Fields of Duscur
The months passed, bloody battles alternating with weeks spent repairing the monastery with friends. Dimitri began to show signs of improvement as time went on, and Dedue allowed himself to feel hopeful.
Mercedes’s gentle kindness helped, of course. They often ended up on cooking duty together, and the chef had let them take on more and more responsibilities for the meal. Dedue prepared the main dish and Mercedes made the desserts. Dedue had praised her skill, Mercedes had told him they made a good team, and they found comfort in the kitchen and in each other’s company.
Dedue stood next to Mercedes at the stove, preparing dinner. It was their final evening meal in Garreg Mach’s dining hall before they marched in the morning. Soon, one way or another, it would all be over.
“And this goes in now?” Mercedes asked, holding the spice jar aloft.
Dedue nodded. “Just a pinch. Let it bloom only for a moment before you add the other ingredients.”
She nodded and sprinkled the spice into the pan. The aroma filled Dedue’s nostrils, reminding him of his childhood, but it was the pleasure on Mercedes’ face that made him smile.
Dedue stilled as Mercedes’ shoulder brushed his arm. A glance at her expression did not reveal whether it was intentional or not. But Mercedes was not a flirtatious woman, so it was most likely accidental. He returned his attention to the pot of soup he was stirring.
Then her arm made contact with his again, only this time it was a steady pressure as she leaned into him. His ears began to burn, but he forced himself to look at her. “Are you all right?”
“No, to be honest,” she said with downcast eyes.
“Do you need to sit down?”
Mercedes shook her head. “Tomorrow we begin the march for Enbarr. This whole thing just feels wrong, somehow, even though I know it’s necessary.”
Dedue nodded. “I understand.” He cleared his throat, face heating. “I know we will see each other between now and the battle, but I wish for you to be careful during the fight. I must remain with His Highness to best defend him, but perhaps you could stay nearby.”
“Oh, Dedue.” Mercedes looked up at him with a smile. “Are you offering to defend me, too?”
He worked his jaw for a moment, the heat in his face intensifying. “Yes.”
Mercedes’s eyes widened, and she blushed.
“Is that acceptable to you?”
“Yes,” she replied. “I will do my best.”
Dedue nodded, and silence fell between them. They were often quiet together, but it was never an awkward silence. It was not something he could say of many people. He was always pleased when he was on duty with her.
While the people in the dining hall ate meat pies flavored with Duscur spices, Mercedes taught Dedue her secret for making honey cakes particularly wonderful—a bit of lavender. Rationing proved no barrier to her baking skill. Her economy and creativity were admirable. The traits reminded him a bit of his mother and sisters.
The thought struck him so hard, he nearly dropped the baking sheet he was removing from the oven. Mercedes felt like family. Not in a sisterly sort of way. Yet he had done nothing to explore those feelings, to see if she felt the same, and now the final battle was upon them.
Dimitri needed him, now more than ever. But perhaps it would not be wrong to indulge in a little selfishness, not on the eve of their departure.
When the cakes were all out of the oven and the cleaning crew had taken over, Dedue approached Mercedes as she hung up her apron. His heart beat faster, his palms inexplicably damp.
“Mercedes,” he said.
She smiled that soft, gentle smile that made something inside him bubble over. “We’ve been friends long enough for you to call me Mercie.”
“Mercie. It is a lovely evening. Would you care for a walk?”
The bridge of her nose turned pink. “I would be delighted. Will there be a cup of tea and honey cake at the end of the walk?”
“If you wish.”
Dedue offered her his arm, and she took it. Her touch was firm and gentle. His arm accidentally brushed the side of her chest, which made his ears burn all the more. She did not seem to notice. Besides, she was safe with him. He would never take advantage.
They strolled in silence around the monastery, stopping to admire the way the flowers looked in the evening light. Mercedes gave his arm a squeeze, and he covered her hands with his free one. She held him more closely still after that. The warmth inside him continued to grow until he thought he must glow like the sun. Embarrassing, but somehow pleasant.
“Let us rest for a moment,” he said, mostly to distract himself from the way she felt against him. A bit of space might clear his head, but he wasn’t yet ready to take her back for tea.
They found a bench and sat. Dedue’s spine remained stiff, and his hands curled into balls on top of his knees. Mercedes scooted close to him. Her violet scent wafted through the evening. She scooted closer and closer and finally rested her head against his shoulder. The desire to put his arm around her grew so intense it was nearly painful. As much as he wanted to touch her, it wouldn’t be fair. His life was not his own.
“Will you still stay with Dimitri after the war?” Mercedes asked, gazing at the sky. The sunset painted the clouds orange and pink.
She looked up at him. “Is that your duty, or your dream?”
Dedue frowned. “In doing my duty, I hope to fulfill my dream.”
“To help the people of Duscur. His Highness has promised to try to restore relations once he takes the throne.”
“That’s a wonderful dream. I want to help people, too.”
Dedue nodded. “You are good at it. People respond well to you.”
“Do you? Respond well, I mean?”
Dedue’s gaze whipped down to her face. Mercedes’s smile teased, but the look in her eyes held something else.
“I appreciate your kindness and perseverance,” he said slowly. “Your patience is inspiring.”
A laughed escaped her. “I could say the same about you.”
“You do not find me intimidating?”
She shook her head. “As I’ve said before, you’re very handsome.”
Dedue swallowed, fists clenching on his thighs. His cheeks burned, and his entire body felt tight. He shouldn’t do it, but he couldn’t help himself. Perhaps it was all right to give himself another little gift on the eve of war.
“I have sworn to serve Dimitri for as long as he wishes,” he said, voice rough. “Though it be for the rest of my life, I will serve him gladly. Knowing that, may I still put my arm around you?”
Mercedes smiled. “Please do.”
Dedue’s heart slammed against his ribs, its beating so loud he was sure she must hear it. He slowly put his arm around her and pulled her close. She fit into his side perfectly, as if they were separate pieces of the same sculpture.
“Does serving Dimitri stop you from having other friendships?” Mercedes asked, voice even softer than usual.
“No.” Dedue took a deep breath. Was she asking what he thought she was? “But other relationships must always come second. It is unfair. I could not ask it of anyone.”
“But if they gave it freely, even understanding the situation?”
“I am not a strong enough man to stop wanting them near.”
“You’re one of the best, strongest men I know.”
Sparks rushed through Dedue as Mercedes rested her hand on his leg, near his knee. It seemed a chaste gesture. His body did not respond in a chaste manner. He would still serve Dimitri gladly, but perhaps that was no longer all he wanted. Despite himself, he pulled Mercedes against him even more tightly and savored the feel of her combined with the beautiful, peaceful evening. This was a night to tuck away in his memory and treasure always.
“I’ve changed my mind,” Mercedes said after a moment. “Let’s skip the tea and cake. I would rather stay like this for a while longer. Is that all right with you?”
They sat there until the sun set, until the stars appeared in the sky, until Mercedes began to shiver. No matter how wonderful it was to have her near, her comfort was more important. He stood and offered her his arm. “Shall I escort you back to your room?”
Mercedes sighed. “All right.”
The walk back to Mercedes’s room was both too short and too long. Too short because there was never enough time with Mercedes, and too long because it gave him time to think.
When they arrived, Dedue released her arm. But his hand found a way to hold hers, almost of its own accord. They gazed into each other’s eyes for a long moment. He tried to burn it into his mind, so that he might savor it always.
Mercedes’s hand came up, and her fingers traced one of the scars on his face. Dedue shuddered and closed his eyes. His skin felt electric where she touched him. He wanted more, suddenly, than he would ever have a right to.
“Do you think I could help heal the scars inside you?” Mercedes whispered.
Dedue leaned into her touch. “You have already helped.”
“I want to do more.”
He took her hand in his and gently removed it from his face. She did not pull away. Instead, she held his hands tighter. He kissed the knuckles of one of her hands, then the other, her skin smooth beneath his lips.
“You are so good, so kind, so beautiful,” he murmured. “You deserve someone who can give you all of themselves, who can make you the center of his world. I am not that man.”
When their eyes met, hers glistened with unshed tears. Her brow furrowed, and her lips parted. Her pain hurt far more than his own.
“Promise me you’ll take care,” he said.
“I promise.” Her voice wavered as she spoke. “But I also won’t let anything happen to you. Don’t forget, we agreed to go to Duscur together when the war is over. We both need to live at least that long.”
“So we do. Good night.”
Dedue gave into his weakness, leaned down, and kissed her silky cheek, as near her mouth as he dared. Her sharp intake of breath reached his ears. Before she could reach for him, he turned and strode back into the night.