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The Painted Stage

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the painted stage, it comes alive at night when all the world is dead.
-happy rhodes-


1. Summertime
oh, to feel the wind
that brushes through those leaves
at an ever quickening pace
must i always seen that face?
-happy rhodes-

This is the dream:

No, actually, he doesn't feel well. And no matter how many times she asks, he still doesn't. It's to be expected - the arrow wound wasn't bad, but the sewer waters didn't do him any favors - he'll be lucky to avoid an infection. At least, that's what the local physician says. And Casca's attention doesn't make him feel better - if anything, it makes him feel... trapped. Full of thoughts he has no place to set down. Full of images from hours ago.

...things about Griffith.

He can still remember that man standing atop the steps with the night wind stirring his hair. Strange, and distant and... different from Guts. From Casca, too. That feeling has been building for months, he thinks - an ongoing development as Griffith drifts toward aristocracy, and the rest of them remain rooted to the ground. It's been building, yes, but he didn't notice it until now. Maybe it's one of those things that only becomes obvious in retrospect.

Really... fuck those things.

Casca says, "At least you know what he thinks now." And her voice is harsh and clipped as she folds her arms over her chest. And Guts thinks, somewhere in the back of her mind, she's thinking... at least she does, too. But that might not be true. Come to think of it, she probably already knew.

And Guts says he does, says it's good to know.

Says he never expected to hear his own name in that kind of context.

Says he never expected Griffith to call him a friend.

He's smiling now, even if he feels feverish and weak. Even if the wound is throbbing with every heartbeat.

And for the first time, he knows he'll never leave the Hawks.

* * *

He must have fallen asleep.

He decides this within a few seconds of opening his eyes - yes, he must have fallen asleep right there on this uncomfortable damn rock, head leaning against the hilt of his sword Not the best position, but even so, in some ways it's not surprising. Injured as he is, and tired as he is - aching the way he does - nodding off seems natural. Just more evidence of what he already knew: he should have stayed in bed, even if he couldn't tolerate it. Even if the tent was too hot, too sweaty, too much confinement. Even though he knew he had to see the night sky.

...speaking of which, it's a nice sky, tonight - all clear and full of stars. Now, sitting on a hill overlooking the Hawks' camp, Guts can say he feels... pretty shitty, really, but also clear-headed and cool. And his head is rested, and his mind is full of thoughts.

That's probably why he had the dream, he knows. - the echo of old regrets, and old wishes. Better, at least in theory, than the ones he normally has, all blood and bad memories. And yet, in some ways, just as painful, carrying all those endless what ifs and what thens. Either way, it's already going the way of dreams - fading into nothingness. By now, all he remembers is Griffith calling him friend.

Mark it down to wishful thinking. He smiles a little soft and sad, head down, fingers sliding over the hilt of that sword. Another in a series of fruitless hopes and self-doubt. He knows, already, that he should go... even if he hasn't yet put it to words.

Guts shifts his sword, lets it rest on his other shoulder. Below him, beneath the hill, thousands of little campfires burn, spread out across the plain.

That's when he hears the voices.

Guts lifts his head and, there, not so far away, Casca is silhouetted against the dark sky. She looks different, today, he thinks. She looks... smaller. Softer. Especially in the presence of that second figure. Or rather, she's the second figure, and the other one should be considered first - should always be considered first.

Griffith takes a bag from Casca's hand and glances toward Guts. In the moonlight, and the starlight - in the dim flickering of the faraway campfires - Griffith looks like a spirit made flesh. Silver and white and ethereal, his hair swirling around his face. Guts only looks for a second or two, and then away. A moment later, Griffith sits on the grass beside Guts' boulder throne and holds up the little bag.

"Medicine," he says with a vague smile. "Apparently a gift from Judeau, though I took it from Casca when I told her I had come to visit you."

Guts blinks once, and glances off - town toward the tents, where Casca's frame grows smaller in retreat. For a moment, he feels bad for her - even guilty. Knowing her, she'll read it as another example of Griffith favoring him. Guts, of course, knows better - Griffith doesn't favor anyone, at least no one they know. An equal, Griffith said that night, standing at the top of the steps. But where the hell is he going to find one of those?

Still, he takes the bag from Griffith's hand with a quick jerk, and opens it. Inside, there's some kind of sparkly dust. It looks like... star powder. Or maybe ground talc stones.

"Doesn't look like any kind of medicine I've ever seen," he says, and sticks his free hand in, balancing the flat of his blade against his shoulder. The dust feels strange on his fingertips - light and tingly at the same time. Smooth.

"Fairy dust," Griffith says with a little gesture, "Or... elf powder? Something along those lines." Guts gives him a little look - some mix of skepticism and interest, and Griffith holds his hands aloft.
"I repeat only what's told to me." But he smiles, and shifts his feet. "Put it on your wounds, and apparently you'll be patched up in short order. I wouldn't have believed it, before we met Zodd. But, of course it's hard to maintain more than a low level of skepticism, now."

"Not for me." Guts snorts a little. Even so, he smears the powder on his stitches, feeling like an idiot. Wondering if this is going to put him into septic shock. Wondering why he always does stupid shit just because Griffith tells him to.

Really, he just answered his own question.

Not a bad choice this time, though. It only takes a moment for the pain to go away, and Griffith nods once, as Guts applies the powder elsewhere - lets it soothe his aching skin and burning wounds. A handful of injuries later, Guts closes the bag, twists the top closed. When he looks up, there's Griffith, watching him - intense and silent and... here. Instead of at his war meeting.

Guts blinks. "Wait, aren't you supposed to be off at some meeting?"

"Mmm." Griffith bobs his head side to side a little. And he is, of course. They both know he is. But Griffith never explains himself, never gives a reason. That's the way he's always been. "I came back." he says, and just like that, the subject shifts. "Come on. Let's head to camp."

Guts doesn't want to go. He doesn't even want to move from this spot, let alone crawl back into that tent. But he finds himself standing anyway, vaguely itchy and slightly achy and creaky to the bone, his sword balanced flat against his shoulder. And he finds himself walking before he can stop himself, Griffith at his side, matching footsteps.

The camp lingers before them in the hazy night - red-gold flames flickering in the dark. It makes the area brighter, and not just because of the fire. The air, it's bright with hopes. Bright with dreams. Faintly, he can hear the singing, little voices joined together in camp songs. He can hear, too, the faint hum of conversation - laughter, jokes, overlapping, forming a different kind of music. The music of camraderie. His friends... his family? Always weaving their voices, Guts thinks, and there he is, always alone.

It takes him two steps to notice that Griffith is no longer walking. Before he can turn, that pale face peeks around Guts's houlder, and Griffith says, "Guts." Right now, in the dark, his eyes are so damn bright, too. Why didn't Guts ever notice that before?

"Is something troubling you?" Griffith's fingers push a wavy lock behind his ear. "You seem melancholy?"

Just the question is... a little annoying. Guts makes a noise - a scoffing grunt - and he means to say no, that everything's fine, even if it isn't. But in the end, he can't quite do it. He can't lie to that face.

"I..." What? What is it, what? Guts rubs the back of his neck, feels the hard scratch of his own calloused fingers against his softer skin. "...think the war's gonna be over soon."

"Yes." Griffith's expression doesn't change even a little. "Very soon."

And Guts says, "Eh. I'm just thinking about that. About what it means."

"Ah?" Griffith's weight shifts. It's evident from the crackle of twigs under his feet. And he gives Guts that look - interest and curiosity, his eyebrows a little raised, his lips a bit pouty. "What does it mean?"

"Hell if I know." Guts says this, even though it's a lie. He does know. He knows that when the last winged sword banner raises over the last battlefield of the 100 year war, his time here will be over. It'll be time, then, to chase his own vision - his own dream. Maybe one day he can come back with something in his hands - something of his own. Something to show Griffith and prove.... But he can't say that, can he? How do you tell someone who only wants to be close to people who live for themselves... that you're going to rearrange your whole life to be closer to them? That's the twist in the gut, really. That'll the hardest part - never telling him why.

"Guts..."

"Yeah?"

"I should be at a war meeting." Griffith shifts again. He looks at the sky, now, and Guts thinks... Griffith shines, too. Like all those stars. Like the campfires, and the moon. "...that's where I should be. But I came to see you."

Okay. Trouble is, he's not sure what that's supposed to mean.

Griffith starts walking again, but his footsteps are measured now, slower. "...what is it you want?"

And Guts doesn't know how to answer that, either - at least not the way he'd like to. So he shrugs instead, and he keeps his eye on the camp. The bonfires, all fragile and strong. "I had this thought," he says, keeping pace with his commander. "Back when I was taking down all those soldiers. ...or, no, maybe it started earlier than that." On the fountain steps, in the wind. "Without a war, what the hell use is there for soldiers?" He looks up at the immobile heavens. "I'm not a noble, Griffith, I hate that crap. Dances and functions. I need to be out there, swinging this sword. I need--" Something. Anything of his own. He needs--

"A dream?"

Guts nearly trips over his own feet. "A..." When he looks back, Griffith is standing still again, looking at the stars. Guts... hesitates. "Griffith..."

And Griffith says, "....no. You can't leave." The wind stirs, and Griffith pushes his hair back from his face. "Guts. If you want to swing that sword around, there will be plenty to swing it at. And if you want a dream... we'll find one."

Just like that, Griffith is moving again. Stepping over stones, and through the grass. Guts watches his back for a long moment before he follows behind.

And Griffith goes to his tent, and Guts goes to his own. But not before they stand outside the edge of the camp and listen to the voices of five thousand brothers in arms - and the faint echoes of their one sister, too. Not before Griffith presses a hand to Guts' shoulder and says, "Stay with us."

Alone in his tent, Guts stares at the ceiling.

Maybe. Maybe he can put off deciding. At least until after the campaign.

* * *

When Doldrey falls, the Band of the Hawk's flags raise over the great fortress. Guts only hears about them afterward. Too injured, too weak, his sword damaged from the battle in the forest that day - the day he felled 100 men - he'd only barely managed to topple the Purple Rhino's commander, Boscogn. Maybe he ought to have used a bit more of that damn powder. Still, only barely is still a success and, watching the sky move over him (or himself move under it) as he's carried away from the fortress by stretcher, he thinks... no regrets. Even if he never regains use of that eye - no, even if he dies, he has no regrets.

...and he dreams. He dreams about death - about lying on his back in his tent, watching Casca's tears fall over his face. About Griffith's pale stare - intense and somehow angry - as the light fades to black. It's strange, and vivid, and real. When he wakes, he near expects to see Hell.

But, no, it's just the physician again. That, really, is close enough to Hell. But Griffith sits beside him, and Guts finds he can open both eyes. He can move both hands. Strange, he thought his injuries were far more severe.

The first thing Griffith says is, "Maybe you should have used more of that powder." The next is, "...and gotten a new sword."

And yes, his sword. It shattered, he remembers. And then there was another - a blade from nowhere. For a moment, he'd thought--

"Ugh." Guts sits up right, and it hurts. "I had this weird dream."

Griffith glances at the physician - just one look and the man exits the area. "Oh?"

"Yeah. I was dying. You were pissed at me for doing that... and Casca--"

"I would be pissed at you," Griffith says, and his voice is both calm and sharp. "Certainly, you can't die."

What do you even say to that?

Guts runs a hand over his face - muscles ache, body aches. The tent is crowded and claustrophobic and too hot - it always is. "We're all gonna die one day, Griffith. But, eh. Probably not today."

Griffith stands, and his head nearly brushes the ceiling in this little monstrosity. He nods, and his fingers touch the tent flaps, push them open. "I know," he says. "After all... I haven't given you leave to die."

* * *

He doesn't know when he decided to stay. Maybe it was that night on the hill when Griffith promised him a new dream. Maybe it was the dream - Griffith's rage, Casca's tears. Maybe he never really decided, exactly; just did it, or maybe was only ever fooling himself when he said he'd leave to begin with.

But his injuries fade, and his sword is replaced. Seasons pass - snow into spring, into balmy days and back again. And the sun shines over Midland, and Guts is called "Sir Guts," and sometimes, "My Lord." It never gets any more comfortable. Maybe it never will. But in the end it doesn't matter, because the seasons still pass, and here he remains.


2. silence carved on me
i am a constant satellite of your blazing sun
my love, i obey your law of gravity
this is the fate you've carved on me.
-vienna teng-

The king is ill; that much Guts knows just from listening to the whispers around the city. It's a shame, actually; out of the royal family, as a whole, there are only two people that have always been pretty decent to the Hawks (sorry, the White Phoenix army), and to Griffith (...sorry, Count Griffith). There's the king, wasting away in his bedroom... and there's Charlotte.

Sorry, Princess Charlotte.

That one's a little harder for him. Mostly because of the way the former Hawks have come to live. There's a section of the city where they all linger - little stone houses and larger ones, too, all surrounding courtyard garden which, itself, is built around a fountain. And the largest of the buildings? That's Griffith's home - the manor around which the little corner itself was built. Or rather, was chosen. And it wasn't exactly preplanned, at least not in the beginning. It's just that no one wants to be away from him, even if he's drifted away from them - or most of them, anyway.

Guts lives there, too. And Charlotte, well, she doesn't, but she's there a lot. He sees her around all the time, flitting from the palace to Griffith's estate, her face covered by a hooded robe. Going on her secret visits, and lingering in the garden. Sometimes he sees her flitting around in Griffith's estate, too. And at first, he kept up the whole Your Majesty address, because Griffith gave him these wicked glares when he forgot. But eventually, she rested her hand on his forearm and smiled, and said, "Charlotte will do." That was maybe a month after she and Griffith announced their betrothal. And that was maybe 8 months ago. He's never been sure whether she told him that because she didn't like formalities, or because she knew he was Griffith's best friend, or maybe because it wouldn't do to have people overhear her title when she was meant to be holed up in the castle like a proper unmarried princess. Whatever the reason, though, it didn't take long for Guts to get used to her name. It never takes long, really, to make himself comfortable with things that he thinks he ought to have been able to do the whole damn time. So "Charlotte" it is.

Charlotte Windham, Griffith's woman. Or betrothed, or whatever the right term is. That part, at least, he's having a hard time getting used to.

She isn't at the manor today, though, not with her father being sick as he is. So when Guts leaves his own home at near-midnight, he isn't too terribly surprised to find Griffith sitting on a stone bench in the courtyard garden. Staring at the sky.

The fireflies are out tonight. Makes sense, it's that time of year. They glitter all around, lingering here and there, but Griffith is surrounded by them. Bright ones, twisting around him, illuminating the dark. Guts stretches a little as he steps forward, through the shadow and the light haze. He doesn't really mean to scare them, but even so, when he comes closer, the lights scatter.

Griffith raises his head, and smiles a little. At his feet, a hooded lantern flickers against the cobblestone pathway.

"Hey." Guts tips his head a little. "Sorry for scaring off your bugs."

That sounds stupid. Once he says it, he knows it sounds stupid. But Griffith just chuckles, and shakes his head. "It's fine," he says, tugging one sleeve. "They'll be back tomorrow."

"Got some kind of schedule with the fireflies then, I got it." Guts stretches - really, that's the reason he's even here. His muscles are aching, and the night feels so fucking restless. But he can't leave now, not with Griffith sitting there so quietly, looking so solemn. Not with his... future wife's father dying. That must be weighing on him, come to think of it. Midland's king, he's the whole reason the Hawks - and Griffith - have gotten this far to begin with. When the king falls... what then? So, Guts sits down on the bench nearest to Griffith's, and he plucks at the flowers nearest to his feet. "How's the king?"

And Griffith says, "Dying." It's just that simple. That blunt.

"Uh." Guts watches Griffith's face from the side of his vision, tugs a blade of grass free from the ground. "Think that'll be a problem?" Because... Guts does. It wasn't so long ago, after all, that he was putting down attempted assassins. Now the court seems to have calmed, but with the king gone... with Griffith in danger of becoming king, himself... the nobles might not stay silent or inactive forever.

Really, it was difficult even getting the king himself to agree to Griffith's proposal of marriage to his daughter. At first, it had been a direct refusal - and an angry one. Guts has never quite been sure what made him change his mind.

Now, Guts can imagine the storm to come. The rebellions, the protests. The pressure on Charlotte to marry some prince, or some king.

But Griffith only smiles. "Don't worry," he says with a little shake of his head. "I'm already preparing for that." And he's calm; always so calm these days. Not that he was ever a frantic person by nature. But sometimes... sometimes, it's like the end of the war drained the passion out of him. Maybe that's the way it is when battles end for soldiers. No more wars to fight, maybe that's the same thing as retirement, and rotting.

Eh, there will be wars enough, soon. If the king is gone, and Griffith becomes king... there'll be all the wars in the world.

"Never thought I'd see this day." It takes Guts a moment to realize he's the one who said it. But actually, yeah. Yeah. There it is. He looks over at Griffith, who's looking over at him. "When we met, I mean. Hell, gotta admit I thought you were a lunatic. I'll get my own country. And that coming from a commoner. Who the hell says that? Who thinks that way?" No one. No one except Griffith. And the thought of that just makes him grin a little, and he plucks another handful of grass, scattering it over the walkway. "Yeah, I thought you were crazy. Except, not really, too. I guess, crazy as it was, I always thought you'd pull it off." In that way, he was just like the other Hawks. Always looking up at Griffith. Always looking to him for a lead, and for hope. Looking to him as an example of what humanity could be, if it just steeled itself, if it strengthened its own spine.

Really... amazing.

"No one else could have done it," Guts says, and his voice is lower now. "No one but you."

"Hm." The wind stirs a little, a light breeze that shifts the flowers, and rustles the trees. Griffith pulls loose a scarlet lily blossom. "Guts... once I'm king, I'll have to step down as general of the White Phoenix Army. Well, the Hawks." The Hawks, yes, even now. Griffith lifts the red flower, spins it between his fingertips. "At that point, I'd like to reorganize. I'd like to split the Raiders into a second, but connected force, and place Casca in command of the remainder. I suppose that would make her the... White Phoenix General. And as for you..." He smiles a little. "What do you think of... White Wolf General? Or... White Dog?"

Guts barks out a laugh, and it's appropriate as hell. "White Dog... yeah, I could go with that." He'll just call them the Raiders anyway. "But... why?"

"Well." The moon gleams in Griffith's icy blue stare. "You would take the offensive in the future, just as you have in the past. Really... that's the main reason."

An offensively geared army. Guts shrugs, and leans back. "Sure. But what do you need something like that for now? That war's over."

"No." Griffith's gaze wanders to the stars, and his voice is quiet as the rustling wind. "Really... the war is just beginning."

Like half the things Griffith says when he's feeling all cryptic, that doesn't make much sense. Still, it lingers. And Guts' mind skims over the surface of that thought, flipping backwards like rocks skipping on a lake. There's something behind that, he thinks - something that used to haunt him. He'd been so troubled by it, once, and now--

"Oi, that prophecy." Yes. Zodd's prophecy. A foretelling of doom. Guts shifts in his seat, watching Griffith's face. No reaction - but then, he shouldn't have expected one. Griffith was unconscious at the time. "Sorry, not that prophecy. A prophecy. Something Zodd said. Something about a death coming soon - a death I couldn't escape." When he says it aloud like that, it sounds sort of stupid, actually. Guts rubs the back of his neck, laughs. "A few times, I thought I was running into it, but here I am. I wonder how soon is soon."

"Zodd said that? You never mentioned it."

"Yeah. Well, it's not like I really believed it." Except for how, sometimes, he did.

It was a different time back then, though. Living by the sword - fighting the "good" fight - not that fights really have a lot of good or evil in them. Still, he remembers those sprawling armies, and pushing down the helmet that he could never keep on. He remembers the rush, and the sight of Griffith in the sunlight, his fingers closed around the weird red stone.

It's been a while since he saw that thing. For the first time in a while, Guts wonders where it's gone. And maybe he would ask about it - maybe. But Griffith chooses that moment to stand, and stretch. The dim lamplight on him is... unearthly. Flicker, and it shimmers off the silvery threads woven through his jacket. Flicker, it gleams on the buckles of his shoes. Flicker....

"Prophecies... fate..." Griffith's eyes are shining now, too. "I wonder if you really believe in that kind of thing."

Truth is, Guts can't really be sure. Devils, that much he believes in - how could he not, after what he's seen. But fate? Gods and strings or whatever, pulling people from place to place, making them do things... that's a tall order. So, he shrugs, still seated, watching Griffith. Looking up at him.

...he's always hated that.

But the night is pleasant; warm chatter and warm firelight. It wasn't long ago, if he thinks about it - lifting Casca to the railing, telling her to go see her commander. Back then, he thought maybe those two were meant to be. He should have known Griffith would need to go for something bigger. (Bigger, definitely. Not better.) By the time they start back to their homes, the sky is beginning to lighten and the moon is beginning to fade. Guts walks Griffith back to the gates of his manor, and beyond, to the door.

It's there, surrounded by the privacy of hedges and columns, that Griffith says, "I think Casca is in love with you."

Always direct. Except when he isn't. And Guts' eyes widen and his brow furrows before he manages to spit out, "What?" And "No," and, "She loves you."

And it's true, of course. Casca has always loved Griffith, has always lived to offer him her service. He remembers the cave as clearly as he remembers yesterday morning - her curled form, the way she couldn't meet his eyes. I want to be by his side, she said, back then. And her knees pressed against her chest. And if he'll give up everything for his dream, then I want to be his sword. Well, it was something like that.

Still, Griffith tips his head back and says, "Yes... maybe. But, one day, she'll know she has to move on. She's a woman, Guts. She's... human." The way he says it, so simply. She's a woman - human. With flesh and blood and needs. And Griffith is watching Guts carefully, his eyes shadowed by his hair. "How do you feel about her?"

And hell, that's a weird question, too.

"Judeau always used to ask me about that." Guts leans against a pillar, resting on the cold marble. His hand rubs idly at the back of his neck again. "That's probably why-- eh."

"Eh?"

"I had this dream once, a long time back, where I took off after the war. Went to find adventures and all that. She was in it. She..." She traveled with him. She smiled at him. Fought by his side. They went from city to city, finding challenges and seeking their own fortune. It was... nice. At the time, it was nice. But Guts watches Griffith's face, that strange, guarded look, and suddenly he feels like he's navigating a field of traps. After all this time, does Griffith still love Casca?

Still. Funny how he even assumes that was the case. But he's always known it was, even if no one ever said the words. Why else did he risk his reputation sending that search party to find her? Of course, he wouldn't be able to pursue it. His dream... that dream had always been Griffith's priority. So, he'd chosen the princess, that was probably predictable - even if Guts had once thought it would go another way. But even if Griffith had chosen - even if he got what he wanted, most in the end - that doesn't make it any less awkward to talk about.

Guts shrugs. Awkward, yeah. That's the right word. "We were together. I blame Judeau."

Griffith's head drops slightly, and his hair frames his face in all those white curls. White and silver, really, shimmering in the darkness. "That's quite a dream," he says. "Does that mean you want her?"

Guts laughs a little bit, short and sharp. "That's the strangest part, you know? Don't really think I do." Maybe once. A year ago, or a year and a half. Maybe. But now?

"Ah." It's quiet for a moment - just the soft breeze, and quiet breath. Griffith raises his gaze a little, and Guts can see his pale blue eyes shining from beneath a gauzy veil of hair. And Griffith says, "And me?"

"You?" That question. It doesn't make any sense. It doesn't... "What are you--?"

He never finishes his thought. Because Griffith's eyes are suddenly wide and predatory, like a hunter's. Like his namesake's. And then Griffith's fingers are on Guts' face, and sliding to his jaw, and behind his head. And Griffith's mouth is on his, so soft and harsh at the same time, and Guts... doesn't know what to do, or where to put his hands. He doesn't know whether he ought to kiss back, until he already is.

And he doesn't remember moving from the door through the halls of that too-large manor. He doesn't remember going into Griffith's chambers - all blond wood twisting together with marble, all perfect, all luxury. He doesn't even remember shedding his boots. But he remembers the firm click of the door behind them, and the lighter one of the key turning in the lock.

He remembers Griffith's lips on his throat, and yanking loose the lacings of his trousers.

...funny. It's not something he's ever considered doing before. Sex, yes - though Guts has never been especially carnal by nature, he is nonetheless made of flesh, too. Yes, he's thought about it - about women, really. About her, especially; Casca, with her throat exposed by her short hair, and the lines of her muscular back. Court women had never done anything for him, and men...

There's always been a blank space in his mind when it came to men.

So, it's true, he's never considered it before. But now, he feels the give of the bed beneath his back, and Griffith's hair ghosts over his skin trailing behind the hot, soft kisses, and he wonders he never bothered to look into that space. He knows, of course - even know, he can feel those old demons stirring, lingering. But surely it would be worth braving them to feel... this. Griffith's lips sliding over the length of him, and Griffith's nails digging into his hips. His tongue, swirling, tasting.

--too much. Too much. Guts digs his fingers into Griffith's hair and tugs, gentle and rough, pulling his head back. And Griffith's lips are all pink and red and just a tiny bit open, and Griffith's eyes are dark like endless pools.

Guts's hands are different than Griffith's, of course. His palms are wide and calloused, and his fingers are thicker, shorter, and yes they're calloused, too. Still, he runs them over plains of hard muscle drags the fingernails he never files down over those pale shoulders, closes his hands around Griffith's upper arm. And Griffith moves with him, moving up the bed (so large, so soft, it's like drowning in clouds). Guts wonders if his callouses drag and scratch. If his fingers will leave bruises. Griffith's skin, it's so soft, so unmarred - delicate. It should bruise easily, and yet he's never seen a mark on that man.

It's probably like Griffith himself - not nearly as soft as he can appear, sometimes. Because yes, dressed in a noble's attire, voice low, flirting with the court, he can seem like one of them - a soft aristocrat swaddled in silk. But now, all those fancy things have fallen to the ground, and his body is a warrior's body, and his eyes are cold fire.

There's a vial on his nightstand - some sort of oil? And Guts briefly wonders what it's for, and then he knows, and then he wonders what it was doing there to begin with. The question must show on his face, because Griffith smiles a little as he unstoppers the glass.

"It's only skin-softening oil," he says, letting a few drops fall into his palm. "For dry hands?"

Or something like that. Maybe he'd ask about it, if he could think. If Griffith's hands weren't sliding over him, slick and firm and soft at the same time. The softness - his skin, and the hardness, his grip, tight sliding over oil, and the cooling trails of wetness left by his tongue, and his lips. And this is enough - more than enough. He wouldn't ask for more, not consciously, and not with words. But his body is more demanding than his mind, and so Guts pushes himself onto his elbows, watching Griffith's hands move. Breath jagged, catching and tripping, he shifts his weight onto one arm, and grips Grififth's hair, tugging, urging him closer.

Maybe it's too much. And yes, he keeps waiting to hit that wall - for Griffith to push him away. He doesn't know why - arguably it doesn't even make sense; after all, it was Griffith who drew him here to begin with. But still, he's surprised to find Griffith following that tug, following Guts' lead. Long enough to kiss him again, long enough to reach over and drag a mountain of pillows closer, giving Guts something to lean on. Some support. He needs it. Because a moment later, Griffith shifts his weight back, and that's surprising too - the feeling of pushing into him, and his own inability to stop himself from grabbing onto Griffith's hips and pulling him farther down, pushing his own hips up.

Griffith's head falls back, and he lets out a shaky breath, and a soft moan. And for just an instant - a quick flash - Guts wonders if that was too much - too quickly. But then Griffith is looking at him - Griffith's fingers rake across Guts' chest, fingernails stinging his flesh and leaving faint marks. And there is nothing on that face but desire.

After that, Guts doesn't think about too much, or enough. In fact, he doesn't think at all. No - there's no time for thinking, only for Griffith's moans and the soft give of his skin under Guts' fingertips. The way the bed creaks when they move together, and the way all that luminescent skin looks, soaked in moonlight and and gleaming with sweat. All that hair becomes a pool of silver around his head when Guts pushes him down, instead (or was it Griffith that pulled Guts onto him?). And Guts loses track of kisses, like he loses track of time, and faintly bloody stratch marks left on his chest and shoulders and back, and the coppery ring of toothmarks where Griffith bit Guts' lip when he came.

When morning comes, Guts hasn't slept. He spends the night in waking dreams, remembering Griffith's mouth, and Griffith's hands. It's only after dawn, when the sky is growing light and the world begins to stir, that he turns onto his side, and buries his face in Griffith's hair, and lets himself drift away still wondering, what now?

* * *

What now? As it happens, it's a simply question with a complicated answer.

Griffith is married within a fortnight, and soon after the king passes away. The crown comes to Charlotte, and through her, to Griffith himself. Guts questions himself on the matter, wonders if he's jealous, or resentful. Wonders if he should be. But he recognizes Griffith's political needs in a way he never recognized Griffith's heart.

Funny, he thinks one night as Griffith's heel drags up his thighs to the small of his back. Funny how he always thought it was Casca Griffith loved. Even their first night together, he'd thought that jealousy he sensed in Griffith's gaze was directed at him, and over her. But no, it was never Casca, like it was never Charlotte.

"It was never anyone, really," Griffith tells him one night, "Only you."

And Guts remembers Casca's story - the nobleman they'd killed at Doldrey, and his predilections, and his deal with Griffith. The thought of it makes him ill now - not that he enjoyed thinking of it before. But now, lying there in the darkness, his hand resting on Griffith's bare shoulder, he can't help but think about it. Part of him wants to say something - to broach the subject, as unpleasant as it is. And part of him knows it would be hypocritical to go delving around in Griffith's unsavory past when he has yet to share his own.

So instead, he chuckles deep in his chest, and says, "Yeah, guess I would have noticed if you were sleeping around."

Griffith raises a hand over his head, palm facing the ceiling. Its shadow falls over his face - one palm and five outlined fingers. "I didn't say I never slept around." A little pause, and he glances toward Guts. "Then again, I didn't say I did, either. But that's not what I meant.

"You're not the only one I've ever bedded." He curls his fingers, tips to his palm. "You're just the only one I've ever loved."

A simple statement; one that ought to be nearly inconsequential, if you simply look at the words. Eight words. Nothing, really. And Griffith says the word so causally. Yet, there's a weight behind it that Guts can't identify. Maybe it's the way he looks over, those eyes slightly wide, vulnerable in a way that belies his tone. Or maybe it's the way those words settle over Guts himself.

Love. Not a word people use around him all that often.

"Yeah," he says, "Me too." And he hopes Griffith knows what he means, even if the words don't quite match up. But the moment is too heavy, too strange. So he smirks, then, and adds, "...your highness."

As it turns out, no... he's not really jealous. He can compartmentalize, he decides. Griffith's life with Charlotte. Griffith's life with him. Their own little space, their own time. A bubble, so to speak.

But the world is changing outside the bubble. He can hear the whispers on the wind. Rumors of rebellion from inside Midland. Rumors of war brewing in the East. They say the Kushans are mobilizing, the urge for war carried on the backs of those wardogs called the Kushans... or, more directly, their aspiring conqueror of a sovereign, Ganishka.

Those aren't the only rumors, either. It's said that there are monsters in the forest. That there are creatures in the dark. And every time someone says it, every time he hears another story, he thinks about Zodd's black wings turning up dust - his growling voice, his words of doom.

He speaks his fears to Griffith, sometimes. Just like he remembers, sometimes, that night when Griffith said the war was only starting. He asks Griffith, "Aren't you worried about all this? About the Kushans, anyway."

And every time, Griffith shakes his head.

Every time, he says, "You worry too much."

Every time, he says, "I've already planned for this."


3. the wrong side of the glass
I still feel it racing in my veins
but when i let go,
(what will change?)
when i let go, nothing walks away.
-terami hirsch-

Under Casca's leadership, the White Phoenix Army flourishes. It's been two years, and the size just keeps increasing. Quickly, she's set up opportunities for impoverished aspiring knights, and for women. Listening to her speak is inspiring, if she's still aggressive and stoic. Maybe even moreso than she used to be.

Guts sees her often enough. He sees her talking to the troops and making plans. Accepting flowers from crying women who thought they were doomed to remain in poverty or inconsequential. Now they carry swords at their side, and their hair is cut above the shoulder, or kept in tight braids to fit beneath their gleaming helms. Yeah, it's inspiring. And she and Guts aren't as close as they were, having been driven somewhat apart by the demands of their different positions, but even so he watches her sometimes, and he thinks, Amazing. Yeah, she's amazing too.

White Phoenix General Casca stays in Midland, of course - close to the capital and close to the king. It's her troops that accompany Griffith and his fluttery wife onto the annual hunt - now a game of entrapment rather than death, at the queen's request. It's the perfect position for Casca, who only ever wanted to be near Griffith... in one form or another. Even so, he wonders sometimes if she's truly happy as she is, alone and watching Griffith ride beside his wife at events.

Maybe she is... though there's a strange distance between them now that never existed in the old days.

Maybe he thinks too much about that.

Two years. Guts can't decide whether that seems too short or too long.

As for him, the members of the White Dog Army haven't quite taken to their new titles - which is probably his fault, since he still calls them Raiders, just like he won't let them call him General, or Lord, or any of those other bullshit titles he's been stacking up lately. And while the White Phoenix Army grows, the Raiders remain relatively steady in size... but not in strength. These days, their enemies call them the Hellhounds. These days, they're the Grim Reapers.

The lineup hasn't changed all that much. Gaston's retired, of course, and married with a baby on the way. Guts still shops at his store. Still drags Griffith there, just to watch his former lieutenant's face light up at the sight of their beloved White Hawk. Other than that, it's mostly the same old faces, plus or minus a few. A knight here and there. A new face. These days, his strongest warrior is a knight he's only recently come to know - a famous lancer, or so he heard. Locus fights like a demon, that much he knows, though his backstory seems strange and confusing sometimes. Who really cares, anyway? Besides, maybe they need demons.

After all, Ganishka is coming.

The Kushans, as it turns out, began plotting a move on Midland the moment the old king died. They spotted a weakness, one could say - a potential jewel in their everygrowing collection of stones. Midland, the center of the continent, had fallen into the hands of a young girl - a young girl who, rumor said, flinched at war, and at blood. How could they waste such an opportunity?

They didn't realize, at the time, the significance of that exchange of power. That power had not fallen to a dove, but to a Hawk.

Still, determination is what it is, and if rumors hold true, Ganishka's intent is to recreate the old continent-spanning kingdom once overseen by the lost emperor Gaiseric. So the Kushans waited, and they planned, and now they've arrived.

Griffith was right, after all, when he said the war was just beginning.

And Guts has spent the past few weeks outside the city, Raiders (Dogs? Hounds?) in tow, driving back the minor advance forces Ganishka sends to test Midland's strength. It's exhausting work, and it's kept him from home - and from Griffith - for nearly two months. And yet, the truth is, part of him welcomes it. Three years of peace, it seems, are at least two years too many. It's been ages since he felt this kind of excitement, this kind of passion, anywhere outside of Griffith's bed. Carving through his enemies, that blade slashing the air, he feels focused. He feels alive.

It's that old, familiar feeling - that power, and that recklessness - that pushes him to take on the offensive. and start pushing forward, testing the kushan army instead of allowing himself to be tested.

A shitty idea, really. And he knows it the moment he catches sight of the primary invading force.

It's too big. It's too strong. And the Raiders... his Raiders... they're in too much danger, even with their reinforcements.

He has no idea how Griffith finds out. Even less so how Griffith arrives so quickly... but he does. And he's surrounded by reinforcements, and flanked by knights, by the old guard of the Band of the Hawk and by his best archer. And he doesn't even yell at Guts when they meet beneath the spread of Griffith's personal tent.

"Sorry," Guts says, and he feels 18 again, apologizing for taking on some Chuder idiots all alone. "What the hell's wrong with me, anyway? Always putting everyone in danger." Always trying to prove himself - to Gambino, to Griffith, to himself. Guts doesn't know what to say.

"It'll be fine." Griffith smiles a little, shaking his head. "Do you think I don't remember what you're like? Me, of all people." He stretches, "Still, I'm not the only one who does. Casca hollered at me the entire way here. Only in private, of course." A wine glass to his lips, he says, "Just like the old days."

Yeah. Guts can imagine that. Just like the old days.

Guts presses a finger down idly on the center of a slab of bread. "I heard some rumors. Not that I'm a big rumor-followers, but..." But they're bad.

"Ganishka has demons?" Griffith leans forward, across the low table. "Ganishka is a demon?"

And Guts grins. Because yes, more or less. And now that Griffith's put words to them, they sound so silly - so simple. War rumors, just war rumors like any other. God knows every king - and ever successful general - inspires a few. Probably even Griffith. Probably even him. Still he can't help but remember another set of war rumors - rumors about the god of war, and how he'd come to fight for Chuder. Sometimes, even the stupidest little stories bear fruit.

Sometimes quite bloody fruit.

Griffith sighs, and pours another glass of wine. "Another demon warrior to fight," he says, "Or maybe a demon king. I won't rule it out, but...." He slides the glass across the table. "Maybe I should have hired Nosferatu Zodd, this time. I'm sure he would have come. This is quite a war.... and he is a mercenary, after all." At least in theory.

Guts looks at the glass. He never much cared for wine.

There are guards outside Griffith's tent, keeping others from coming too close. But, of course, that's not the only reason Guts doesn't object when Griffith moves closer, or when his hands drag down Guts' chest, and beneath the waist hem of his pants. Indeed, the proximity of witnesses should stop him, should make him pull back. It's too risky, here, and too self-indulgent, too.

But Griffith's hand slides low, and after that, he can't even think well enough to argue.

* * *

After all of that, he shouldn't be surprised when Zodd shows up.

Guts' first reaction is natural: dread. Fear. A sickening surge of terror that fills up his head and hazes over his eyes. The fear doesn't pass, not entirely, but the anger soon follows. That... thing. That demon who wiped out so many of his men. Who nearly killed him and Griffith both. Whose cryptic fucking words sunk like a stone to the pit of Guts' stomach and left him flailing for years, waiting for death to descend from... somewhere. A death he couldn't escape.

He wonders, too, when he sees that face (strange and bestial, even when he pretends to be a man) - has that time come? Is this death?

...the rage, the fear, they don't fade away when he sees Zodd consulting with Griffith.

And it makes sense to have hired the bastard. Given their situation, nothing would make more. But he still gives Griffith a look that could sear the air itself. And he still shatters a boulder with his blade.

In the end, the war doesn't last very long.

He'd like to think it's Griffith's strategies - still brilliant, after all these years. And he'd like to think it was him, as well - his strength, his dedication to his king - and the magic that is the coming together of the old Hawks commanders. Casca, deployed from the capital with half her force - Judeau, now with a squire to keep him well-stocked with knives. Pippin and Corkus, even Rickert, whose mind has grown so sharp as he grows into adulthood. He'd like to think it, and maybe it's true. But...

There was Zodd. And there are still those reports, hazy and undefined. Monsters on the farthest edges of the army, rending flesh and crushing earth and stone and trees and buildings where they walked. No one is sure whose side they were on... Guts isnt even sure they were present to begin with. But he hears the rumors, and he stares at Zodd, his strange face even more inhuman under the sunlight than it was in the darkness of that fortress, and he wonders, did he bring his kin with him? Are there more like him?

The day of the final battle, the sky was scorched with a terrible lightning storm, and the area near Ganishka's traveling palace was covered in mist. Was that demon magic, too?

Maybe it doesn't matter. Guts is injured, but not too terribly - gashes here and there, and a hard slash across his right eye that hurts when he tries to open it. His sword will need replacing. And the way the battle was fought makes him wonder.

But Griffith still returns with Ganishka's head.

As they march back toward Windham, Guts rides in a medical wagon, overseen by physicians by day, and visited by his old friends at night, when they stop to rest. Most of the time it's Judeau, still smiling despite the wound in his shoulder that means he'll likely never fight again. Sometimes, it's Rickert, come to tell Guts stories of the little inventions that litter his home.

One night, just a few miles from the capital, it's Zodd.

Truth be told, just the sight of that monster makes him angry, and ill. But Zodd stands at the flaps to the wagon, arms crossed the way he always does, and he says, "I remember you, boy. ...still living, after all these years."

Zodd is a black shadow in Guts' mind - the shadow of wings, the shadow of claws. And he's fire - yellow fire, like his burning eyes. Zodd is death; the grim reaper of the battlefield in a way even the Hawks had never been. But this is a moment of peace. And Guts meets his eyes.

"Yeah," he says, "Still here. Looks like you were just talking shit after all."

Zodd laughs, a rumbling noise like quiet thunder rolling, before he walks away.

Guts watches his back retreat through the slightly open flaps of the wagon. And in the distance, there is Griffith - standing with his hair loose and wild, campfire light dancing on his white armor. They're only a few miles outside of the capital, yes - that must be why Charlotte comes, surrounded by her entourage, a hood draped over her dark curls. And Guts can see her, from here, dismounting, and running into her husband's arms. He can hear her little voice chirping out her worries - she prayed every night, she says, and makes a sign over her heart.

It's a strange, bittersweet feeling, something just slightly beyond description. And Guts feels like a voyeur. So he turns over, and sleeps.

The memorial service begins the day after they return to Windham. Griffith gives the appropriate speeches and honors the Midland soldiers who died protecting the kingdom from the Kushan invasion. He speaks about honor and courage, about bravery. He speaks, and Guts stands behind him, and beside him, along with the other high-honors generals. Griffith speaks, and Guts... listens, and watches him, and it's... strange. It's strange to think that this man - this king - was once a common boy playing in the gutters. That he was once a simple soldier.

It's stranger, still, to think how recently that was. Only a few years since they met. Since the time Griffith's hands rested on each side of his face, and Griffith said, You are mine. He can still feel the imprint of those palms on his skin.

It seems like all of the city has come out to honor the dead, today. It's... unusual, to say the least. Guts can't remember a service like this during the 100 year war. He can't remember much respect for the dead at all, really - only for victories. It makes sense, though. Thinking back to that shattered knight doll Casca told him about, thinking back to the things Griffith doesn't know he knows, it makes all the sense in the world.

After the memorial, Griffith shakes the hand of each general, and his hand lingers just a bit longer on Guts', but in the end he leaves with Charlotte... as he ought to. So, in the end, it's Casca who goes to the tavern with Guts, his old friend (if that's what she is), sitting a foot or so away, swallowing down ale from a metal mug, her eyes just a little too haunted.

"Judeau..." Guts says, pushing his mug a few inches across the bar. "Looks like he's gonna retire."

Casca looks up at him, sidelong. "Maybe we should all retire. We're getting a little old for this." And now she's looking into her cup. "Ahh," she says, wrinkling her nose. "I'm not even thirty yet. Really, I just feel old."

Fair enough. They probably all feel old.

It's the injuries. Years of broken bones and swords through this part of them or that part of them. It's been peaceful the past three, as well, which doesn't much help. None of them are used to war anymore. Not even Guts, who hasn't exactly let himself rot away. Even so...

"I'm not ready to crawl into my grave just yet." Guts looks at her, and presses the flat of his finger against Casca's nose. "Neither are you. Griffith needs us."

And Casca sputters a little, and gives him a light punch to the side of his head. "Stop being an idiot." She watches Guts for a long moment, and then sighs, looks away. "You're the one he really needs."

That's a pretty good way to effectively change the atmosphere. Guts orders another drink and listens to the mumble mumble of the people around them - dozens, talking about their days, sharing stories. Some of them merchants, some soldiers. Many have just walked away from that memorial, too. And Guts swallows down two mouthfuls of ale while Casca swallows down one.

Casca says, "What is it about impossible men?" Which is definitely a question Guts has no answer to, so he just looks at her over the rim of that metal mug. "You know." She sets hers down with a heavy clink. "For a little while, right after Doldrey fell, I thought I loved you."

Guts coughs, chokes.

"Maybe I even did, back then." Casca's palms are flat against the mug. "What the hell is it about impossible men?"

He doesn't mean to be insensitive or silent. It's just that he doesn't know what to say. Maybe she did... back then? Does that mean she doesn't, now? It's awkward, being unsure whether she's fishing for interest or just complaining about the past. Either one would require a different response, wouldn't it? And in either case, he doesn't know what to say.

So, he makes a noise, part frustration and part confusion. And he says, "I had a dream about that a few years ago. I took off to find myself, and you went with me. Pretty sure we ended up married and carrying around a kid. Not sure what his name was." He strokes his chin a few times, and eyes her. "Yeah. Someone used to tell me I should toss you over my shoulder and run away with you. " Judeau, always trying to get Casca out of the Hawks. Little weird, if he thinks about it. "Anyway. That was a long time ago."

It wasn't that long ago. But at the same time, it may as well have been decades.

"It was." Casca's face is warm and full of shadows - rich shadows, rich firelight, playing on the dark honey of her skin. And just for a moment, he wonders if she's going to do something even more awkward. He even wonders, for a moment, what that would be like - her lips, and her breath, and her skin under his hands. Because God knows he's wondered before. He wondered all the time, back then. He pretty much still blames Judeau.

But the moment passes, and Casca slaps down a few coins on the bar. "I need to get home and get some rest. Tomorrow I'm running drills." She stands up, pushes away her half-full drink. "You should go, too." A beat. She stares at the surface of the bar for a breath, and another, before she looks at him and her eyes are oddly intense. "Griffith's the one who lost thousands of men. He probably needs you right now."

That's the last thing she says before she leaves, disappearing into the maze of standing customers and overflowing tables. By the time Guts reaches the street, she's gone.

But even after all these years, Casca must still know Griffith... and she must know much more than she says in words, too. Because when Guts gets home, there he is - the White Hawk in common garb, hooded, his famous silver locks braided up and hidden beneath his cloak.

* * *

Guts wakes up in the middle of the night, and Griffith is standing, naked, by his window, bathed in moonlight. Guts' first thought is, He's beautiful.

It's not like he's never noticed before - it's impossible not to notice. But tonight, there's something different about him. It's like he's stepped out of a legend. Like he doesn't belong in the world of dirt and blood and shit and grime. Then again, maybe that isn't so different. Maybe he's always been that way, and Guts simply never noticed. It wouldn't be the first time. Anyway, he notices now. And he sits in silence for a while, watching Griffith there - his hands on the windowsill, his bare skin glowing in the semi-darkness.

After a while, Griffith presses his palm to the window glass and says, "Charlotte is pregnant." He stays silent for a moment, and then... "Even this is only the beginning."

"What?" Guts pulls himself upright, leaning against the pillows, trying to swallow down the vague discomfort in his gut. "The war, you mean? It's over."

Griffith turns around at last, back to the window now, moonlight spilling over his shoulders. "Yes... and Ganishka has fallen. So it is that his kingdom falls into my hands... or into disarray. It's the perfect opportunity, Guts." He walks across the bare floor with his bare feet, and crawls onto the bed. "Remember when I said I would have my own kingdom? No... I can make one, with my own hands. A resurrection of the Midland Kingdom once ruled by the dead emperor, Gaiseric. But..." He moves closer to Guts, closer. And his fingers press against Guts' shoulders, and he lingers near, hair draping over Guts's shoulders, brushing against his chest.

"But mine will be different," he says, softly. "The legends say Gaiseric's kingdom fell to vice, you know. That's why God punished him."

"Since when did you believe in God?"

"I'm just repeating the legend." Griffith leans over him, one hand on each side of Guts' body. "I'll create something new. A world without rigid social hierarchy - or, if nothing else, a system of merit. A system that allows the kind of advancement that, until now, only I have really experienced. Where an aristocrat's follies can land him in the gutter... and a common-man's talent and bring him to the sky." Griffith's lips brush against Guts' jaw, and then his neck. "Or a common woman's. It doesn't matter, in the end. I won't tolerate that kind of baseless separation. A Kushan and a Midlander... a man and a woman. Common and nobleborn, they're all the same. They're all human. They all... bleed."

Guts says, "Can't argue with that," just before he buries his fingers in Griffith's hair, and loses himself in their kisses.

Morning sneaks up on them, and when the sun spills through the window, and the room is pale and pink with dawn's light, Guts kisses Griffith's temple, and says, "So this kingdom. This mean I get to help you conquer the world?"

"If you like." Griffith's fingers trail patterns across Guts' chest. "....do you have any family? Anyone from the days before we met? I can have them brought here."

Guts thinks of that old mercenary band. His first "home." If you could really call it a home. Are they still out there, singing their songs around the campfire? Were they wiped out by one of these wars - hired by Chuder, or trampled by the Kushans? Even crippled, it had been Gambino that held them together - had their alliance splintered with their founder dead? It's strange to think of it, but he could have killed them by now. His Raiders, his sword.

Would he even recognize them, if he met them now?

He shakes his head. "No one," he says. "No one important. How about you, though? Ever think of bringing your family here?" In fact... "You even got one?"

Griffith traces a spiral on Guts' chest, and for a moment, all there is is just breathing. "I have kin somewhere in the world." Another breath. "We aren't actually in touch."

Well. It's not like Guts doesn't understand letting the past die. He shrugs it off. And it's tempting to kiss him again, though he's tired, and it's morning. But instead, Guts stares at the ceiling, and says, "Why'd you bring Zodd here, anyway? After what he did."

More silence. Griffith's fingers stop moving, and then he pulls himself up, sitting now, looking down at Guts. "It was a question of practicality. A pragmatic consideration."

"It was dangerous. Bringing that monster, letting him do what he wanted? What if he turned on us?"

"He didn't." Griffith pushes his hair back, a lock of messy waves behind his ear. "He wouldn't."

"You don't know that." But really, he doesn't know otherwise, either. It's just... a prickly feeling. Something in his gut that tells him trusting that thing - those things, because there must be more of them - is asking for trouble. Or asking for death.

Griffith slides his knees to his chest and peeks and Guts from the corner of his eye; the other is buried beneath all that sea foam hair. "Do you trust me?"

"Hell. If not you, then who?"

And Griffith looks at him as though there are a million other answers, better answers. But in the end, his face softens, and he just says, "Then trust me." His feet wiggle under the sheets - silk, because Griffith likes silk and Guts can't be bothered to buy different types of sheets for when he's there versus when he isn't. Sometimes, Griffith still looks like a kid. "The kingdom I want to build - the one you'll build, with me?

"I've decided to call it Falconia."

* * *

Guts dreams, that night, of burning wings and a blazing hawk against the black sky. At first, he doesn't understand. He drops his sword at the sight of that apparition. But when it draws closer, he sees that it's only Griffith - Griffith in his silver armor, surrounded by fire, and light. And Griffith says his name, and No. And then he says, ...again.


4. wake up for me
crazy child on a crazy swing
i hope to give you anything.
watermarked and morning dry;
sleep, beast. close your eyes.
summer is coming; all that heat
watch out, wake up, wait up for me
-veda hille-

Griffith is as good as his word. Then again, he always has been. And yes, it takes years, and battles, and changes. It's uncomfortable and it's glorious. But by the time Guts' hair has turned as pale as his king's, Falconia lives.

It lives... and it's exactly what Griffith always said it would be. A land where the hard lines of hereditary hierarchy are abolished - where status is gained through merit, if anything, and where even the lowest rungs of society are offered a hand, a path to better things. Public schooling is established, and training guilds. When it becomes common, at last, to see women walking the roads with swords, Casca finally retires, and Rickert steps into her place.

It's fascinating and wonderful watching the world change. It's sad, as well, the way things always are when they're drawing to a close. Guts can feel the weight of his years on the battlefield, now - the ache in his bones from many breaks, and the pain of being stabbed, and cut, and bled. He's old now, or at least older than he wants to be. Older than he'd ever expected to get. Somewhere in the world, Zodd still fights his wars, he's sure. And yet that foretold death never came.

Walking through the halls of the palace, Guts wonders if Zodd simply meant old age. The details of the prophecy are faded now, like the memory of 100 year war, or the years before Griffith. He remembers, still, that Zodd had once said "soon." But Zodd is a demon, an immortal. Perhaps, for him, a few decades is still quite soon.

Guts... does not want to be here. He doesn't want to walk through the carpeted halls of Griffith's palace. He doesn't want to stand outside Griffith's study with the news he came to bring lingering on his lips. He doesn't want to knock on the door, or step inside and offer his resignation from the post as White Dog General.

He doesn't want to admit that, for him, the battle is finally over.

But he does. And Griffith - older now, but still beautiful (more beautiful) - smiles, and stands, and says, "Yes... I think it's time to rest."

Of course, retirement isn't truly rest. And Guts isn't ready to die, not yet.

The next years are mostly politics... which is a shame, because he hates politics. Still, it keeps him busy, and it keeps him near Griffith long after his retirement ought to have given them reason to separate.

On the first of those years, the queen passes away. Falconia mourns, and praises the stoic resolve of its emperor, who holds power in her absence, and whose children bear the blood of the Windham family. He takes strength from those children he says, head lowered over Charlotte's glass casket, his thin, lined hands pressed over the face of his wife. Around him, two sons and two daughters, ranging in age from their 20s to barely walking, each as quiet and composed, as beautiful and properly mournful as the last.

By the tenth year after his retirement, Guts is tired. Too tired for subterfuge, and too tired for politics, too. He no longer bothers to actively hide the reason for his presence in Griffith's life., and so, rumors spread around them quickly. If the emperor's love affair with his former general is not public knowledge... well, it's close enough. And if Griffith's children are comfortable or uncomfortable - if they resent the filled place that ought to have been their late mother's - they are, at least, too polite to say as much.

After all, they're Charlotte's children, and Griffith's.... and neither parent could ever be accused of being anything but appropriate in any given situation.

It is into this environment that Guts walks on the day when everything ends.

He passes Griffith's youngest daughter - now a woman - on his way to Griffith's suite. The princess smiles her polite, rosy lipped smile and welcomes him. As always, she calls him Uncle Guts. And Guts' hand is thin-skinned and scarred and lined, now. He notices this when he pushes open the door to Griffith's bedchamber, and notices the ache of his bones when he sits in the chaise lounge nearest to Griffith himself.

Griffith, currently napping on the sofa.

Griffith, who doesn't look old, even though he is. On him, those lines are strangely beautiful... and his hair has always been white, and always been wild, though these days he usually wears it in a braid.

Guts... watches him. Watches him breathe. Watches his mouth, thinned but still full - those lips he's kissed a million times. The snowy eyelashes that cast whispy shadows over his cheeks, and the little curls of moonlight hair. Neither of them have let themselves go - even now, Guts is larger than most men half his age. But the years sit elegantly on Griffith in a way they don't on most soldiers. He never limps when he walks. He never complains about the cold.

Griffith wakes after a few minutes, and says, "You're here."

"I always answer my king's call," Guts says, and inclines his head. "What'd you want, anyway?" All these years a court, and he still speaks without grace.

"To see you." Griffith stands, and wraps himself up in a robe - pale blue and shimmery, it drags behind his steps when he walks to the glass doors the separate his bedroom from the private garden outside. Quietly, he tends the potted trees - locust trees, he's said a few times. His favorite ones. "To see you... and to talk."

Guts drags himself up and stands, leaning against the wall, just by that door. "I hear your daughter's betrothed, now."

"Yes," Griffith says, his voice vague. "She's been courted by... I don't remember who his father is, actually. A baker. " He pauses, watering pot in hand. "A princess and a baker. Truly, the world has changed."

"A princess and a baker. An emperor and an old soldier." Guts laughs, shakes his head. "Yeah... it's different, now."

"Different... and almost over." Griffith sets the pot down and the wind stirs the tree's branches. "These bodies, Guts... they're slowly dying. I can feel it. And yes, I'm older than you, but... that doesn't matter. Your body is older than mine - the wear and tear of life on the frontlines of war. One day, soon, I'll wake up without you."

It's hard to argue with that, actually. Guts smacks his fist, lightly, on the wall at his side. "Hey," he says, "We're mortal. Everything ends." But he can't keep the sadness from his voice.

Griffith takes a leaf in between his fingers. "I've been thinking recently, about those old days. Do you remember the campfires? The night I asked you to stay with us?" His voice is soft, mild. "You said you wanted to find a dream. Did you ever locate one?"

Hell, that was a long time ago.

"Good question." Guts blinks and rubs at the back of his neck. "Yeah, maybe. I guess I did. Funny thing about that one is, I'm pretty sure back then, all I wanted was a home. Maybe some friends. I already had all that, but I was too dense to see it."

"Hmm." Griffith plucks loose a leaf. "Is that really all you wanted from life?" And another. "Don't you miss your youth? Your days at the head of the White Dogs? Or the Raiders? Being the terror of the battlefield?" Another. He looks up at Guts, and there's a curious intensity in his eyes. "We were the grim reapers of the battlefield, then. You wanted it to go on forever.... didn't you?"

And he did. He remembers those days well - the campfires and the voices raised in cheer or in song. The young faces gathered around Griffith, gathered around him. Parades and uncomfortably enthusiastic noblewomen gathering around him, asking questions. Corkus and his whoring, Rickert begging him for help when surrounded. He remembers spinning Casca around a dance floor, and fighting by her side, trusting her with his back. Judeau and his carvings, and Griffith's strategy meetings. Griffith's silver armor, and silver hair, and silver shadow. Griffith's smile, and his dream.

The union of blade and purpose. The feeling of immortality; of invincibility, of forever. The rush of battle, the excitement, the release.

"Yeah...." He closes his eyes. "I did. Except... the fight's over, now. There's nothing left to fight about. You're the one who holds the whole world in his hands, you know? Isn't that what you wanted to be?"

When he opens them again, Griffith is watching him. "I met you when I was eighteen and full of dreams," he says. "And I took you into my bed when I was... twenty-two. In that time, there were only a scarce handful of weeks when you were not the most important thing in my life. A few weeks when you were not the one thing I most loved.

"At one time, I thought that could change; that I could prefer my dreams over you, and my kingdom. But, no. Even now, things are the same. Maybe it was always meant to be that way. In the end, it always endures." He glances over. "If I'm the one who holds the world in my hands... what does that make you?"

"Griffith...." He isn't sure what he meant to say. He isn't sure of much, right now. Only that his head is pounding, and his skin is warm. So he says the first thing that comes to mind. "I had a nightmare." Irrelevant. Stupid. But it doesn't matter, now that he's said it. Now, he can only go on. "It was years ago, way back before you and Charlotte. I guess it was around the time of that campfire. Maybe that's why I'm remembering it, now.

"Anyway. I had this dream where you and me were enemies. I don't remember why - something about an eclipse. Doesn't make any damn sense. All I know is, we fought. And I had companions, then, but they weren't the Hawks, just... people. I think one of them was a... knight? Or a witch? I think one of them was Casca.

"It was a weird, long dream."

Griffith lifts his head a little, and he's looking - staring, really. Staring at Guts with those terrifying, predatory eyes. "Oh?" He says, softly. "How did it end?"

And Guts says, "You killed me."

"Ah." Griffith's fingers lace together, and then unlace. "Funny."

Except it isn't, and Guts isn't really sure why.

Griffith's breath is slow, and deep - almost deliberate. "In the language of flowers, the locust tree carries a meaning. Like every plant, and every blossom.... Like the scarlet lilies, and Hawthorn. Osmunda and Harebell." Silence. Griffith looks down at the leaves in his palm. "I don't want you to die."

Guts doesn't know anything about flowers. None of that even made sense to him. So he just says, "No one wants to die." But it's not just that simple, is it? Nothing ever is. Guts pushes away from the wall, and his hands (not so calloused, now) cups Griffith's cheek. Already he feels the pressure of Griffith's face leaning into his palm. "I'm not going anywhere, long as I can help it. But, if you want to know the truth, then.... yeah. Sometimes, I do think it. I think... I'd give anything for another lifetime. Sure. Another battle... another few decades. More time. More... you. Yeah. ....who wouldn't?"

Griffith isn't moving, now. Until he is. And his nails dig into Guts' wrist, and he says, "Anything? Really?"

"Uh, sure." Guts' insides churn. "What do I care about most of the shit I have, anyway? The only things I'd never give up are you... and the Hawks."

It's quiet, now. And Griffith's hand loosens on Guts' wrist. "Not them?"

"The hell kind of question is that?" There's something stirring inside Guts, now - like an ancient beast raising itself from the grave. A mix of dread and confusion. Old rage. Frustration. Something he can't place, but the question... even hypothetical, even on principle, that question just pisses him off. "Of course I wouldn't give them up. I love you. But for fuck's sake, I love them, too."

Griffith kisses Guts' ear. It's light, but it lingers.

And he whispers, "I know." And then, "So do I."

And when Griffith moves away, his face isn't old anymore. And his hair is no longer braided, no longer contained. He is beautiful and unnatural, staring at Guts with his cat-slit eyes, and he can't be more than twenty-two. "It seems I'll have to try again."

Griffith says, "Maybe if I start earlier."

That's when his pupils open, and all the world is nothing but light.

 


5. sword of blackberries
i was born, i was born to -
i was born tomorrow
i was born, i was born to
love you.
-veda hille-

Guts wakes up with a start, his eyes frantically searching the nearby space. An unfamiliar room - an unfamiliar tent. And when he moves, his chest... hurts.

It takes him a moment to piece things together - to remember - but then the images begin fitting into place. He was leaving that fortress, yeah. Him and his pathetically cheap 7 silver reward. That's when that idiot came down to rob him - some long nosed guy on a horse and his friends. Guts remembers - he remembers it all. The girl with the sword, and that javelin. The silver-haired man who removed his helmet just before Guts blacked out.

....that man.

Funny. He can't help thinking he had a dream about that guy.

Weird.

and you want three wishes:
one to fly the heavens, one to swim like fishes
and then one you're saving for a rainy day
if your lover ever takes their love away
-the pierces-