- On Houses, Kahlil Gibran
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Two letters arrive at Garreg Mach at the same day, addressed to two different persons.
The first is addressed to Sir Ashe Ubert, and there is what seems to be a mustard stain on the corner of the envelope. The letter had seen many hands, but was penned by only two. It says the following:
How are you? We are fine. Misses Avery, who we got the idea to write to you from, says this is how most letters are to be started with. But apparently, anything can go after that, so we’ll get straight to the point. Misses Avery has been taking care of us especially these last few months, as she’s very skilled with her faith-based magic, and we are apparently too magically-inclined to not cause ruckus’s under other lovely Gaspardian family members households, or something. Anyway, we are writing to you to let you know Avery and several other families here in Gaspard send their love to you - and also are sending us to Garreg Mach. Isn’t that fun? We know that for some reason, you won’t leave the place, so we’re sure we’ll see you when we arrive for the new semester. This is Ethel, by the way. I’m going to let Ives write a sentence so he doesn’t feel left out before we wrap this up. Hello, Ashe. This is Ives. We’ll see you soon
- Yours, Ives & Ethel Ubert
The intended, an aforementioned Sir Ashe Ubert, unclaimed knight, renowned sniper, and general do gooder, does not attempt to write back to his siblings. He knows they are on the way, and he beams and chuckles when he reads their letter.
The other letter is a little different. It’s spotless, has a faint and intentional scent to it, as if sprayed with perfume several feet away and then dragged through the air as only to catch a hint of the intended fragrance. And it is addressed to Felix Hugo Fraldarius. That is -- Duke Felix Hugo Fraldarius. The contents are as follows.
The staff of House Fraldarius would like to personally congratulate His Grace for valiantly serving Our Holy Kingdom and winning the war. Though it does pain us to see him return as Duke alone, and not as Heir Apparent (Goddess rest Lord Rodrigue’s soul), we in the royal home and in the fields and streets of Fraldarius, as well, would like to inquire when His Grace will be returning home, and if the staff shall need to make any accommodations.
The war was not particularly kind to Fraldarius Territory, Your Grace. We fear restoration efforts must be made by your unwavering hand, lest our house be a home no longer.
- Awaiting your safe return, House Fraldarius
The intended Duke reads his letter with a deep and quiet sigh. There is resignation in his amber eyes as he dips his quill in ink. His words are written slowly, because he is tired, and war-weary, and because he has just read several different titles he never, ever, wanted to be addressed as. He sends his response the following morning, a single, simple letter that reads:
Head my return. I come alone. Felix.
◈ ◈ ◈
When Ashe goes to meet the carriage that brings his siblings home to him, there is another carriage ready for travel next to it, not to depart until perhaps sundown, or the following day. He thinks nothing of it, because for the first time in years, there they are.
Ethel is a sharp-eyed young lady, now of seventeen. The Garreg Mach uniform looks darling on her, little skirt high on her waist like how Mercedes wore hers when she was young. Her silver hair seems done up rather haphazardly, like she couldn’t decide what to do with it and just pinned it away from her eyes to be done with the matter, and at first glance, she seems to be regarding her older brother rather coldly. But when Ashe sees her, he can’t stop himself from opening his arms to her, and Ethel’s small, reserved smile could nearly blind a man. Ashe loves being bigger than her, loves being able to crush her into a bear hug and hear her squeal about what a brute he is. He loves her with all his heart.
Ives takes a moment more to exit the carriage, but it seems seeing Ashe give Ethel a warm welcome is the final push he needs to make his arrival known, too. As always, Ives comes unto the scene with a cautiousness not unlike his sisters, but whereas hers is calculating, his stems more from simple anxiety - though his gaze isjust like Ethel’s, calculating. It warms Ashe’s heart, just how much Ives looks like him, when he’d first enrolled here. Ashe is quick to coerce his younger brother into joining the family embrace.
“You keep getting bigger,” complains Ethel, wiggling out of the hold. “Not just taller, too. When will you stay the same size from whence we once see you to the next, big brother?”
They makes Ashe’s heart warm and heavy, his love for them a drumming song that moves his blood through his veins. “If it’s any consolation,'' he says, one hand on Ethel’s shoulder, and one hand in Ives’ unruly hair. “You two haven’t stopped growing, either. Funny, the passage of time.”
Ives, the spitting image of a timid, nervous younger Ashe, before he’d found his footing amongst his housemates, is struck by the imagery of the monastery. It’s as if he’s already worried about missing a nook or cranny. “This place is huge,” he says, quiet, a voice not as nasaly as Ashe’s, but so, so soft. “No wonder you’ve stayed here so long, brother. I imagine you got lost a few times.”
Ashe chuckles, and takes a step back, just to look them over. “Once or twice,” he says, surveying. They seem in fine form, good health. Ethel stands as tall as she always does, the picture of protection, like a poised bird of prey, silent and still, and ready to strike. And behind her, Ives does not cower, but he lets his sister’s form draw in the eye. His eyes are sleepy as they always look, even though Ashe knows their surroundings has his brother’s full attention. “How was the trip?”
Ethel says, “Perfectly fine,” the same time Ives says, “We were attacked by bandits not too far out,” and then they whip their heads towards each other respectfully and proceed to hiss at each other in their odd, twinly telepathic link. Ashe only sighs, waiting until they can get their story straight, and waits, while his siblings hash it out more with their eyes and hands then with their words.
“We were attacked by bandits,” confesses Ethel, finally. Her eyes are pleading, in their own reserved way. “But they were handled very quickly, so everything went perfectly fine.”
Ashe looks at her, their eyes locked in a battle of wills, until eventually, he raises his pale eyebrows, expectant, and she folds like a bad hand.
“It was right out of the gate,” she says, all at once, and the information pours out of her like she’s very, very young again, her hand caught in Lonato’s cookie jar and Ashe sternly telling her to be a good girl - the picture complete with Ives behind her, following her lead and nodding. “Some lowly bandits coming out of Fraldarius territory, Ives and I made quick work of them with the help of the royal guard and I’ll have you know we didn’t even technically lay a hand on anyone in--”
“Did you say Fraldarius?”
All at once, three silver heads turn rightward and find the harrowed figure of the newly named Duke Fraldarius loading his belongings into an open carriage. It’s the one Ashe had previously glossed over, but now he finds it has all his attention. Felix Hugo Fraldarius is, as ever, a force to be reckoned with, but here lately, he’s seemed like he’s lost weight, like he hasn’t been sleeping.
“Yes,” says Ives, shrinking under Felix’s gaze. “We traveled north, towards Gautier, to pick up other students, before turning to cross the mountain path to Garreg Mach.”
Felix looks at the boy like he is attempting to cast Thoron on him with his eyes alone and strike Ives where he stands. While the twins raise their shackles at this, Ashe knows it is simply Felix’s face, and doesn’t intervene.
“Were there,” begins Felix, like to ask this question is causing him physical pain. “Any students from Fraldarius?”
Ives makes a face. It is here that Ashe realizes his little brother very clearly doesn’t know who he’s talking to. “There are hardly any people from Fraldarius, much less students.”
Felix bristles like a cat, but says nothing else -- until he finally seems to notice Ashe off to the side, and his metaphorical fur soothes down. “These must be yours,” he says, as friendly as he gets.
And Ashe, he isn’t bothered by the way Felix talks. It’s part that he’s read the knight's tale he always compares Felix to a hundred times over and knows by now their intricacies in language and in showing familiarity and affection, but also the fact that he’s been hanging around Felix for a few years now, and knows the difference between his usual standoffish manner of being and how he truly acts when he’s upset.
What Ashe is bothered by, however, is Felix’s stance. His shoulders aren’t squared, his sunken in eyes look particularly bad today, showing bags hanging low that only exacerbate his scowl. It hits Ashe all at once that Felix looks tired -- and Felix being tired isn’t new, he’d been right alongside him those grueling days at the academy and those horrifying nights during the war. But Felix had never shown his fatigue, even wounded and starving and exhausted. This is new, and set all sorts of alarms off in Ashe’s mind. He squints at Felix, who copies the gesture, before Ashe’s face breaks into a beaming smile.
“I’ve told you about my siblings, right, Felix?” Not unlike a proud parent, Ashe puts a hand each on his siblings shoulders, showing them off like they are some of Ingrid’s prized Pegasus’. “This is Ethel, and Ives. They inherited all the magical ability in my family, I’m afraid. Guys, this is my good friend, Felix -- Duke of House Fraldarius.”
While Ashe can’t see his sibling’s faces, he imagines they pale at the slight Ives may have put upon the duke before them, because Felix smirks and chuckles before offering them a hand to shake. “At ease,” he says, something like a joke. “You are the spitting image of your brother, that’s for sure. Do you also have a sense of justice taken straight from the pages of a book?”
Teasing from Felix always feels nice; it’s the closest he can get to a compliment, or a nicety, without breaking into hives. They’ve built up their own sort of comraderie throughout the years of having known each other, that’s for sure, but Ashe doesn’t think he’ll ever get over the pleasant lurch in his stomach that comes from having prickly Felix tease him like they are old, dear friends.
Ethel makes a face. “You’re talking about the stories he’s always quoting, right? If you think it’s irritating now, imagine hearing him telling you the Great King Loog would be so disappointed in you for misbehaving.”
The laughter that Felix barks at that is enough to ease Ashe into admitting that maybe he won’t hound after Felix’s health, later. Maybe he’ll leave the job to Ingrid. He rolls his eyes, but quietly, is exceptionally endeared that his siblings and Felix can bond over something, even something as silly as Ashe’s irritating knightly habits. “You may have me beat,” Felix concedes, and the softness on his face, from winning this war, is still new to Ashe. “Take care to pester him for me in my absence.”
“Where are you going, then?” asks Ashe. He tries his hardest not to shoo Ethel and Ives away, but finds himself taking a step closer into Felix’s space, anyway.
It’s a testament to how close they’ve gotten, how strong their friendship is, that Felix stands his ground instead of stepping back. The kid-friendly gaze he’d saved for the twins disappears, and his usual scowl is back in place. “You heard the little whelp,” he says, quiet. “Fraldarius falling apart at the seams. And it’s my duty to stitch it back up, apparently.”
It is, oddly enough, very easy to hurt Felix’s feelings. He isn’t the type to wear his emotions on his sleeves, and he loathes apologies, but Ashe has caught him swinging a sword not for the sake of practice, but to push out something someone said that upset him from his mind too many times. He doesn’t want to admit it, but Ingrid fussing after him turns him stiff and feel bad; Sylvain telling him he should seek out a wife makes his skin crawl; both the Professor’s criticism and consoling can sometimes… hurt, in ways he hadn’t felt before.
(Ashe knows this because Felix has told him. Told him even before they monastery fell apart on them. Told him again in the trenches of war. Ashe is proud to say he is Felix’s friend and confidant.)
So he knows that while Felix had brushed off Ives’ remark on his lands and home, it hurts. Hurts that he will be going back to Fraldarius alone, hurts that he has to do all that work alone, hurts that he will assume the position Ashe knows he never wanted. He doesn’t meet Ashe’s eyes when he confesses this, and that’s what tips Ashe off.
“Ethel, Ives,” says Ashe, eyes still on Felix. “Why don’t you go and find your rooms? I’m going to help my friend pack, and I’ll catch up with you later.”
Felix narrows his eyes at this, but, being well versed in how the archer is always willing to lay down his life for a stranger, doesn’t push back too much. “Ashe,” he says, lowly, not quite a growl, but definitely a warning. Thankfully, Ashe knows he’s mostly bark and little bite.
The twins do eventually leave the scene, both anxious to see the rest of the monastery, and it’s only after they’ve run along that Ashe turns to his friend, fixes him with the same sort of stare he gives a merchant that won’t come down on a price, and crosses his arms.
Felix hardly glances towards Ashe, towards that look, before his eyes are suddenly wide open, and his hands are up in the air. “What!”
“Felix,” tries Ashe, and he knows for a fact that most of their comrades hate this tone of voice he has, bust Felix most of all. “You look awful. You’re going to Fraldarius-- alone?”
Felix doesn’t answer at first, only huffing a single laugh as he slings his belongings, all packed up, into the carriage. “You sure know how to butter up nobility, Ashe,” he spits, every bit the wounded wolf Ashe knows him to be. “Of course I’m going alone. I’m the only one who lives there, aren’t I?”
It’s a deflection, and they both know this. Felix parries in conversation as much as he does with a sword, hating to say how he feels about something outright. Ashe is stalwart, though, and places a hand on the duke’s shoulder. “You know what I mean,” he tries.
The hand is shrugged off as fast as it lands. “I don’t, actually,” Felix says, so fast on the defensive. “It’s my responsibility to clean up this mess - my father’s awful, shitty mess - and I’m not going to be talked out of it. It’s taken fucking everything in me to not change my name and run off, away from this name, away from piety, away from it all, and I would think that a knight as noble and devoted as you would understand.”
The thing about talking to Felix is understanding that he isn’t necessarily aggressive. But he has been hurt enough to always find himself on the defensive. The mistake people make with Felix is that they don’t know this, and so assume when he bears his fangs, he’s looking for a fight.
He isn’t. He’s looking for an escape route. Ashe breathes in, through his nose, and tries again.
“I’m not trying to change your mind,” he says, even, and patient, as Felix’s shoulders slowly lower. “I think it’s very brave of you to go home, Felix. But I don’t think I need to tell you why I think you shouldn’t go alone, or right now. When was the last time you slept? I think you rested better with the Empire over our heads then now, with the war won.”
Felix deflates, and looks away, because he knows this to be true. Eventually, he glances back at Ashe, and sighs his descent. Ashe can see the battle within him, how hard he finds it to use his words, to explain the situation. He’d always been better at showing, at doing, then saying.
So Ashe saves him the trouble: “Let me go with you.”
◈ ◈ ◈
“And then you said what?” goes Sylvain, through a mouthful of food.
Felix feels his shoulders hike up to his ears as he glares at the ginger, his body unmoving as Sylvain chokes on his dinner. Ingrid pretends to be just as frigid, before she eventually pats his back and helps him cough up the remains of the bread stuck in his throat.
“I said I agreed,” he spits. Felix doesn’t like repeating himself. “Why are you so shocked? It’s only Ashe.”
Only Ashe, who has compared Felix to no less than three of his favorite fictional characters over the years. Only Ashe, who nursed an entire litter of cats in his dormitory room once, and didn’t even have to beg to make Felix help him make sure they were fed and cared for between classes. Only Ashe, who came to Garreg Mach so timid, so mousy, and won the war by Felix and Dimitri and Byleth’s side a master sniper, a knight of his own making, and the sort of man who could take down a battalion of wyvern riders half a mile out while he was also preparing dinner for their rag-tag group of miscreants as they attempted to storm Enbarr.
Sylvain has teased Felix for years over the feelings he has for Ashe. Felix never lets him finish enough to even hear what these feelings may even be.
“You didn’t tell me you were leaving until just now,” goes Sylvain, every bit as offended as Felix knew he would be, like to make any move away from them, Felix has to run his schedule by he and Ingrid. “But Ashe is the first to know and is-- going with you? Come on, Felix!”
“Don’t come on me,” spits the swordsman. He stabs the small steak on his plate at first to threaten the man in front of him, and then realizes, shortly thereafter, he is rather peckish. He chews as loudly and grossly as Sylvain had without batting an eyelash as he goes on. “It was pure coincidence. He met his younger siblings as I loaded my own carriage, and inquired to where I was going. I didn’t want to tell anyone, be grateful I even told you at all. Besides, I’ll probably send him right back here once we arrive.”
Sylvain stares at Felix like he’s grown another head. Eventually, he turns to Ingrid, who purses her lips together and turns away, letting her boys duke this out themselves.
“Why were you trying to get away in the dead of night,” goes Sylvain, ever one to get to the heart of the issue fast. “What are you trying to hide, by going off so quietly?”
The awful thing about Sylvain and Ingrid, and sometimes even Dimitri, is that they know Felix, well, better than he’d like, sometimes. He has a lot of things he does on purpose, a lot of behaviours he pushes on to others to make them leave him be, that his childhood friends see right through and pay absolutely no heed to. Most times when he shows his teeth to Sylvain and Ingrid, they have the nerve to laugh at him. They’ve seen him young, seen him mourning, seen him change and reshape himself, and they also see who he is and what he needs at the root of himself, at his core. This is a double edged sword, sometimes.
“It was a last minute decision, and a last minute request,” says Felix, eventually. He looks into his water like he will find precisely the right thing to say but attempting to scry from it, but his talent for magic doesn’t run that deep. “The staff of House Fraldarius contacted me yesterday, and I… found myself replying to them as soon as I could. I leave tomorrow.”
Here, Ingrid takes a heavy sigh. Felix watches her search for the words she wants to use in front of her, like she wants to make sure this is said just right. “And Ashe… doesn’t want you going alone, right?”
What with your father dead, and all, goes unsaid. But both Ingrid and Felix knows she doesn’t have to say it. The death of the men of the Fraldarius family hits Felix first, but Ingrid second. She’s the only one he’d let say these things to him, probably.
“D’you know what his little brother said, when I asked if there were any new students from Fraldarius?” Felix maintains eye-contact as he eats and speaks, not because he wants to, but to show that he can. “He said, there are hardly any people from Fraldarius, much less students.” He waits until Ingrid and Sylvain look away, politely, before he lets his own head hang. “I don’t want to go back at all,” he says, defeated. “But it’s… the right thing to do. It’s… It’s what my father would want. It’s what-- fuck, what Glenn would want.”
He can hear Ingrid’s heart squeeze from across the table, as she tries to interject with “Felix--”
“I’ve made up my mind,” he says, and stands to leave. Though at first it seems as though he may storm out, looking down at his closest friends again one more, makes him falter. He hates showing his wounds. He much prefers to lick them, privately, and alone. “...I’ll write to you once we reach Fraldarius.”
They don’t run after him. Once Felix sets his mind on something, it’s near impossible to get him to change his mind.
◈ ◈ ◈
In fact, the only person more stubborn than Felix may be Ashe.
“It comes with looking after children,” he’d told Felix once. They’d been hiding behind some rubble at Fhirdiad, during their attack on the capital to take it back, and Ashe had forced Felix to take a moment to accept some healing.
Magic is so out of Ashe’s element. He can spark up a heal, a psychic a few feet away, but it’s not his strong suit by any means. Privately, though, Felix had always respected Ashe for adding the faith skills he had to his arsenal anyway. It was different than Felix himself learning reason skills, finding the lightning that was hidden in his veins and unleashing it upon his enemies. Byleth had told him, night after night, once even in a thunderstorm, that although this would be difficult, he was sure Felix had a hidden talent for this type of magic. And when he proved correct, Felix’s magical prowess had exploded like the thunder magic he cast down on the Imperial soldiers.
But magic for Ashe was a lost cause, and he’d been told that again and again. Still, in an effort to be dependable, he was the worst to ask the healers battalion to follow him into battle every time, and hadn’t given up until he had learned the bare minimal faith magic. There’s something awesome, Felix thinks, to this day, about being fucking awful at something, and spitting in the face of your opposers and doing it anyway.
He could hear Edelgard’s Imperial Dogs fight against Dimitri, one after the other offering themselves up to the Boar King and his delusions of death and carnage making this war right. But while Dimitri was a mad man who could take on a hundred men at once out of sheep spite, Felix wasn’t made up of such brute force. He’d gotten his arm sliced open, and Ashe had been on him in an instant, pulling him behind the rubble and demanding he let Ashe heal him.
It was a blur of a fight, much less of a conversation. Felix remembers he’d barked that Ashe should be taking down their flighted units, should trust Felix to take care of himself. And Ashe, with strength he’d picked up over their five years apart, had forced Felix back onto ass and said this Felix needed to trust him to multitask, and not look a gift horse in it’s big, grassy maw, huh?
(A feeling had lurched, like a cannonball wrecking havoc, deep within Felix’s chest. He had decided, pointedly, to not touch it.)
But the point is, Ashe has this incurable case of being a martyr. He can’t look at an injustice being done and not immediately rush towards it. It’s a blessing and a curse, and Felix, honestly, can’t decide if it makes him a good knight or not.
Felix doesn’t ask Ashe if he’s sure about going with him to Fraldarius. Even though after dinner he finds himself in his old Dormitory room like he’s 17 again, staring at the ceiling and wondering if this is the right thing to do. Because whereas Felix may stew over his decisions and make himself sick over them days, years even, after they’ve been made, Ashe had never been like that.
It hits him -- Ashe would make a good duke. Ashe could rebuild the main house, could help the orphans and children and their hungry families personally, Ashe would know every single stable boy, every single ladies maid, every single person in his entire territory, much less his estate.
And that’s-- it’s dangerous territory. Because it makes him think, Glenn would’ve loved Ashe.
“I don’t want to return to that ghost town,” he says, half to an empty room, and half to the ghosts that have haunted him for years.
◈ ◈ ◈
It’s just after sunrise when Felix drags his ass out of bed and out to the main gates again. He hadn’t even changed out of his lighter armor last night and he’s not looking forward sitting up straight and driving the carriage all the way through the mountain pass and into Fraldarius territory. There’s an awful crick in his neck, his ass hurts from hanging halfway off his teenage fucking bed last night, and there’s Ashe, bright eyed, bushy tailed, and roaring to go.
“Quiet down,” says Felix, rubbing at his eyes before Ashe can even speak. It isn’t that he’s grumpy in the morning - it’s that he’s grumpy all the time, and also, he just woke up.
Ashe chuckles warmly at the display and clasps a hand on Felix’s back. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ll be driving. I’ll let you get some rest.”
Felix immediately wants to bristle at the touch, but Ashe’s hand is so warm, he finds the instinct isn’t there, and so instead relaxes. He also wants to fight and hiss and tell Ashe he doesn’t need taken care of, he doesn’t need to be spoken down to, he hardly even needs Ashe to come with him at all.
Instead, he thinks of Ashe, his bright, burning eyes staring him down at the trenches of Fhirdiad, demanding Felix take a breath and let Ashe do this for him, and he knows the point is moot. He isn’t much for yelling, anyway.
“Fine,” he concedes, as the weight of this trip, this journey, this change he’s making, suddenly feels as if it’s been halved with only Ashe’s company to blame. “You win.”