must not spend much time in here.”
“He doesn’t,” Hendrickson manages to respond as he stands slowly, rubbing at his lower back. He continues to eye Dreyfus quietly, as if waiting for something else. But all he gets is a hearty slap on the back, which he winces at. “— You don’t know your own strength, do you?”
“I know exactly what my strength is,” Dreyfus retorts, grinning over at him.
It isn’t until they start walking down the stairs, with Hendrickson trailing just a bit behind Dreyfus as always — as normal, anyway — that Dreyfus picks up the thread from before. “I mean it, Hendy. I am sorry.”
“Hmm?” He looks up and over at the other man’s back in muted surprise. There they are, again — the words he’d never expected from Dreyfus. It takes a moment for them to register with him. “That’s—”
“I saw everything that you went through.” Dreyfus’s fist curls, tightening at that. “Even when Fraudrin was in control, I saw it. And then I saw the aftermath, too — how they treated you at the services.”
Hendrickson lifts a hand to rub at his forehead lightly. “I’m fine with it,” he murmurs quietly, glancing over at a couple knights as they brush past them. He’d gotten used to the distrustful looks, to the mutterings filled with derision and hate, to the parts of Liones that were no longer safe for him to be seen around alone. It’s his penance in some part.
“I’m not,” Dreyfus growls. “You can’t sleep.”
He can’t argue with that, so Hendrickson merely shrugs instead. But Dreyfus doesn’t look back, continuing. “I hadn’t realized that even your senses had been affected by it all as well.”
Hendrickson can feel a small pit begin to form in his stomach at that, and he sucks in a bit of air. “I’m glad you weren’t here to see the end of it,” he admits plainly as he forces out a soft, self-deprecating laugh. “The gray demon left quite an impression on Liones.”
“I saw it.”
He freezes in place, staring at Dreyfus’s back as the man continues to walk along. It takes the other knight a moment to realize that Hendrickson is no longer following in his footsteps, and Dreyfus turns to look back over at him. “Hendy?”
The pit expands rapidly as that knowledge sinks in. He saw him? Then how could he stand to look at him and not see that same encroaching darkness, the shadowy snow-like ash carried by the wind, the remnants of the monster that linger everywhere in Liones?
His thoughts are interrupted as Dreyfus tugs in him close, wrapping his arms around him. “Don’t,” he whispers gruffly, resting a hand against the back of his head. “You saw what happened to me.”
Hendrickson stills at his touch, closing his eyes as he focuses on his breathing. Right. Redemption. He had to keep going, lest he drown in his own guilt the way Dreyfus had. Slowly, he focuses on steadying his breath, on just breathing. In, then out. In, then out.
“I was going to say that it pissed me off.”
In, then out.
“Everything that happened to you — I could have prevented it, couldn’t I? And then what? You wouldn’t have the weight of the whole damn world on your shoulders. You wouldn’t have to keep bending over backwards just for me.”
In, then out.
“But I wasn’t looking at what we still had.”
“I understand. And you’re a damn fool. But—”
His breathing evens out as Dreyfus draws him in closer, resting his chin on top of his head lightly. “But so am I.”
A huffy laugh escapes Hendrickson’s lips, and he presses his forehead against Dreyfus’s chest. “Try telling me something I don’t already know,” he mutters good-naturedly, even as he shakes his head.
The other man grunts, shifting his position so he’s at Hendrickson’s side, keeping an arm around his shoulders. “Then don’t go forgetting that any time soon, Hendy.”
“I’ll try not to.” Hendrickson leans in to his touch at that, exhaling and letting his shoulders slump.
A distant look settles in Dreyfus’s eyes as he glances over at Hendrickson. Quietly, the two walk along together, though at least the silence is no longer forced in some respects. The sun slowly rises in the east, with the rest of the town beginning to stir as the two of them cross the same streets they always had.
“I missed you, too,” Dreyfus admits after a moment, his grip on Hendrickson’s shoulder tightening. “No matter how hard Fraudrin tried to pit us against each other, I never stopped.”
“We don’t have to talk about this,” Hendrickson mutters, glancing off to the side even as the heat rises both in his face and his chest.
“I couldn’t talk for a long time, Hendy,” Dreyfus retorts, snorting roughly. “To hell with it.”
“It wasn’t that long,” the druid muses, giving him a half-smile.
Dreyfus grunts in response, fingers curling around Hendrickson’s shoulder. “Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it, Hendy.”
His brows crease with concern as he looks back over at him. “What do you mean?”
“I said we’d talk about it, and then I was silenced.”
The situation isn’t lost on him. Hendrickson hesitates for a moment as he quietly considers that. “Are you saying, then, that your guilt consumed you so much that you couldn’t talk about it?”
“I’m not saying anything.” Dreyfus scratches at his cheek with his free hand.
“Dreyfus . . .”
With a sigh, Dreyfus approaches the door to his home, pushing it open neatly. As he closes it behind him, the older knight steps away from Hendrickson, turning to face him full on. “Listen. What I am saying is —”
He spreads his hands out as a look of frustration crosses over his face. Hendrickson can’t help but smile slightly at that. Typical Dreyfus, the same as always — having so much to actually say but no words he can use to say it. No wonder he’d been struck speechless. The druid chuckles lightly. “Dreyfus, you don’t—”
“I love you.”
Whatever he was in the process of saying dies out in his throat. Hendrickson stares over at Dreyfus as the other man’s shoulders slump slightly, even as he spreads his hands out a bit more. “I need you. Who else would put up with me like that?”
Had he really heard him correctly? Hendrickson falters, peering over at him. “Dreyfus?”
“I don’t—” Dreyfus heaves a sigh, throwing a hand in the air. “Look, Hendy, I couldn’t tell you what ‘love’ is either, even if you asked me. I loved Anna. I loved my brother. I love Griamore. And I love you. And . . .” His voice trails off as he rubs at his head. “Isn’t that enough?”
Just hearing those words, in that voice that he’d been missing for so long, is enough to make his heart soar.
“Yeah,” he agrees quietly, lifting a hand to brush at his eyes. “It’s enough.”