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“What do you make of the Warrior of Light?” Lucia looked up at the Aymeric’s question, surprised.

“I have regrettably only seen her a handful of times, Lord Commander,” she said, setting her report down. “And spoken to her even less. I hardly have enough to draw any conclusion about her.” She arched a brow. “You have reservations in regards to her?”

Now that would have genuinely surprised Lucia; long before they had ever met face to face with the now infamous Serella Arcbane, she’d witnessed him pour over recounts of her exploits. She would watch the way he drank in every detail, how he always strived to hear what it was she had done next. As if hearing what the woman was capable of made the gears in his mind whir with possibilities he had never considered before.

“I know not what to make of her.” Aymeric admitted with a frown. “Though she and hers have only recently gained entry into the city, I have asked after her to report to me when she returns from her expeditions.” He paused, his frown deepening.

“To my recollection, she has answered that request every time.” Lucia said when he did not continue for a moment.

“Aye, she has.” He confirmed with he nod. “But that is all that she does— she reports to me what she has recently done, asks if there is aught else to do, and then simply,” he gestured with a hand. “Leaves.

“And that is so strange, Lord Commander?” Lucia asked with a frown of her own.

To her, that seemed a reasonably professional level of conduct— and more than she had initially been expecting from someone with such weight behind their title.

“It is strange in what she does not do.” He said, crossing his arms. “She makes no effort to curry favor— no attempt to try and gain a greater foothold in the politics of it all. She simply works.”

“I would think that welcome, my lord.” Lucia said, at a loss— for if that was his issue, how was that wrong?

“Were it not so suspicious, aye.” Aymeric agreed with a nod. “But I cannot make sense of it— a person in her position would do well to try and gain influence the second she was through the gates— more influence would better shield her and hers rather than merely being a ward of a high house. If she did not know that, then Master Alphinaud would have informed her at the very least.” He shrugged. “But by all accounts, she has thus far avoided speaking to anyone she need not speak with.” He shook his head and let his arms fall back to his sides. “I cannot make sense of her intent.”

“Intent, my lord?”

“Is this merely a ruse?” Aymeric finally asked her directly. “Is she attempting to endear herself by demuring at the chance to obtain power— or is her disinterest in gaining influence genuine?” He sighed, exasperated. “I have attempted to speak with her, that I might gain better understanding of what her aim is, but she is always a step removed and leaves before I get the chance.” He shook his head. “I had hoped she might have confided something in you.”

“She has not, Lord Commander.” Lucia answered regrettably.

For she did want to know more about the vaunted Warrior or Light— level headed as she was, even Lucia could admit that she had a profound respect for the accomplishments on Serella’s resume. Seeing her in action at the Steps of Faith had been what had prompted her to reassure the Lord Commander that she could be approached to discuss his goals of reformation, perhaps once they had worked together more. She would be lying if she said she was not interested in getting to know the fellow woman warrior better, if only to satisfy her spymaster’s curiosity.

“Perhaps trying to reach out informally would be better? To simply ask after her yourself?” She offered.

“I had that thought as well,” Aymeric agreed. “Thus did I request she come to the Seat of the Lord Commander.” He frowned and stole a glance at the chronometer. “But the hour has arrived— and she has not. She has ever, if nothing else, been punctual.” He turned to look at her directly. “I know not what has waylaid her, but I would ask you to seek her out.” He asked.

“Of course, Lord Commander.” She said with a nod, standing and snapping a salute. “I shall find her.”

“My thanks, Ser Lucia,” he said with a polite smile.

Lucia did not linger after that— she was given orders, after all— and stepped out into the cold outside the Congregation. It would not have surprised her to find that the Free Paladin had gotten herself lost; Master Alphinaud had warned her that Serella had a hard time making her way around major cities, a claim that Haurchefant confirmed with her later after finding Serella utterly lost in the Jeweled Crozier on her way back to the Fortemps Manor her first night in the city.

She had the errant thought to simply start in the Pillars and work her way down, but disregarded it; it was far more likely that Serella was somewhere in Foundation, as it was her regular haunt. With that thought in mind, she made her way toward the aetheryte plaza— perhaps she was in the Brume, or the Forgotten Knight— when she spied the Warrior of Light knelt just outside the Skysteel Manufactory.

Her back was to Lucia, who had begun to step purposefully toward the kneeling hero. She did not break into a run, but she couldn’t help the spike of worry that had pierced her— had Serella been attacked? Was she injured earlier and simply hadn’t sought treatment? What had brought the woman to her knees?

“Mistress Arcbane?” Lucia called to her when she neared.

“Hmm?” Serella looked over her shoulder. “Oh! Ser Lucia!” She greeted, inclining her head in a bow.

“Is aught amiss?” She asked, though the nearer she came, the more she realized Serella was kneeling in front of something— something furry.

“Not…not wrong, per se, but,” Serella’s expression was distressed— more so than Lucia had ever seen it, and her worry only grew. “But I do need help.”

“Is it something I could assist with?” She asked hesitantly, craning her neck to see what was in front of Serella.

It was a dog, Lucia realized when she saw big, dark eyes blinking back at her through the soft gray fur of the animal. Ah— she’d found a stray, then.

“I just,” Serella bit her lip and turned her torso to face Lucia better. “Can you…can you tell him he’s a good boy?” She asked in an almost sheepish voice. “In Ishgardian?”

Well now, that was certainly not what she was expecting— and she could not mask her surprise quick enough. Seeing Serella knelt there, looking up at her with wide, anxious eyes reminded her of the bright eyed and idealistic look on the Lord Commander’s face as he spoke of his dreams for reformation, back when her loyalty to Garlemald had first crumbled, and felt the same spear of warm earnestness lance through her heart in the same way it had so long ago. Fury preserve her, not another one…

But if she supposedly didn’t know Ishgardian, that begged the question—

“I was under the impression you knew the language?” Lucia asked with a frown. “You have shown understanding of what people have said around you before now.”

“When I hear it, yeah.” Serella winced. “The Echo…it translates things so I only hear them in Common.” She explained. “But it doesn’t give me the words to say back to anyone.” She looked back at the dog, her hand coming up and scritching it behind the ears. “I’ve been studying languages— so I can speak the words back, but,” she lowered her head. “I never thought I’d have to learn Ishgardian— so I’m only just starting to pick up the language.”

Well, that would certainly explain things, Lucia surmised, still somewhat flabbergasted by this turn of events.

“I see,” she said simply, arms coming behind her into a parade rest more out of habit than anything.

“I asked Estinien to tell him for me when he was here.” Serella grumbled, her hand still lightly stroking the dog’s soft fur. The dog’s tail thumped against the cobblestone road happily. “I think he pulled a muscle in his side from laughing at me for it.” She pursed her lips and added, “Kind of hope he did, the asshole.”

Lucia let out a surprised chuckle at that, unable to find it in her to hold that against the Warrior of Light.

“He’s a touch…difficult.” Lucia said diplomatically. “I am sorry you were made to feel the brunt of his harshness.”

“Oh, I’m not that offended.” Serella said, though her expression was no less strained. “But I still can’t tell this little fella what a good boy he is— I tried in Common, but he doesn’t respond to it.” She sighed. “And he needs to know. I don’t know if he gets told otherwise.”

The scene before Lucia was incredibly absurd and part of her wondered if she simply hadn’t gone mad and was imagining that the Warrior of Light was kneeling in front of a dog, distressed over not being able to give it praise. And yet…seeing this woman in such a moment of vulnerability, something she had been laboring to hide from anyone that was not from her initial group, made Lucia’s heart soften just enough that she couldn’t help but feel the need to throw Serella a bone, as it were.

Oof, she fought a grimace. The Warrior of Light’s poor humor was beginning to infect her mind. Unfortunate.

She let out a short, sharp whistle, bringing the dog’s attention to her rather than the Paladin stroking his fur. He stood somewhat taller at the call— so he’s trained, at least.

If anyone, for the remainder of her days, would ever approach Lucia and ask her if she did, in fact, tell that dog that he was a good boy, she would vehemently deny it— her reputation as a hard and uncompromising woman would never recover— but she decided such a secret was worth it for the way Serella’s eyes lit up at the way the dog gave out a happy bark and hopped from one foot to the other, obviously pleased with being told something it understood.

“Ohh, what a sweetie!” Serella cooed, eagerly giving the dog a few more pats before standing. “Once things settle down, if you still don’t have a home, I’m adopting you, buddy.” She beamed at the dog. “And I’ll learn how to talk with you properly, yes I will!”

“…Would you like that translated?” Lucia asked softly, her chest feeling unusually warm for the weather.

“Oh, you’ve done more than enough already, Ser Lucia.” Serella said, sighing. “I wouldn’t want to impose—”

And once more, Lucia most certainly did not translate this for the Warrior of Light, for she was a strong and formidable and unflinchingly stoic woman who did not do those things… but Paladin and dog both walked away from the moment infinitely happier than they had been before.

“Thank you,” Serella said, a warm smile spreading on her face— the friendliest expression she’d given to anyone within the city since she first arrived not so long ago. Her hand splayed over her heart, and it was clear that the Paladin was touched by Lucia’s actions. “Truly, that’s so kind of you.”

“I admit, I came in search of you anyhow.” Lucia said, clearing her throat. “Ser Aymeric was concerned when you did not arrive at the appointed hour for your report.”

“Ah— shite, I was on my way when I spotted the dog!” Serella’s eyes widened in horror. “Ahh, that’s fucking rude of me, shit, shit, I’ll go now!” She gave a wave as she started to run. “Thank you— for everything, Ser Lucia!”

By the time Lucia returned to the Congregation, Serella had been let up to the Seat of the Lord Commander. A glance at the chronometer revealed they had only been gone for a few minutes— certainly not long enough that it would be inappropriate for her to arrive, Lucia noted with a sigh of relief.

Serella did not leave for almost an hour— something that had never happened in the few times she had gone to speak with Ser Aymeric in the past— and when she left, she looked almost happy. Lucia wondered if it was still because of the dog— or if that incident had made her more amenable to speaking with the Lord Commander. Either way, Lucia felt she could certainly consider this meeting a step in the right direction, even if hardly anything of consequence was discussed.

The Lord Commander emerged from his office some time after that, and seeing that he clearly wished to speak with her, she followed him at his silent request into an empty office.

“I hope your talks with Mistress Arcbane were productive this eve, Lord Commander?” Lucia asked.

“Certainly better than they have been,” Aymeric said, nodding. He crossed his arms, his expression pensive. “She was open to talking of our backgrounds, to a point.” He turned to face her fully. “She also spoke of her work with the Scions, and answered near any question I had.” He clearly didn’t look satisfied.

“However…?” Lucia pressed gently.

“I still feel as though I only barely understand her motives.” Aymeric admitted, frowning deeply. “I still cannot understand why she is not seeking influence within Ishgard, but I at least feel a step closer to understanding her.” He looked up at Lucia after a moment. “I want to trust her— you know as well as I they will doubtless be instrumental in aiding us in the betterment of Ishgard.”

Though he spoke vaguely for fear of being overheard, Lucia understood what he meant— his dreams of a reformed Ishgard were held close to his chest, but the Warrior of Light posed the first real opportunity to try and set those ideals into motion. It was the best shot they had— provided she was amenable to the same ideals.

She thought of the Warrior of Light, kneeling in front of a dog, stressed to her wits end because she couldn’t tell him what a good boy he was, and suddenly found the possibility that she was not as much of an idealistic fool as the Lord Commander nothing short of absurd.

“I believe we can trust her.” Lucia spoke up.

“Truly?” Aymeric asked, his surprise evident. “Before I asked you to seek her out, you had your own doubts— what has prompted such a change of heart?”

Lucia floundered for a moment for what to say— because she absolutely could not tell him the real reason why she thought Serella could be trusted. It was not an option.

“You have never doubted my judgement before now, Lord Commander.” She said instead, tilting her chin up. “I assure you that you need not now.” She reflected a moment before adding, “She has not played us false thus far...and I do not believe that she intends to.” She crossed her arms. “I shall continue to watch her— ‘tis better to be safe than sorry— but I stand by my assessment.”

Aymeric seemed to mull her words over for a moment before nodding his head slowly.

“Aye,” he finally said. “You speak true.” He seemed to have decided something and nodded again, mostly to himself. “I do still wish to know more of her— if she is trustworthy, then it would behoove us to befriend her.”

“It would, Lord Commander.” Lucia agreed.

“I confess, I do feel better about the situation after speaking with her.” Aymeric smiled earnestly at her. “My thanks, Ser Lucia, for everything.”

The Lord Commander echoing what Serella called over her shoulder to her only further cemented in her mind that Serella would fit in just fine, once she opened up a bit—

Idealistic fools, the both of them, she thought, pursing her lips as the Lord Commander bid her good night and returned to his office. Though, given that she had pledged her shield to his service…she supposed that she was hardly any better. Rather than annoy her, she found the thought oddly warming.

Chapter Text

“I believe I’ve devised a way to reclaim the Dusk Vigil from the horde without thinning our patrols against them.” Lord Drillemont said, mostly to himself.

“I’m all ears, Captain.” Ser Aymeric responded immediately, nodding in encouragement for the man to speak his mind.

There was a further exchange of a plan to send the new wards of House Fortemps ahead of an excavation crew to spearhead themselves against the dragons that had taken over the place. As Aymeric worked through the possible details of Lord Drillemont’s plan with him, he spared a glance over at the wayward Scions — and over at Serella in particular, and realized a moment too late that they had been speaking of the Warrior of Light in a presumptuous manner, rather than with her.

He eyed the Paladin, watching her lips press thinly together, a flush of red creeping along her cheeks, and all at once feared that they had offended. He made a point to include Serella back into the conversation, to actually involve her in the task they were more or less assigning her.

“Might you be able to accomplish this, Mistress Arcbane?” Aymeric asked her, hoping it would be enough to smooth over any ruffled feathers. "You would, of course, be fairly compensated."

Wordlessly, she nodded, her face still faintly red and her expression grim.

“We shall see the Vigil cleared in due time.” Alphinaud spoke up in the silence.

As the Lord Commander saw Serella’s jaw clench, the thought struck to him that he was in effect ordering her into a place of death, a place that had once been a centralized hub of military activity, and he wondered if she was upset at a parallel that he did not know of. It would be understandable; she is — was — an officer of the Maelstrom, and a Scion to boot; if even half of her tale was true, she had suffered more than a few losses in places not unlike that one. As the group all concluded their meeting and Serella spun on her heel and promptly fled down the winding staircase, he made a point to follow suit to ensure he had not offended or upset her — if he lost her aid to his cause, he feared that all hope for Ishgard's reformation would go with her, after all.

“Mistress Arcbane?” He called out to her as they stepped back out into the cold and the snow.

She stopped.

“Y-yes?” She asked after a long moment, though her voice sounded… strained.

“Is aught amiss?” He asked hesitantly. He kept a respectable distance between them — while what talks they had were certainly cordial, they were hardly friendly enough for him to press further — though she still kept her back to him. “I… realize that we ask much of you, and that you have scarcely had a moment to get your bearings before we demand that you stick your neck out—” Her armor rattled, and it drew his attention to the quaking of her shoulders. She was… crying? “Serella—?”

Suddenly, she let out a burst of laughter, doubling over herself and leaning heavily against the stone bannister beside her. It caught him off guard — it was a wheezing kind of laughter, the kind where there was scarcely any noise save for a faint squeak or gasp, and he found himself at a loss as to what was happening. Had she finally caved under the immense pressure she was under? He could hardly fault her, were that the case.

“Oh hells, I can’t breathe!” Serella gasped around a cough, trying desperately to collect herself. “Pardon the blaspheming but holy shit Lord Commander, I fear you’ve made me pull a muscle with jokes like that.”

“I— what?” He sputtered, now thoroughly confused.

“You…” Serella paused, her mismatched eyes widening. “Oh twelve preserve, you didn’t mean to make them.” She dissolved into giggles, an armored hand clamping over her mouth to try and muffle herself— people had begun to stare at them for her cackling.

“Jokes?”

“Ser Aymeric.” She said in her best attempt at a flat voice, her hands on her hips as she fought her own widening grin. “You — an elezen — were all ears?” Her shoulders began to shake with laughter again. “And— and saying I — another elezen! — am sticking my neck out for you?” She beamed at him, all grinning teeth and crinkled eyes filled with tears and amusement. “Oh, please tell me you meant at least one of those.”

“I most certainly did not.” Ser Aymeric blanched, even if the corner of his lip twitched into a smile.

Because this was not funny. And he was not amused. He was not.

“A tragedy.” She sighed and let her arms fall back to her sides. “Those were good." Her smile softened into something strangely vulnerable, and whatever vague sense of irritation he felt at his words being twisted into puns, of all things, dissolved as he saw her drop her guard, just a little. “Thank you. I needed that.” She rolled her shoulder. “Ahh, you know how it is, though— back to the grind and all.”

“Despite your sense of humor,” Aymeric found himself saying around a smile. “I thank you for your help. Be safe, Warrior of Light.”

“You can just call me Serella, you know.” She said, already beginning to take the last few steps down to the path leading out of Whitebrim.

“Very well, then,” Aymeric chuckled. “…Be safe, Serella.”

“Never you fret, Ser!” She let out another laugh as she gave a wave of farewell. “As ever, I shall be vigilant in this endeavor!”

Ah, he smiled wryly. So the puns were simply to be a thing with her around, then.

Chapter Text

Though the hour was late when Aymeric was informed that the Warrior of Light had returned from her work with Lord Emmanellain in the Sea of Clouds and awaited admittance to report to him, he gladly granted her permission to enter; it was not as though he was not already working, anyroad. He rose from his seat to greet her as she strode in, offering her a cordial smile despite the hard set grimace on her face.

“I bid you welcome, Mistress Arcbane,” he greeted her. “I pray your excursions did not tax you overly much?”

“It was another job,” she said with a shrug. “Naught more.” She pursed her lips. “Though for all the good it did; I fear we are only marginally closer to a solution for the trouble.” She rolled her shoulder until it cracked loudly. “With Bismark summoned and lurking in the clouds like a watchdog, the Vanu Vanu have been quieted, but for how long, who can say.” She frowned. “That Bismark will need slaying is inevitable— we need only figure out how to reach him.”

“Any progress is welcome,” Aymeric answered diplomatically. “And I thank you for your help.” He gestured to a report he only just received by the youngest Fortemps— written in a hand clearly still trembling. “You come only just after I received word for Lord Emmanellain himself on the matter.”

“Would you still want my report, then?” Serella asked with an arch of her brow even as she set the paper she had writ upon his desk. “Doubtless you are curious to know what happened.

“I know little and less of precisely what you have done; Lord Emmanellain’s report only just arrived before yourself,” he admitted. He crossed his arms. “Though I know the end result: a son of House Fortemps has been rescued, and though there is still concern for a summoned primal, I am forced to defer to your expertise on the matter.” He closed his eyes a moment, choosing his words carefully. “You have not played us false thus far, and your results speak for themselves.” He opened his eyes and looked at her again. “Though I would be glad to learn aught you would be willing to tell me.”

He watched the way her eyes narrowed at him, scrutinizing him. He met her stare evenly as he let his arms fall back to his sides; he had learned she spoke little to those she was not close to. Doubtless she was debating on saying anything else at all.

Which, truly, was a sign of improvement; she never lingered willingly.

“Alright,” Serella said finally, sighing heavily. Her shoulders slumped even as she placed her hands on her hips. “I give up.”

Of all the statements he had anticipated from her, that was certainly not one of them.

“Pardon?” He blurted, his surprise evident on his face.

“I give up,” she repeated with a shake of her head. “I’ve tried, but I don’t get you.” Her eyes narrowed further. “What’s your game?”

“I,” he stumbled with how to answer; while fluent in political doublespeak, he felt far less sure of himself in the face of someone asking a direct question in such a manner. “I fear you have me at a disadvantage,” he admitted. “What do you mean?”

“You serve the Holy See,” she stated.

“I serve Ishgard.” He answered vaguely.

Semantics.” She argued, shifting her weight to one foot. She crossed her arms. “You play their game of politics—everyone in Ishgard is forced to play along—but you toe the line more than anyone I’ve met.” She shrugged. “And yet you seem to hold integrity and pragmatism where your peers do not.” Her frown deepened. “I don’t know what your agenda is—only what it is not.”

“What it is not?” He asked with an arch of his brow.

“I have been,” she began, rolling her shoulders again. “I won’t pretend I’ve been subtle in my reluctance to trust.”

He was in no position to correct her; she had not been. “You have conducted yourself professionally,” he said instead— and said in truth, to be fair. “T’was all I expected.” Another truth, all told.

“I had my reasons,” she said softly—and for a moment, he almost swore he saw regret flicker in her eyes. “Not the least of which was everything that brought me here.”

“I had presumed as such,” he reassured her—for truly, to expect her to be open and trusting after the circumstances that had thrown her against their gates would be unreasonable.

“It was more than that, though,” she admitted, her brow furrowing. “I had so strongly suspected you as a conspirator for what happened in Ul’Dah.” She admitted, her eyes lowering as if in shame. “From the first. For longer than I probably should have.”

What.

“I,” he floundered, “am at a loss.” He admitted with a shake of his head—evidently this was a night he would spend in stunned stupidity. “Though I take no offense, may I ask why?

“The timing of your invitation to the Falling Snows.” She explained. “Ser Lucia—and your missive— arrived at the Rising Stones on the same day as my learning that the Crystal Braves were funded in large part by the Syndicate, and on heels of us confirming that there was a Garlean spy in the ranks of the Braves.”

“Truly?” He chanced—his timing could not have been that poor, surely.

“I was informed of your request for a meeting and told that our investigation had hit a dead end in the same breath, Lord Commander.” She said flatly, her expression blanched. “So yes, the timing was about as piss poor as it could have possibly been.”

“Ah,” Aymeric said—and felt foolish for the utterance. It certainly explained her cordial but distant reception of him. “Though such rushed villainy must have seemed suspect?”

“I thought as much,” Serella admitted. “Though I was willing to put it down to thirty years of isolation dulling a nation’s capacity for subtlety.” With a heavy sigh she shook her head. “Then I came here, and swiftly realized that subtlety is the official Ishgardian language.”

That got a startled laugh out of him. “A point I am forced to concede,” he admitted around his chuckling. “We are not known for disclosure.” He tilted his head as he thought for a moment. “Though I wonder— what changed your mind?” He asked. “What decided my innocence?”

“You’ve had more than enough time to use me for your own gain,” she said, shrugging. “But you haven’t.” She frowned. “I would be in no position to refuse you; all those whom I have left to protect would rely on my compliance, regardless of your intent.” She shook her head. “But you’ve not once asked anything of me but to report to you what I find out, and conduct myself with respect.”

“And I would ask no more of you than that.” He answered.

“And that,” she said with an emphatic nod. “That is what exonerated you: I learned enough of you to realize that you wouldn’t.”

“I see.” He said haltingly, though after a moment of debate decided to ask, “but why extend this candor to me at all?” When her brows raised in surprise he added, “if we are speaking candidly, you said yourself that I serve the Holy See, whom you have admitted to harboring apprehensions regarding.” Not unfounded apprehensions, he thought to himself, but the point still stood. “So why reach out to me in such a way at all?”

“I know you as well as I know the Archbishop,” Serella admitted. “But that’s all I need to know in order to see that the two of you are nothing alike.”

Well, she didn’t need to know she’d just made his decade, saying that, but still. She had.

“I think you’re Ishgard’s best bet,” she continued. “But I only think that from what little I’ve heard from other people, not from knowing you, and waiting you out is getting me nowhere.” She pressed with a huff. “So I give up.” She shrugged. “I know you to be a man of conviction but I know so little else that I cannot trust you, much as I want to.” The hard edges of her countenance softened. “Just tell me what you’re after. I want to work with you, Ser Aymeric.”

He paused, heavily weighing her words against his wants. His dreams of a reformed Ishgard, one with open gates and lowered spears and peace was still a carefully guarded secret—none save Lucia and Handeloup knew. Doubtless others suspected, at least to some decree, but he had gone to great lengths to present himself as naught more than another underling in lock step with the Archbishop.

She wanted to trust him? He would gladly say much the same for her—and an eagerness at a real opportunity to do so welled in his chest.

Even still, these were uncharted waters, and he had to tread with care. He had opened his hand too eagerly before, and still bore the scars of those that bit him for the trouble.

“I want,” Aymeric began slowly. “A conclusion to the Dragonsong War in which Ishgard is still standing.” He paused, mulling over just how far he was willing to tip his hand. “And…I want to better understand our Eorzean neighbors.”

“A vague enough answer that tells me nothing I didn’t already know.” Serella surmised with a sigh of resignation. “Alright, then. Keep your secrets.” She said simply, shrugging. “Twelve know I haven’t exactly made myself an open book.”

“You came to us in a difficult time.” Aymeric said, erring on the side of diplomacy, as ever. “’Tis little wonder you were so reluctant to trust.”

“Still am, if I’m being honest.” She admitted. “But…being bullheaded is no way to make allies, let alone friends,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that I’ve been burned—I have to remember that.”

“Pray do not take the blame solely upon yourself,” he insisted. “I have done little to make myself approachable either.”

The tension that had almost perpetually clenched her jaw in the months that he had known her eased. She nodded slowly, her eyes drifting downward in thought.

“Then perhaps,” Serella chanced. “We could chalk it up to being poorly introduced.”

“I would be glad to do so.” Aymeric admitted—perhaps tipping his hand a touch further than he had expected to. “Though I suppose ours was hardly a first introduction at all.”

“I suppose not.” Serella agreed with a laugh and a shrug of her shoulders. Her eyes glittered when they met his again. “I get so few of them nowadays—most just look at me and decide they already know who I am.”

Recalling his own first words to her— ‘Speaking of reputations, yours towers over us all, does it not?’ – Aymeric winced inwardly. He wondered little and less why she had been so reluctant to thaw, the more he dwelled on her perspective.

“A precedent I fear I have only perpetuated,” he said apologetically. “And one for which I must make amends.”

“No need.” She dismissed, tugging at one of her gloves. “I’ll settle for a proper introduction.”

“I would be happy to oblige,” he said, his own smile slowly forming of its own volition. “Though tell me, is it common for Eorzeans to be so quick to forgive and forget?”

“Want to know what kind of reception you’ll get in the Alliance?” She asked with an arch of her brow.

“In part.” He answered with a wry twist of his lips.

“Then start with me,” Serella said, pulling her glove completely off. “And you’ll find out.” The scars along her lips stretched when she smiled. “Though I wonder if I’ll have to have much the same chat with every Ishgardian I meet.”

“Perhaps start with me,” Aymeric offered in kind. “And you might be surprised.”

“I might.” She said, and held out her gloveless hand for him to shake. “Serella Arcbane,” she introduced herself. “Purveyor of puns, and lover of a good cuppa.”

Her smile was beaming and warm and so unlike the stoic face of the Warrior of Light that he had thought he had come to know in recent months that for a moment, it truly felt as though Aymeric were meeting Serella for the first time. As he removed the clasps on one of his long, fingerless scalemail gloves he felt his own genuine smile spread of its own accord.

“Aymeric de Borel,” he introduced himself— because he had not before, he realized. Her hand felt warm when he shook it. “A connoisseur of confections and mystery books in equal measure.”

“Alright, you I’m sure I’ll like.” Serella tossed her head back and laughed even as she slid her glove back on. “I shall have to recommend you a book or two in between saving the world.” She inclined her head in a bow, though the friendly smile on her face remained. “Until then, Ser Aymeric.”

“I look forward to it Mistr—” Aymeric began.

“Serella.” She corrected him with a shake of her head. “Anything else sounds pretentious on my part.”

“…I look forward to it, Serella,” he amended with a chuckle.

As he placed his gauntlet back on and he watched her smile at him and leave his office, watched the way she walked with a swagger she did not have before, he saw her as everything that Haurchefant had told him she was: an earnest adventurer— and a stalwart friend, if you let her in.

The door was opened. It was time to see who they truly were, and how they worked together.

Chapter Text

When he received word of the arrests of Master Leveilleur and Mistress Taru, Aymeric only found himself surprised by half. That they were accused of heresy was, while deeply unsettling, only surprising in so far as it happened so soon.

A frown marred his face as he mulled over Lucia’s report of the situation; that it was Ser Grinnaux of the Heaven’s Ward that laid such charges against them, vague as those charges were, was of grave concern; though no one voiced it, the writing was on the wall: this was meant to get rid of a perceived threat.

Still, that threat was clearly not with the accused—capable as they were no doubt were, this was a shameless ploy to eliminate the Warrior of Light by association.

Because Serella would intervene; even knowing her as little as he did, he did not doubt that she set out for a solution the moment she was informed. Heavy thoughts bade he wonder if this would be another notch upon her sword or her moment of ruin. He could only hope for the former.

Thus the notice from the lift guard that the Warrior of Light was requesting an audience did not come as a surprise, and she was swiftly granted entrance.

Even less surprising was her hurried gait as she walked in. He did not even have the opportunity to stand and greet her before she was at his desk.

“I won’t pretend you don’t know,” Serella began, foregoing her own greeting. “That Alphinaud and Tataru have been arrested on charges of heresy.”

“I was informed,” Aymeric answered. “I must extend my apologies—“

“You had nothing to do with it.” Serella dismissed. “And I don’t have time for pleasantries.” She grimaced. “Haurchefant sent me to you in the hopes that you could help me.”

“Regrettably, there is little I can do to stop it.” Aymeric said, and folded his hands together atop his desk.

“What?” Serella balked, as if surprised. She shook her head and tried to explain, “No, that’s not—“

A flare of anger sparked in his chest; here she had come to him but a week ago insisting they be honest with one another to build trust, and already she not only wished to use him for his position, but to demure as though she was not? Had his suspicions of her intent been right all along? Though he did not raise his voice, he did not hide the way his frown deepened.

“The Holy See has formally arrested them.” He said in a clipped tone. “Were I to try and step in to release them—“

Serella’s hands slammed upon his desk hard enough that he jumped in his chair. The noise was sharp enough to pierce through the anger, the thud heavy enough to douse the conflagration in his chest. His heart pounded in his chest from beneath her fiery gaze.

“I need you,” she said, her tone low and dangerous. “To pull your paranoid head out of your own ass and hear me.”

The last words were snarled, her scarred lips pulled back enough to bare her teeth. Without meaning to, Aymeric straightened in his seat and moved his hands to his lap, gaping up at her intense visage with wide eyes. Her ferocity had never been directed at him, and as he watched the fire burn in her mismatched eyes he at last understood how she had turned false gods to ash.

“Let me be clear: I do not want you to intervene.” She continued in that warning tone of hers.

Unconsciously, he shivered from the ice in her voice. She loomed over him in a way none had dared to since he began to climb up the ranks of the Temple Knights. His pulse quickened, and the heat in her gaze slid down to settle low in his gut— and was promptly shoved away because what was he meant to do with that particular feeling.

“It would be stupid.” She continued. “Even if they were cleared, they would only be targeted more than they already have.”

“That they would.” Aymeric conceded softly, still more than a little surprised.

“All I am asking of you,” Serella said, her tone slowly thawing into something more neutral. “Is to tell me how I can save them.”

It was subtle—if she had not been leaning so close to him he might have missed it, but he saw the way she winced when her voice cracked. Her mask of stalwart and unflinching fury slipped, however momentarily, but it was enough to quietly remind him that she was fighting for two of the only people she had left on this star—doubtless it only made her more desperate.

You are capable of kindness, he chastised himself. Remember that.

“It would seem,” he said hesitantly. “That I have presumed in error.” He lowered his eyes, humbled. “Forgive—”

Later.” Serella snapped. “Tell me how I can fix this. Please.”

“They can demand a trial by combat—and doubtless Master Leveilleur will.” Aymeric said quickly. “Mistress Taru, however, can select a champion to fight in her stead.”

“Me, then.” She said simply.

“Precisely.” He confirmed with a nod. “Though her champion must needs be present—“

“Thank you, Ser Aymeric.” Serella cut him off, already pushing away from his desk and running to the lift. “I’ll report in after I win.”

“And that is already a foregone conclusion?” He called as she slipped inside the lift.

She turned to look at him as the gate closed.

“It is.” She said. “Because it has to be.”

Her words stayed with him even after she left.

He could not help but be humbled by the encounter. While her outburst had been more than a little…unexpected, he could concede that it was not without merit—or at least, was understandable, given the circumstances. She had come only seeking his advice, after all, and he had to quietly concede that his assumption was uncalled for, and his reaction outsized. It would seem they both bore the pain of thawing to one another, he thought to himself.

Aymeric weighed his options carefully. He spoke truthfully when he said that there was nothing that he could do; even if he had the political sway for it—which he lacked besides—the backlash would doubtless put them in greater danger. Serella had the right of that. Still…there were some areas in which he had a modicum of latitude.

The linkpearl frequency that he dialed was one he had memorized from repetition, and he was soon tapping his earpiece as the call connected.

“Ser Handeloup,” his Second Commander announced himself.

“I require your discretion in this discussion, Second Commander.” Aymeric said. “Pray speak as though you are conversing with a friend.”

“Of course,” Handeloup replied in a conversational tone.

Good, Aymeric thought. The less it seems that this is an important call, the better.

“If I recall your schedule correctly, you are currently at the Tribunal?” He asked, even as he thumbed through the day’s patrol routes and assignments to confirm what he had said.

“Only just,” Ser Handeloup said easily. “But yes.”

“There is a trial of heresy for two of the wards of House Fortemps on the docket today,” Aymeric explained. “Can you confirm that it has not yet begun?”

“A marvelous question,” Handeloup replied casually—good, he was keeping up appearances. There were a few moments of static before he spoke again. “From the sound of it, there is nothing going on at the moment.”

Then the judge has not yet brought them to face their charges. There was still time…

“I would ask you to invoke a request of documentation on the orders of the Lord Commander.” Aymeric said after only a moment’s pause. “I would know more of these charges and what evidence they are based upon.”

More like he would stall the judge long enough to guarantee that Serella could get to the Tribunal before the trial started, but still. Nothing stalled bureaucracy for another half bell or so like paperwork.

“I can do that.” Handeloup said. “Anything else I can assist with?”

“Only that you might bring the requested documents to the Congregation at your earliest convenience.” Aymeric answered. “Thank you for your assistance in this matter, Ser Handeloup.”

“Of course,” his Second Commander replied. “Until then.”

With the call ended, Aymeric leaned back in his chair, his hands resting in his lap. Technically, he was only asking Ser Handeloup to perform a task he would have had to have done regardless—he only asked that it be done sooner rather than later.

Punctuality did not correlate to preferential treatment, after all. Any who might try to accuse him of it would only be mocked for their overreach. He could only pray that Serella would make it count.

It was less than three hours later that Aymeric heard word that she had, in fact, made it count—and count soundly, from the sound of it. To hear Haurchefant explain the battle in breathless detail, Ser Grinnaux should offer thanks to Halone that he still possessed all of his limbs.

Aymeric felt only a little guilty that he regretted not being able to see that.

Still, if that had been the ultimate conclusion to the whole ordeal—with the Warrior of Light as the victor and the wards of House Fortemps cleared of their charges—then that would have been more than enough, sight unseen. So when he was notified later that evening that Serella was awaiting admittance to his office with a package, he had to admit, his curiosity was piqued. He permitted her entry.

Serella came to him with steps lightened from her earlier burden and an apologetic smile upon her face. She had taken the time to change out of her armor, and came to him wearing a simple shirt and pants, obscured only by a thick gray cloak. This would be the first time he had ever seen her out of her armor, he realized with a start—it struck him as significant, even if he could not parse out why.

“A pleasure to see you again, Mistress Arcbane,” Aymeric greeted her from his desk with a smile. “And may I express my relief that the trial came to such a satisfactory conclusion.”

“I’m just glad it’s over.” Serella said, sighing. “But I didn’t come here for my ego to be fed.” She shifted her weight to one foot in front of his desk, her expression bashful. “I came to say thank you,” she explained before adding, “and…because I owe you an apology.”

He respected her too much to pretend at ignorance, though all the same, he felt an apology was unnecessary.

“You owe me nothing—“ he tried to say when she held her hand up.

“Please don’t try to excuse my behavior.” She implored him with a shake of her head. “I got in your face and spoke out of turn— you didn’t deserve that.”

“Given the circumstances,” Aymeric said amicably. “I am in no position to fault you.”

“Nor I you,” Serella replied. She shrugged a shoulder and looked over to the window before adding, “I thought about how it must have looked from your perspective for a bit there—and I’d have drawn the same conclusion you did.” She lowered her gaze. “Truly, I’m sorry for the way I treated you. It was beneath us both.” She met his gaze evenly. “I’ll carry myself better going forward, you have my word.”

Aymeric could not help but be pleasantly surprised—though he was considered young for his station by most standards in both military and political fields, many of his political colleagues might as well have been toddlers for how well they handled any given situation where they might have even tangentially been at fault, so such a direct apology was…welcome. His expression must have given some part of him away, as Serella fidgeted.

“Have…have I offended?” She asked hesitantly.

“Not at all,” he said immediately. “Quite the opposite, in fact.” He cleared his throat and explained, “I am unaccustomed to receiving apologies of any magnitude that were even half so sincere.” He offered her a slow but genuine smile. “You are a breath of fresh air, Serella Arcbane.”

“Yeah, well,” she fumbled for a moment, clearly flustered by the comment. “Likewise—you actually took the time to hear me out.”

She gently laid the box she had brought in with her upon his desk—a small box, but he recognized the white and gold parcel wrap from a chocolatier he had been known for frequenting. He quietly wondered if she knew that part, and hadn’t simply asked around for a reputable sweets shop; there were only so many in the city, he remembered with dismay.

“I remembered you liked confections, but I had no idea what you would like,” Serella said apologetically. “But I was recommended this place for sweets.”

“By whom?” He asked, eyeing the wrapping. “They have good taste.”

“Haurchefant,” Serella admitted with a smile. “I figured it must be good— was the only store I’ve ever heard him recommend by name.”

Aymeric laughed at that—the two of them had often gone in their early days of knighthood together and spent damn near every gil they had on good chocolate and taffy to share with the then young Lord Francel. Of course Haurchefant would remember—he had often admitted that those were some of the few happy moments he had within the city before his transfer to Camp Dragonhead.

“I am surprised he did not remember my old order there.” Aymeric said, already beginning to tug at the gold ribbon wrapped around the box.

“Oh he does,” Serella said with a wry twist of her lips. “He just wouldn’t tell me.”

That was a surprise—much as he adored his old friend, Haurchefant was, above many other things, the biggest gossip Aymeric personally knew.

“Believe me, I asked him.” She said, holding up a hand. “But he told me, ‘isn’t it better to learn yourself?’” She rolled her eyes goodnaturedly. “That these were meant to be a surprise olive branch was beside the point—I evidently still had to learn for myself.”

“Ever has Lord Haurchefant had a proclivity for mischief,” Aymeric mused. Sliding the lid of the box off, he peered down at the confections within and arched a brow. “May I ask who chose these sweets in particular?”

“I did.” Serella said, and he heard the shrug in her tone without looking up at her.

They were truffles— what flavor, he could only guess— wrapped in white chocolate and dotted with blue icing on top. Mamelons d'Halone. Reminding himself that he was no longer a boy of twelve summers, he fought back a snicker.

“An interesting choice.” He said instead, though he could not help but smile wider. “May I ask what made you decide on this?

“Because it seemed a good icebreaker.” Serella said with a grin and a shrug of her shoulders. “And I was a tit earlier.”

Aymeric was not proud of the laugh that bubbled up in his throat at the joke.

“Alright, now I am a touch cross.” He admitted around his chuckling, and though he gave a valiant effort to looking annoyed, her grin dissolved his attempts. “That was not funny.”

“You laughed, so it counts.” She countered. After a moment’s hesitation, she asked, “there’s…there isn’t any cultural significance to these, right? I mean, I asked at the shop and they said no, but—”

“Only that young students of the scholasticate laugh at them in the windows.” He reassured her, giving in to his chuckling and holding up a hand.

“Good.” Serella sighed. “There’s a similar truffle in Gridania— but it’s named after Menphina instead.” She pointed to the sweets inside the box. “And there’s a little pink nub on the top instead of blue.” She shrugged. “But I’m guessing that’s just to be funny because it’s cold here.”

“A rather bold assumption,” he tutted playfully. “That Ishgardians are capable of humor.”

He delighted in the startled sputter of laughter that Serella coughed up, staring at him with wide, surprised eyes.

“Did…” She asked slowly, her grin widening by the second. “Did you just make a joke?”

“Not at all.” He dismissed. “I made an observation.”

“True enough,” she sighed. “How could I think you could be funny?

“How indeed,” Aymeric said. Eyeing the chocolates, he saw the unique opportunity they represented. “As recompense for presuming me capable of humor, I would request your assistance in enjoying these.” He looked to her as he gestured to the box. “I fear I could not eat them all alone— and I would enjoy speaking with you more.”

“Ah,” Serella mused with a knowing nod. “You’d like to be kept abreast of how things are going?”

Aymeric’s lip twitched— and he hated that it did. Her eyes, hawkish as they were, saw it, and she flashed him a toothy smile.

“You smiled.” She observed.

“I shan’t be making a habit of it,” he promised, even as he gave up and laughed again. “Come, I shall prepare tea for us to partake in— that is,” he caught himself; she hadn’t accepted his invitation. “Provided you are amenable?” Fearful of being seen as presuming her consent, he fumbled to explain, “truly, I would never press the issue. I only wished to take a moment to speak with you, and—”

He had an entire, long winded explanation for what amounted to ‘I want to know and trust you,’ that he was prepared to launch into when she started to laugh before he could truly begin. He looked up at her, and any of those carefully constructed words he might have still had in his head faded.

Serella was smiling at him, but for the first time it was…different. Her expression was soft and comfortable, and a warmth he had not realized she had made her smile glow with radiance. That her face was almost half scar did not matter to him as she met his gaze with a tilt of her head and a mirthful twinkle in her eyes.

Beautiful, his mind whispered. He ignored it.

“I would be more than amenable.” She said, her tone matching the softness in her eyes. With a huff of laughter, she added, “though just black for mine, if you please.”

“Of,” his throat felt dry and his voice cracked, so he cleared his throat and tried again, “Of course, Mistress Arcbane.” He gestured to a chair nearby. “Please.”

“How many times do I have to ask you to just call me Serella?” She asked him with another of those bell-clear laughs.

“Perhaps a few times more,” he said with a faint smile of his own as he set to fixing the kettle. “Though I would not wish for you to feel as though you must accept my invitation—”

“Aymeric.” Serella said.

He looked up from the kettle, surprised; she had never said his name before without his title, and he had not heard his name said in such a patient sigh since he was a boy— though this felt…different. Kinder. There was a faint…something that fluttered against his ribs but he pushed that down as far as he could— he wouldn’t even know what to do with that little budding…thing in his chest.

“You can call me here as often as you like,” she said, her smile still soft as gossamer and still doing odd things to his thoughts. “And if I can, I’ll come because I want to be here.” She looked down at her lap, though her smile did not fade. “I want us to be a team— perhaps even friends.”

“Then our goals align once more.” He said easily and earnestly. “Shall we start here?”

“I think,” Serella said, beaming at him as she settled her hands in her lap. “I think we shall.”

And once they had their cups in hand, they did.

Chapter Text

Rightly why the high houses insisted on a celebration for the Scions innocence and the honor they brought to House Fortemps was utterly beyond Serella. For how readily droves of them attended in glee with the expectation of the Heaven’s Ward to make a heretical smear on the arbitration floor, they were now falling over themselves to try and express how glad they are that “the Fury shielded you from such a grievous error.” If they thought themselves cunning and subtle in their duplicity, she would have to disagree.

More baffling still were the odd looks and snide remarks the trio of them got from the very same elitists that sought to try and bend them to the political schemes of the nobility; in the baffling days following that sham of a trial, they had all been so occupied with their tasks and trying to track down the missing members of their little family, they had been, more or less, unavailable for measurements for clothes to be made, though had made do with cleanly pressed suits for them all. Bollocks to them, Serella had insisted when Tataru grew despondent at their backhanded comments. As far as she was concerned, they all looked great.

Were it not for the need to ensure protection for Alphinaud and Tataru, she would have thrown a punch at someone by now.

Uthengentle had declined to attend, citing need to assist Clan Centurio with a hunt mark. Much as she was…less than thrilled with him at the moment, as she listened to the twentieth noble condescendingly comment that it was little wonder the Scions were dressed so “humbly” given their predicament, she found she couldn’t fault him for wanting to avoid coming. She wanted to be here less and less with every passing second.

Still, she found company that made it bearable, and was glad they were more stationary than some others circles that flitted about the ballroom of House Fortemps; it made it easier to stick to them. Haurchefant attended, blessedly, and made for refreshingly straightforward conversation. She was relieved that at least someone was genuinely glad for their presence. Though the little gathering she stood in was comprised of some…unexpected guests, she mused to herself.

It was…odd, that the Azure Dragoon and Lord Commander both were required to take time to attend such a gathering. She supposed she could see the reasoning; while this was largely just a display of showmanship and an opportunity for House Fortemps to flaunt their latest acquisitions of prestige and power, it was still a gathering of the elite that governed over Ishgard. It made sense for them to have to at least make an appearance. She supposed she was just surprised that they had the time for it in the first place.

Truthfully she was more surprised still that Estinien had actually made an attempt at grooming himself before arriving; with a crisp suit and his hair pulled back, he looked almost elegant, though his natural features certainly made him handsome besides, she could concede, even as he had not bothered hiding his scowl when unwelcome guests approached him. She was half tempted to take inspiration.

“Remind me why I came here,” Estinien grumbled into his champagne, his disdain for the gathering evident.

Serella could relate, really.

“We were invited,” Ser Aymeric answered smoothly. He took a delicate, practiced sip from his own champagne flute. “Count Edmont was generous enough to organize such an event that the Scions might be made to feel welcomed and rewarded for their efforts.”

“Oh certainly,” Estinien said blithely with a thorough roll of his eyes, “and the nobility has been so welcoming.”

“Incredibly warm,” Serella answered, and her own bitterness tinged her words, “they’ve all taken the time to compliment me on my ‘successes in spite of my disposition,’ at least once.” She drained her champagne. “So kind of them.”

Haurchefant offered her an apologetic smile but said nothing. Serella took no offense; they’d howl with laughter and rant over cocoa back at Camp Dragonhead about the evening later, as they always did.

“Given their…reception of you,” Ser Aymeric spoke up, his expression pinched in sympathy, “I can hardly fault you your reluctance to mingle.”

His tone suggested extensive experience with their backhanded nature—and she could only wonder at who would dare to even attempt such condescension with someone of his status.

“I thank you for indulging in keeping me company,” she replied. When she smiled, it felt genuine for the first time all night. “A friendly face or three is welcome in a crowd of strangers.”

“Hear that, Ser Estinien?” Haurchefant grinned from over the lip of his glass. “You’re a friendly face!”

When the Azure Dragoon arched a brow Serella could only laugh.

“You’re at least honest in your contempt for being here,” she explained. “And that’s refreshing.”

“Good enough for camaraderie, I suppose.” Estinien grumbled, though he seemed just a little pleased to be wanted. “The boy seems to be in his element.” He commented, eyes drifting to watch Alphinaud easily hold up conversation with a small gathering of the nobility. “Is he aware of the vultures whose company he is in, I wonder.”

“Likely.” Serella said, carefully eyeing how the nobles gathered around him and Tataru. “Knowing how close to keep them has been…a skill recently learned.”

One of the wait staff who happened to be passing by paused and offered their tray for her to place her empty flute upon.

“Oh,” she was startled, but set the glass on the tray and smiled widely at them. “Thank you so much.”

“A-ah,” The waiter seemed to fluster at the eye contact. “Of course, mistress. Another for you?”

“If you please—but only when you have a free moment,” she answered, deliberately softening her smile. “No need to rush—you’re busy.”

“Of course, mistress.” He stammered again as he ducked his head and moved quickly through the crowd.

One of the nobles, a man from one of the houses serving House Durendaire, if she remembered correctly—which was rather unlikely for how little she cared—had drifted over toward their group, and had apparently taken her actions as a good excuse to sidle up beside her within the small cluster of people. She already wanted to slam her head against the nearest wall to avoid the impending conversation but forced herself to keep a pleasant enough face.

“Oh come now, the honored guest surely should not be made to wait for her champagne!” The noble exclaimed, perhaps a little too loudly, offering her a flute with a smug grin stretching his heavily flushed cheeks.

“I’m in no hurry,” she said. She made no move to take the glass from him. “And the waiter will be back shortly. I would not have his effort be wasted.”

“Oh, what’s a little more work for the help, eh?” he said, though he swayed as he leaned back to drain the glass himself. He let out a satisfied sigh at the last dreg and set the flute on a tray of a passing waitress. “Another,” he said more at her than to her, snapping his fingers.

Despite her hackles instantly raising, Serella fought to keep her expression neutral. There was some relief that she was in good company when an almost incredulous silence hung over the group she stood in; at least she wasn’t completely surrounded by pricks.

Haurchefant sprang into action as the girl tried to scurry off, instantly at the waitress’ side chatting with her with that same kind enthusiasm he always had.

“Is it not the obligation of the nobility,” Serella asked in a clipped tone, “to serve the public with generosity with kindness?”

“Ahh, the Noblesse Oblige!” The noble said, a hand smoothed over his suit vest as he chuckled. The more hot air he exuded, the more Serella could smell how much he had drank. “I was not prepared for an adventurer such as yourself to be so well read. How refreshing! Though really,” he gave a dismissive wave of the hand and asked, “is it not enough that they are paid for their time?”

What a first impression, Serella thought.

“Forgive me—a moment, my lord,” she said in the airiest, easiest tone she could manage. When he opened his mouth again she held a hand up. “Just a moment.”

She felt Ser Aymeric and Estinien’s eyes on her as she moved to where Haurchefant still spoke with the maid, who was now pouring champagne into clean flutes at the serving table some fulms away.

“Forgive my intrusion,” she spoke softly.

“Oh!” The waitress startled, and a small splash of champagne missed the flutes and pooled on her tray. “Ah, excuse my clumsiness—!”

Though she hardly made much of a mess, the flutes shuttered enough to clink fairly loudly, loud enough that those in the immediate vicinity turned a shrewd eye toward the woman. Serella felt a second wave of sympathy wash over her for the poor girl; she remembered her early days serving at the Druthers, and that was for those who were less pretentious and demanding than this crowd. She couldn’t imagine the stress the poor girl was under.

“Please,” Serella held up a reassuring hand while the other produced a kerchief from her pocket. “You have nothing to be sorry for,” with a reassuring smile, she began to blot the champagne herself.

Haurchefant, gallant knight that he was, readily swooped in to help shuffled the glasses around to ease the cleaning process, his cheery grin infectious.

“M-my lady, my lord you need not—!”

“We do.” Serella insisted.

“My friend is correct!” Haurchefant readily agreed. “Knights such as we live to serve!”

“And it isn’t that much besides,” she added. The mess duly cleaned, she held the dampened kerchief a moment. “Though if you know where I might put this…?”

“I’ll have it taken care of at once, my lady!” The waitress insisted with a curtsey.

“Only when you get a chance— someone has to oblige your busy schedule.” She avoided shooting a pointed glare at the offending noble that caused this as she pulled some gil from her pocket. “Here, for your trouble.”

“O-oh, I could not—!”

“Pray accept this on behalf of House Fortemps,” Serella insisted, gently pressing the coins into her hand.

A few nearby nobles who were struggling to pretend they weren’t watching gasped and muttered incredulously but she paid them no mind; if they forgot their own oath to society, someone had to pick it up. Might as well be a Paladin, she figured; oaths were their specialty.

Through stuttered thanks, the waitress tucked the gil and kerchief away, and scuttled to the back, doubtless to get another bottle of champagne for the remaining empty glasses.

“You know, I daresay you’ll fit in with my family quite well, Serella.” Haurchefant said, plucking one of the filled flutes in hand and falling into step as she moved back to the group.

“I had hoped to regardless, but thank you.” She said, already hating the fact that the offending nobleman hadn’t just taken the hint and left.

Still, his baleful, inebriated glare was far less an interesting reaction compared to the outright shocked look upon the Lord Commander’s face. How odd, she thought, and promptly fought to ignore it as best she could; what she couldn’t decipher, she wouldn’t fuss over. They were working on their words to one another, anyroad. She could ask him when there was a more private moment to do so, if she was still so bothered by it.

“Such humanitarianism,” the nobleman cheered, holding his half empty glass up in a toast, “I had not realized adventurers were capable of it.”

He’s trying to incite me? She thought, half amused and half galled. Well, if he really wants to go there…

“I was taught,” she said slowly, measuring her words and their impact, “that manners make the man.” Sparing him a sidelong glance, she asked, “and lacking in manners at all, what would a man be, I wonder?” Before he could comment, she answered herself, “nothing, I would presume,” she said with a shrug. When the waiter from before brought her a flute of champagne, she smiled as she accepted. “Thank you,” she told him, perhaps in too much earnest, silently side eyeing the pestering nobleman until he scoffed and left for more welcoming circles.

Estinien choked on a laugh into his champagne flute.

“Never could hold his liquor, that one— nor his tongue.” The Azure Dragoon mused, his keen eyes tracking the nobleman’s stumbling.

“I oft hope he might learn from his mistakes.” Ser Aymeric sighed. “I am disappointed every time.”

“Halone be praised, I feared we might be cursed with his persistent presence for the remainder of the night.” Haurchefant sighed in visible relief.

“I might have hit him.” Serella admitted without a hint of guilt.

“I would have covered for you.” Estinien deadpanned.

“Fortunate that he left, then,” Ser Aymeric said, the twitch at the corner of his lips betraying his amusement. His eyes twinkled as he said, “I would have been made to lie to the Holy See about the act to corroborate.”

“But would you have truly felt so bad about it?” Haurchefant asked with an arch of his brow and a toothy grin.

“I do not recall disclosing my feelings on the matter,” Ser Aymeric replied, his subtle grin curling around the rim of his flute as he sipped, “merely that I would have been made to do so.”

Seeing the three of them interact, it was clear that there was an intimate friendship there that was forged from years of companionship, bonds tethered in adolescence and strengthened as they grew. She only hoped they were able to actually see one another for how busy their individual successes made them.

The conversation eased into more comfortable territory after that, and Zephina eventually emerged to slip between Haurchefant and Estinien and join in. It was pleasant, having such idle, unimportant chatter after the near constant motion they had been going through of late. When Serella caught Zephina’s opalescent gaze, there was a silent, mutual agreement of this was nice and needed.

Though it was hard not to notice how Ser Aymeric was frequently pulled—sometimes physically—by a man or woman insistent that he ask after them for a dance once the music called for it, or to try and gain his attention in some other way.

It was a subtle thing, but she saw the way he winced, ever so slightly, whenever someone touched him unprovoked. She wondered to herself at what point he had given up trying to tell the nobility that he was not their object of amusement. The interactions were disillusioning, and Serella at last understood why he looked at her in such sympathy when she too was pestered.

It was little wonder he was so slow to see that she had no intention befriending him for her use, she realized. The more she saw how others interacted with him, the more she wondered if his was an isolating station in such times, where he was wanted but never for himself. He was sought after, she had known, but she had not realized precisely how disingenuous the nobility’s pursuit of him was.

Her heart almost sank on his behalf when the music changed tempo, and a waltz began to float through the air. Man of his word as he was, if he did not decline any of those who requested a dance from him, she only prayed he still had toes by the end of the night.

So it surprised her— stunned her, really, when he instead walked toward her with an almost apprehensive smile on his face.

“Might I trouble you for a dance, Mistress Arcbane?” He asked her, his palm out in open invitation.

She blinked stupidly at him a moment before her gaze dropped to his outstretched hand. A dance? She hadn’t learned how— not save for festival dances and the like. Already out of her element, she knew she would only rob the Lord Commander of his toes for the trouble.

“Ah…err...?” She sputtered intelligently.

“Though pray do not feel obligated,” he said quickly, already beginning to withdraw his hand.

Without thought, she reached for it before he could pull it away and leaned closer to him. Even he seemed surprised by the move, his cheeks faintly dusted pink at her sudden closeness but she would not have him mistake her surprise as rejection.

“I don’t know how,” she admitted in a conspiratorial whisper.

That seemed to surprise him further. “You have never danced?” He asked quizzically but quietly.

Reflecting on the fact that the only practiced dances she knew were a Gridanian festival dance and the Manderville, Serella replied carefully, “I was never...classically trained, my lord.”

“If you would like, I might assist in changing that?” He offered.

His smile was welcoming, and she found the subtle tension in her shoulders easing by a fraction when she realized he was not judging her for her lack of experience, but inviting her to share in it with him. Perhaps it was that he had already begun to grow on her as a friend, or perhaps the bar for the evening had just been set so low that she felt more amenable, but she found she was not opposed to the idea. She gave his hand an affirming squeeze.

“Pray lead on, Lord Commander,” she said despite her better judgement, “and I shall mind my footwork.”

With a chuckle, he adjusted his gentle grip on her hand and led her to the rapidly filling dance floor. She followed gamely; given how quickly he offered her a dance, she suspected he either wanted privacy to talk, or had something urgent to pass to her discreetly; she could guess at the game at this point. Well, that or he was just avoiding the seemingly endless line of people who decided they were owed a part of his time whether he wanted them to or not— that was also a distinct possibility.

“‘Tis not a complex dance, rest assured,” Ser Aymeric said amicably. He moved to stand in front of her and offered his other hand. When she took it, he guided it to rest upon his shoulder. “Merely follow my steps— they will move in sets of three.”

“Let’s hope I’m a quick study, then,” Serella said as she began to move with him. “Lest you be torn apart by the line of lords and ladies awaiting their turn.”

“Let us instead hope that I am a poor teacher, that I might have to repeat myself until boredom has set in and the crowd disperses,” he answered.

She barely coughed back a laugh at that. “I keep forgetting you’re capable of humor.”

“You would accuse me of speaking in jest?” He feigned mild insult, though the corner of his lip curling into a grin gave away his game. “Rather bold of you.”

“Perhaps— but if that be the case, then allow me to be bolder still and ask a question,” she said.

“A question?” He asked, and she faintly saw a brow arch from beneath his raven bangs but his face was otherwise a neutral mask.

“You— an otherwise absolute gentleman, by all accounts— took the time to shirk a queue of people looking for a dance just to offer one to me. Why?”

“Bolder still indeed,” he said around a smile. “Though the question is a fair one; in part, ‘tis a preference of company,” he explained, “and because I wished to speak with you.”
“All this, just to speak with me?” She asked. “You might have simply asked after me at your office.”
“Expedience seemed of the essence; the vaunted Warrior of Light has caught many an eye of late, and I would have your attention before you are called elsewhere once more.”

While Serella could have certainly interpreted his tone as almost flirtatious, the sharpness in his gaze even as his discreetly glanced about them told her this was a dance twofold, carried out in steps and in speech. He was warning her of something, then. Or tipping her off to something he could otherwise not risk waiting to tell her later. If he had to be so secretive but hurried about it, then it could well mean that this regarded something out of his direct purview. Her curiosity piqued, she decided to play along.

“Much is demanded of my attentions, Ser Aymeric,” she replied playfully, even as she did not smile and struggled to keep track of her own feet amidst their dancing. “Might you be more specific?”

“Your recent accomplishments both here and beyond our gates have many minds within the Holy See whirring with possibilities,” he began, “more influential souls than I— and many of whom you have inspired to study you closely.”

The Heaven’s Ward? The Archbishop? The Inquisition? Doubtless a bit of all of them— but his words were fairly clear: you are being watched for signs of weakness.

“I fear they will be disappointed with what they see.” Serella sighed. “Save for finding a mutual interest in goldsmithing and botany, I fear those who wish to learn aught of use will find themselves wanting.”

“I cannot pretend that you lack innate allure otherwise— there are a great many things one might wish to know of you.”

He turned them to avoid the corner of the dance floor, and she bit back a curse when she stumbled into him for her graceless feet.

“Sorry—” she apologized automatically, even as she felt him carefully guide them away from another couple dancing closer to them.

“You have naught to apologize for,” Aymeric said softly in earnest. “You try to move on your own over much, and risk falling for all your trouble.” He startled her with his pleading gaze. “Pray work with me, that we might move forward as one.”

Their banter teetered on threatening— and had they not begun to build rapport with one another, she might have wondered if he was warning her of the threat he posed to her, but she had begun to learn— slowly— that everything about his body language and his eyes was beseeching her to listen and trust him. He was trying to put her on the trail for something that he could not directly help her with. This was him asking to work as a team, but doing so as her friend. For the first time since their arrival to the city, she didn’t feel entirely so alone; he was at least trying to help her.

“Worry not,” Serella reassured him, “though I may yet stumble, you have proven an expert tutor thus far.” She gave his hand that guided them a squeeze. “With time, I’ll learn how to move with you.”

I’m choosing to trust you— show me that isn’t a mistake, she pleaded silently.

“But you make a good point; I oft forget the real reason for my list of achievements,” she lilted, ever so slightly angling her head and fanning her lashes to feign acting flirtatiously demure, “though you flatter me all the same.”

“I speak only the truth.” Aymeric answered simply, though she saw the flash of relief in his eyes; he realized she was playing along with him. Good. “You possess an ethereal sort of strength— the sort that many might be drawn to.” A shadow flickered across his face as he leaned in to murmur in her ear, “some of whom may seek to claim you for themselves— or seek your ruin, failing that.”

She shivered at the implication of his words and the velvet of his voice so close, but his meaning was clear all the same. You are being watched for your Echo, and there are those who would take the power for themselves or kill you in the process. Message received; she need only figure out precisely who among the upper echelon of the Holy See were following her, and how many of them were involved. While having a target on her back was nothing new and she greatly distrusted the Holy See and their arrogant dealings with the Ascians, she could appreciate the risk Aymeric was taking in divulging this information to her. Doubtless the risk was great even to obtain said knowledge, though she suspected they had his First Commander to thank for that.

“It is not mine by choice,” Serella answered softly, “though that will doubtless not deter those who are lured by it.”

“Does it ever?” He asked.

“Not thus far, no.” She sighed. “I thank you for your consideration— and your company,” she said, “though you needn’t worry— I am, as ever, Ishgard’s shield. I have sworn as much, have I not?”

“That you have.” he said, and his expression eased considerably— she took it as a sign that he too was beginning to trust her more. “I confess, I had naught more to say on the matter— though if you are amenable, I would still keep your company, Mistress Arcbane.”

“Still hoping the lords and ladies will get bored waiting?”

“A man can dream, can he not?” He asked, his lips pursed in a wry smile. “And my preference for your company holds besides.”

 

It was easier than she had thought it would be, trusting him to show her how to maneuver around the nobles that seemed to circle them in their dance. And maybe it was just her imagination, but they seemed able to move better together now; her feet felt more sure of where to step now.

“Oh?” She asked before she could stop herself.

“Aye,” he affirmed, his expression a soft kind of unreadable when he explained, “there are few in attendance tonight so honest with themselves— and fewer still who are themselves so gentle.”

She was reminded of the way he looked at her when she helped the waitress, that unfiltered shock, and really, genuinely hoped that such commonplace courtesy was not that shocking, even as she knew the answer. “Then I should be happy to let you keep my company for yourself,” she replied despite the heat that flooded her cheeks, and he looked as though he wanted nothing more than to sigh in relief, “on the condition that you just call me, ‘Serella,’ my lord.” She clucked her tongue. “How many times must I remind you?”

“Perhaps a time or two more— Mistress Arcbane,” he replied, his bright eyes twinkling in mischief. “Though perhaps I would be more likely to remember if you might also eschew my title in kind?”

“But you have an actual title!” She argued. “It seems disrespectful not to acknowledge it.”

“I view you as my peer all the same.” He countered.

“In the interest of cooperation, I’ll drop the titles if you do the same.”

His smile returned, though warmer now that he was not trying to slip a message to her. When it was allowed to be genuine, she could concede that he was a vision, a handsome contradiction of soft angles and piercing earnestness. She had not noticed it before— or rather, had not looked beyond the superficial until then.

It could have been because they were dancing. It could have been because they were finally, comfortably friends that were working on building trust with one another. It could have been both of those things and more that she could not explain, but when he subtly tugged her closer to him to better slip between other couples dancing, she found herself fine with the lack of distance— and he made no move to part from her even after they had cleared the small cluster of couples. What was an ilm or two, she told herself in an effort to keep her heart from fluttering.

“Ah, there you are, my lord!” A woman’s birdsong voice called, and suddenly a daintily gloved hand was tapping at Aymeric’s shoulder.

As quickly as it happened the moment was lost, and Serella made the decision not to dwell on it; it was a dance between friends, and a warning duly delivered. That’s all it was. That’s all it was.

“Forgive me, my lady,” he said to her— and Serella vaguely wondered if he had forgotten her name or if the title was deliberate. Though he kept a hand at the small of her back he turned to bow to the noblewoman, his mask of pleasant neutrality in place once more. “I had let the time slip past me. I owe you a dance, do I not?”

“Ohh, you remembered!” She swooned, a hand on her cheek. “I knew you would, my lord!”

“Of course,” he said amicably, and it was only then as he turned to face Serella that he withdrew his hand from her. “Pray forgive me for cutting our dance short.”

“Not at all— I should be checking in with the others besides,” Serella said, scrambling for a reason to just leave and have done with it. She bowed her head politely. “I thank you for the dance, my lord, and bid you goodnight.”

She might have just said his name if not for the concern for the implications such familiarity; they were friends, certainly, but the last thing she wanted was to make things complicated for him with pointless gossip. Well, that and it was just a little too amusing to poke fun in lighthearted jest. She hoped he understood, though she also suspected that he did.

“The pleasure was all mine,” he insisted, and his hands came to wrap around one of hers and gently turn it to be cradled in the space between them. She choked back a gasp at his forwardness, and she snapped to look back up from their joined hands to see him regarding her gently. “Thank you for your time, and good night...Serella.”

Before she could properly process that he’d decided that the pointless gossip didn’t matter, he bowed his head, and with a soft but wincing smile he took position with the noblewoman and let them both be swept back into the current of the ballroom. She stepped out, eager to find another glass of champagne and her original group to distract her from the way her heart skipped a beat or three when he said her name so softly.

He’s finally accepted you as his friend, that’s all, she reminded herself— and really, she very much reciprocated her appreciation for his friendship and trust. And despite Zephina and Haurchefant’s immediate ribbing upon her return and Estinien’s bafflement, Serella knew it was naught more than that, than their friendship settling into mutual comfort. When she unconsciously thought of the softness in his eyes and how they looked very much like polished kyanite when she gazed at him, it was naught more than that. It was naught more than that.

Chapter Text

Were it not for wanting to avoid startling her canine companion, Serella might have shouted in frustration.

She must have looked utterly ridiculous, sat on the cold stone of an alley in Foundation with a stray dog at her side and a book in her lap, occasionally attempting broken Ishgardian from the book in the vain hope that her newfound furry friend might respond so she knew she’d said it right. Obviously nonverbal as her companion was, she wasn’t expecting a conversation, more that if he acknowledged to her words, then it meant that she was, at least, pronouncing them correctly.

Though he seemed pleased for her company, he had only tilted his head in confusion every time she attempted a phrase in the language.

“I’m sorry, boy.” She said around a heavy sigh, her tired eyes lifting from the pages. Scooting closer to him, she lightly pet his side. “I’m utterly butchering the language. One as innocent as you needn’t witness such a murder.”

When her new friend— and really, she should come up with a name for him, she supposed— cozied up to her and licked her face, she found she just couldn’t stay agitated. With a laugh she scritched him by the ears. He seemed content with the attention, happily flopping on his side and set his head in her lap next to her book.

Even looking at the pages in front of her exhausted her. Despondent frustration sparked in her chest; before she had been awoken with the Echo, she had loved studying languages, and voraciously pursued her tongue’s mastery in them at every opportunity. Since her ability manifested, however, such pursuits were more difficult.

The Echo was as eager to translate anything that she absorbed into Common as she was to understand it herself, going so far as to have the letters on a page appear in Common, even if they were meant to be educational in teaching the written form of another language.

Her pursuit of learning such languages was no less enthused, and she still strove to learn but it was at a much slower pace, and not entirely perfect besides; where she had been able to listen to people speaking the language and pick up on the cadence, pronunciation, and structure of the words before, nowadays even straining to block out her blessing, she only succeeded in making the words she heard sound like slightly off Common for the trouble. She learned nothing.

Through tenacity and spite alone she managed to find a method of focusing hard enough to, for lack of a better way to describe it, see through the Echo to the words that were actually written on the page. It took tremendous effort, and often left her feeling wrung out and with a migraine that clung to the front of her skull for hours after, but that was a more than worthy trade off for her: her appetite for knowledge would leave her starved for it otherwise.

Ishgardian sentence structure was straightforward enough, but with so few guidelines for how pronunciation rules worked, she found herself adrift on how to pronounce even simple words in the language. And given she couldn’t hear anything but Common, she felt oddly isolated in learning; the most she could get by with was using sign language, and while that served for those who knew it, few actually did. So while she understood those around her perfectly, unless they were also fluent in Common, there was little recourse for her but to avoid conversation altogether.

Given her job, it was tantamount that she understood this language to effectively help the people around her. If only the very thing that enabled her to help them didn’t also hinder her from speaking with them…

“Serella?” She snapped her head up at the sound of her name— too quickly, as her aching eyes had no chance to prepare for the blinding gray of the overcast sky.

Were it not for the familiarity of that dulcet voice, she might not have immediately known who had been spoken, haloed by the harsh light as he was.

“Ser Aymeric?” She blinked in an effort to adjust her sight. “What are you doing here?”

“I would ask you much the same.” He replied, and knelt in front of her. Concern knit his brow as he tilted his head. “Are you hurt?”

“Just a migraine.” With a gesture toward the book— and the dog— in her lap, she explained, “Attempting to learn Ishgardian, though how much my study partner is helping is still up in the air.”

“I was not aware you were studying the language,” Aymeric said, surprised. “Though surely there might be a better partner with which to practice?”

“Thanks to the Echo, he’s sadly one of the better options.” At his confused stare, Serella elaborated, “I…I can’t hear other languages. The Echo just turns it all into Common for me. Even with reading,” she gestured to the book again. “I’ve gotten better at reading the words, though, despite the translation.”

“You need not put yourself through such strain, my friend.” he tried to reassure her.

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually spoken of it, but I love learning languages.” She said wistfully. “It used to be so much easier, you know. Before I got the Echo. Nothing was translated for me. I could read and hear and learn to my heart’s content.” The faint smile nostalgia had painted upon her lips faded. “Now, though, it’s…harder.”

Aymeric shifted to sit beside her. She was glad for his company, even as she wondered where he was supposed to be.

“It must be difficult.” He said softly. “Though I struggle with learning them, languages have ever fascinated me.”

“I miss hearing them.” She admitted somberly. “Languages are so lyrical, you know? They have their own flow and cadence. Every language— even Common— is like a song.” With a sigh she shut the book and hugged it to her. “But I can’t hear most of them anymore. I’ve been hearing only Common for so long it just drones in my mind now.”

Aymeric was silent for a moment, though she found it a companionable, thoughtful quiet. She realized that she was unduly depositing her upset upon her friend; much as he might contest the point, she didn’t need to burden already overladen shoulders with her personal struggles.

“Pardon me, friend.” Serella finally said with a huff of laughter. “I didn’t mean to turn so gloomy.”

“‘Tis an easy thing to be in such times.” He offered her a reassuring smile. “You have naught to apologize for.”

“I blame the weather.” She grumbled, though couldn’t stop herself from smiling.

“Many do, my friend.” He laughed. “I am only sorry that I can be of little help here— though if there is aught I might do to assist, pray never hesitate to ask.”

“You’re busy enough as it is, Aymeric.” She shook her head. “Last thing I want is to make your life even more difficult.”

“You could never. Though my duties often call me away, you must know you are always welcome. I enjoy our visits.”

“…Thank you.” She said with a smile, though when she unfolded her legs she winced at the sharp tingling of her backside regaining feeling; she must have been sitting there for longer than she thought. “Though I suppose we should both be on our way; you’ve duties to attend to, I’m certain.”

“As ever.” He laughed. “Though my offer stands all the same.”

Unsurprisingly, he stood far quicker than her, and she accepted his gallantly offered hand in assistance. Though she stumbled just a bit— more than her backside had gone numb, evidently— she thanked him for it all the same.

“Alright boy, I’m heading out again.” Serella knelt to pet her companion. The canine let out a confused whine. “Sorry, I know you can’t understand me yet. But I’ll be back.”

Her furry friend did not respond— he never did when she spoke in Common. But he would, once she had finally gotten the hang of it. Eventually.

“He only responds to Ishgardian?” He asked, and she nodded somberly.

“Go on now, boy,” she tried to coax him into the little dog house she had built for him, even as she rummaged in her pack for the extra food she had brought him. “Go rest.”

Predictably, the dog only tilted his head in interest at the container of cooked meat and marrow she had brought him. She let out a defeated sigh and tried to guide him over to the house instead. Though he followed her with his eyes he sat still, tail thumping from side to side. She set the prepared food inside the house in the hope it would be enough before she stood again.

“Does he stay in this alley often?” Aymeric asked.

“Far as I can tell. Stephanivien let me set up that shelter for him, just so he’d stay warm and dry.” She said, gesturing to the wooden dog house. “I just hope it’s enough until I can find his owner— or adopt him, barring that.”

After a few moments of consideration, Aymeric whistled shortly and sharply, startling her. Intent on asking him what in the hells he did that for, she turned to face him, only to realize he was looking at the dog, who now stood up straighter for the call.

“Your mistress will return.” He said— and when she saw that the way his lips formed the words did not match what she heard she realized he had said it in Ishgardian. He pointed to the dog house. “Stay and guard.”

The dog let out a happy bark and pranced over to lick each of their hands before doing just as he was instructed. He settled himself atop the pale blue blanket she had laid out for him inside, and began to happily munch on the proffered meat.

Serella gaped at him, and surely she must have looked like a fish for how she opened and closed her mouth again when words failed her. He met her gaze, the faintest of smiles curling the corner of his lips.

“You said that in Ishgardian.” She blurted. “Didn’t you?”

“I did.”

“You,” she felt her ears burning for the intensity of her blush. “You didn’t have to do that, Aymeric.”

“I am aware.” His smile was soft as he patiently regarded her. “I wished to.”

“That’s…” she recalled Lucia offering much the same— and going to even further lengths than was offered— and felt the same warmth flood her chest at the gesture. “That’s so kind of you. Thank you.”

“I fear the Templars might think I have gone soft on them were they to find out, so perhaps…” Aymeric’s smile turned almost playful as he brought a finger up to his lips. “We keep this betwixt us?”

“I’m not sure who I would even tell, but ‘tis our little secret, rest assured.” She promised, though half wondered if she should mention his First Commander is just as sweet beneath the stoicism. Doubtless he was already aware.

With a farewell to her canine companion the two left the alley and took opposite paths— Aymeric to the Congregation and she to House Fortemps— after exchanging their own warm farewells to one another.

It was days later, curled on a plush armchair in the Fortemps library, that she received a missive from the Lord Commander, slipped into an envelope, sealed with the Borel family crest pressed in gold wax, and tucked into the twine of a small package. Presuming it to be urgent— the formality and discretion of the thing implied it, after all— she immediately broke the wax seal on the envelope and unfolded the papers inside.

Serella,

I hope this finds you well, my friend. Though I was of no help to you at the time, I recalled the lessons I had been taught in Ishgardian in my younger years. As it turns out, the preservation of my family home has guaranteed that those selfsame books were still to be found in the study. Also enclosed are notes from lectures on proper pronunciation— though they needed rewriting, as I fear younger hands make for illegible penmanship. Pray never hesitate to practice Ishgardian in my company; though I have never hosted a lesson in linguistics, I would be happy to attempt to help.

I pray this helps you find the words you seek.

Yours, as ever,

Aymeric

Shocked excitement rapidly flooding her veins, she flipped to the subsequent pages— and as he had said, writ in his hand were copies of lessons dictated to him as a boy— complete with little limericks and reminders for proper pronunciation, sentence structure, and spelling. She found it equal parts unsurprising and charming that he was as meticulous a student as he was a leader.

With care she tugged at the twine, and found three small, worn books within the parcel paper. Though the titles of each volume were faded, she could make out that they were old scholasticate books on the fundamentals of Ishgardian language— books that would fill the yawning gaps in her own study, and ones that she would not have been able to obtain access to otherwise.

Though her hand trembled with giddiness and a wellspring of a curious emotion— for she felt overwhelmed that he had gone to such lengths for her, to recopy old lecture notes from his boyhood for no other reason than it might help her, had gone back to his ancestral home and perused his study for decades old books just for her.

Such thoughtfulness could not go without reciprocation— though nor could it go unappreciated, either. As she carefully opened the first of the textbooks, she resolved to think of a way to properly repay him for such kindness. Just as soon as she had put his most generous gift to good use.

Though it was some weeks before Aymeric knew whether such materials were of use, it still came as a surprise when he received a package with a letter addressed to him from Serella. She wrote to him from Limsa Lominsa— she and Alphinaud were sent there upon request of the Admiral for Alliance business, he was led to understand— and he opened the letter with a giddy sort of curiosity.

In nearly perfect Ishgardian— and oh, but why did he feel such pride for her to have accomplished this, he wondered— she thanked him for the study materials, and the amount of effort he had gone to just to help her. She detailed how she was unaccustomed to receiving such assistance without obligation or conditions attached, and could only think of the package as an appropriate payment for his kindness. She apologized for not sending him tea leaves to accompany it, citing, in her words, “Limsa can’t fucking grow it.”

He resolved to never disclose the ugly laugh that escaped him when he read that.

The lid of the box had a stamp on it— The Bismark— and once he realized this came from such an exclusive and highly demanded establishment, he felt his excitement mount. Carefully popping the lid of the box open, Aymeric gasped at the dessert laden within. A damn near work of art for how beautifully the fruit was arranged on top, the tart looked to be some sort of cream based treat, piled delicately with pureed passionfruit, bright pink dragon fruit (doubtless a joke, coming from her,) and skillfully shaped slices of mango that glistened with a clear glaze that smelled faintly of rum. The box felt faintly chilled lined with ice shards as it was, doubtless to keep it from spoiling in delivery.

Such a gift was welcome but unneccessary, though to say that would be inadequate— to write it, even moreso. Still, surely he could invite her back to his office once she had returned to tell her in person, could he not? His mind made up, he sealed the box again and rummaged for clean stationary and his inkwell, and struggled to keep his hand steady for his excitement.

Serella,

I am relieved that the books and notes were of help. Though I did not expect you to pick up the language so quickly, I find that surprise misplaced: your brilliance has been apparent from the first, after all.

I must thank you for the gift— a dessert from the Bismark! I would have never expected to try such a delicacy!

Alas, to try it without your company would leave it bereft of sweetness, I fear, as I am told such treats are best when shared in the company of a good friend. Pray see me at your earliest convenience. I will see to the kettle.

Yours, as ever,

Aymeric

His reply to her was simple, but received within an hour of her sending the box. She scarcely read it before she was already casting her return spell; with her job completed, she had intended to from the first, though his letter made her feet swift. To be expected— to be wanted— was an old feeling made anew, thanks to those she had befriended amidst the snow. To ignore such an earnest invitation would be poor form.

And…well. High time she went home, wasn’t it?