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I'll Be There With You

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“He’s dead. He died in my place.”

Ashe’s throat tightened at the words. Everything felt frozen. The rain plopping heavy on the ground around him, the breath in his lungs. He saw distantly, Mercedes covering her mouth with both hands. Ingrid going tense beside him. Sylvain gritting his teeth.

“I see…” Gilbert whispered, the only one able to speak. “We will be sure to honor his loyalty, Your Highness.”

Ashe wanted to scream. His hands tightened into fists, and he shook with the force of the words he wished he could say. No! he wanted to scream. No that can’t be it! He can’t be dead!

But the words wouldn’t come. He breathed out shakily as Gilbert continued--as if nothing had happened, as if their friend wasn’t dead, as if Dimitri was no longer Dimitri, as if everything hadn’t changed.

Then they all went their separate ways. And Ashe stood alone as the rain fell down harder and made his hair curl up against his forehead and made everything cold.

 


 

Ashe had always been afraid of ghosts. He wasn’t sure when it started, but he had his suspicions.

Curled up with his siblings in the darkest, safest alley they could find, struggling to sleep when all he could think about was his father’s limp hand as his body was taken to be dumped. He remembered the nightmare it caused vividly, though he hadn’t had it in a while. He would be walking into the restaurant with his mother and father on either side, holding their hands. And then one of them, both of them, would start coughing--hard, violent coughs--hacking up blood and sobbing from the pain of it. Then their hands would go limp, and they’d fall face first onto the floor, and Ashe was left staring, his hands covered in blood.

He would wake up trembling so hard that he bit his tongue, but the feeling of his little brother and sister curled up beside him made him swallow the scream he longed to release. He couldn’t be scared. He couldn’t let it get to him. His siblings needed him. He couldn’t disappear.

He’d thought, once Lonato took him in, the ghosts would go away. But then Christophe died… Then Lonato… Now, Ashe saw ghosts everywhere. In the hallways of the monastery, remnants of the tragedy five years before. On the battlefield, moaning from pain. Behind his eyelids every night, when he woke up trembling and alone in his room.

He saw them often in Dimitri.

Ashe went to the cathedral every day, staring up at the shattered hole where the stained glass used to refract sunlight down onto him. The organ that once seemed to echo throughout the monastery was nothing but rubble now. And every time he walked through the giant doors and past the pews, he saw Dimitri standing and staring at the remains of that organ. As if staring long enough might return it to its former glory.

Ashe saw so many ghosts in him. His father in the way his shoulders hunched. His mother in his tattered, bloody overcoat. He’d heard about the others, though he’d never met them. Who did Dimitri whisper so feverishly to? Who was the frantic way his eye searched the rubble? Who was his trembling hands or his vicious snarl?

Where was Dedue?

Every day, Ashe inched a little closer, ignoring the fear in his gut, wishing he could see him there somewhere, haunting Dimitri. It was a stupid, childish notion. That maybe he could find his ghost within Dimitri and see him again. Maybe they could talk, or touch, or just exist together one last time.

“What’re you doing?” Ingrid hissed one day when she caught Ashe nearly at Dimitri’s side. She grabbed him by the arm and yanked him back, the worry in her gaze palpable. “Ashe, please, you know he’s… You don’t know what he might do.”

It was awful. It was awful that they had to be afraid of him. It set something on fire inside Ashe’s stomach, and he looked away like a scolded child. Only the Professor or Gilbert seemed brave enough to even talk to Dimitri now. Even Felix kept his distance, only sneering from afar, though there was a sadness to his eyes each time he did.

As Ingrid dragged him away, offering to get something to eat from the dining hall, Ashe looked back over his shoulder at Dimitri’s tall, lonely figure haunting the space before the crumbled organ. Like a ghost himself.

 


 

Ashe pulled back the string of his bow, eyes focused hard on the unmoving target across the room. He let his arrow fly, hitting it dead center, right beside his earlier shot.

He and the training room had become well-acquainted in the months since they’d found Dimitri. He knew every table and target and practice dummy as if they were old friends. Every day he found time to practice, and he’d gotten much better with his aim.

Even so he wasn’t satisfied. He pulled another arrow from the quiver at his hip and aimed for one of his earlier shots. If he hit through the fletching just right, he knew he could split it.

But even when he managed it, he just sighed deeply and pulled another arrow from his quiver. Every day seemed emptier than the last as the war raged on.

Ashe didn’t know why he’d expected things to be different. After five years of war, he’d thought he’d gotten used to the melancholy of it. He supposed he’d held onto that hope that the day of the Millenium Festival--the day they were all supposed to meet up again--would be a turning point. That his friends would all see each other again and be emboldened to fight harder, win back Faerghus, end the war.

He thought he’d grown up so much, but deep down he realized he was as naive as he had been all those years ago.

It frustrated him to no end. Everyone seemed to have just accepted the things that had changed--the things they’d lost. While he was still praying every day that it could all go back to the way it was.

“I thought I’d see you here,” Mercedes’s voice called.

Ashe whipped around to face her, lowering his bow and offering her a strained smile. “You know I like to keep sharp,” he said, hoping he sounded cheerful instead of disheartened.

The lace of her headdress fluttered behind her as she walked into the training room, a bow on her own back. “I thought we might train together.” She gestured to Ashe’s handiwork on the target across the way. “But you don’t seem to need my help.”

Ashe flushed at the words, sheepishly rubbing the back of his neck. “W-well, I’m happy to help you, if you need anything.”

She raised her eyebrows at him, pulling out her own bow. “Happy to help, huh?” she said, a teasing tone to her voice.

Ashe felt himself flush even hotter at being misinterpreted. He’d made the same mistake with the Professor a few weeks before. “I-I don’t mean that--”

Mercedes laughed, her voice high and sweet like bells. “Don’t worry, Ashe, I know! I’m just pulling your leg.” She nudged her shoulder with his, then placed an arrow in her bow. “You don’t blush as much as you used to, yknow.”

Ashe furrowed his brow as Mercedes took her shot. Was that true? Was that a bad thing? How much had he blushed before?

Mercedes seemed to realize he was conflicted, because she smiled up at him and said, “I only mean you’re not as nervous as you used to be. In fact, you’re very composed these days.”

Ashe nodded, crossing his arms over his chest as Mercedes took another shot. Her aim wasn’t nearly as true as his, but it was improving. He remembered when she could barely manage to hit the target at all. “R-remember to change your angle when you’re too far away,” he advised, taking a few steps back so she had more room to work with her bow.

She grinned at the advice and did as he said, scurrying back so she could aim high into the air. Her arrow arced through the air and hit the target much closer to the bullseye than before. “Oh! Thank you, Ashe, that was so helpful!”

“Ah, I’m just glad it worked!” he laughed at her praise, but her smile faltered a little. Ashe furrowed his brow. “What’s wrong?”

Mercedes looked away, her face falling. “You just… remind me of him.”

Ashe’s lips trembled. He lowered his head, his chin hitting his collar. Of course he already knew who she was talking about. It was so rare that anyone mentioned him anymore. “How… How so?”

“Well…” Mercedes sighed and set her bow down before hopping up to sit on one of the tables. “He was just such a good teacher. He was always so patient and sincere. I felt like I could learn anything if he were teaching it!”

Ashe leaned his hip against the table too. He did remember that. He closed his eyes and saw Dedue there as if it hadn’t been years since he last saw him. Dedue as tall and stoic as ever, as brave and unflinching--and yet careful, gentle. “He taught me to cook Duscur food,” Ashe whispered.

“Really? He taught me about Duscur’s mythology,” Mercedes laughed.

Ashe wished he could laugh too. But just thinking about Dedue brought tears to his eyes. He was racked with guilt that ached in his gut. He remembered that night… the ball… the Goddess Tower… He remembered the cool night air against his tear-stained cheeks as he asked the Goddess to let them stay together, forever, to let them fight side by side.

“Ashe?”

Ashe glanced up at Mercedes, his eyesight blurry. “Oh!” he gasped, reaching up to rub at the tears that had gathered in his eyes. “I-I’m sorry, Mercedes--”

“Don’t apologize,” she whispered. Mercedes opened her arms, and Ashe’s sadness suddenly crushed him with its weight. He rushed forward and wrapped his arms around her waist, hid his face against her shoulder. “Aw, Ashe, it’s all right.”

He didn’t think it was all right. He sobbed weakly against her shoulder, his tears staining her blouse, and her hand gently brushed through his hair. It wasn’t all right. He’d promised to be there with Dedue, always, to fight for him and with him. How could he break his promise? How could he fail Dedue so horribly?

“I know you miss him,” Mercedes hummed, laying her cheek against the top of his head. “We all do.”

But some bitter voice in the back of Ashe’s head said, Not Dimitri .

He didn’t say it out loud, only buried his face deeper against Mercedes’s shoulder. How could he think something like that? Dimitri was their king now, and more than that, a trusted ally.

A friend.

Soon, the tears subsided, and Mercedes took her leave. “Remember Ashe, if you need anything--anything at all--we’re all here for you.”

Ashe nodded and smiled and squeezed her hand and watched her disappear through the door. But the ache in his gut didn’t go away. In fact, it only hurt more. What could ever make this loss feel better? What could ever dull this pain?

He leaned heavily against the table, his eyes still sore from crying. He’d given up on talking to Dimitri, but maybe he’d been too hasty. He was so afraid… afraid Dedue wouldn’t be there. That Dimitri really didn’t miss him. And he was scared that the bitterness in his head would take over when he saw Dimitri again, that he’d say something he shouldn’t.

He closed his eyes and leaned all the way down, so his forehead rested against the cool wood. Dedue, he knew, wouldn’t hesitate. He always spoke so little, but he spoke so plainly. He didn’t dance around difficult topics. He said what he meant.

He was brave.

 


 

He started over. Inching closer day by day. It didn’t matter that he was scared of ghosts, or that Ingrid had warned him to steer clear of Dimitri for his own safety, or that he was terrified he’d make things worse.

He just wanted to know. He wanted to see. He thought maybe if he just came close enough, he would be able to talk to Dimitri, the way he used to.

He remembered fondly how he used to be so scared of addressing their prince inappropriately. How he’d bow and nod and offer to take care of anything he needed. Dimitri could never understand. Ashe respected him. He wanted to show him how much he admired him, how grateful he was to be in the presence of royalty.

Now…

It all seemed so hollow.

His footsteps echoed in the silent cathedral. All around him, people had their heads bowed in prayer, but he kept his chin high. He remembered Dedue used to do that. No matter who sneered at him, no matter how little he thought of himself… Just standing at Dimitri’s side made him proud.

So Ashe made it to Dimitri’s side, too close for Ingrid to sweep in, and tried to think of Dedue. He looked up, studying Dimitri’s expression. The darkness surrounding him was so complete. Ashe felt overwhelmed by it, his hands trembling as he clasped them together. He didn’t know what to say, now that he was here. He looked away again, his throat tight with tears he refused to shed.

He wasn’t foolish enough to think Dedue’s ghost would just… be there. He’d hoped he could talk to Dimitri, pull Dedue forward from within the darkness. Maybe hear more about what happened to him. Maybe hearing Dimitri talk about Dedue--hearing Dimitri miss him… Maybe that would be enough to bring him back. Even just a little.

“What do you want?”

Dimitri’s voice was so raspy and bitter that it sent fear chilling down Ashe’s spine. He jolted in surprise and looked up again. Dimitri’s gaze was still trained on the organ, the darkness beneath his eyes like a bruise. Ashe didn’t know what to say. How could he admit what he wanted? He was suddenly ashamed.

“I…”

“Don’t waste my time,” Dimitri sneered, crossing his arms over his chest and looking up at the hole in the ceiling. “Leave me be.”

Ashe trembled, but he didn’t leave. “I-I want to ask--”

“I don’t care for idle chatter.”

Ashe felt his fear turning into something else. That something set on fire in his stomach. Say what you mean , Ashe thought. “I want to ask about Dedue,” he snapped.

Dimitri seemed to freeze. His eye squinted for a brief moment and then he looked down, and said, “Don’t say his name.”

The fire burst inside of him. How… how could Dimitri say that? Was it too hard? Was it too much to bear? To hear the name of the man that saved his life--the man that gave everything, everything for him?

“No,” Ashe breathed, and Dimitri looked at him in shock. “No! I won’t stop saying it. Dedue. Dedue! Dedue Molinaro! He gave everything for you! The least you could do is say his name!”

Ashe gasped as Dimitri’s fist curled in the front of his shirt. It was so easy for Dimitri to pull him up into the air, his feet leaving the ground. He scrambled to hold onto Dimitri’s forearm, but his glare didn't waver. He wasn’t a child. He wasn’t scared. Ghosts were just ghosts.

They were just gone.

“I’m not wasting my time with you,” Dimitri snarled.

Ashe just gritted his teeth and said, “I lost my parents when I was a kid. I saw their ghosts everywhere. B-but I had two siblings to take care of. I couldn’t let them down. They needed me! I was just a child, and I had to be there for them. But you’re not a child. You’re our king! We need you!”

“If you’re unhappy with how I lead, then leave,” Dimitri said. Then he threw Ashe back to the floor.

Ashe stumbled unsteadily on his feet, but he didn’t say a word. He felt tears burning his eyes. It hurt so much. It ached. Dedue wasn’t even a ghost in Dimitri’s head. Not the real Dedue. The real Dedue wouldn’t stand for this, wouldn’t stand to let Dimitri fall apart this way.

He let out a tiny sob and angrily wiped his tears. He rushed past Ingrid who tried to reach out for him, he rushed out of the chapel, away from the shattered glass and rubbled organ, away from the Goddess Tower that rose high above, watching over them all. Empty.

 


 

Ashe felt like a different person. So much had changed. He was bigger now, and stronger, hopefully a little wiser.

He took to each battle easier than he used to. Even there in Ailell, with the heat of lava scorching his lungs, he didn’t waver. Everywhere the Professor asked him to go, he went, running with his bow firmly in his hands. He remembered his first real battle, facing off against bandits in Zanado. His hands had trembled so hard, he dropped an arrow, almost got a sword to the face for his distraction--if not for the clang of armor as Dedue easily reflected the blow.

The memory almost made him pause--Dedue’s hair, normally so tight against his skull, loose against his forehead. The concern in his steely eyes as he looked over his shoulder and asked, Are you all right?

But Ashe didn’t pause. He skidded to a stop on the craggy ground and took the shot the Professor had ordered. A wyvern rider screamed in surprise, falling to his death in the boiling lava. Ashe didn’t stay to watch, a sick feeling in his stomach as he turned to his next target. There wasn’t any time to hesitate. Reinforcements would come if they didn’t get this over with as soon as possible.

But he did stop.

A few feet ahead, two cavaliers raced towards Felix, who seemed to be nursing a wound in his side. He raised his sword, but the sickness in Ashe’s stomach only worsened. There was no way he could fend off both of them--Felix was strong, but not that strong.

His heart wouldn’t stop pounding, so hard and fast that it hurt Ashe’s ribcage. There was no question what to do. The Professor had ordered him to aim elsewhere, but it didn’t matter. He raised his bow and took one shot, then two, into the back of one of the cavaliers. “Behind you!” he shouted, barely audible over the din of battle.

But Felix seemed to hear him, whipping around just before the second enemy could get the jump on him. He slashed hard, and with a cry of pain, the soldier fell from his horse. Felix turned to Ashe, eyes wide, but Ashe didn’t hear if he said thank you.

He didn’t have time anyway. The battle was raging on, and he ran into the frey, determined to save anyone else who needed help. No one else would fall. None of his friends. None of their allies. No one.

It wasn’t until hours later, as they sat side by side in the wagon heading back to Garreg Mach, that Felix whispered, “You ignored the Professor’s orders.”

Ashe winced. They’d won--with few casualties--but he knew he’d get chewed out for it once they got back to their base. “I’m sorry,” he muttered.

Felix went silent, and Ashe did too. Around them, most everyone had fallen asleep. Ingrid and Annette and Mercedes curled up on the floor, Sylvain trying to keep his head off the Professor’s shoulder. But Ashe couldn’t sleep. He looked out the back of the covered wagon, watching the navy blue sky twinkle. He couldn’t help but remember that night, so long ago. He always remembered it, when everything was quiet.

It’d been so innocent, hadn’t it? Taking Dedue’s hand, dragging him to the Goddess Tower. He wondered what Dedue had thought of it. Had he thought Ashe was a silly kid? He was so much smaller than Dedue, and younger too. Maybe he’d just been humoring him.

But even so, it was kind. To humor him. Dedue had always been so kind.

“Thank you,” Felix said suddenly, and Ashe whipped around to stare at him. He was pretty sure he’d never heard Felix thank anyone. Felix’s lips twitched, but he didn’t look at Ashe. “What?” he snapped.

Ashe shook his head slowly and looked away again. “Nothing…”

Felix sniffed and settled back against the wall of the wagon, as if he were preparing to go to bed himself. But his amber eyes remained wide open, staring hard at the other wall. “I’m not stupid enough to think I would have been fine without your assistance.”

Ashe blinked up at him. He’d always admired Felix. He was a bit of a jerk (maybe a lot of a jerk), but he wasn’t a liar. He was straightforward. He said what he meant.

“I… Anyone would have done it,” Ashe whispered.

Felix rolled his eyes. “Not anyone.”

Ashe opened his mouth, ready to defend all of their classmates. They would--each and every one of them--throw themselves in harm’s way to save their loved ones.

But he closed his mouth without a word. They would sacrifice themselves. He knew that. But he hadn’t sacrificed himself. He would, he knew, if it meant saving someone. But that wasn’t what he wanted to do.

He wanted to be like Dedue. He wanted to protect his friends. He wished he could see him one last time, even if it were just to tell him not to make a martyr of himself. Even if it were just to cup his face in his hands and tell him, Don’t leave me.

But he couldn’t.

And Dimitri couldn’t bring him back either.

And mourning him couldn’t bring him back, and neither would his tears. No matter how he longed. No matter how he sobbed, no matter how he begged the Goddess, his hands clasped above his head as he buried his face in his bedsheets, knees bruised from kneeling.

But that didn’t mean Dedue was gone. He was still there, in Ashe’s memories, in his heart. And if Dedue weren’t there, the wall they’d relied on for so long, then Ashe could be there. Ashe could be an arrow to rain from above, Ashe could protect them all.

He looked back out at the night sky. The moon was so bright. He hoped Dedue would be proud of him.

 


 

The march to Myrddin was long and hard on Ashe’s ankles. Each day seemed a little longer than the last. The mountains that hugged their caravan on one side made the ground rocky. The river on their other side made the ground wet and thick under his boots. Everyone seemed to be having a hard time.

But even so, he chose to walk beside the horses whenever he could, determined to build up muscle. Only Annette complained now, pouting at him from where she sat inside the wagon. “Ashe, you’ve gotta save energy!”

He smiled and waved off her concern. “I’ll be fine,” he panted. “Myrddin isn’t too far now.”

She looked helplessly at Sylvain atop his steed who just shrugged. “Ashe is stubborn when he wants to be.”

Ashe nearly preened under the comment. It wasn’t necessarily praise, he guessed. But it was reassuring nonetheless. He remembered back in school… He wouldn’t have described himself as necessarily timid, but he’d been so easy to sway. If the rest of the class decided on something he didn’t agree with, he’d just nod and let them have their way. What was the point in arguing with those you love?

It made him a little bitter deep down. When Christophe died, he’d shamefully thought, The Church wouldn’t execute him for no reason…

When Lonato died, he thought, Maybe the Goddess decided this must happen.

He didn’t think that as much anymore. Maybe the Goddess had decided that. Maybe the Church did have its reasons for killing his brother… But why did it matter? He loved them all the same. He wished he’d been able to tell them that. When they were still alive.

Ashe looked up, at the back of Dimitri’s head. He rode his horse far ahead of the caravan, only the Professor’s horse riding a few yards behind. So what if Dimitri was their king? His march on Enbarr was foolish, and they all knew it. Faerghus still needed them all.

He wondered what Dedue would think of this march into enemy territory. Was it worth it? Taking back this bridge when all around them they were surrounded by enemies?

But as he simmered over the question, night fell, and he reluctantly let Annette help him into the wagon. They all fell asleep in a heap, taking turns keeping watch. Only Dimitri stayed wide awake all through the night, staring up at the sky.

They started off again in the morning, and this time when Ashe offered to walk, Sylvain refused and tugged him up onto the horse in front of him. The rock of the horse between his legs and pressure of Sylvain behind him was comforting at least. Sylvain held the reigns on either side of his waist as Ashe pet the hair of the horse that carried them along.

“What’s gotten into you?” Sylvain asked suddenly behind him.

Ashe glanced up over his shoulder. Sylvain had always been a strange case. He could never tell whether he was being sincere or teasing, but this time at least he seemed more sincere. His chocolate brown eyes were warm and gentle. Ashe sighed and looked back ahead, back at Dimitri and the Professor, and further where they could see the Great Bridge of Myrddin slowly coming into view. They’d be in battle soon. It was probably best that they saved their breath and energy.

But he knew Sylvain would roll his eyes if he said that. Instead he whispered, “What do you mean?”

A lot had gotten into him. So many thoughts and ideas and semblances of dreams.

Sylvain sighed, and Ashe could feel his chest move against his back. “You just seem different these days, yknow. Quieter.”

“More mature?” Ashe asked, unable to help the hint of hope in his voice. He wanted to be more mature. He wanted to prove to someone that he’d grown.

Sylvain chuckled. “Yeah, I guess you could say that… Hmm…” Sylvain’s hands seemed to tighten on the reigns of the horse. “I, uh, heard you chewed out Dimitri the other day.”

Ashe felt his whole face burn hot with shame. It seemed like everyone had heard about that outburst, a month or so ago now. “Kind of…”

“Hey, nothing to feel bad about. I know you just said what’s been on everyone’s mind,” Sylvain said. “I’m kind of surprised you’re the one who spoke up first.”

Ashe shrugged. He hadn’t meant to be. He hadn’t wanted to be. But…

“Dedue…” he whispered. “Dedue would have done it. I know, he was always… he was always reverent of Dimitri, but he didn’t let him get away with shit either.”

Sylvain laughed suddenly, and Ashe felt his arms squeeze around him. “Goddess, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you curse!”

Ashe smiled a little, solemnly. He was kind of glad that Sylvain said nothing about him mentioning Dedue. They would be in battle soon, and Ashe wanted his head to be clear. Goddess… it had been so long since they heard the news of his death… And yet just thinking about him was still enough to bring painful tears to Ashe’s eyes.

Blinking them back, he looked over his shoulder at Sylvain and said, “This battle is going to be fucking exhausting.”

Sylvain burst out laughing, completely cackling, and Ashe couldn’t hide his own giggle. Somehow it became contagious, until he heard the other soldiers chuckling and Mercedes in the wagon giggling. Soon everyone around them had started to laugh hysterically, not even sure why they were laughing. Ashe was grateful for it, even though more than once Gilbert gave them all a look that said, Are you out of your minds?

Yes, maybe they were. But it felt good to laugh again. Somehow, Ashe just knew… no matter how foolish and reckless this battle might be, it wouldn’t end in tragedy.

At least he thought so until they finally made it to their destination.

Ferdinand and Lorenz were guardians of the bridge. Just the sight of them made Ashe’s stomach turn sour. No one had told him they would be facing their once were friends. He remembered them fondly, how Ferdinand acted so much like a prince, and how Lorenz was noble to the point of being obnoxious.

But now they stared across the bridge with a coldness, a bitterness, in their eyes. Five years of war.

Everything had changed.

Ashe decided it was better not to think as the battle began and waged on. He just did as he was told. He took every point the Professor ordered him to. He’d always had an especially long range, even Professor Manuela and Hanneman had described him as a deadeye, so he stayed to the back where he could pick off soldiers with ease. Wyvern riders with their heavy axes, pegasus riders with their long lances. It was easy if he just closed his heart and fought emotionlessly.

All around him the carnage carried on. He spotted Sylvain, his Hero’s Relic glowing red as he thrust it through foe after foe. He saw Annette, casting spell after deadly spell atop her steed. Even Flayn, her dancer’s anklets tinkling and covered in blood as she raced from person to person, helping them stand despite their wounds and encouraging them to continue fighting.

He saw the bodies that littered the ground. Exposed to the raging wind and rain that began to fall, their blood pooling beneath their bodies. This was what it meant to be at war.

Ashe stayed as safe as he could on the back lines as they marched across the bridge, but nothing prepared them for the reinforcements that snuck behind them. “Pincer movement!” the Professor shouted, her voice strident over the din of battle.

Ashe barely heard her, but he whipped around at the sound to see heavily armored units marching across the battlefield. His eyes went wide with horror as he looked back and forth to see where his other allies were. No, no, none of them were near. At least they’re safe , he thought, but the fear made his stomach churn.

With no one else near, he was the only target.

He raised his bow and took shot after shot, but each arrow glanced off impenetrable armor. “Ashe!” he heard the Professor scream. “Get out of there!”

There were three near him, blocking any route of escape as they rushed at him. He could run back, but even if he were more agile, there was nothing but carnage awaiting him. He scrambled to grab an axe hanging at his hip, but it looked pitiful compared to their huge battle axes. Even so, he stood his ground as one of them finally came in range to attack.

Gritting his teeth, he dodged one blow and swung his own axe. It dented the armor of his attacker, but the soldier only grinned, raising his axe high. It smashed into Ashe’s arm hard, and Ashe swore he felt the shatter of bone. He screamed through his teeth, hitting the ground hard.

He was going to throw up. His head was spinning. The pain was everywhere. “Ashe!” he heard someone scream, but he couldn’t tell who, he didn’t recognize that voice, he didn’t recognize anything.

Where was he? He felt the stone under his fingers, and he dazedly turned to look behind him. Another soldier had arrived beside the first, and they rose their axe for the killing blow. It wouldn’t take much--Ashe was too vulnerable to handle another hit.

It was a kind of panic Ashe had never really felt before. A sure kind of panic. He was going to die. There was no way to prevent it. And yet he didn’t want to. He wanted to fight. He wanted to scream, to crawl away as best he could, to kick and bite and fight .

But all he could manage was raising his good arm over his eyes so he didn’t have to see the blow that would kill him.

Clang!

The sound echoed across the bridge, deafening, the sound of metal glancing off metal. It was too hollow to be swords meeting in battle, too loud to be far away. Ashe opened his eyes slowly, lowered his arm slowly. That sound, it was from the armor of a fortress knight, he knew that much. But they didn’t have any fortress knights on their side--they hadn’t since…

Dedue.

Ashe stared in disbelief as the knight before him shoved his foe back a few steps just from the force of the blow. The man pulled out his own axe and let out a war cry that was familiar to Ashe. He raced forward and spun to smash his axe into his enemy’s armor. It cut through easily, and blood splattered across the cobblestone before the enemy wobbled and hit the ground, dead.

But Ashe barely saw any of it. All he saw was his savior, standing straight and looking over his shoulder at him.

“Dedue!” Dimitri shouted from across the bridge. He shoved his way through the battle, his blue eye wide. “Dedue, how--how are you--”

The man looked at Dimitri, eyes steely and determined. “My apologies for the late arrival, Your Highness. We can talk later. For now, allow me to join your army.”

Dimitri stared in disbelief, then shut his mouth in a grim line and nodded. “Later.”

He rushed back into battle, leaving Ashe alone with… With Dedue.

He couldn’t handle the shock. How was it possible? So many questions ran through his mind, but they all froze when Dedue turned to face him completely. So much had changed. His hair was longer. His face was harder, covered in scars.

Ashe wanted to cry. He wanted to throw himself into Dedue’s arms and just sob for hours, for days, for every moment he spent mourning the ghost that stood before him--solid now. And breathing.

But Dedue reached for his hand, and Ashe took it, allowed Dedue to pull him to his feet. His injured arm hung limp at his side, the pain still debilitating. But he ignored it, gasping through gritted teeth, “How are you--”

“Later,” Dedue said, just as he had to Dimitri. “Mercedes is nearby. Find her.”

Ashe shook his head--he wanted to talk to him. He wanted to stay by him.

But he knew he was useless without both arms in working condition, and only Mercedes’s magic would put him back together enough to fight. He nodded, his eyes full of tears. “Later,” he said, and then took off on a dash to find Mercedes.

 


 

But later didn’t happen right away.

The Great Bridge Coup, as the battle came to be called, ended with more than a few casualties, most piercing of all the deaths of Lorenz and Ferdinand. Everyone seemed more solemn than before, but there was just no time to mourn friendships shattered. Their next battle would be at Gronder Field. Years ago, they’d all fought there as friends. Years ago, they’d all laughed and danced afterwards.

Now they would face their old classmates as foes. All of them. This time there would be no celebrations.

There was just no time for talking.

Everyone scurried around the monastery, making preparations, day in and day out. The greenhouse which had once been full of flowers was now only for growing food. The fishing hole was nearly empty of the glistening scales that used to occupy it. The dining hall always bulged with soldiers eating what might be their last meal. The training grounds echoed with the clanging of swords and battle cries.

Even the cathedral was fuller than usual. Dimitri stood, as always, staring at the wreckage of the organ, while still others milled about, heads bowed in constant prayer. What would befall them? What would happen? When would this accursed war finally end, and would they be the ones who died to end it?

Ashe’s arm still ached, despite Mercedes and Professor Manuela both working tirelessly to heal it. He couldn’t shoot as well as before, so the Professor had taken to teaching him swords, axes, even a little magic. Anything to make him useful.

He didn’t mind it. He wanted to be useful. But he couldn’t… He just couldn’t…

He couldn’t stop thinking about Dedue.

Of course Dedue stood by Dimitri’s side the moment he could, and Ashe understood that, truly he did. Dedue had given his life for Dimitri--Dedue had thrown his life away for Dimitri, and though it made Ashe so bitter that he couldn’t breathe, he understood. Dimitri deserved the explanations first, deserved to see his friend standing alive and well before him.

But there was no time for Ashe to take him in as well. As the days turned to weeks, and the month came to a close--the march to Gronder encroaching upon them--Ashe lost hope of getting his chance of reunion. Maybe… maybe after the war. Maybe then they could talk. Maybe then they could touch, and Ashe could really apologize for everything he’d failed to do.

He couldn’t help it though. The night before they were set to march, he couldn’t get the Goddess Tower out of his mind. He thought about it over and over, as he lay crippled in bed, trying to ignore the pain from his arm. Maybe… he could just go to the top one more time. Make another wish, even though he’d be alone. The Goddess had granted his first, though it had taken so very long to do so. He should at least thank her.

So he snuck out of his room, arm in its makeshift sling, and made the trek all the way to the Goddess Tower.

It used to be that he was afraid of walking around the monastery alone at night. He remembered it fondly. Every shadow was surely a ghost. He even screamed at Marianne sneaking up on him once. But now, even though the monastery was still mostly in ruins, it didn’t scare him. Shadows weren’t ghosts--people were.

He snuck through the cathedral, breathing a sigh of relief that even Dimitri had taken to his quarters, and made his way out the side door, to the tower that rose high above them all. He’d once thought it was almost as if the Goddess herself stood beside the cathedral, looking down on them with her benevolent smile.

The door was unlocked, but that didn’t surprise Ashe. No one bothered to quarter off rooms anymore. The monastery was a military base now, not just a sacred place of worship. So he thought nothing of it as he circled the stairs to reach the top, his eyelids heavy with exhaustion. He just wanted to make one prayer. Then he could go back to his room and sleep.

But his eyes shot wide open as he finally reached the top and saw Dedue standing there, looking out the window.

He must have gasped, because Dedue jolted and looked at Ashe. Their eyes met, and it was as if a thick blanket had fallen around them. Suddenly the cold tower felt warm, and Ashe’s throat felt tight. He wanted to cry. No, he wanted to smile. No, no, he wanted to hug Dedue, or shove him, or scream or laugh.

He did none of those things.

Dedue nodded in greeting, and Ashe walked slowly forward to stand at his side, looking over the crumbled monastery. For a long while, neither of them said anything. All of the questions Ashe had wanted to ask before, They almost seemed foolish now. What did it matter how Dedue had survived? He was here. That was what mattered.

“We march on Gronder tomorrow,” Dedue whispered suddenly, breaking the spell of silence that had wrapped around Ashe’s throat.

Ashe nodded solemnly. “It’s just like… before.”

Dedue nodded as well. They went quiet again, but to Ashe’s surprise, Dedue broke the silence once more. “We’ll be facing the Empire, but… the Alliance might attack as well.”

It was almost a sure thing. Though they’d sent message after message to the Alliance, begging assistance, somehow each message was ignored. Ashe had a sneaking suspicion they’d been intercepted--Claude had no reason to ignore their pleas for help. They would be stronger together.

But nonetheless, Dimitri’s bloodlust would dictate Claude’s forces their enemies, just as much as the Empire.

“We should focus on… On Edelgard’s forces,” he whispered.

“Agreed.”

This time as the silence fell, Ashe couldn’t stand it. It was crushing, aching. It made his shoulder and arm ache too. He looked at Dedue, his eyes and nose burning as he held back tears. “What happened to you?” he choked.

Dedue’s gaze turned so, so sad. Ashe couldn’t fight back the tear that dripped down his cheek as Dedue closed his eyes and sighed. “I was rescued by men of Duscur--”

“I know that,” Ashe whispered. “But you were missing for five years. Five years , Dedue.” His voice felt like little more than breath, it was so thin and achy from the urge to cry. “What happened?”

Dedue opened his eyes again, staring down at the monastery through the window. The walls that had once stood so tall and proud were now nothing but rubble. “We were… we had to live in hiding. If the Empire were to discover I was still alive, they would kill me, and all of my brethren. We lived on the run, fended off countless attacks.”

Dedue was trembling. Ashe’s eyes went wide at the sight. Dedue was their wall. The steadiest of them all, his hands so firm and strong. And yet now he was trembling.

Five years.

Everything had changed.

Ashe reached out to touch his arm, and Dedue froze before melting into his touch. Dedue turned to him, his eyes so bright. Ashe wondered if it were tears making them shine that way. He studied the scars on his face, and it brought tears to his own eyes. How many attacks? How many scars? Were there more on his shoulders? His arms? His back? How close to death had he come, over and over, in those five years on the run?

“I should have been there,” Ashe choked.

Dedue wrenched his arm out of his grasp, and Ashe gasped, more tears falling down his face. “No,” Dedue whispered, stepping back from him and somehow curling in on himself. “No, I… I’m glad you weren’t. That experience… It would have changed you.”

Ashe let out a bitter laugh, empty of any humor. “Mourning you changed me,” he admitted.

This time when Dedue’s gaze met his own, he knew it was tears blurring those blue-green eyes. Because one of them dripped down his cheek.

Dedue had never cried in front of Ashe before. Even now he didn’t. He didn’t move to wipe the tear away, but he blinked back the rest, standing straighter. As if he couldn’t stand to let Ashe see his vulnerability, like a parent to a child.

But Ashe wasn’t a child anymore. He wondered if Dedue knew that. He wondered what Dedue saw in him. Did he see that he was bigger now, taller? That he was stronger, and more resilient? Did he see the man he’d become?

Was he proud?

He was too afraid to ask any of that.

“You… have grown,” Dedue admitted, his voice barely a breath. “But I am not surprised. I always knew…”

Ashe sniffled hard. Somehow this was better than Dedue being proud of him. He wiped at his teary eyes with the heel of his hand and asked, “Can I hug you?”

Dedue’s eyes widened, but then his brows furrowed and he smiled. Ashe nearly sobbed at the sight. So long had he waited just to see that smile again. That fond, tired thing, so rare and so beautiful, like a rose growing in the midst of a battlefield.

He opened his arms, and Ashe threw himself into them, sobbing loudly into Dedue’s chest. “I missed you,” he sobbed. “I missed you so much! I thought about you every day--every single day. I-I even yelled at Dimitri!”

Dedue held Ashe so tight and close. His hand cupped the back of Ashe’s head, stroking the hair there. His other soothed down his back. His palms were so big and firm, his chest rising and falling against Ashe’s face was so warm. “So I heard.”

Ashe couldn’t help laughing a little at that, the sound wet and weak from his tears. “E-everyone has, I guess…” He pulled back and sniffled hard, looking all the way up at Dedue. It wasn’t so far to look anymore. “I… The Goddess heard us,” he whispered. “Do you remember?”

Dedue smiled and nodded. “I never forgot.” His hand moved to cup Ashe’s cheek, brushing his hair from his eyes. “Ashe… I thought of you as well. Every day.”

Ashe blinked at him in surprise, a few last tears finding their way to his chin. Dedue’s thumb rubbed a few away. “You did?”

Dedue nodded again, his smile so soft and small. “I hoped you were alive. That your siblings still had their brother.” He sighed. “I thought of our promise. I wanted to come here. I thought… perhaps I’d find you waiting at the top of the stairs.”

Ashe smiled shakily. “W-well… you’re late.”

Dedue’s smile faltered, and suddenly he laughed. Ashe felt warm from head to toe. He’d never heard Dedue laugh. He couldn’t help it then. He put his hands on Dedue’s chest and stood up on tiptoe to press their mouths against each other.

Dedue made a sound of surprise, but before Ashe could pull away, his hand turned to cup the back of his head again, and his other arm tightened around his waist. It was nothing more than a chaste kiss. Maybe it was just a brush of lips. Maybe it was just a thank you, another promise, a kiss of relief, a need to touch and be touched and feel.

But when they parted, Dedue looked down at Ashe with such affection that Ashe knew it wasn’t just any of those things. He reached up and brushed his fingertip along one scar, and then pushed onto his tiptoes to kiss it. Dedue’s breath faltered, and he wrapped his arms both around Ashe. He was trembling again. Ashe pressed his hand against his chest and felt his heartbeat against his palm.

“No matter what,” Ashe whispered. He leaned back to meet Dedue’s eyes. “No matter what happens. No matter what we do. I’ll be there with you. I will always be with you.”

Dedue smiled shakily. Another tear dripped down. Ashe treasured it. “And I with you.”

That night, they left the Goddess Tower hand in hand. And Ashe thought he felt her smile over their heads. He thought he felt her blessing.