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When Camilla left, Lord Leon plunged himself into an endless chain of books. He worked his way through three centuries of philosophy in two months, and then he started on botany, then alchemy, and then the romance novels she had left behind that he swore he'd never touch. Zero asked him once how they were turning out, and Leon said, “It's horribly insipid,” as he cracked open the latest one, oblivious to the world within minutes.

It was a strange use of his time, considering how often he complained of the endless backlog of work left over from the war. But then, Leon often buried himself in strange obsessions when he was in a mood. Immediately after they had returned from the other world, he had gone to the archery range every day like clockwork, honing his little-used skills with the bow every day until a month well after the late king's funeral. Zero wondered sometimes if Lord Leon's broad array of talents formed a catalog of his grief.

He wrote often to Hoshido, long letters that seemed to leave him in a state of exhaustion, sealed with stamped wax to discourage prying eyes. Once Zero read part of one anyway, squinting at the veins of ink where they showed in backwards words through the vellum. He made out the phrase “abandoned me” and stopped, ashamed to steal glimpses into his lord's heart without being invited in.

But for all the raw emotion Leon sent to Hoshido, in Castle Krakenstein he barricaded himself behind books and vague aggression. “Don't stand so close, Zero.” “Don't leave the door open like that, Zero.” “Yes, thank you, Zero. You're dismissed.”

Zero stole the pudding off of his breakfast tray in return. He'd leave the plate on the tray so that Leon would know.

The second time Zero brought in a tray with one small dish empty, Leon closed his book and looked Zero in the eye. “Zero, is there something we should discuss?”

Even then he was cool, collected, and vaguely annoyed. And asking after Zero instead of speaking for himself.

Zero left the tray on his nightstand and sat down uninvited on Leon's bed. His back brushed against Leon's legs where they were crossed under the sheets. Leon moved them away.

“Milord, you know that I've never kept secrets from you.”

“Yes. I've never doubted that.”

Leon looked at him, earnest and uncomprehending.

In that moment, Zero realized that he could not ask his lord to speak.

“I ate your pudding,” he said instead.

“So I've gathered,” Leon said dryly. “Why?”

“Hard to say. I might not be getting enough attention. I need a little stimulation sometimes, you know?” He sidled up next to Leon, who made vague sounds of annoyance as Zero stroked his bedhead.

“Well, you have my attention now,” Leon said, not making any move to repel him.

Zero ran his fingers through his hair, fingers across his scalp. Leon's hair was fine and childishly soft, and for all his disdain, he leaned in slightly to Zero's touch.

“You know that you give me purpose,” he said softly into Leon's ear. Leon hummed in response. “You are irreplaceable to me. I would gladly lay down my life for you.”

“Thank you, Zero. I'm grateful to have you at my side.”

That was all. And the next day Leon wrote a letter to Hoshido again behind closed doors.

I am right here, Zero thought to himself, even though he knew why Leon would not show him weakness and why Leon sent letters to Hoshidan royalty before saying a word to him—why his adoration and devotion to Leon that consumed his entire life seemed to matter so little to his lord.

His life, after all, had always meant less. Each and every fragment that he had offered like garbage at his master's feet. Hadn't he always known that?

He stood guard outside of Leon's door. Inside those chambers, Leon read and read his loneliness into numbness.

When the breakfast cart came, Zero took one tray for his lord and helped himself to the pudding. If nothing he did mattered, he might as well.