Felix wasn't stupid. He knew that there was something wrong with him. Sure, he didn't know what it was, exactly, but he knew there was something.
He could see it. He could see it when his father looked at him and sighed because he'd done something wrong that he couldn't understand. He could see it in the pout Sylvain gave him when he shrugged off a hug because it hurt and he didn't like it. He could see it in the frustration of his tutor who couldn't get him to just focus.
Felix didn't understand how he was meant to focus, when he could hear the soldiers out on the training grounds below him and their voices carried up to his room. He couldn’t hear a single word but he also couldn't hear anything else, but apparently that wasn't a good enough excuse and his tutor thought he just cared more about swinging a sword than he cared about books. Which was true, but that wasn't the only reason he couldn't understand.
Dimitri understood. He stayed back, his hands to himself, unless Felix came over to him first. He spoke slowly and clearly, and he didn't mind if Felix asked him to say something again, and again, until he understood. He didn't care that sweets were so cloying and made him want to throw up (he just ate them all himself, which Felix was fine with). He understood, and he cared enough to learn in the places where he didn't.
Glenn sort of tried too. He was busy, and not very good at taking the time to learn what Felix meant when he tugged at his coat and looked at him without saying anything because he didn't know how to put it into words. He didn't get it like Dimitri did, without effort or without even thinking, but he tried. He didn't force the social niceties, didn't make Felix look him in the eye. He tried. But most importantly, he encouraged.
Felix's father had said, once or twice, that Felix wasn't cut out to be a knight. His temper was too short, his tears came too easily. He was too emotional and mostly too slow to become a knight. He'd be best as a squire, at best. But given his status he'd probably do better as nothing. Bring less shame to the family. His father didn't say all of those things, of course, but that didn't mean Felix didn't understand it like that. He knew.
But Glenn...Glenn didn't see him like that. Glenn didn't dismiss him when he wanted to practise, and gave him a break when he needed it and pushed him when he could. He said that Felix had a lot of potential, if only he put a lot of work in. He didn't have the natural talent of someone born to swing a blade like Glenn (Felix thought he did, it was just that Glenn was older and bigger than him), but he could make up for it if he just worked really hard. Felix wanted to work really hard, and Glenn said he learnt quickly.
So, really, Felix didn't understand what was wrong with him. He found some things more difficult than other things, and sometimes people didn’t like him because of that, but it didn't matter. Dimitri didn't care that he was a bit funny sometimes, and Sylvain and Ingrid were always happy to play with him and keep in mind that they needed to face him while they spoke. It was easy for there to not be anything wrong, if the people around him just cared. He understood that even before he was twelve.
But just when he understood that actually there was nothing wrong with him and the things his father implied were just false, everything fell away. And there was something wrong with Felix.
He didn't understand what it was. He'd been fine. When Glenn died, he cried. When he found out Dimitri was alive, he smiled. It hurt, and he was sad, but he was okay. Or he would be okay, because Glenn had told him once that as long as he just kept going, everything would be okay.
It got a little bit harder to focus. He spent more time swinging a sword, but he told himself it was because he needed to keep practising, because Glenn wasn't around to protect Dimitri anymore. So he'd have to do it instead. His father even told him that he'd improved dramatically, and he was proud that Felix was taking up the mantle and growing up a little, taking everything so well.
And then Glen's armour arrived from Duscur. His father put most of it in a box, a box lined with scratchy material that Glenn had liked wearing but Felix had never been able to stand (just thinking about it made his skin crawl and his eyes itch for a reason he couldn't fathom other than that the material was bad and he would not wear it). His father took the sword that Glenn had been given, and he gave Felix a spur that he'd been given at the knighting ceremony. It was small, made of black metal. It was cold, but it practically burned into the skin of his palm.
And when Felix's father put the box on the mantlepiece of the room where he always received guests that Felix wasn't allowed to talk to in case he offended them, he turned to Felix, tears in his eyes, and said that Glenn died like a true knight.
Felix didn't remember what happened next. He remembered that his father had a broken nose, and that when he next understood what he was doing, his throat hurt and he had a headache. His whole body hurt, actually. Everything hurt. And when he opened his mouth, words didn't come out.
It happened sometimes. He was pretty bad at talking to people, so sometimes when he was nervous or tired or he didn't know what to say, the words didn't come at all, and he felt trapped inside his own head. But it usually went away quickly. He'd nudge someone or pull at their sleeve and if it was Glenn or Sylvain or Dimitri or Ingrid they'd take him outside to get some fresh air. They might get some water, or some food, and they'd talk to him about nothing and everything until he could speak again. But it always went away.
He went to sleep. He woke up, and the words still felt trapped inside his throat. He ate something, and he still couldn't summon anything up. He did his usual training drills even though he felt heavy, and still inside his head he felt something quiet and small and not him, and the words didn't come.
It didn’t make sense to him. He didn’t understand why his limbs felt so heavy. Why it was so hard to think through the fog that was building up and only lessened a little when he got some sleep. He couldn’t sleep very well. His mind kept running up and down the same lanes but he didn’t know what they were. Couldn’t work out where he’d lost track of his thoughts but still couldn’t get them to stop.
He got up. He forced food into his mouth sometimes (sometimes he couldn’t). He hit training dummies with swords again and again and again. Sometimes he remembered to eat more than once, but sometimes he forgot and it got to sunset and he hadn’t eaten lunch so he just waited until dinner. He didn’t talk to anyone. He didn’t know if he could.
He didn’t keep a track of the time that was passing. It wasn’t like it mattered, anyway. What mattered was that he kept going. And if that just meant getting stronger, then he could do that. Even if it was the only thing he could do. Even if just doing that left him sore and exhausted every day and he cried with his blankets pressed tight against his ears every evening.
So he didn’t actually know how long it had been when Sylvain ‘dropped by’ to ‘check on him’. Felix knew that his excuse was a farce, because Sylvain had arrived with several bags and had been set up properly in a guest room, but he didn’t have the energy to deal with the confrontation that would inevitably occur if he called his bluff. Felix felt like he couldn’t get into a conversation without getting angry these days.
Having Sylvain around was irritating. It disrupted the semblance of normalcy he’d created for himself. He couldn’t train all day until he felt like he was going to collapse when Sylvain was there making him take breaks and asking him if they could eat meals together.
When he was younger, Glenn used to read him a story about puppets sometimes. It was one that had always scared him, but in a way that meant he always asked Glenn to read it again. It was about a little puppet boy who wanted to be friends with a little puppet girl, but the strings that pulled him around never let him get close to her. He was tugged around all day and all night and he could never do what he wanted.
Felix felt like the puppet. It wasn’t that Sylvain was pulling him around from one place to the next, but something was moving his limbs and his mouth and forcing words out that he didn’t remember once his mouth had closed again. And when Sylvain was gone at the end of the day, the strings stopped moving and he collapsed and couldn’t move until the sun rose again.
So he did it again, and again, and again, until Sylvain went home. By the end of it he felt maybe a tiny bit more alive. He could sleep now, mostly, and that went a long way to making him feel a little more normal. And when Sylvain was gone, and he could do the same thing over and over again, getting stronger day by day, it helped. Even if he was tired and he couldn’t meet his father’s eyes and sometimes when he spoke Felix just stood there frozen because he’d forgotten what to say.
He carried on like that, interspersed with visits from Sylvain and occasionally Ingrid (never Dimitri. He missed Dimitri, but he understood), until the rebellion. Finally a chance to show his strength, to prove to his father that he could be important if he was alive, that he could be more important than a dead man.
Dimitri, however, was gone.
The gentle, easy understanding had vanished. He didn’t know what had happened, because the Dimitri in front of him was stilted and sometimes the way he moved stuttered in a way it hadn’t before. Like this Dimitri wasn’t a real person. He definitely wasn’t the Dimitri who had been able to hold his hand sometimes, or the Dimitri who understood him.
This Dimitri tolerated him but did not accommodate him. And when the fighting went just the tiniest bit wrong, because Felix hadn’t caught the end of Dimitri’s orders and the words had jumbled up and when he’d asked for a clarification Dimitri had said there was no time, Felix saw why.
The Dimitri who had been so warm towards him, who had understood him implicitly, the Dimitri he’d grown next to like they were brothers, was dead. The boy in his place was just a monster wearing his skin. A beast incapable of nothing more than feigning human emotions.
Felix went home with a bitter taste in his mouth and the knowledge that his closest friend was worse than dead.
He went home and went back to his routine. Slowly, carefully, he managed to build himself up to eating properly, taking enough breaks, getting stronger and not holding himself back by forgetting stupid things. He still couldn’t talk to his father and his father didn’t ever ask him to do anything that involved talking to people.
He missed having someone around who understood him, but with Glenn dead and Dimitri gone and Sylvain doing what Sylvain always did and Ingrid seeing Glenn’s shadow in his every movement he was just going to have to be lonely. He knew that and he could sort of deal with it. He’d managed to make something out of what he could do, and he could do it well.
Felix had known that, as he was refusing to just enter Dimitri’s service as a knight, the Officers Academy would come to disrupt what he’d built for himself at some point. He was also determined not to make it matter too much. In fact, there were some ways he could make it better than the routine he’d built at home, because his father didn’t come into it at all.
He’d underestimated the difficulty of interacting with new people. So instead, he stood at the edge of the classroom, watching everyone else have their fun. It was a waste of time, anyway. He couldn’t use this to get stronger. Nothing that a handful of babbling children said about magic could make him better with a sword.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t willing to try to talk with them, but he felt like he was talking at a wall. He had no idea if the words he spoke did anything at all in a conversation, and the whole thing was nothing short of exhausting. He couldn’t get a read on these people at all.
The only new thing he knew about his class, within a week of arriving at the Academy, was that he hated learning in a classroom. He hated it like nothing else. He’d thought tutoring at home was bad when there were people in the courtyard below, but attempting to focus when the person behind him was talking? Trying to read in the library when someone else was using it to air all their relationship drama (also, a week. It took them a single week to get in and out of a relationship. Ridiculous)? Trying to do homework in his room when Sylvain was chatting someone up in the corridor?
It was hard, that was all. It took him back to a time when he hadn’t quite found what he was good at and no one except Dimitri understood him and he felt like a failure. There was no Dimitri to lean on anymore, no Glenn to hide behind. So he stared at the page and handed in half complete work because he didn’t know what else he could do.
And then it all changed pretty suddenly. They had a new teacher, for one. They were no better at controlling the class, and the only thing they were better at was fighting with a sword (which was what mattered to Felix; he was tired of fighting Catherine and Jeritza and no one else), but that changed quickly too.
He knew what was going on the moment he saw it happen. The boar was horrendous at subtlety, so when Felix heard him mumbling away to the Professor, shooting glances in his direction every two seconds, he knew they were talking about him. He collected up his notes and left; it wasn’t like he could read a word when someone was talking in there anyway. What did he care if people were talking about him anyway? The boar was probably just pretending he was upset that they weren’t friends anymore. Like Felix had ever been friends with the thing wearing Dimitri’s face.
That said, afterwards, things changed. It started with more practical assignments, things that didn’t need so much book learning and therefore less focus. Then, when the Professor handed out work to do, they’d written an extension date on the top of his. And when he handed it in, still incomplete because the library was full of chattering students, the Professor asked him if he’d mind staying back after class briefly.
Felix had several expectations about what would come next. That they’d given him several chances, and clearly he wasn’t suited for the book learning part of the Officers Academy. That Dimitri had told them that he struggled with all of this and there was no way to make him better. That they’d all tried when he was younger but he still couldn’t do it.
Needless to say, the actual conversation came as a surprise. “You’ve been finding classwork difficult,” they started. Felix really appreciated how straightforward they were, but it didn’t much help his nervousness.
“A little,” he admitted, scuffing his right boot against the classroom floor and determinedly not meeting the Professor’s eyes. “I’m much more comfortable-”
“With a sword in your hand,” they finished. “I’m aware, and I empathise with you there. I’m not much for book learning either.”
“So what did you want to say?” he asked. What were they going to do, say they knew he was finding it difficult and then just get him to leave, with the knowledge that they were judging him as intellectually inferior every time he failed something?
“I wanted to ask if there was any way I could help,” they said. “I reduced your classroom work and gave you an extension after Dimitri let me know you-”
“What did he say?” he asked. Maybe it was rude to snap at his teacher, but if all of this was because the boar thought he was a fool to be pitied then he wanted nothing to do with it.
“He said that you found groups challenging sometimes,” they said, keeping that same steady tone as always, “but that you didn’t like to admit it. It’s not a sign of weakness, Felix, I’d just like to help. I’m your teacher, and anything that helps you learn is good in my eyes.”
“There’s no point,” he said. “I don’t want your pity or your special treatment. I’ll work harder and I’ll get things done. Is that enough?”
“There’s no need for that,” they said. They hopped over their desk and sat on the edge of it - a strangely light movement for someone Felix had never once seen crack a smile. “Why do you find it hard to complete work?”
“I said, there’s no point.” How could he make them understand? “You can’t make a room full of children stop talking just for a single person to do slightly better. I can deal with this. On my own.”
“No,” they said simply.
“You will not be dealing with this on your own,” they said. Their tone was firm. “You struggle to focus when there’s noise, correct?” Felix said nothing. The Professor said nothing. And they continued to say nothing, until Felix grit his teeth and nodded. He hated feeling so weak and useless. Everyone else could do it. “That’s fine. There’s a disused classroom on the second floor which I can open up to all students for silent study.”
“You really don’t have to do that,” he said. He didn’t want concessions and he wasn’t interested in benefiting from the inconvenience of others.
“But I’m going to,” they said, their tone light. “Feel free to ask for extensions when you need them, of course. Or if there’s anything else that will help you or a classmate. You can go, unless you have something else to say?”
“...thank you,” he said. And then he left, because he couldn’t quite process the emotions that conversation had made him feel. Or all the implications from the Professor. He was angry that the boar had gone behind his back, and frustrated that he hadn’t been able to work through this on his own. But at the same time...it was nice to be seen and understood again. It felt nice to have someone care enough to help.