"You're serious," said Dimitri.
Felix had not known that would be his answer. "Absolutely," he said nonetheless. "A match, per tradition."
The practice had not been tradition for many generations, but Dimitri looked thoughtful, not discouraged. "You're not concerned this might be unfair?"
"I believe one typically must demonstrate effort in a matter of courtship," said Felix stiffly. "If you're opposed—"
"Not for me," said Dimitri. His eye glinted with some secret humor. "After all, the incentives on my side are well-aligned, whereas you—I do believe you may enjoy the benefits of losing quite as much as winning."
"You—!" Felix could not respond without embarassing himself. He elected to take the course that left him the most dignity. "Arrange a date," he said, turning, to leave Dimitri in the courtyard. "I'll be there." That was as much as he was willing to promise.
"But Felix," called Dimitri as Felix strode off. "What am I to do with the ring?"
Felix didn't stop and give in right then—but it was a near thing.
Some years before the founding of Faerghus (or so it was said), Loog of the House of Blaiddyd, not yet the King of Lions, had fallen in love with a maiden. He had asked for her hand; she had challenged him to win it. It took Loog three tries to defeat her, after which they were married. This was all meticulously catalogued in a somewhat tedious story called Loog and the Maiden of the Wind, which all children of Faerghus knew by heart.
Which was to say, Felix was perfectly within his rights to demand the match.
"I thought you hated that story," said Sylvain dubiously. "Couldn't you just have said yes?"
"Oh, I think it's romantic," said Ashe, who was, as captain of the kingsguard, in charge of the arrangements. "The Maiden wanted Loog to treat her as an equal. He didn't at first, you know—that's why he lost. The fact that he didn't give up demonstrated his devotion to her, and that last match..."
"It's great," said Ingrid with a frankly unpatriotic amount of enthusiasm. "The Maiden's feint when he comes for her—"
"'The sword cut a hairs-breadth shy of Loog's fiercely grinning face—'"
"'He swung toward her like a lodestone, the thrust of his polearm swift as the wind—'"
The fight ran some dozen pages, Felix remembered, all of it just like this. "This isn't a metaphor," Felix cut in before they could recite the whole thing. "I just wanted to spar."
"You spar every day," said Sylvain, rolling his eyes. "Can't have a nice lunch with Dimitri without him glancing at the candle and saying, 'Oh, it's time I must meet Felix.' Unless you mean spar—" this with a ridiculous waggle of his eyebrows "—which you two also do, and in the throne room to boot—"
"We do not," Felix choked out, while his face blazed hot. "That was one time, and we weren't even—"
"Well, Dimitri certainly looked like he was—"
Ingrid was choking back laughter, and Ashe, a hand over his mouth, looked not far behind. "None of you are invited," Felix hissed. "I can find other witnesses if I must."
"Dimitri will invite us," Sylvain said, unconcerned. "I think he actually likes the idea. You know he asked the Archbishop to come? Something about a union under the eye of the Goddess."
"He what?" Felix was briefly taken aback. "He doesn't even believe in the Goddess."
"Like I said." This time Sylvain's grin was downright lascivious. "You know, if he likes being watched..."
Sometimes, one had to admit to being outnumbered. Felix fled, but the heat didn't leave his ears for hours.
Involving the Archbishop of the Church of Seiros in anything necessitated a certain amount of fuss. The Archbishop must bring with them a retinue, anxious clerks and a complement of the Knights of Seiros. Seating arrangements were drafted, argued over, redrawn. "Sorry for all this," the Archbishop confided in Felix one moment when the furor was at its peak. "I would've come by myself if they let me." Felix rather had the feeling they missed the mercenary life.
Nonetheless, the day of the match dawned. Dimitri took for his attendants Dedue and Ashe and departed for the ritual bath; Felix wouldn't see him again until the match. Unfortunately, this left Felix with limited options.
"I've seen you naked," Ingrid said, unimpressed. "I don't know what virtue you imagine needs protecting now that you didn't at six years old."
"That was different." The tiled pathway leading down to the pool was cool against Felix's bare feet. Felix was aware he was clutching the robe to his chest with an unbecoming desperation. "You don't actually have to watch."
"And lie before the Goddess?" Sylvain said. "Why, Felix, I'm appalled you'd even suggest it." Fucker. He didn't believe in the Goddess, either.
"The oath is just about whether I'm clean, which I obviously am—"
"You're the one who invoked the match," said Ingrid. The line of her brow was severe, but her mouth was not. She was enjoying this. Felix mutely contemplated the multitude of past sins that had led him here. "Are you changing your mind?"
Felix set his jaw and dropped the robe. Stood, for a breath, with his head raised before he plunged into the pool. The water was ice cold, crystal clear: it shocked all the breath from his lungs and sent him sputtering up to the surface, stripped mercilessly bare.
"Nice," said Sylvain, and his laughter echoed in the chamber. "So Dimitri bites, huh?"
The tunic Felix received after the bath was plain, undyed wool. He belted it on over his trousers while Ingrid fussed. "First touch is perfectly traditional," she said, fingering the dull white of his sleeve. "I know you're well matched, but oh, did you really have to?"
"Take it up with Dimitri." Felix snatched his arm back so he could buckle on his sword, a plain but serviceable weapon he'd picked out of the three offered. "He proposed first blood."
"Did he?" Sylvain, surprised and a little thoughtful. "That's interesting."
"Irresponsible, that's what it is." Ingrid had turned exasperated. "He's king! He should know his health is a matter for the nation, I really thought he knew better—"
"Come on, Ingrid," Sylvain put in. "Dimitri can take care of himself—"
"Yes, thank you, Sylvain—"
"—so maybe spare a little worry for our little Felix's health here instead."
Felix glared. It had no effect. "I've changed my mind," he announced. "I'll tell Dimitri I accept if I can fight all of you instead."
"Aww, Ingrid, did you hear that? He loves us. Not as much as Dimitri, but second-best's still nice, don't you think?"
"All of you," Felix repeated. "At once. I'll make Dimitri help."
Dimitri had his sleeves pushed up past his elbows. That was the first thing Felix noticed when Dimitri strode into the ring. The sunlight caught on the golden hairs of his forearms, glinting against tanned skin and setting it near-glowing; it took him a moment to realize Dimitri had no lance, only a dagger hanging off his hip.
"Were the provided weapons not acceptable?" Felix said, stepping toward him. "You could've asked for a replacement." The dagger was a small one, slim. Beautiful work, but wholly unfit for dueling. It would look ludicrous in Dimitri's hand.
"This is acceptable," Dimitri said, with a grin that made Felix immediately suspicious, then raised his voice, loud enough to carry above the murmur of the crowd. "As the wind and the Goddess as my witness, I submit myself as a challenger for the hand of Lord Fraldarius."
That was how the challenge went. A strange half-pleasure squirmed through Felix at the words anyway. In the resulting hush, the Archbishop stood and said, formally, "Does the challenge suit?"
Someone must have given them the right words. "It does," said Felix. His throat felt dry as bone. Dimitri wouldn't stop smiling at him.
"Then as the Goddess wills, and finds worthy: to first blood."
"To first blood!" the crowd roared, and Felix drew his blade.
Even barely armed, Dimitri was a formidable opponent. With a lance, Felix would have approached close and denied Dimitri room to maneuver, but now that instinct was a mistake. He stepped sideways as Dimitri came for him, swift and unerring, again at the quick pivot. Dimitri could be fast when he needed to be, but if it came to that Felix could outlast him. Already he was slowing, eye narrowed in thought. Felix found a opening beneath the lift of his elbow and thrust.
A feint, damn him. Dimitri shifted, turned—slid his broad shoulders into Felix's path and locked the two of them in place, which was a move he'd seen the archer Shamir pull half a dozen times. "What are you up to?" Felix rasped, the breath knocked out of him, trying for footing to pull back and failing in the face of Dimitri's implacable strength. "Not your usual style."
Dimitri's arms were tight around Felix's shoulders, his breathing loud in Felix's ear. "I told you before," he said, "it's a matter of incentives," and then he turned his head and his lips were brushing Felix's cheek, his jaw, the corner of his mouth.
Being kissed by Dimitri was a sensation Felix knew well. Not usually like this, however: Dimitri's tongue sliding into his mouth in front of the court, when half of them still held out hope that Dimitri would come to his senses and take a wife, and the other half disapproved of Felix on grounds that were not entirely unearned. There was a roar in Felix's ears, a frantic thump in his chest, Dimitri's teeth nipping at his bottom lip and his fingers curling at the base of Felix's neck, tender.
"Incentives?" Felix croaked against Dimitri's devouring mouth.
Dimitri smiled; Felix could feel it. When he drew back it was to brush gently at Felix's mouth. "First blood."
A wet red smear on the pad of Dimitri's thumb, and all the world a roar.
"Cheating," Felix said. "Absolutely, indisputably cheating."
"Archbishop Byleth approved."
"They said, 'Unorthodox, but I like it.'"
"Are they not the instrument of the Goddess's will here on the mortal plane?"
"They recommended everyone try it at their next bar fight!"
"Who am I to dare question the assessment of the Church of Seiros?" Dimitri was, somehow, managing to radiate smugness into Felix's shoulder blade. Felix turned over so he could press a hand over Dimitri's mouth, but all that meant was that he could feel Dimitri's smile against his palm.
"You know I would have," Felix started, and faltered. "I mean. Even if you lost."
Dimitri ringed his fingers around Felix's wrist; kissed his palm, before he drew the hand away. "I daresay I had a notion," he said. "I've some evidence of your fondness for me, after all."
Felix couldn't keep looking at the brightness of Dimitri's eye. He set to renewing the evidence on Dimitri's throat instead.
"I will adore you in quiet rooms if I must," Dimitri said, softer. "I know you thought it would be—easier. But if you've changed your mind—I am not ashamed of what you are to me. I wanted you to know."
"Me and all of Faerghus, it seems," said Felix. His face was hot in the damp crook of Dimitri's neck. "There was no need to go that far."
"Ah, but did you dislike it?"
Felix said nothing while the candle burned lower, and Dimitri's breathing slowed in fractions. Not until he was sure his voice wouldn't betray him; until Dimitri might have been asleep. "No," he said into the quiet dark. "I didn't."