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Few things are as reliable as snow in Ishgard.

Estinien is ever-familiar with the bite of freezing metal on skin, of a pervading and dull overcast sky, of gales and gusts that blow flakes in all directions but down. This has been the reality of Ishgard and Coerthas as a whole since the Calamity, and the climate shows no signs of changing in his or any lifetime. He and every other Ishgardian citizen, whether down in the Brume or up in the Pillars, has long since grown accustomed to the crunch of packed snow and ice underfoot.

He has never particularly minded the weather, though, neither its temperature nor precipitation. With its consistency in his home city and the lands beyond, how could he? Instead he finds the climate comforting, in a way. It grounds him in a manner little else can when buzzing uncertainty and tense anxiety grip him with sharp talons. Like clockwork, Estinien knows he can look outside and see blinding white, can go outside to feel the biting chill of icy gusts, can remember he is alive and in control.

Just as he knows he can find the second most reliable thing in Ishgard: Aymeric de Borel, huddled away in his office long after sunset, hunched over a mound of paperwork as a hearth glows lazily behind him.

This night is no different, as he knocks away the snow crusted onto his boots and enters the chamber. Aymeric looks up and his smile is warm enough to chase away the chill that yet lingers from his journey outside, better than the long-neglected fire that casts him in silhouette.

“Estinien, please, come in,” Aymeric says, going so far as to set down his quill and stand to greet him. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Your chronically horrid work schedule, as ever,” Estinien responds with the barest hint of a grin, approaching the desk with arms crossed. “You are aware it is long past sundown, correct?”

“Were my workday to end merely at sunset, I assure you nothing of import would get done in this city.” Aymeric’s smile eases into something familiar. “Though I could be persuaded to abandon my post for the night, by the right person and for the right reason.”

“Would one of those reasons happen to be taking care of oneself?” Aymeric looks away at that and grumbles something under his breath. Estinien rounds the desk and grabs the poker next to the hearth, prodding at the logs struggling to maintain the dying fire. “You’ve nearly let this fire peter out. And I’m sure asking if you’ve eaten tonight won’t make me particularly pleased, will it?”

“I…” Estinien turns his withering glare to Aymeric instead of the fire, and it dissolves whatever excuse had perched itself upon the Lord Speaker’s silver tongue. Estinien lets himself smirk, just a touch, and it eases the tension in Aymeric’s shoulders as he chuckles. “No, I don’t suppose it would.”

“And you wonder why I can’t leave for more than a fortnight,” he says, just a bit too earnest. Instinct tells him to close off, to shy away, but what good is he if he can’t open up? How could he expect Aymeric to return the gesture if there is no gesture to return in the first place? Instead, he embraces the vulnerability. “I worry about you, you know.”

Aymeric eyes him with all the remorse of a puppy awaiting punishment. “I know, dearest. But you needn’t concern yourself.” Estinien’s eyebrow raises of its own volition, and Aymeric flushes red at the expression. “Well. I mean… I take care of myself most of the time. Some nights are busier than others — you know how the ebb and flow of politics can be.”

Impossibly, Estinien’s eyebrow arches higher. “I don’t.”

It’s worth it just to see Aymeric flounder for a proper response. “No— Well, you see— Things are… The landscape changes every day, the Lords—”

His stuttering thoughts spark but they catch no flame. The resultant silence is filled with the crack of charred wood and the muted hush which follows customarily in the wake of a day of Ishgardian snowfall. Estinien smiles, just slightly, just warm enough for Aymeric to understand and ease the tension in his shoulders. “No matter. If you will not take care of yourself, I simply must do it in what little time is afforded to me.”

Aymeric’s answering smile is equally warm, but hesitant at the edges. “You needn’t trouble yourself.”

“Perhaps. But have you considered that I may want to?” Estinien doesn’t give him time to answer, nor does he look to see Aymeric’s reaction to that particular admission. Instead, he sets the poker aside with a metal clink against the stone hearth. A motion of finality. “Well, this fire is damn near unsalvageable, and it’s long past time you left your work and got some proper food and rest.”

“It’s also long past the hour my housekeepers retire for the evening,” Aymeric says with a wave of his hand. Estinien would be less amused had he not stowed his quill and inkwells in the same motion. It’s a concession Estinien will gladly take. “I doubt any of them would be willing to prepare dinner so late.”

Without another word, Estinien makes for the door, glancing over his shoulder for the briefest of moments to say, “Luckily you’ve caught me in a charitable mood.”

The smile on Aymeric’s face is audible as he speaks, and it warms Estinien from within. “Whatever would I do without you? My faithful Azure Dragoon.”

“Starve, at the very least.”

 


 

Estinien spends most of the trip to the Borel manse listening to Aymeric wax less than poetic about his work and the frustrating minutiae which accompanies it. Estinien’s ear is sympathetic, as ever, and the urge strikes him more than once to suggest Aymeric simply abandon his post and all its responsibilities — but it would not be the first time he has made such a suggestion, and he knows well Aymeric’s likely answer. It is enough for Estinien to be able to provide a supportive audience and strongarm him into taking care of himself when he can.

The housekeepers had seemingly left the embers of the hearth smoldering just enough that Estinien doesn’t have to work too hard to bring it back to something more hospitable. Within minutes the dark, quiet manse is instead warm and welcoming and comfortable enough for them to shed their outer layers and leave them out to dry while the food is prepared.

A quick rummage through Aymeric’s pantry cabinet finds enough simple ingredients to prepare a decent beef stew to shake the chill from their bones. Estinien feels Aymeric’s eyes on him as he works, preparing the pot and gathering ingredients. It’s a familiar feeling, one that makes him comfortable instead of apprehensive, loved instead of scrutinized — and entirely as a result of whom the gaze comes from.

Gods be damned, he’s grown so soft.

Instead of dwelling, he busies his hands with chopping vegetables and meat, with preparing the stovetop and cookware. The dish is familiar enough and he has made it in much less ideal circumstances and with far fewer serviceable ingredients; the limit is not the available ingredients or a lack thereof, but instead how much of the available ingredients he wants to add to the dish without ruining the flavor.

“I can cook for myself, you know,” Aymeric mentions offhand as Estinien scrounges for broth in his cupboards. “I pride myself on not being wholly useless.”

Estinien looks over his shoulder with a grin, setting the pot on the stove and preparing the stew to cook. “Right. Which is why I had to coerce you out of your office, and am now preparing what is likely the only substantial meal you’ve had today.”

The tips of Aymeric’s ears turn pink, and he looks away. “Just because I can do those things doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the pleasure of your company, nor the gesture of your doting. It’s… It’s quite nice to be cared for, in such a way.” The silence that follows is comfortable more so than awkward, but Aymeric seeks to fill it nonetheless. “Though I do bear two capable hands if there is ought you require in the way of assistance.”

Estinien opens his mouth with a refusal primed on the tip of his tongue, knowing he can suffice on his own, but the hypocrisy of such a denial is not lost on him. And above all, Estinien knows Aymeric’s penchant for restlessness when he lacks work to keep him busy. “If you’ve the desire, those onions and peppers need chopping.”

Aymeric grimaces, and Estinien can’t help but snort. Like a child. “Peppers?”

“Not everything can taste like sugar and syrup, Aymeric. Trust me. They add good flavor, with enough heat to keep you warm but not enough to hurt.” Aymeric hums acknowledgement, approaching the cutting board and pointedly opting to chop the onions first. “Just be careful with your hands, wash them well when you’re done. And be careful with the onions as well; if you rub your eyes too much they’ll feel worse.”

“Yes, mother.”

That startles a full laugh out of Estinien as he sets the pot to simmer and begins dicing the meat. Aymeric chuckles as well and it makes Estinien feel light in a way he had been sorely lacking in his time away from Ishgard. A warmth that transcends the weather outside. A warmth he sorely missed, and to which he is more than happy to return.

Ishgard itself is not his home, he cannot rightfully call it thus — not nearly as much as the man inhabiting it.

A few moments of idle chatter and the quiet rhythmic tapping of knives against wood pass and soon the kitchen is filled with the strong aroma of stew as it simmers. Estinien hears Aymeric’s stomach growl a few times before he relents and prepares two bowls to take back to eat by the hearth in the study.

Aymeric takes his first spoonful and sighs, eyes half-lidded in a way that makes Estinien’s cheeks warm as he watches from across the small table. “I concede you may have been right about the peppers. I thought they would have been much spicier.”

Estinien eats another spoonful of his own bowl and grins, shrugging good-naturedly. “I told you to trust me, didn’t I?”

But then Aymeric smiles, and the sheer light of it strikes Estinien where he is most vulnerable. “You did, and I do. Always. About peppers, and whatever else.”

Estinien grins into another spoonful, and the heat from his cheeks spreads to his neck faster than he can will it away. “Sap.”

He merely shrugs in response, grinning catlike and smug. “Guilty. But can you blame me? With delicious food and sorely sought company, I believe it is more than warranted. I have missed you dearly, Estinien.”

Again, the impulse to shut down strikes him, but he pushes beyond it. For his sake, and for Aymeric’s. “And I, you. Would that this business kept me closer to home.”

Aymeric finishes his bowl and pushes back from the table. “Yes, well, I have you now, and that will suffice. Thank you for dinner, love, it was incredible. I’ll brew us some tea, and we can forget whatever business promises to spirit us both away once dawn breaks.”

Estinien smiles and nods, uninhibited and more comfortable than he had ever dreamed of being with another. “I’d quite like that, I think.”