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a sight for sore eyes, a view to kill

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As has been commonplace for more than twenty years now, Sylvain’s birthday starts with a knife to his throat.

It’s barely past midnight, the somber streetlights spitting slick mucus over the back-alley cobblestone and shining sweaty across his face as he’s pinned to the brick wall behind him. Sylvain’s gaze follows the glint of the blade as it rests, motionless, a few centimeters away from the hand over his windpipe — the same, sharp luster of coldblooded lethality than the one in his attacker’s eyes.

Février, Sylvain immediately knows.

He’s the only person in the Faerghus Lions whose true name Sylvain doesn’t know and whose face he doesn’t recognize, which makes him all the more unmistakable; that, and the fact that Sylvain’s been lurking on Lion territory for the past seven hours, so it was a matter of minutes until one of Blaiddyd’s men granted him the courtesy of a rendez-vous, really. His eyes are as glacial as his namesake month, dark gold frosted over into obsidian; from this close, Sylvain can trace every lack of line on his face but the ones he wills into his frown, can notice he possesses the kind of beauty that comes off as tarnished by his odd dress sense and the sullen sag of his shoulders, gaze soured striking and sharp by swatches of dark thistle underneath. It’s utterly wasted on someone like him, Sylvain thinks.

He’s dressed head-to-toe in black, which Sylvain guesses is the reason why he hasn’t seen him coming behind him — that black, sleeveless turtleneck top and dark pants clinging to his frame like a shadow, turning him into one of the black cats Sylvain often finds lurking in the midnight-ink streets late at night, dissolving and reappearing poised to kill and eviscerate the helpless songbirds that make the mistake of not being asleep yet.

“What’s your excuse for being here, Gautier?”

“Ow- You’re surprisingly strong for someone your si—”

Sylvain’s voice strangles in an embarrassingly high pitch when the dagger inches closer to his neck, Février’s fingers, scarred from too much fighting and torturing and killing, searing nitrogen into the skin when Sylvain tries to swallow. His long ponytail sways soft in the late-evening breeze. “Speak up before I turn you into venison.”

“You know, Claude would rather we be called Deers or Stags—”

The dagger sings through the air, just shy of his cheek.

It’s a deliberate miss, Sylvain knows, from hands practiced and deft enough to hit exactly where they intend to should their owner decide so; the edge caresses its way down below his ear, until the tip grazes the juncture between his jaw and his throat in the sweetest of warnings. In startling contrast, Février seems awfully bored, his expression blended into greens and yellows and neutrality by the flickering lamppost, as can be expected from December’s subordinates. Contrary to their leader, Blaiddyd’s men know how to uphold their stellar, coldhearted reputation, and Février seems to be no exception. It’s not what he expected from the Lions’ rumored volcanic vanguard; no one usually shoots up at the top of an organization’s food chain by treating cruelty as nothing but a means to an end, by drawing no pleasure in inflicting pain, by feeling no satisfaction in killing — and especially not as soon as they turned thirteen, if Sylvain’s information is to be believed. It’s almost scarier. Sylvain would rather fight people whose blood ran red and hot enough that it blindsided them to logic; it made them predictable and obvious and weak.

He smiles, prettily fake and fakely appeasing. “You won’t believe me if I told you I was just in the neighborhood, will you?”

“Take a wild guess.”

Sylvain’s sigh is exaggerated just enough to try and rile him up. “Okay, okay — easy, angel.”

Février’s brows carve scars into his forehead like it’s this, and not Sylvain’s neck, he’s holding his blade against. “Call me angel one more time—”

“I was sent to get intel on you guys.”

Février’s eyes widen, round and gold as the coins in one of Claude’s casinos, before narrowing again to a subtle halo. “Liar.”

Sylvain smirks, despite the insistent pressure on his vocal chords. It’s nothing he’s not used to, after all. “What makes you think I’m lying?”

“Why would the Alliance’s spymaster tell me he was on an intel mission? Either clumsiness, or calculation. You’re not stupid enough for the first, and I’m not stupid enough for the second.”

You sure about that? Sylvain thinks, but swallows the words when his body remembers the clean press of the dagger. He drawls on, instead, schools his face in half-lidded disinterest, fights the urge to put his hands behind his head in reflex. “I don’t really want to do it, you know. The intel mission. I couldn’t care less about you guys. I’d rather be back to my room above the bar and keep doing what I do best, but you know how it is.” A carefully careless shrug of shoulders. “The boss’ orders are always absolute.”

Février’s hand tightens over his windpipe. Sylvain bides his time. “Riegan sent you?”

Sylvain doesn’t bother hiding the thrill in his voice when he answers. “Claude wants to build an alliance with Faeghus.”

There are a dozen expressions flitting across Février’s face, fast enough to be unreadable, a sped-up movie without subtitles; the last one Sylvain deciphers is curiosity begging to be sated, strong enough that the dagger withdraws from Sylvain’s neck, that the hold on his throat loosens a little. “I don’t believe you.”

“Want me to call him? I can even ask Hanneman, if you need a more neutral party. After all, your dearest law advisor collaborates with him, doesn’t she?”

Something finds its way over Février’s eyes and turns them dark as dried blood. “Don’t say that as if you don’t know her.”

That makes Sylvain frown, the slightest crack in his well-crafted porcelain mask; he’s never even met the woman, as far as he remembers. He tries not to think too hard about it, glues the chip back up again with the rise of an eyebrow. There are more pressing matters at hand.

His lack of an answer doesn’t seem to satisfy his assailant, and Février’s expression pulls at his lips in a growl, in a sneer, sharp canines stark white in the lack of light. “Whatever. Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why does Riegan want an alliance?”

Sylvain pauses, averting his eyes from him and to the end of the back alley, as though checking if they’re alone. “I’ve been spying on the Black Eagles. Spent months on their side of the city, around their trade docks.” He turns his gaze to Février’s again. He’s pretty, and familiar, Sylvain finds himself thinking. It’s a dangerous thought, and like all dangerous thoughts, Sylvain chases it, appraises him against the sky and the moon and the twin stars that mimic his eyes, night and fair and dawn. “Listen well, Février,” he continues, a distraction, a callback to a colder reality, “because I’m not going to repeat that twice. Edelgard is about to make her move.”

Février slowly drops his hand from Sylvain’s neck to press two fingers at one of the earrings on his left lobe. Of course he’d get someone to listen. Sylvain can’t blame him; he’s been doing exactly the same, after all. “The elections are still months away.”

Sylvain smiles, to himself more than to Février. “And you don’t think she’s already started laying down her plans? Hell, she’s probably been planning this since the Duscur turf war.”

There’s an edge of tension crawling around Février’s shoulder as he tries to fashion his features into relaxed indifference; a beginner’s mistake, too obvious to be honest, too honest to be misleading. Sylvain stores the new slither of information inside his head, to be put to good use.

“I’ve done my research,” he starts again. “She’s been granting even more favors to Parliament members than usual. I know people in there. They showed me the unreleased presidency list, and what do you know? Down there, in small letters: Edelgard von Hresvelg. Some of the deputies and senators have already rallied to her cause. So here’s a little surprise test — what do you think Hresvelg will do as soon as she gets to a high enough position of power?”

“She’s coming for the Boar— December,” he corrects, his hand coming to cover his mouth, eyes shifting to the pavement.

“You bet she will.” He lets himself cross his hands behind his head, this time, free from Février’s grasp, wills his expression relaxed and open and as careless as the edge of his shirt riding over his stomach.

Février tenses at the sudden movement, eyes sparking to the flash of skin, there; he’s probably satisfied to see Sylvain has no hidden weapon, because his gaze travels back up, slow and scrutinizing, until it reaches his face. Sylvain fails to find words fit for the emotion, or lack thereof, in the curve of his chin, in the cut of his bones.

“I thought Riegan was cleverer than that. Shouldn’t you guys wait until we destroy each other instead? That would be the smarter move.”

“You really think she’ll stop at Faerghus, angel?”

Février lunges at him, the fury in his eyes echoed in his motions, but Sylvain dodges him easily, knocks the dagger to the ground with a slap of his hands, catches Février’s fingers in his and gives them a threatening squeeze. Février stiffens like frozen water, and Sylvain lets his voice and gaze turn liquid asphalt. “Think about it. If she destroys Faerghus, nothing will prevent her from coming for us as well. And I don’t know about you, but I really like my job, and my head on my shoulders.”

There’s rage and resentment and resignation in the set of Février’s jaw, thin and keen like a papercut, and that unwelcome, bothersome feeling of comforting familiarity blooms inside Sylvain’s lungs in thorny roses. He wants it gone. He releases Février’s hand, bends forward to pick up the dagger by the blade. “If you don’t want me to call you angel, you can tell me your name.”

Sylvain expects to be kicked in the crotch and stabbed until he’s the human equivalent of a beehive, but Février makes no move to either take back his weapon or slip into stance; he stares at Sylvain, instead, his hand still frozen in place like Sylvain’s still holding it, and just as Sylvain wonders if he’s forgotten how to breathe, a deep sigh falls out of his lips and his arm falls to the side.

“Felix. Felix Fraldarius.”

The name tickles at his brain like an old, forgotten song, like the poems he used to know by heart as a schoolkid and had to recite in front of the class, a single rhyme without a title or a verse to make sense of it. There are reminiscences flashing through his mind in vague cutscenes and fixed shots: a school playground and four kids playing cops and robbers; a hand pulling him up from a hole in the ground, deep inside a forest; amber eyes, and tears in the back of a car speeding down a highway, and hushed promises two children were too young to formulate and too old to understand.

“I’d introduce myself, but you already know me.”

“No,” Février — Felix Fraldarius says.

Sylvain frowns. “You said my name.”

“I know Sylvain Gautier,” Felix answers. “I don’t know you.”

Sylvain knows a lie when he hears one — he’s spent years lying to everyone, himself included — and without fail, he recognizes this kind: so well-practiced and so believed-in that it somehow became a half-truth over time.

“You’re right,” he says, “you don’t,” and there’s something like disappointment pulling at his heartstrings. He buries it deep, where no light can reach it, and lets his voice flutter fun and fake. “Anyway, Felix. With enough time, I can offer you Edelgard’s head on a silver platter. Do you think Blaiddyd wants to join the feast?”

He presents him the dagger, hilt first.

 

***

 

"So? Did you make a good first impression?" Claude asks in that milk-and-honey tone he uses only for half-felt apologies. “Sorry I wasn’t available for the checkup last night. I had some stuff to take care of.”

Sylvain throws himself onto the chesterfield couch with a graceless slump, facing Claude as he stands in front of his desk in the middle of his office — or at least, what he calls his office: a huge loft right above one of his numerous speakeasies, the one-way mirrors lining the wall giving a perfect view of the room below and the bustle of people gathering at the bar counter to order drinks, sitting around tables to bet satchelfuls of money and covered-up stolen works of art, entering darker rooms to conclude deals behind closed doors. Claude’s eyes follow each and every movement with the carefulness only paranoia can provide; Sylvain remembers very well the onslaught of attacks, both verbal and physical, Claude had to withstand when he was appointed the new leader of the Alliance, after their former boss’ disappearance. It made sense, at the time: as unthreatening as Claude tried to make himself seem back then, he was young and clever and ambitious, and people tend to be wary of young, clever, ambitious men.

It’s exactly why Sylvain has always made a point of appearing neither clever nor ambitious. He doesn’t need new targets on his back now that he’s rid himself of the invisible, Gautier-crest-shaped one his family had cursed him with from birth.

Claude’s gaze slides back to Sylvain, greed-green, the dim light throwing across it a glint of unshared knowledge and concealed theories.

“Why did you choose me for this?” Sylvain hopes the question is vague enough for Claude to spill more than he’d usually feel comfortable to.

Claude throws a wink in his general direction, a deflection more than a reassurance. “Why ever would I ask our best spy to strike a deal with Faerghus, I wonder?”

“It’s not like the Lions are the friendliest bunch in the city. Plus, you had to know Février would be here. He could have killed me, you know,” Sylvain adds with a flourish of his hand, dramatic as it soars high and falls back to ruffle his own hair.

Claude hums a thoughtful note. “You’re the one who had the most chances of survival, statistically. Seems like I wasn’t wrong.”

Sylvain raises an eyebrow, more in curiosity than in distrust. It’s not an answer satisfying enough to fill in the holes in Claude’s reasoning — if they’re talking statistics, surely Raphael, big, burly, six-and-a-half feet tall Raphael had more chances to survive an encounter at the pointy end of Felix’s dagger than Sylvain.

“Let’s just say it was a bet,” Claude laughs, the sound rustling his irises like dark leaves on a forest floor. “We can’t win the game if we don’t play risky, especially if we’re seeking an alliance.”

Sylvain sneers. “An alliance. Yeah, right.”

“I had no reason to be concerned about your loyalty, if that’s what you’re wondering. Takes more than a pretty pair of eyes to compromise you.”

Sylvain ignores the way Claude dodges his remark, the way Claude has ignored many of Sylvain’s quips and whims during their years of collaboration. It wasn’t what Sylvain was wondering, exactly; Claude knows perfectly well that Sylvain has never been loyal to anyone but him, especially after his swift removal from every Golden Deer circle once he’d made himself the last of the Gautiers. He remembers Miklan’s breath coming up in bubbles around his damp fingers until the water stilled, reminisces the smell of wine and the sound of dripping blood spilt over tapestries and carpets in the living room, recollects the names he was called at the time — coward, traitor, parricide, as though there’s more honor in killing ten people in the middle of a street than a couple at a lunch table, as though there’s more horror in killing one’s family as opposed to, you know, killing in general.

This had been how Claude had found him — awaiting their boss’ judgement and his own death, a few days later, a cornered fox in a henhouse. I feel like we’re of a similar breed, you and I, Claude had said at the time, and Sylvain had leered at him with that deadly smirk of his; this hadn’t been enough to deter Claude in the least, though, as he’d gone on about asinine concepts and pretty illusions, about how he felt that Sylvain, too, was looking for something, something he had lost a long time ago.

“How do you know that?” Sylvain had asked, his flawless mask cracking at the seams under the paint.

“Because we have the same look in our eyes,” Claude had answered, his grin subdued like a setting sun. “Transparent, like glass marbles.”

Sylvain has since forgotten how the rest of their conversation had gone, has filed it away in a part of his unconscious, boxed under lock and key like all the painful things he’s tried to forget over the years of his miserable life. He just remembers Claude, younger and cleverer and more ambitious still, and the dagger he’d held in his hand.

“Let’s make a bet,” Claude had said. Sylvain had taken the dagger by the hilt. Several days later, their former boss was dead, and the organization combined the amount of money Claude had contributed and a complaint letter he had written, and appointed him as the new Head of the Leicester Alliance.

The weight of Claude sitting on the couch beside him pulls Sylvain out of his reverie. “You didn’t ask me to come here simply to chat about Février, did you? Because the guy’s not a talker, so I fear you’ll be disappointed.”

Claude’s laughter chimes through the room. “Did you manage to get info about our anonymous contractor?”

Sylvain lets his face twist in defeat. “Not at all. I’ve tried to ask Raphael and Leonie if they’d seen what they looked like, but they weren’t at headquarters that day. Lorenz was out for an auction.”

“Ignatz?”

“Hilda didn’t give him any mission this week, so he’s probably busy doing whatever art teachers do.”

“In opposition to whatever contract killers do?”

Sylvain winks at him. “Remember how there’s the word dying in studying?”

Claude rolls his eyes, but they crinkle at the edges all the same, genuine amusement carving the lines onto his expression. “What about Marianne?”

Marianne was the one who had found the letter and the blank check, at the door to her accountant office. “She was coming back from picking up lunch. Tried to run a fingerprint check. Nothing. It’s like it was dropped by a ghost.”

Claude levels him with a curious gaze. “Anyone you suspect? Even in the people you’re the only one to know about?”

Sylvain rises from the couch, his feet guiding him in an ebb-and-flow around Claude’s desk and back in restless wandering. “At first, I thought it was the Black Eagles, but that’s probably not the case. It would be too obvious.”

“Plus,” Claude interjects, arms stretching to the ceiling, “everyone knows Edelgard plans to destroy Faerghus anyway. She wouldn’t have bothered hiding her identity if she wanted our help in that.”

Help me hunt down the Lions, had been the simple, typed request inside the envelope, along with a dozen other formalities and courtesies. Your price is mine.

“Well, that doesn’t matter if we can’t do anything about it, anyway.”

Claude’s eyes sharpen again, raw emeralds jagged at the edges. “Have you already found any potential weaknesses in our little Lions?”

“The Duscur turf war seems to have left quite a scar on them. It’s not that surprising, really.”

Blaiddyd’s father had been killed then, as well as a good half of their organization’s workforce, right in front of his thirteen-year-old eyes, including their most efficient enforcer — November, he had made himself be called, although Sylvain had uncovered his true name through his network of secretive acquaintances. It had been a little test, really, mentioning it to Felix the night before, one he’d failed with flying colors.

“Any other, less obvious things?”

Sylvain recalls Felix’s eyes, glowing dim as embers, sparking his voice to flames as he’d spat out Sylvain’s name; Felix’s expression, veiled in annoyance and the tiniest hint of disappointment, the edge of a dagger stroking his pulse point; Felix’s fingers around his neck, the pressure and coldness not unlike those of the hand that had pulled him out of a deep hole in a deep forest deep into his past.

“No,” he answers, and if Claude deciphers his half-truth, he doesn’t mention anything about it.

Sylvain watches the people below from his safe spot behind the one-way glass, the only place where he watches all and no one watches him, observes their every move and every expression like analyzing chessboard pieces, his restless fingers threading invisible silk between the cracks and pulling them one way or the other. He sees the stolen kisses and the gifted glances, the sleights of hands and the slights of tongues, the comings and goings of a dozen faces he’s studied and remembered like a history textbook. His eyes catch the opening of the main door, that heavy freezer door that leads to the restaurant above and the street beyond it, and there’s the sway of a long, dark ponytail and the shape of forgetfulness making its way to the bar counter.

His breath catches. “Did you call him here?”

He hears Claude’s smirk more than he witnesses it. “We do need to agree on terms and conditions, don’t we?”

Sylvain’s hands reach for his jacket before he remembers the stuffy quality of the room below them, and leaves it folded on the back of the couch. “Do you think it’ll be easy?”

Claude regards him with an amused gaze as he opens the door to Sylvain, more an encouragement than a dismissal. “That’s entirely up to you, isn’t it?”

Sylvain’s feet scrape, nonchalant, against the floorboards as he flies down the stairs.

He’s stopped by five women and three men on the short way between Claude’s quarters and the bar on the other side of the basement room. Felix looks positively enraged when Sylvain finally slides in the bar stool next to his; he looks even prettier, the room’s golden glow softening his sharp features where the alley’s stygian shadows emphasized them.

“Anything to drink, angel?”

The noise of disgust that Felix spits out makes two other patrons turn around in annoyance.

Sylvain lets himself laugh, light as a threat. “Two bourbons on the rocks, Hilda. On the house.”

Hilda looks at him with extremely entertained grey eyes, dyed peach-pink in the shade of her hair. “Say pretty please, and I may think about it,” she teases, yet still busies herself with making the drinks. Sylvain doesn’t doubt she’ll be listening to every word exchanged.

“When the rumors said you were a honey trap, I didn’t know it’d be literal,” Felix says as he gazes around the room, staring at each person that had stopped Sylvain on his way.

Sylvain tilts his head to the side, lets his cheek rest over crossed fingers. “I dislike violence. I’d rather use sweeter, more pleasurable methods.”

The snort that falls out of Felix’s mouth is as unexpected as it is welcome. “Yeah, right.”

“Don’t believe me?”

“I would be more inclined if you didn’t have a gun holster strapped around your waist.”

Sylvain’s mind flashes back to the jacket he’s deliberately left in Claude’s room. He’s glad Felix understood the silent warning.

“How can I make myself useful?” Sylvain asks — because that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? Sylvain had learnt, very early on, how to make himself useful, both to others, mainly, and to himself, somewhat — a usefulness like a pretty, shiny polish over layers and layers of escapism and denial. Claude, too, had used him; asked him to use the copper of his charm and the silver of his tongue and the gold of his body to spill secrets poured over ice and silky sheets, until he could pull them apart from the inside-out. Nothing buys someone’s silence more easily than a blade between the ribs, after all.

“You could stop calling me pet names, for starters.”

“Oh, and use your real name? I don’t think so.” Sylvain feigns a yawn, lets his shirt ride up his stomach as he crosses his fingers behind his head. “You probably know this already, but the name Fraldarius is not exactly unknown in that business of ours.”

“December wants to meet you.”

Hilda hides Felix’s sentence with the slide of their two glasses across the wooden counter, with the loud call of their order. Sylvain’s eyes find Felix’s face, unreadable still in the dim, amber lights of the room, his eyes the shade of the whisky he brings to his lips.

“You don’t approve,” Sylvain determines.

Felix’s eyes narrow as he looks to each of the patrons as though counting them in his head, as though drafting up his next kill list. “You’ll be surprised to learn that very few people actually care what I approve or don’t.”

“Funny,” Sylvain simply says, and the melody of the word makes Felix’s eyes look right into his, “that’s at least one thing we have in common.” His grin widens against his will, turns keen as Felix’s dagger, when he toasts his glass against Felix’s. His eyes don’t leave Felix’s face as he takes a long sip, still don’t stray when Felix turns away and back to the room, abrupt like a startled cat.

Do you think it’ll be easy? His own words echo through his mind as he watches Felix’s throat move under the burn of alcohol, and he finds the answer evident, decisive.

Felix Fraldarius, Sylvain thinks as he drinks the rest of his glass, I’m going to destroy you.

 

***

 

Sylvain finds Ferdinand von Aegir busy killing a man from the kneecaps up, one bullet at a time, cadenced like a Sibelius symphony.

Sylvain has met him exactly once before, a couple of years ago; the man had still been Black Eagles then, their boot-licking, pencil-pushing underboss, until one day he was at December’s door with terrible news and some of Edelgard’s most guarded secrets and an offer the Faerghus Princeling could not refuse. Sylvain had heard about it through the grapevine, during one of his lovely, dangerous encounters with Dorothea, making her drink just a little bit more than usual so that her tongue slipped all over him — it had been too easy, so she had probably intended to tell him anyway, the reason why she was going to remain one of Edelgard’s capos while Mafia Princess McNeary had been promoted in her place; but Sylvain had never been one to part pleasure from profession.

Aegir's kill is clinical, devoid of any emotion or life; Sylvain would have thought he wasn’t breathing, if it wasn’t for the slight shake of his shoulders as the silenced gun unloads in the body before him, writhing under each shot. Two bullets into the left ribs, two into the right, and four in the middle — Sylvain has seen it before, the way Faerghus members execute the ones who’d betrayed or otherwise slighted them, quick and efficient and ruthless as a stone dropped over a face; the exploding star of the Blaiddyd crest adorning the still-life, replicated and engraved with a pistol instead of a chisel.

Rumbling thunder slips out of Aegir’s throat upon seeing him, in the contourless shape of a dignified, disgusted surl.

“And here I thought the Deer would send someone decent. My condolences to Février.”

Sylvain smiles mirthlessly. “Good to meet you again, Aegir! Feisty as always, I see. Is the dirty work not fit for your station? Must be hard, going back to the kennel after being a lapdog for so long.”

Aegir bristles, his perfectly tied-back hair shivering a millimeter off its low ponytail. “Watch your words, Gautier, before I tear out your tongue.” He steps away from his kill as though he’s merely a passerby, and Sylvain follows him out of the empty street.

No one could guess what had just transpired had they not been there, even Sylvain himself — Aegir's navy blue suit is still bloodless and pristine, the white, fancy shirt underneath not even wrinkled, his long red hair with nary a drop of sweat. Nothing like Sylvain’s carefully disheveled style, buttons popped open over the crux of his collarbones and onto the lines at the base of his chest, his jacket thrown over one shoulder as he holds it in his hand through the warm almost-June weather. Aegir is thoroughly straightforward where Sylvain is all pretense, yet people would probably take them as a pair of brothers, what with the similar hair color and eyes. It would seem strange to others, for them not to be talking, and Sylvain’s always had a thing for small talk, so he does what he always does best and opens his mouth.

“How are you holding up? Must be hard to adapt to a new system, all of a sudden, even when you’re the one that actively moved out.”

Aegir lets out a non-committal hum. “It isn’t that different, to be fair. You always have your boss and your counselors and your underboss, just under different names, like it changes anything to the actual hierarchy.”

“The Lions don’t have captains, though.”

“Why would anyone need other captains when the Vanguard does the job better than ten people ever could?” The sullen lilt of his voice whispers to Sylvain like one of his numerous contacts would another, countless secret. “I don’t regret my decision, if you were wondering,” Aegir says before Sylvain can ask, looking him in the eyes, this time. “I had no hopes for anyone joining me in that endeavor, either.” Sylvain hears the lie in the way his tongue swallows the words before he spits them out. “It was my own decision, and I stand by it.”

Aegir’s one fatal weakness, Sylvain knows, that pointless pride of his. “Why did you even leave the Eagles, anyway? Edelgard’s family money did not pay well enough?”

“Let’s just say I left because of… artistic differences, shall we?”

“The last time I had artistic differences with someone, they ended up dead in a ditch, but you do you, I guess.”

That graceful disgust is back onto Aegir’s tongue and into the air between them. “Focus, Gautier. We’re almost here.” Here being, Sylvain knows, the Faerghus headquarters, a tall building of stone and colored glass and pretty balconies, hiding away all the dirty Blaiddyd machinations beneath a veneer of beauty and elegance. The Blue Lions’ market focuses on it, after all, on handsome estates and upper-class establishments, buying and regulating buildings and shops for their clients — most being Fortune 500 companies and rich CEOs wanting to try their hand in different markets, laundering their money all the while.

Sylvain shoots his companion a thoughtful gaze. “Do they trust you?” Do you trust them?

Aegir does not return it. “... They offer me protection. That’s more than enough.” From Edelgard’s wrath, Sylvain thinks, and probably a few people more. Sylvain remains silent for the rest of the way.

 

***

 

The building is as grand as Sylvain remembers from the last time he passed it, the stained glass of the first floor art deco windows blending into the rest of the classy neighborhood; no one spares them a glance when Aegir punches the code in the dial near the big, teal door, and pushes it open on a cobbled courtyard filled with plants, ivy climbing along the walls and blanketing the stone. It looks as much a residential building as a town house repurposed in business offices, and the couple of people in ready-made suits smoking near the plant pots don’t seem to recognize him, busy as they are conversing, pretty revolvers shining off their belts in the light.

Besides, Sylvain notices, they all seem pretty wary of the man standing in front of the main door.

He’s tall, is the thing — taller than most men Sylvain has met, chiseled like one of these antique statues that get traded under the drapes of Claude’s most secret casinos; his hair flumes in silver linings down the calm cloudiness of his expression, contrasts with his dark skin as though he’s been ripped from a sepia picture curling forgotten in a wallet. His hands are delicately closed around the pommel of a gun, as much a threat as it is a warning — Sylvain imagines they would snap any neck they’d wrap themselves around, would coil the oxygen out of any windpipe they’d carve their fingers into. Most strikingly, his eyes shine a bright blue hue, the shade of ice and blue flames and cold, ruthless justice, looking at Sylvain like he’s another poem one has to learn by heart in order to properly decipher. His suit is as wrinkleless as his face, and it reminds Sylvain of the way he wears his, pressed into forced perfection unless people slip into every crack and tear it apart.

“Welcome to Faerghus,” the man says. His voice betrays no emotion except, perhaps, a hint of boredom.

Sylvains laughs, light and joyless. “Good to be home.”

“So it is true,” the man answers; his snowstorm-blue eyes don’t leave Sylvain’s face, nor do they blink. “That your family used to work for Faerghus until it defected to the Alliance. I suppose you should watch your back, just in case.”

Sylvain shrugs. That had been how the Leicester Alliance had been born, a few decades ago — a lesser branch of the Blaiddyd family had seceded from the rest of the organization, probably for some stupid inheritance reasons, and had founded the Alliance with some other, smaller mobs, different groups and families coming together under a single banner. The Gautiers had followed, mostly because the thirst for domination and power was in his grandfather’s blood as much as in his father’s, and had been smart enough to refrain from joining the bloodshed that had lead to the death of most of the Alliance leaders, giving them the prime spot as the main advisers for the only one that remained and seized the organization’s throne and leadership. “I don’t think anyone here remembers the name Gautier in any other way than the name their partners scream in bed instead of theirs.”

The racy quip does not bring even the hint of a smile on the man’s stony face, even as Aegir snorts in disgust and pushes past. “Let’s get on with it, Agosto. I won’t suffer being in his presence a minute more before I commit another murder.”

A shiver runs along Sylvain’s spine when he hears the code name: Agosto, December’s second-in-command and advisor, Dimitri Blaiddyd’s closest ally and most vulnerable chess piece, a promoted pawn one wants to cut before it does too much damage.

Sylvain smiles his most charming smirk, infusing all the innocence he’s lost in the bite of his teeth, and Agosto spares him the ghost of a nod before leading him inside.

The entryway is all marble and mirrors, gilded gold frames in the shape of a lion’s jaw and claws and curling tail; the staircase winds up and along an elevator Sylvain is certain they won’t take, the polished wood reflecting every flaw in twisted arabesques when one gets too close. It’s magnificent, in that cold, too-perfect, Faerghus kind of way Claude had warned him about, uncomfortable in its lack of pretense.

“So when will I meet with your boss?”

Agosto does not face him even as he addresses him, gaze fixated on a single point. “You won’t.”

Huh. This was not part of the plan. “Didn’t Fel— Février say he wanted to meet me?”

“He will,” Agosto answers as he points to the descending staircase, one that would lead into creepy basements and torture rooms if it were any other place, “but you won’t.”

It’s cryptic enough that Sylvain feels mildly annoyed as his feet drag along the plush, royal blue carpet that cascades down with them; the hushed scraping sound is the only thing that echoes, even when they reach the lower floors and a series of tall, wooden doors that could be lush flats and bedrooms as much as they could hide killing floors and infirmaries. Agosto and Aegir step in front of him and lead him to the end of the hallway, push the double-door there open, and when Sylvain steps in, the lock slides back behind him as easily as a bullet through flesh.

The ceiling is higher than he’d imagined, is his first thought. Felix, is the second.

He’s standing in the middle of the room — a repurposed gym, Sylvain remarks, lined with mirrors and machines akin to torture devices — and punching away at a bag with a concerning look on his face; his ponytail swipes against his shoulderblades and spine as he throws punch after punch, kick after kick, sweat trickling down the snarl of his lips and catching along the curve in the mimicry of a kiss. The muscles of his arm flex openly under his black tank top, and Sylvain sees white, white scars running along them, love-hate letters in cursive written by nails and knives. When Felix almost punches a hole through the bag as it sends it slamming back, Sylvain swallows, and the sound, or the shift in the air, makes Felix’s face snap towards him, his gaze shards of amber like a broken crown.

“I didn’t think you’d actually come,” Felix says as he catches the towel Aegir throws him; there’s something like tamed-down contempt and begrudging interest in his tone as he spits the words out.

Sylvain breaks into an easy, lazy grin. “You’ll soon learn I’m a man full of surprises.”

“I can’t wait, truly.” Felix’s eyes snap up to a window near the ceiling, and if Sylvain did not know any better, he’d say there’s apprehension bleeding through the sarcasm. Sylvain follows his gaze, and recognizes it for what it is: he can almost draw the edges of December’s frame behind the tinted glass, watching over the room, high upon his throne.

“December wants Février to fight you,” Agosto says, and it surprises no one — not even Sylvain himself. It’s one of Blaiddyd’s habits, Sylvain knows, to make newest members and collaborators spar with other people from the organization, something he’d taken from Felix himself, if the rumors were to be believed. No one truly knows how it began, and no one truly knows what it is for; if Dorothea is to be trusted, however, Sylvain knows more people from the Lions died in these impromptu sparring sessions than in any of their jobs and missions combined.

He rolls his eyes as he drops his jacket to the ground. “You Faerghusians have the weirdest traditions.” Sylvain strips his shirt off as he walks up to Felix, shrugs each shoulder out in an exaggerated roll, feels the muscles of his arms and back stretch and flex as he moves them; this is habit, he thinks, this is safe. Sylvain wears nakedness like armor and knowledge like a survival blanket, and the little he’s learnt about Felix will not be enough to protect him. “No weapons, right?”

“No weapons,” Felix agrees as he, too, walks up to the makeshift boxing ring a little off to the side. His gaze travels up the length of Sylvain’s body in analytical precision before he raises a single, delicate eyebrow. “You’re taking this surprisingly in stride. Most people would have protested right away.”

Sylvain doesn’t know if the sound that leaves him is laughter or a crack of his neck. “Well… I’m not most people.”

“... No,” Felix breathes out as he slides into stance, feet anchoring themselves onto the speckless, concrete ground. “I suppose you’re not.”

Sylvain is immediately thrown back against the ground, his legs swiped out from below him.

His head throbs as it hits the ground, and he barely escapes the punch Felix tries to throw, rolls over and onto his belly to stand back up, dizziness making him see stars and lightning. “Wait wait wait— wasn’t there supposed to be— I don’t know, a countdown? A whistle? At least a ready, set, kill or something?”

Felix snorts. “Yeah, because in real life people will warn you before they try and kill you.”

A fist to the face and a shielding hand; Sylvain’s fingers wrap around Felix’s wrist. “Fair enough.”

Felix pulls his arm back, and Sylvain stumbles forward, dodges his next punch, left-right-left; a half-revolution onto the pivot of his heel, and Sylvain throws his leg high, kicks at the space where Felix used to be. Felix is quick and graceful, fights like he dances, dodges as much as he hits and hits twice as much as he parries; he blocks Sylvain’s punches with the flat of his forearms, and Sylvain recognizes an opening when he sees one, especially when he’s the one at a disadvantage — one, two, three steps, four, five, six punches, and the last one connects with his gut and sends Sylvain reeling back and kneeling.

Sylvain truly doesn’t know if Felix plans on killing him or simply removing a few cumbersome body parts.

It seems like the second is more likely, if only because Felix actually lets him get back up and charge him; he sidesteps Sylvain’s move easily, drives his elbow into Sylvain’s back, but Sylvain, ever the dirty fighter, uses his size and weight to drive Felix back against the wall — a sickly sound echoes through the room when Felix’s breath is slammed out of his lungs and his head bashes against the brick, and Sylvain twists around and pushes his forearm onto Felix’s throat as he presses into him, his knee finding purchase in-between Felix’s legs as he catches his breath.

Felix is close, like this, flush high on his cheeks, his pretty lips slurring a snarl Sylvain wants to swallow up until it dies in his throat.

“Surrender,” Sylvain sussurates, an invitation.

To his surprise, Felix laughs, a sudden, songful sin of a sound. “You wish.”

He’s smiling, Sylvain notices, and it’s like a clasp of thunder, the vision that crosses his mind — a small, short-haired boy holding out his hand to him in the lush, leafy grove, the same exact smile like a patch of warm sun, words whispered in the comfortable loneliness of a tree shade and a promise to—

A promise to what?

Felix quite literally punches the memory out of him and sends Sylvain careening back and tripping over his feet.

He’s on him before Sylvain even has time to catch his breath, to catch the fleeting, red thread of his thoughts — drives his knee right in the middle of his chest, right where his heart should be, curls delicate, scarred fingers over the apple of his throat, squeezes ever-so-gentle until the smiling boy from his childhood fades into red hair and red eyes and unrestrained hatred.

“Surrender?” Felix asks, a threat, a taunt, a test.

Sylvain knows tests. Sylvain has spent a decade purposely failing them.

“You win”, Sylvain says, and Felix’s smug expression melts into suspicion.

“Welcome to Faerghus,” Agosto repeats, over the distant sound of fading footsteps overhead.

 

***

 

Holst is, unexpectedly enough, already at Mercedes’ clinic when he pushes the gnarly front door open, chain-smoking in the doorway as Sylvain pushes inside and past Linhardt’s sleepy frame waving him hello.

Sylvain isn’t wounded, not too badly, at least; the graze of a bullet against his arm is nothing in comparison to the training sessions his brother used to put him through, these moments when Miklan taught him to pretend and to act, these times when he laughed off the bruises and the burns and the blood crusting his fingers. His fingers are red, now, as well, as he removes them from the cut along his bicep; most of the blood blooming onto his clothes like roses doesn’t belong to him. Mercedes must understand, because the worry in her gaze dies and comes back as relief, a reincarnated refraction of her hidden affection.

“Do I want to ask what happened?” She says as Sylvain sits onto the table in front of her; his gaze sweeps through the empty room three times before he surmises it safe to tell her about his latest errand for the Blue Lions. It’s the third since he’s started working with Felix, a month ago — and like the two previous jobs he’d accompanied Fraldarius on, it had started out smoothly enough; dispatch missions had always come easy to Sylvain, and apparently easier to Felix, who seemed like he’d learnt how to wield a gun and a dagger before he’d learnt how to read. It was annoying, how well they worked together, how natural it had become in so little time, as though Felix had spent his whole life in Sylvain’s shadow, waiting to pounce and eviscerate anyone who had made themselves his target. It had become a danced routine, a perfectly-practiced play: Sylvain distracted their marks with pretty words and a prettier face, and Felix extracted the bullets he’d lodged in their heads when they weren’t looking.

This time, too, had been supposed to be this easy, had actually been this easy as Sylvain weaved tales of terror into the heart of their target, someone who’d made the stupid mistake of criticizing Rhea, their minister of Internal Affairs and head of the country’s corrupt police forces. Sylvain had filed away the information as he’d laughed in Felix’s face, after Felix had made his kill — how he now had the confirmation that Faerghus had always walked hand in hand with the cops, another well-guarded secret of their longevity as a mafia organization. They help us and we help them in return, Felix had answered, wiping up the silencer for any stray bits of brain and bone, no matter how we feel about it, and his eyes had taken the shade of bitter dregs of coffee left at the bottom of a cup.

They’d been cornered, then, by three friends of their mark, faces Sylvain did not recognize but that Felix identified as Faerghus defects turned Adrestia handymen, the snarl in his voice turning into a growl when he’d started punching at the lot of them; Sylvain had not planned on intervening, perfectly content watching Felix dancing his dance of death, graceful and quick on his feet as he punched and kicked at the men, but one of the men had made the mistake of saying Felix wasn’t as strong as his brother, and Felix had snapped, and Sylvain had been forced to kill everyone in the building to keep the witnesses silent.

Mercedes hums as she works on the cut of Sylvain’s arm once he reaches the end of his story.

“You disapprove,” he states.

“You know we do not take sides here,” she chides, the cotton ball pressing a little harder on his arm and making him wince. “Though, as long as no civilians were involved, I imagine I have no right to complain about what you do or don’t.”

It's the same naive mindset that Mercedes has held since the first time they'd met; every person their organizations target is a civilian, somehow, has parents and spouses and children who will rue their deaths for the rest of their lives — which, in Mercedes' mind, probably makes everyone involved in the business a certain degree of bad. Yet, this is what scares Sylvain the most, in Mercedes: the awareness she has of the wrongdoings of people, and the conscious decision she makes to forgive them, though never to forget, so long as they do not touch her own loved ones.

Sylvain remembers what Mercedes had told him, the few times they’d laid together, tangled into Sylvain’s sheets, his hand brushing away locks of long, blonde hair away from eyes dyed indigo in the midnight afterglow — about her past as a mafia heiress under the Hresvelg family, about running away with her mother when her step-father tried to sell her to some of his richer friends, about the little brother she’d abandoned there and who now worked as Edelgard’s most efficient enforcer and contract killer. About building up the clinic from the ground-up in hopes of making enough money to run away with Emile and Annette once the time would come, to buy a countryside house with a red door and a sprawling garden.

The absolute hope burning in her eyes had terrified Sylvain like few things had before, and he’d stopped taking her as a dealer of secrets and had started seeing her as a secret keeper.

Her hair is short, now, curls away along her shoulders in gentle whorls as she wraps a bandage around his arm. “Have you seen Annette?” She asks, voice lighter and brighter, punctuating Holst’s footsteps as he makes his way to Sylvain’s side, his scent all cigarette smoke and spice and sandalwood swirling in the empty space.

“Nope. She was probably busy hacking her way through whatever we didn’t manage to get out of the target.”

Mercedes’s laughter is all wind chimes, satisfaction and relief ringing like bells along the melody — Sylvain knows Mercedes never feels better than when Annette is safe and sound inside an office, face lit up by the artificial glow of her computer screen.

“How’s the Fraldarius kid?” Holst asks in turn; he looks at Sylvain through hazel eyes and the bubblegum-pink bangs that fall in waves along his forehead, his sister’s eccentric, deft handiwork. Sylvain likes the color on him: it makes him seem inoffensive enough to draw away all attention.

Sylvain hums. “Shaken, probably. Left me alone in the middle of the street almost immediately after the errand.” It’s another, scarier similarity between Felix and him — how both of them seem to dislike being compared to their brothers, though for entirely different reasons, Sylvain imagines. “Not compromised, though, if Claude’s wondering.”

Holst doesn’t answer right away; his eyes are lost in the shadows of his reminiscences, looking away from Sylvain and Mercedes as she cleans out her tools, as though he could see behind the veil of their reality to a better, imagined lifetime. “Be careful not to get too close.”

Sylvain raises an eyebrow. He wonders for a second if Holst has forgotten Claude’s request, if the fact that Sylvain is the one actively planning on betraying Felix, and not the other way around, has somehow slipped his mind. “How am I supposed to get him to trust me if I don’t get close?”

It’s not as though Sylvain’s usual methods would work on Felix, he knows; he’s tried, the first time they were on a job together, to flirt and charm the way he does around other, simpler targets — he’d expected to dye Felix red, red to the cheeks and red to the lips, but Felix’s eyes had been as cold as solid gold, shooting through Sylvain’s lungs like bullets even as he’d said doesn’t it get tiring for you, playing pretend? and had passed him without another word. The quiet outburst had been refreshing in a way Sylvain had rarely felt, and he’d let his posture and personality bleed into something more natural, more truthful, afterwards, had let himself treat Felix like he would an old, forgotten friend, slinging a careless arm around his shoulder, whispering childish conspirations into his ear. It had been so spontaneous, an instinctive combustion of sincerity, as though he’d done it before, in a previous time, in a previous life — had made him aware of the kinds of emotions Sylvain had learnt to keep under lock and key, in the confines of his plastic, blackened heart, sweet and addictive.

Holst laughs. It holds no mirth, no heart, harsh and empty as a death row corridor. “I'm not saying this as your superior, Sylvain. I'm saying this as a friend. I made that mistake, once — got too close, reached too high, burnt too quick. It’s not the first time the Alliance has collaborated with Faerghus, and never once did it end nicely.”

Sylvain knows about it: that time when Holst had worked alongside November, a few months before the Duscur turf war — alongside Glenn Fraldarius, brilliant and lethal. Their collaboration had been a huge success, had been the starting point of a possible brokered peace treaty between Lions and Deer, until Lambert Blaiddyd died and Glenn Fraldarius burnt and Dimitri Blaiddyd disappeared into December.

Sylvain watches Holst, reads between the lines carved along the sides of his face as he remembers, deciphers the hue of sorrow and missed chances and aborted opportunities in his irises. “You two weren’t friends.”

Holst cuts him a look. “Rivals, is what they called us. In truth, we hated each other. Probably as much as you and Fraldarius hate one another, I imagine.”

Sylvain weighs down his gaze with as much disdain as he can. “Just because we hate each other, doesn’t mean we’re going to kiss too, you know.”

“If you say so.” Holst shrugs, his fingers reaching into his pocket for another cigarette packet as he makes his way to the door. “Let me give you a piece of advice still. Friendship. Trust. Love, even, if you want — the true kind, not the kind you like to make a game of. They're all poison.” The flame of his lighter sways in the breath he takes as he lights up a cigarette. “They taste nice, but they all kill you, eventually. Punish you with a long and painful death.”

Fortunately, Death has never been one of Sylvain's main preoccupations. “So?”

Holst regards him, and his peach smile doesn't reach his eyes. “Better he swallows them than you.”