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falling as we grow

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    It took Linhardt three thorough rinses to wash away the taste of bile.

    The rest of his Black Eagles cohort chatted merrily beneath a nearby copse of trees, sharpening swords and mending torn clothing as they traded tales of derring-do from the day. Their first real battle as a class, and their first real victory — what a momentous occasion for young warriors of an esteemed military academy. What an honour they had brought to their families, to drench their blades with blood for the first time in the name of Seiros.

    Linhardt wasn’t the only one who had killed a man today. But he was the only one who stumbled to the river and puked.

    The sun had begun its slow descent on a day that he could only pray he might forget, casting a crimson hue upon the land. Almost the same colour as — Goddess, no, stop it. If he thought about that, he might vomit again. He took a deep, shivering breath and splashed his face with the cold river water, hoping it might shock him out of this all-encompassing disgust and horror.

    It didn’t, but he supposed he felt slightly less terrible afterward.

    A sudden weight fell upon his shoulder, and Linhardt nearly jumped out of his skin before he realized it was a hand. A familiar one, at that, warm and calloused and dirty under the fingernails. He turned to the figure at his side and tried his best not to look too pathetic.

    “Sorry, Linhardt!” Caspar said. Linhardt winced at the volume. For such a short boy, Caspar had an exceptionally loud voice. “I didn’t mean to scare you or anything! Just wanted to see if you’re feeling alright.”

    Caspar’s blue eyes were so bright, his smile as broad as ever. Completely unaffected by the events of the day, it seemed. But Linhardt supposed that made sense — after all, Caspar actually wanted to be a soldier. Even if his grades were lacking, he had worked genuinely hard to be here at Garreg Mach. It was his only path toward a prosperous future, his only means of proving himself to a family who saw him as disposable. Replaceable. The second son — when they even granted him the dignity of calling him a son rather than a daughter.

    On the other hand, Linhardt was here because...Goddess above, he didn’t even know anymore. A stupid, naive, 15-year-old version of himself had thought it might be fun, the opportunity to pick through the library and skip lectures to nap before he inevitably took his father’s title, and married some noblewoman he’d never met before, and worked himself to the bone in a position he hated, and had perfect crest-bearing babies doomed to perpetuate the suffocating life cycle of a Hevring. Such an optimist, he was.

    Linhardt shook his head. Too late for regrets. The bandit was already dead, and by his own hands. “I’m fine,” he said. He was decidedly not, but it wasn’t worth troubling Caspar. Not when he seemed so genuinely pleased with the day’s victory.

    Caspar squatted on the ground next to Linhardt, shooting him an uncharacteristically thoughtful look. “You say that, but you kinda don’t sound fine.”

    Of course he couldn’t fool his oldest and dearest friend so easily. “Alright,” Linhardt said, swallowing the embarrassing lump in his throat. “Suppose I’m not. What would you say to me, then?”

    “Well, I’d ask you what’s wrong.” Caspar paused, blinked. “I mean...I’m asking you what’s wrong right now. Will you tell me what’s wrong?”

    You can just say it once, Linhardt nearly snapped, but he held his tongue. “There was just — a lot of blood. That’s all.”

    “Is that really it? I know you’re no good with blood, but you aren’t usually like this…”

    “Okay, fine. And I killed somebody, Caspar.” Linhardt was shaking again, his breath coming in rapid gasps that he couldn’t control. He wrenched Caspar’s hand off his shoulder, unable to stand the feeling of being pitied. “I killed somebody, and so did you, and so did everybody else, and somehow I’m the only one who has a problem with that!”

    Caspar flinched, drew into himself a little, and Linhardt immediately regretted raising his voice. “I’m sorry,” he sputtered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. I just...”

    “It’s okay, Lin,” Caspar said. Always so forgiving. Too forgiving. “I understand. You’re just worked up.”

    Worked up. That was a mild way of putting it.

    “And it’s not just you, you know!” Caspar brightened up, as if having a very good idea. “Bernie was pretty upset, too. She just has a stronger stomach than you, I guess.”

    Linhardt stared back at the water. “Oh,” he said. “I see.” Perhaps it was a bit hasty to assume that everyone else was fine just because they hadn’t had a physical reaction. Shame and guilt pinched his cheeks.

    “So, you’re not alone, okay? We’re all handling it a little different.” Caspar dropped to his bum, scooted closer, hooked an arm around Linhardt. He was more muscular than Linhardt remembered, and it was that, of all things, that finally made him smile a little. He knew that Caspar had been constantly training, and his hard work was beginning to show. “Maybe you should go talk to her when she isn’t holed up in her room. I bet she needs it, even if she won’t say so.”

    Linhardt hummed and allowed himself to sink into Caspar’s side. Though he was shorter, he easily held Linhardt’s weight; it was a familiar routine for them. “I’ll do that,” Linhardt said. “Thank you.” It struck him, not for the first time in his life, that Caspar truly was a kind person to pay such close attention to others’ feelings.

    “Tell you what,” Caspar said, rubbing Linhardt’s arm a little. “If you don’t wanna kill anyone, you don’t have to, okay? You just hang back and heal everyone, and I’ll do the fighting!” Linhardt peered up at his friend through his bangs, saw the fiery glint in his eyes. “I’ll protect you on the battlefield, so you won’t even have to worry about all that!”

    Linhardt couldn’t help but chuckle and snuggle his face into the crook of Caspar’s neck. Caspar’s hand stilled for a moment, and he let out a small gasp, but eventually he relaxed and continued stroking. Linhardt knew deep down that they were getting too old for such close contact — that they weren’t little kids anymore, and people would whisper if they saw such things. But another part of him thought, to hell with everyone else, because Caspar was warm and familiar and safe. He needed that right now.

    “That might work,” Linhardt said after a while, “but what if the Professor splits us up? What if we’re on different areas of the battlefield? You couldn’t fight for me then.”

    “In that case, screw the orders!” Caspar pumped the fist that wasn’t holding Linhardt, earning another small laugh. “I’ll come rushing right over! You’ll see.”

    “You don’t know what you’re saying,” Linhardt said, shaking his head against Caspar’s neck. “But I appreciate the thought regardless.”

    Caspar continued to rant about how he’d punch out every bad guy in sight on the way to his best friend’s side and then totally win the battle single-handed, so the Professor wouldn’t even be mad, just you watch, Lin! In truth, Linhardt was only half-listening, but it didn’t matter. Caspar’s touch, his scent, his warmth all overtook Linhardt’s senses to soothe the anguish of the day; and, eventually, his voice served as a lullaby that gently laid Linhardt down to sleep by the riverside.

***

    To Linhardt’s pleasant surprise, Caspar actually kept his promise.

    From that day forward, Linhardt’s first kill had also been his only one. Caspar kept a watchful eye on him, punching anyone who got too close in the sternum with fists encased in steel, hard enough to shatter bone and collapse lungs. Linhardt always jumped at the distinctive crunch it made, wondered how Caspar could deal with hearing that day in and day out and not go crazy — but it was better than doing the killing himself, so he resisted the urge to complain or panic and instead dutifully patched Caspar back up when the deed was done.

    At first, Linhardt wiped away simple cuts and scrapes and bruises, not unlike what he had done for Caspar when they were children and he had fallen from a tree. The battles weren’t so serious, yet. But as the moons went by there were gashes and broken bones and too-close-for-comfort bumps to the head. Those took longer to heal, required a more precise technique as Linhardt weaved magic through Caspar’s flayed skin like a needle through fabric. 

    The more time Linhardt spent healing Caspar, the more he wondered if perhaps, one day, his abilities wouldn’t be enough. And the more he pondered the limits of his Faith magic, the more he wondered how much agony he could have saved Caspar if he hadn’t been such a pacifistic coward.

    And the more he considered how Caspar’s agony affected him as if it were his own, the more Linhardt realized he was frighteningly in love with this man.

    They were men, now, not boys. Five years had passed, and the stakes were no longer so simple as a boo-boo on the knee that Linhardt could fix with a bandage and a kiss. They were soldiers in a war of their own friend’s creation, and either of them could die at any moment. Caspar had grown stronger and broader and taller, to his delight; Linhardt had really only grown his hair out. And he still hadn’t killed anyone else.

    It was only a matter of time, Linhardt knew, before he would have to kill again. But Caspar doggedly kept to his word, protecting Linhardt by any means necessary — personal injury and direct orders be damned — in exchange for healing afterward with minimal complaining. The Professor had actually praised their synergy, placed them in more battles, for the Goddess’s sake, because they worked so well together. “You’ve grown into good soldiers,” she had said once. “I’m proud of you two.”

    But Linhardt knew he wasn’t a good soldier, not like Caspar. His motives had nothing to do with loyalty to his emperor, or his people, or even House Hevring. He was a selfish fool in love, and he was trying his damndest to keep one particular person alive. That was all.

***

    Caspar kept his promise, until the day he didn’t.

    With a heaving breath, Caspar felled another swordsman, using a battleaxe Linhardt could never dream of wielding. The head was almost comically large compared with Caspar’s height, but he was strong enough now that he could swing it overhead and bring it down upon a foe’s chest, as he just had. It tore through fabric and muscle and finally bone, and the swordsman — whose name Linhardt would never know, now — choked on his own blood as it filled his lungs. Caspar unceremoniously placed a foot on the swordsman’s stomach and wrenched the head of the axe out of his chest, pulling a grisly cocktail of gore out with it. Linhardt turned, breathed deep, before he could watch the heavy fall of their opponent to the ground.

    Caspar apparently noticed Linhardt’s distress, as he clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder — the same comforting gesture he always offered, even five years onward. “Hey,” he said. “It’s them or us.”

    It was becoming a mantra of sorts. Them or us. Linhardt found no comfort in it. Part of him wondered if Caspar actually said it for his own sake. He’d never say so, of course; Caspar vehemently rejected any suggestion that he might regret his path as a soldier. It was the only path he had, after all. The second son, as Caspar would always say with a grimace — free to seek glory in battle if he had the strength, and free to die with little consequence should the worst come to pass.

    Well, little consequence to his family, anyway. It would certainly devastate those who truly knew him. Linhardt had never liked Caspar’s family; they didn’t value him like Linhardt did, not even a fraction as much. He found it downright baffling that anyone could not love Caspar wholeheartedly after seeing his wide, toothy grin even once, but he supposed he did have a biased viewpoint.

    A drop of rain on Linhardt’s nose brought him back to reality, and he released a deep, heavy sigh. “It’s raining,” he said, turning back to Caspar, who was spattered with blood that he could only pray was somebody else’s. “Great. Now we’ll be on a muddy battlefield.”

    Caspar laughed, perhaps with a bit too much force given that they were in hostile territory. “You never look on the bright side, do you?”

    Normally, Linhardt would have responded to Caspar with a quip of his own — but lately, he was just so tired that he couldn’t come up with anything. “I don’t like anything about this,” he said.

    Caspar threw up an arm in exasperation. “Then why the hell are you here, Lin? You know we aren’t keeping you captive.”

    Linhardt closed his eyes, pinched his brow. “You know why, Caspar.”

    “I don’t, actually!”

    He opened his eyes, and the expression on Caspar’s face was one of genuine befuddlement. Linhardt sighed once again. “Then you’re even dumber than I thought you were.”

    Caspar started to object, loudly, but Linhardt completely tuned out his voice and turned to leave instead. Perhaps he could find shelter somewhere along this wooded pathway before the rain came down too hard, and then he could cast healing spells from a distance. It’d be nice if his robes didn’t get soaked.

    He thought he heard Caspar call his name, once or twice, but he didn’t give much thought to it — not until the sound of his jovial friend’s voice became panicked, and he realized too late that Caspar was shouting, “Look out, Lin, FUCK —”

    The next thing Linhardt knew, a sharp, burning pain grazed his bicep.

    He whipped around to see the culprit: a javelin, hurled by an enemy knight, only missing his chest because he had flinched at Caspar’s warning. The knight was clad in heavy armour from head to toe and seemed unphased by his miss. Instead, he raised a much larger lance, aimed directly at Linhardt’s chest once again. 

    Linhardt raised his hands in front of himself, helplessly. He knew it was no use. The lance would pierce his heart, and he would die. The rain made for a rather fitting scene, he thought. If he weren’t such a coward — if he weren’t so goddamn useless in battle —

    He had expected the worst pain of his life. Instead there was a flash of blue, then red.

    The sound of that familiar voice gargling on his own blood would never leave Linhardt’s mind. Not for the rest of his days, he thought. For the lance hadn’t pierced Linhardt. 

    Caspar — brave, noble, stupid Caspar — dangled helplessly on the end of it instead.

    What little warmth had been left in Linhardt’s body completely drained in that moment. He no longer registered the pain of his own wound, either. All he could feel was the cold, piercing rain, now coming down hard, soaking into his bones as the love of his life twitched and choked in front of his eyes. The lance had completely driven through Caspar’s stomach, coming out the other side drenched in deep, thick red. It was a small blessing that Caspar had jumped facing the enemy soldier; at least Linhardt couldn’t see the terror in his eyes.

    The knight snarled and flicked that enormous lance off to one side, tossing Caspar’s body like a ragdoll. He rolled over and over across the muddy terrain before eventually hitting a tree and lying still.

    Still. Caspar. It didn’t feel right. Caspar was always moving, always talking, always doing something. Why was he still? Linhardt’s brain couldn’t comprehend what had happened. It was blurry, fuzzy static. Full of cotton.

    The knight raised his lance again, and Linhardt raised his hands in turn. Not to protect himself. That was useless, he knew. And unlike before, now he had to live, or else Caspar would bleed to death in the muck, and Linhardt could think of no less fitting way for such a bright and beloved person to die.

    No, Caspar would not die today. It made no logical sense. Linhardt could not allow it.

    So he raised his hands to kill.

    He knew the day would come. By the Goddess, he had hoped it wouldn’t — but his rational side knew better, and so his Reason spells were well-honed. His whole body jolted as a ripple of electricity burst forth from his chest and shot out through his flexed fingertips with a crack of thunder.

    The knight may have been well-armoured, but steel was little use against magic, especially not lightning magic. The blast blew a hole through his torso, and his whole body jerked and spasmed with the volts now wreaking havoc on his nervous system. He screamed in all-too-real agony, dropped to his knees, and pitched forward into the mud.

    The hole remained in the knight’s midsection. A pink tube flopped out.

    Linhardt sank to his knees as well and vomited into the wet earth. He heaved until there was nothing left for his stomach to give — there hadn’t been much in the first place but a small helping of flavourless rations — and then he was choking on air, tears streaking his face, jerking forward over and over with his long hair grazing the muck. Stop, he begged no one in particular, please, stop, but despite his pleas, he retched for several moments more — until eventually, his body granted him release, and he sat shaking in the oppressive rain, clutching himself for what little warmth he could find. In moments like this, when he was cold and alone, he would often try to find Caspar...

    Caspar. Caspar. He was still hurt.

    Linhardt stumbled to his feet with significant effort, yanking himself out of the mud with each step, until he finally collapsed again by Caspar’s side and placed two fingers against his throat. Caspar wasn’t dead, thank the Goddess above, but Linhardt could feel that his pulse was weak. Blood freely oozed from the wound in his stomach and swirled into a puddle with the rainwater gathering between the tree’s roots.

    This was why Linhardt had stayed. If anything like this ever happened — a wound that even Caspar could not grin and bear — he was the only one on the Black Eagles Strike Force who he could count on to never, ever give up until it was healed. Even at his own expense.

    Linhardt shut his eyes and let the familiar tingle of Faith magic accumulate in his fingertips. He pressed his hands to Caspar’s torso, and heard a wet, choking gasp in response.

    He poured every bit of magic he had and then more into his hands as the wound began to glow, the Crest of Saint Cethleann gleaming in the air above them. Please, he begged her, if you have a heart, Cethleann, let me save him. He knew it was a lot to ask, after betraying the church — after likely crossing blades with Cethleann herself, though he may never know for sure — but a part of him wanted to believe that she was as forgiving as the legends said. That she would save Caspar’s innocent soul. For despite all the lives he’d taken, Linhardt knew Caspar wasn’t a monster. He was only doing the one thing he knew he could to earn the respect of House Bergliez, to be treated half as well as his older brother.

    It was foolish, Linhardt thought. Caspar would always be a brave and strong and worthy man in his eyes, nothing less — regardless of insignificant things like birth order, or Crests, or body count. In truth, he was twice the man his brother would ever be. But it mattered to Caspar, and so it mattered to Linhardt in turn.

    Linhardt continued to push his Faith magic forward, poured every bit of himself into Caspar’s wound, and he knew he was nearing his limit. There was a reason they’d been told at the academy to only cast their spells so many times; anything more, and a mage was risking serious damage to their body. It just so happened that, at the moment, Linhardt didn’t give much of a shit. 

    So he pushed harder, letting the swirls of white and golden light weave through Caspar’s skin, his muscle, his organs, until Linhardt gasped over and over, and his arms ached so bad with the exertion. A terrible pain shot from his fingers up through his shoulders, and he felt like his veins might explode, and his tendons throbbed and twitched unnaturally —

    Then it was all too much, and Linhardt’s vision spotted with black clouds, and he blacked out in the mud.

***

    When Linhardt awoke, he was warm.

    That was strange. The last he knew, everything had been so cold and damp and horrible. He shot upward, then cried out at the sharp pain in his arms, which he’d used to raise himself.

    “That’s what I thought would happen,” a feminine voice chided — Manuela’s voice. Linhardt focused his vision until the blur of brown and white revealed itself to be an infirmary. He turned to his right to see Manuela frowning sternly, perched atop a stool nearby.

    “What…?” It was a stupid, one-word question, but it was all his brain and his vocal chords could muster in unison.

    “You did this to yourself, you know,” Manuela said, frowning and then blowing a stray hair out of her face. She looked like she hadn’t gotten much sleep, and Linhardt wondered if that had been his own fault. “Have a look at your arms, why don’t you?”

    Linhardt did, and immediately regretted it. His arms appeared emaciated — atrophied, even — the bones and veins and tendons unnervingly visible beneath what little muscle and fat was left. Red scars crept upward from his fingers in heavy, uneven tendrils across his skin. If he weren’t so tired, he might gag at the sight of his own body.

    Linhardt laid back slowly, trying not to aggravate the wounds. “I see,” he said.

    “Do you?” Manuela huffed. “Do you understand now why we mages have limits, Linhardt? You’re lucky we didn’t have to amputate anything, you hear me?!”

    “Loud and clear,” Linhardt said. She really was so loud. Just like…

    “Caspar.” Linhardt shot up again, ignoring the second jolt of pain. “What happened?! Is he…”

    “Alive, yes, thanks to you.” Manuela sighed, then shook her head. “I’d be in a very different mood if that weren’t the case. You completely overdid it, but...yes, he’s safe.” 

    Though he tried, Linhardt couldn’t resist slipping out a tear as his eyes fell shut with emotion. He hoped Manuela wouldn’t notice. “Thank you,” he said.

    “Don’t thank me, kiddo. Thank the Goddess for having mercy on you stupid boys.” Manuela brushed a few crumbs off her lap and stood. “I do want you to take it easy, but there’s no reason why you can’t use your legs. If you want to visit your friend, he’s two wings over from you, to your left when you exit.”

    Linhardt opened his eyes and finally let himself smile. “I’d like nothing more.”

    “Just be careful with those damn arms! You won’t be able to lift anything, you hear? No work for you for at least a month!”

    As if that were such a punishment.

    Manuela took her leave, and Linhardt lingered for a few moments to shake off his drowsiness before finally rising with a groan of exertion. Couldn’t he just lie back down for a moment? Ah, but he wanted to check up on Caspar...but sleep…no, Caspar! He would nap easier once he saw his friend safe and sound, anyway.

    He slumped out of his otherwise empty infirmary wing and strained to move the white curtain aside. Good Goddess, he really had done a number on his arms; moving even light cloth felt akin to lifting a crate.

    When Linhardt reached Caspar’s wing, he hesitated a moment before heading inside. What would he see? Would Caspar be awake? Still out cold? If he was awake, would be be angry? Would he ask Linhardt why he didn’t attack sooner?

    It was rare for Linhardt to feel guilty over...well, anything, really. He was an unapologetic man, yet Caspar’s injury weighed heavily on his shoulders. He shook his head lightly, and with a grunt, pushed the curtains aside.

    A handful of soldiers occupied the beds in this wing, but it didn’t take long for Linhardt’s peripheral vision to pick up a blotch of robin’s egg blue. Caspar lay quietly in the bed at the very end of the wing — asleep, then. That was the only time Caspar was ever quiet.

    Well, that and the moment where he’d nearly died. Linhardt swallowed, pushed down the memory of Caspar bleeding out in the rain, even though it tried to creep back in at the corners of his vision.

    After what felt like an eternity of walking, Linhardt slouched onto the stool beside Caspar’s bed. He sucked in a breath and assessed the situation. Caspar’s expression was tranquil, and he snored lightly with every few breaths. That was a good sign that he wasn’t in pain at the moment. Light bandages were affixed to his cheek and bicep, perhaps scrapes from when he had rolled into the tree.

    Of course, he was far more heavily bandaged across his midsection. His dressings had evidently been changed since the bleeding stopped, but the sheer volume of bandaging indicated just how bad the wound had been, and Linhardt lurched. This would certainly leave a nasty scar, Caspar’s largest one to date, joining the myriad other jagged cuts that littered his skin (along with the two fine, even cuts below his pectorals — the only scars of his that contained a happy memory).

    Linhardt raised his arm, winced at the sting of it, but nothing could deter him from lightly placing the backs of his knuckles on Caspar’s cheek — just to feel him, just to make sure he really was there, alive, and this wasn’t all a wonderful dream that would soon give way to the hell of reality. But he was solid beneath Linhardt’s fingers, and with a charming snort, he stirred and fluttered his eyes open. Ah, he always had been the lighter sleeper.

    As Caspar yawned and adjusted his jaw, Linhardt withdrew his hand, feeling sheepish. That had been brazen, even if Caspar was sleeping and he was overcome with the emotion of seeing him alive. Caspar sluggishly turned his gaze to Linhardt, seemed to take a moment to register who’d woken him — then a grin split his face, so wide Linhardt could see his gums.

    That was Caspar’s smile, all right. Linhardt barely restrained the urge to sob. That was really him.

    “Lin!” Caspar said, his voice a bit slurred, likely from the painkillers he’d been administered, though no less excited. “You’re okay!”

    “What do you mean, I’m okay?” Linhardt said, already glaring at his friend. “You were the one who got stabbed in the gut.”

    “Ch’yeah, well.” Caspar tried to shrug, but grunted with evident discomfort. “It’s not a big deal. I’m good.”

    “It is in fact a very big deal, Caspar!” They had barely started the conversation, and Linhardt already wanted to tear his hair out. “You nearly died! Do you know how horrible that was?!” He felt himself start to shake again, in that way he always did when he saw blood or thought too hard about it. “I saw your…your innards. So before you say…” He honestly lost his train of thought at that point, frozen again by the mental image of Caspar bleeding his life away.

    Caspar raised an arm and Linhardt jumped with surprise when he swiped a thumb just under his eye — until it registered that, oh, he had started crying. He flushed with embarrassment, but also secretly hoped Caspar wouldn’t move his hand from his face. He didn’t.

    “I’m real sorry,” Caspar said. “I know I messed up.” He paused. “But I had to! Or you woulda died, and that’s even worse!”

    “I would strongly argue against that,” Linhardt said. He tried to smile and suppressed a wince when he raised his own arm to place his hand atop Caspar’s.

    Caspar noticed Linhardt’s hand, then, and his whole face dropped, eyes wide. He grabbed it and yanked it toward him, causing Linhardt to cry out with pain.

    “Shit! Sorry!” Caspar dropped Linhardt’s hand as if it had burned him, guilt shining in his eyes. “Lin, what — what happened?!” His gaze traced what he could see of Linhardt’s frail, battered arms until they disappeared beneath the elbow-length sleeves of his hospital gown.

    “Magical overexertion,” Linhardt said simply, trying his best not to alarm Caspar. “It happens if you, ah, cast a spell too many times. And you were quite injured. So.”

    “So it’s my fault.” Caspar sank back into his sheets and stared at the ceiling. “I’m so sorry, Lin. I’m so sorry.”

    “Please,” Linhardt said, shaking his head. “This is a negligible price to pay for your life.”

    Caspar looked back at him with an expression that he couldn’t decipher, half pain and half something else he hadn’t really seen before, not on Caspar’s face. “Is it...permanent?”

    “No, no. I’ll heal up.” He snorted out a laugh. “But I can’t lift anything for at least a month! Woe is me.”

    Caspar smiled again — smaller than usual, but it was relieving to see. “I dunno how you’ll manage.”

    They both smiled at each other, and for a moment, everything felt right again.

    “Hey,” Caspar said, “what happened to the knight? The one that, y’know, stabbed me.”

    “Oh,” Linhardt said, and he tried his best to keep his expression neutral again. “Well, I — I killed him.”

    “Linhardt…oh, Goddess.” Caspar balled his hands into fists against the white sheets. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” 

    “You really do need to stop apologizing,” Linhardt said. 

    “But I didn’t protect you!” Caspar’s voice was back to its usual volume, now, and Linhardt heard mumbles of annoyance from a few other soldiers in the wing. “You fucked up your arms, and you had to kill again even though I promised — I promised —”

    “Caspar, please explain how you failed to protect me when you jumped in front of a lance to save my life?” Linhardt couldn’t help but smile at the absolute fool in front of him. “You’ve done more than enough for me these past few years. It was hard to kill again, and to heal such severe wounds, but for you, it’s…” He sighed. “You think you’re responsible for protecting me, but do you know why I stuck around all these years? Do you know why I stayed on the Strike Force when this war makes me absolutely sick?”

    Caspar didn’t answer. He only placed a hand on Linhardt’s knee, gripping it tight.

    “Because I’m trying to keep you alive. That’s it. That’s the only reason.” He felt his face flush again, and he couldn’t think of anything more to say, and he couldn’t look in Caspar’s eyes, either, because it was all just too much for him right now.

    “Linhardt.” Caspar didn’t say anything else. Just his name, softer than he’d ever heard it before from Caspar’s lips.

    “Don’t tell Edelgard,” Linhardt said with a chuckle.

    “Linhardt,” Caspar said again, uncharacteristically serious. Linhardt finally looked at him and saw that his eyes were gleaming, and his face was red, too. “I.” He paused, gulped, as if internally debating something.

    What he eventually decided to say was, “I love you.”

    And suddenly the pain in Linhardt’s arms wasn’t so bad, and he couldn’t feel the lingering chill in his bones from that torrential rain, and the smell of blood that hung lightly in the air of the infirmary didn’t bother him anymore. Because Caspar loved him, and the warmth of knowing that spread through Linhardt’s veins like a fast-acting drug.

    “I love you too,” Linhardt croaked, and his lower lip wobbled in a rather embarrassing way, so he ducked his head and let his hair fall forward as he clutched at the hand on his knee. “So much.”

    “Yeah,” Caspar said, his voice a bit rough. “I always have.”

    “And I always will,” Linhardt said.

    Caspar turned his hand upward to lace his fingers with Linhardt’s and stroke at his bumpy, magic-induced scars. “Thanks for saving me.”

    “I should be the one saying that,” Linhardt huffed.

    There was no reply for a while, and when Linhardt finally looked up, he realized that Caspar had fallen back asleep. “So quick,” Linhardt mumbled. “Isn’t that supposed to be my thing?”

    When Manuela returned to the infirmary an hour later, she found that Linhardt had crawled onto the bed, curling into Caspar’s bandaged chest with a muscular arm around his shoulder.