Actions

Work Header

up late in the blue half-light

Work Text:

There are large gaps in Dimitri’s memory. He’s lost whole years. He should want to know what once filled those days, but he is still much too afraid to find out. It may be better to leave them as void.

Because of these gaps, there are other portions of his memories that stand out in unnatural clarity, as if they were reflected in the glassy lakes of northern Fódlan. Many of these memories are of his childhood. There are things that he is remembering now that he had not remembered in years.

For example—

When he had been very little, at the age when he was just learning how to sprint and organize his limbs in a less-awkward fashion, the head of the royal guard had brought him up into the front of a crowd of the new squires and knights. He had been made to stand as each of the new squires came up, one by one, to pledge their loyalty and allegiance. He remembers little of the specifics but does remember the confusion—the awe and the terror—at all of these large men bowing to him as if he was something to be feared.

As the years continue, he grows better. He learns that there is a purpose to all this. He is here, performing this act, because he is to be king one day. He learns that it is a rite of passage for the knights in training. He learns that it allows them to identify what they are fighting to protect—the royal line, their families, their homeland. Everything worth being proud of in the world, everything just, everything wonderful.

He ages and learns little phrases to say to them as they stand before him and bow. Marvels at the way that their eyes sparkle as they look to him, wonders if it’s possible for a boy as small and inconsequential as him to have all of this power. Hardens, in his heart, the knowledge that these are the souls that he was born to protect.

 

.

 

The war ends and Dimitri learns that he has been too naive, yet again. In his mind, the image of the end of war had always been accompanied by peace and tranquility. Not immediately, of course, but he had believed it would come eventually, maybe slow like fog on the water.

In the months immediately following the end of the war, Fódlan is in complete turmoil. They come to the quick conclusion, with the pushing of multiple old classmates, that the control of the ruling nobility in this new country needs to be weakened. That there would need to be a newer system of power that focused less on birthright and crests and more on opportunity and voice. Dimitri is in full agreement. This discussion gives him hope.

This discussion is not the problem.

Neither is it unrest at their borders, of their neighbors curious about the stability of their country, testing them with diplomatic requests and troop movements. There are people on his side that are fantastic at the new need for establishing most positive international relations, including King Claude of Almyra.

What makes Dimitri realize is the people. When he walks out into the cities and sees the sprawling numbers of orphans and widows and widowers, when he sees the razed remains of buildings and farmland, the startling number of ghost towns left by refugees as they fled outwards. He stands in the middle of one just outside of Garreg Mach and scans out at the broken windowpanes, wood doors and walls eaten away by rot and moss. He struggles to find a single beautiful thing from before.

He had not realized, prior to this, that a part of him had equated peace with a return to the past. It is hard to reconcile that fact—that they could never go back, and that he could never go back.

In this way, Dimitri spends the end of the war relearning how to live.

Mercedes has lovingly addressed this time as the healing period. She says that it would be important for them to heal their hearts and minds, now that they have a measure of peace. Now that the worst of the fighting is over. It’s time to rebuild and to foster all of the relationships and dreams that they had to put on hold during the war.

Sylvain counters this almost immediately, reminding them that they were growing, not healing. Reminds them that growing is painful. Reminds them about the immediate unrest that had cropped up in the Old Empire lands after Edelgard’s defeat. How there were already nobles rising up to contest Dimitri for the throne, incapable of accepting that they must bow to powers from the Old Kingdom lands. Reminds them about the flocks of Old Alliance lords, how they were already beginning to find ways of rooting themselves into the new Fódlan ruling elite, determined to claim their domains of power in this infant country.

They are both right, of course. Dimitri finds himself in their care as they move forward in defining the new country. Their table is joined by old classmates from the other houses—those that had made it through the war—arguing with his old comrades about taxation rates and borders and crop cultivation and education and relations with other nations.

Felix is also at the table. Felix is very quiet and doesn’t have much to contribute. Felix watches everyone, mostly, like he’s looking for something.

 

.

 

Another example of things Dimitri can still remember—likely one to a series—

A simple memory. It feels nothing more than an image and a feeling of warmth in Dimitri’s chest.

He remembers with stark clarity the way the air warms and thickens around them from the blanket pulled over their heads. It hides from the outside world the dim glow that pulsates from Felix’s hands, the magic that he calls up to illuminate the book propped up on their pillows.

He doesn’t remember anything about the stories specifically. Felix always liked to pull books that Rodrigue said were beyond his understanding, so Dimitri remembers more the way that Felix’s brow pulls into soft ridges as he frowns down at the page and squints through his night blindness to sound out long words. Looking back now, there was always such an innocent way that Felix had turned to him afterward—frustrated—and asked, “Do you know what it means?”

It makes Dimitri wish he could remember the names of the books. He didn’t have answers for Felix at the time but wonders if he may now.

 

.

 

All of Felix’s silence during the transitionary stage—away from the war and into their new political positions—disappears within the first four months. Afterward, it is as if his personality undergoes a shift so drastic and sudden that none of them realizes what’s happening until he is already far beyond reach.

Felix begins to get into a significant number of arguments during council meetings. Dimitri has always known Felix to be indifferent when hearing opinions that he doesn’t like, but never with the degree of open hostility in the way that he begins to talk to some of the other council members—always staring hawkishly at the table while listening to others speak. Any political simpering from one lord to another would be called out immediately. Slight manipulations or suggestions are likewise identified and made ineffective. Any challenges or frustrations directed towards him would be returned twofold.

It does not get better with time. The increasing tension in rooms upon his entrance doesn’t seem to stop him. The volume of his voice and openness of his frustration continues to grow through the weeks, to the point where Felix is barely in the door before someone is making some snide comment towards him and he is retaliating with full force.

Dimitri is ineffective at reclaiming any semblance of order and multiple meetings are derailed to the point of rescheduling. Eventually, Felix seems to reach a point where he gives up, where he simply pushes himself up from the table and leaves the room without any warning.

Outside of these meetings, he is often out on the moors beyond the castle walls, training on his own. Dimitri had asked if there was something unsatisfactory about the castle training grounds that had Felix riding out for an hour instead, but Felix never responded with anything of substance, saying instead that he just didn’t feel like being cooped up in old rooms and fields.

By the end of the first year, Felix becomes increasingly difficult to spot. He spends much of his time outside of the castle in inns and halls within the city. His hours on the moors and in neighboring towns increases. He is impossible to track down during diplomatic meetings and meals and very rarely makes other parties and events—even if he does, he only stays long enough to stare out blankly at all of the well-dressed nobles before turning around and leaving.

“With the way Duke Fraldarius is acting, you’d think he didn’t want the war to end,” one lord says to his neighbor after the adjournment of a council meeting. Though the sound of rustling papers and scraping chairs fills the hall, he is still not quiet enough.

Dimitri does not recall standing up, but suddenly all eyes are on him.

He barely recognizes his own voice, soft and cold, speaking—“How dare you.”

That is the only time that he loses control of his temper to that degree. Dedue tells him afterward that it had been unusual of him, that it had reminded him of Dimitri’s bad days during the war. Dimitri promises him fervently that he’ll never let it happen again. Dedue responds that there’s no need, that it’s part of who he is, and that they don’t think much of it aside from concern that it may affect how the other nobles see him.

The entire exchange is jarring to Dimitri. This is when he realizes—definitively—that something is still very wrong with him and Felix. He stays in his quarters for hours, long enough to miss dinner, to play out every interaction they’ve since the end of the war, to figure out just what it is that he’s missing.

 

.

 

It’s Dedue’s idea. It’s a brilliant idea. He comes up with it after a few months of the hallucinations getting out of hand during council meetings. They’d already learned that Dimitri does the best when he’s well-rested and fed and managing his stress and keeping busy. The voices—the hallucinations—are easier to challenge when this is the case. Dimitri knows this and delegates and sleeps and eats as best as he can.

But council meetings are different, given how formal and long and dull they are. This is where Dedue’s idea comes in.

Felix is chosen as the first to experiment with the idea. He’s selected due to his presence by Dimitri’s side during meetings and events due to his status and the history of their fathers. Secretly, he’s selected because of their hope that giving him a definite job may lessen both his avoidance and the hostility of others towards him.

They practice with hand motions first. This was Annette’s contribution, as she was excited enough by the idea to create a system of hand symbols to indicate number and location. Felix learns it reluctantly and executes it horrendously. It is unsurprising, as Felix isn’t the type to have the patience to hold signals up until Dimitri remembers to check. It turns out to be quite counterintuitive when Felix just ends up batting at Dimitri’s arm, frustrated, until he looks over.

Sneaking doesn’t suit them, so they do it verbally and directly instead.

“Eleven,” he’d say, pulling out the chair to Dimitri’s right side and sitting down with the practiced ease of someone who had been doing it all his life. “Including the butler coming from behind you, on your left side, with tea. Some chatter in the hallway from staff.”

“And the children?”

“No children.”

It’s an exercise of trust, and the sheer effectiveness it is almost terrifying. His confusion drops almost instantaneously. The voices are still there, as they always are, but they are dismissible. Somewhere, somehow, Dimitri’s brain seems to be wired to something in Felix’s voice—if Felix says they’re not there, then it must be so. Of course, the misery and self-loathing of not seeing the same are still there, the utter confusion at how he could manage to experience the world incorrectly, the terror at never being able to discern truth again—

But there is now the presence of a new feeling as well. Dimitri cannot recognize it in its fullness, but he thinks it is a variation of fear.

He thinks it exists in response to the extent of his blind trust in Felix. He cannot fully wrap his mind around the meaning of it all. He could never have realized or accepted, until they began this practice, just how deep the roots ran—and now that he must, he isn’t sure what to make of it all.

 

.

 

Dimitri doesn’t hear the news until two and a half weeks after it happens.

He’s told over breakfast. He is in the middle of chewing a bite of boiled egg when Sylvain walks in, visibly agitated.

“Your Majesty, did they tell you what Felix did?” Sylvain says.

Dimitri has no idea. He can tell that Sylvain is not talking about the time the week prior when Felix had disrupted a council meeting by loudly challenging a baron from Old Alliance territory, especially since Sylvain had been in the room.

He shakes his head. Sylvain sighs again.

“I had a feeling he didn’t run it by you first.”

This is what Felix did:

He went back to Fraldarius territory for the first time in years and refused to go inside the manor. He stood outside on the grounds and declared, loudly, that he would give up his title and position to anyone that could beat him in swordplay. He refused a retinue and camped there on the lawn of his childhood home for several days straight, engaging with others only to test candidates. Reports say he looked like some grim reaper sitting with arms crossed and eyes staring resolutely past everyone who tried to reason with him.

It was only on the second day that he was taken seriously. On the third, he was beaten after an intense, thirty-minute match.

The territory welcomed their new leader—Duchess Amelie Arlette Fraldarius. Funny enough, a close cousin of Felix’s and a bearer of a minor crest of Fraldarius. In terms of a shift of power, it was not the most significant upset that could have taken place.

Dimitri hears this and places this as the reason why the most recent report from Fraldarius, delivered yesterday, was so detailed and thorough. Not that Felix had been awful during his time in the position—but considering he never went in-person, he hadn’t exactly kept a close watch on the needs of the people. Dimitri had received more than a few written complaints from the territory about the complete absence of their previous duke.

In this way, this news actually brings Dimitri a considerable amount of relief. This is likely for the best. He’s always known, in a way, that Felix’s skills and nature weren’t best suited for politics. And given how poorly Felix had been doing, this will likely make things better. Additionally, it had really just been their fathers that had wanted Felix to hold that title. Dimitri supposes there’s no reason to hold themselves to those promises now.

But there’s something about this that makes him sad, nonetheless.

He feels it even more acutely the next time Felix is in the capital—when Dimitri can’t even recognize him from a distance, at the first glance, because Felix has hacked his hair so short that it barely brushes past his ears.

“Again?” Sylvain sighs in response, and Dimitri feels too uprooted to ask what that comment means.

 

.

 

Another—

Felix, teary as he frequently was back then, hands shaking around the three porcelain-blue eggs in his hands. Glenn, sighing down at them, hand in his hair.

“Why did you take them?” Glenn asks, a little exasperated. “Felix, they’re going to die no matter what.”

“You don’t know that!”

“Come on, just throw them out.”

Felix shakes his head and cradles them closer to his chest, as if afraid of Glenn physically snatching them away. “I saw the hawk snatch up their mother and knock them out of the nest, they haven’t cracked yet! Ingrid said they’re still alive!”

“You have no idea of knowing that,” Glenn says. “What makes you think Ingrid knows any better than you?”

“I think we should try to take care of them,” Dimitri remembers saying.

Glenn turns his eyes onto Dimitri and sighs again. “Really, Your Highness. You don’t need to humor my brother. You’re too nice.”

“You’re just mean!” Felix yells, louder.

Dimitri doesn’t think Glenn is mean. Dimitri thinks Glenn is wonderful. He’s sure that Felix feels the same way because he asks about him frequently when Glenn is out of earshot—practically begs for information on what sword forms he had used during training that day, how many people he had bested, how he had done it.

The bird’s eggs are large in Felix’s hands. There are only three of them, but it is already precarious keeping them all in his palms. When Glenn gives up and tells them that he doesn’t care what they do, so long as they don’t expect any help from him, they run off to make a nest.

“I won’t let them die,” he remembers Felix saying, rebelliously, while tearing fistfuls of cotton to pad the inside of the nest. “And then Glenn will be sorry. And then I’ll tell them to peck him until he apologizes. And when he apologizes, I’ll tell him he has to give me his portion of rabbit for the next four days. And then I will forgive him.”

Dimitri does manage to negotiate Felix out of subjecting Glenn to such violent torture but otherwise agrees that they must do everything they can to save those baby birds.

When they die—because, of course, they do—they die silently.

Upon the second month, Dimitri tries to convince Felix to give up, to rationalize with him that it’s possible that Glenn was right. Or that they had killed them, somewhere along the weeks, because they didn’t know how to hatch birds the way their mothers would have. Felix had disagreed, had been upset with Dimitri, had said something hurtful about betrayal and giving up too easily.

Rodrigue overhears. He sits them both down, reasons with them that it’s likely the case that the eggs have died. He eventually convinces Dimitri to test one, poking a tiny hole with a knife to check and see if there is anything worth saving.

Felix had cried as a rancid scent filled the room. He had asked what they did wrong. He wondered aloud how it was possible they didn’t even notice.

 

.

 

Something is smothering Felix, but Dimitri doesn’t know what it is. The fact that he doesn’t know makes him desperate.

Perhaps it’s because he associates the past with happiness. Perhaps there is a part of him that believes he had only ever been happy once and that, unless his world looks the same as it had then, he could never reach that happiness again. That may be the same part, even, that had childishly believed that the end of the war would repair whatever hurts that had existed between him and Felix, and that they could fall into that old friendship once more. It is difficult to admit that this is not the case.

The practice of having Felix beside him during the meetings to do headcounts is helping his outbursts in meetings, but Dimitri can tell that it isn’t enough. Now that he’s seated next to Felix, Dimitri is able to see for himself how badly Felix’s hands shake under the table, the way he digs fingernails into the back of his hands.

He decides to take a gamble. Perhaps it’s the sedentary lifestyle, the back to back meetings over all of the minutiae of running an entire country. Felix had never been raised for that, not in the way that Dimitri had been.

The chance arises—more uprisings from the old nobility in the south, by Enbarr—and it is mentioned that the armies moving south need a commander.

Felix accepts before Dimitri can even offer.

Dimitri is not there to see him off on the day that he leaves. He has just received a new, detailed inventory of grains from Gloucester lands and is in the middle of scanning them with Lorenz in preparation for the winter. Dedue and Lorenz’s efforts of cross-cultivating a newer, hardier strand of grain that can withstand the climate of northernmost Fódlan has failed, and it is essential to secure food for the coming frost. It’s an important meeting, attended by a few ministers of Old Alliance and Kingdom allegiance, and is crucial for the wellbeing and health of thousands of people.

He checks the window periodically to try and catch a glimpse of Felix as he leaves. Unfortunately, the early snow has already frozen over the main road. Felix leaves out of a different gate in the city, straight into the forest. It will be a year before Dimitri gets even a glimpse of him again.

 

.

 

When Felix leaves, Dedue takes up his place. He is quite similar to Felix in his efficiency when doing the headcount, but he is more thorough than Felix ever was. He uses Annette’s hand signals, though, and it does take Dimitri a while to relearn them.

When Dedue is busy, it falls to Ingrid, who is always meticulous and recounts three or so times before giving Dimitri a definitive answer. There is a certain nod that she does when she catches him looking that imbues him with confidence, as he knows it’s not something she gives lightly.

After Ingrid is Ashe. Despite Dimitri’s repeated assurance that he doesn’t mind the rest of the court being made aware of his ongoing hallucinations, as it’s surely inevitable that they notice, Ashe always leans in close and gives the headcount in as discreet a whisper as possible. Dimitri finds it bemusing but acknowledges that he does it from goodwill.

After Ashe is Sylvain, who often makes unnecessary comments about the attractiveness of the women to ease the tension that he must feel in performing this task. Sylvain is typically the last resort, as Annette and Mercedes are rarely in the capital. If they are present, then Sylvain is renegotiated to the bottom.

It does feel warm, knowing that there are that many people who would be willing to take the time out to help him test reality, and it all works. It proves to him that he has good people on his side, who are just as committed to the new country as he is.

Still, it’s not the same.

 

.

 

Another—

His mother. Smiling, kind, the picturesque and most wonderful mother anyone could ask for. Always willing to listen to his troubles, to reassure him, to guide him towards favorable decisions. Bright and lofty, like there isn’t anything in the world that could truly move her—though he tries.

It is something that he remembers learning slowly. That when he smiles more, she does as well. That when he is cheerful and charming, she becomes more energetic. Might even place a hand on his head, regard him sweetly with some fond comment about how well he’s growing up or how he’ll be a fantastic king someday.

In this way, he learned how to endear himself to her. She teaches him that so long as he is kind and bright, people will reciprocate in turn. He had believed that he had seen all sides her and had grown comfortable in this—until El, of course.

Dimitri almost thinks it’s a trick of his eyes when he first sees it. The way that her face flushes at the sight of her daughter, the depth in her eyes.

He hadn’t realized it was an expression that she could make. He had thought that the queen was simply one of those distant adults, the ones that never truly showed their fragility around the younger children. He had thought that he’d come the closest, of all of them.

But it was there in her eyes—in something as simple as the way that she watched El eat, like it was indirectly sustaining her as well.

This is the first time that Dimitri is consciously able to identify love. He remembers thinking how wonderful it is, that for some, all they need to do to be loved is to exist.

 

.

 

Felix has a tendency to report in shorthand. Half of the words in his supply and progress reports to the council look like he starts writing, makes it up to the first vowel, and then trails the rest into a scribble as if assuming he’d given them enough hints.

It makes Dimitri laugh when he sees it. He can picture Felix squinting down and scribbling on sheets of paper, messy and quick, so that he can move on to other things that he’d deem more pressing. Dimitri likes looking at the reports because he feels that, in the moments he spends deciphering those letters, it’s almost as if Felix is there grumbling directly into his ear.

It is not so amusing to any of the other ministers. Especially the newer ones, who sigh that they can’t make any sense of it, make some comments about how it almost feels coded in some new language. Those who aren’t fond of Felix take those moments to get their digs in, though the number of those have decreased as time has passed and their interests have moved elsewhere.

Felix’s personal letters are a little different. The writing is, in comparison, a little smaller. Funny enough, the content reads as a shorter summary of his formal reports—if anything, just slightly paraphrased and with a few more complaints about the weather.

His letters still blend together until they look like a jagged mountain range, but the spaces between them are marginally wider. He writes out words completely and uses full sentences. He signs each one at the end with his initials and seals it with clear wax.

 

.

 

Dimitri had been raised as religious as any noble child in the Old Kingdom but, particularly after the Tragedy, he had not considered himself a very religious man.

That is the nice thing about their new country—with Archbishop Byleth in command of the church, the tight religious hold that had been previously held over the country starts to loosen. Other belief systems begin to flourish without condemnation and threats of suppression from Garreg Mach. Old pagan practices begin to rise slowly at first, and then with a significant boom when Dimitri begins to encourage the practice.

Of those practices, there are a few old traditions that are brought to light. One of them is Yule. It is an ancient harvest festival that focuses on celebrating the earth spirits in gratitude for all that it has provided in the seasons prior, allowing it the rest in the winter before cultivation begins in earnest come springtime. Yuletide, as traditionally celebrated in the north, lasts the three days around the winter solstice and calls for celebrations and a myriad of traditions that span across those days. It becomes popular due to its emphasis on homecoming and family, as these are values that everyone speaks of after the war.

Within the first two years, Yuletide begins to spread throughout the country. By the third, Dimitri agrees to a nationwide celebration.

The first Yule celebration is fairly tentative. Many people had previously celebrated in the privacy of their own homes, too afraid to burn their Yule logs in public or hold their dance circles in fields. With the decision also comes much research. This is something that a few take on with gusto—particularly those that are more inclined to celebration and festivities. They compile a long list of practices in the months prior and burst into motion in the weeks before Yule. Winter flowers and garlands are strung all over Fhirdiad and the scent of spices wafts through the castle for a good week leading up to those days. Candles are placed and lit everywhere with the belief that departed souls of loved ones can harbor in them to take part in festivities.

Dimitri assists in these preparations with some confusion in the first year and with more excitement in future years. It becomes a very bright event in the middle of the winter, particularly with how cold everything tends to grow. He’s bolstered by the excitement that permeates the air, from the children and from his friends, all across all three old territories. Yuletide turns out to be more unifying than the war ever was, and it gives him hope that there are some new, beautiful things that may make hard nights easier.

 

.

 

A standard letter from Felix:

Old Empire troops rallying at Remire. Moving there in dawn. Supplies fine, need more rations. Send flying support. Hot these days.

 

.

 

It’s a strange place to run into Old Gervasius. Dimitri had been wandering the market district of Gautier with Dedue, assessing merchant goods sent overseas from Brigid, when he spots a familiar white beard from the corner of his eye. When he turns, he is surprised by a figure at the blacksmith’s shop who he had—shamefully—assumed passed away many years prior.

Old Gervasius was a man-at-arms that Felix had adored when they were children. He was well known for his long beard, stark white, that he liked to braid and throw over a shoulder to keep out of the way. Dimitri remembers Felix even saying, in the past, that he would do the same once he could grow his facial hair out to that length. He supposes Felix has forgotten this now, as Dimitri has only ever seen him clean-shaven.

“The little prince,” Old Gervasius had grunted when Dimitri approaches him curiously. “Well. The little king now, I suppose.”

Felix had loved Old Gervasius, but Dimitri had been terrified of him. He never told Felix this when they were younger. It was something quiet that unsettled him to his core, the way that Old Gervasius had taught them how to kill so well. He was the only one who managed to make the deed relatively palatable compared to the other palace knights who boasted of the glory of felling enemies in battle, but Dimitri had always been unsettled by the way that he had looked down at the torn dummies on the training grounds afterward.

Though times have changed and Old Gervasius had aged to where his back bends like a bow, his hair is the same. If anything, it is longer than Dimitri remembered.

He promises Dedue that he would only be away for two hours or so and stays longer than he should. There is a lot to catch up on. Dimitri gives him a survey of what his days in the war were like, hears from Old Gervasius that he had been assisting in liberating Galatea and Conand territory before settling in the smithy. He spends his days now repairing old blades and crafting new ones. He still teaches young children in the city on his free days and is quite well-known in the area for his no-nonsense style.

Eventually, the topic turns to Felix—or the “little Fraldarius,” as Old Gervasius had called him then and still calls him now. Dimitri feels something tighten within him when he hears how unapologetically Old Gervasius refers to Felix in comparison to his brother. No one else does that anymore.

“You may be surprised when you see him, he’s not quite so little anymore,” Dimitri says.

Old Gervasius snorts. “The pair of you will forever be babies in my eyes. Little babies with spears and swords too big for their hands, so important with your little titles.” It’s a funny mental image. It makes Dimitri smile. “Why isn’t he with you now?”

The knot in Dimitri’s throat grows. “Felix renounced his title a little over two years back. He has been traveling around the Old Empire, but I believe that he is currently at Hrym. He holds command of a smaller troop to manage insurgency.”

“I see. That’s true, you’re both battle-tested children now.”

Dimitri stays quiet. Old Gervasius wipes his hands on a rag on the table.

“When he returns, bring him. I’d like to see myself just how big little Fraldarius has become.”

“Of course. Though I am uncertain when that will be. He does not seem to like being here.”

Old Gervasius shakes his head. “That’s no good. He needs to come home.”

Dimitri nods. “I would like it if he did,” he says. His voice is so dry that he has to cough halfway through the sentence.

He needs to move on. There are plenty more things to do. Old Gervasius wipes his hands and pushes himself to stand up enough to give Dimitri a shallow, arthritic bow. Dimitri makes promises to come back sometime before the next year, or at minimum to send a message inquiring about his wellbeing.

He is quiet during the ride back, thinking about Old Gervasius’s last words to him—

“You’ll need to keep an eye on him, little king. I’ve seen children like him before, who don’t remember how to come home. They have a tendency to die alone.”

 

.

 

There is something in their relationship that precedes them. It is old blood in their veins, dating back to their fathers and their fathers and their fathers, back to Kyphon and Loog—back even further, to the ancient heroes Fraldarius and Blaiddyd. On good days, it feels like a promise of familiarity in a very big world. This, particularly, is how Dimitri had seen Felix when they were younger—had relished in how nice it is to have someone who is promised to be your closest friend, who was born to love you, and you him, in a bond of duty and genuine compatibility.

And people spoke of them like this for years. Dimitri had been given the notion, from as far back as he can remember, that his life would look a little like this: that he would grow steadily and carefully under the watchful tutelage of his father, that he would learn all the necessary affairs of state, that he would be eased into positions of power and control when his father had felt he was ready to bear the responsibility of their peoples’ lives—that Felix was being trained alongside him on a parallel path. That they would converge and diverge throughout their lives in comfortable loops, serving consistent support for each other as they navigate their awkward teenage years and into adulthood. That they would buffer and help each other, days in and days out, until they were ready to train their successors to live the same way.

But then come the bad days—when their old blood blankets their vision, tight and unforgiving, pulling them down with the other. These are the days that muddy his head, make him question if the arrangement could still possibly stand if neither of them turned out anything like what they were raised to be. If Dimitri lets himself think harder about these days, he would grow miserable at the realization that the only remaining purpose of their predestined fate is to ensure their mutual destruction, proof that they would not be able to live without the other—but worse, a version of the other that doesn’t even exist.

But perhaps it is good that Dimitri does not allow himself this depth of thought. If he did, he may have found himself ruminating on the worst of it all—that Felix’s profound hatred of this arrangement, of their forced connection to each other, surely must extend to a deep hatred of Dimitri himself.

 

.

 

Another—

It’s one of the only memories of their academy years that he still holds. Perhaps it’s because it’s one of a day when the houses, who did typically stay within their groups like little cliques, intermingled during lunch. Dimitri does not remember the food or who he was sitting next to, but he does remember the conversation.

He’s not quite sure how they had broached the topic. Maybe they were talking about differences between the three old countries, comparing practices and traditions.

Somehow, at this time, the practice of the First Frost was raised.

“It is an older practice,” he remembers himself explaining to students from the other houses. “I am not entirely sure when it began. But it is something that all children of Faerghus are made to go through.”

“All noble children,” Annette corrects, shuddering. “Goddess, I don’t want to think about being put through a First Frost...I don’t think I would have made it.”

“It’s something bad?” Claude asks, leaning in from somewhere down the table.

“It’s...” Dimitri begins a thought and then reconsiders.

Felix raises his voice from somewhere by Sylvain. “It’s terrible,” he says.

Others chime in on how bad or acceptable it sounds from its name alone—Ferdinand makes a ridiculous guess that perhaps it’s the first winter ball that Kingdom children are exposed to, which makes almost everyone from Dimitri’s house burst into laughter.

Ingrid is ultimately the one who explains it.

It is a practice that is carried out on babies during their first winter. They’re placed by windows during a snowy night—some leave the windows open, others leave them closed—and they’re left in the room without any heat or light to see if they survive to morning.

Traditionally, it’s meant to serve multiple purposes. Some believe that the practice is meant to tempt death. If death passes on a baby placed so temptingly and easy for the taking, then it’s surely a sign that the baby is meant to live a long and healthy life.

Some treat it as a test that can be leveraged for pride by the rest of the family—a baby that is strong enough to fall deathly ill from the cold and to recover surely has enough fire in their blood to make it through even the worst Faerghus winters, enough to make them a strong and hardy warrior. It is particularly impressive if the baby is born in the winter and lives through their First Frost when they are less than a few months old, as these are the frailest and most delicate babies of them all.

Others believe that it is meant as a way to appease the Goddess. If a baby were to die during the night, then it is the Goddess’s way of accepting a price in place of some sin that the family must have committed. Within this framework, babies that die during the First Frost are only taken unwillingly by the Goddess to ensure that future children are healthy and happy.

“But at the end of the day, it’s all crap,” Sylvain says. “Most of the babies that survive are those with crests. Those without them almost always die. It’s not hard to guess why most noble families kept doing it anyway.”

They go into detail about their own experiences. Perhaps this is another reason why Dimitri recalls this conversation—due to how typical the practice of First Frosts are on noble children in Faerghus, he never even thought to ask Felix about his.

Dimitri does not mind beginning. His was relatively uneventful—given his position and status, the royal family wasn’t willing to chance the life of an heir on a First Frost. He was left in a room with closed windows, cried his way through the entire night, and was retrieved in the morning. He didn’t even get sick.

When it comes around to Felix’s turn, he has to be stopped from leaving the table by Sylvain so they can wheedle the story out of him.

Felix was different. His mother had hated the practice and refused to carry it out on him or Glenn. Rodrigue had not minded at the time, but after the late Duchess Fraldarius had passed away, had decided to pose to his sons if they would want to go through with the tradition. Both of them had agreed, as all of their friends had done so and they did not want to miss out.

Felix and Glenn were closed in the same room of their manor—the sunroom that Felix and Dimitri had often spent their younger years together in—with all seven of its large windows thrown wide open on the night of a fierce snowstorm.

“And then we made it through,” Felix says, and truly refuses to say any more.

But there is a little more to the story. Dimitri gets the full story later on, though he does not recall from who.

He finds out that Felix had agreed to the practice only because he had heard that Dimitri went through it when he was a baby.

Apparently, Felix had stood at one of the windows that whole winter night, squinting out into the darkness, snow caking over his hair as he waited for the sun. The day right after, he had come down with terrible pneumonia that would have taken his life were it not for a team of powerful healers and physicians. His hands had been frostbitten from his grip on the window ledge, and he’d nearly lost a few fingers. He had been four.

It’s one of the first practices that Dimitri outlaws after ascending the throne.

 

.

 

A standard response from Dimitri:

I will dispatch a legion of fliers in your direction, they will be there a day past the arrival of this letter. Of the group is Lord Astor, who is quite well-versed in siege tactics. Should the necessity arise, he would be a valuable asset in strategic meetings.

I’m sorry to hear of the heat. I have received news of warmer weather approaching you from a unique heatwave from the mountains. Do be mindful of drinking water and remind your people to do so as well. Us northerners, in particular, are quite forgetful of this fact. Do you recall during our time at Garreg Mach, the day I nearly passed out from heat because it had escaped my mind to have water? I recall being scolded something fierce by you. Those days feel so incredibly distant now, but when I do look back on them, it is comforting to remember what fun we had.

It is growing colder in Fhirdiad. If negotiations of moving the capital further south do prove fruitful, our experiences of winter shall change drastically. It would be sad to leave the old castle, but Ingrid is quite astute in her assessment that a new country should honor a new capital.

As I pen this letter, I realize that as you have missed the first Yule celebration, it would be wonderful if you were in the city to take part in the second. We begin preparations at the end of the year, and it would be a fine time to return. I do understand the importance of maintaining peace in Old Empire territory, but should you find yourself with a week to spare, we would all be pleased to have you back for the occasion.

 

.

 

Another—

“You have to take better care of him,” he remembers Glenn telling him one day, as he was helping them clean up after training. “Look at him fussing. Goddess, we’ve spoiled him.”

Dimitri had looked out to the side of the field, where Felix was sitting on a rock and watching them from afar, having been scolded out by their instructor upon being discovered. Dimitri knows that it is one of Felix’s biggest frustrations—that he was just young enough to not meet the cutoff for beginning training at the same time as Dimitri, that he had to copy them from a distance until the next year arrived.

Felix props his chin on his hands, tilts his head when he notices them staring, big eyes blinking.

“Felix is actually the one that helps me more, I think,” Dimitri says. He means it.

“You’re not doing him any favors by babying him,” Glenn says, stern now.

This is what Dimitri had always liked best about Glenn—the fact that he doesn’t act like the other boys, who treat him with so much forced respect that it makes Dimitri feel uncomfortable and stiff. Glenn has no qualms about giving Dimitri the same lectures that he gives Felix, albeit with less shouting and name-calling.

Glenn drops the batch of training swords back into the bin and continues, “Sometimes I can’t even tell if it’s you that’s following him or if it’s him that’s following you.”

Dimitri doesn’t understand. Glenn sees this in his eyes.

“All I intend to point out is that you don’t have to humor him. I know that he’s pushy. Goddess, I know he’s pushy.” A small, quirked smile. “But you don’t have to just go along with whatever he’s doing. I’m tired of people just going along with whatever he’s doing. It’s worse if you’re just nice to him. That may hurt him more.”

“Could I hurt him by being nice?” Dimitri asks, alarmed.

“Well, you could. You don’t tend to be honest when you’re being nice, and my brother can be pretty stupid at times. Indulging him won’t do him any favors.”

 

.

 

Dimitri catches Felix’s sleeve as he’s about to walk by.

“I wonder if you’ve been receiving my letters,” he says. “I understand that messages can get lost in the chaos and I understand that you may find yourself with less to say in response to some of my silly babble but I—I do wonder if you are reading them at all.”

Felix’s eyes are fixated at a point behind Dimitri. The air around him is still cold from outside, the snowflakes on his shoulders melting into dark patches. Dimitri knows that he should have given Felix at least a few moments to gather his bearings—perhaps invited him for tea and pursued the topic there—but he is not sure if he could have waited much longer. How long has it been since he’s seen Felix this time? Ten months? Eleven?

Felix inhales and holds it for a few beats.

“I read them,” he finally says. “Keep sending them if you want.” And he moves past Dimitri to change out of his riding clothes.

 

.

 

Four years after the war ends, Dimitri loses another three months.

He does not know the particular reason for why this relapse took place—when he reflects back on it afterward he can admit that it had been stressful in the weeks prior, that there had been a significant amount of travel necessary due to unexpected complications in trade routes between Nuvelle and Albinea from pirate raids—but perhaps it was something about the constant and unending stream of all the visiting dignitaries and the parties and the meetings that made Dimitri feel too sick to eat and much too distracted to sleep.

The worst of it all is that Dimitri would be lying if he says he did not remember anything at all from these lost months. He does remember, but he trusts none of it. He is unsure what parts of it are true—the comments that he must have the documents on Almyran imports scanned by the end of the week or that he has turned into the vilest king that ever lived, the endless negotiations that he would be dragged into about the cost of the standing army in Fhirdiad or what sacrifices are left to give to the haunted dead that he is responsible for hearing out or how dangerous it would be to ignore them at this point, when what little happiness they’ve cobbled together after the war is already so precarious and fleeting—and it is because he is unsure what is true and what is not that he is too afraid to ask.

And they have grown worse. They have grown smarter, seem to know of all of the fail-safes that Dimitri had painstakingly put in place to keep them at bay. They challenge him for being foolish enough to believe in their nonexistence, test his faith in what his friends have told him—his mother, whispering sadly, “And you think that even I would lie to you, love?”

“We are saying this because we care, child, we could never let you be lied to and fooled so easily. It is a mark of how dearly we care, do you see? Is it not your responsibility as king to hold steadfast to the truth?”

“We don’t wish for your unhappiness, you know. The opposite of it. We want there to be peace. This is why you must pay the blood price—there is a blood price, still, it hangs over all of your innocents—will you feign the ignorance that the rest of them hold? Could you turn your back on this, allow the reclaiming and feasting to happen once more, stand by and watch while they all learn of your true nature once more—?”

It is unbearable because he knows they’re right. He knows they’re right because they are doing this out of love and care, but he must sit there and listen as Dedue and Ingrid and Mercedes and Sylvain challenge them. He must provide reassurances to all of his friends while he draws up plans for war in his room when they all leave for the night. He is scared out of his wits that he will lose everything again, but he must be responsible and smile and pacify them for the time being, as it is not their role or their burden to bear and they will come to understand soon enough.

He thinks Felix comes. He thinks he remembers Felix there, sitting in the chair that they usually take when they’ve come to do battle against Dimitri, convinced that they hold the secret to reality. Dimitri thinks he remembers Felix dropping down, arms crossed and staring, and Dimitri thinks he’s angry because he feels that it must be true.

“You don’t believe us again,” he thinks he remembers Felix saying.

“The poor child,” Queen Patricia sighs, “He was always so soft.”

“He’s grown up as well as he can. Life was difficult for him after Glenn passed.”

“You were supposed to take better care of him,” Glenn adds, frustrated. “What in the world did he do to his hair? Why does it look like a child cut it? What happened to him? I thought you knew him better than this?”

“I do,” Dimitri says, hurt.

“Then why can’t you get him to come home?”

“Who are you talking to?” Felix asks.

“Do you think he still loves you?” Glenn pauses for the fun of it, and it’s quite cruel because they already both know the answer. “I don’t think he loves you. I think he did before. But not anymore. He’s come to convince you of your uselessness like the rest of them.”

“True, he likely has no faith in you.”

“Well, you can’t blame him. You haven’t exactly inspired hope, love.”

Dimitri doesn’t want to talk about that. He doesn’t want to think about the years that he’s lost during the war. It is what he wants to avoid the most. He tries to crowd out that conversation, as it is much better when they are talking about nearly anything else.

“You’re ridiculous. You’re the soft one. Losing your mind if you think nobody loves you. Obsessed with the idea, I tell you.”

“We’re the only ones in the room,” Felix snaps. His voice is loud, frustrated.

Dimitri laughs. “Of course we are.”

“Then who are you talking to?”

It is too hard to explain that Felix—as capable and skilled as he is—was not chosen with the gift of hearing the dead, so Dimitri just waves a hand to dismiss the question. This seems to make Felix angrier, which is frightening.

“Oh, he really is going to wrinkle early at this rate,” Rodrigue sighs.

“He’ll look like a little prune.”

It’s a funny mental image, but Dimitri tries not to think about it. “You needn’t force yourself to speak with me, Felix,” he says. He tries to smile to ease Felix’s frustration. This does not seem to work. “I’m fine. I do have plenty of work to get back to, however.”

“I’m not leaving,” Felix snaps.

His head is pounding, is pounding constantly, but it does pause for a moment. The room grows just a little clearer, the ghosts just a little easier to brush aside. Dimitri feels his breath stop.

“You’re staying?”

Felix opens and closes his mouth, makes a complicated expression. Dimitri doesn’t know what it means. He doesn’t know how to read it. He wants to, but it feels like something in his head is blocking him off from fully seeing Felix.

“I’m here, now,” Felix says, finally.

He’s deflecting. Dimitri sits back. He understands.

“Just here to convince me that I have lost my mind. That’s what the others have been doing, too.”

“And you don’t believe them,” Felix says, twisting his mouth.

“I know they do it out of good will,” Dimitri says. He doesn’t want to talk to Felix anymore and hopes he takes the hint.

“And you don’t believe me,” Felix says.

“Has he always been this annoying?”

“Yes. Always,” Glenn groans.

Felix leans in. “You think I lie to you.”

This conversation is beginning to hurt his head.

“Not necessarily—”

“Then you have no faith in me.”

“Felix. That is not what I’m saying.”

“You think I’m stupid, then.”

Felix,” Dimitri snaps, a second away from telling him to shut up.

“Then get these ideas out of your head. I would never lie.” Felix leans back and crosses his arms again and—finally—something in Dimitri’s head clicks back in place and he can understand Felix’s expression. Anguish. “I’ve misunderstood things before. I’ve misunderstood you. But I have never lied to you.” He shakes his head, quick, and mutters, “That’s what you do to me. Not the other way around.”

This is all Dimitri remembers of this conversation. Some of this only makes sense to him after it all ends—when he begins to believe again that ghosts don’t speak, or that even if they did, what they say to him cannot be listened to. He gets there, slowly and painfully, through weeks of controlled diet and rest.

It is this incident that makes him realize there may be more in the future. It’s a terrifying, demoralizing thought, but Dimitri learns that he is not alone. When he speaks with other knights and soldiers from the Old Kingdom that have had similar experiences of voices and sights, they vocalize something that Dimitri has been feeling—that the saddest aspect of the hallucinations is that no one believes them and that it has led them to no longer believe in themselves. That some of them miss believing in the kinder voices, miss hearing any voices at all if it means that they can be close to their loved ones once more. This, Dimitri feels deeply.

He looks back, afterward, and is ashamed that he has to check with others if Felix was actually present during that time. When Dedue confirms it, Dimitri is all the more confused about what Felix means by his words.

 

.

 

Years pass.

Peace is not what Dimitri had ever expected it to look like when he had first ascended the throne. It does not mean an absence of fighting. There are reports coming, monthly, from Felix and other generals, of unrest and uprisings within the country.

But these begin to dwindle upon reaching the fifth year after the end of the war, particularly as the new ruling elite begin to stabilize their power and the people regain a sense of comfort and security. Rebel forces no longer make it as far, especially with garrisons stationed in more turbulent areas. With the diverse skillset of Dimitri’s council members, arts and agriculture and production begin to rise.

There is work that Dimitri realizes he prefers over others. He does not love tasks that involve tracking numbers and minute details and tends to dread meetings where he has to scan and sign off on these budgets. Politics with other countries make him anxious, but he feels more driven to stay present and pay attention. Visits of state are a mix—sometimes the drastic change in environment makes the hallucinations worse, especially with poorer sleep that comes with travel—but he much prefers meeting and getting to know other leaders in-person than via formal letters and reports.

He much prefers work with and related to the citizens. It isn’t something that his father was known for, but Dimitri finds it calming to be out in the city. It was more alarming at the beginning for the people, but as time passes, everyone has since grown accustomed to it. He frequents market districts, visits nearby towns as his health allows him, joins tradespeople in taverns to ask about their business. It is helpful in grounding him, reminds him of a purpose, and reaffirms that he is not merely ruling scrolls and stacks of numbers.

But his favorite work, above all, is related to the children. Particularly the orphans. Perhaps this is because he had been an orphan himself, or because he guilt at being responsible for why there are so many orphans—this thought, though, he is better at combating as the years progress. Dimitri even makes it a habit to tour the nearby orphanages and shelters every month or so, extending his perimeter to visit as many around the country as he can in person within every few years. It is easier, this way, to know what is in need, where people are understaffed, and what children require what accommodations.

The best thing about this frequent practice is that it grants him the honor of watching some of the children grow up. Magdalena, for instance, who had been two when the war ended and who is now bold at seven years, always the first to bolt over when she sees him visiting and demand for him to braid her hair. Five-year-old Paris, who has a tendency to cry whenever Dimitri puts him down for even a moment. Battista—ten, old enough to remember the war and old enough to have nightmares of his parents’ death—who has a tendency to sit next to and lean silently against Dimitri for long stretches at a time. This is work that he does not mind doing and could not imagine himself tiring of.

Felix returns briefly in these years, once every few months. He doesn’t tend to stay for very long. Most times he is only present for three days or so, in the capital to address something in person that he couldn’t do from a distance, before riding back off to the south. He doesn’t ever stay in the castle, and oftentimes Dimitri only hears that he was in the area after he’s left.

Still, it’s not like Dimitri doesn’t hear of him. In fact, Felix begins to cultivate quite a reputation during his time in the south.

They call him the North Star. When Dimitri asks why, he hears a myriad of answers—that Felix is always where he needs to be on the battlefield. That Felix is a staunch advocate for the wellbeing of the townspeople. That all of those under his command have learned to trust him as someone who will always, no matter the task or the difficulty, keep pushing forward.

 

.

 

Despite the initial purpose of their letters being reports from Felix of his progress through the Old Empire, he does not often provide Dimitri with much of anything specific. It’s usually just one line or so of the status of his soldiers and their supply reserves. If Dimitri is lucky, he hears of Felix’s predictions of where they will go next, how difficult the next battle may be, the number of rebel forces they’ve encountered so far, or what he thinks of the landscape and local birds.

This is why Dimitri is surprised when the letters begin to come in with requests for more resources—books, workers, and money. A non-trivial amount of money.

Dimitri, of course, sends him everything he requests for with orders to make haste. The world hasn’t changed enough to where he can’t trust Felix.

Others don’t share his level of faith.

“Your Majesty, it’s not a question of faith,” Lorenz says. The years of exhaustion have creased lines into the sides of his face from the persistent tightness in how he presses his lips together. “Rather, you understand how it may look to the others. If word spreads that Felix alone is not required to draw up budgets and applications as per required—”

Dimitri does send the request in one of his letters to Felix, but he gets nothing in return aside from another list of requests. He supposes Felix is too busy to find the time to draw up a proper budget—which is, in fact, the case—and thinks of other ways to cover for him in the meantime.

 

.

 

Another—as broken and tattered as it feels, he does remember some pieces—

Right after the Tragedy. Their first meeting again, or perhaps their second. In all likelihood, their first meeting was a more formal event of the state, while in their second Felix is grabbing him by the hands and pulling him to an alcove away from the adults.

There are not many visual cues that Dimitri remembers from this memory, but he does remember how red Felix’s eyes are.

“What happened?” he asks.

Dimitri smiles. He digs his fingernails into his palms and tries to find feeling. Felix feels very close physically but very distant, as if from another life. Dimitri remembers scanning him and seeing how clean and well-dressed he looks, how nicely his hair is pulled back to keep it out of his face.

He remembers Glenn. He bites the inside of his mouth.

“Dimitri, what happened? Father won’t tell me—he just says—” Felix continues to talk, but it begins to sound like white noise. Dimitri tries to push through to understand him—he doesn’t know what he would do in a world where he couldn’t understand Felix—but Felix doesn’t stop talking.

“We should go back,” he feels himself saying, almost like someone else has control over his body. “Duke Fraldarius will be looking for you.”

Felix reels back. “You want to go back there?” he asks, dubious. “Dimitri, don’t be silly.”

“They are waiting for us.”

“Maybe you—but they won’t find us for a while yet—look, I’m not daft. You shouldn’t go back in there despite what all of the adults say, you look so stressed. Have you been sleeping?”

No. He has been having nightmares. They’re terrible.

“I’ve been sleeping fine,” Dimitri says.

“Have you?” Felix asks, ever more suspicious. He seems to realize something and then leans forward conspiratorially, grabbing Dimitri’s hands. Felix has always run a high body temperature, but Dimitri still feels himself stiffen when he feels how warm he is. The heat and slight clamminess of them reminds Dimitri of blood. “I won’t tell the adults, if that’s what you’re worried about. You can tell me anything.”

He can’t.

Dimitri tries to smile and squeeze back at Felix’s hands, even though they make him feel nauseous.

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“But there’s...” Felix starts and trails off, searching Dimitri’s face, his eyes wide and lost.

“I’m so sorry about your brother.”

Felix drops his hands. Dimitri clasps them together in case if Felix comes for him again.

“I’m asking about you right now, not Glenn.”

“Oh, yes. I’m sorry.”

“Why are you apologizing? I’m not trying to talk about that. I don’t know anything about you.”

“There’s nothing to know. Everything is fine.”

“How could everything be fine?” Felix asks, something numb in his voice. “Do you take me for an idiot?”

Dimitri thinks he may be clamping down on his hands too hard. They’re starting to shake.

“Of course not.”

“Why are you talking like this? Like you don’t even know me.” Felix is tearing up again, his bottom lip pushing out in the way it usually does before he starts sobbing—but there’s something different this time, too. He’s starting to look angry, and it terrifies Dimitri. “You don’t trust me anymore?”

Dimitri is not sure what he did wrong. He doesn’t know how to calm Felix back down. He tries this—

“Of course I trust you. There’s just nothing to say.”

“You can say what happened!” Felix snaps. He starts to cry in earnest. “I don’t know if you were scared! I don’t know what you saw or what you think about any of it! I don’t know what the adults are saying to you—I don’t know if they’re feeding you the same silliness they’re feeding me about—about how—”

These are all terrible questions. These are all questions that Dimitri cannot process.

He just tries to smile. It doesn’t seem to work.

“Stop doing that! Why are you smiling—aren’t you sad?” Felix’s voice has been raising in pitch for a while now, and it finally reaches the level where Dimitri can hear multiple footsteps hurrying towards them. “You don’t have to pretend for me like you pretend for everyone else! How can I help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong?”

“There’s nothing wrong, Felix.”

“Stop lying to me! I know you’re not fine! You can’t fool me—I know you too well for this. I’m not stupid! I’m not like the rest of them—”

This is the point when Rodrigue finally reaches them, pulls Felix back and begins to scold him. Dimitri doesn’t remember how he left that situation, how he ended up back in his bedroom, but he does remember sitting there on his bed and watching his hands shake, terrified.

 

.

 

Dimitri recognizes the facade that Felix has been wearing for the past few years. It’s Glenn. He has no right to point it out to the others, so he never does. He keeps it to himself, as he’s sure Ingrid and Sylvain do.

He never even tells Felix that he’s actually doing a terrible job. It is not his place to do so, but it is painful to watch. The biting sarcasm and standoffish behavior that Felix is trying to emulate are flimsy at best, laughable at worst. There had always been a degree of cynical acceptance in everything that Glenn did, all up until his moment of death. Glenn had been, at his root, sardonic and unapologetic and brash. He had never learned—or been—otherwise.

But Felix is much too sensitive for that. He has none of Glenn’s playfulness or carelessness. Felix bites like he’s mounting spikes on a wall, for the show of it, to scare and to warn.

Dimitri is not able to guess its full depth, but he does know that Felix does it to hide something. He wonders if Felix is simultaneously building a fortress and looking for answers. He thinks that it is understandable that he chose Glenn for the job, as he always loved Glenn best and as Glenn is no longer around to tease him for it.

 

.

 

The third of the Lone Moon.

The days leading up to it are filled with dread. This doesn’t go away, over the years. When he was younger he had hoped—prayed desperately—that there would be a day that he could look at the date without the bite of horror and loss. As he grows older, he finally begins to understand that it’s an impossible feat.

In the weeks around that day, he barely sleeps at all. This means that the voices of shadows around him spike louder and more convincingly, to the point where even all of the systems put in place by his friends have him doubting.

He doesn’t know if Felix wants to know anymore, but he does write it out every year in a long, long letter. He writes out everything he saw on that day. Some years writing it takes him fully out of commission. The memories are made so stark and tangible, laid out in plain language that anyone could read and make real, that he’s bedridden for days afterward. In other years he can write and read it over, a few times, with a pulsating but manageable wave of loss and regret.

Every year he throws it into the fire. He tends to opt for a shorter letter instead.

I am thinking about you frequently. These nights often feel longer than those in the heart of winter, it often says, or something along those lines. I do hope you are well. If you should grow weary, there is always a bed here for you.

 

.

 

The other lords grow restless about the consistent amount of money flowing into the Old Empire, directly into the hands of General Fraldarius. There are the beginnings of whispers of corruption and favoritism. It is not that Dimitri pretends to not hear it, but rather that it barely registers in comparison to the other concerns that he has brewing at any given moment.

He is caught off guard when, at the next council meeting, he walks in to see Lorenz squinting down through his spectacles at a series of thick papers. Dimitri can tell even from the distance that it is Felix’s handwriting, scrawled into surprisingly meticulous lines of numbers.

Orphanages. He was expanding the number of orphanages in the Old Empire. The supplies were being used for the refurbishing and maintenance of older buildings, in addition to paying local townspeople for supporting the children. Rooms were established where old masters of various crafts would come and teach lessons on smithing and farming and woodworking. General schools are established, attached in side-buildings, to teach reading and arithmetic.

When Dimitri returns to his own quarters that night, there’s a letter waiting for him.

Sorry for the trouble.

Most of the rebels we’ve been fighting are war orphans. This helps them find something better to do than plan for revenge. I’m not killing any more children.

Take care.

The last two words are written neater than the rest. They make Dimitri smile and give him a reason to read the letter over again, a few times.

When he does wonders aloud what made Felix put in the time and effort of compiling such a thorough report and budget, Ingrid is the one that responds.

“I wrote him,” she says, over a spoonful of soup. She blows, light. “I told him you were coming under fire for his impetuousness. He’s not that complicated, Your Majesty.”

 

.

 

A nonstandard letter from Felix:

Supplies fine. No combat likely for the next three weeks. If you’re in the north, check on the manor and Amelie. Thanks.

Dimitri holds the letter in his hands and thinks about how the handwriting is neater than Felix’s other letters. There’s something about it that feels very careful.

He waits until the end of the day to write his response. When he writes, he does as usual—begins the letter with logistical updates, sends information of decisions and changes made in the capital, a brief summary of the ongoings of their friends. He ends with his usual spilling of random thoughts and memories from their past—he understands how inane it must all sound to Felix—but as he has grown used to the habit, the letters now feel insincere without it.

Dimitri does find the occasion to travel up to Fraldarius territory within the next month. Duchess Fraldarius is not there to greet him, as she is traveling to assess for grain stock in the outer villages. It’s fine, as he doesn’t need the guide. His body remembers well enough the halls of the manor. He doesn’t stay long enough to cause a fuss in the staff, reassuring them that he wouldn’t be able to stay for supper and that they needn’t go through the trouble of preparing him anything—and he is true to it, leaving just barely past noon after a final sweep of the grounds.

He writes back to Felix the next day with observations. Knowing that it has been nearly four years since Felix has been back to see his childhood home, Dimitri tries to be as specific and detailed as possible. He encloses with the letter an old crow pin that he found and remembered as having once belonged to Rodrigue. He ends the letter with a question of when Felix would be back to visit the territory himself.

It is silent for a few weeks. At the one-month mark, Dimitri is ready to pull out paper to draft another letter when he is handed a folded paper diamond late one evening.

Felix’s response is concise.

Good to know. Don’t want to go back yet. Know myself too well, I’d just want to burn it all down.

Stay warm.

 

.

 

And the years continue to pass.

Things are growing easier, though never easy. Dimitri is beginning to realize that things will likely never be fully easy in his lifetime, that he will never be able to see a truly peaceful Fódlan. Still, there are some days when he can start to envision what the future for this small country may look like. It makes him feel tired but hopeful.

Felix darts in and out of his view in these years but is always present in his mind. The pile of letters that Dimitri keeps from him has grown over the years, and in the fifth year of being apart he moves them all over into a larger chest. This, too, will fill in time.

 

.

 

Dimitri finds out, seven years after the war, that Felix has been writing to Ingrid and Sylvain about him this entire time.

For some reason, this throws him in for a massive loop. All thoughts of cooking oil imports fly straight out of his head.

“It’s not like he writes about you every week,” Sylvain says over tea. He’s sounding a little exasperated, perhaps due to how Dimitri believes it’s been a while since he’s last blinked. “Your Majesty, it’s no big deal, especially not from Felix. I promise.”

Sylvain has a point, but it doesn’t sound like a very good one. “He rarely ever writes back to me,” Dimitri mumbles. “And I do write him nearly every week. I don’t know what to make of it if he’s writing of me to others, but not to me...”

Sylvain stares pointedly at Ingrid. Ingrid shoves a pastry into her mouth and stares back at him. Sylvain sighs.

“You know how he is, with his...well, who knows if it’s pride or ego. His...thing.”

“Perhaps I don’t. He has not been writing to me about it, after all.”

“Are you trying to be funny, Your Majesty?”

Dimitri responds, in a very thin voice, “I think?”

Ingrid shakes her head. “He never writes anything of consequence to me, either,” she says. “He just wants to hear about home. And he wants to make sure that Your Majesty is fine.”

This makes Dimitri quiet down. He can’t blame Felix for that, especially considering his track record.

“It’s hard to fault him for it,” Sylvain adds, confirming his thoughts. “He was quite scared for you during the war. And during that relapse a few years back. Truthfully, I can’t blame him. I think he’s still running on wartime, even.”

Now, this Dimitri doesn’t understand. Ingrid is also looking at Sylvain, quizzically, so he’s clearly not alone.

Sylvain looks between them. “I don’t know, I may be wrong.”

“What do you mean, running on the war?” Ingrid pushes, anyway.

“I mean, I just—” he breaks to wave his hand in the air, opening and closing his mouth a few times as if looking for words, before finally continuing, “He might not know how to let his guard down anymore. How not to be at war, in a way. I’ve heard knights talk about that feeling before.” Sylvain turns his teacup. “But if you think about it like this, then it makes sense why he doesn’t seem to want to come home. Though—I also don’t know about that. I think he’s trying to.”

 

.

 

Another—maybe?

This is one that he isn’t sure if he’s dreamed or if it had actually occurred. It feels as clear as a typical memory, but there is something heavy and unsteady about the way the world looks in it.

Felix is by his side. He is not young anymore. His face is close—likely due to how dark it is in the room—with his chin propped on the palm of his hand, his gaze is unusually serious and open. He is staring right at Dimitri like he’s waiting for something.

There is a dull feeling in his chest. He remembers it alternating between a stabbing pain and a resigned numbness. It makes his fingers tense around Felix’s sleeve.

Felix takes a deep, slow breath.

“It’s fine,” he says. “Do you know that?”

Dimitri has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. The fogginess in his head is not helping. His body is burning up, but the air is freezing.

“I don’t think you do.” Felix scratches the side of his nose and continues to speak evenly, as if he was appraising a sword. “I’ll lay it out for you. We’ll be fine. Once we find the archbishop again, the church will stabilize. We’ll win the war, easy, with the professor here. They may end up ruling—who knows at this point. But even if they don’t, we’ll figure it out. There are a ton of people that would make decent rulers, it’s just a question of getting the rest of Fódlan on board. And the rest of us will be there to make sure they don’t screw it up. So it’ll be fine.”

There’s a pause. Dimitri hears shuffling as Felix shifts so that his chin is propped up right at the edge of Dimitri’s pillow.

“Can you hear me?” he asks. “You look awake.”

Dimitri tries to nod but he doesn’t have the strength for it. He blinks once instead, slow. Felix nods.

“You understand what I’m saying, right?”

Dimitri blinks again. Through his muddled head, there’s something that makes him want to reach out.

“Good.” Felix shifts back but keeps his arm on the bed. Dimitri channels all of his remaining energy into grasping at his sleeve in an instinctual bid to keep him from leaving. “The others don’t get it. They think it has to be you just because you happen to be born into it, but it doesn’t.”

Dimitri wants to pull him close again. He’s too tired to focus on Felix’s face, to see what he’s thinking. The exhaustion of even listening to Felix makes him close his eye, settles and weighs him down into the bed.

“As long as you know that it’s up to you now. Staying alive because you think you have to is a stupid reason to live, anyway,” Felix says. He sounds very matter-of-fact and it makes Dimitri glance at him again. When Felix blinks, the moonlight reflects glassy off his eyes. “Stop looking at me.”

Dimitri obeys. It grows quiet and dark. A void swells against his sides. It almost feels as if it’s digging underneath him, dropping him somewhere safer.

“I know you’re tired. You don’t have to wake up if you don’t want to. I’ll cover for you.”

 

.

 

Riding back to the manor, aiming to be there on 18th EM. Can you make it?

 

.

 

Dimitri doesn’t realize until the moment he holds this letter in his hands that he has been waiting for this for a long, long time.

He rides out and meets Felix at the manor around noon on the 18th of the Ethereal Moon. Neither of them brings people in an unspoken agreement—Dimitri leaves his retinue back in the town and Felix travels alone.

Felix is already dismounted by the time Dimitri draws near, pulling off his gloves and shoving them to the bottom of a pack as the staff makes to lead off his horse. He turns from giving them orders.

The years have changed Felix, but it’s nothing obvious with his appearance. His hair is tied high, back to its old length of where it just sweeps against his shoulders. His expression is as deliberately steady as ever, jaw tense, but his eyes catch the light now. When he turns to Dimitri, Felix actually looks right at him.

“It’s been a while,” he says, as the first proper greeting he’s given Dimitri in years.

Hearing it knocks the wind out of Dimitri all at once. The hope that he had been nursing on the ride over begins to swell.

“It’s been a while,” he says in return.

Felix glances at the front doors, through the stained-glass paneling for a few minutes, before turning and making for the gardens on the grounds behind the manor. Dimitri takes it as a sign that they will be pacing themselves and follows him.

They start on a cobbled path. This is all different from before—the gardens had been well-kept during their childhood, but much of it was lost in the war. Duchess Fraldarius has clearly conducted noticeable work in the years since. The trellises of ivy and white roses that Dimitri remembers has since been replaced by a series of honeysuckle bushes and a large squash patch. He finds it quite quaint and wonders if perhaps he should dabble in some gardening as well.

Felix had been leading them forward but turns slightly. “Do you want to talk?”

“Oh. Yes, that would be nice." A pause. It takes Dimitri a moment to remember how conversations usually begin. "It’s been so long since I’ve seen you. How have you been?”

“Busy, mostly.”

“I can imagine. I have received many reports about the south and how fortunate the people are to have you there. They say that insurgency has dwindled significantly in the past few years.”

Felix nods. “Things are quieter, now. Marginally.”

“I see. That is good news.”

Felix is still walking forward, using his hand to brush aside the branches of a willow hanging over the path and Dimitri follows him, thinking of what to fill the space with. He decides to ask about something that he has been wondering for a while now.

“There is something that I recall you saying to me. It was quite a few years ago so you may not remember now, but I never managed to figure out if you had actually said it or if I dreamt it.”

Felix doesn’t turn but makes a small nod for him to continue. Dimitri tries to walk a little faster in an attempt to match his speed, but Felix maintains a good distance between them.

“I recall you at my bedside when I was recovering from the wound you gave me. You said something along the lines of how I don’t have to wake up if I don’t want to.”

Felix stops and looks up. They’ve reached the base of a dogwood—there had once been many in the gardens outside of the manor, as they were particularly abundant in northern Fódlan, but whole groves were either burned down during the war or cut for firewood in the years afterward. Duchess Fraldarius replanted a line of them five years ago in a neat row and they’ve grown tall enough, now, to where they begin to curve over the path.

Dimitri stops a few paces away. Felix’s face turns as he examines the length of one bough.

“I would not be surprised if it was a dream—”

“It wasn’t.”

Felix continues down the path.

“You didn’t see yourself. It got so bad.”

“I know.” Dimitri wonders how to phrase his next words as deliberately and effectively as possible—but gives up. “I am grateful to you.”

Felix snorts. “Are you thanking me for stabbing you?”

“I’m apologizing for cornering you,” Dimitri replies, honestly. Felix grows quiet. “Knowing you, I imagine you must have felt very lost to have resorted to such drastic measures. I know I did not give you many options.”

“No,” Felix says.

Though the years of reflection have led Dimitri to suspect it, hearing it still hurts. “I suppose I am thanking you, then. For staying.” He remembers the relapse a few years back. “Even when you were far away.”

 

.

 

The parlor. It is empty, as Duchess Fraldarius had requested the staff to leave them to their own devices.

The dark wood floors are splashed with soft colors from the stained-glass windows. It is warm from the smoldering fireplace in the corner and there is not much dust in the air.

Everything looks very lived-in—tracks of water by the staff’s door where someone had likely been wringing a rag, some smudges on the windowpane from its last cleaning. The carpet, which had once been a deep, wine red during their childhoods, has since been replaced with one that is lush green. Felix stares at it for a noticeable amount of time before he seems to figure out the difference.

He makes his way around the room and eventually drifts over to a tabletop decorated with a porcelain menagerie. Dimitri recognizes it as being Felix’s old collection. It’s a very common gift for noble children but Felix always said he never found them much fun, opting instead to drag Dimitri outside to climb the dogwoods or watch the older children train. Dimitri supposes the set does make for decent decoration.

Felix’s eyes dart over each of them. “She’s missing one. Weren’t there thirteen in all?”

“I recall thirteen as well,” Dimitri says, joining him to count again. “Sixteen, including the three that we broke.”

“We threw those away a long time ago,” Felix says. He scans them a few more times before he nods. “The red wyvern.”

“Oh. The one that my father gifted you?”

“Yes. The one that Glenn kept stealing it because it was the biggest.” Dimitri scans the set again, marveling at how they look so similar and yet so different from what he remembers. In his mind, he remembers the animals being bigger. Felix continues, without malice, “She better not have lost it.”

“Perhaps she’s displayed it somewhere else.”

They look but don’t find it in this room. They move on to the next.

 

.

 

The dining room. Wood paneling all along the walls—Felix makes a passing comment about how he hasn’t remembered this much wood in his childhood home.

“Everything’s marble in the south. I don’t know where they hell they collected that much marble from.”

“Old Empire buildings tend to be much older,” Dimitri says. “I recall Lady Dorothea saying something about how marble and stone help keep the rooms cooler during the summer months.”

“It does,” Felix says. They’re making their way down the long dining table. There are tall windows in this room as well, looking out onto the overcast sky smothering the treetops. The dim lighting casts the room in a smothered gray. It is not entirely unpleasant, as it makes the silver look quite beautiful. “It’s awful in the rainy months. Too easy to slip and crack your head open on stairs.”

Dimitri wonders if Felix meant that comment as a joke, but even then he feels he must make sure.

“Have you, Felix?”

A snort. “Please.”

Dimitri sighs in relief.

“Are the rainy seasons bearable? Many of rainy weeks land around the summertime or just before, don’t they?”

“No season is bearable down there. The humidity is terrible.”

“I have noticed in the few times I’ve gone. I’ve only made it as far as Merceus in the past two or so years, but I do try to contain that travel to the winter months.”

Felix concedes that Merceus is the worst—something about the lack of ocean breeze and conflicting pockets of air.

 

.

 

The sunroom. Always maintained as a cross between a sunroom and a sitting room, as it often never got enough light to warrant being called a sunroom. The red porcelain wyvern is there—sitting on one of the bookshelves as a bookend. This room looks largely the same as before, even down to the angle of the furniture. Dimitri feels a substantial sense of deja vu upon opening the door and stepping in, and Felix makes it a few steps before stopping and turning slowly.

“She’s kept much of the artwork,” Dimitri comments.

Felix’s grandfather had been an enthusiastic art collector. He was incredibly appreciative of Morfis and Almyran art, and the walls are hung with large tapestries of mountain villages sewn into fabric with thread so tiny it always hurt Dimitri’s eyes to look at it. There are even a few black sculptures of twisted spires that Felix’s grandfather always claimed came from a country much further away.

All of the indoor lighting in the room is provided by the multitude of imported mosaic lamps, all of them patterned with different colors. That, combined with the multiple stained-glass windows throughout the home, reminds Dimitri of the scattered rainbows that used to decorate the floors of the manor on sunnier days.

It’s quite unusual for Old Kingdom families to own so many lovely things, but Felix’s grandfather had been well-known for not being so easily bothered. A pity that the sun doesn’t put them on display today.

The settees are all reupholstered. It seems that all of the old red was replaced with the same forest green of the parlor carpet. Felix seems to like it—he runs his hands along it and watches the way the fabric lightens under his touch depending on the direction of his movements. He repeats this motion a few times.

“I owe you an apology.”

It’s so sudden that Dimitri is at quite a loss for words. He’s unsure what Felix has done to the furniture that warrants an apology.

“Oh, sorry?” he asks, confused.

“No, I’m sorry,” Felix snaps. “That’s the whole point.”

Dimitri closes his mouth.

Felix turns enough so Dimitri can see his gaze, at an angle, scanning the gray curtains. He seems to pause, with a breath, before speaking.

“I said cruel things to you, many years ago. Called you cruel things. They were unwarranted. I'm sorry.”

Whatever he had been expecting, it had not been that. It takes Dimitri a minute to register what he’s referring to—but once he does, he sighs.

“Felix, all of that is long—”

“I thought you might say that.” He turns back around and starts walking again. “We don’t have to talk about it. I just wanted to say it anyway.”

 

.

 

The halls and the staircase up to the second floor all look the same with the exception of the coloring. It does give it a completely different effect. Before, the manor had felt very old and regal. The green brings out a heartier hue from the wood, to where it nearly feels like a completely different house.

“She’s changed quite a bit,” Dimitri says. The sun has since broken through the cloud cover and beams in, clear, through a large window by the staircase.

Felix nods. He’s looking out the window and scanning the grounds, the hills in the distance, his eyes catching into gold. “It’s still close.”

 

.

 

They stand outside of Felix’s old bedroom. Felix has had his hand on the doorknob for a few moments and stares intensely at it. He seems to be thinking about something.

“Duchess Fraldarius mentioned that she had rearranged your old room. It likely does not look the same as before.”

Felix opens the door and inhales, sharp. It’s been turned into a library—lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a table in the corner where Felix’s bed had once been. There are standing lamps placed at each of the corners and it gives everything a rather inviting glow. The smell of old books in the air is incredibly thick, the density of it likely effective at fooling newcomers into believing that this room has always served this purpose.

After the initial shock passes, Felix snorts.

Dimitri looks in time to catch him smile. He barely catches himself before he walks into the doorjamb. It has been far too many years since Dimitri has been in Felix’s presence for this long, let alone see him smile.

“It looks better like this,” Felix says.

There’s something about that statement that makes Dimitri feel incredibly sad. He’s wondering how to phrase what he’s thinking, that just because the duchess is living in the manor now doesn’t make it any less of Felix’s childhood, when Felix cuts off his thoughts.

“Don’t overthink it,” he says. “It’s good that she’s putting it to use. It would be worse if it stayed an empty room.”

 

.

 

Rodrigue’s and Glenn’s old rooms are converted into guest rooms. The curtains and fireplaces are the same as before, but much of the furniture is new. Paintings and decorations are changed just enough to where the rooms have a different air from before. Duchess Fraldarius keeps her bedroom at the end of the hall, which had been the old guest room. Dimitri thinks that this isn’t a coincidence and is incredibly grateful to the duchess for the decision.

Felix stands for longer at the entryway of these rooms. At Glenn’s, he stares into the corner by the fireplace that had previously been covered by a thick, black rug. It has since been replaced by a smaller, rounder white rug. It's a little change that feels very great. Dimitri had watched Felix get thrown onto that rug multiple times throughout the years while play-fighting with Glenn. Glenn had gotten into big trouble, once, for accidentally spraining Felix’s pinky fingers while playing too rough. Dimitri remembers this incident with astonishing clarity, as he had been terrified.

It is also the site of when Glenn had scolded them for trying to save three little bird eggs. Felix walks over to the fireplace and turns around, his expression twisted into something Dimitri recognizes.

Dimitri feels his heart rate pick up. Felix is closing off, again.

“I never thought I’d come back.”

“...It is your hom—”

“Was,” Felix cuts in. His expression twists further and he turns away to stare at the back corner of the room.

Dimitri wants to speak, but he isn’t sure how much would be too much. He’s already quite overwhelmed by the fact that Felix is letting him walk through the manor by his side. If he was to be honest with his feelings, he would have already said too much about the immense peace of mind he feels at just being in Felix’s presence again, about how he also misses Glenn and Rodrigue with his own parents and everyone else they’ve lost nearly every day, about how he’s been trying for the past few years after the war to even the space between them if that’s what it would take for Felix to stay—but Dimitri is also wise enough now to know that if he says any number of these things, Felix may leave and truly never come back.

It is easy to hate himself in these moments, when he finds himself so paralyzed. It is these moments that foster the feeling of wanting to return to what they had before, when times were easier and it wasn’t nearly this difficult to speak. Still, if the past few years have taught Dimitri anything, it is that it’s okay that they can’t go back.

Dimitri watches his brow furrow and he’s unsure if Felix is angry or sad or frustrated or all of those things at once. It’s a shock when the first tear spills over.

“Do you ever wonder what happened?” Felix asks, suddenly.

“I...don't know what you mean by—” Dimitri had anticipated that Felix may ask, but he still feels considerable dread saying it aloud. “Do you mean what had happened the day of the Tragedy?”

Felix shakes his head.

“More than that. All of it.”

“I’m not sure what you’re referring to.”

He is looking progressively more frustrated, though Dimitri feels that it is not directed towards him.

“I’m talking about—ugh. All of it.”

He stops and sits down on that new rug, presses one palm hard against the fabric while bringing up the other one to knead at his brow. Dimitri hesitates before joining him.

“I don’t understand what happened. It’s easy to be in it, while it was happening. That wasn’t hard. But when I look back at it all...”

Felix speaks incredibly slow. It takes him a substantial amount of time to speak. Dimitri has never heard him like this before, like he was searching for each word. He waits for Felix to continue, but he doesn’t. It grows quiet.

In time, Felix turns to him. His face is pulled so tight, shoulders so tense, but there are the beginnings of honest, open confusion.

“I don’t know where the rest of you—I don’t know where the rest of you learned how to live this way.” He digs his fingers into the carpet and when he speaks next, he is very quiet. “The others don’t seem...I don’t know how they’re not terrified all the time.”

This resonates with something deep in Dimitri’s heart. It makes him sigh.

“Are they? I think many of them are still quite afraid, though they may not say it aloud.”

Felix nods, curt. “Like we’re all still waiting for the next big tragedy.”

Dimitri nods as well and begins to fidget, drawing circles on the carpet with a finger. “I don’t think you’re being irrational in that thought, Felix, if that is your concern. I do find myself feeling very stuck on those feelings as well when they arise.”

Felix shakes his head. “How do you go home, then?” he asks.

Dimitri does not have an answer for this. He does not think he could ever vocalize one—if there is an answer at all, then it must be too deeply twisted in his response to that night that Felix had offered him the way out, framed as murder.

“I’ve been thinking about that. Why it’s so hard for me. But I can’t figure it out.” Felix keeps his eyes pinned on the wall opposite. It makes Dimitri feel like he’s staring straight through him. “Sylvain and Ingrid have been writing to me about all the beautiful things that are happening in the capital. Don’t know if they told you. They’ve been telling me about Yuletide for the past few years. They told me about the time you all made gingerbread together.”

That is not a happy story—the corner of the kitchen they had attempted to use needed to be thoroughly replaced on incredibly short notice to ensure that all of the Yule pies could still be baked in time for the feast the next day—but when Felix tells it, it sounds like a happy story.

“You write me about it, too,” Felix says, and his fingers on the carpet twitch.

Dimitri wants to reach out, but he holds back. “We do miss you desperately, Felix.”

Felix shakes his head. His fingers go back to rubbing on his brow. A tear streaks down and he catches it, swiping it off his chin.

“I don’t understand you all. I don’t know how you do it.”

“How we go home?”

“That.” He exhales deep and long, closes his eyes. “And how you’ve all...how you have these beautiful things, now.”

Dimitri has spent years feeling like he’s grown completely unmoored and distant from who Felix has become, but his words are finally beginning to click. This is language that Dimitri understands—and he can begin to see, now, the ways in which they are opposites—to where Felix’s fear of holding preciousness is driven by the same, frantic energy that makes Dimitri desperate to hoard them.

“I didn’t realize you wanted any,” Dimitri says, honestly.

Felix gives a half-laugh. “Who doesn’t want that?” he asks, his voice hoarse. “Isn’t it a very human thing to want? I don’t think I’m asking for too much.”

He’s not. Rather, if Dimitri had known earlier that this is what it would have taken to keep Felix close, he would have done everything differently. He would have insisted for Felix to stay, so that he could be present during the first Yule. He would have loved to show Felix the first time Paris began to walk, taken him through the first Spring Festival in the arts district within the capital, sat with him that winter it snowed so fierce that everything was canceled and all of their old friends gathered in front of the hearth in the Great Hall to share stories through the night.

Or so he is immediately pulled to do. But perhaps this is better—or rather—perhaps this was the only way.

“But it’s not a question of if. It’s when,” Felix mutters, eyebrows pulling together even further. “I know terrible things are going to happen. They always seem to happen when I’m not looking or when I’m not ready. But it’s been seven years and no more big tragedies have happened. So I think—at least recently—it’s easier to believe that everything may be okay. Does that not scare you?”

“That...that everything may be okay?”

“That if—if something were to happen, that we wouldn’t be ready. And that it would all be gone again and then I’d really never believe in—”

Felix doesn’t finish the sentence. He turns his face into his hand, to where his eyes are blocked from Dimitri’s view by his fingers.

The urge becomes impossible to fight. Dimitri leans forward and reaches out—hesitant at first, then more deliberate when Felix doesn’t back away—to touch his wrist.

“Felix—?”

He doesn’t respond. Dimitri doesn’t push him but does move closer.

“I’m being truthful when I say that there isn’t a single day where I’m not afraid. But I also—for me, at least, I no longer believe that the solution to this feeling is peace.”

Dimitri can sense that he’s listening so he continues, moves his fingers to wrap lightly around Felix’s wrist, thumb against his palm.

“If I were to be fully honest, I—I do not believe it’s possible for us to feel safe. I think there is a part of me that still does not think that we deserve it after all of this. I am painfully aware that we have seen and carried out too many of the most depraved actions that humans are capable of—but even though we may not deserve them or we may lose them—”

Felix finally moves his hand enough for Dimitri to see his eyes, cast down to the carpet. The quiet, complicated loss on his face makes Dimitri’s heart hurt.

“Felix, even then, I would like for you to have beautiful things.”

The look in his eyes changes, just slightly. In this light, it is enough for Dimitri to notice.

“I’m sorry. Was that too direct of me?”

“Yes,” Felix says. “I’m uncomfortable now.”

Dimitri moves back and is ready to apologize when Felix continues—“Not with you. Just the idea.”

Felix leans back. He braces his arms behind him and turning his face up to the ceiling and inhales so slowly that Dimitri can almost feel its space.

“It's a nice idea,” Felix says.

 

.

 

Felix is quiet on their walk back outside and while they wait for their horses to be retrieved. The clouds have gathered again in the sky, and it has since begun to precipitate in a light mixture of drizzle and flurries. The air hits them so cold that Dimitri can see the clouds of vapor swell as Felix breathes it in deep.

Dimitri isn’t sure what he’s thinking about, but it isn’t until they’re both holding their reins that Felix turns to him and looks like he is on the precipice of something.

“I must head back to Fhirdiad,” Dimitri says. “I told them I would only be away for the day.”

“Okay.”

“Would you—or rather, will you be returning to the south?”

Felix turns away and makes to get on his horse. “I was thinking of coming along.” He glances back at Dimitri and makes a face—Dimitri becomes distinctly aware of how wide his eye is open and remembers to blink.

“I see. That’s—that’s—”

“Just for the weekend. It’s been a while since I’ve seen everyone.”

“Oh, of course.”

Felix is already seated on his horse, adjusting his saddle. There is something about his movements that makes Dimitri feel he is purposely avoiding eye contact.

“And for your birthday,” Felix says, and then starts off so fast that Dimitri has to scramble to catch up.

 

.

 

Dimitri can tell that their friends try not to make a big deal of Felix’s return in order to avoid overwhelming him, but he realizes that they are doing a poor job of it when Felix calls Ingrid out on the staring. He says something about how it makes him want to run for the hills and Ingrid, irritated, proceeds to avoid him for the next full day.

Though uncomfortable for everyone else, this breaks the ice enough that they begin to relax.

Felix says initially that he will stay only for Dimitri’s birthday on the twentieth. He does this—in the days leading up, he keeps himself busy by joining the kitchen staff to cut up vegetables for the celebratory dinner or joining the gardeners to help trim the excessive amount of shrubbery on the castle grounds. He attends the more intimate luncheon that Dimitri keeps in the afternoon, over tea and cookies with their old friends, laughs at a joke that Mercedes tells at Sylvain’s expense. He does not attend the formal dinner in the evening but reunites with them all on the hearth in the Great Hall to tell some stories about his time in the south. He doesn’t give Dimitri a birthday present—Dimitri’s one stipulation for the day is that there were to be no presents at all from his friends—but smiles at him just once. Dimitri takes it.

He is ready to ride out on the day right afterward, but Annette wails that he must stay to see Lady Dorothea’s performance in her new opera, which is traveling to Fhirdiad just the next day. He does so reluctantly but seems to enjoy himself, coming back with many opinions about all the ways that they did not feature nearly enough live horses in an opera about horses.

At that point, it is two days until the first day of Yule. Felix is caught by Ashe in the morning, stalking out to the stables to ride off without notifying anyone. Ashe proceeds to launch into sad sighing about how the squires and pages were all looking forward to hearing battle advice and tips from the renowned North Star. Felix orders Ashe to never call him by that nonsensical nickname again and goes to spend the day in the training grounds, collecting a new hoard of young admirers.

Dimitri spots him with Sylvain that night, Sylvain grabbing his arm and stopping what looks like another attempt by Felix to flee the capital.

“You’d think we were keeping you here as a prisoner,” Sylvain says, sighing. “What’s so bad about a little holiday?” He nods to Dimitri. “Your Majesty.”

Felix glances between the two of them, clearly a little frustrated. “It’s going to be too many people.”

“It is going to be a lot of people,” Dimitri says, “But it’s still quite fun.”

“It sounds tedious.”

“It’s not formal at all. I believe you’ll love it,” Dimitri says.

Felix groans.

“Do you really want to leave?” Sylvain’s voice drops slightly, and he lets go of Felix’s arm. “If you really, truly want to go, we won’t stop you.”

Felix hesitates. He doesn’t start walking, which is a good sign.

“Don’t look so disappointed,” he says.

“You’ll break my heart,” Sylvain confirms.

Felix glances at Dimitri again. Dimitri doesn’t know what face he’s making, but it makes Felix sigh.

“We have been waiting for you to join in our new traditions,” Dimitri says, “It is not the same without you.”

It is this that makes Felix agree, though he makes it clear that it is reluctant.

 

.

 

On the night before Yuletide, everyone is ready to explain every last practice down to its origins and meanings in hopes of making sure that Felix doesn’t feel overwhelmed when it all beings in earnest. They’re all surprised when he mentions that he’s already familiar with some of the practices.

It turns out that Felix had been celebrating versions of it in the south in the past few years, but with a distinctly South Fódlan flair. The Yuletide that Felix is familiar with involves a lot of flute-playing and dancing out in fields, flinging wheat seeds to celebrate the earth, musicians improvising in circles and singing for hours straight. Almost all of the light, sweet dishes served have some fruits in it, whether it be preserved apples or pears or grapes. There is a copious amount of wine—which Felix does not indulge in, of course. They celebrate for the duration of three days as well but see it as some type of marathon party in which people camp in fields and grassy plains and take breaks only to nap before rising to drink and dance some more.

It is very different in North Fódlan. People honor the earth with their own little traditions on the two days leading up to the final day of Yule, which is the biggest event. On that day, the winter solstice of the year, everyone crowds around in halls of manors and inns and packs in as many large oak tables as possible to seat every person that could show up. Hearths are decorated with white flowers and always hold a rigorously burning Yule log, which is carefully maintained all night for its light and warmth. Everything on the table is hearty and warm and salty, and there are enormous barrels of mead and spiced cider. There are musicians but no mandatory dancing, and everyone eats and drinks until they eventually pass out on the table.

“That,” Felix mutters when he hears, “Sounds so much better.”

And there is another practice that is not upheld in South Fódlan, though this one does surprise Dimitri. Felix does not know about the tradition of candlekeeping.

This does make Dimitri take pause, as he isn’t immediately sure of how Felix would respond to the practice. To explain it to him better, he brings Felix to the stores under the castle, where candles of all sizes and colors have been collected throughout the year in preparation for the Yuletide season.

“I believe the practice originates centuries ago with celebrators from Old Alliance territory, perhaps by Edmund,” Dimitri says as he leads them through the stores by torchlight. Felix sticks closer to him than he would normally due to the dim lighting and squints to make out shapes that are further. “The purpose is to find a way to invite departed loved ones into the festivities.” He pauses here to glance at Felix and read his reaction before moving on. “The most traditional form of the practice dictates that each candle can be used by one deceased individual. Their spirits take hold of the candle while it’s burning so they can share in our company, so people try to keep them alight. The practice begins on the first day of Yule—tomorrow—and continues until the final feast on the last day, when they’re all brought into the Great Hall and placed on the tables as an invitation to join in the celebration with the living.”

“I see,” Felix says. He steps away from Dimitri, just slightly, to run a hand along a few rows of candles. He pulls it back and examines the light dusting of wax on his fingertips. “You keep them burning for three days straight?”

“Oh, many don’t go nearly so far. That would be quite demanding. I believe that it’s most common practice to check periodically on them throughout the day and re-light them if they’ve gone out.”

Felix nods. “How many do you burn?”

This is a difficult question. How many candles does Dimitri want to burn? What feels a near-infinite amount—one for every life he’s lost and one for every one he’s taken. An amount so incredible and impossible that it would surely light the entire capital on fire. How many does he actually burn?

“I burn three,” Dimitri responds.

“One for your father, one for your mother,” Felix says, and then waits.

“One for El.”

Felix hums. Dimitri takes it as surprise.

“Am I allowed to select how many I want?”

“Yes, that is all up to you. It is easier to maintain fewer, but if you wanted to, you could take more as well. However, I don’t mean to place any pressure on you to take part. If you feel that this practice is too much or that you’re uninterested, Felix, many don’t—”

“Do I just pick any?” Felix cuts in, his hand hovering over the racks. “What’s the meaning behind the different types?”

Dimitri brings the torch in closer so that Felix can get a clearer look. “There is only whatever meaning you give it.”

None of the others are surprised when Felix and Dimitri emerge from the candle stores with three, held together in a tight bunch. All of them are plain and long, pretty in their simplicity. Felix takes them into his room that night and Sylvain has to go and check on him when he doesn’t re-emerge for breakfast or lunch the next day.

By dinner, Sylvain is still missing. After much deliberation as to who would be most appropriate, Ingrid is sent on the hunt to figure out what is happening.

Dimitri, at this point, is too anxious and confused to keep sitting around—he gives it four hours of Ingrid not stepping out of Felix’s room before he goes to investigate himself.

He finds the three of them sitting around a table, a large collection of candles scattered on top of it. The candles are all different—some longer and some shorter, some detailed with lace-like patterns or ridged twists, some simple—but all of them burn variations of white to yellow. It has the effect of lighting his friends’ faces in flickering bursts, holding them in soft contrast with the black night outside.

Felix and Ingrid turn at the sound of Dimitri opening the door, while Sylvain seems to be asleep on the table.

“We started remembering other names, too,” Ingrid says, stretching her arms up over her head and yawning as Felix turns back to the candles, his expression muted. “Assumed that we may as well add them all, especially since it’s Felix’s first time. It’s easier to keep them burning as a group.”

She raises a good point. During the first year that they had practiced this tradition, before it was even considered a tradition, Dimitri had lit so many candles and spent so many hours overwhelmed by the sight that he had cried for nearly three days straight. He is so exhausted and emotional by the end of it that the hallucinations grow stronger and he very nearly relapses again. It is because of this incident that Dedue and the others keep a close watch on him, tell him that this holiday is not worth losing sleep over. And they are right, of course. He now burns three and even that is tiring, emotionally and physically.

But this year, Felix is here.

“I’ll make space for yours,” Felix says, without looking away.

 

.

 

Dimitri misses the first, so he only sits with them for the last two days. Still, there is something about the act that makes him feel unreal—sitting at this table of candles, gaze moving constantly from one to another for hours straight. They draw the curtains so that it’s impossible to tell whether it is day or night, and Dimitri truly loses track of time. It feels like they are there for an eternity, drifting in the half-dark, anchored only by the candlelight on the table.

He is seated across from Felix, so Dimitri has plenty of time and opportunity to study him. He can watch the way that Felix’s gaze remains down on the table, the way that shadows gather in the creases of his eyelids, pool in the space between his lips and catch at his cheekbones. His eyes, when he does look up, hold the reflection tiny flames as a sea of white in his irises. He cries sporadically and silently and always keeps one hand on the tallest of the three candles he picked out—Dimitri guesses to be Glenn’s candle—even when the hot wax spills over the edge and slides down to meet his fingers.

Dimitri dozes in and out of consciousness. He uses up multiple matches in re-lighting a few of the candles closest to him, passes some around to whoever needs them, stays silent and still otherwise. When he is awake, he sees Felix. When he is asleep, he dreams of nothing.

Near what his instincts tell him is midnight, he wakes up from the feeling of something warm beside him.

Felix had gotten up and moved around to his side of the table, striking a match to relight one of the candles in front of Dimitri—a tall white spiral that ends at the bottom in an open flower. He had chosen this one because it had reminded him of the hilt of the dagger he’d given Edelgard many years ago.

Felix glances over after the flame sparks between his fingers. “Go back to sleep,” he says.

 

.

 

Another—

Dimitri blows on the hot goblet of cider in his hands, grinning as Glenn grabs Felix by the torso and swings him easily over his head.

“And then just like that—the great Innogen drew her weapon and leaped up from her pegasus—” Felix screams as Glenn throws him high above his head and catches him upside down. “And—quick like a snake!—ran that enormous wyvern through from tongue to tail with her blade.”

He demonstrates this by holding Felix by the ankles and swinging him in wide arcs, mimicking the path of a sword. Felix laughs, loud enough for it to echo in the empty Great Hall, narrowly missing his goblet with flailing arms.

“She sounds amazing,” Dimitri says, star-struck, after Glenn runs out of breath and stops.

“Mother didn’t actually jump from a pegasus,” Felix says, struggling to right himself in Glenn’s hold, still upside-down.

Glenn rolls his eyes. “How would you know? You weren’t there.”

“You weren’t there, either,” Felix retorts.

“Yes, but I heard it from her. Could you say the same?”

“I—”

“Of course not, because you were a little runt that could barely understand common tongue when she passed.” Glenn swings Felix and says a quick—“Incoming, Your Highness.”—before launching him gently back to Dimitri.

Dimitri sets aside his cider just in time for Felix to collide against his chest, knocking them both back onto the bearskin blanket. Felix glances at Dimitri and grins as he scrambles up, pushing his own hair out of his face and mouth. He scoots back over to his goblet and takes a long sip before hopping back up.

“What was your mother like on her pegasus?” Dimitri asks.

“Oh, she was incredible.” Glenn sits back down and raises a hand to push against Felix’s forehead, right as Felix is about to charge him anew. “Father says there was never a sharper sword in our land. You should ask His Majesty about it, too. She fought alongside him back in some small skirmishes with the Empire over borders. That’s how she met Father, I believe.”

“And then she kicked his butt!” Felix declares, still struggling to land a swing on Glenn.

“She did,” Glenn affirms. “Repeatedly. In sparring.”

“She must be amazing if she could best Duke Fraldarius,” Dimitri says.

“Oh, she was easily the better fighter of the two. You should have seen Father’s face when Felix said he wanted to be like her, but not like him—”

“Because Father favors his left leg too much when he fights unmounted,” Felix says. “Old Gervasius said so.”

“Do you even know what that means?”

“You can’t have any weaknesses in battle,” Felix responds, stubborn. “You must treat both legs fairly.”

“I see that you don’t. That’s fine.”

“I wish I could have met her,” Dimitri sighs. “Her and her trusty pegasus.”

“You can still meet Cymbeline if you want!” Felix brightens, giving up on attacking Glenn and scooting closer. Dimitri is delighted by the excitement in his face and wishes that his eyes could also look the color of gold in firelight. “She’s older now so she doesn’t do much besides sleep, but when you come we can go see her in the stables. She likes strawberries.”

“Then I’ll ask if I can bring some next time I visit.”

“Don’t bother, Father always keeps a stock whenever you come because he knows you and Her Majesty both love them so much,” Glenn says.

“Come when fall’s over! For my birthday,” Felix says, leaning a cheek on his knees and grinning at Dimitri. “You’ll be here in time to see the winterberries.”

 

.

 

Dimitri holds as many burning candles as he can in his arms without singing himself. He has to walk carefully through the halls so as not to accidentally spill any wax and politely denies any help that is offered to him by any staff or guests.

Felix is walking ahead of him, also holding an armful of candles. No one offers him any help, as many don’t seem to recognize him at first glance—though whispers do begin to follow him as word travels to the newer staff that it’s the most accomplished general stationed in the south, one of the king’s dearest and oldest friends.

The Great Hall is already beginning to fill with chattering guests, clambering over chairs to greet each other and fill the cavernous space with boisterous laughter. The complicated web of tables crammed into the room makes it feel much smaller than it typically does, and the air is comfortably warm from both the enormous Yule log in the hearth and the sheer number of bodies collected inside. The windows are still drafty, and the Blaiddyd colors sway from the rafters in a lazy dance.

Everything smells of rich spice and savory, grilled meats, though the staff is still in the process of filling the tables and lunging around each other to find empty space on the tables. White snowdrops and red winterberries are strung off the ceiling and walls, falling into soups and forming messy semblances of centerpieces with the enormous mass of candles scattered across all tables. There is a general feeling of happy chaos from the whole room.

Felix, upon entering and seeing the sheer amount of movement, stops dead. He takes a moment to process the scene, eyes wide, before Dimitri directs him towards the high table where all of their friends are gathered.

Dedue reaches forward to help take some of the candles from Felix’s arms to set them along the table. “You’ve decided to stay,” he says.

Felix still seems to be stunned by the sheer amount of action bustling from all corners of the room and can only nod.

“I hear there’s a blizzard tonight around Oghma—he couldn’t escape even if he tried,” Sylvain snickers. His face is already a happy, cherry red—the color it gets when he reaches his sixth goblet of mead.

“Your face matches your hair,” Felix retorts.

“Uncreative and unoriginal. You can do better.”

“Do you take alcohol, Felix?” Mercedes asks, shuffling around space for Dimitri’s candles between a venison pie and a root stew.

Felix says no, so they settle him with hot cider and push him into a seat at Dimitri’s side. He studies the goblet with a smile that grows blank when he catches Dimitri staring.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Dimitri says. “Just happy that you’re here.”

“Yes, this was—what, now? Five years in the making?” Ingrid snorts. “Seven since the end of the war? You could have been less difficult.”

“What’s important is that Felix is here now,” Annette says, clapping her hands. “And that he’ll stay at least until his birthday.”

“I never said that.”

“Yes, you will! I’m already starting to plan it—we’ll make a good day out of it. You’ll love it.”

“Plus, the squires love having you around,” Ashe pipes up, innocently, over his own mead. “You could help me instruct them, if you’re looking for something to do.”

“I’m not,” Felix says, exasperated.

“Don’t worry. We’ll find you something.”

“Or he could help more with the landscaping.”

“I did hear that you were quite good with shears!”

“I don’t need—”

He is cut off by a bold fanfare—all of the guests have since scrambled into seats and turn up towards the high table for the start of the feast.

This is a speech that Dimitri does not mind giving, not as much as others. It is particularly easier with Felix by his side, watching him curiously as he stands with his own goblet of cider.

He keeps it short this year—says something that he won’t remember about family and honoring the earth for its boundless gifts, about the appreciation for peace and the chance to celebrate the night with their departed loved ones.

And then once he gets the idea he truly can’t help it—just one small jest for the many years that Felix has kept them waiting—

“And to the North Star,” Dimitri says, turning to Felix with his goblet raised and face pulled into an innocent smile, in time to see his face blanch white with horror. “For making his way back home to us.”

Cheers erupt down the hall as everyone drinks, cups slamming against the tables, the sound swelling so enormous that it fills the whole room up to the lofted ceilings and puts out a few of the candles. There is laughter and chatter as noise rises again, to a steady and happy level, as everyone turns to the food and begins to eat.

“Cute, Your Majesty,” Sylvain cackles, downing his mead in one swing and sighing, content, before reaching for a pecan tart. “The Savior King and the North Star. When you say it like that, you two make quite the pair.”

Dimitri laughs at the joke to Felix—but turns back, surprised, when he sees Felix flushed a charming red that he’s never seen before, still frozen with his drink in the air.

Felix seems to realize he’s being watched. He glances over and meets Dimitri’s gaze in a steady glare.

“Drink,” he orders through gritted teeth—reaches over to tip Dimitri’s goblet the rest of the way to his mouth, until his vision is flooded with amber.