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When Dedue hears about the inn on the edge of the capital that serves Duscur cuisine, he doesn’t for a minute imagine it could belong to Ashe. A crazy and courageous countryman maybe, but certainly not anyone he actually knew. And certainly not Ashe, who had vanished from the Palace so quickly and so quietly after Dimitri’s coronation three years ago.

He hasn’t put it together by the time he visits on his next Sunday off, and he still doesn’t even when he pulls up to the inn and sees its worn brown brick walls, the hand-painted wooden sign that reads Violet Inn, or the soft sprawl of wildflowers in the flowerbeds beneath the windowsill. 

It’s not until he pushes the front door open and he hears a familiar voice ring through the air with a warm welcome that he realises whose inn it really is.

 

 

When Ashe sees Dedue standing shocked still in his inn, he doesn’t immediately know how to react.

“Ashe,” Dedue says first, too baffled to make it a question.

“You found me,” Ashe says, suddenly sheepish, as though he’d never planned on seeing Dedue ever again. Which, when he thinks about it, is actually true.

“The inn is yours.” Dedue continues stating the obvious, trying to process his surroundings: the low hallway they stood in, the soft unworn carpet beneath their feet running through an arched doorway and past the registration desk within. Just beyond, he can see the dining room, lit golden from the last rays of the setting sun, and a heavy door leading, presumably, to the kitchen. All along the way, delicate watercolour renderings of an assortment of plants and flowers hang from the walls in wooden frames.

Ashe nods. “I’ve been working on it for the past… two and a half years, maybe? But I only really properly opened it for business around four months ago.”

“It’s beautiful,” Dedue says, and that draws a smile from Ashe. 

“Thanks,” Ashe replies, genuinely pleased. “Business hasn’t really picked up yet though.”

“The rumour is that you serve food from Duscur,” Dedue says.

“Do you think that’s why?” Ashe laughs, but there’s a coldness there that he can’t keep down.

“I think all inns will struggle in their first few months. But I never dreamed I would see Duscur cuisine here in Faerghus. People may take a while to get used to that.”

A warmth fills Ashe - he had nearly forgotten about Dedue’s soft-spoken frankness - and then Ashe remembers his hospitality and hurries to welcome Dedue to the inn, properly.

“Ashe,” Dedue says, once Ashe has settled him into a comfortable couch in the lounge. “I must ask. Why did you not become a knight? Was it not your dream?”

Ashe should have known the question would come one day. He tries to wave it off, tries to shrug like it’s not as big a deal as it really is. It’s what he’s told himself ever since he left the Palace all those years ago. But, a little voice whispers now, if anyone would understand the truth, it’s Dedue.

They hadn’t been close as students - friendly perhaps, thanks to all of Ashe’s efforts to get to know Dedue, but not close - and then the monastery fell and Dedue had gone missing, and by the time he came back the war was in full swing and whatever starting small moments of intimacy they’d managed to snatch in the monastery kitchen were quickly lost to the war and the frantic work required to rebuild the Kingdom and the continent in the aftermath. 

In the middle of it all, some time between Dimitri’s coronation and the formation of the new order of knights, Ashe had turned his back on the whole thing; the offered knighthood leaving a bitterness on his tongue he’d never bothered to explain to anyone. There was no need to burden them on top of everything they already had to contend with, he thought.  

But now, because he’s decided to listen to the voice inside his head that says that he can tell Dedue, he steels himself to tell the truth for the first time.

“Chivalry isn’t for me anymore,” he says, the words dropping heavy from him now that they have been given voice. “Not the way it’s practiced here.”

Dedue still looks a little dumbstruck. “What do you mean?”

Ashe pushes down the horrible compulsion to laugh. “I mean, after everything we did, after everything we fought for, what has changed? Has anything actually changed? I heard the way the other knights talked after we won, the things they said about Duscur.” The bitterness slithers back into his throat at the memory.

“It has not been perfect,” Dedue admits. “But it will take time. And we still don’t know the whole story yet. Even now, His Majesty and the Archbishop are working to find out the truth behind the Tragedy of Duscur.”

Dedue had always been the best of them. But that made all this injustice even worse, even if some small part of Ashe knows they would never truly be rid of errant knights and ignorant comments. 

“I know,” Ashe says at last. “I know things have to change, and they need time to do that. I just thought I could try to bring about that change in a different way.” He gestures at the inn and its empty dining room. “Still, I can’t stop thinking about how unfair it is. Even this inn-- even if we don’t have that many customers yet, why do those who come only accept Duscur’s food if it comes from me, someone from Faerghus? Would they really come here if I was from Duscur? And what right do I have to champion your food?”

He pauses to take a breath, noting that Dedue is watching him, his eyes shadowed and tense with concern. Ashe has never put his thoughts into words, and now that he has, he finds that he can’t stop. 

“Nothing about any of this feels like justice to me, you know? The more I think about it, the more I realise how wrong and unfair everything is, like it’s nothing more than hate and discrimination. What happened to our families, I mean. Even with what Lonato and Christophe did, even though they tried to kill the Archbishop, House Gaspard still stands. Yet Duscur is in ruins. Why?” 

Ashe tries to fight down the sharp lump in his throat again, but when he opens his mouth, a sad strangled sob escapes it instead. “They were my family and nobody treated me any different. But what they did to you--“ 

He’d better stop now. He has to stop. Talking about his father and brother wrenches at him still, even after all these years, opens up that huge aching wound in his chest that never quite knitted back up together. It hurts. Ashe tries to draw breath to soothe the ache and it comes ragged and painful. He’s crying, he realises belatedly, the same time he realises Dedue’s arms are around him. 

Enveloped in Dedue’s broad, warm strength, Ashe somehow feels like his heart is about to mend yet shatter at the same time. 

“What’s the point, Dedue?” He’s surprised at the despair in his own voice. “Of becoming a knight, of fighting? Even now, do you really think we can change this world?”

“You are making a difference, Ashe,” Dedue says quietly to the top of his head. “At least to me. Even if it is only me, knowing that you are doing this makes me feel like this world is worth fighting for. This idea, to mend relations with love and cooking-- it could only have come from you.”

Dedue releases Ashe, drawing back to look him in the eye. 

“Can I suggest something?” Dedue’s gaze is steady and sincere, and Ashe feels his own breathing grow calm and slow.  “I would be honoured to show you how to cook a few more Duscur dishes. And you may feel better having someone from Duscur on your side.”

I’d feel better having you by my side. The thought blazes unbidden in Ashe’s mind. After everything, he realises now that he has missed Dedue. 

For the past three years, he hasn’t allowed himself to think of it. Not when he’d already said a silent, secret farewell to Dedue and everything he ever wanted to tell him when he left. What place did Dedue have for their not-quite friendship anyway, he’d asked himself back then, when it was the start of the rest of his life serving Dimitri and the new unified Kingdom? 

Only now, only after making peace with the knowledge that he’d missed his opportunities to close the distance between them, he finds himself with the chance to do so again.  

He’d be a fool not to take it. 

He reaches for Dedue’s hand, grasping it in both of his, the hope of a promise he doesn’t yet dare ask for.

“You would teach me your recipes?”

Dedue’s smile is warm and graceful and the most beautiful thing he’s seen in the world. “Nothing would make me happier.”

 

 

A week later finds Ashe and Dedue in the larder of Violet Inn’s kitchen, sleeves rolled up to their elbows, peering into the shelves and food stores as they prepare  for their first cooking session.

“Well,” Ashe says, once he’s done rummaging in the ice box. “I have some beef. What’s a good first dish to cook with that?”

“It may be a little difficult and I did not bring all the spices for it, but there is a dish we cook for reunions. A sort of… dry beef stew.” Dedue looks pensive. “It is a lot of work, so it usually takes many hands to make it. I suppose that is why it is cooked a reunion: everyone gets together and helps to cook. It may be hard with just the two of us..”

“That sounds so lovely,” Ashe says, cutting in before Dedue can dissuade him. “Let’s try it!”

“If you do not mind, then it would be fitting for our own reunion,” Dedue smiles.

Ashe can’t help smiling back himself.

When they come out into the kitchen, the sun is up and Ashe decides it’s a perfect day for cooking.

Although he insists that he’s missing a few, Dedue has still brought an impressive amount of herbs and spices for the beef stew. Some - dried seed pods and ribbon curls of bark - are fine on their own, but the other herbs - roots, bulbs, leaves and soft stalks of aromatic plants - require a fair amount of chopping and mincing.

Just when Ashe’s arms feel like they’re about to give out (all those years of archery had nothing on the level of fine knifework that Duscur cooking requires) Dedue produces a heavy stone bowl and a smaller club-like instrument.

“A mortar and pestle,” he explains. “To pound the herbs for the spice paste.”

Dedue actually laughs at the distraught look on Ashe’s face. “Do not worry,” he says, sounding more mischievous than Ashe could have ever imagined him capable of being. “I will take over from here.” 

With that, Dedue empties Ashe’s hard work into the mortar and makes quick work of pounding it into a uniform paste.

“Now,” he announces proudly. “We can put the pan on the fire to toast the dry spices.”

Glad to be free of the knife for now, Ashe happily puts his favourite saucepan on the stove. It takes a while before the pan gets hot enough and Ashe spends a few minutes watching  the spices lie unmoving on the cast iron surface and gives it a tentative toss. 

“This part can be tricky - here, I can show you.” And then Dedue’s hand is over his, gripping the pan handle.

Ashe tries not to jump. Dedue’s hand is so firm and solid around his as he manoeuvres the pan around, flipping and spreading the spices to catch the heat evenly. Sure enough, the spices begin to leap and dance in the pan, some popping open, others curling in on themselves with the heat.

Dedue bends his head down to watch the pan, so he’s next to Ashe’s face. Ashe barely manages to force a yelp back down his throat. He hasn’t been this close to anyone, and especially not Dedue. The kitchen suddenly feels very hot, although Dedue seems fine.

“When the spices smell this fragrant, they are done. Try not to over-toast them or they will be bitter.” Dedue pulls his hand back at last, and Ashe lifts the pan off the flame. It really does smell very good. He’s sure he’s turned red, but he could always blame that on the heat if Dedue notices, which he doesn’t. 

“Next, we cook them in oil with the herb paste from before.” Dedue pours a generous amount of oil into the pan and gives it a minute to heat up before expertly tossing in the paste. Almost immediately, the paste sizzles heartily and releases an aromatic cloud of scent. 

“Dedue, that smells amazing!” The hot oil works its magic on both the spices and herbs as Ashe stirs the fragrant paste.

“It will taste even better,” Dedue says, but he doesn’t hide his pleased smile. He’s done chopping the meat into rough chunks and adds those to the pan. Ashe lets the meat brown before folding each chunk into the paste.

Dedue has filled a bowl with water, to which he adds the juice of a small pulpy fruit. And then he tips the entire thing in with the browning meat and gives it a happy, satisfied stir.

“Now we will have to wait a while for the beef to soften. Maybe two to five hours.” Dedue’s voice trails off and he’s silent for a beat. “Hmm. Perhaps I did not think this through.”

Ashe bursts out laughing. “We’ll have it for dinner then! You’re welcome to stay here while we wait— we can grill some of the vegetables for lunch.”

The stew is delicious. The hours of slow cooking have turned the beef impossibly tender, infused with all the flavours from the spice paste. 

When Ashe and Dedue are done with their meal, they sit with mugs of tea, in contented quiet happiness, until Dedue notices it’s been hours since the sun has gone down and gets up to leave.

“You don’t have to go,” Ashe says, bolder than he feels. And then, so Dedue doesn’t misunderstand, he continues. “It’s late. I can make up a room for you, I could keep it for you, it’s no trouble—“

He’s babbling, he knows. The panic has returned to choke him. Ashe doesn’t want Dedue to go, doesn’t want to lose his warmth and his light to the cold dark of the night.

Dedue looks torn, and Ashe could believe that he’s actually considering staying until he admits reluctantly: “I did not inform His Majesty I would not return. He would worry.”

Oh, of course. “Of course,” Ashe says, dropping his gaze to stare at the floor. “I didn’t think about that, sorry.”

“Ashe.” Dedue’s voice is a solid weight, grounding and comforting as always, a smooth pebble dropped into a still lake. “I will come back.”

When Ashe looks up, he sees Dedue smiling at him. That smile stays with him long after he watches Dedue ride down the road and off into the city, and when he lies in bed that night and feels the weight of everything he ever wanted to say to Dedue - back in the monastery, back during the war when he’d thought he would never return - pin him down so heavily he can barely breathe.

 

 

Dedue keeps his promise and he returns the next Saturday. And the next. And the next, and the next, and the one after that until it becomes a routine.

As soon as he’s off duty, he makes the journey to the edge of the capital, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot. He arrives every Saturday evening and stays through to Sunday morning. 

The weekends, as it turns out, also happen to be the inn’s quietest times-- the few merchant travellers practical enough to save their coin at a reasonable, if slightly unorthodox, inn all safe and at home by then instead of working the capital’s lucrative trade routes as they do during the week.

So keeping a room vacant for Dedue’s weekly weekend visits isn’t a problem, Ashe reassures him. He’s allocated the room at the furthest end of the second floor, just next to the stairwell that leads to his, as Dedue’s. The lack of guests also means Ashe has all the time he wants to dedicate to Dedue and their cooking sessions, but he doesn’t tell him that.

It’s… nice. Really nice, in fact. 

Their days together are predictable and even more pleasant for it. Dedue rarely arrives in time for dinner on Saturdays, so Ashe saves a portion of dinner and a pot of tea for him to help himself to when he arrives. Most of the time though, Ashe stays up to wait for him and they chat late into the night. They talk about their week - everything that’s happened in the six days since they last saw each other - and sometimes they talk about their memories from the monastery and long before that. By the time they retire to their rooms  they’re both sleepy and warm from more than just the tea.

The next morning, they meet in the kitchen for breakfast and discuss the recipes for the day. And then, the rest of the day is spent cooking. It almost feels like their school days again, only now tempered with everything - the good and the bad, the war and the aftermath - that has happened in between.

The only downside of their weekends is Sunday evening, when the time comes for Dedue to return to the palace, usually as late as he can push it. Each time, they both hang back in the doorway, unwilling to part but a little too shy to say it aloud. 

But now, when Dedue can finally bring himself to leave, it’s always with a promise to return.

 

 

Of course, as much as Ashe wishes he could, Dedue can’t make it every weekend. His work for Dimitri takes him on missions that often span weeks, but he’s always sure to send Ashe a note letting him know not to expect him.

Those weekends are always a little quieter for Ashe, and more than once, he finds himself wondering how he got so used to having Dedue around.

As though to make up for his absence, Dedue always brings back little gifts from his travels the next time he visits: a new book, a particularly beautiful ceramic plate and other such tokens.

But Dedue’s most frequent gifts, and the ones Ashe loves the most, are little interesting ingredients that they can use in their cooking together: things like a basket of Morfis plums, time a sachet of expensive spices, tins of fine mint tea and other treats that he displays with pride on his kitchen shelves.

 

 

One day however, Dedue brings him something quite inedible: a small pot of violets.

“Because you named the inn after them,” he says simply. 

“My favourite flower,” Ashe smiles.

“I know,” Dedue says.

“Thank you, Dedue,” Ashe says, feeling the blush creep up his face. “But I’m not so great with plants. I mean, I can keep them alive but they never thrive like the way your plants did in the monastery greenhouse, remember?”

“Well,” Dedue lifts his gaze to meet Ashe’s eyes in a way that’s almost shy. “Perhaps I may have to come back more often to check on them.”

“Yes,” Ashe says, a little too fast, his heart suddenly abloom. “Yes please.”

 

 

With everything that Dedue gives him, it’s only right that Ashe buys him something in return. 

So when Dedue shows up one Saturday evening a little later than usual, Ashe barely waits for him to dry his boots on the welcome mat in the hallway before he presents him with the hefty bundle he’s kept wrapped in wax paper and safely tucked away for weeks.

Dedue takes it without comment, although he raises his eyebrows at Ashe. 

“It’s for you,” Ashe says helpfully. “You can open it.”

With impossibly careful hands, Dedue peels back the wrapping to reveal a large leather-bound book, plain except for the simple gold trim down the spine where the meticulously stitched binding holds together thick sheafs of blank cream paper.

Dedue flips the book open ever so carefully and stares at the inscription on the front page.

“The Recipes of Duscur,” Dedue reads out slowly. “By Dedue Molinaro.”

He takes a while to process that. While he does, Ashe tries not to think too much about how his voice wavered over his own name.

“I had it inscribed. I thought we could use it to collect your recipes,” Ashe says softly. “Maybe one day we won’t be the only ones cooking them.”

“This is--” Dedue begins. He stops.  “Do you have a pen?”

Curious, Ashe fetches the pen and inkwell and sets it down in front of Dedue, who’s gone over to the reception table, running his fingers over the blank paper of his new book.. 

Dedue takes the pen from Ashe with a small smile and writes, in his slow and careful hand, below his name: “And Ashe Ubert.

 

 

Dedue comes back one Saturday night at the end of the Garland Moon only to find the inn closed and shuttered in darkness.

Ashe hears the jangle of his keys as he undoes the front door. He’d nearly forgotten it was a Saturday, occupied as he was with his usual thoughts on this day of the year for the past eight years.

“Ashe?” 

Even from his study tucked deep within the inn, he can hear the panic, a cold tremor, in Dedue’s voice. 

“In here,” Ashe replies. It’s mere seconds before Dedue rushes in and, seeing Ashe seated at his desk, sinks down to his knees beside him.

“What is wrong, Ashe? Why is the inn closed?”

How would he even begin to explain it to Dedue?

“Sorry,” Ashe smiles down at him. “I just don’t feel up to it today.”

“What is wrong? Are you unwell?”

Ashe looks away, and Dedue seems to see, for the first time, the mess of papers and letters on the desk. There’s no way that Dedue would know what date it was, what terrible anniversary it was today. How could he know that any more than he could have known about the darkness that seizes Ashe every so often, the attacks that grip him by the throat and squeeze him dry? 

But Ashe is no stranger to any of that. He has spent nights, months, years struggling with this.

It is, however,  the first time he’s facing it with someone by his side. And he thinks, not for the first time, that if he could tell anyone, it would be Dedue.

“It’s the day we quelled Lonato’s rebellion,” he admits at last. “Eight years ago now. When I remember it now, it makes me think there’s no point trying. Even if we fix this, someone will just find someone else to hate— that’s all humans do, look for reasons to hurt others.”

In his mind’s eye, he sees the battlefield again, the blood and the dead. Lonato’s face.

“We did horrible things, Dedue.” They killed Lonato-- his father. His father. His own friends cut him down right in front of Ashe, even as he screamed for mercy. He can’t shake the image from his mind. “Horrible things. And what was it all for?”

It’s an unfair question, one without an answer, and least of all one from Dedue-- who has been just as badly orphaned by the war as Ashe has.

“Ashe…,” Dedue’s voice is low, soft, as though he’s afraid anything louder would break Ashe. “You did not talk like this in the monastery.”

Ashe manages a tired laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I’m not always like this, I promise. It’s just… some days are harder than others. The war was hard and I’m just tired, I think. Still tired.”

Dedue reaches out a hand, as though to touch him. “Have you spoken to anybody about this?”

“No,” Ashe says. “Everyone was so busy after the war ended and I guess there just wasn’t the right time. But some days I can’t forget it— you know, the things we saw. The things we did.”

“I would not have found you - or His Majesty -  without the war,” Dedue tries.

“You wouldn’t have had to.” He knows the smile that stretches his face is a sad twisted thing, but he can’t stop it. As though his friendship - or whatever you could call this thing between them - was any consolation for the horrors of Duscur and everything that came after. 

Now Dedue’s hand closes over his. A touch, again. “Is there anything I can do?”

Ashe’s first instinct is to shake his head. But that’s not exactly true. 

Their friendship, he thinks again with a little pang of pain. But was that really what it was? The fact they saw each other every week when they could, that Dedue slept under his roof for one night out of seven, that there were those moments and those touches -- Dedue had never been one to touch, but now they had, frequently, since they met - the hug when Dedue first found him, all the times their hands had touched, in comfort, companionship, and in joy - but never anything more than that, and certainly never anything said aloud.

So maybe it’s time to be honest, Ashe reasons. If not with Dedue, then who? 

“It’s been happening a lot less,” he says slowly. “Since you started coming over.” He doesn’t miss how Dedue’s eyes widen at this. “Cooking with you, talking to you, sharing our memories— it’s the only thing that seems to have helped.”

“I wish I had been able to find you sooner,” Dedue says.

Ashe finds his mouth has run dry, and an odd fluttering in his chest has made it a little harder to breathe. 

“The war was difficult,” Dedue continues. “I do not know if we could have done anything to prevent it. But I know we tried our best with what we had, and what matters now is what we do next— we must do better.”

“Are we?”

Dedue nods. “You are.”

We are,” Ashe agrees. “Though we still don’t get a lot of guests.”

“That is true, but perhaps that is a thought for another day.” Dedue places a large warm hand gently on the flat of his back. “It is late, and you are tired. Go to bed. I can clean up on my own.”

The thought of going to his bedroom only to be enclosed in the dark, dead silence, empty and devoid of anything except his own tormented thoughts terrifies him. But he can’t seem to find the words to say it, so all he can do is stare at Dedue, take hold of the hand that had been stroking his and shake his head. 

Dedue, thankfully, understands.

“I will sit with you,” Dedue says softly. “But you must lie down.”

Ashe nods and stands to make his way up to the bedroom. Dedue is beside him in an instant, an arm coming round to support him. They make their way out of the study and up the many stairs to Ashe’s small bedroom like that: Ashe tucked under Dedue’s arm, leaning his weight on him and feeling the strong, steady thump of Dedue’s heart beat comfort into his.

Once they reach, Dedue tucks him in bed and disappears downstairs for a while, only to come back with a mug of chamomile mint tea, which he hands to Ashe before drawing up the armchair so he can sit by Ashe’s bedside. 

Ashe takes a sip of tea and lies back onto the pillows Dedue has fluffed for him. It’s easier to breathe now.

“There is still good in the world,” he remembers Dedue saying, before he falls finally into sleep.

 

 

The next morning, Ashe makes his way down to the kitchen to find Dedue in the middle of cooking breakfast.

“Good morning,” Ashe says, a little giddy.

Dedue turns around from where he’d been standing at the stove, an unguarded smile breaking out on his face as soon as he sees Ashe. “Good morning.”

He feels last night’s darkness begin to seep away at the sight. The world, with its war and its hatred, could be a terrible place, but it was also the same world that gave him this: Dedue in an apron in his kitchen in the morning light. 

Something flutters to life between Ashe’s ribs, pushing through the hangover-like sludge that always followed one of those attacks of darkness. He takes everything in slowly, with the cautious air of someone seeing something for the first time. There is the smell of coffee in the air and something else, soft and roasted and somehow familiar, and the sunlight making the morning glow with possibility. And there is Dedue, smiling at him.

“I made breakfast,” Dedue says, pulling out a chair for Ashe. “Are you hungry?”

“I am,” Ashe says, and Dedue looks delighted. The dish in front of him is piled high with a fluffy mound of grains and surrounded with a sticky red sauce and a variety of other delicate condiments-- charred nuts, finely diced root vegetables, slices of dried meat and more.

It all comes flooding back with the first bite. 

“This is the dish from the war, the one you cooked for me after that bad scouting mission.”

“Yes,” Dedue says simply, fondness and remembrance softening his face. 

“The one I nearly oversalted with my tears,” Ashe continues, the same tears threatening to spill over again.

“Yes,” Dedue says again. “I wished to remind you of how you changed my life that night. How you taught me about the memories we keep alive through our cooking, that we could use our food and stories to remember those we lost-- and those we love.”

Dedue pauses and steadies his voice. “If you ever doubt that you are doing good, remember what you have done for me.”

Ashe eats in silence; his vision has blurred with tears again.

“Your cooking is the best, Dedue.”

Dedue looks fond, but also a little sad.

“I have always regretted that we did not get a chance to talk much after that night,” he says. “That I could not do for you what you did for me.”

That’s not true, Ashe wants to interject, but Dedue continues talking before he can. “You have been in pain and I have not helped. If you are willing, could you share your memories with me?”

Ashe turns the memories over in his head-- the good, the bad; every single one of them. Memories of Lonato and Christophe and even those very early days with his parents in their restaurant - he pulls them all up to the surface and finds he wants to tell Dedue everything.

He nods, slipping a hand into Dedue’s, and continues eating until his plate is clean. It really is delicious.

 

 

A few weeks later, after a number of missed weekends, Dedue brings back a small cotton bag of some kind of nut Ashe has never seen before. 

Dedue says they’re rare even in Duscur, where he’d spent the past few weeks on an envoy mission.

“We chop them up, and mix them with dried cherries.” Dedue explains, his voice taking on the soft, faraway quality it does when he recites a recipe. “Make some bread dough and knead it thin, spread with the nuts and cherries, and bake them in a stone oven. Then, brush with butter.”

“Dedue,” Ashe gasps, swaying bodily into Dedue’s side in a mock swoon. “That sounds too good. Do you think we could make it now?”

Dedue looks a little flustered, but he recovers quickly. Ashe lets him go. Perhaps he’d been a little too demanding.

“Of course. You can start the dough and I will chop the nuts.”

As Ashe sets himself to the task of weighing out the flour and kneading the dough, he realises Dedue’s a little more quiet and subdued than usual.

And for whatever reason Dedue is not himself, even though they shape the bread without much incident, he makes a mistake he never would have otherwise. As he reaches in to place their rolls of bread into the stone oven, he brushes against the oven’s metal door, which is searing hot from the heat. The hiss of burning skin is almost audible. 

Ashe drops his rag with a gasp and rushes over to take a look. There’s an angry red weal starting on the skin of Dedue’s forearm exactly where he’d brushed against the oven’s burning hot door.

“Stay here, I’ll get something for your arm,” Ashe orders. He’s back from his room in an instant, the jar of healing ointment clutched tight in his hands.

“One more scar would hardly make a difference,” Dedue says, even as he grits his teeth through the sting of the burn.

“It’s not about that,” Ashe chides, settling down on his knees in front of Dedue, stretching Dedue’s arm out in front of him to work on. “I don’t want you to be in pain right now.”

Ashe busies himself with applying the salve with the gentlest of touches - so gentle it could be a caress, sweeping across Dedue’s skin. When he’s satisfied that the burn is clean and safely bound, he looks up at Dedue.

“Dedue, is something wrong? You were distracted today, weren’t you?”

Dedue’s fingers have found his own and he shyly eases their hands together, something they have found themselves doing when they talk of difficult things. The sharp smell of herbs from the salve rises from the movement to hang in the air.

“I was just thinking,” Dedue admits at last. “It has been a while since I was here. I was thinking how glad I am to be back.” He laughs fondly at Ashe’s smile. “Even though I was in back in Duscur I found myself yearning to return here.”

Ashe… doesn’t really know what to say to that. His hands suddenly feel hot - and somehow cold at the same time - where Dedue touches him.

He’s long accepted that he’d always found Dedue attractive. Intimidating at first perhaps, but - and he’s starting to realise this now - perhaps that intimidation came from the fact that Dedue was - is - objectively incredibly handsome. Not that that had ever factored into why he’d found himself so drawn to Dedue all those years ago. No, that was all Dedue and his kind heart, his quiet strength, his impossible tenderness.

And now Dedue is here, in his kitchen, holding his hand.

Funny, he thinks, how the world works.

 

 

On another day, Dedue shows up looking so distraught and bewildered that Ashe’s heart goes cold in his chest, shards of panic splintering down his limbs.

“He’s coming,” Dedue says at last, when he’s seated in his usual spot at the table. “He found out and now he’s coming. They all are.”

Who? Which noble had decided to rebel now? Not another war, Ashe thinks, frantic. No, he couldn’t live through another war, not another one, not again—

“Dedue, who is coming?”

Dedue turns his eyes on him, full of despair.

“His Majesty.”

What.

“And the Archbishop. And the prince.”

“What?”

“They found out where I have been spending my weekends and decided they wanted to visit as well.” Dedue shakes his head. “I am so sorry, Ashe. I did not wish for this to happen.”

The relief and the absurdity of it all crashes through him like a wave and he has to collapse into his own seat, laughing.

“W-Why are you sorry?”

Dedue frowns, as though he’s surprised he needs to explain this. “The security will be a nightmare!”

“It’ll be okay,” Ashe says, in between his laughter. “They’re still our friends, right?”

“Friends,” Dedue repeats dumbly. “Friends, yes. But still I would ask that you prepare yourself. There may be a crowd who wish to follow His Majesty and I will have to make preparations.”

“Also,” Dedue says after a while, thoughtful. “You have not seen His Majesty and the Professor since their wedding.”

Ashe decides, for both their sakes, to let that comment lie without an explanation.

 

 

There isn’t a crowd.

Byleth has worked some magic - either bureaucratic or literal - and the royal family turns up at the Violet Inn with the most miniscule of security details— two of the Kingsguard and one mildly stressed looking Dedue.

At the sight of his old friends, all Ashe’s nerves melt away. He rushes up to them, forgetting all his royal protocol, forgetting all the bitterness with which he had held the time they last parted,  and gathers Dimitri and Byleth in as big a hug as he can manage.

He hadn’t realised it had been so many years. 

He’s still ensconced in Dimitri’s slightly suffocating embrace when a golden-haired boy, three or four years old by the looks of it, steps forward from behind Byleth.

The crown prince.

“It’s nice to meet you, Your Highness,” Ashe says, extricating himself from Dimitri and managing a small bow, because he’s still not entirely sure what proper protocol is for a prince so young.

The little boy’s shoulders sag in disappointment and exasperation before he squares them and draws himself up defiantly. “My name is Mikael,” the boy pouts. Just like his father, then.

“Nice to meet you, Mikael,” he corrects himself, earning him a delighted giggle from the boy. 

“Now, why couldn’t you have been that casual with me, Ashe?” Dimitri steps forward and scoops his laughing son up in his arms. “You only called me Dimitri that one time, you remember.”

“It’s easier when he’s young and cute,” he says in mild self-defence.

“Was I not young and cute too?” Dimitri feigns a look of hurt, which actually still looks a little terrifying.

“You were,” Byleth says from where she’s already seated herself at a table, without looking up from the menu. “Are.”

Dedue shoots Ashe a look that makes him want to burst out laughing. Ashe decides it’s about time to avoid any further looks from Dedue, so he walks over to Byleth’s side, order pad at the ready.

“Well,” he smiles at his old professor. “What can I get you?”

She looks up from the menu at last, eyes bright with excitement. “How about one of everything?”

“My wife can eat a lot,” Dimitri beams, radiant.

Dedue looks at Ashe again, and this time Ashe doesn’t bother holding back his laughter.

 

 

Dimitri, as it turns out, is completely correct.

Byleth can eat a lot. 

“Ashe, this is incredible,” she exclaims around mouthfuls of food. “Dedue had been keeping you all to himself, hasn’t he?” It sounds possibly a little too sly for it to be innocent. 

“Dedue usually helps with the cooking,” Ashe says graciously. Today, however, he’d stationed himself at the front door instead to keep watch, although he’d had to abandon that post when Dimitri and Byleth insisted that he and the other two guards join them at the table.

“I thought so,” Dimitri agrees. “Dedue has always been an amazing cook.”

Ashe doesn’t miss the blush that flares across Dedue’s cheeks.

The laughter and chatter fills the inn with a warmth that Ashe realises he loves.

“It’s past Mikael’s bedtime, we’d better be off,” Dimitri announces, when all the food has amazingly been eaten. “Dedue, you can stay.”

He begins to protest but Dimitri cuts him off.

“Ashe will need help cleaning up.”

“I really don’t,” Ashe says.

“But Your Majesty—“ Dedue protests at the same time.

There’s an intimidating swish of fabric as Byleth gets to her feet and picks up her son.

I can protect them if anything happens,” she says, and Ashe may be mistaken but she even seems to glow a little when she speaks. Dedue, surprisingly, backs off.

Dimitri, starry-eyed and beaming again, puts his arm around his wife and son, and just like that, they leave.

Dedue look at Ashe again and sighs, but he is smiling.

 

 

Later that night, when the dishes are drying on the rack and Ashe has sat them down with mugs of ginger tea, Dedue lets out a big sigh and, for what feels like the first time that day, relaxes.

“Okay?” Ashe shoots him a small smile.

Dedue nods. “It went well,” he says.

“It did, didn’t it?” Ashe feels the glow from the good kind of tired, something he hasn’t felt since the Academy. He’s warm and pleasantly worn out from the efforts of the evening; the cooking, cleaning, entertaining. “Dimitri and the Prof- the Arch— Dimitri and Byleth look good. Especially Dimitri.”

“I agree. I have never seen him like this. Love has changed him.”

Love. It’s a word that sounds foreign in Dedue’s voice, enough to make him blush.

“I-I wouldn’t know,” Ashe says, almost under his voice.

Dedue only watches him carefully.

 

 

Dimitri and Byleth aren’t the only old friends that find Ashe after that.

When Ingrid shows up on his front door, Ashe can only look at her with trepidation, suddenly embarrassed and flushed with guilt that freezes him in place and keeps him from giving her the better greeting she deserves.

Ashe is caught now by a situation he’d never thought he would have to face: How would she react to his abandoned dreams? Their abandoned dreams. Didn’t they promise to be knights together? Didn’t she make him promise to live out their dreams for her?

If Ingrid is dismayed by Ashe’s lack of warmth, she makes up for it, gathering him up in a warm hug as soon as she sees him.

“I’m sorry,” Ashe says, before he can help himself. Better than he broach the topic first, anyway, before she had to. “This isn’t quite the knightly dream we talked about.”

“Oh Ashe,” Ingrid says. She doesn’t let him go. “Is that why you disappeared on us?”

He nods, embarrassed again.

Ingrid sighs without exasperation. “It was never about being knights, you know. I told you to live out your dream-- no matter what it was. You could be a street jester for all I cared, and as long as it was your dream, I would be overjoyed for you. Do you understand? I’m happy if you’re doing what you want to do.”

“I’m not sure if it is,” he admits. “I just couldn’t do... what we did before.”

“It’s still something,” she says, firm. “You’ll find your dream and make it work, even if it takes time.”

“Thanks Ingrid, I hope you’re right,” he sighs. 

Ingrid squeezes him to her even tighter. “Of course I am,” she says fondly. “It will come with time.” She sounds so much like Dedue then that Ashe has to chuckle. The tension drains away from him and he can hug her back. He even manages a laugh. 

“A street performer, though?”

They laugh together, and everything feels okay again.

Ingrid eats even more than Byleth, and she hugs him one last time before she leaves with a promise to bring her friends.

The happiness stays with Ashe long after she leaves. Knighthood suits Ingrid, far better than it would ever suited him anyway, and if there still had to be knights in this world, it would be best if she were one of them. He can’t wait for Saturday to come so he can tell Dedue all about it.

 

 

“What would you like to cook today?” Dedue asks one Sunday morning. They have a late start today, having stayed up a little too late talking the night before, and are now yawning over second cups of coffee.

Ashe hums, leisurely thumbing through their recipe book. They’ve made their way through an impressive number of recipes already and the book has begun to bulge satisfactorily, its pages transformed by ink and their recipes in both their hands and the occasional cooking stain.

“Hey Dedue,” Ashe says. “What did you use to do on Sundays? Before this, I mean.”

Dedue looks thoughtful. “It is strange to think of a time when I did not come here,” he says, and Ashe can’t help a smile.

“I tended the Palace gardens. Sometimes I cooked for myself. Sometimes I trained. Not too different from the monastery,” Dedue replies. He looks thoughtful for a while. “Ashe, would you like to visit the Palace one day? I could show you the gardens. There are a few Duscur cookbooks in the library we could look at too.”

Dedue is asking him out, Ashe thinks delightedly. Dedue wants to spend time with him in the city.

“That sounds fun. Next weekend?”

Dedue nods. “I can pick you up, if you like.”

“No, it’s fine, I know the way. I’ll meet you there on Sunday morning.”

Dedue smiles. “Next Sunday then.”

“Next Sunday,” Ashe agrees.

 

 

They go to the greenhouse first, Ashe enjoying the slow stroll in the morning sun. He can tell that Dedue is excited by his somewhat quicker step, eager to show Ashe his favourite place in the palace. Ashe follows, smiling, remembering how tender how Dedue had always been with his plants, and hardly believing that soft gentleness was now turned onto him.

Unaware of Ashe’s reverie, Dedue hurries them over to a walled-off section of the greenhouse. Inside, they are greeted by an array of plants Ashe has either never seen before or recognises only vaguely from the few books he’d found in the monastery library.

“Plants from Duscur,” he breathes in disbelief, because they are thriving.

“Yes,” Dedue says, smiling still. “I managed to make them grow.”

“That’s amazing,” Ashe sinks to his knees for a closer look, warm (warm!) sandy gravel crunching beneath him. How could plants from Duscur survive in Faerghus’ climate when no two environments could be more different? And not just survive, but thrive. 

“Look at all the baby leaves!” Ashe exclaims. He marvels at each new sprout and leaf bud - not tender and bright green like Faerghus’ plants, but tough and coated with a layer of soft white fuzz that turns them a dusty faded colour, almost more white than green. 

Dedue bends beside him, reaching out for a pale new leaf.

“Your eyes always reminded me of them,” Dedue says, and Ashe feels himself blush.

“Here.” Dedue reaches for a long leaf from a small but wild-looking shrub, breaking it off with some care. The sweet fragrance fills the air almost immediately.  “The leaf blade is sharp enough to cut, so be careful. We use this in a lot of cooking.”

Ashe holds the leaf to his nose, breathing in its deep sweet scent.

“And here are your violets,” Dedue says a little bit later, gesturing at a sprawling bed of purple flowers. “The ones I potted for you, they came from this plant right here.”

Ashe bends for a closer look. They really are the prettiest violets he’s ever seen. Dedue and gardens were made for each other, he thinks. Ashe remembers all the time he spent at the monastery greenhouse just to watch Dedue at work with the plants, how tender he had been… how much he had wished to know him then, to talk to him and maybe even touch him, and how he had never dared to until it was too late. 

It’s not too late now. He dares to now. 

“It’s beautiful,” Ashe says.

He looks up and sees Dedue staring.

Dedue is looking at him strangely. “It is much nicer with you in it.”

Something changes then, or perhaps it’s something that has always been there,  only pulled to the surface now by the unfamiliar place they find themselves in. It feels, somehow, that there is a lot more between them than just their friendship.

Whatever it is, that same strange charged air continues long into the rest of the evening, all the way through the dinner that Dedue takes him to at one of the city’s restaurants - it’s odd to eat cooking that isn’t their own and the restaurant is intimidatingly fine and not at all like the homely comfort of his own inn but delicious all the same - that Dedue insists on paying for and even after that when he treats Ashe to a very nice glass of sweet wine at an even nicer establishment.

It’s getting late as Ashe lingers over the last of the wine in his glass, but he doesn’t want to leave.

“Could you stay?” Dedue asks suddenly, as though he knows how Ashe is feeling, and he sounds hopeful in a way that reminds Ashe of that first night all those months ago when he’d begged Dedue not to leave. “We have rooms in the Palace, near to mine—“

Ashe winces over a mouthful of wine. “I have to open the inn tomorrow,” he says.

It could be the drink talking, but Ashe thinks Dedue looks just the slightest bit crestfallen, even if he covers it up with a quick smile and an offer to give Ashe a ride home.

Ashe takes him up on it after Dedue laughingly reassures him his horse can more than handle their combined weight. Sure enough, Ashe’s concerns about straining the horse in any way vanish when he sees that Dedue’s horse is quite literally the biggest stallion he’s ever seen. 

“He’s huge,” Ashe gapes when they reach the stall.

“Like me,” Dedue says, smiling and greeting his horse with an affectionate pat. Ashe flushes with a sudden heat. That damn wine, he thinks.

Dedue lets Ashe mount first and then swings up effortlessly to seat himself behind Ashe, arms coming round to grasp the reins and keep Ashe safely in position on the most comfortable part of the saddle.

Ashe sits comfortably and safely between Dedue’s arms and with his entire solid weight behind him. He could fall asleep, lulled by the horse’s smooth gait and Dedue’s warmth all around him, and he probably does.

At the inn, Dedue dismounts and helps him off, bracing his hands on Ashe’s hips to guide his descent and make sure he doesn’t drop too hard. 

He doesn’t take his hands off even when Ashe, heart racing from the ride or the wine or none of the above, turns in his grasp to face him. 

Standing like that in the moonlight, with Dedue’s hands still on him, anyone would think they were lovers.

But all they do is say good night, and an emotion that looks terribly like regret passes over Dedue’s face before he swings back up in his horse and rides off again into the night.

 

 

Ashe wants more.

He knows he should be grateful that they have found each other at all, that they have their weekends and that should be more than he deserves, that he shouldn’t want anything more than what he already has.

Still, he finds himself missing Dedue more and more during his absences throughout the week.  They shared everything - the letters Ashe gets from Sylvain and Felix, Dedue’s news from the Palace and its gardens, Ashe’s reports of the new guests and happenings in the town nearby, their feelings and memories and more - that it feels stranger not having him around than the opposite.

And then even when Dedue is around, he still feels a pang of longing-- a greedy but sure desire for this to be their every day, and not just a feature of the weekend. 

Ashe wants more but he isn’t sure if Dedue does. Dedue probably doesn’t, Ashe thinks. It’s the same thought he’d had all those years ago: Dedue would never leave Dimitri’s side, and how much space could there be left in his heart for Ashe? 

It’s not until the yearly Apology to Duscur that he realises he may be wrong. 

The Apology is held early in the morning on the anniversary of the Tragedy, a day-long ceremony of speeches, memorials, symbolic gestures and performances which Dedue doesn’t actually get to participate in because he’s too busy running security.

In the three years since its inception, it’s become one of the notoriously hardest ceremonies to coordinate, because unlike other royal procedures that take place safe from the Palace’s ceremonial balcony, this one is held on the ground among the people in the town square. “Because no one should be speaking about this from an elevated position,” Dimitri had said firmly back in his first year when they had been planning the inaugural ceremony.

It’s a good symbol, but Dedue is worn out by the time he leaves the city for the inn.

He comes in with the dusk. 

Ashe’s breath catches in his throat at the heavy metallic clank of armour-- a sound he hasn’t heard for years now and never dreamt he’d hear again. Likewise, he’s long stopped thinking of Dedue as intimidating, but there was no denying Dedue still cut an imposing figure in his armour, the steel plates broadening already broad shoulders, adding even more bulk and sharp lines to his silhouette.

The feeling quickly fades when Ashe realises, from the heavy fall of his feet, that Dedue is more exhausted than he’s ever seen him. 

Even so, Dedue startles into an apology as soon as he meets Ashe’s eyes, backing away towards the door as though he’s seriously considering leaving.

“I apologise, this was thoughtless of me. I should have changed. I just… I just wanted to come here as soon as I could.”

Ashe doesn’t say anything, only slips his hand into Dedue’s gauntleted one and leads him into the inn and to the worn wooden table of their dining kitchen.

He’s made the usual pot of ginger-mint tea - a tradition of their own. He settles Dedue down, giving his hand a soft squeeze before letting it go and setting himself to helping Dedue out of his armour. 

First, the gauntlets. He undoes the straps and shifts the metal plates until they give way, hating a little how easily his fingers fall back into the act.

He works at the rest of the armour with quiet determination - undoes more straps, unbuckles and unhinges until plates of armour come away under his hands, sliding off Dedue easily and seamlessly. The backs of his fingers brush Dedue’s skin every so often as he lifts the heavy steel plates off him, and he can feel light tremors ripple through Dedue each time.

With the armour finally out of the way, Dedue’s hand finds his again. 

“Thank you,” Dedue says, sounding a little breathless.

Ashe rubs comforting circles into Dedue’s palm as he drinks; now just in his undershirt, he can see how tense yet worn out Dedue is. Ashe continues stroking him until he feels Dedue relax beneath his touch.

Dedue looks at him over the rim of his mug. “It never gets any easier. Remembering.”

“No,” Ashe agrees. His throat feels tight with concern. “But at least you will be the last generation to feel that pain.”

That brings Dedue to look up at him. It’s maybe a little optimistic, Ashe knows, to expect that the genocide and racism could just slide off with a few years of apologies. But it’s hope, and they need that now.

“I hope so,” Dedue says. His face softens, crumbles with emotion. “And at least I have you. You are the one thing I am glad for. When I am with you, I feel— You are the only one after me who knows this much about Duscur. Who holds my memories. It is as though you’ve become… my home.”

Dedue’s words about Dimitri come back to him: love has changed him. 

Love, Ashe thinks. That’s what it is.

 

 

Between the King and Archbishop’s increasingly frequent visits, the rapidly improving reputation among the knights and merchants, and Ashe’s own efforts to draw customers in through an ever-revolving stable or promotions and specials, the Violet Inn becomes a gradual and considerable success, both as an inn and, to Ashe’s surprise, as a restaurant. 

Dedue still comes every weekend when he can: they cook, and sometimes they even often have a guest to serve. Dedue slips into his innkeeper role with surprising ease, chatting with the guests and tending to their needs, but also deftly handling the kitchen when Ashe needs an extra hand.

Dedue’s keen sense of observation, his meticulous attention to detail and inherent kindness make him the perfect innkeeper, and men who previously would have denounced Duscur now fawn over his easy smile and gentle strength, heartily eat his Duscur dishes and order seconds.

Even the wildflowers beneath the window sills have bloomed under Dedue’s tender hands, sprawling out with great enthusiasm past their planter boxes and onto the lawn. And the pot of violets - long outgrown the pot and replanted into flowerbeds lining the pathway leading to the front door, lush enough to provide a steady supply of leaves for salad and flowers to grace every room and table in the dining hall - now turn the inn into something worthy of its name.

It’s things like this that make Ashe imagine their life together; a life with Dedue: how each morning they would wake together for a day of work in the inn and then at night, going to bed together— Ashe’s heart catches in his throat. To bed...

Ashe watches Dedue see off their last guest of the night, the familiar tightness in his chest making itself known as usual, and then beckons him over to follow him.

“I want to show you something,” he says.

It’s a secret he’s kept hidden even from his guests: the little winding staircase he found hidden behind a panel in his bedroom that took them out onto the roof and the tiny balcony just big enough for two to stand shoulder-to-shoulder behind the delicate iron railing and look out over where the city gives way to the starting sprawl of farmland and the countryside beyond.

With Dedue, the two of them barely fit and Ashe has to cram himself in a way that would be uncomfortable if he were with anyone other than Dedue. They’re standing arm-to-arm, close enough that Ashe could rest his head against Dedue’s shoulder if he wanted. The view tonight is as clear and breathtaking as he’d hoped: the last rays of the sun lighting the sky as purple as velvet, hung with a spray of stars just beginning to peek out from the dark. Ashe’s heart swells with pride.

“The stars look so beautiful from here, don’t they?”

But Dedue isn’t looking at the sky or the stars. He’s looking at Ashe.

“Sorry,” Ashe says, feeling defeated. “You must have a more beautiful view from the palace, of course.”

Dedue shakes his head. The soft glow of light from the windows next to them illuminates his face and the affection written clear all over it. “The palace does not have you in it.”

What is Ashe to make of statements like that? 

“Do you mean it, Dedue?” Ashe can barely hear himself, if he speaks soft enough he may never need to know the answer if it’s one he doesn’t like.

Dedue turns to face him completely, all stars forgotten. 

“I do,” Dedue confesses. “You have become precious to me. I was… surprised. And guilty. I swore my life to His Majesty, but lately I have been feeling that I would like to live for other things too.” He breaks their gaze then, stares down at the floor and shoves his hand into his coat pocket. 

“For you,” Dedue says. “With you.”

When he looks back up at Ashe, his eyes are searching, desperate, afraid.

Love, Ashe thinks again. Love has changed them. 

“Dedue, I—“ Ah, here it is then. The truth and the admission that has been smouldering at the base of his throat all this while. It doesn’t matter how much space he took up in Dedue’s heart, as long as there was space for him at all. He reaches out to touch Dedue’s cheek. “I want that too.”

They had been standing side by side, but now that they’ve turned to face each other, their faces are so close, Ashe can see exactly where the flush that colours Dedue’s skin starts and ends. Ashe only just dares to place his fingers on Dedue’s forearm, inviting him closer. Dedue carefully places his other hand - the other still deep in his pocket - on Ashe’s hip.

When they finally kiss, it’s sweet and unhurried. 

The books he’s read describe desire as fire and sparks of light but for Ashe, everything goes calm and silent. He feels nothing but Dedue’s jaw moving beneath his fingers, the hand on his hip trembling despite its heat.

He could kiss Dedue forever, he thinks dizzily. 

Maybe desire is more like water; the sensations lapping at him, washing over him in slow languid waves, pulling him into its depths: how the closely cropped hair at the nape of Dedue’s neck feels under his fingers, Dedue’s soft, hot breath, the uncertain but determined way Dedue’s lips work against his own. 

Dedue says something, maybe his name, a low rumble of a moan in his ear, pressing forward, pressing up against him and into him until he’s backed up against the railing he’d probably topple over if not for Dedue’s strong grip on him, holding him close and safe. 

Waves building, building, building.

And then it stops because Dedue pulls away.

“I’ve never—“ Dedue begins, sounding shaky and unsure in a way Ashe has never heard before. “I have wanted to kiss you for so long.”

“Did you like it?” Ashe asks, breathless and brave. He hasn’t taken his hand off Dedue’s arm and his fingers are still tangled in the hem of Dedue’s sleeve, pushed up over his elbow.

“I do,” he says. “I like you.

Ashe feels himself go weak and dizzy with happiness, and he’s about to reach out for Dedue again when Dedue finally pulls his hand out of his pocket, bringing something small out with it.

“I wish I could have given this to you earlier, but it was hard to find someone who could make it in the Duscur style.” Dedue opens his hand to reveal what looks like a delicate charm; gold hammered into the shape of a small leaf, shot through with veins of a shimmering precious stone that gleams a clear pale green even in the darkness.

“I should explain,” Dedue says. He holds the charm out to Ashe, and Ashe notices it’s attached to a chain of gold so it can be worn as a bracelet. 

“In Duscur, we give jewellery as a token to those we wish to… well, I suppose you would say ‘court’ in Faerghus. In Duscur, it is more akin to an engagement.” Dedue is blushing quite furiously now, his usually measured speech spilling forth in a clumsy stumble of words.

“I mean— what I mean to say is jewellery makers were easy to find in Duscur, but… well, less so now. And even then, it took so long for the craftsman to finish this.” Dedue looks sheepish. “I wanted to give it to you when you first visited the capital but it was not ready.”

Ashe gives Dedue his hand so Dedue can fasten the bracelet around his wrist while he thinks of what to say.

“I love you, Dedue,” he says at last, because it’s true. He knows he does, he thinks some part of him must always have— There are tears prickling hot in his eyes and a million things crashing through him all at once: the sorrow of all the time he wasted running and hiding from Dedue, the unrelenting joy, the memories he has treasured all this while, the sweet knowledge that all the pain in his life has amounted to this, that Dedue should return his feelings and love him back.

And then Dedue is kissing him again, with an almost urgent sort of desperation that tastes like relief, until he really does go weak in the knees and sags in Dedue’s arms.

Ashe looks up at Dedue with the solid weight of the bracelet on his wrist and he allows himself, for the first time in years, to dream.