The nights at Garreg Mach were usually quiet, especially around the dining hall. Where life was bustling and thrumming at day time, silence had taken its place.
Truly, it was the perfect place to wind down after getting slapped and insulted, one after the other. Sylvain was well aware this was his own fault but when it came down to it, he still preferred being the one doing the break-up rather than being at the receiving end of it. He had figured that, after a day filled with reprimands and a rather unsuccessful training session that left him sore with no results, he could at least have a little fun.
All in all, not a good day and an even worse evening.
He knew he was way past the curfew (when was he not?) but he couldn’t return to his room. Not yet. Sleep was out of question and he preferred not to meet his demons in the only space where he did find it in him to rest. The dining hall was the most accessible option, by far.
Not only for him, he realized.
The lights were dim but someone had lit them, someone was here as well, and it was only then that Sylvain noticed the sound, muffled as if that someone was trying to be quiet. A rhythmical thud, thud, thud, even and clear.
That someone was cooking in the depths of the night. All by themselves. But for whom? Were they truly so hungry that they couldn’t contain themselves until breakfast? Sylvain never knew Raphael was a good cook - or so dedicated to doing it in such terrible lighting.
It had to be the ghost cook. The rumours of a former cook’s ghost that was still haunting the dining hall, leaving delicious food in the depths of the night for every soul who couldn’t sleep. Sylvain had indulged in a dish or two more than not, lately.
Food, huh. His stomach growled at the thought. Maybe he could ask his nightly spectre companion to share some of it. He did miss out on dinner. As to not startle the cook, he rapped his knuckles against the table before he said, “Hey there.”
The chopping stopped abruptly.
What if this was an angry ghost after all and he had startled them - now he would be haunted even more, not just by his own demons and his brother but by this kitchen ghost too? That was already too much.
He had to stop listening to Mercedes’ ghost stories.
“Dedue?” Sylvain stepped closer to the counter and that was Dedue alright. He should have recognized the tall figure instantly, now that he knew it was him. He had never taken Dedue for the kind to break curfews though. “Well, that’s a surprise.”
“Is that so?”
Sylvain shrugged as he sat by the counter. Usually, they weren’t allowed to. ‘This is not a tavern,’ Seteth said, and then some more Sylvain had forgotten. But he felt like for nighttime, this was appropriate. It wasn’t as if he summoned Seteth from his bed just by breaking the rules when he already violated half of them already.
(At least he hoped. The thought was more scary than that of a ghost.)
“It’s just… Yeah, it is a surprise, actually. You don’t seem very nocturnal.”
Dedue hummed noncommittally. He resumed chopping without continuing the conversation. For a while, Sylvain simply sat there, arms resting on top of the counter, cheek planted on them and listened to Dedue cooking.
It was odd. Anyone else would have asked why he was here or told him to go back to his room. Maybe tack on a comment about how he would do better not to stay up for so long chasing after skirts. But Dedue didn’t. None of those. He… let Sylvain stay. No questions. No judgment. Nothing.
Sylvain flinched, all drowsiness forgotten when Dedue asked, “Are you hungry?”
“I… uh.” He cleared his throat, rubbing his face. Almost fell asleep there. Almost. “I, yeah. Kind of. I missed dinner earlier, so... “
Dedue nodded. Sylvain expected him to say something. Anything. Reprimand him. Tell him he shouldn’t miss out on dinner for his pursuits.
He wasn’t used to this being overlooked. Or perhaps Dedue didn’t care. Regardless, Sylvain felt too at ease about this situation to be comfortable with it. Letting his guard down like this, Dedue surely would eventually say something. And then it would hurt more than being chided from the start.
“Say, Dedue, can I ask something?”
“Of course,” he answered. Dedue hadn’t looked at him once, too focused on whatever he was making. Now that it was cooking, the scent of spices he didn’t know was wafting towards Sylvain and by the Goddess, he really was hungry.
“Why are you cooking at night? There’s no one to eat it, right?” Sylvain paused. “I mean, aside from me but… you know what I mean.”
“Habit,” Dedue simply said. “I used to cook for His Highness at night when he could not sleep.”
That made sense. Sylvain often met Dimitri at the training grounds when he tried to sneak in quietly without anyone noticing. He’d made a mental note not to use that route anymore. He knew Dimitri’s lectures by heart already.
Now that he thought about it, it struck him as odd that he would be awake at this time of the night as well. He’d never asked though. He didn’t feel like Dimitri would share the reason any more than Sylvain would share his (although his were open secrets, really).
“Well, I wouldn’t want to eat His Highness’s nightly dinner away so I’m good after all. I can hold out until the morning. I’m used to it.”
“There is more than enough,” Dedue said. “He is not the only one who is awake at night. Neither are you or me. You would be surprised to know how many pass by.”
“And you cook for that eventuality?”
Dedue nodded, stirring and stirring so the smell spread even further. Sylvain could see how the lurkers would be attracted by that. He should have thought of coming in through the dining hall earlier.
“I do not stay awake for them to come but usually, none of the plates I leave out are left in the morning.”
“Huh.” The ghost cook rumour. It had been Dedue all along. Of course, it had to be someone who physically existed to make tasty dishes at night. It made all sorts of sense in Sylvain’s mind now to the point where he wondered how he could have believed it was some miraculous haunted soul. “So you’re the ghost cook. I was waiting to meet you, you know. The rumours have been getting pretty ridiculous lately.”
“Ghost cook…” Dedue huffed. Sylvain imagined it was a little smile, though. “I suppose so.”
“It’s really nice of you. Even though you are breaking curfew for it.”
“I am allowed to. I asked Seteth to make an exception.”
Sylvain blinked. “Seriously? And he allowed you to?”
“I explained that it was essential for His Highness’s well-being that I be able to cook at any time, and he allowed me, yes. He was the one who suggested I share leftovers with those who cannot sleep although I might have done so even without his permission.”
Sylvain gaped at Dedue. Huh. For all his strictness, Seteth was actually a good guy. Sylvain knew as much but still, it surprised him how strict he could be sometimes - and then do almost mischievous things as these. The duality of Seteth.
“It feels like the monastery is different at night,” he said eventually. “Like everyone is… just different.”
Again, there was a simple affirmation from Dedue, a sound and nothing more. This time, though, Sylvain felt like he wanted to talk more. Because it soothed him. Because he liked hearing what Dedue had to say. Because it felt like Dedue would not judge him. It defeated the purpose of trying to be someone he was not if he was suddenly going to share his thoughts with someone else, Sylvain figured. But he could stay vague.
“In Duscur, we had a saying,” Dedue said eventually. “‘The night brings forth what the day hides.’ It made little sense to me when I was younger. The night is dark. You cannot see more than at daytime. How would you find something hidden, then? But I understand now.”
“Demons.” Sylvain buried his face against the crook of his elbow. “They are much more comfortable at night.”
“So they are,” Dedue agreed. He rustled, arranging plates from the sound of it. “The dark makes them stronger. It gives them a sense of safety. Because nights, more often than not, are spent alone.”
Sylvain stayed quiet. He knew he wasn’t the only one who roamed the monastery at night.
He’d seen Dorothea at the pier one night, her feet dangling in the cold water. He thought of speaking to her but it didn’t feel like she wanted company. Neither did he, at that time.
Dimitri, of course, was a serial offender. He always made Sylvain spar with him and exhausted him enough so he would fall into his bed and miss the first two periods because he was too tired to get up. It kept him safe of his thoughts at least, and he figured it had the same effect for the prince.
He’d met Mercedes in the cathedral at night, only once. To investigate the ghosts, she told him. Annette had ran off screaming, that they meant to do it together, she said. But her expression was not as carefree as usual despite it all.
Sylvain had eaten some of the leftovers from Dedue before. As had the others, no question. Truly, it shouldn’t have been surprising to see Dedue here, considering his presence was the steadiest Sylvain had known.
Still, even though Sylvain saw them, even though he met them and - at times - talked to them, they were but a small comfort. In the end, they all spent their nights alone, just as Dedue said.
Only them and their demons.
“We’re more vulnerable alone, that’s true.” Sylvain sat up. He watched Dedue prepare the plates meticulously. It was just food, it would be eaten anyway. He doubted anyone bothered for a proper presentation. But obviously, it was important for Dedue - and Sylvain figured that it was perhaps one of the reasons why his food tasted so good.
“Here.” Dedue placed a plate in front of Sylvain. It was simple, seasoned meat with vegetables on the side, but the smell alone was enough to make Sylvain’s mouth water.
“Thanks,” Sylvain said, nodding in gratitude when Dedue handed him fork and knife. “It looks so good. I haven’t seen this in the dining hall for dinner before.”
“They don’t make Duscur dishes here.” Dedue filled the other plates, one after another, with the same care as he had made Sylvain’s. Meat, vegetables, sauce, all in the same order, all in equal portions.
It felt as though there was more to the way Dedue prepared food than the thought of simple sustenance. Every move of his carried weight and precision. He couldn’t tell why but Sylvain felt a rush of shame washing over him as he watched Dedue.
When had he last been so focused on something? When had he last given his all? On the battlefield, certainly, because all he could do was focus and protect the people he loved. But when they returned? What was he doing, then?
Fooling around and meeting everyone’s expectations of being the worst. Destroying every semblance of relationships he could have. Friends, lovers, anyone.
“Would you prefer something else?” Dedue asked.
Sylvain realized that Dedue had finished preparing every single plate while he only stared at his own without touching it. He shook his head, laughing. “No, no, I’m sorry, this- I was just lost in thoughts. As opposed to what people say about me, I do think, from time to time,” he winked and grabbed both knife and fork from the counter. “Time to dig in. Thanks for the meal, Dedue.”
“Nothing for,” he replied.
The food was a revelation. Sylvain had never had a dish that was so well-seasoned but not drowned in spices. The meat was tender, the perfect ratio of roasted and juicy, the vegetables tasted fresh but not bland or uncooked, not to mention the sweet taste of the sauce that was surprisingly spicy in its aftertaste. Sylvain stared at his plate again after his first bite but this time, for a lack of words.
He’d eaten the ghost cook’s food before but it had been cold by then. Fantastic, still, but it didn’t compare to the fresh variant in the slightest.
Without a word, Sylvain finished his food. He couldn’t say anything. Nothing that would describe what he felt. Perhaps because his day had been terrible, perhaps because he appreciated the lack of judgment, perhaps because he understood the notion of comfort food now. It was the best dish he’d ever eaten, and precisely what he had needed from this wretched day.
Comfort. And an escape from everything that threatened to tear him down, every day a little more.
Mostly, Sylvain figured he had himself together pretty well. Here and there, he’d slipped but so far, his reputation was still as terrible as before. He didn’t want to imagine what it would be like if he inevitably snapped one day.
Sylvain wondered what everyone would say once they found out that he had destroyed everything surrounding him from reputation to relationships - himself the most broken and decrepit. He wasn’t sure he would ever be ready to reveal it voluntarily but he was no fool. It was a madman’s game, trying to hide every rotten spot while simultaneously wishing someone would finally see, would finally notice.
“Dedue,” he croaked when he finished. “Can I join you next time too?”
“If you so wish. I would not advise you to keep a close relation to me, though.” Dedue had started doing the dishes while Sylvain had stared at his plate in awe. It was oddly soothing to watch someone execute tasks in such an orderly manner. So different from the chaos that was the dining hall at day - so different from the chaos in Sylvain’s mind too.
“You said this before but I don’t care what people say,” Sylvain said, placing his cutlery aside. He felt full, and he felt… settled. For once. All energy restored. But instead of returning to his mask for daytime, he heeded Dedue’s words. The night couldn’t hide the monstrosity he was.
So why shouldn’t he let it out, every once in a while?
“Actually, I think what they say is garbage. About you, about me… people need to mind their own business instead of getting their noses into everyone else’s. They have no right to judge you just because you were born and exist and breathe. No one has the right to do that. And the next time they say anything, they can come talk to me. I have plenty of repressed anger to let out, they can gladly have a share.”
Dedue fell silent.
“Not just about you. About everyone else too. People run their mouths all the time. And you know what? I am tired of that,” Sylvain bristled. “No matter what you do, there will always be people who are angry about your existence. People who would rather wish you were dead. You won’t be able to convince them that you are good when they don’t try to see who you are. So I don’t think what they say should matter. For any of us.”
“So you say you do not mind what they say?” Dedue asked, and for the first time, he looked at Sylvain.
“Of course I mind it!” Sylvain huffed. “Of course I do. That is why I made it my own to be the worst they expect at all times. I get together with a girl? Unsurprising that I dump her two days later. I am good at something? Doesn’t matter, I will manage to mess it up by missing class because I am with someone. In the end, whatever I do, whatever I say, it doesn’t matter. People will always expect the worst of me and distrust me. It’s funny that girls still want me despite me doing my damndest to make them leave me alone. But I suppose the blood of a nobleman with a Crest is just too valuable. The demand for me is just too high.”
Finally. Finally, he would get Dedue to judge him too. Just as everyone else did. One place of respite he hadn’t destroyed yet, and he had to go and smash it into pieces immediately. In a way, it was almost like a challenge for Sylvain. How far could he push people until they despised him? How far until they would finally leave him be? Let him be free of everything. No more expectations, no more responsibility, no more giving a damn about anyone?
He could feel Dedue’s gaze on him but this time, it was Sylvain who refused to reciprocate.
“You would do best to take your own advice, Sylvain,” Dedue simply said, returning to cleaning the dishes. “Because you are right. It does not matter what I do. All people see when they look at me is a man from Duscur. They never see me for the person I am. When I speak to them, they refuse to look at me. When I rustle through my pockets, they believe I am armed. My presence is violent to them. I am violence to them, no matter how quiet I stay, no matter how civil I am.”
“I can’t begin to tell you how wrong they are,” Sylvain hissed. “And I wish you would tell them that they are.”
“Then why will you not tell people they are wrong about you? It is a vastly different situation, yours and mine, but if the solution to it is convincing the other person that they are wrong about me then why is that not an option for you as well? Do you truly believe telling people they are wrong about me will help?”
Sylvain set his jaw. “No. Didn’t work for me. Wouldn’t work for you.”
Dedue nodded. “It is not for a lack of attempts. But I found that it tired me to explain myself. So I stayed quiet instead. I was not involved in the Tragedy. My family did not have to die. None of them had anything to do with it. I bear hatred for them as much as they bear hatred for me. And I resigned myself to it. Because as it stands now, I lack the ability to change their minds about me and my people. But in His Highness, I found a way to believe again. That, one day, I can rebuild what I have lost. Duscur, and the way my people are viewed.”
“You understand what I want to tell you, do you not? You are breeding hatred because of your own. You draw it to yourself. They hurt you, so you hurt them back. You are hated and distrusted, and that is your goal. There is nothing you can say that can fix that anymore. ...Except that you can. Unlike me, you can. You have a way to do so right now, already. But you choose to throw away this opportunity instead. You choose to make yourself hated.”
“And that is why you hate me,” Sylvain said. He ground his teeth. Felix had told him. He didn’t see who he hurt, directly or indirectly.
“I do not hate you, Sylvain.” Dedue placed the rug aside, all pots cleanly stacked. Sylvain couldn’t look. He couldn’t. “Do you know why? Because I know what it feels like. And I would not wish it upon anyone. I only need you to consider this road you are taking. I should not need to comfort you. I will not be standing here, miserable, solely so you could feel better about your prerogative and the way you throw it away. Not your Crest, not your title. But the prerogative of choosing whether to be hated or not. You have this choice. And yet, you waste it to pity yourself.”
Sylvain had never heard Dedue speak as much. It dawned on him that he wasn’t innately a taciturn man. But his words would always be twisted and turned, his anger always used against him. People expected him to be angry, to be violent, to be terrifying so he chose to convince them differently. To be quiet, to be calm and composed. He realized that Dedue’s silence was not demure.
It was cold. It was patient.
He believed that once Dimitri would rise to the throne, his chance would arrive to see his home rebuilt again. He hadn’t given up - never once. He was simply waiting, and doing what he could until it would be time to rise and rebuild what had been taken from him.
“I am sorry, Dedue.” He looked up to find Dedue was still looking at him. Expecting him to return this gaze, this time. And Sylvain was glad he had. The same kind of quiet, steady fire burned in Dedue’s gaze that was laced in every single one of his words.
“I… I had not realized what…” He rubbed his palm over his face. “You are right. You shouldn’t comfort me. Not when I chose this. Not when I am fully aware of what I am doing. In fact, I would rightfully be hated by you in particular but… I have to admit that I am glad you don’t. It’s… I am sorry.”
“Your apologies are for your own conscience, Sylvain,” Dedue said. He took Sylvain’s plate and exchanged it for a glass of water instead. How often had he done this before? “I need no apologies, no pity, no protection of yours. If you truly wish to atone, words are unnecessary. Goodwill is shown, not said.”
“Right. You… yes. You are right. Still, I refuse not to protect you, though. You’re my friend, Dedue. I’m not going to let people run their mouths about you and ignore them. I hope you know that. Part of it will make me feel better, yes. But the larger part of me is upset on your behalf. I mean, look at that,” Sylvain said and pointed at the neatly lined up plates. “Look. No one does something like that aside from you. You saved my entire night with one meal, and now, you possibly saved my life with one - admittingly - pretty painful lecture. Who knows how many other nights and lives you already saved, with meals alone. We don’t talk about the battlefield where you protect us more than we deserve if we’re idiots and careless. Still, you are there. The greenhouse too! All the plants there thrive because of you, because of your care. I can’t count how often we smile because of that.”
Sylvain sighed. He was so tired. He was so endlessly exhausted. But this was possibly one of the most important conversations he had ever had, and for once, he wanted nothing more but to be heard and believed.
“My point is,” he said, “I won’t let anyone badmouth you. I refuse to accept their terrible opinion. And you can think of it what you want. But I am tired of people and their expectations. I am tired of them and their prejudice. And if I could punch it out of them, I would. It’s not that easy, unfortunately, but I will do whatever it takes.”
Dedue said nothing at all. He placed all clean dishes aside, grabbed a glass of water and rounded the counter. “May I sit?”
Sylvain looked at him in confusion. “Uh. Sure, of course. Go ahead,” he said, pulling the chair next to him aside so Dedue could settle in it.
“Thank you.” Dedue turned to him, the smile from before still curling his lips. Sylvain realized that he hadn’t seen Dedue smile so terribly often. All the more grateful he was for this night, after all.
“You know… we should do this more often,” Sylvain said. “I might drop by again. No worries, not after nightly endeavours. I might… cut back on them a little.”
“A little,” Dedue noted. He emptied the entire glass of water in one go. “I would be grateful for your company.”
“Only so you would know I am not lurking around, huh,” Sylvain laughed.
“No.” Dedue shrugged. “It was more enjoyable tonight. Nights are most often lonely. But not this one.”
Sylvain nodded, downing his water in one go too (and regretting it with an aching throat). “So,” he declared, clapping into his hands, “Are we gonna go bring His Highness some food? I bet he’s at the training grounds again.”
“You seem eager to join his training session.”
“Well… I always sleep better after those. Helps us both relieve some tension, and the demons aren’t as scary anymore when you learn to use a weapon,” Sylvain laughed. “Unless it was a private training session.”
Dedue seemed amused at the notion. “No such thing. His Highness will be pleased to find that you are motivated.”
“Oh, I can see that happening.”
For just a while longer, Sylvain convinced Dedue to sit with him and chatter before they headed to the training grounds. The night had truly brought forth what the days hid, and it was supposed to unsettle Sylvain.
All he could think, though, was that nights truly were not as frightening in the right company.