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This Tasteless Haze (Of Mine)

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The carriage sat low and damp as it pulled through the cold cobbles streets of Fhirdiad, the wheels moaning loudly at the icy dips between every stone. Annette tried not to cling too tightly to the straw-doll seated in her lap, its loose little legs already gone to pieces under her nervous fidgeting at old thread. She couldn’t help but to be slightly nervous, staring out at the chilly, earth-bare landscape from her tiny window. Low flames flickered in their lanterns, and it vaguely reminded Annette of a ghost story Mercedes had told her once. It was about a little girl and a monster that chased her for miles and miles through the snow, until they both perished together, flesh and claw interlocked…

Annette frowned. Oh, how she missed Mercedes. Mercie, her best friend, her very best friend who was safe and warm and so very far away from her now. She wanted to write a thousand letters at once, to tell Mercedes how scared she was to leave, to vent about how uncomfortable the journey had been: bandits and paperwork and the endless curtseys.

But Annette couldn’t bemoan for long. She wouldn’t allow herself. Besides, how pointless it felt to tell Mercie that she regretted being so afraid to disappoint her father. This strange cold man whom she truly did not know. Ser Gilbert had abandoned Annette and her mother years ago; why did he so suddenly seek his daughter now? Annette was due to leave the Royal School, sure, but she did not expect her lord father to appear in a show of smoke and mirrors, beaming at the opportunity to take his only heir to the Kingdom’s Capital for some type of military honor from King Lambert himself.

A guest of honor, Annette told herself, and I am sitting here hugging my old doll.

She was a grown woman now, marrying age her father reminded her dutifully, and a recent graduate from the Royal School of Sorcery, earning high accolades and marks for every exam.

Annette did not say this aloud to her lord father, but she did not wish to ever leave the school to travel with him.

She didn’t wish to see him again in her entire life if she could help it.

Annette continued to stare out the window, a letter already penning inside of her mind that said:

Mercie, I don’t know why I am here or what my father wants, but I am hopeful I can at least meet the Prince, and I will let you know exactly the shade his eyes are, if they are as blue as a river or lighter, like the Garland Moon sky. Just keep an eye out for my letter! I’ll be there soon.

Annette had forgotten how easily she could slip back into a feeling of unimportance.

At the Royal School, she had been rather praised. Her professors adored her, she had a group of equally powerful young women that supported her. Often, during magic tournaments, Annie felt like she was a very powerful ace in a pack of cards. She knew it was not entirely proper for a woman to enjoy fighting as much as she did—fighting, of course, in friendly competition and fun—but Annette always prided herself in going above and beyond. She had memorized it all: warlock techniques required the breath and the fingers to produce the hottest possible flame; white magic was far harder—she was nowhere near as skilled as Mercie’s ability to heal—but she had picked it up rather quickly.

How little her achievements, nor being powerful, nor being related to Ser Gilbert Dominic seemed to matter now.

Ser Gilbert did all of the talking, his dreary drawl somehow already too familiar and painful to Annette’s ears. She had almost forgotten what her father’s voice had sounded like. Almost.

A high lord dressed in black was studying her from the side of his eye, even while he talked to her father. His mouth was rather pointed and his teeth reminded Annette of a carnivorous animal, maybe a wolf or a bear. He smiled at her, his  eyes tight, and then...he laughed.

“Forgive me, my sweet girl, but there is no need to look so nervous in my home.” The lord said at once, their eyes meeting ever so briefly, before Annette rudely looked away.

“This is Lord Rodrigue, Annette,” Her father added sternly. “I am certain you recall him during your childhood? You and his youngest son, Felix, are close in age.”

Annette did not recall this man nor his son.

The high lord looked as if he could sense her every thought.

“Annette!” Lord Rodrigue boomed at her. His piercing eyes held no light but his laugh felt comfortable enough. “I feel so poorly that you look at me with the eyes of a stranger; Gilbert has told me so much about you over the years that I feel I know you as I do my own son! Come, come.”

His long arms collected Annette into a hug, warm and welcoming, and Annette, setting aside her dislike of everything, manage to hug him back. “...Thank you, my Lord.”

“Rodrigue, please, child,” he smiled again at her, his teeth strange and sharp. Annette looked away from his mouth but his eyes felt no better to stare into. She could not look towards the floor, either, so she remained trapped between the two dark, unknowable places along his face. “I will make sure your stay is as comfortable as possible. I have even assigned a handmaiden  to assist you in your bathing and dressing, as you will of course need proper time to become as lovely as possible for His Grace’s ball in a day’s time.”

Rodrigue’s light eyes turned back to her father. “Your journey, I trust, was a hard one? I have heard nothing but the rumor of bandits for days and days, yet I have no scoundrels to hang.”

Annette tried to keep her expression fixed. How easily these two old men talked of hanging and death, and then shared a dry joke or two mid-sentence. It truly felt beyond her.

Annette felt her stomach churn. She missed Mercedes so painfully she felt she could cry. She did not want something as ostentatious as a handmaiden to tend her hand and foot; she wanted to go home. She wanted her mother. She wanted her father to tell her why he had set about for this whole affair of his old friends when she felt so entirely out of place.

Annette waited for what felt like hours to be dismissed by her father. She found herself staring blankly into his face as he minded her, and she awkwardly jerked back when he lifted a hand to pat her— pat her —on the head.

“Be a good girl, Rosie,” he said, his sullen voice low and quiet. “I know you will.”

Annette stepped from his beneath outstretched hand. Her face burned to see the look of surprise over Rodrigue’s dark features. “...Annette, father. I am no longer a little girl.”

Gilbert blinked at her with his watery blue eyes. “Yes. I apologize. You most certainly are not.” Still, his hand picked up a long braid of her red hair and smoothed it to its end. “You have grown so beautiful, as beautiful as your mother.”

Annette felt her blush shift from the pink of her resentment towards a dark red, bright with embarrassment. “...May I retire to my chambers now?”

“Of course,” Rodrigue cut in. His smile was so large and pointed upon his face. It overwhelmed her.

Annette felt that she might hate him for being so friendly towards her and pretend to know so much. Then, the guilt of that thought rushed over her.

She dropped her eyes to the floor. She was so disappointed in herself.

She knew she could be better than this.

“I will send Alexandrea to your room in an hour,” Rodrigue told her. “But please, make yourself at home! You feel like family to me, Annette, and I hope you will soon feel the same. It has been lonely here in the manor since…” His smile faltered. A sadness swam to the surface of his grey, storm-front eyes. “Well, that isn’t a topic for a proper welcome, now is it?”

Annette’s chest tightened in shame at herself. She was cursing this poor man’s name and he had so recently lost a child of his own. Her father had informed her as such but, as much as Annette tried, she could not recall the man’s name. He was the eldest heir to House Fraldarius, that much Annette knew, and that the collective military houses had come, large in their families and forces, to both sing their praises for their growing victories in lieu of the domineering war with the Empire and mourn their losses.

And, of course, to honor her father, so exhaustively praised, all the way up the lips of the King Lambert.

“I’m sure I will, Rodrigue,” Annette lied. She gave her final courtesy, a rather subtle and heartfelt performance that she pretended to feel, before she turned away.

Mercie, she told herself that night, I cannot tell if I am a bad person, or if I am just a stupid one.

Alexandrea was a girl of fourteen that looked at Annette like she was an object of fascination.

She took to Annette at once, an arm linked between her own, more friend than servant, and she toured Annette happily through the keep. Annette kept her own answers short, nervous, uncertain of how to act in the grace of Alexandrea’s complete lack of fictitiousness—but, in all honesty, Annette was grateful for it. She had known etiquette and manners and social nuances her entire life.The break was entirely welcomed between them.

How refreshing it was to not pretend she wanted to be here. Alexandrea, her morose, bored expression upon the usual conversations of ladyship, only perked up at the insight of gossip.

And gossip, there was:

Before there were names, there were questions for Annette, like notes to be traded in secret passing: what was attending a sorcery school like, had Annette ever touched a horse’s mane before, how did she feel about the death of young Glenn Fraldarius, had she heard the rumors of his younger brother, ruinous and angry?

Annette found she rather like Alexandrea for her curiosity and her complete disregard for regalia. However, Annette mainly liked Alexandrea’s inability to hold her tongue.

At the mention of Rodrigue’s surviving child, Annette interrupted a ramble from Alexandrea, who had been buffing, none too softly, over the cuticles of Annette’s fingernails. “You know what they say, my lady,” her grey eyes lifted to Annette’s face, then away again, unable to look at her. “They call him the ‘the shadow of the prince’, in jest.”

Annette felt her blood run very cold. Rodrigue, for all of his flashiness, felt so warm and open. And, even as much as Annette struggled to understand her father, she knew herself too well to disregard her own mannerisms like they did not parallel his own. How could the son of Rodrigue, by name alone, feel so entirely different from the high lord, whose laugh and smile warmed the keep? Annette tried to reason why. A ‘shadow’?  A piece of darkness? She imagined Felix’s hair to be as dark as his fathers, his eyes just as piercing and grey, like a storm before dawn. Was that was she meant?

“A shadow?” She giggled lightly to hide her intention. “For his looks?”

“For his heart, my lady.” The handmaiden replied. “They say he was born without one. A mad dog for the young prince to spar with.”

Annette’s confusion overtook Alexandrea. “I’m...sorry?”

Alexandrea now worked her other hand. “Oh, forgive me, my lady, it is just the gossip of bored chambermaids. I doubt no one really says that about him in earnest.”

Annette allowed her hand to go limp as Alexandrea scrubbed. She could not fathom the idea of meeting such a strange man with such a strange, foreboding title. It frightened her, just a bit.

“Have you spoken with the Prince at all, Alexandrea?”

“Oh,” Aleandrea brightened, her grey eyes twinkling. “Got your eye on him, have you? I imagine tomorrow you may find a chance to dance with him.”

“What? No, I’d—” Annette amended at once, her nerves getting the better of her.

She had never considered herself some prize to be won, given the fall of her family and her own serious lack of grandeur. And while she hoped to for the opportunity to see Prince Dimitri, let alone speak to him, she rather lacked the intentions that went with her status.

Certainly she was a young noblewoman of good health and the chaise honors of her knight father. But Annette wished to return back to the Royal School of Magic, and perhaps seek tenure there as a Professor herself one day. She had no mind for ruling and economics and court-yard politics. Besides, too many people in a room frightened her, made her lose her voice, often at the worst time, when her mother might ask her to sing at the piano for entertainment.

Alexandrea gave a small laugh. “Only teasing you, my lady. And, besides, one could be a Queen, that is for certain, but oh, when there is Lord Gautier’s son? I cannot remember his name I’m afraid, but now he is a right match, my lady.”

Annette flipped through the long list of names within her mind, notes from her father’s ramblings, struggling to link two and two together. House Fraldarius lead by Rodrigue was the strongest of the Holy Kingdom’s military power, the shield for the Royal seat of King Lambert Blaiddyd to wield as he saw fit, so House Gautier was close by, perhaps another military alliance from the coast? Annette frowned at her inability to remember a thing.

Alexandrea had turned away to collect a petticoat and a pair of shiny new heels. She was light and carefree and reminded her of Mercedes with her long, ribboning hair.

Mercedes, what would you do in my place? Annette found herself writing along her desk that evening, late, late into the night, when the stars looked small and far out of reach. I imagine you would find a way to make friends with everyone. Perhaps, I can try to do the same.

The day of the military ball came far too soon, a whirlwind of faces and names and titles that Annette utterly failed to remember.

She sat high in a perch upon the nobleman’s platform to watch the opening ceremonies for the ball. The sun sat high in the morning’s pale sky and long shadows dripped from the benches like the sweat from the people below her. So many people. Too many, Annette felt, but she was lucky to be noble-borne, and so she sat only a few levels below that of the military house’s lord, Rodrigue in his cups, her father’s shadow, and, of course, the most elusive King Lambert.

Annette had only ever heard his name but she imagined he was handsome, much like a king ought to be...and, of course, that his son, Prince Dimitri, was unbelievably handsome to match him. They were powerful men with blond hair and light eyes, and Annette knew she would find a moment, somehow, stolen away, to tell Mercie exactly what color they were.

It had been a long running joke between Annie and Mercie. A joke that said, in all of swooning over the King’s son, every maiden was too busy looking at his body than to honestly know the color of his eyes.

Still, Annette found herself quite lonely, misplaced, sweating through the gossamer gown Alexandrea had all but sewed her into, and she waited dutifully for the trumpets to sound and the military house’s to reign out their colors, their flags, their merriment.

Rather mischievously, Annette had grown curious to see if she could spy the elusive son of Rodrigue’s, the gossip of the keep, who apparently swung a sword so continuously, it was said he was more blade than arm, more weapon than soldier, and he always, always drew blood.

Annette felt herself swallow at the idea. She tried not to become too carried away herself during battle but it was undeniable. Annette knew that feeling of victory, while young and small, was inches away from her fingertips, and it was all the proof that she needed to crush a naysayer into the ground.

Without much wait, Annette recognized the beat of anticipation hush over the crowd. Young crowds of maidens clasped her hands together while rowdy young lords screamed and tossed their full wine glasses down below.

From the south-gate, Annette’s eyes fell over Prince Dimitri.

She felt her breathing stop. It was true: she could not possibly see his eyes given the distance, but he was quite imposing. His shoulders, straight and square, as he moved, a blue-coat along his back, with a long, sharp spear within his grasp. He turned to the crowd and bowed low and gracefully to welcome them, welcoming him, and again, Annette felt her face smile. He was truly just as they said he was. And, a little smugly, she was proud to know how closely set her familiar relationship was to the King’s Court. It would be no real trouble at all to introduce herself to him, all in due time.

From the north gate, another man entered.

To anyone with fair working eyes, this young man could only be related to Lord Rodrigue. Tall, lean, the hard muscles of his arms tight and unyielding, Felix had his long fingers locked tightly over the pommel of a thin silver sword. He had dark hair akin to his father’s, tied up and away from his face, and he kept his gaze straight out into the field, only wishing to find Prince Dimitri’s own.

He made no show to the crowd. He did not even once look in the direction of the cheers.  Annette had imagined that this man would be the opposite of the gossip; over exaggeration and excitement blurring Felix’s name into a farce— but Annette found the smile had fallen from her face.

The sun, from its position in the sky, dragged the men's shadows away and into the dirt, and, true to the title, it did seem as if the prince’s shadow had pooled over Felix, the way his dark form moved, cat-like, quieted to take his starting position just across the Dimitri. The Prince, too, turned back to face him. The blue of his coat lifted briefly from the dry ground as he bowed down smoothly to Felix.

Felix returned a stiff bow in response, but he kept his head lifted to stare back into the Prince’s eyes, fixated to begin.

Annette swallowed thinly. This friendly competition somehow felt very, very unfriendly.

The trumpets had ended and in the silence that followed, Annette wondered if all breathing had stopped.

Dimitri lifted his spear back. His shoulder rolled slowly, and he took his stance to defend, already making it apparent that he would not be moved. Felix would have to come to him, a human shield of blue and with the pointed edge of the long spear, grinning golden in the sun.

Annette had turned to take in Felix’s reaction but he was gone.

The loud clash of two heavy weapons locked, once, twice, Felix moved so impossibly fast, Annette struggled to see where one of his attacks ended and another began. The silver of the sword’s edge raked along the spear’s head, edge on edge the way Annette had watched her father spark flint for a fire. She had feared the Prince would bend under the assault, but he matched Felix’s furious blows with a steady, shielded rhythm—protecting his neck, arm, leg—back again, as Felix attempted to pierce his blade through the Prince’s guard.

There was such a brutal, personal intimacy in fighting headlong with weapons. Annette was rather proud of her own magical dueling but she never imagined feeling something so powerfully for her opponent that a duel might be won with sheer hatred instead of skill. 

“You look awfully uncomfortable,” a warm voice said to Annette. At once another man sat down, rather close to her, but his warm brown eyes felt like such a welcomed sight compared to watching Felix, again and again, edge the bite of his blade inches from the Prince’s nose. “You worried he’ll actually hit him?”

Annette turned to smile politely back at the man. “Won’t he? Felix seems…” she picked the word carefully. “Relentless.” 

The man laughed quite loudly. The way his smiling face eased into a comfortable glow made Annette feel a shade warmer for him to be sitting quite so close to her in public. He seemed inclined to laugh, and laugh often.

“Felix is relentless. That’s a great word for it.” The man nodded happily at Annette. He turned his head to view the spectacle before them.

The Prince was being forced back. Felix’s sword-arm cut thin and sharp, edging into the armor and bouncing the strength of his back-blow to inch Dimitri’s footing back through the dirt. She could not see either Dimitri’s face nor Felix’s, but she had to imagine what they might have looked like: two unbending warriors that would not stop until their weapons disintegrated from their hands.

Annette flinched at the sound of blade on blade; Dimitri’s spear had swung, heavy and pointed, to twist the arching tip of Felix’s sword against the direction it had swung. The reverb of sound lingered, inhuman and pain-filled, and Felix’s assault was turned back against him, pushed back through the dirt by his own strength.

Dimitri appeared to have gained a foot-hold of defiance. His thick blond hair spilled across his face, dimming a look of blood-lust over his removed features. He swung again, the strength of his shoulder balanced perfectly with the length of the spear, and, as if fated, the tip of the weapon connected with the front of Felix’s right shoulder. 

Annette felt her heart drop. She stood up, fists crushed to her chest, and cried out in shock. 

The man stood with her. She felt his hand, warm and large, touch her shoulder. “Wait for it.” 

Felix was pinned, his own footing sliding through the dirt, and Annette watched as Dimitri continued his assault. The spear dug deeper into Felix’s shoulder—she could see the blood start to seethe out from Felix’s leather armor—and Dimitri closed in for dominance, the final twist. Then, in a blink, Annette watched as Felix brought the hilt of his sword down over Dimitri’s head. The sound of flesh against the pommel seemed to echo through the court-yard, a ripple of energy and metal and pain, and she watched the Prince sink to his knees with the spear cut-short from his hands. The battle was clearly over with Lord Fraldarius son earning the upper-hand.

“Oh no,” Annette breathed out. She had closed her eyes in fear. She didn’t understand. She didn’t think it was within the spirit of competition to so ferociously hurt the other party. It couldn’t be right. “What’s happened? Is he hurt?”

“Which one?” The man asked her. He sounded amused. Annette opened her eyes to glare at him. 

“I don’t know what you think is so funny; I mean the Prince! Is he hurt?”

Again, the man threw back his head to laugh. His red hair glinted hazy and scarlet in the sun behind them. He was very handsome, especially when he laughed. But Annette was still mad. Mad at being laughed at for doing something as simple as caring!

 “Oh, Dimitri knows how to take a hit. His skull is too thick to crack. Anyways, he wants Felix to try and hit him. That’s just the way they are.”

Annette felt her chest tighten. “That can’t be in the rules! He can’t be allowed to hurt Prince Dimitri like that!”

The man’s handsome face looked uneasy. His smile dimmed. “Yeah, I mean, you aren’t wrong? There really are rules against it but, uh, Felix doesn’t listen to rules, so.” He gave a small shrug with just one of his shoulders like he really couldn’t care. “Look, Felix is hurt, too, so, doesn’t that make it feel even?”

Annette shook her head. “I…I don’t…I don’t know.”

“You don’t watch a lot of fighting, huh? It’s why I came over to you. You looked upset.”

“Um.” Annette looked away from his pretty face. She felt embarrassed to say that she had hardly been allowed much of anywhere. “Yes…I don’t really like fighting in...this way...”

“This way?”

Annette flushed in the sun. She felt far too hot between watching the fight and with the way this man seemed to enjoy talking to her. “I duel in magic. It’s just a lot more removed than this.”

“Oh, magic, huh?” He squinted at her but his lips had moved like he had been impressed. “I favour a bit of magic myself. Not too shabby with a polearm or sword but I like the distance magic provides between myself and people that want to kill me, you know?”

Annette nodded nervously. “Exactly.” 

The man gave a long sigh through his nose. “Yeah, well. You’ll get used to it fast here. That’s kind of how Dimitri and Felix communicate. If there isn’t blood, then the conversation isn’t finished.” 

Annette blinked back at him. “I have a best friend, too, and we don’t fight like this.”

The man thought for a moment. “It’s, um, a special relationship that they have.” He smiled again, open and kind, but his words felt cold. “Felix has this mean nickname for Dimitri. He calls him ‘the boar prince’, but if that’s the case, then Felix is an animal too.” He laughed but it sounded so removed from the rest of his expression. “A mad dog, I guess. Just chasing after him for all time. Two beasts that can’t wait to kill each other.”

Annette blinked. A mad dog. Hadn’t she heard that before? “Then, what animal are you? You don’t fight with them?”

The man was all easy smiles again. “Who, me? Oh, absolutely not, no, not if I can help it.” His smile turned lopsided and a little smug over his charming face. “I’m more’a lover, not a fighter, you know? I’d be…ah…what kind of animal mates for life, do you know?”

Annette honestly just blushed at him. “Um.” 

“I’m Sylvain Gautier.” The man told her. “Sorry for not introducing myself earlier.”

It was like the pieces in Annette’s head clicked together all at once. His pretty smile, his wild red hair, his deadly ability to swoon her. The Rose Lord’s son. She had been speaking with The Rose Lord’s heir. 

Annette felt her face flush in a vibrant pink. “I’m—I’m Annette Dominic. Ser Gilbert’s daughter.” 

He took her hand, brought it to his lips, and then away again.

“Gotcha. I thought something about your beautiful red hair looked familiar.” Sylvain’s voice continued smoothly. “Although, I’m surprised. Gilbert is so somber. You’re definitely more exciting than him. You take after your mother, I bet?” He gave her a wink. Annette felt her heart skip. She didn’t know if she had enough blood in her body to possibly blush any redder. “Us red-heads gotta stick together, huh?”

“Uh-huh,” Annette croaked thinly. She looked away from him, a gloriously obvious attempt to hide her face. She found herself staring back over the gathered crowd, how a healer was now shuffling out to attend to the pair. She watched as Dimitri was helped to his feet and walked back through the iron gates. She glanced over at Felix’s form, now retreating backwards, away from the gates, away from Dimitri and the healers, away from the cheering of the gathering patrons.

“Where is he going?”

Sylvain glanced at where Annette was staring. “Ah. That’s just Felix for you. He’s probably more mad about Dimitri getting a good hit on him than he is happy to have won. But it honestly works out in his favour; Lord Rodrigue is going to be ecstatic for the ceremony tonight.”

Annette nodded at Sylvain’s explanation. But she couldn’t pull her eyes away from Felix just…walking away, a hand pressed to his still bleeding shoulder. “Why won’t he go to a healer?”

Again, Sylvain shrugged. “He’ll be fine.”

Annette felt her stomach sink. She’d never met a person that would choose blood. “Okay. Sure.”

“Say, you wanna come meet Ingrid?”


“Yeah.” Sylvain grinned back at her. “She’s the best, we’ve known each other since we were kids. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna marry her one day; she just, ah, doesn’t know that yet.” He winked again and, again, Annette blushed. She was blushing now because she had honestly thought he had come all this way over to talk to her, and now he was talking about another girl, who was probably beautiful and strong and nothing like Annette. 

Goddess, she was stupid sometimes. 

“Of course. I’d love too.” Annette replied. 

Still, Sylvain Gautier offered his hand to guide her down the stands and away from the too many bodies, and, well, she couldn’t help herself but hold it back just a little too tightly.

Ingrid was just as delightful as Sylvain had made her to be. She was blonde, green-eyed, and very witty. Annette wondered in awe at the charming way Ingrid never allowed Sylvain to slip too far away into the obscene or into flirtation. They honestly matched one another very well. Strange how childhood seemed to slowly, gently, correct two souls into future lovers. They couldn’t have been born to not be a perfect match.

Annette pushed away the loneliness that had slipped across her shoulders. She never had close knit friends or a childhood of interconnected nobility. The Royal School of Magic had only offered her the dream of friendships like Mercedes, and she resisted the nip of envy to see Ingrid and Sylvain so fated to be a couple.

Ingrid gave a cute pause to shove Sylvain’s arm from sneaking around her neck. She met Annette’s eyes with a friendly evaluation. “So, are you excited for the ball tonight? I can’t say I’m much of a dancer, but Sylvain here? He promises that no girl will go un-danced with.”

Sylvain grinned, starry-eyed. “I’m the best dancer here. Hands down. Make sure you wear some better shoes than whatever Rodrigue sends you. He’s too traditional for stuff like celebrating; honestly, I’m surprised he is even hosting the affair here, um, all things considered.”

Ingrid’s warmth faded from her face. “Yes. I was thinking that same thing.”

Annette felt the uncomfortable fingers of being a complete stranger overtake her as she watched grief lock over the conversation, awkwardness and sympathy tight over Annette’s words. “I am so sorry about Glenn. I, clearly, am very removed from the situation, but I imagine he was a very beloved man.”

Sylvain looked down. “Yeah. He really was. He was gonna be married soon, too.” Sylvain’s dark eyes moved to Ingrid’s, locked, and turned away. Annette resisted asking what she had missed. It looked like a sad, delicate secret. “So, I’m gonna go grab Dimitri. He’s probably already hiding somewhere, pretending to be completely fine, while Dedue mother-hens him to death.”

“Dimitri would wish for death compared to attending a ball,” Ingrid ribbed mildly.

“Yeah, the one thing him and Felix would agree over, Goddess willing.” Sylvain returned, his friendly face less dismayed.

“Dedue?” Annette asked. That was such an exotic name compared to those her father had listed.

“Yes,” Ingrid’s smile hardened but her eyes stayed light. “He is Dimitri’s personal guard, more or less. He doesn’t go anywhere without shadowing behind. But he’s...a good person...I suppose.” Ingrid lingered off unkindly. “I’m afraid I don’t speak with him much.”

Annette eased off the topic, uncomfortable. “And, um, Felix, right? I haven’t met him yet. Could you tell me anything about him? His father and mine are close and I feel...really terrible...honestly, that I don’t know anything about him.”

Ingrid’s green eyes looked darker somehow, like Annette had asked an impossible question of her.

“Ah. Yes. Felix is...not the easiest to talk to.” She licked her lips as she thought. “I’ve known him my entire life, and I'll tell you: no one fights harder, or has more skill with a sword than Felix. But that’s all he really does.” It was Ingrid’s turn to look uncomfortable. “I can’t say that Glenn’s death has changed much about him, but he’s just…” She cleared her throat. “If you speak with him, and he comes off as like, just a complete idiot, don’t take it personally.” Her green eyes lightened earnestly. “You seem like such a sweet person. I’d just, you know, take it slow with him.”

Take it slow with him? Annette picked at the phrase. Why did it feel like Sylvain and Ingrid knew something very important that she didn’t? Would Annette be expected to talk to Felix, beyond just normal pleasantries?

She held back a sigh. Great. She’d traveled all this way and would be expected to be some unwanted, unliked companion to a man people didn’t like, didn’t know, seemed to enjoy being seen as some improbable shadow.

Annette did not need to hear the rest. “I see.”

Ingrid collected Annette’s hands inside of her own. They felt warm and reminded Annette instantly of Mercedes. She welcomed the touch.

“You might hear rumors that Felix is a bad person, that he’s mean or careless, but he isn’t, please know that. He’s just different. And I don’t want you to hold that against him. Okay?”

Annette squeezed back nervously. “Okay.”

She really wasn’t sure what she was promising, why it felt so serious to stare back into Ingrid’s eyes, but there she went, promising herself to some unspoken question. 

Something like sadness cooled through her voice. Annette truly was a stranger to these people.

“Thanks for talking with me, Ingrid.”

“Of course.” Her face brightened again. “I hope we can be friends.”

Friends? Annette wondered. She wouldn’t be here long. There wouldn’t be time to that, would there?

“Friends,” Annette grinned back at her. She pushed the fear, then her impatience, down. There was just a ball to get through, another sleepless night, and then she would be back to everything she knew and loved. “I’d like that, too.”

Alexandrea fixed Annette into her gown—a red silken dress with a thick-cut ribbon that wrapped entirely around her waist—and made it quite hard to breathe, Annette noted—before she kicked away Rodrigue’s uncomfortable gift, far too high of heels, beneath the guest bed, stepped out of her own worn flats, and offered them to Annette.

“Not much to look at, I know, but your feet won’t bleed by the night’s end, and believe me, I’ve helped Lady Ingrid deal with wounds like that—they aren’t fun, or pretty—and you’ll still be expected to tour the grounds in the morning, hurting or not. Your dress should cover this little secret of ours.”

“Thank you,” Annette replied simply to Alexandrea's very sensible and kind gesture.

A strange unspeakable fear was bubbling inside of her stomach. She used to love the parties thrown at her school or her mother’s keep. Why did it feel so gloomy to walk down the stairs and into the keep’s hall? Why did she so badly wish to run, run straight out of those grand-doors and keep going, her dress torn and dragging behind her, running away from something as beautiful as tonight?

She just felt tired. All the time, the pressure of it all. She hated the smiling and the charming little songs her father had asked her to sing, like some small caged bird, just so those crowds of people could stare. After, she would be forced to meet their eyes and bow, perfectly, be perfect, and she just wanted to run...

She pulled off and away from entering the grand hall, lingering at the stair’s edge. She could not see a single face she knew in the large murmuring of the crowds. People came and went in lovely dresses and tall hats and flowers—the overpowering scent of flowers—that invaded every tightly packed corner.

Annette stepped back and away. She would wait. She would wait until she saw her father or Lord Rodrigue or, perhaps, Goddess willing, the Prince or Ingrid, anyone else to not walk into a waterfall of faceless strangers all by herself.

She padded back down the hall, her anxiety easing off to hear the voices fading away behind the thick stone walls. It was getting late into the evening now. The sun just looming off behind the dry hills at the keep’s windows. Annette found herself walking without purpose, just curiously exploring the long halls of the keep at her own pace.

A door at the dead end of a hall caught her eye. An orange flickering light had pooled through its crack, warm and inviting. She paused at the door to listen, to see if anyone was inside, but she heard nothing. The room was very, very quiet.

Perhaps there wouldn't be anyone there, Annette wondered to herself, and she pushed open the door with a careful hand, palm over the warm wood. She found herself in a small study—only one reading chair at its center, plush and adorned with depicted kitted stages of leaves losing their color, and books—wow, she found herself lighting up— books, she had never once seen so many books outside of her schooling—did Rodrigue keep an entire library to himself?

Perhaps she did have more to say to him than she originally thought.

She moved through the bright light of the fire in its hearth, thankful for its warmth, to touch at a tome that had been left open, curious to where the passage had ended, before she realized she had pressed against someone’s arm, half-hanging out and away from the chair.

“Oh, I’m so sorry!” Annette cried at once. She stepped back several paces. A hand was at her chest in a foolish attempt to put her heart back inside of her rib cage. 

She was staring straight into a pair of dark eyes that had jumped, cat-like, at her scream.

Felix. It was Felix seated before her. Rodrigue’s son, real and in the flesh, and she had rudely bumped into his arm.

She hadn’t seen him sitting there at all, slumped back in that large reading chair, between his black hair and eyes. He had changed, clearly, from the tournament this morning, into the dark layers of a suit, blues and golds, he just disappeared into the dim flickering shadows of the study. He really was like a shadow.

He’d scared the life out of Annette.

“That’s fine,” Felix edged out breathlessly. Clearly, Annette had frightened him, too. A hand had crept to his face, as if he had jumped from where he sat and accidentally batted himself in the eye. “You don’t have to yell.” 

“What are you doing in here?”

Felix’s dark eyes found hers. Annette felt her heart skip again, its beat rearing up, like she was…afraid. It was stupid. She’d never even spoken to this man before. Why did she feel like she’d make a mistake to come into the room? She had every right. She didn’t know he was in here napping. 

“I was hoping to escape all of those people.” Felix replied curtly. “I was hoping to go unnoticed the entire night.”

Annette furrowed her brows, a little wrinkle of red in the firelight. “For the entire night?” 

Annette tried not to sound too shocked at the bad etiquette of simply disappearing from something as lavish as the King’s ball. There would definitely be consequences, social or no, and her thoughts turned to Lord Rodrigue’s sharp teeth, how they might look frowning in vainly withheld disappointment. 

“What about later?” Annette suggested nervously, her own weak attempt to be smooth and to help ease Felix out of punishment. “You don’t want to play cards with my father? Or, um, Sylvain?”

“Heh, no.” Felix honestly scoffed. “Sylvain’s a cheat. Besides, I’m already tired. I don’t want to sit there and pretend to enjoy myself.”

Annette felt frozen where she stood for a moment. Yes. that was very much the same thought she had as well. How funny to hear it from Lord Fraldarius’s son.

An awkward pause unfurled between them. Annette resisted walking out of the room. She knew when she was unwanted. She knew it as naturally as breathing. But still, she stood there, pondering for a topic, and, with Ingrid’s kind words in her mind, she felt she had one.

“I saw your fight with the Prince this morning. It was…” Annette paused. Then, she decided to be honest. “Frightening. But the way you fight is incredible; You’re very talented.” 

Annette found herself a little giddy to relive it again from the safety of hindsight, where no one had actually died, to appreciate the raw talent of two powerful fighters cross their swords in passionate combat. It was…thrilling, too. Felix was talented, a seriously gifted swordsman just as she had been told time and time again, and she wondered if she could get to know him, even if just for some small talk, to tell him how sincerely impressive he was.

“I honestly started to believe you might be trying to hurt him.” Annette added playfully.

“I was trying to hurt him.” Felix said bluntly. 

His dark eyes rolled over Annette. They did not look away. 

Annette blinked softly at him. His eyes really were as intense as his father’s, however, Felix's eyes were a far, far darker color, a deep brown compared to grey. Further more, Felix's eyes weren't like Sylvain or Ingrid. There wasn’t any light inside of them. It was like the few thin sparks from the fireplace’s flames had merely been absorbed back into the brown depths of Felix’s steady gaze. 

Annette wasn’t sure what to say back to that. He had sounded so…angry. 

Her smile dropped.

“You’re new here, right? Do yourself a favour: don’t hang around Dimitri. He isn’t what he seems.” Felix then rolled his face away from her to rest along the chair. “…You don’t have to look sad about it. I’m wasn’t going to kill him.”

Annette felt awkward just standing there. Clearly they had entered into a real conversation, but she wasn’t sure how to react. She glanced around for another chair but didn’t see one. So, with a little gracelessness, she lowered herself over the rug. It was comfortable enough, plus, she was right next to the fireplace, and it felt so good. 

She peered back temptingly at Felix. She had never dreamed she would get so close so soon to him. And, she imagined, he was enjoying the warmth of the fire as well. The air in the kingdom felt so unnaturally cold at night, like it was deliberately trying to chill its residents to the bone. Annette truly did not like it at all. Perhaps, like her, Felix would rather be in a small room than in a large crowd, close to a fire, content in the peacefulness of the dark.

He kept his face away from her while she sat down. Annette used the moment to trace the side of his face with her eyes, how tight his jaw looked to find her drawing closer, obviously annoyed, perhaps at her invading his personal space, She studied the slow way he blinked as he stared into the fire. He did look rather exhausted, she noted, and she believed him in not wanting to move or give any performance for the party. He had already played out his part today. His tireless, fiery take-down of Dimitri had been worth twenty dances, at least, given his fury and spent energy.

“Were you just resting in here?”

His mouth tightened. It like the question had irked him. “Um. Trying to sleep is...boring, so, no. I was going to read but then I, um, fell asleep.”

“Oh!” She lit up. Any new topic was a better one than talking about the death of the Prince. “Do you like to read?”

“No.” Felix said at once. The look over Annette’s face must have spurned him to speak again. There was a forced note of patience in his voice as he explained: “I’m not against books. But the words…they seem to move around or flip around and…uh. I’ve never been patient enough to get through it.”

“Oh.” Annette repeated. 

“ read?” Felix returned. He sounded uncomfortable. His voice had taken on a strange growl to force the exchange between them. 

“Yes. I love reading. It’s basically what I do when I’m not studying, or practicing my magic.”

“Magic.” Felix repeated back. He sounded incredulous. “You’re a sorceress?”

“Is that so unlikely?” Annette returned. She knew condescension when she heard it.

“Uh,” Felix articulated flatly. His face continued to stare pointedly at the hearth. “I just don’t know anything about you, only of your lord father, and he doesn’t talk much.”

Yes. Her father. The entire miserable reason she had even come here, to force her stupid presence onto people that did not want her. “To be honest with you, Felix, I don’t really know my father, either.”

This seemed to earn Felix’s full attention.

His dark eyes turned to take in Annette’s face and she felt her mouth run dry to be held in place by the weight of his gaze. His mouth moved faintly, the tension that kept him scowling turning upwards at the edges of his mouth, like she had said a very funny joke. “I don’t know mine, either.”

Annette blinked. She...certainly didn’t expect that.

She felt her fingers nervously ball together in her lap. Now the conversation felt...easier.

“Lord Rodrigue was very kind to me when I arrived.” She glanced nervously to Felix’s face, the curved way the shadows played across his pale skin, akin to figures dancing between the flames. She dropped her eyes back down. “I suppose that doesn’t mean it is true.”

A low sigh answered her. “My father’s words are empty, just like his head. He loves promises and politics and wooing anyone in his way. But he doesn’t mean it. He doesn’t mean anything.” He moved a hand towards the door. “I don’t want to go out there”

Felix gave a small shake of his head. His dark hair looked shiny in the firelight, softer than she had thought it to be. His dark eyes returned to Annette’s face, hard and taut, before he leaned back into the chair. He brought up a hand to rub tiredly at his eyes.

“He wants me to be Glenn.” Felix said between the spaces of his fingers. “How disappointing it must be for him to realize I am not.”

Annette’s heart squeezed in discomfort to hear someone so casually mention their dead loved one. Felix’s voice never once lifted into sadness as Sylvain had, or fondness, like Ingrid.  He just sounded...tired.

Annette provided Felix’s some privacy by looking away. She studied the fire as he did, thinking, correcting her thoughts together, in some kind way to reassure him that she did not expect him to be anyone else, from a stranger to another, and if that would be seen as somehow disingenuous, a fake answer to Felix’s refreshing straight-forward conversation.

“I, um, admire that you take a stance against the entirety of nobility and its pretense. I find it exhausting to pretend all the time. I honestly couldn’t care less about impressing someone when, um.” She struggled for the rest of what she meant, falling away from her head. “I don’t know. You could just be honest.”

Annette studied Felix’s face again and she held back a faint giggle to spy how wide his eyes had gotten, how he had looked so cool and disinterested at anything, but he now looked awkward, a sweet look across his face like her words had embarrassed him.  “...If you say so.”

“I did not want to come here to this ball.” Annette continued openly. She wasn’t sure why she felt she could be so honest with Felix, but it felt so much better than returning to the party. She wanted the conversation to keep going. She wanted Felix to...understand her...even if she would be gone on the ‘morrow and perhaps they would never speak again. “I don’t know why I said yes to my father. I hate that I can’t say no.”

Felix’s head had dropped back against the chair. His eyes, however, remained closed. Annette relaxed at that. His dark eyes did something unnerving to her, and she wasn’t sure she could articulate herself as bravely as she was now if he kept staring at her.

“It’s easy.” Felix’s voice answered her at once. He had even lifted his hands to emphasize his next few words. “You just open your mouth and you say ‘no.’”

“Maybe that’s easy for someone like you,” Annette jested quietly. It was easy to offer a bit of her wit at him. He seemed...thoughtful. She liked that.

She watched Felix’s shadow along the wall. It had shifted like he had laughed so quietly she never would have heard it escape from him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I wish I was scary,” Annette explained, somehow at once honest and entirely joking, “like you.”

“Well,” Felix’s low voice stumbled for a moment, then he found the rest of his words. “Maybe, the next time someone is bothering you about something you don’t want to do, I’ll tell them no for you.”

Annette blushed. She felt her face racing between pink and pale. “Oh.” She wanted to curl into the carpet beneath her and perhaps disappear. “...Thank you.”

She peeked up at him. Felix’s eyes were open again. His face returned to that impassive glare. But it wasn’t at her. It just moved into the fire. His expression had gone from sharing with her to entirely unreadable.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have thanked him.

Annette settled back onto her knees. The room felt colder, somehow, despite the fire. But her heart continued to beat, harder, faster, in some schoolgirl nervousness she felt was long passed her. She picked at her clean nails, the hem of her dress, the heel of Alexandrea’s flats to pass the time.

Eventually, Annette drew a deep breath to speak again.

“If we go back out there, Felix.” Annette found herself wondering aloud. “Would you like to dance, with me, maybe?” Annette asked quietly. The pause had gone on for far, far too long, and if she knew conversation expectation at all, usually a grand request, like asking one to dance, made up for the travesty of failed small talk.

She waited. She had hoped this would maybe ease the tension between them, but Felix never responded. She looked up from her place upon the floor to study his reaction but Felix’s eyes had closed again.


Again, he did not reply. Annette inched up onto her knees to see why.

He had fallen asleep. His breathing had become quiet and steady. His head had turned away from her, dozing against the chair as he sunk down into it, his entire body relaxed. His dark eyelashes were long, soft against his cheek, a touchable shadow against his pale skin.

She gave a small smile.

At first she could think nothing kind when she had seen his sharp teeth and dark joyless eyes, but he looked rather handsome in the dull fire’s light. Particularly when the tension had flew from his face, Felix looked rather gentle and peaceful, like sleep lessened his guard somehow. Annette couldn’t help but enjoy the sight of it, a feeling opening inside of her chest, like he was someone she had known most of all of her life, and had only just realized it now.

The fire was sinking lower, the wood peeling off in chalky layers. She wondered if it would soon burn out without fuel. And, well, now was certainly no time to fetch more. She stood up, restless and uncertain, to just leave him asleep in the growing cold of the study.

She turned to look around. A heavy looking blanket had been used to cover the formal writing desk towards the study’s corner, and, without much hesitation, Annette pulled its heavy weight into her arms and half-dragged in back towards Felix’s chair.

Carefully, she laid the blanket over him, nervous that he would awaken and chide her for moving his father’s decor as she pleased, but Felix didn’t even stir. She pushed the blanket around his waist, his legs, and smoothed it down, hoping it would stay put even if he moved in his sleep.

His arm hung loosely again, away from him and off of the chair’s arm, perhaps exactly as it had before when she had bumped into it the first time. Annette tried to remember which arm Dimitri had stabbed at the shoulder, but when she couldn’t truly recall she decided not risk moving it back into onto the chair, afraid she might hurt him.

She smoothed the blanket one more time, bending low to fix the blanket over him. When she turned, Annette realized she was so close to Felix's face she could feel the warmth from his slow breathing. Annette felt frozen. She peered at him for only a heartbeat more, her hands shaking, a strange feeling of wanting to push his dark hair away from his eyes.

She had never, not once, been so close to another man’s face before. She had never even kissed anyone before. She pulled back slowly, carefully, half-terrified that she was over-stepping a very real boundary, and she pulled back into herself.

Still, he didn’t awaken, and, better yet, she watched as he seemed to snuggle down into the blanket, a natural response to feeling a suddenly warm and secure weight tucked around him, and he smiled. A small one, loose over his face, hidden soon by the fall of his dark hair, but she had seen it.

She turned back to face the door, suddenly feeling a bit better about herself than she had in weeks. Maybe this ball wouldn’t be so terrible after all.

Annette considered herself a great dancer. Not the best, perhaps, but she loved to sing and perform, and in this, she kept her head above the water whilst she lingered in a sea of nobles. She had yet to spot her father, nor Rodrigue, or even Prince Dimitri, but she tried not to mind. She just dazzled herself with the glow of so many fantastic candles and the beautiful collection of musicians that swept music through the great-hall in a single continuous, flawless performance.

Once and while, Annette found herself not so alone. Sylvain and Ingrid, the complicated nuances of their dance, often made their way to her side, Ingrid to give Annette a little spin and Sylvain to cut in to dance between them, grasping both of the women’s hands at once to keep their bodies moving in no small feat to the music around them.

Finally, Annette pulled herself out of the flood of couples and their warm bodies. She felt dizzy and rather happy that she had at least made two new friends that never left her alone for long, particularly Sylvain, who had clearly drank enough wine for both Ingrid and Annette, and he lingered around her warmly, sincerely catering to her as if she was anyone special in a room that included King Lambert and his beautiful wife.

Sylvain’s hand tapped at her shoulder, perhaps in another attempt to get her to take a cup of wine, but Annette playfully brushed him aside, panting to just take a break from the dancing.

“Sylvain!” She laughed, “I’ve told you twice, I don’t dri—” She looked up into the pale eyes of a young man. The frank confusion over his fair features looked so genuine that she shrank away at once, suddenly racing to bow as deeply as she could.

“Your Highness,” Annette said at once. “I am sorry. I thought you were someone else.”

“For someone to confuse me with Sylvain,” Prince Dimitri’s smile was so wonderful across his face. “Would you think poorly of me if I considered that a compliment?”

Annette turned pink. He was as charming as they had whispered. “Sylvain certainly knows how to have a good time.”

“Yes,” Dimitri agreed, his tone calm and gracious. He then averted his eyes to the crowd, alarmed to be pushed in so closely. “That I’m afraid I will never understand. Still, we push on, don’t we, Annette?”

Annette swallowed thickly. “You know my name, Your Highness?”

Here, Dimitri laughed. It was a polite, curt sound, and it did not sound natural, but Annette understood him at once. “You are undoubtedly Ser Gilbert’s daughter. I have heard about you for much of my life; you are very much as he says.” Dimitri gently picked up her hand, lifted it to his face, and kissed her ring finger, a wisp of a feeling. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you tonight.”

Oh Mercie, Annette found herself fighting back a peal of excitement, his eyes are as blue as a winter’s river, pale and lovely as crystalline snowflakes.

Annette noticed Dimitri wince into his next smile. The dark bloom of a bruise was spreading out from just above his right temple, perhaps from where exactly Felix had taken him down this morning. She frowned sadly at him. “Are you alright, Your Highness?”

“Ah,” Dimitri told her at once, his pale eyes turning quite serious. “No, to be honest, I have quite a headache, but alas.” His eyes glanced behind to wherever King Lambert was watching, his eyes a force that haunted Dimitri to the edges of his days, even into his sleep. “One cannot miss an affair as, uh, enchanting, as tonight.”

“I—” Annette began, but she was cut off.

“Your Highness,” a rough voice cut in, deep and remorseful. “You are requested back at your father’s table.”

Annette turned to meet the impossibly large person that had melted through the crowd to reach Dimitri’s side. He was tall, perhaps the tallest man Annette had ever seen in her entire life, with deep scars that cut up his face. The muscles of his arms doubled Dimitri’s, if not tripled.

“Dedue?” Annette tested, praying to be right.

“That is correct; A pleasure, my lady,” Dedue intoned politely. His eyes, however, stayed very, very distant.

Dimitri’s expression fell for only a moment. He looked at Annette in dismay. “I’m sorry, of course I must go as soon as we exchange five words. I hope we may speak again, Annette.”

She bowed again, flustered and delighted. This was perfect. She had made friends. She had spoken with the Prince. She danced and not made a fool of herself! This was—

Her wrist was suddenly jerked backwards. Annette stumbled, bumped into a couple, and she apologized profusely as she found herself dragged back back onto the dance floor.

She turned to look at who had so rudely taken her hand.

Dark eyes. Dark hair.

Annette felt her heart nearly stop inside of her chest. Felix. Felix was here, his hand wrapped around her wrist. Annette slid her hand away from his grip, nervous and surprised, to see him standing before her. Had he actually heard her request after all?

She blushed.

“Hi,” Annette told him nervously. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon. Have a nice nap?”

He opened his mouth as if to reply, however, he stopped at once. Annette blinked at him, a touch worried, but she hoped perhaps he was just as nervous as she felt.

“Do you wish to dance?” She asked him. Her voice was shaky and not so cute, but it was all she had.

Felix’s dark eyes settled over her face. He said nothing. However, his arms answered for him, long and reaching, as he picked up her arm to place it up and along the back of his neck, setting the leading pose for the dance, and she felt his other hand hold, none too gently, at her waist.

Annette bit back a sound of pain. His fingers were knuckled into her dress. She felt herself stiffen in his arms. With the startling strength of his hands against her, she felt like his fingers might honestly tear its seams. An anxious flood hit her, hard, her cheeks now burning with shock. 

“Um, Felix?”

His lips opened into a smile. But it was not a smile. It was just an expression of teeth and muted breathing. He was staring through her. Going through the motions of holding her, a dull, half-hearted step that missed the beat of the song around them.

The hand at his neck boldly sought to smooth through his hair. She met his eyes, wide and concerned, but the tightness of his jaw locked away all attempts to understand what was wrong. “Are you alright?”

Again, Felix did not answer her. It was like he wasn’t even hearing her.

She had started to shake. Adrenaline rushed to her legs, her arms. He was gripping her so hard it was starting to physically hurt, and it was embarrassing, and her dress might just tear. What was happening? What was wrong with him?

“Felix, we don’t have to dance.” Annette told him at once, forcing her tone to not blister hotly, bitterly, angrily. “Just let go of me, then,”

He didn't. He wouldn't. He pulled her closer to him. His fingers felt ever tighter over her hip.

Her face felt hot. She tried not to stare out into the crowd, too scared to know if they were being stared at, watched, mocked. “You don’t have to dance with me.”

“You are talking too loud.” Felix murmured darkly. His teeth were grinding inside his jaw. Was it in pain? Resentment? Annette wasn’t sure. He was breathing heavily through his nose, the sound of hot, angry air between them, a new aggressive song for them to pull between.

“Let go of me, then,” Annette bit back. She was so close to stepping on his foot. Who did he think he was? “What is your problem?”

“I hate this,” Felix’s voice dropped, cold and empty. His dark eyes fed on her in contemplation, as if tearing her apart would end the dance any faster.

“That isn’t my problem,” Annette hissed, her voice in its own tight whisper.

He twisted his hands into her dress to press them closer together. Suddenly, Annette found her face pushed into his neck, his dark hair, smelling at the heat and sweat that had dripped across his skin. She wanted to kick him as hard as she possibly could, for the entire crowd to see. She wanted to bite the thin skin there, to offer him pain over how completely embarrassed and hurt she felt inside, like some plaything for a cat to use. How confusing it felt, for them to speak so earnestly, and for Felix to turn on her with such hate in his eyes.

Annette said nothing else. She just pressed her face into the darkness of his skin and waited, her small body following automatically through the steps that held them together. It was a sad, pitiful dance that felt more like the final moments of an exhaustive, unspoken battle between them, of strangers and twisted reality and secrets.

Annette felt crushed. She hated herself. She hated him. She hated this, this vile repulsive dance, this ball, how the comfort and softness from their time before felt a fluke. Perhaps that was all Felix was willing to give to her.

She lifted her head to look at him.

His face looked entirely in pain. He did not look back at her.

“I…” Annette felt tears fill her eyes. She refused to cry before him, as someone who clearly did not care to dance at all with her. Annette refused to cry, not here, not in front of her lord father, nor the King. “I’m sorry.”

The song, mercifully, was over. Felix dropped his arms from around her. He turned on his heel without a word, without a goodbye. The blackness inside of his eyes looked harrowed and endless.

Annette felt the blood drain from her face. This was a nightmare. She was so stupid. What did she do this to herself, again and again?

Felix didn’t know her, nor care about her, nor want to care.

That was fine. Annette stole back into the safety of the crowd, attempting to freeze her feelings like a spell of ice. That was fine. She had lost herself in fantasy and expectation and the idea that she could be wanted, too.

Why was she here? What did these people possibly want from her?

“You danced beautifully with Felix,” a warm voice complimented her. Annette turned. She found herself face to face with Lord Rodrigue, his piercing eyes and warm voice, mixed with the low talking of so many others.

“Thank you." Annette said closedly.

“I believe it is finally time to let you know, my dear girl, how happy I am you are here with us tonight.” He collected her hand within his own. Annette tried not to feel just how large his hand felt to hers, entirely engulfed, trapped, fragile inside of his grasp. “I have been waiting anxiously for tonight, to finally announce my fondest dream come true.”

Annette lifted her eyes. She felt nothing. “My lord?”

“Tonight is truly special, my dear Annette.” Lord Rodrigue’s voice dripped with honey and poison. “I have just finished the arrangements with your father and I am so overjoyed.” His head then bent low to take Annette’s hand upon his lips. “How truly honored I am,” Lord Fraldarius’s mouth traced her knuckles in modest affection. “…to have your hand so graciously offered to my son.”

It took everything inside of Annette, years and years of holding completely still upon a stage, for her hand to not tremble beneath his lips. 

Her lord father was there now, too. Time had stopped and stalled with the horrible, tasteless music, and Gilbert was smiling at Lord Fraldarius. He was staring straight ahead. He was plotting and planning and already, a complete stranger to Annette, to have brought her to this place and lied entirely to her face. 

“My lord?” Annette replied. She hoped her tone sounded excited instead of terrified. 

Lord Fraldarius, with eyes as impenetrable as a rainstorm, looked over Annette’s face without a trace of empathy. It felt like a vision of her future: to stare into the dark face of a man that had no love within his heart. “Felix is so pleased. As am I, my dear, to have you join our family.”

“Family.” Annette repeated. She did not understand. She knew so little of the intimacy of family. Her father had been gone from her life for many years. Her mother was distant and rather unemotional. How could such a foreign word feel so unspeakably cruel?

Another kiss to her other hand. How cold those lips felt; how cold the words. 

I hate this, Felix had told her, his voice unfeeling and firm. His hands had gripped at her so tightly, like she was something he had hoped he could break. He was so desperate to get away from her.

“I would be honored, my lord.” Annette said again. 

Then, she did not speak.

She did not speak for the rest of the night.


Chapter Text

The teacup between Annette’s hands had become cold over an hour ago. Still, she held onto it with all of her might, fingers tight, bone-white, over the smooth glass.

She forced herself to keep drinking it. It was bitter now, watery over her tongue, but she continued to drink with as much dignity as she could muster, a physical mantra akin the Goddess’s Prayers, like the future was coming headlong at her, and it was all she had to finish one more sip— one more sip —and then, it would be over—the pain, the shame, the fear—and her life would be hers once more. Her and Mercie used to drink terrible tea together—but that was never the point— they were together —and the tea, the tea didn’t matter.

This was just a silly dream turned nightmare. She couldn’t be engaged to a man she had spoken with once. She couldn’t be here now, waiting across the table, staring at her father—someone who had told her that he loved her —and be hearing the words he continued to repeat when her tears had dried and silence was all she had left to offer.

“Annette,” Gilbert was speaking in some overly-slow way that made her skin crawl. “These things are important to our family. I know you are a smart girl. I know you will understand why the Fraldarius House is the head-long spear in this war we are facing. The country is ravaged and dangerous. I am doing this for your protection even if you do not see this as such.”

Annette’s reflection appeared inside of her tea. She stared back at a small blue-eyed girl with pale, raindrop freckles over her cheeks. She wanted to touch the opposite world where this girl was seated at. She wanted to slide her hand under the surface of the water and choke her thin pale neck.

This girl was a fool for agreeing to the wishes of her family. It was over now.

Her dreams were over.

Annette had words, once. She had words to scream at Gilbert, words to tear at his old flesh and magic to brittle his bones, but she just kept holding the teacup, and he just kept talking.

“I am not attempting to lecture you of what you already know, Annette. You are a smart girl. But you have seen the roads by which we traveled to get here; the starving and desperate that attempted our carriages? It is a tumultuous time for our people and we need the strength of family to shield us from those that lie and scheme. When the Adrestian Empire demanded the return of their exiled Queen, Lambert would not bow. Still, that has not stopped the Adresitian force on their march. They have sent boats along the coast for five years now, burning and pillaging, and they made landfall into Duscur and its people in an attempt to irk Faerghus’ people into a reckless attack, but Lambert will not give in. That is why I am here, Annette. I am here for his Grace, her Majesty as well, and, of course, to make sure my only daughter stays safe.”

Yes. Annette knew of war, of coups and noblemen and their lands and their scheming, and, of course, the rather scandalous affairs that King Lambert take for his wife a woman led into exile. It only added to the whispers and excitement of the Kingdom. The plague that had taken King Lambert’s first wife had taken the parents and siblings of many of her friends at the Royal School, and so many welcomed Queen Patricia with far-open arms.

Until the Empire sought its retribution in her name. 

And, of course, everyone knew of Duscur and its suffering, laid to waste by the scorn of the Adrestian war mongers ...and the uncaring, willing cruelty of the King of Faerghuses’ inability to help the screaming from the independent nation— now entirely locked under the Empire’s punishing control.

She just did not realize the point of it all—Annette had thought it economics or gold or minerals—that added the layers the growing tension, the lengthening of the war—how the heart of it would rest around the ring of Queen Patricia’s wedding band.

“Are we letting the people in Duscur burn just to keep one woman safe?” Annette stared at her father, her face numb with shock. Was this information that she should be privy to? Just what was her father saying?

Did her father slip in telling her such a horrible, selfish reason to allow so many to die?

His face said everything his words could not. And so, Gilbert did not speak. He simply held his daughter’s blue gaze akin to looking into a mirror.

This changed nothing. It was just words between them.

Words, words, words, words, words. Didn’t she love those, once?

“...I will be fair with you, child.” Gilbert allowed quietly. “I do not know Felix as well as I did his older brother. They are not alike in any way but their looks.” Here, Gilbert peered down and away from her, reliving a memory from a different time and place. “...but Felix has much of his Father’s soulful will to serve. He will protect you. That is all that matters to me.”

Annette stared into the cup. She brought it to her mouth and took another cold sip.

She could not understand the words of her marriage, this dark-haired two-faced man that had held her so tightly that the heat of his fingers burned shallow marks into her hips.

But she did understand her father’s penchant for war.

Demands their Queen? Annette’s reflection blinked up at her. Demands their Queen. So, Lambert’s wife, she too, was a prisoner to a promise, and now she could not go home? Had anyone dared to ask what she wanted to do with this war?

“...What if she wishes to leave?” Annette asked quietly. She felt frozen again, her small shoulders locked painfully tight. She worried the question suggested treason more than idle fantasy.

Gilbert’s pale eyes looked as hard as his great-shield. “...What do you mean?”

“I know the stories. I know that the Adrestian Empire fell to a coup within its own noble structure and that our Queen was sent to Faerghus in her exile. But that doesn’t mean she can’t love her country. If the Empire is uplifting their own exile, then her honor is restored; she could go home! Or, if anything, she could at least visit.”

Gilbert’s weighty gaze only made Annette shrink away. “...The Holy Kingdom of Faerghus is her home, Annette.”

“I am not saying that she does not love our King; I am just saying—”

Gilbert’s glare forced Annette to lower her voice. She did not realize she had been yelling her words. She returned to stare at her own shadow within the cup. “...I am sorry.”

Gilbert’s hand squeezed her own. “...Annette, you are so kind. I know that you understand the complexities of these relationships, but what we are speaking of now is besides the point; how you are feeling is completely unrelated to Her Grace’s—”

“What if there is someone waiting for her?” Annette challenged. Her eyes narrowed and she allowed a flicker of hate to entangle in her father’s words. “What if she, too, has a daughter, and that daughter is now separated forever by a forced promise that once meant family, but now is just beautiful prison?”

“That is enough, Annette.” Gilbert rumbled thickly. His face looked tight with disappointment. “I never raised you to speak so—”

“Raised me?” Annette snapped. She did not know what came over herself, but suddenly the cup was across the room, over the floor, ruining the prized woven carpets of her guestroom, and she was sobbing into her own arms, her palms pressed tight over her ears. “Get out! Just go!”

Gilbert’s large face was stricken. But stricken by what, Annette refused to know. She covered her eyes and held herself tight. “Annette…”

‘Get. Out.” She repeated, the words like ice. “Do not seek me again for as long as you remain in this keep.”

She had expected a fight. She had expected, perhaps, a slap to her face for speaking to her lord father as she had towards anyone she might so desperately hate, but only the footsteps of her father’s steady gait, then the closing of the heavy wooden door, until Annette was alone with just her own breathing.

Mercie, Annette asked, her thoughts a black wall of endless unspoken words. Will I ever see you again?

The days lingered on like the purple smoke from her nightstand’s candle. She kept it burning all hours of the day and night, allowing the wax to run hot and dripping into its rubied holder. It was a silent, warm companion that kept her company as Annette turned anyone away from her door—Ingrid, Sylvain, even poor sweet Alexandrea— Alexandrea, with her pretty grey eyes that now reminded Annette of Rodrigue, and how cold she felt to picture his face at all.

Tonight, Annette was sitting at her guestroom’s balcony once more for the evening. She accepted dishes to break her fast as well as dinner to be left outside her door. She told anyone that asked that she was very ill and just wished to rest quietly alone. And…

She often got her wish.

No one attempted to break down the door. No one reasoned with her grief. Only Ingrid had slipped a note through the crack, a kind little parchment of well-worn ink that said: when you want a friend, please find me. Annette kept that note sealed inside of a hidden pocket within her night-dress. She touched its corners, every once and while, and the waxy feel of the paper reminded her that she still was not dreaming.

Annette just wanted Mercedes. No one else.

Nothing else.

Annette returned back to her candle to add more fat and clip the fading wick. The flame returned at once, brighter, more dark red than orange. When she breathed in she felt the flame move with her, hot and impossibly close to her nose, close to catching fire. Then, she would breathe out, and the flame would dim.

She wondered if perhaps if Felix would call for her. However, every time she felt tempted to open the door, he was never there. She had wondered, sparingly, if he would offer some apology for the way he treated her. Or, more than likely, he wouldn’t. Because Felix felt he was a prisoner, just like she was, and he, too, had been staring in an open flame, dreading the future, just as he had been when they had first met. Annette could not understand why someone would feel so akin to a flame, to find something so interesting within it as to stare for hours and hours, watching the wood slowly eaten by the mouth of the flames.

Now, Annette felt like she understood all too well.

I hate this, he had told Annette.

She turned back to stare out into the cold, forested wilds that ran for miles and miles around the keep. Her guestroom’s view was really quite stunning. The tall grey trees of the forest were just beginning to grow heavy, leaning downwards with their thick branches in a dusty powdering of frost, far too soon to be swallowed by the frigid hands of winter, and the world looked oddly at peace for all of this talk of war and the dying.

“Yes,” Annette said to no one. She had found her words in days of not speaking. “Me too.”

There was a gentle two-toned knock at her door the next evening.

Annette found herself in the middle of washing her face from the chilled water of the basin Alexandrea had laid out for her. She glanced to the door, uncertain she had heard an honest sound, but then the knock chimed again, two solid beats, like a song she once loved to sing.

She patted her face with a fluffy towel and tempted herself towards the door. She grasped a night-robe, a silken pink-like wrap covered in with the flight of pegasuses, to cover her shoulders and nightgown. Of course, it was all for vain show— as she had been wearing the same nightgown for days now—and to hide it now would only highlight the pathetic way she had been wallowing her days away—selfish, hurting, unapproachable—but she was certain she could not hole herself away forever.

She closed her eyes as she reached for the handle.

Undoubtedly, it would be her father, here to give another grand lecture about how honored she should feel and—

She stared straight into the darkened uniform of a very large, very tall man. Annette had to crane her neck upright to see his face in the growing dark. Her candle, thankfully, added some highlights in the crawling shadows from the long hall. “...Dedue?”

“My lady.” Dedue’s large face took in hers. His curt expression was ever unchanging but his eyes looked surprisingly soft, like two small pieces of rolled jade, forced inside of his harsh, overly polite expression. He bowed low at the waist to her and Annette returned the gesture with far less grace. “His Highness wishes to call upon you.”

Annette blinked. At first she thought Dedue had meant King Lambert had called to her but at once she realized that Dedue could mean no one else but the Prince. “...For me?”

“Yes,” Dedue replied firmly. The deep rippling scars across his lips and brow made the intention of his expression hard read. Still, Annette could not help but notice that he was speaking rather softly to her, as if he, too, noticed her mournful absence and did not wish to upset her further.

That was rather sweet of him.

However, that was all Dedue had said.

And Annette was now staring into his face like the conversation had continued on fairly politely. She blushed. The feeling burned across her face, so sudden, it had surprised her. She had forgotten what blood felt like over her cold skin.

“I—Ah, I’m sorry, Dedue. You’re waiting for me to reply? Um.” She held the pause for only a moment, lost and alone, clearly without any possible reason to turn him away. “...Dimitri wants to see me?”

A short cut-off smile tugged at the right side of Dedue’s mouth. A repressed twitch or perhaps an unshared secret that he found amusing. Annette couldn’t decide. But for a man so imposing, she rather liked when he decided to share some emotions with her.

...She then realized her hypocrisy at once, having shut every kind soul away…

“Are you uncertain of the invitation or are you still deciding if you would like to go?” Dedue intoned rather bluntly. “You may say no, of course, my lady.”

Annette found her hand nervously tugging at her braid. It had gotten ever longer and messier over the days. She had not washed her hair in, oh, she wasn’t even sure when she had last! And the Prince wanted to see her? Now? Oh, she just wanted to scream at herself. She hadn’t changed her clothes once—but oh, at least she washed her face—that was nothing compared to the rest of her!

If Dedue noticed Annette’s silent internal breakdown, he said nothing of it. He just waited, patiently, with his two huge hands placed politely behind him to rest, the nobleman’s position, at his lower back. There it was again, that strange look across his face, as if he had seen this kind of struggle before, over someone else that he cared for dearly, but still, he allowed Annette to vacillate until she was pink in the face.

Finally, Annette felt too exhausted at herself to not go. “...Okay. That would be nice, Dedue.”

“An excellent choice, my lady.” Dedue said in kind, and, without a moment to allow Annette to collect herself, he turned on his heel and moved back through the dark. He truly was a large shadow that moved with an air of grace as much as he had undeniable rigid authority.

Annette was still locked at her door, a hand turning through her braid. She was shuffling her tiny steps into the dark.

Dedue paused. He turned and his silver-white pony’s tail fluttered with a smoothness of the movement. He then halted. “Do you wish to walk more slowly? There is no need to hurry. His Highness understands that it is late and you were not expecting him.”

“...Did the Prince say why he wanted to see me, exactly?” Annette returned. She hoped to not show her fear but it was there, across her face, inside of her words, small and lonely in the dark. Annette couldn’t possibly imagine why Dimitri would call upon her now. Unless he was upset.

Unless her painfully obvious rejection of Felix had spurned a thorn between them. Her fingers moved to shred into her hair, pulling at roots, threatening to snap and break, the relief of pain coming to sooth the anxiety of disappointing the Prince.

Dedue was at her side, turned down to face the dark of the hall, and Annette was so grateful that his gentle green eyes were no longer searching her face, peering into every crack, poking around with that subtle look of thoughtfulness along his brow. “...His Highness suggested that you might be lonely, and I agreed, so he thought it best to see if you would join him for evening tea.”

“Oh.” Annette murmured. The fury of her thoughts quelled at once. “...That is very kind.”

“Yes.” Dedue added back towards her. Again, his head did not turn, but Annette found herself being led forward with a soft nudge. “His Highness is very compassionate.”

Annette found herself smiling thinly. She still felt so tired from just speaking to someone as gentle and surprisingly helpful as the Prince’s personal guardsman', let alone Prince Dimitri himself, but still, she found the smile there. She took a deep breath and forced herself to perk up, trying to find her old self again, the one that was unafraid; the girl on the other side of the teacup.

“Thank you for, um, being patient with me, too, Dedue.” Annette glanced up nervously as they walked. “I’m just...really afraid right now.”

His green eyes were back to her face. She could feel them, that human instinct of being watched, but Dedue said nothing else. Perhaps there really wasn’t much more to be said. Annette being married off certainly wasn’t his problem, and what would he care about it, anyway, Annette reminded herself. She couldn’t shove her problems onto everyone around her. Not anymore.

She needed to tackle this head on. And she would find a way. Somehow, somewhere.

...Just after she had tea with Prince Dimitri.

While Ingrid’s personal note kept Annette grounded in the familiarity of her own bedchambers, the dream of sitting before Prince Dimitri felt more than deafeningly surreal.

She tried not to stare too long at anything. She wouldn’t gawk at the lavishness of his balcony's high steel-embroidery, golden wolves and bucks and lions that play-fought along the dark stone walls. She didn’t stare at the grandness of his sitting chambers— a plush white-furred sofa that looked like it had never been touched, nor the fine-paintings of knights in broken combat that adorned the walls, nor the very personal, intimate fact that Annette was seated in a lovely, hand-carved chair, that was none too far from where she assumed the Prince’s bedchamber was within the connecting rooms, and she certainly had the hardest possible time trying to maintain eye contact with the Prince of Faerghus.

Mercie, she felt herself wondered loudly into her flying thoughts, am I dying?

Dimitri sat just across the short-squared off table, complete with a beautiful looking tea-pot, and three cups of tea. He motioned for Deude to sit once every few minutes, but Dedue, his expression now looking more secretly morose and stubborn, refused to approach the pair beyond to pour the steaming tea into each cup. Then, Dedue returned to his station to the northern wall, his head held high, his eyes distant once more.

Finally, Dimitri gave up with a short, annoyed sigh from his mouth.

It rather reminded Annette of when Mercie had caught two girls attempting to woo two drunk soldiers into their beds at school, and how she had to positively straighten everyone back into the Goddess's good graces, specifically the two female schoolmates, and Annette...she felt herself smile again. It was such a natural, honest response to a man that felt very, very untouchable.

“Dedue always refuses my invitations when I have a personal guest, as if he is unwelcomed,” Prince Dimitri began as a means of greeting Annette. His position, however, mirrored his guardsman; Did the Prince find he equally could not relax when Dedue fought him so? “It is his choice, of course, but it is rather exhausting to pretend someone is not apart of a conversation when they so clearly are.”

Again, Dimitri moved his pale eyes to stare at Dedue. Dedue, who did not move nor speak, and Annette, well, she had trouble just thinking at all.

“Anyways. I apologize for my rudeness in calling upon you at such an hour.” Prince Dimitri told Annette quite seriously. “I understand your hesitation of why you might think to be here with me, but I assure you, I only wish for us to, ah, talk.”

He smiled. And this time, Annette found she could compare the image to the very smile he had shared with her at King Lambert’s ball—and she found it did not match.

This smile across the Prince’s face looked rather demure and uncertain. Now he appeared to be the nervous one, like Annette had called him instead. He was dressed down in a soft-looking blue doublet and there was a fresh gauze bandage that had been laid carefully across the bruise from days ago. However, no amount of dressing down would stop Annette from feeling mortified at herself. His thick blond hair kept falling into his eyes, definitely in need of a cut, but he pushed his bangs out of the way in some unhurried fashion, a once in a while habit that she thought was so gentle and sweet.

This Dimitri seemed oddly different than the one she had spoken with ever so briefly had at the ball, more unrefined. The shared moment of this evening had started to thaw the tightly wound way by which he held himself.

Perhaps, he truly did wish to see her and

“Oh, no, Your Highness, the pleasure surely is mine?” Annette replied at once.

However, it sounded more like a question, and, to add further damage, she, again, gave a little bow, and, awkwardly, her braid had unfurled itself to touch at the serving dish that had been set before her. At once she brought up a hand to sweep her long hair behind her shoulder. Her brows furrowed at her inability to be...acceptable...and she knew she must look as pink as a snow hare's nose.

Again, a new sound slipped from the Prince. Annette glanced up to see he was smiling at her again, wider this time, like the Prince found her more endearing than rude. “I can see that.”

Remembering his own manners, Dimitri gestured towards Annette’s cup, his large pale hands fluttering to find some remedy to his unnerving her. “Do you prefer sugar? Um, cream?”

Annette allowed a breath to calm her. She peered into the cup. The golden-looking color of the tea, along with its light, airy scent, wasn’t familiar with Annette’s palate—not that she ever considered herself into tea, particularly without lots of sugar and cream. But she blinked up anxiously at Dimitri, how kind he was to call upon her, and she would by no means refuse this tea, no matter what it was.

“May I ask what we are drinking?”

“Oh,” Dimitri’s lips framed that tiny sound like he had expected a different answer. Then, he set his hands back onto the cloth before him, having not found a reason to give his nerves an outlet. “This is chamomile tea.” His voice was hesitant. His pale eyes flickered to Annette and back down to the cup as if he had never seen it before. “Ah, it is a favourite of mine.”

“Oh, chamomile?” Annette was tempted between the lines of preference and politeness. She gave in. “I usually prefer something...sweeter?”

Prince Dimitri laughed. It sounded so different from the laugh he had used during the ball. Gentler, somehow.

“Something sweeter. I see. I apologize, I rudely did not consider your preference when I thought of stealing this moment with you. Due to the evening hour, I tend to take chamomile as I find drinking hardly anything else means I shall not sleep at all.” Dimitri amended, his voice softer somehow, as if truly sharing a secret towards her.

Then, he raised his voice again, direct and pointedly, at the man standing just to the other side of the chambers. “I so rarely have time to be alone…” Dimitri’s pale eyes flickered tryingly towards Dedue and then back to Annette. “...And, by ‘alone’, I of course mean ‘accompanied by Dedue and no one else’.”

Dedue looked toward Dimitri for only a heartbeat before he turned away, the guardsman clearly picking his fights as he saw fit. He did not see this one fit.

Annette felt a smirk tug at the corners of her mouth. It was like watching an elderly couple cheerfully tease on another, and she rather like this side of the Prince, an unveiled teasing side, with an edge of intelligence to match.

“Please,” Dimitri motioned again to her cup. It was clear he would not sip from his cup until he was satisfied she was happy with hers.

Annette nodded politely and accepted the cup. She brought it close to her face to breathe in, the way her mother had taught her, and the smell lingered, warm and calming, deep into her lungs. She took a small sip and tried not to make a face at its thin, rather unflavored taste, but she hummed happily as she felt her stomach warm.

She missed feeling warm.

Annette opened her eyes. She found Dimitri, his pale eyes oddly bright, staring at her expectantly, like a small child presented with the opportunity to shine. “How is it?”

She smiled, wide across her face. “It’s wonderful. Thank you, Your Highness.”

Dimitri’s smile felt small but sincere across his face. “Please, Annette. My name is Dimitri.”

She tried not to flush. “Okay. I will try not to give into the pressure to address you as you should be,” Annette pushed the subject a little ways back towards Dimitri, perhaps rather impolite of her, but she couldn’t help it; if he wanted to be friends, he would get to know her habit to use her quick tongue rather fast. 

Another one of those short laughs. Annette wondered if she could truly be so humorous.

“Thank you for at least attempting, Annette, that would be a true gift to me.” Dimitri continued lightly. He then cleared his throat, his expression sliding back into a strange, uncomfortable smile over his face.

“To be more frank with you, Annette, I would like to extend my warmest welcome to have you here within the company of my closest friends. Sylvain and Ingrid both tell me how delightful they have already found you. And, of course, at your lord father’s request, there is no safer place to be now in all of Fhirdiad, outside of Arianrhod, I suppose. And...yet.” His face fell at once, somber and washed in grief. “I...knew what would become of your being here. I won’t lie to your face now and pretend. Felix is one of my oldest friends and I have yet to understand him entirely.” Here, Dimitri allowed a small sip of his tea, testing the temperature before swallowing. “...However, I don’t wish for you to feel all is lost.”

Annette matched his sipping to make up for how small her voice felt inside.

“My royal birthright notwithstanding, at the end of my titles, I am just another young man born into politics. I fear I will, too, have no certain choice in whom I spend the rest of my life with. It is only a matter of time before I am sold away, much as you, Annette. But I at least would like to suggest to you that,” Dimitri’s mouth opened, a short breath to help him forward, as he said so very quietly, “…perhaps Felix is not so poor of a match?”

The Prince…No, Annette forced herself to correct into the way by which Dimitri wished to be seen by her. Dimitri. Dimitri. He was sitting before her, attempting to connect with a time of need?

I am dying, Mercie! Annette whispered again towards the back of her mind. I’ve become a ghost for one of your ghost stories.

Dimitri, quite earnestly, completely misunderstood the expression stuck to Annette’s face.

“Believe me, he is no romantic, but he isn’t without feeling. I dare to say he feels more than perhaps Ingrid or Sylvian or even myself. He just has no real way to express himself. He wants no nobility, he wants no equity, no patience for other people. ...I envy that about him, truly, I do.”

Annette lowered her cup. It was so wonderfully different, this feeling of warmth and this form of chatting than she had felt with her father. Entirely different. And for Annette to now being sharing tea with Dimitri of all people, inside of his own private chambers, and for even his guardsman to be looking at her with eyes of such sympathy, as if they both knew too well how it felt to be…


Annette forced herself to not look away. Dimitri was staring at her expectantly. His pale eyes blinking calmly at her. He took another long sip from his cup, quiet and polite, and he breathed out again in relief, finally content that he had shared his piece with Annette and...

He was waiting for her.

Annette flushed again, feeling rather exposed in her bitterness. It was so completely inappropriate to show this side of herself to the Prince! Ugh, what would Mercie say!

“I am sorry, Your Highness.” Annette apologized at once. “I’m afraid I don’t know what to say. These last few days have changed my entire life without a second to breathe.” She looked away, through the thick drapes of his windows, out into the icy forest, how still and peaceful it looked from here, warm inside and out. “I...liked Felix, at first, but now I only think he hates me. Or, at least, he hates this entire marriage as well?” She looked back. “I cannot blame him.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I’m…” Annette moved her hands, so small and almost-bone like around her cup. She felt inhuman. She did not know herself at all. A wife. She would be a wife and Felix her husband and they hardly knew one another. How could that mean anything? How could that be anything but imprisonment? “He told me...he hated…this.” She lingered off sadly. “I thought he meant the dance, or maybe me, but I think he means the marriage and…” She shook her head. “I don’t know what to do.”

Dimitri leaned back in his own chair. A pale hand touched his cheek in thought. “Do you wish to give him another chance to get to know you? I have some suggestions about what he likes, or dislikes, or…”

“I...I…” Annette couldn’t speak.

“Felix is not the easiest to get along with but I know a few things to be unchanging.” Dimitri said slowly, thoughtfully. “Felix loves fighting. He adores swords and technique. He enjoys his power. But he is also...a good listener. He isn’t much of a talker, that was more his brother Glenn—Glenn enjoyed conversation and the whole affair of noble pleasantries— but Felix has always been...shy, I suppose is the word. And he doesn’t open up to much of anyone.”

“Um.” Annette forced a sound. It was all she had.

What did she want? What did it mean if she honestly had wanted Felix, and then it had been taken away, and then forced back upon her? What did it say about her if she wanted a man that was forced to take her hand? What did it mean? Was that love? What was love? What did it say about them, their future, their children, what did it mean to say yes?

“I just want to leave!” Annette blurted at once. She had thrown her hands down roughly, rattling the cup and its dish and the table.

“Ah…” Dimitri’s eyes widened at once. His knuckles now tight over his own cup. His lips pursed tightly. “I see.”

“Ah, ah, I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry!” Annette cried at once. She had pushed the chair away and was on her feet, confused and anxious for the door. “I’m just—I can’t—I can’t do this!”

At her outburst, Dedue had stepped closer to the table, his green eyes to Dimitri and then, in concern, at Annette, and she covered her face with her hands, unable to look at them both. Slowly, when no one else spoke at her rude outburst, Annette peeked at Dimitri.

However, Dimitri did not stir. He, too, was now staring into his cup. The tightness around his neck and jaw echoed something inside of Annette that felt so familiar, something she had seen not long ago… of how she had once seen Felix, staring, listless and dark before an angry fire, looking for something he couldn’t describe.

“I apologize. I feel as if I am just one more of so many attempting to convince you of love. Love is never something to be forced. Ah.” He turned again to Annette, and she saw how he was blushing, the warm flooding under the pale skin of his face, a brilliant red. “Not to speak as if I know of such matters,” he added each word tight and weighted. “That was not what I meant.”

At once, an angry look overtook the calm that had eased Dimitri’s smiles and small laughs. Now, he looked truly upset, his eyes staring blankly ahead of him, and his lips tightened into his next words:  “What I mean is.” Dimitri sighed. His hands moved, and he lowered his head into his hands, fingers to claw at his own hair. “What I mean is…”

“His Highness also has another idea, my lady.” Deude cut in at once.

Dedue was at Annette’s side. He offered her his large hand and stepped her back towards the table, offered her chair again, and helped her sit back down. Then, with a smooth movement, he took the empty chair between her and Dimitri. His massive shoulder cut Dimitri’s expression off from Annette, an anticipation of some foreseeable fit, and he made sure to keep Annette’s eyes on him alone.

“I do not mean to speak out of turn for what His Highness is having difficulty expressing, however, we both discussed this at length, and I, too, wish for you to know that we believe there is another way. Of course, your situation is undoubtedly bound by traditions of Fódlan noble laws, but still, I rather think there is more to be done to help control your doubts.”

Annette stared at Dedue. Dedue, with his powerful arms, the unbranded strength of his body, but his words...his words burned something inside of her chest, catching and wild, she didn't need to hear the rest of the proposal.

Then, at once, her mother’s face appeared before her. Tired, and sworn, and waiting for her father to return back to her. Would that be Annette’s fate? Waiting for a man to return that claimed to love her? And if not away from a forced love, could she find a way to make the situation earn her some sense of happiness in the end, undictated by anyone?

Annette saw herself running home, running away from this, if she could struggle and claw and bite herself free from the trap set by her out run the monster of Rodrigue and to leave this miserable, cold place and plan to just never see Felix…

To never again see the way that sweet look captivated his entire face when she had complimented him. The way sudden way he had laughed, quiet and unassuming—the way his face looked when he was asleep and warm and badly she wanted to stay there with him...Had he never been complimented before? Or had it just been out of reach somehow, misunderstood, and eaten alive with fear and grief, trapped within himself?

“You have studied magic, have you not?” Dedue intoned, his deep voice clear and direct. It snapped Annette away from the flood of her thoughts that had taken her, drowned her, icy and cold and blackened, for days and days.

She nodded. “How did you know?”

Dedue’s green eyes widened for a split second, taken off guard, and his lips struggle to correct itself. His eyes suddenly could not look so distant, and in a moment, Annette watched Dedue too, staring somewhere else, far beyond here, another secret, another place, person, that she did not know. “I...recognize your stance, the way you hold yourself. It is in similar disposition that my sister once held herself.” Then, that look in his eyes rearranged itself back to the present. “Felix is His Highness’s most gifted competitor. You cannot make the laws yield. But Felix will yield to you.”

To...fight. How? Like her father, these were just words, words, words, all they ever could be, meaningless words, and none of them matter now. fight...for her own show how she felt…

Could it mean something? Could it change something?

“I don’t understand. How could I fight for myself?”

Dimitri spoke this time. He had returned to himself once more, a look of quiet across his face as he had sat, listening to Dedue. He held Annette’s gaze within his own, careful and secretive. “I do not know how Felix feels about you. I don’t know if this wedding is, indeed, something he’d want. But I do know what reveals Felix, and I wish you to have my blessing in knowing that combat is a language that Felix understands without fault or the ability to hide.”

Annette’s blue eyes grew very afraid. “You cannot possibly mean I challenge his father’s decree?”

Again, Dimitri laughed. This time, however, it felt very real in the air. A true sound of joy. 

“No, no, Annette, to that we all can agree. But I do think that Felix he usually does...make this far harder than it need be. I think you should just understand what he will listen to, a way to not drive yourself mad with the burden as if it is your fault; it is not you. It is absolutely his own. Felix has always been his own greatest enemy.”

Annette flew her eyes between Dedue’s and her Prince’s. “I...wouldn’t want to hurt Felix.” Annette defended at once. “I don’t want whatever you two seem to enjoy.”

“Blood isn’t so bad, if it gets you what you want.” Dimitri told her. Then, a slow, dark smile spread across the Prince’s face. Within in, Annette saw no joy or pleasure. Only anticipation.

Dimitri isn’t what he seems, Felix had told Annette, his face tired and honest.

But Dimitri looked honest, too. His pale eyes no longer soft or understanding. Just ice, ice inside of his skull, that stared at Annette with a cold intensity that shrieked like a warning, like a sign, that felt empowering—he could not escape from his birthright—Annette could not escape her father’s will—but she had the power to fight for a way out, whatever that may be.

Her heart squeezed in fear. Annette knew herself. It was true, she had no mind for political dueling and the uncertainty of so many eyes across her, nor what it meant when a small, desperate anger awoke inside of her, one that said, if there was no way out, she could be forced to make one.

And nothing would stop her from that.

That girl was singing through the woods.

Singing. Just singing into the wind, like no one could possibly hear her. Shamelessly.


Felix held the axe high above his head and only noticed the weak shaking of his shoulders after he had forgotten to follow through with the swing of its arc. It was heavy and not really meant for firewood chopping, but he had felt too impatient to palm a sharpening stone over its edge, anxious to just get the work done.

His right shoulder, in particular, really hated the idea of picking the axe up to swing it again. He had just thought some rest and herbs would make it stop its dreadful, burning ache, but it was moving deeper into the back of his shoulder, and it felt stiff to move most mornings. Felix welcomed the pain; it served only to remind Felix of how bad he should feel, because Annette hadn’t come out of her guest bedroom for what felt like weeks, and it was only now that he realized it was her voice he was hearing, like he was held, frozen, by the spell of her voice.

He lowered the axe in a final swing, pushing its edge into the body of the wood he hadn’t cleared yet.

She was...singing? Why would she ever do that? She doesn’t talk to anyone for days and the first thing he hears out of her mouth is a song?

Goddess, what was this girl? Felix found himself wondering away from his woodwork. It had annoyed him for the better part of an hour, distracting, and strong over the chilly wind. His father had asked him, with a dry, urgent look, to fetch enough wood to burn for every room the keep—somewhere around thirty or forty mantels that needed to be measured out and fed—and Felix, he wasn’t an idiot.

It was certain that his father had seen Annette was in the woods, somewhere, and his father would make sure that Felix’s hours were dedicated around some menial task to wherever she might be.

He didn’t know what to expect. He thought he’d make himself very clear to her.

His father had ruined their lives , and Felix, he felt a fool, for not seeing it coming. And it was all his fault. He didn’t fight it. He couldn’t fight it— not just by royal law, or miserable traditions, or the fact that there was a war forever on going—but because. When his father had told him of this fate, Felix had went into the woods and considered never returning. He would give up his title, his bloodline, his swords. He would walk the land and head north, or south, or towards Duscur, and…

Felix sighed. He never got much further than that. And he hated that about himself, too, his own inability to see the future without the lead of Dimitri at his side, or that idiot, Sylvain, or even Ingrid to tell him when he had gone too far.

But, it felt so messed up now. Wrong. Sinful. Because this was everything Felix had fought against his entire life, and yet, when he had seen Annette that night, sitting on the rug beside him in that ridiculous dress, he had another thought, one that had crept up from the dark and blinded him with the want of it.

She was beautiful. And she was, clearly, intelligent. And, Goddess, he felt like such an idiot, he’d fallen asleep— how could he have fallen asleep? He had just been staring at the fire and he’d been so sore and tired and he just wanted to not face that stupid ball room or deal with Sylvain’s endless chatter about Ingrid again and—and she had...taken that stupid blanket and…

She never left her room after the end of that long, terrible night.

Days and days and days.

Felix tried not to count them. But he felt them, burning, peeling away at his patience. If he could just talk to her and not be stunned by the blue of her eyes, maybe he could tell her he...

This wasn’t her choice.

She didn’t want him. An arranged marriage was no better than pledging oneself to knighthood, an empty promise that was meant for the benefit of other people, and not the two involved. Wasn’t it? How could he had not seen it coming? He had been so distracted by tearing Dimitri apart that Annette and her father’s arrival felt like the arrival of so many other noble families, families that would not be forced to marry him. He knew so little of Lord Gilbert, besides how often King Lambert called upon him, to lavish praise and so exasperatingly bask in the glow of the pitiful call that was “knighthood”.

And with Glenn gone…

Felix closed his eyes. Sweat was pouring down his face, even long after he had stopped his chopping with the axe. The wind was cold and blustery, pushing the dry crumbling leaves beneath the hooves of grazing horses, the bitter Faerghus fall come to reap what little crops the earth had managed to produce for the year.

Annette was seated over an old cut stump, her hands moving mindlessly through her hair, like an instrument, and she hadn’t noticed Felix yet.

Felix pulled himself back into the shadow of a high oak, its dark brown bark scraping at his elbows from how hard he had pushed himself out of sight.

For some reason, his entire chest hurt to see her. He didn’t understand the feeling. They’d only spoken one time and he felt dry-mouthed and stupid to talk to her. He pressed the back of his head into the wood. His shoulder throbbed in its socket, the deep punch of a cut that Dimitri had sliced into his muscles, and he pushed the thought away of stopping for the day.

If he stopped now, his old man would never let him hear the end of it for a month, and it would just be harder work next time...

“Felix?” A soft voice called to him.

He jumped. His face wincing as he bumped his shoulder into the dry wood. It was already too late to turn away now, as Annette had turned her face to glance his way, and she was now walking over to him, her little shawl loose over her shoulders, and her pale skin bright pink in the flow of the chilly breeze.

“Sorry,” Annette’s eyes were blue as the cold morning sky. “This is the second time I’ve scared you, huh?”

“I wasn’t scared.” Felix found himself snubbing the idea. “I was just.” He was staring back at the tree instead of her face. His stomach felt odd, like he’d been recently punched, and it hurt. “Chopping wood.”

Annette peered across the field, at how far the axe was from his hand. “Oh. Are you taking a break?”

Felix sighed. "I guess."

Annette looked away again. It felt easier to answer when she did that, like he could breathe for five seconds, but then her blue eyes stared entirely into his, and Felix felt his sweat turning uncomfortably hot.

“How, um, is your arm doing?” She was peering at him, almost on the tips of her toes to get a better look at him, and reflexively Felix stepped  back, way back, so far back, that he could outline the distance between her and him, and, again, the feeling of just walking into the woods until he couldn’t go any further overtook him.

“It’s fine.” He told her tersely.

Her blue eyes looked sadder, somehow, like she didn’t have every right to feel as sad as she possibly wanted. Felix was sad, too, or so he wanted to feel, but he just kept pounding that damn axe into the wood until the world was drowned out and he couldn’t think without his head throbbing, and then...her singing voice.

“...Thanks for asking.” Felix gritted out. His jaw ached, too.

“Um. Sure.” Annette agreed faintly. Her eyes, however, traveled down his arm and, before Felix could just turned on his heel and go back to his wood-chopping, he watched her eyes widen discreetly.

“What?” Felix asked her at once. What was she looking at? What could he have possibly done to her now?

“Your arm,” Annette’s voice was high on the wind. “...It’s bleeding again.”

Felix reached up to grasp at his shoulder, because, of course, that was where the blood was coming from. His own bandages must have loosened with his arms and now the blood was dripping down his arms, into the thirsty earth, small wet rubies on the dying grasses. Damn it.

“You pay attention, don’t you?” Felix mumbled his reply, a coarse look that raked across her face, annoyed. “I said it's fine.”

“Well,” her cheeks puffed, warm and pink in the cold, and she looked annoyed at him. “You don’t have to stand so far away.” Her cute face crumpled under nerves, and she pushed a hand up to pull a loose strand of hair behind her own ear, and again, Felix’s stomach hurt. "I wasn’t going to force healing magic on you or anything.”

Felix’s eyes shot wide, his embarrassment twisting around his thoughts. “Good. Don’t.” 

Her voice faltered. The red of her cheeks darkened as she flustered. “I wasn’t going to—”

“I’m glad you aren’t. I didn’t ask you to.” Felix replied hotly. A small voice in the back of his brain was screaming at himself. He wasn’t angry at her. He wasn’t even mad— he was just in pain and she was just trying to make small talk because they’d be married soon, or something terrible like that, and he just wanted to disappear into the next snow fall.

Felix watched as Annette’s hands clenched into two tiny fists at her side. This wasn’t getting them anywhere. 

Her face flushed in anger. “Well, I’m glad you’re glad! Don’t ask for help! Don’t tell me why you even walked over to me!— Ugh—forget I even asked you anything at all!”

And then, just like that, Annette was turned away from him. Her tiny shoulders pitched back against the wind, her long red hair flowing behind her as she stomped away, the dry grasses whispering with her footfall, away and away, until Felix was just alone again, with a dead axe, and his slow-bleeding arm, ruining his brother’s work-vest.

The axe. He turned back to it, back to the motion of chopping, the rhythm of splitting heavy wood beneath every blow, because if he couldn’t destroy something inside of his hands, he’d start taking an axe to the next person that got in his face about his arm, why couldn’t they just leave him alone? Everyone and everything, just leave me alone.

His shoulder burned with every swing now that her eyes were no longer upon him, but he raised it high above his head, until his own shadow blocked out the dull cold burn from the sun high above him, and he brought it down, again and again, until his sweat hued with red, and his jaw ached with every breath.

She hated him.

She hated him since he ruined that stupid dance, because he couldn’t bear to tell her that he would have danced with her if everyone else just looked away, and because he was scared, breathlessly, out of his mind scared, because he never thought much about the future after Glenn, when death and war and beating Dimitri into the earth meant more to him than anything— until she told him that, maybe, somehow, she hated this whole affair too, and Felix had wondered, some small unfamiliar warmth opening inside of his chest, that they’d be fated to come together…

Until his father twisted the knife.

What was fate, if not another arranged marriage, without choice?

She hated him. And there would be no escape from that. Not in the forest, not through the blade, not through the pain ringing through his shoulder.

He brought the axe up. He brought the axe down. He did this until the sun sank low at his back. He did this until the world blurred with sweat and the warmth of tears stinging his eyes.

He did this until every piece of wood was soaked with blood.

Chapter Text


Felix did not come out of his room for the length of two very long days.

Annette tried to not count the hours as they passed but that was nearly impossible when she wanted nothing more than to try to talk to Felix again. And, she promised herself, she wouldn’t lose her temper this time. She hadn’t meant to before. But she also did not mean to fling a full teacup across her beautiful guest chambers—nor did she mean to agree to an arranged marriage.

Annette found herself glaring into her mirror’d reflection that evening, her chest tight, preparing for war against...herself. Why did she feel she didn’t know herself lately? She was just Annette Dominic, a powerful sorceress and she...

Clearly, she had further reflection that needed tending.

But still, she would not wallow again tonight. She refused it. Because tonight, she would try to knock on Felix’s door and, well, she had trouble getting beyond that moment, as by then she’d be face to face with those dark eyes of his and it was like all of her words dried up like a trickle from a stream in the summer’s heat.

She was freshly bathed and changed, a drop of perfume at either wrist, as she stood outside of Felix’s door. He had not shown for breakfast, or luncheon, or dinner. When Annette politely asked Sylvain what he thought was the cause of Felix’s absence, he merely gave her a tight smile that said: “Oh, Felix, he’s just like that sometimes. He’ll come out of hiding soon.” But Sylvain’s eyes said something else, something beyond what sounded to Annette like a partial half-lie.

Sylvain’s eyes strained beyond her in a listless look of worry.

Annette understood at once. So, this door between her and Felix, it would not be unusual nor the last door he stole behind. How could she be so easily swayed into annoyance when she, too, had concealed herself to her bedchambers for many, many days?

Annette gave a loud sigh.

Mercedes, she thought shamefully, have I just made everything worse?

She pulled at the sleeve of her dress—a simple cotton-lined  affair with a dark blue pattern of leaves— and she forced her hand to the door. She would knock once...maybe twice...and then, she would leave. She wouldn’t be a nuisance. She didn’t want to bother anyone.

She just had this strange unshakable fear that something wasn’t right with Felix and maybe it was because of her.

She rapped her knuckles against the door softly. She paused. She resisted pressing childishly to the wood to listen. Surely, she wouldn’t be able to hear anything—but then, there she went, pressing her ear to the door anyways, sighing at herself, how stupid it was, how desperate she felt inside, nerves tingling and her heart pounding, hard and loud, high in her throat.


She couldn’t hear anything at all.

She moved away from the door. She gave a glance behind herself to make sure no prying eyes could see her knock, rudely, impolitely, impatiently, again.

Just take it slow with him, okay? Ingrid's friendly green eyes had asked of her.

Annette’s knuckles drummed over the wood, louder.

You’re a bad person, Annie, she thought, and again, she knocked, louder.

The door fell away from her hand. A large shadow stood tall in the door’s frame and stared down at her with its eyes dark and glistening, blurred against the orange light from the fireplace roaring inside. “Yes, my dear?”

Annette blinked, clearing her mind of fear. She had expected Felix to stand before her now, exasperated and annoyed, his black eyes unpleased to see her at his door, but another man had answered her call.

It was Felix’s father. Lord Rodrigue’s tight face looked so much like his son’s as he stared down to her. “Annette? Is something the matter?”

Annette curtsied, short and frantic, with her hands cinched into her skirts, low before him. “Rodrigue. I am so sorry. I didn’t know you were there, I was just…” She found herself, bird to snake, locked into the grey gaze of the high lord before her. “...worried.”

Then, Rodrigue smiled. His teeth, in the dull glow of the light, looked softer. He smiled largely at Annette like she had truly said something quite lovely to him.

“Ah, there is nothing to worry your pretty mind over, child.” Rodrigue said quietly. He stepped out from Felix’s room, allowing the door to close at his back. “This is more my fault than his.”

Annette lifted her brows in concern. “Rodrigue? Is there something truly wrong with Felix?”

“Felix,” Rodrigue began, but he drifted into a soft laugh. “He is so much like Glenn. I asked him to chop wood the other morning but I am afraid that he took the task too far and—you recall, I’m sure, the ending of His Grace’s tournament, when Dimitri took a spear to Felix’s shoulder?— Well, I—overestimated—Felix’s innate ability to force himself through injury—but his shoulder is now far worse off than it ever was before.” Again, Rodrigue’s grey eyes looked surprisingly light. “He has just worn himself down with exhaustion.”

Annette felt her heart drop low into her chest, chilling and bottomless. “Oh no.”

Rodrigue’s lips closed. “Again, my dear, not to worry you; Felix will be fine. He just isn’t keen to my suggestion of bed rest. I’m afraid I was getting the sharpened end of his thoughts over the subject just before you knocked.” Here, his father gave a small shake of his head. “However, Felix’s foolhardy dislike of me aside, that is the consequence of refusing a healer no matter how minor the wound.”

Annette had thought that same thing, to see Felix turn away from the royal healers at the gates. She had never met someone that thought of pain as a friend. “Is there a reason he refuses white magic?”

“Hm.” A hand touched Rodrigue’s thin whiskers along his mouth. “My grandfather wasn’t keen on white-magic. He would just prefer to heal himself. Glenn was exactly the same. I’m afraid I have never shied away from a healer before, so I couldn’t tell you why.” Rodrigue then smirked again, the movement tugging playfully on his lips. “Knowing my son, if I had to take a guess as to why he would act this way, I would say that he is…” Rodrigue paused for a short moment, considering his words carefully towards Annette. “...much like his mother.”

Rodrigue’s smile entirely faded from his face. His grey eyes bent in their amusement with a hint of sadness. “The Fraldarius pride is a lethal thing, hah, but even I think Felix’s pride is a terror upon himself. I was never so stubborn, my dear. But I see his mother in those eyes of his. I see her glaring at me, ordering me to leave with her own sharp tongue. I see her every time.” He smiled again, and the rest of his words felt sad and lonely. “With Glenn gone too soon, along with my wife, I worry…” His voice lowered. “I worry I am not enough for him.”

Annette stared at Lord Rodrigue, the gentle grief upon his face, and hoped she looked as remorseful as she felt.

He was a father that clearly loved his son. He was a father that acknowledged he was not enough of a parent for all that Felix was going through. He...he wasn’t a monster, after all, was he? Small dots, watery and warm, filled Annette’s eyes, unable to hide them away. Why did her father’s face rush before her mind’s eye, so suddenly, it hurt her lungs to breathe?

Carefully, Annette felt a large finger touch her cheek to wipe notably large tear away. “Oh, my dear. Please. These are old wounds. They do not pain me anymore. My wife is with the Goddess, and I know I shall see her one day.” Rodrigue considered Annette’s pale face for a moment more. “We were arranged to be wed as well, my wife and I.”

Annette felt her chest tighten over his words.

“Your wife—she also hated being...doted upon?”

That small, short smile over Rodrigue’s lips made Annette feel better. Perhaps her knocking really was for the best. “Oh, yes. She had a fiery temper for being treated when she felt weak. And she most certainly was not; it was a trait loved dearly in her.” Again, Rodrigue gave a long sigh, reliving a battle long-lost. “I imagine you wish to see my son?”

Annette’s cheeks turned fair and pink. “...I was going to apologize to him, Rodrigue.”

A look of intrigue skittered across the lord’s face. His two sharp brows lifted, so much like the puzzled expression of his son’s. It was an honest reflection of surprise between the two. “You... to apologize?”

“I yelled at him, quite rudely the other day.” Annette returned modestly. “...I don’t normally lose my temper so easily, but I did, I yelled at him.” She looked at the floor, towards her slippers. “Do you think he would see me?”

“Ahhh,” Rodrigue intended deeply. His grey eyes sparkled with a proud air of amusement. “I recall seeing a scared flock of birds pour out from the west woods at a loud noise. Could such a cry of anger truly come from your demure frame, Annette?”

Was he...teasing her? Annette brought her eyes tight back to his face. Her hand pawed messily at her wet cheeks, embarrassed. “I didn’t mean to be so loud!”

Rodrigue laughed quite loudly. “Oh, are you afraid I am upset?” He grinned, his teeth sharp and white. “My dear, I welcome anyone to attempt to quell Felix away from his mindless barbs. If only he could be half as thoughtful as Gilbert raised you to be.”

Annette pushed away the earnest compliment of her father.

She refused to think of him yet, equally hiding away in the keep. He had kept to her request to remain unseen. And Annette refused to let that guilt wash over her. Not yet.

“May I see him?”

Rodrigue considered Annette with a lengthy stare. Finally, he shook his head at her, unhurried and unconcerned.

“I do not think it best for anyone to see Felix tonight. With the way he was so heatedly arguing with me, I see all signs of him coming down with an illness, a cold perhaps. He should sleep for now.” Rodrigue said easily, his teeth again smiling, but his grey eyes veiled once more.

Annette tried not to let the hurt show across her face. “Of course. I understand.”

Rodrigue looked to her again. This time, his eyes offered her a hint of hope. “Perhaps tomorrow?”

Annette allowed Rodrigue to guide her away from the door. She had thought Lord Fraldarius to be as guarded and mysterious as her own father, but he was...quite kind. Still, Annette had wrapped her arms around herself, selfishly, to hold out from the pain of her own contempt. She blamed it on the growing chill to the air, and did not confess how she had wanted him to be a monster and how easy it would have been to hate a monster more than the nuances of a man.

“Tomorrow, then.” Annette agreed.

She smiled back at Rodrigue, her smile just as hopeful, but her eyes not nearly as bright.

Again, like the night before, Felix did not appear.

And, Annette, well, she wasn’t entirely selfish. She could understand why. Felix held himself much to his own word, like how he planned to avoid the entirety of His Grace’s ball. She couldn’t imagine the pain of his shoulder wound, or being forced to perform etiquette at the breakfast hall, or pretend to be content sitting so still. He had a right to rest and remain unbothered, particularly if he was ill.

…Annette just really wished it did not feel like he was actively avoiding her, when all of the reasoning finally faded from her thoughts.

She found herself outside of his door once more. Her fist was raised in a poise to knock, however, this time she could not move, with her thoughts spinning around and around, a cycle of I should see him, I shouldn't see him, tossing her every impulsive whim.

“...My lady?” A curious voice called from behind.

Annette turned, hard on her heel, with her hands now clasped behind her back, mindful of how long she might have stood there, awkwardly debating touching a door that had not opened for several days. Her mind’s eye showed her in detail the rather immature way she expressed her self-doubt in a single, undeniable action of….not knocking.

A small serving girl stood just an arm’s length away from Annette. Her dark hair was held tight inside of a knotted bun. Her grey eyes blinked cautiously at Annette, brows furrowed, debating her next words.

“Alexandrea!” Annette breathed in relief.

“Do you need something from the young Master?” The hint of suspicious crept within Alexandrea’s words. The girl was remarkable to both so honest and yet so incredulous at the same time; it made Annette’s cheeks glow pink in shame.

“Um, well, you see.” Annette began, however, she met Alexandrea’s cool look of descent and stopped her lying at once. With the way she had treated the friendly girl as of late, Annette felt she had no right to pretend to her, nor much of anyone else. A fine drip of sweat had started to dampen the fine hair at her neck. “Yes, I’m sorry. You’ve, um, caught me red handed.” Annette turned back the door for a heartbeat, then back to Alexandrea’s grey stare. “I just really hoped to see him tonight.”

Alexandrea lifted a single brow. “I was told he is quite ill, my lady.”

“Yes, I know.” Annette sighed softly. “I apologize, Alexandrea. I’m not trying to cause a scene.” But Annette’s wide blue eyes glared at the door in silent exasperation. “I just wanted to…” She trailed off. She couldn’t say what she wanted, exactly.  She just felt something was terribly wrong. Even if it was just obvious suffering, Annette just wanted to make sure he wasn’t suffering... alone.

Oh, what was she doing? She was so stupid. What could she possibly do for Felix now, besides bother him to death?

But then, Alexandrea’s small hand touched at Annette’s shoulder. She gave a slight squeeze. Then, her mouth was close to Annette’s ear, a whisper of an idea. “I could...perhaps, leave the servant’s corridor unlocked.” A small mischievous smirk lit her petite face. “I am known for my carelessness, my lady.”

Then, Alexandrea winked at Annette. 

Mercedes, I have made a friend out of quite the little mix, Annette beheld Alexandrea in awe.

Annette smiled, wide and grateful. Alexandrea was such a kind, unstoppable little fiend. She truly didn’t care for all of this dignity, did she? Annette wish she had half of her nerve when she was Alexandrea’s age.

Annette’s hand was suddenly tight within Alexandrea’s own. Her hands warm and rough from her daily chores. She was led around an unfamiliar hallway and, with a slight twist of an black iron handle protruding from a cut-away wooden door, Annette was standing just outside of a long servant’s corridor. She blinked at the idea of the passageways, and how they encircled the entirety of the Fraldarius keep, much like veins in a human body.

“His door will be after a short left. If you twist the lock incorrectly, the door should swing open. It has been broken for a long while. He doesn't call for servants often, as you are aware of by now, he refuses most of everyone, myself included, so it should not give you any trouble with a push or two.”

Alexandrea let go of Annette's hand. Annette tried not to reach back for it again, all too aware of the freefall of walking into the dark alone. Noticing this, Alexandrea offered Annette a friendly little shove with the curve of her hip into Annette’s. “Well?”

At the edge of the dark corridor, Annette paused.  She looked back towards Alexandrea. For all of her kindness, Alexandrea’s grey eyes were now studying Annette with a look of uncertainty.

“Do you think I should do this?” Annette asked her, her voice tight in her throat. “What if Felix…” Annette stopped. What if he rejects me? What if he hates me? What if I make everything worse between us?

Sensing her panic, Alexandrea’s arms suddenly wrapped around Annette’s waist, her head pressed to Annette’s cheek. Annette was able to feel the strength of her arms, the smell of mint leaves for the soap she had used to wash her hair. “You’re worried about him, yes?”

Annette struggled to respond. It had felt like ages since she had been hugged last. She found herself hugging Alexandrea back, just as tightly, perhaps too fondly, giving their different stations, but Alexandrea had been nothing but gracious and kind and Annette missed Mercedes so breathlessly, she would give anything to pretend she had a real friend in this dark, cold, beautiful keep, with court walls so high and wall, Annette knew running away would never be an option.

“Yes,” Annette whispered back, her mouth tight with the confession. “I just want to know what I am doing is right.”

Alexandrea picked up Annette’s hand again, squeezing her fingers tightly. “I suppose someone has to make the first move, hm? Who says it cannot be the woman?”

“Please, you won’t tell anyone, will you, Alexandrea?”

“Oh no, Annette.” Alexandrea nodded firmly, her grey eyes playful and intrigued. “Why would I spoil the ending for anyone else when this show is just for me?”

“Alexandrea!” Annette laughed at once, taking off guard by her jest. “My forced marriage is not some epic—I am no Moonmaiden, and Felix is certainly no noble knight.”

Alexandrea eased off her teasing. Her expression was calm and kind. “I have missed hearing laughter here, Annette.” She looked down, shamefully, at her own slippers. “I did not know how to tell you that I already knew of my Lord’s intention to wed you to his son.” Then, her eyes peeked up at Annette, two grey moons beneath a cloud of dark lashes. “I was afraid you knew, and that you hated me, and thusly hated home.”

“I am not good at house-work, I am forgetful and millish and I forget my place—but that has never stopped me from enjoying my life.” Alexandrea continued. “I want you to find joy here, too.”

Annette felt so taken aback. She had no idea that Alexandrea could care for her so quickly. And she only felt more crushed that she had turned her away, night after night, to punish the girl with a dismissal of friendship. “I’m sorry for mistreating you, Alexandrea.” She felt her warm fingers and pulled away. “Thank you. You know, you’re very wise for your age.”

“I spent most of my childhood watching my Lord’s wife. She was a force around this keep, always minding and keeping track of every secret.” Her grey eyes twinkled with the fondness of memory. “I admired her, sincerely. Her spirit, I think, keeps the stones less cold.”

The thought of Felix’s mother made Annette yearn for her own, waiting for her, lonely and wondering of what Gilbert wanted with their only daughter, to be fated to this, staring down the dim light of a servant’s corridor, because her betrothed refused to call upon her.

Annette gave Alexandrea one final look for confidence before she walked into the dark. Her arms tight to her sides, refusing to look back.

The servant’s door opened without a sound, a happy surprise to Annette as she stepped, carefully and quietly, from beyond the wood of the walls, to find herself inside of Felix’s bedroom.

At once, Annette was stuck by just how cold the air felt. She had noticed a draft from the corridor as she walked, a hand lingering along the cold stones, but the coldness around her now positively chilled her through her nightdress and through the thick fur-lining of her slippers. Annette wrapped her arms around herself, peeled through the chamber, noting how strangely un-lived in the room looked as she studied the dark shadows around her.

It honestly threw her sense of direction off at once. Annette took to wondering if she had misunderstood and stolen into a different room entirely. The bedchambers she had found herself end looked entirely unused, quite sparse, with only a few large pieces of furniture, pushed to the far side of the room. The tiles beneath her slippers still tapped, uncomfortably cold, at her toes. Felix did not have a rug, as her guest room did, nor a balcony—as the large windows facing towards west of the keep only peered back at her, frosted and powdery, and the stars matched, their jewel-like bodies sewn into the on-coming dark.

Annette held her breath as she moved into the bedchambers. She wasn’t sure what to expect. Felix, she’d imagine, would be standing, arms crossed, his back to her, those dark eyes flashing with contempt at her daring to, well, break into his room like a thief in the night. But he wasn’t there, standing, or sitting, or, anywhere, from what little Annette could see.

Oh. It hadn’t occurred to her that perhaps Felix had slipped away, unnoticed, and wasn't even in his room at all. And if he wasn’t there, that meant, she was free to leave…

Annette forced deep breath steel herself. She had come this far and there wasn’t backing out of it now. Particularly at the mirth of Alexandrea, who was no doubt haunting the corridor, leering through the dark to make sure Annette kept to her promise.

She would speak with Felix. She would make sure he was alright. That was truly all she needed to know. Then, she could sleep better tonight, having made her peace with it.

A large bed caught her eye as she peered through the shadows. The ribboning of passing clouds slid slowly beneath her feet, spooking her, and it certainly made attempting to find Felix that much harder. She found herself craning to look around, fast and rather confused at how dark the room was. Lord Rodrigue had every hearth burning wildly with the generous warmth of a fire burning through the long cold sunlit days and the dry, bitter nights.

Was Felix so impossibly stubborn that he’d refuse even a fire?

Goddess, was he stupid?

“Felix?” Annette called quietly.

She kept her eyes to the side of his bed as she approached. It was about as unglamorous as the rest of his bedchambers. To compare Annette’s time with Dimitri within the Prince’s own private quarters, the contrast was almost comical. No portraits along the stonewalls. There weren’t any fur or extra extravagances, like overstuffed chairs. Certainly no hand-sewn furred pillows or luxurious, priceless artifacts, large flower vases, priceless artisan swords, the likes that Annette had admired from the keep.

It looked, for all intents and purposes, much like a normal bed, the sheets rumpled and a pillow sagging loosely onto the tiles. When she approached, she thought for certain, as sick as she had been told, Felix would be sleeping or at least resting within it, but she checked by running her small hand across the sheets—cold, untouched for quite a while—that he wasn’t there.

She found herself staring at his bed for a few heartbeats. It looked so lonely and empty in the cold light, and rather uninviting. Maybe Felix didn’t sleep here?

Honestly, it was hard to believe that someone even lived inside of this room at all.

A few giveaways did reassured Annette that Felix, at least sometimes, spent time here. His riding boots, the leather beaten with dirt, had been kicked haphazardly away, close to the bedroom’s main door. A few short-wooden practice swords were laid across a pulled-out chair, along with two very sharp, very pointed, real-silver swords, that glinted gently, the moonlight bright over the shining of the blades. It reminded Annette none too fondly of the way wild wolves eyes looked in the whispering dark, when her father had asked their coachman to make the horses move faster.

To the furthest side of the room, Annette noticed the gentle points of light, murmur lowly into the bedroom’s mantle. It stuck her rather uncannily; a single reading chair pulled up tight to the dying light, much like the study they had first met in, but without a single book in sight.

“Felix?” Annette tried again. She swore, this time, she wouldn’t frighten him.

She padded further in, arms still locked around her. Her long hair had pulled to fall at her shoulders, itching, a little uncomfortable with the dry nervousness of sweat, uncertain of what was inside of every thicken shadow. Where did he go? Was he even in the room?

Then, a shadow moved. The moonlight captured the thin outlines of a body over the floor, nearest that reading chair, pooled out over the tiles. Maybe a cloud covered the face of the moon for merely a moment, a simple trick of the light and...Annette froze.

It was a long, slender shadow, with the outline of legs, and an arm and…

“F-Felix?” She squeaked. Annette found herself almost jogging to reach him faster. Seeing a body lying across the floor was absolutely not what she expected, and she felt so angry that she couldn’t have pieced the idea together faster: Felix, unable to answer the door, not from anger, not to punish her—but perhaps because he simply couldn’t move!

She was to his side at once, her knees aching as she pushed herself onto the floor. She brought out a hand, near shaking, to touch him.

It was Felix. He was curled into himself, pulled close to what must have once been a roaring fire, with his head resting onto the hard chilly flooring. It looked to be a dreadful position to rest in. She could count the strained, coarse echo of his loud breathing through the silent dark. She could see his jaw tight, blue veins lifting under his pale skin, while his other arm cradled at his shoulder in sleep.

And, Annette felt able to breathe at once, because he did look asleep, if just uncomfortable, and he seemed rather unharmed otherwise.

“Felix?” Annette repeated again. A hand was hovering, her nerves humming, at the idea of waking him up. She had to. She knew she did. He couldn’t sleep on the cold tiles of his bedroom when a perfectly fine bed was right there! It was ridiculous; he was ridiculous.

She carefully reached out to gently touch at his hand, the knuckled one, curled tight to grasp his right shoulder. “Felix.”

A soft sound answered her, like a sorry growl from the back of his throat. She scooted back at once, unable to hold her composure. Still, Felix did not move away from her. She watched his eyelids twitch, frightened from the quick movement of Annette’s body, before Felix, at once, breathed out heavily, and sank back into the floor, uncaring to move.

Adrenaline hit Annette’s stomach, hard and fast. She forced herself to practice breathing normally. She shouldn't be this scared. Felix was the one that needed help, not her. But, oh, but how she dreaded how he might look at her with such hate inside of his eyes as he did that night of the Ball. It churned Annette’s stomach to water.

She lowered her voice softly. “Felix? Please, wake up.”

Again, that rough noise. But, this time, Annette found herself slowly watching as Felix’s head lifted away from the floor, towards the sound of her voice. His eyelids twitched open. He blinked again, tiredly, his eyelids fluttering in discomfort, like Annette was a bright light that had invaded his comfortable dark world. His lips partly slightly, dry and cracked, as he peered towards Annette in a strained, uncertain way, as if he couldn’t tell exactly what he was seeing.

“Hey,” Annette said to him gently. She had allowed herself to slip a little closer. It concerned her when Felix hardly seemed to notice her movements, or recognize her voice. “Are you alright?”

Felix’s swallowed thinly. She watched the hard, painful movement ripple down his throat. She frowned at how awful he looked. Rodrigue was not exaggerating. Felix looked paler than she had ever seen—and his dark hair only contrasted just how exhausted he looked. His dark eyes closed again, although his lips twitched—in pain, or perhaps to just to see Annette on her knees before him—she couldn’t tell—but slowly, Annette allowed Felix to find his words.

“I know, said...something about a fire.” Felix finally whispered. His voice was nothing more than a low, slow rasp. "You do it...M' too tired."

Annette felt her own jaw tightened, concern, fear. She glanced around, uncertain of what exactly Felix’s meant. The cold pale glass from the windows just offered their usual peaceful view of the woods, slowly growing fat with layers of snow. There wasn’t a smell of smoke, beyond the low burning ashes in the hearth just beyond them.

“A fire?” Annette whispered.

His eyes opened again. They looked barely able to focus on her, fading back behind her, back to the floor. He seemed to be considering his answer.

“...I gotta remember not to talk to you…” Felix managed after a steady heartbeat of staring at the floor. “...You never answer me…”

Annette tilted her head. “...Felix?”

It was very hard to read Felix’s face in the dark. Only once and a while did the moon suggest to Annette what his face looked like—brows drawn, teeth clenched, his neck muscles twisting sorely as he lifted his head to look up at her again.

And he just...looked at her. Not saying a word.

Annette’s throat felt very, very dry.

She inched closer. She reached out a hand to linger over his arm. “Felix? Can you hear me?”

His dark eyes hovered over her face, searching, before he blinked, the motion heavy and worn. He was looking both into her and though her at once, his black eyes dull and unfocused. He sighed, the sound deep from his chest, and he sank his head back down to rest along the floor.

“No, no, wait.” Annette murmured quickly, realizing he wasn’t truly awake. She placed her hand over his arm, and at once, Annette felt his entire body give a little shake when her hand met his skin. Felix pulled away entirely, suddenly lifting himself up to half-drag himself towards the leg of the reading chair, his back tight against its clawed legs, those dark eyes suddenly very big in the silver light.

“Annette?”  His left hand tightened around the front of his right shoulder, blinking at her through the dark, his voice rough and dry.

“I’m sorry,” Annette told him at once. She offered a little bow, her elbows pushing down with the movement, before she pulled herself upright again. “I’m sorry to bother you. I know I’m probably the last person you wish to see—but I—I had to make sure you were all right. I couldn’t stand it anymore.”

Again, Felix’s lips parted, just a little more. He was staring at Annette with true look of realization. His dark brows slowly pulled together into a faint line of confusion. “You’re here?”

“I...Wait, did you not think I was?”

Felix allowed his head to rest along the edge of the chair’s cushion. He didn’t bother to correct his eyes to her. He just minded the ceiling, a look of sweaty relief slow over his face. “I thought I was hallucinating you.” Carefully, she watched as Felix lifted his left arm, heavy along the cold tiles, as he briefly touched across the front of her hand. That same small sound lifted from his throat as his fingers traced her skin. “...You feel real, so, I believe you.”

Annette smiled in relief herself. Felix reaching out to touch her hand was also another reaction she definitely did not plan for, but when he weakly moved his hand away, she caught him at the wrist. His heart was thudding beneathing her fingertips in a tight, steady pulse.

“I'm so sorry if I scared you,” Annette began carefully. She made sure to collect his wrist loosely, to make sure he knew he could pull away if he wanted. “Your father mentioned you were ill. I just wanted to see if you needed anything.”

“Keep telling you,” Felix returned back, his voice low in his chest. “You don’t scare me.”

Annette felt her lips lift briefly into a smirk. His snark was almost reassuring..if he didn’t look but a moment away from curling back onto the floor and going back to sleep. He coughed again, his head smacking against the edge of the chair, and he pulled himself forward in a weak attempt to move away from the dull pain—but Annette’s arms were suddenly there, a steady warm surface to press against, and Felix felt his body sink down into the warmth, unable to find the strength to hold himself up.

...The floor hurt. His skin hurt. His shoulder hurt, with a powerful, unending throb, and he closed his eyes at the feeling of Annette’s body so close to his... 

In her arms, Annette felt Felix almost collapse onto her, the weight of his body entangled against her small frame, and just as she was reaching up to help steady him—a low hiss of pain caught her ear. Felix suddenly pulled away from her, unstable and weak to get out of her arms.

Again, Felix coiled towards the chair. His left hand knuckled at his right shoulder, bone-white. 

“Why are you here?” Felix attempted to swallow again, but a cough rattled through his lungs, and his head sank low into the crook of his arm, pressed tight against the skin. Annette wondered how long he’d been here, lying in the cold, clearly dehydrated, and absolutely burning in fever.

“I…” Annette’s face felt terribly hot in the dark. She could only pray Felix couldn’t see how ashamed she looked. “I had to apologize to you. I had to make sure you were alright.” She explained herself again, this time far slower, as she studied Felix’s face to make sure he understood her. “Were you cold?”

The fire had long turned to ash. The frame of the wood had melted away, crumbling and blackened with soot, and there was not a trace of warmth left to offer from its mantle.

“Tried to,” Felix made a weak nod towards a thin looking piece of firewood, none too far off from the hearth. “Get the fire going again, but...I didn’t care.” He stared at the empty, smoldering ashes, his blinks slow and heavy. “...I felt dizzy, so I sat down and…” He tried again, his chest tight around another cough. “...slept, I guess.”

It felt surprisingly natural to Annette, this feeling, just how badly Annette wanted to touch him. But she held back. She studied his face closely—and, even in the low-dark, she could see the sheen of sweat that lingered over his throat, his cheeks. “How do you feel now?”

He gave a weak roll of his head, left to right, his hand still pressed to his shoulder. “I don’t know. Hot, I think. Was cold earlier, before I fell asleep.”

Annette nodded sadly. He looked miserably warm, sweating straight through his skin, burning in the cold night air. “You’re very warm. I think you have a fever.”

“Uh-huh,” Felix agreed weakly. “My father told me my shoulder is infected.” He struggled to open his eyes again, to peer at Annette, his expression wilting like some jaded child. “Guess I deserve that?”

“What?” Annette felt her heart skip. Rodrigue’s mentioned of over-hearing their spat in the woods caused Annette’s insides to twist. “What do you mean? Are you referring to the other day, in the woods? That isn’t fair, Felix. I’m the one that yelled at you.”

“Well, I’m the one that swung that axe until my arm wanted to fall off.”

Annette found herself shaking her head, her red hair flaring in the moonlight. “Why?”

A pause met her ears, drifting and steady.

“...I don’t know.” Felix’s reply sounded very, very tired. “...I thought you hated me.”

Oh. So, there it was.

Annette felt her heart drop low into her stomach, watery and trembling.

“...I don’t hate you, Felix.”

Annette felt the words leave her lips. Her face felt in pain with how maddenly she blushed. She felt so wrong and ashamed. Love wasn’t meant to be forced, or arranged, or—you know— stolen into a sick man’s bedroom so she might confess her sins to him as he was ravaged in fever—ugh.

No, they certainly would be no operatic love-song, that was for sure.

A low grunt escaped his lips. Annette’s eyes flew back to his face, concerned etched into her laugh-lines, until she realised that Felix wasn’t making a sound of pain. His eyes were shut tight, she watched as he gave a large laugh that shredded into a cough, hard and relentless, as it beat through his lungs. “Y-yeah, ruh-ight. Of co-course you should.”

“I don’t.” Annette said again. She felt so helpless to convince him otherwise. Even while he was deathly ill, he couldn’t believe her?

“I ruin things,” Felix answered. Those three words were a low throaty growl, raw from his chest. “That’s all I know how to do. I’m the sorry one, Annette. I don’t know how to stop.”

Again, that bittle, sadden laugh; it was a forceful sound of pain. Annette wasn’t sure how to respond. It’s hard to read Felix’s face in the dark. It was even hard to know how well he could see her as well, if his fever has blurred his vision, if he even had his eyes opened at all. But Annette found herself drawn towards him, a feeling high and sharp in her chest. She felt so desperately certain that Felix was telling her a terrible truth: a bitter, dark laugh that failed to hide how much he truly hated himself.

She couldn’t stand to hear him talk that way any longer.

“Stop, just stop, you’re making yourself worse!” Annette cried out, her heart high in her throat to ease him, to make him understand, to get him to stop punishing himself—and that’s when she found his face inside of her hands. And her lips against his—certainly not as romantic as she had imagined—he coughed weakly beneath her lips in surprise, the sound thick inside of his chest, but he…

He kissed her back. 

His mouth fell open under her lips, and Annette pulled back as to spare him coughing straight into her mouth. The movement shuddered his body forward, brutal and ripping at his lungs. He didn’t stop for quite a while, long enough for Annette to know that she maybe shouldn’t be kissing him right now, with her fingers tight over his wrists, perhaps so hard that she might be hurting him.  

“Um.” Felix said after a moment, the words raw on his tongue. “So, I’m not dreaming you?”

Annette eased off of his wrist again, tight within her fingers—and, carefully, she took his opposite wrist away from his shoulder. She pooled his hands into her lap, fingers tight around his overly-warm skin.

“No,” Annette replied softly, her voice warm. “I’m definitely here with you right now.”

So, this was wrong and not what she had planned for her life.

But this. This, right now, it felt like enough.

“...I just wanted to talk to you somehow.” Annette said. “You just wouldn’t open the door.”

Felix’s dry lips parted into a small smile. “...I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“Do you, um, mind that I snuck in through the servant’s door?”

“No. Do you mind that I coughed in your mouth when you kissed me?”

Annette laughed, hoping he meant the little joke as much as she had hers.

She rubbed her thumbs slow across his hands, the movement gliding between the dips of his worn knuckles, beneath the pads of his fingers. She could feel the hard outline of the days old calluses from the axe’s handle—and they felt deep. She glanced at his right shoulder again, recalling the blood from a few days before, and felt that same undeniable pull to tend to him.

She wouldn’t force her healing magic onto him. She respected what Lord Rodrigue had mentioned. And Even Mercie had taught her that too much white magic over an ill person could only make things worse but..she had to try.

“So, your shoulder is infected, you said. Does your shoulder hurt?”

Felix had settled back against the chair. His head rested over the cushion again but his eyes were heavy lidded as he stared down into Annette’s lap, captured by the movement of her hands. His dark eyes moved rhythmically with the way her thumbs pushed against his skin, over and over…

“Felix?” Annette tried again. She stopped her strokes, worried.

“Huh?” The sound slipped out, delayed. His eyes had drifted closed. He blinked them back open her in that quiet, defocused way. “What?”

Annette found herself fascinated. He looked so...sweet again, that soft sleepy expression across his face, like when she had laid that heavy blanket across him. She paused for a moment, the nerves tight inside of her chest, until she finally risked the question.

“Can,” The words felt tight inside of her throat. “Can I try something? With your shoulder?”

Felix swallowed thinly. “Uh. I’m…” His eyes moved away, back towards the remaining smoke of the ashy hearth. “I don’t think that’d be a good idea.”

“Why not?” Annette laid the two words out simply. She wanted it to be clear that he had a right to refuse her.

Again, that look across Felix’s face. It was hard for Annette to entirely understand what it meant. Something like...fear. Annette looked up at him patiently, her blue eyes lightly tracing his face, his jaw, and her fingers moved again, patterning across his hands.

Again, Felix looked oddly relaxed. Her fingers were like a strange trance that made him feel less light-headed.

A low sigh left his nose. Something inside of Felix finally yielded to her, straight down to his core.

“My father brought a healer this morning...he did something to my went numb, but, um.” He closed his eyes. He couldn’t stand to see her face as he finally said: “I threw up.”

Annette squeezed gently at his hands, hoping he would find the pressure soothing. “I’m sorry. I won’t do anything, then.”

His eyes opened again. “It’s not..often, it’s just...a lot. They don’t listen when I ask them to stop.”

“So, you don’t always feel nauseous?”

“Not always. I get dizzy, though. And it makes me feel sleepy all day. I hate it.”

I hate it, Felix had said to her, and now Annette smiled at the simplicity of it. Felix was so blunt that it hurt but he meant it, sincerely, and it was awfully cute how he made something as wholesome as healing magic appeal so tragically mean, as if all healers were simply out to cut him down.

Again, Annette's tone softened. He looked practically in pain just to talk about it.

“How do you feel right now?”

A small sound. Annette tried not to smile to hear it. “Still, uh, nauseous.” He closed his eyes again, unwilling to look at her. “ it’s just...nerves now.” He told her quietly. Then, his dark eyes opened to take in the sight of her lips. “Sylvain says...something about bugs in your stomach...”

Annette bit back a grin. “I think he meant butterflies in your stomach, Felix.”

“Yeah, bugs.” That cute embarrassed expression looked so crushed. “Whatever.” 

She really, really wished she could kiss him again. And again. 

“I wasn’t, uh, in pain dancing with you.” Felix continued, the confession now so obvious to Annette, as she realized that she had gripped tightly his injured shoulder for nearly three whole minutes during their waltz. “I was just... in pain, dancing, um, with you. And, I’s just...” He dropped his eyes away from her. “I hate...traditions. For us to force this, when it didn’t have to be..."

His lips closed again, tight against a cough, or a fresh wave of pain, and Annette’s heart sank.

She frowned at the memory. “Do you want to lay back down?” She glanced back towards his bed, how far away it seemed, from their small space close to a dead fire. “I think I could help you—”

“No, I don’t think I can—” Felix stopped her at once. Without thinking, he had lifted his wounded shoulder towards her, matching her movement to stand up, and it was like his entire body was frozen in pain. A harsh gasp shot out from his mouth, teeth clenched, and he curled back down into himself. At once, his hand was ripped from her grasp to touch at his wound—Annette watched as the bandages, slick with sweat, appeared only to loosen with every rough movement of his arm. He clenched, tightly, his eyes closed against the burning inside of his entire shoulder, clawing and endless.

“Here,” Annette said with a single finality. She couldn’t help him walk if he lacked the strength, and she certainly couldn't carry him, but she had eased Felix out from his tight ball. She scooted back, forcing him to stretch out over his back, and she angled the back of his head lay into her lap with the fabric of her dress cool against his skin. “Just lay this way, okay?”

Felix’s dark eyes looked up at her upside down image, his pupils huge for a moment, but that same, shy expression skittered across his face, open and very much apparent to her: a blush against the rose-bloom of his fever. “Um,” his mouth twisted in concern. “...You sure?”

“Yes,” Annette blinked down at him gratefully. “I really don’t want you to sleep on the floor again, but if you don’t want to move, we can just do this. It’s cold, but if I’m here, I think I can help...or, you know, you’re stubborn, you just make your fever worse.”

Felix gave a faint chuckle, his head rubbing wearily against her leg. “...Thank you, ‘ette.”

She gave a little hum at him. And, without thinking, she placed her hand across his hair, loose at his shoulders, her nervous fingers playing softly with the edges. Then, she stopped. “S-sorry.”

Felix didn’t use any words this time. He just answered her with a dull, low sound. Her hand was still close to his face, and when he rolled his head to press his skin into the coolness of the fabric, her fingers stirred against through his hair. He made that soft, sweet sound again, a cute pleasurable sigh, but it didn’t tell her much else, like if he needed something better, like water to cool him down. Annette resisted the snap of her own annoyance, bubbling in her chest. She really wished she could do more for him. Anything else more.

“Could you try to tell me a little more of what you need? Maybe I could help. I could get you water?”

His eyes cracked open. “...Water?”

“Mhm. I could get you some. You want me to?”

“No.” His eyes slid closed again. “I thought...No, no, just dizzy from the water.”

Annette felt like she had tilted her head so many times, she might as well have been a deaf hunting hound. What in the world was Felix getting at now?

“I’m sorry?”

Felix sighed, short and clearly annoyed to explain himself. His lips twitched, the thought tumbling out before he could hold it back. “From bathing, I tried to..but the water made me dizzy, and I tried to warm up by the fire but... I couldn’t come to you, um,” Then, he stopped. Felix swallowed wetly. “M’never mind.”

Her face flushed pink. He was going to come to her? Earlier? When he was...oh...and he fell asleep trying? Oh.

She carded her fingers through his hair once more. She made sure to keep the movement slow and gentle. Again, she heard that low sound, like a purr from a cat. His breathing was heavy and slow, gliding against her legs. The sound faded softly when Annette's fingers stilled.

“Uhm.” Felix whispered weakly. “Can you do that...again.” The words were a soft mumble. He had already curled himself into her lap, his head resting into the dip of her thighs. At once, Annette moved her fingers back through his hair once more. She felt him sigh. The sound was exhausted and low, but the pleasure felt warm inside of his final word. “Please...don't stop...”

“Sure,” Annette said again. She moved her fingers, slow and thoughtful, along the part of his dark hair. “You want anything else?”

“No,” Felix said. The word was blurry against her leg. “Just stay...jus’stay here with me.”

“Sure, Felix.” She smiled again, soft across her face. “If you say so.”

Annette could have stayed there, Felix heavily dozing into her lap, for what could have been the entirety of the winter.

If a large shadow did not block out the moonlight, causing Annette to stiffen.

“My lady?” A deep voice intoned.

And, at once, Annette relaxed. She peered carefully behind her to see the Prince’s guard lingering in the doorway, Felix’s door perhaps opened by turn-key or his father, anxious to see where it was that Annette had gotten off too.

“Dedue?” Annette whispered back. “I’m sorry. I came to see Felix and the hours escaped me. Did I worry anyone?”

“No, my lady.” Dedue replied, his deep voice suddenly dropping to accomodate for Felix, now far clearer in the moonlight, who was sleeping within her lap. “I had knocked on your door as His Highness had wondered if you would wish to join him again for tea, but…” Dedue’s mouth lifted at the corner, daring to show relief for a single moment, then the mask slipped back over him, calm and composed. “I thought it best to look for you myself before I alerted anyone else.”

“Oh,” Annette said faintly. She offered him a worn smile him. “Thank you for coming to find me.” She moved her hand again through Felix’s hair although had been a very long time since he had responded to her fingers, deeply asleep, although the flush from his fever still radiated through her nightgown. “Can me get him back into his bed?”

“Yes,” Dedue said at once. And then, he moved, a quick, simple grace to take Felix within his arms, careful and practiced, and he moved, without pause, to take him back over to the bed.

Annette watched, worried, before she understood that Dedue was clearly well-trained for taking care of many delicate tasks, despite his size or his muscles. She pushed herself up slowly, allowing the feeling to flood back into her legs, before she padded carefully to the bed’s edge, watching as Dedue pulled down the sheets and quilts. Dedue then used a pillow to support Felix’s upper body so that Felix's coughing would not jerk him awake through the night.

“He is quite ill.” Dedue acknowledged tonelessly. His lips remained fixed but his heavy brows pulled together in noticable concern. “I can smell the sickness through the halls. I shall have to return again with a healer, and oak birch,  much to his distaste. But the infection will spread to his chest if he does not accept a doctor’s aid.”

Annette blinked up at Dedue in weak surprise. She had no idea such a large man would be so knowledgeable about such things, such as plants and illness. She also realized, with a heavy heart, that she knew so little about Dedue as just a person, instead of a guardsman, just as she had made Rodrigue to be a monster, with grey raining eyes and sharp teeth, instead of a worried father amidst a war.

“Thank you again, Dedue, for all of your help.” Annette told him quietly. She was relieved to finally return Felix into a proper bed. It wasn’t fair that she couldn’t be strong enough to carry him, but she had to give Dedue everything she could; he was truly a proper knight, through and through.

“It is no problem.” Dedue said curtly. His eyes then turned to Annette. “Are you all right?”

“Me?” Annette hoped she didn’t sound so surprised. She was just completely taken off guard by his concern. “No, I’m quite fine now, thank you.” She glanced nervously at Felix’s face, how his dark hair had fallen back across his cheek, and her hand ached to push it away once more. She stayed still, as did her hand. “I’m just very glad he will be well soon.”

“I see.” Dedue said. His green eyes lifted over Felix, then back to Annette. “His Highness had mentioned his own worry for Felix’s health but it did not occur to me that his injury would inflame at such a rate as to induce a fever.”

Annette nodded in agreement with Dedue’s logic. “Yes...I think Felix makes the active choice to make things worse for himself. That way, he feels like he won’t burden anyone else.”

At this, Dedue gave her a firm nod. “His Highness and Felix are quite similar. They have much respect and love for other people and leave nothing left for themselves.”

Annette stared back at Dedue. All the words had flown from her head.

“I was concerned that you felt this way as well.” Dedue continued against her look of discomfort. “However, I am glad you are still within the keep. A search party for your stead would be dangerous in this weather.”

“It would be suicide to run away in the dead of a winter night,” Annette returned, her voice sad.

Had he and Dimitri truly worried she might run before the date of her wedding? Did she truly come off as such a coward? She found her arms around herself again, the idea had truly scared her. She stared at Felix’s relaxed, sleeping face. She felt such a powerful, overwhelming urge to touch him again, but she held back.

“Yes,” Dedue finally answered her. He turned, his large face to stare deep into her eyes. “I suppose there are worse fates than that.”

Annette settled the quilt across Felix, softly, gently, making sure not to move his arm. “...Dedue, will you walk me back to my room?”

He blinked at her. “Of course.”

They went quiet for a moment, allowing Felix’s door to close behind them, before Annette, her blue eyes tight to Dedue’s face, found her bravery. She wanted to be as kind to him as he had been to her.

“Dedue.” Annette asked, her voice small. “You’re from Duscur, aren’t you?”

Since the conversation of Duscur with her father, Annette knew exactly what had landed Dedue, so exotic and scarred, as a guardsman to His Grace’s son. She tried to push the thought away, over and over, that Dedue was also set in twisted fate, locked in between the jeweled throat of the Holy Kingdom of Faerghus, the needless war for the Queen, and if that meant his intense protection of Dimitri was in a way, for the last family he had left. And with the way he had offered his friendship as an extension beyond Dimitri...Annette hoped she could, somehow, one day, convince Deude that he was not an extension of Dimitri, but a living soul, very much alive.

“I am, my lady.” Dedue replied simply.

“That sister you mentioned.” Annette began nervously. “The one you said I reminded you of.” Her red brows fell flat and tight. “...Did she make it out of the fires with you?”

Dedue never once stopped his pace or his dropped expression; the thin line locked over his scarred lips. “No, she did not.”

Annette nodded dimly. Yes, she supposed, there were worse fates than dying in the snow.

“I’m so sorry, Dedue.” Annette said simply. How easy it was to be reminded of what she was so ungrateful to have ...and everything the kingdom had taken from so many others.

They were at her door now, and Dedue, Dedue had said nothing further. But when he turned to leave, Annette felt he had done so without the stiffness he had offered before. She had pulled on a small string that connected them.

“...You are so much like her, I must admit.” He turned his large face to directly speak to Annette, coming completely clean with a terrible confession. “I came to you on my own. Without His Highness’s instructions.” His soft green eyes held her face in such a delicate way. He looked like he might turn to ash beneath her gaze. “I have chosen to remain here, with His Highness, and Felix.”

For once, Annette was the first to bow, her curtsy low to the floor, shame lingering behind her sad smile. “...Thank you, Dedue, very much. I hope you have a good evening.”

“Goodnight, my lady.” Dedue said quietly. He bowed low at the waist, and then, as he had arrived, a shadow against the moon, he was gone.

A week had passed since her night alone with Felix, although Annette still felt nervous to be alone with him. However, her nerves never seemed to matter when there never seemed to be a moment when they were allowed to be alone. Rodrigue held Felix to his word—often making his son restless and frustrated by healers and bedrest— before, one morning, Rodrigue presented Annette with a very wide smile; a look inside of his grey eyes that made Annette feel...excited.

Could she, finally, finally get a moment with Felix to herself?

“The weather has turned warmer today,” Rodrigue nodded at her happily as he guided Annette towards the stables. “And so, I wish for you and Felix to run a single errand for me, if you would be so inclined? It shan’t take but an hour, perhaps more, and of course, if the day runs late, you may rest at any inn long the roads of your choosing.” Rodrigue smirked, sharing a low secret as he bent towards Annette’s ear: “I would be grateful for you to keep an eye on my son—or else I would send him alone. He will pretend to be more able than he is. His shoulder is still very weak.”

Annette, pleased at the opportunity, still felt the pang of Felix’s exhaustion. She wondered, if she had been allowed to touch him, that she would still be able to feel the strain of him, forced to ride, to move, to smile, a memory beneath her fingertips. He hid it well but Felix often had his eyes closed, loosely holding onto a chair or table, when Rodrigue ordered him with a flurry of information, this and that, that he expected Felix to balance in his stead.

At once, Annette understood the task. This was an errand meant for someone else, someone like Glenn, and now with his first son gone, Rodrigue was genuinely, subtly, protective over his youngest boy. And, when Annette had heard Felix’s fevered murmuring after his brother, her heart felt pulled, a thin tug of pain, that she could not fully grasp. It was hard to discern what Rodrigue truly meant to send both Felix and herself out—if this was a task that Glenn had once carried—or if Rodrigue thought better of Ser Gilbert's daughter, like she might protect him.

Ad that...made Annette feel so much better: to be wanted, to be depended upon.

She felt trusted. Trusted in so many ways that her own father could not give to her. 

Annette stared nervously into Rodrigue’s light grin.

“Rodrigue…” She tested the fear aloud. “Felix is clearly still too ill to go out in this cold. I may ride alone for you, however. That would be my pleasure.“ Annette consented with a hint of her tongue. She would love to ride the beautiful, long wintry trails. She could sing as loudly as she wanted then and no one could possibly judge her.

Again, that large, wolfish smile. “My son will ride with you, my dear, because that is how it has always been in our family’s courting. That beside, Felix is strong, much like his brother. I expect nothing less.”

Courting? Annette felt like a bird had been set loose inside of her chest.

So, Annette awkwardly stood to test her unbroken riding boots, brown with a gold shielded crest at its center. She had never once seen shoes so unfit for going along for a horse ride, let alone how nervous she felt to see Lord Rodrigue milling behind her, impatient and pushy for Felix to adorn his boots, minding his shoulder, and ordering the horses out of their stables.

A little ways away and out of her earshot, Sylvain appeared within the commotion, his warm eyes taking in Felix’s pale face. “Let me go along with you both, hm? I feel like I haven't been allowed outside in, well, months. I’d be happy to join. Someone has to provide Annette with pleasant conversation, eh, Felix?”

Sylvain gave Annette a short wink, his red hair wind-tossed about his face, and watched as her pale cheeks flushed, her head already tossed away, unwilling to understand what Sylvain possibly wanted from her, and she turned back to her horse.

Ingrid appeared as well, having chased after him. She felt like the only person in the room with enough common sense to know how obviously Rodrigue’s little plan of a “date” was. She took Sylvain’s arm to brush him aside, before she let go to aid Annette in her saddling. “I think Felix is trying to spend time alone with Annette, Sylvain?”

“Oh.” Sylvain blinked. Once, twice, overly large, taken aback. “Y-you are?”

Felix said nothing; however, he also felt his face overheat as he looked away.

Sylvain’s proud smile faded. Sylvain turned away again, to size up the horses, the weight of the bags, and, of course, a leather swordman’s sheath pinned to the black horse’s side, a simple precaution, but it made Sylvain find it hard to look back at Felix. There would be no way for Felix to lift a sword if something went wrong. Still, Sylvain added nothing more. In his cold Faerghus childhood, he understood well that to offer his fear aloud would cast an omen of bad luck. “Felix. careful, okay?”

Felix stared hard at the back of Sylvain’s head as he watched the horses being loaded for the trip.

“I will.” He glanced back at his friend and away again. “Sheesh. Spare me that look. I’m not dying.”

From the side of the stable, Ingrid had helped Annette mount her horse. Felix then spied the cute little hop Annette had to do to simply get on her horse, a chestnut mare, whose soft fur matched the way the golden sunlight glowed through her auburn hair.

And, when Annette turned to meet his eyes, already pink having seen how childishly she had to act to get onto a horse as a fully grown woman, she urged the horse to shoot out from the stable, just to get away from his all-too-taunting eyes.

Felix felt, with the way she raced ahead, her long red hair catching the wind in its stride, he could watch her laughing forever.

The errand went smoothly, perhaps too smoothly, Annette wondered, as she found Felix had little to say to her today, even giving their days spent apart in crowded rooms. Their conversation remained short and fairly quiet throughout, and she struggled to decide if he was simply tired or if she had, once more, talked noisily through the cooling hours of their trip. Mercedes often minded Annette’s ability to ramble without pause for breath, and so Annette glanced back at Felix, whose horse had trailed behind to nibble at some dry grass, before she pressed further, allowing some distance to fall between them. If she had no sense to allow Felix a break, she would pretend the horses needed one.

However, she did not need to walk her horse for long.

There was a horse collapsed to the side of the long stretch of the road. Annette pulled the thick reins of her horse to a trot as she minded the curve. The horse’s heavy flanks rose and fell in exhaustion, as if it had been ran for far too long, and eventually had given up the pace.

Its rider looked to be a young teenage boy. He was thin, rather small, and his large green eyes turned to Annette with a look of helplessness. Annette hailed him with a wave of her small hand, knocking her horse to steady its hooves as she approached.

“Hello there!” Annette called hopefully. As she got closer, she was happy to see the boy looked unharmed, just uneasy to see her. She couldn’t blame him for being afraid. She had watched her father scare off too many a hungry face that attempted to run their carriage off the roads. “Do you need help?”

The boy’s young face brightened at her. He had freckles, too, that seemed to dance across his cheeks, his expression looking more hopeful. He stood up and half-ran to her side to help her down from her mount. Annette offered her hand to be set down gracefully, her smile equally eager to meet him.

Felix watched steadily as he made his approach. She had raced ahead too far and too fast. As much as he wanted to keep up with her, his shoulder ached with the steady rhythm of his horse's trot over the road. As he arrived later, to see Annette already dismounted, her arms to take the long stretched arms of another young man, who was chatting happily with her.

“Oh, thank you, thank you so much.” The boy began at once, breathless, his large green eyes blinking at Annette as if she was his own personal savior. “I’ve been running for hours with my poor Loog, but I can’t get him to move any further! My father’s inn isn’t but a few miles further.” He returned back to his horse, a hand to gently touch over its sweat-soaked fur, and he looked back to Annette with a look of guilt. “Do you have any water for him, please?”

Annette turned back to her saddle’s bag to begin searching. “I think so. I could also ask my friend if he brought water as well.” She glanced back, nervous to share with the friendly smile over the boy’s polite face. “I’m not usually prepared for long rides to be honest.”

“I am grateful for anything you have,” The boy returned. "My father and I don't have much to offer you, but he is an excellent cook. I could offer the both of you dinner, if you'd like?" His voice, too, sounded young and sweet, much like his cute smile, and Annette felt so happy that she found him first, and not perhaps something with cruel intentions. He was at the horse’s side again, a hand rubbing his warm flank. “You hear that, boy? This pretty lady is gonna make you feel all better.”

Her hand finally touched at a waterskin. The leather felt frozen between the warmth of her fingers as she lifted it up and turned back to the boy.

Felix’s horse had arrived close to where the pair was standing. His dark eyes flickered between the boy and Annette. He checked the bare trees around them. He could smell the air coming in, a taste of smoke over his tongue. However, he watched as the poor kid took the water, his head bobbing gratefully, and Annette’s stupid happy expression, and he resisted pulling a hand over his sword’s sheath, his own paranoia mixing in with the churning of his stomach. He was pushing himself too far— he knew better—but he just couldn’t bring himself to say the words aloud to tell Annette—and now he was getting a little lightheaded with the movement of the horse beneath him.

He kept his eyes on the boy’s face, searching, before he looked to her.

“Annette?” Felix asked of her. “We need to get going. The sun will be fading soon. It’ll be a cold ride back.”

“Okay, Felix.” Annette returned politely. She knew Felix meant well but she didn’t want to rush the poor boy any faster. Her heart sank to think of riding off, to leave him alone with an exhausted horse. His desperate face staring after her as if she didn’t care for his suffering.

Annette turned back to the boy. He had finished watering his horse and was offering the water’s skin back to her, and as her fingers collected the cold weight of the bag, Annette watched as the boy’s face suddenly faded into a smirk. Then, he pulled tight and close to her. Annette felt something thin and sharp at her throat. Her arms froze, heavy with the waterskin.

The boy’s green eyes had hardened. His soft smile had twisted into a steady look of confidence.

“Don’t move.” His sweet voice told Annette. His small thin fists cupped the blade against the vein of her neck. “I’m sorry.” His eyes ducked down, away from her, towards Felix, and now Annette realized and this was so very real, and she’d fallen for the oldest ploy in the book.

She had walked right into a robbery and she had smiled while doing it.

“I won’t hurt her if you stay on your horse.” The boy said, licking his lips. He wasn’t nervous. This young boy, thin and frail-looking, seemed all but too certain of his every movement. A strange glow of want crawled from beneath that helpless expression behind his eyes, a look of hunger. “I need your bags, your jewels,” his green eyes eyed the blade at Felix’s hip. “Your sword. Then you can leave.”

Felix’s dark eyes stared at this boy like he had just made a dreadfully poor joke.

“That isn’t going to happen.” Felix said, the words low in his chest. He blinked at that silver short-blade so close to Annette’s throat. “She was going to just give you what you wanted because she’s nice.” His dark eyes burned into the boy. “I’m not.”

He went for his sword, his shoulder biting in pain with the forced, quick movement, but he was too slow. 

He had gone for his sword. However, a blinding pain had taken him at the back. Two rough hands tore him back and off of his horse, the fall winding him as he was rushed away from the saddle, a leg twisted into the stirrup—and suddenly, the world was upside down, the sky blue and cold, and Felix felt his arms held tight, shoulder screaming, by another weight of a second person.

He was staring up into the hard, scarred face of another young man—perhaps only a handful of years older than the boy thief—and except this young man was extremely strong. The entire weight of his arms twisted Felix into the dirt, his teeth aching from the force of his neck being held to the earth. He had light blue eyes and his hair, strangely, matched it, shaved close to its sides, his fringe matted and damp in sweat.

His eyes fixed Felix with a cold stare that matched his own.

“You scored a nobleman and his girl, Ashe.” The young man called out joyfully to his companion. “Lucky, lucky. Do you see this sword? Edelgard is going to be so proud of us.”

The thief, his blade still tight to Annette’s neck, had gently taken her arm and was walking her backwards, back into the center of the road. He kept his eyes to hers, steady and calm, but he shouted back: “Why do you think I stopped her?”

Now, Annette felt his eyes following down her body in a greedy, shameless calculation of everything she was worth—no longer a person— but a value for this boy to strip clean.

Annette’s voice trembled. Her eyes flickered to Felix. “Please, don’t hurt him.”

The boy, this Ashe, his eyes looked at her, blinking, and then he smiled. And how painful that smile looked, as if he really meant when he said: “I don’t want to. Neither does my partner. But that’s up to him, right? If he doesn’t fight us, no one will come to any harm”

A low sound coughed harshly from the dirt. Felix, his eyes open wide, his mouth all teeth and ire. “Don’t you fucking touch her, rat.”

The thief's partner shoved Felix’s back with the palm of his hand. Annette watched Felix’s fall, his back into the dirt, how he tried in vain to not show the pair how weak he truly was. He pushed himself back to his feet, a hand wiping at his still-bleeding mouth. “Just take what you want and leave us. I couldn’t care less if you want a damn sword. I have plenty.”

At once, Felix offered out the sword, sheath and all, dropping it at his feet. “Now, take the blade away from her neck.”

Ashe studied the sword, the design and its heavy patterning, familiar and militarized, like that of a noble knight—like the ones sometimes Dorothea sang about in her songs around their campfire. A thick golden shield stitched into his breast, the shield of the Aegis...

“Wait.” Ashe turned back. He raced his eyes quickly across Felix’s body, then he turned back to Annette. “Which lord’s house are you from?”

Annette tried to swallow. The edge of the blade bit into her skin with the movement. “We are just minor lords. Just take our bags and leave us. We don’t have much else to give you. The sword is the most valuable thing between us.”

Ashe shook his head, the movement slow and deliberate. “Please, don’t make me ask again, Annette.” His smile dripped mournfully, like he was ashamed to say her name. “That’s what he called you, right? Annette?”

“Yes.” Annette whispered back. “That’s my name.”

“Your—um, husband’s clothes—they look tailored in a certain house banner, and I know there is a design for the house name. I cannot think of the name of the Lord but it is a keep close by, isn’t it?” Ashe’s green eyes poured over her in his plea. “Won’t you tell me the name?”

Annette wanted to shake her head ‘no’, but the blade kept her still. “...Please, just take our bags and go. I don’t know what you want from us.”

“This is taking too long!” His partner shouted. He had turned away from Felix to stare directly at Ashe. “I thought you said you couldn’t read—who cares what house they’re from?”

So close to the boy’s face, Annette watched as he flushed brightly, his face tight, raw with anger. “Shut up! Just because I can’t read doesn’t mean I can’t pay attention—I’m trying to get us more information!”

Again, Annette’s eyes moved to Felix. He stared back at her. His mouth was partly opened, as if to speak, but he was only breathing. She could see the rapid, hot breaths spill into the air, misty in the chill. His eyes said it all: don’t say a word. But the other man was behind Felix again, a hand that reached up to grip hard at the back of his neck, and he shoved Felix’s forward again, enjoying how he stumbled for balance. “Stupid move, giving up your weapon.”

Felix’s dark eyes narrowed into the man’s face, unimpressed. “He can’t read and you can’t even force me still. I won’t need a weapon.” A dry smirk pinned to Felix’s pale face. “What a sorry excuse for a robbery this is.”

At once, the man lunged at Felix’s back—he rushed him forward, into the hard earth, and twisted a fist deep into Felix’s stomach. The horrible sound of air pushed out of Felix’s mouth, that little gasp of pain, shock. “Shut up! Answer my friend!”

Annette found herself screaming back in fear. Felix’s stupid tongue was only asking for more pain!  “Stop! Goddess, please, stop!”

“Then answer my friend. Who is he?” The other man called. He was at Felix again. He dragged Felix’s back through the dirt, a hand at the collar of his vest, his knuckles thick and scarred behind the gauntlet. He gave Felix’s a rough shake, knuckles tight. “Playing dumb isn’t gonna work here. So you’re some Faerghus nobleman's brat? Whose?”

Annette tried to step towards Felix but Ashe’s arm only lifted higher under her chin.

At the sight, Felix’s closed his eyes. He grimaced, as if remembering himself. “Let her go.”

“Not gonna tell me, huh?” The man replied. His voice was thick with sarcasm. “Too bad.”

Ashe’s green eyes flashed in a dry, cold warning. “Caspar. Don’t. You promised we wouldn’t.”

“You waste too much time with all of your talking, Ashe. He ain’t gonna talk without some pressure.” He eyed Felix’s again. It was a masterful look that exposed the strange way this nobleman seemed to favour his right shoulder. “You don’t look so good. Somethin’ already wrong with your arm?” He leaned forward, his breath hot in Felix’s face. “Some other spineless nobleman already try to see some of that pretty blue blood of yours, huh?”

“Twice the man you’ll ever be.” Felix’s sharp mouth pulled into a thin sneer. “...At least he had the nerve to make me bleed.”

With a quick, well-aimed punch, he pressed the heavy iron of his weighted fistacuffs into Felix’s shoulder—straight into the wound. At once, Felix’s entire face drained of blood, a look of hate and pain that sucked the air out of his chest. Annette could only watch in horror as Felix weakly twisted away, a horrible cry that split the cold quiet air, high and piercing.

“You want it to stop?’ The man said, his voice a gruff whisper in Felix’s face. “Tell me your name.”

Felix forced this mouth closed. He swallowed the sound to scream again, even when he felt his skin slipping opening, the hot gush of blood reopening the wound, into his clothes. He said nothing else. He just bared his teeth, low on his knees, and stared through the man, into the sky.

“Wow, he really is stubborn, ain’t he?” The man tossed back towards the thief. Annette forced to name him, forced to understand that this was really, honestly, happening. Caspar, the thief had called him, Caspar. He sounded personally impressed. He pulled his knuckles back, shiny with blood in the fading yellow light, and Annette, Annette felt her heart skip inside of her chest.

“Stop!” She said at once. “I’ll tell you; I’ll tell you, just please, please stop.”

“Annette,” Felix growled at her but the sound was short and weak. The fire within his eyes had turned black and cold. It was all he could manage through his teeth. He was breathing thinly through the gasps of his clenched teeth, his blood boiling inside of his stomach. Then, he coughed, and Annette watched a wet line of blood drip from the corner of his mouth.

Her stomach turned to ice. Why couldn’t she move? Why didn’t she start screaming for help? Felix was already sick—he hid it well from Sylvain and the others, but she had felt it under her hands, each rare time she found she could touch him—and she knew that he couldn’t take this kind of punishment for much longer.

These men could beat him so badly that Felix wouldn’t be able to move. And if they took the horses with them, Annette wouldn’t be able to get them back to the keep before nightfall. And if they were stranded in the forest, in the cold, at night, with just the strength of Annette’s magic to keep them warm…

Tears filled her eyes. She couldn’t do it. She didn’t know enough white magic. She wasn’t Mercie.

They’d die. They’d die and it would be all her fault.

“All right, talk then, girl.” Caspar lifted his heated blue eyes to her. “Who are you? Full name.”

“Annette. Annette Dominic.”

“And him? Which house does he belong to?”

“Fraldarius.” Annette said. She held her eyes to Felix’s face as she spoke. He wouldn’t look at her. She closed her eyes, too, in shame. She just kept giving these men exactly what they wanted.

This is all my fault, Annette thought, the only thought, cold and unspoken.

‘Fraldarius,” Caspar held the word numbly in his mouth. He turned back to Ashe, his hands still fisted into Felix’s clothes. “Doesn’t ring a bell.”

Ashe merely stared in shocked at Annette’s face. "Fraldarius. As in Lord Rodrigue Fraldarius?” At once, Ashe’s green eyes turned to Felix. “You’re the Shield of Faerghus’s son?”

“Doesn’t it just make you sick, Ashe?” Caspar spat into the dirt, clearly unimpressed. “All these nobles and their lofty titles. It’s just like Edelgard says. It has to end. We have to—”

A cold glare from Ashe stopped Caspar’s next words. “Um. Right. Talking too much. Got it.”

Caspar, the brute between the pair with those light blue eyes, stared, frozen and hard, over Felix’s bruised face. There was a painfilled way this noble was holding himself up, one hand loose around his side, his dark eyes staring straight into Caspar’s face, that reminded him of an animal that knew it was dying. “He isn’t gonna talk until I beat it out of him.”

Then, as if prompted by the sight of Caspar’s fists— Annette watched as Felix retched forward, his chin low the dirt, as he vomited blood and bile. His shoulders twisted in the effort to stop. His fingers clawed through the dirt, unable to stop his trembling, his nerves screaming in confusion, hot, cold, burning at his shoulder, from where that man had punched him, and the strength of his arms left him, as he laid down into the dirt, his hands grasping over his face, as if to block everything out.

“Shit!” Caspar stepped back at once, his voice tight and high. “Never mind; gross! Did you know he was sick, Ashe? Goddess, you think he’s contagious?”

“Felix!” Annette whimpered. She found herself moving forward without though, and, another impossible miracle, the blade did not slit her throat—she just felt the cold skin of its edge move against her throat as she turned, and then, free from its teeth, she ran to Felix, to collect him tight against her, her hands already churning in the want to heal him, but she couldn’t bear to turn her back to the two men that did this to them, and she turned, her face tight in fear, hate, and she spat at them: “Just take whatever you want and go!”

The boy thief looked completely shocked. He turned on his companion at once. “I told you not to hurt anyone! You promised me!”

“I only punched him one time! The rest was pushing him around for show! Sheesh Ashe, you know how this works! What, we take one step into Faerghus territory and it's like you’re losing your nerve!”

“Because you always take things too far! She was going to give us what we wanted anyway!”

Annette pulled Felix into her, close and tight, uncaring of the sick over his mouth, his hair, and she forced the tears away from her voice. “Felix, are you okay? Are you hurt anywhere else?”

Felix said nothing else, but Annette felt he didn’t need too. He just crushed himself into her arms, and she could feel his labored heavy breathing rattle through his chest, and the way his eyes stared through her—she wondered, if for a terrible moment, he had been fighting his fever again long before their journey—and she just—she just was having so much fun with him—why didn’t see it? Why didn’t she bother to ask? There was a wetness starting to pool at his shoulder's front, sticking into his clothes, down his arm, and she felt him begin to shiver with the shock of it.

Mercie, Goddess, help me. I didn’t know. Annette closed her eyes tight, a hand protectively over the back Felix's head. Tell me what to do.

The two robbers were still screaming at one another, loudly, and clearly unhinged in their plans gone wrong. 

“Yeah, and letting a nobleman’s son die in the road! Like that won’t sound every alarm that we’re here!”

“Please. Just take what you want and go.” Annette cut in hotly. She told this to the darkness behind her eyes. She felt so small and afraid. She just prayed they’d leave a horse. Or. The darkness behind her eyes shifted. And how suddenly that darkness appeared so bright and fiery, her fingers tight against Felix’s shirt, and she thought, I could fight them, but she waited, because she knew exactly what they were— a thief and a grappler—and she—

Annette had the advantage.

“Are you kidding?” That Caspar man argued at once, his boyish face littered in contempt. “Ashe has all of the great knight lord’s memorized, and if he says your beau is an heir, he’s coming back with us.”

Caspar took a step forward, and Annette, Annette already had an ice spell tight under her tongue, and she just needed him to take a few steps closer before—She felt Felix’s hands grab at her tightly, a pathetic attempt to hold her back. It was like he had felt the surge of magic, building, inside of her body.

“Don’t.” Ashe hissed at him.

Caspar stopped.

Annette looked up, back towards Ashe, how those green eyes looked to Annette, now wide and searching, his thoughts clearly far away from thoughts of the robbery. Then, all at once, his green eyes taking in the sight of the two cold, shaking people before him. The color drained from his face.

“I...I’m sorry. I really am.”

He lowered his knife and stepped back, away from the pair, and towards Annette’s waterskin. He picked it up in one smooth movement and then he collected the reins of their horses, leading them back and off the road.

“What are you doing?” Caspar hissed back. His light eyes tracked his partner in disbelief. “What is wrong with you?”

“I’m letting them go.” Ashe returned at once. His voice felt empty.

“We can’t let them go, Ashe!” Caspar yelled at once.

Ashe turned back to Annette, his eyes to hers, and they looked away. “I can’t do this anymore.”

Annette watched, her tongue frozen, cold as the snow around them, the spell dying, as Ashe took both of the horses. The fire inside of her chest started to fade, taking to ashes the hope she had tasted, a hopelessness rising to match it. Why couldn't she move? She was a powerful, powerful magic-user. Why couldn't she move?

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t beg them. If they left her, Felix would die.

He would die.

“You’re right: this is taking too long.” Ashe continued slowly. “Just leave him, Cas, we gotta go.”

Caspar, he all but stomped his foot on the road. “But we have a nobleman’s son!”

“Edelgard made it clear that we weren’t allowed to make ourselves known. We can’t take political hostages. Our camp is hardly enough to keep us going, let alone two more.”

“This is our chance, Ashe. She sent us out to get supplies and we are coming back to her with two horses, a fancy sword, and Fraldarius’s son. She’ll be happy, Ashe.”

Again, Ashe’s green eyes stare into Annette’s. “I…”

Annette simply held Felix’s tighter. Felix was leaning all of his weight over her now—and Ashe, his hands still had the horses reins—and if Felix— Felix.

A small sorry sound escaped Annette’s lips. She had begun to cry.

She just wrapped herself around Felix and cried, her tears painfully hot in the chill of the air, and it felt like her sobs could fill all of the silence that Felix wasn’t able to break, because she was stupid, so endlessly stupid, and useless, and unwanted, and now, because of her, he would die, and she just wanted so badly to disappear.

Caspar stared at the small, crying woman, his light eyes suddenly...sorry.

“We can’t leave them here.” He continued his appeal to Ashe, his voice strong over the wind. “Let Edelgard decide what to do with them. They’re miles out from the keep and it will be nightfall soon. Her beau is sick—he might be even dying— the girl knows it. They won’t survive the night this way.”

Two hands ripped at Ashe’s hair, and suddenly, his sweet voice cried out, cripping and broken: “You said we wouldn’t hurt anyone, Caspar. Now, look what we’ve done to them! And now what? We take them prisoner?  We don’t even have a prison!”

“He was going to draw his sword! I couldn’t just sit there and watch you die!” Caspar growled back at once. His thin chest was heaving with the effort to not match Ashe’s screaming.

“You never trust me to take care of myself! I had it under control!”

“Yeah?! Your shaking hands over that damn knife didn’t look so convincing! You know how pissed off Linhardt would be if I let you get hurt, outta the lotta us?!”

“She was so nice! And now she’s just scared! I didn’t want to hurt her! We weren’t supposed to hurt anyone!”

“We haven’t yet, not if we take them as our prisoners!”

Annette flinched at the two loud, angry voices, tossed between the storm of their words. She just curled into Felix, listening to his heart, his breathing, trying to think, trying to reason, but she only felt more tears burning down her face.

“HE. THREW. UP. BLOOD!” Ashe yelled back. The words were heated with every emphasized shake of his hands, pointed right back as Caspar.

“UGH, STOP FIGHTING ME; WE ARE AGREEING ON THE SAME THING!” Caspar stomped away. His own hands were now through his short-cropped hair, before he shuddered a loud, deep breath, and returned to Ashe, his face awashed in sweat and defeat.

“...Hubert was right, sweet Sothis, Ashe, curse your bleeding heart. They’re gonna be so much more trouble than it's worth if we don’t take ‘em as prisoners. but...fine. We’ll do it your way, we’ll take them back—ugh, nicely —” Caspar turned back to the couple, the pitiful way the small girl was clinging to the man. He allowed a deep swirl of air to ease out from his nose as he settled. “He looks like he can’t sit a horse anyway. Besides, Linhardt would murder me himself if I just left a sick person in the road...noble or not, I guess.”

Annette fingers knotted hard into Felix’s shirt. Still, he did not respond, and Annette, she had just sat there and cried.

And this was all her fault.

A hand was at her shoulder—she couldn't hold back a sound of fear—but the touch wasn’t rough.

The boy, Ashe, peer down at her like he had been the one robbed. “I’m sorry. Just come with us. I don’t know what will happen, or what she’ll do—but we’ll get your husband help, okay?”

And Annette. Annette only held Felix tighter, unable to speak.

Her words were gone, her power, her will. Words, words, words, words, words. She couldn’t spend a single spell. She couldn’t protect Felix, or herself, the horses.

Mercie, she thought, empty and afraid. What have I done?

Chapter Text

Annette was seated in a hard wood-carved chair at the edge of a large wooden war-table. She knew the table’s purpose at a single glance: it was meant for a map of Fódlan, little hand-carved pieces of militias and war retainers. It was heavy, towering, and Annette felt dwarfed just to sit near it. Her legs, as well, did not touch at the furred flooring beneath her chair. It triggered the foggiest memory from her childhood as she stared at it. Once, as a little girl, she peered around the door-frame to sneakily spy on her father, his large back to her, as it always had been most days, while he poured over such a table. His shoulders never stopped their hunched posture. His gaze, steady and refined, never seemed to turn towards her with such a look of intrigue... 

Annette never told her father but she often waited for him to leave just so she could crawl beneath the mass of it, her small fists sneaking sweets, and, with determination to put them back exactly as she had found them, the tiny wood men, whom she often used to play her story-book fantasies with. 

This war table, however, was empty. Well, almost entirely, save for a goblet meant for wine and her furthest right, another woman.

This woman, Annette understood, was not Edelgard. However, Annette forced herself to be on her highest guard irregardless, because this woman, with her deep green eyes, was staring intensely at Annette from where she sat. Her curling dark hair only made her feel more mysterious in her perch. Ashe had brought Annette to this tent and asked her to wait inside with little given instruction, so she certainly did not

The tent surrounding the pair was quite large. It had to be the largest out of the small tents Annette had glanced at as she had moved into the encampment. Caspar and Ashe, the two rouge bandits, they had stuck to their word: both in the fact that Annette had been stripped of any valuables and to the fact that they had lead her and Felix straight back into their camp. It certainly wasn’t much to behold. It took the group far into the snowy woods, far and away from the closest trail, by a deep hidden valley lined into the snow-heavy forest.

The trees shielded the camp and its inhabitants nicely. At such a far distance, Annette knew at once that the strategic location had used the snow and the wind to its advantage to keep its location hidden for so long. Although, Annette felt that information like that was pointless to her now.

For now, she only longed, desperately, to go with Felix, but she couldn’t. Because right now, she had been requested to be seen at once by this ‘Edelgard’ person, and so she did as she was told, because she wasn’t an idiot. Certainly, she hated herself because she had smiled into highway-robbery, but Annette knew her convictions and she knew them well. It was just as Dedue had said. There were worse fates than freezing in the snow. Fighting these people now...with Felix as weak as he would be a suicide within itself.

Besides, she felt she had so little fight left in her now. The robbery had only been only a few hours ago but she had only felt all the more exhausted as she waited. Her skin hurt from the wind. Her eyes hurt from how hard she had cried, crushed into Felix’s chest, unable to talk or breathe, her fear breaking down her tiny, thinly veiled attempts for composure—failure and self-hate and resentment filling the rest of what she could not say aloud—for her to be sitting down inside of a warm tent...she almost felt grateful.

She pulled tightly at the blanket that had been draped around her shoulders by the woman sitting across from her. This woman had said very little else, besides nervously tugging at her own long dark hair, before she fluttered her eyes back to the tent’s entrance, clearly just as anxious to see Edelgard herself.

It had just been Annette and this woman for quite some time, fuming at one another, locking and unlocking their eyes, trapped within a startlingly thick silence that Annette refused to break. She bided her time studying the walls: the thick animal hides that masked the coldness of the dirt beneath them. The strange notion that there only seemed to be eight chairs in total at the war-table. And, with little reassurance for Annette, that the candles seemed to burn with an intensity that made the enclosure of the room only feel hotter and smaller than it really was.

Sometimes, when Annette breathed in a very short breath, she watched the candle closest to her flicker at the call of her breathing. How far away that candle in her guest chambers felt now. How weak and inconsequential the flame.

“...Are you certain you do not want anything to drink?” The woman asked lightly.

This would be her second attempt to get Annette to drink from her own cup. Annette resisted feeling guilty for her refusal. She did not mean to make anything more difficult than it was but she had full right to refuse a drink. And she did not wish to drink. Not here, not now, and certainly not when Felix could only be a mere few tents away, suffering, and her mind whispered for a way out as fast as possible. Irrational thoughts, plans of fighting, plans of escape, plans of dragging him back through the snow...

Annette realized the woman was glaring at her quite openly.

Annette met her cutting look. She had very gorgeous features, akin to someone Annette would think could easily make it as an on-stage performer, or a dancer, but there was a carefully crafted mask that sat gracefully over her face. Her expression remained courteous but removed. Still, Her hands lifted and set nervously across the table, fingers woven together in a formal dignity. “Edelgard will insist. I have a direct order that you, um.” She paused. “I am...anxious, that you feel comfortable here.”

Annette’s words budded inside of her throat, opening in the dim light of the tent, words of roses— please, please save Felix —and words of thorns— I could light this pitiful camp ablaze with the snap of my fingers —before she tasted blood inside of her own mouth. She had bitten her tongue.

Her silence would say it all for her. Annette knew the power of silence well.

Before they were parted—not by force, Annette noted with slight tremulous awe—but simply by request that Annette be led to a new tent while Caspar carefully moved Felix’s away and towards the back of the encampment— Annette recalled how her fingers, numb from snow, from the cold, could scarcely hold onto Felix as Caspar collected a limp, overly-warm arm around his neck to lift Felix up.

“Please.” Her fingers burned as they knotted into the man’s sleeve. “Please. I’m begging you. Whatever you want, whatever you need—but please don’t hurt him, please.”

The miserable way Caspar stared at Annette. There was the pinkish outline of an old scar over his lip that tore into his guilty look. “...Um...our camp has a healer. And, um, he doesn’t do this whole...war, your beau will be taken care of. I know you don’t believe me, but we aren’t here to just hurt people. Edelgard wants us to be better than that and...well, you got mixed up with the wrong house, I guess. Sorry you’re here, too.”

Annette resisted her tears then. She resisted them now, too, to be stared at and prodded by strangers and their terrible, uncertain intentions. They had long dried up over that miserable ride to the camp. What good would crying do for her now? She felt as if she hardly mattered at all anymore. She had only been asked, and nicely at that, to take a seat inside of a warm tent and wait. The morning that had set Annette and Felix on a brisk errand was setting into a dark, orange sun-set that sparkled the snow into ribbons of orange light, near touchable in the frost.

She just prayed that Felix wasn’t being forced through far worse.

A soft sound rattled the thick fabric door of the tent. The dark haired woman moved, her face passive, but she lit up into an appreciative smile as she acknowledged the person that had entered. Annette turned as well and found herself staring into the face of another young woman.

Another young woman…? Annette blinked. Blinked again. Yes, it was absolutely true; she was staring at a young woman, much the same age at her, with long blonde hair and a slender form that hardly suggested strength or power or…

Edelgard had turned to face Annette. In the harsh glow of the orange light Annette realized that this woman was missing an eye. A dark eye-patch rested over her right eye, covering the eye socket in its entirely. Only the faintest edge of a scar puckered out across her pale, fair skin, just under the cloth of the patch. It looked deep. It looked like it had been a painful wound.

It looked like an old scar.

Annette’s lungs shriveled inside of her chest as Edelgard made her way inside. She had shaken off the snow from her long, silver-blonde hair, and, in the candle’s flickering, Annette watched as Edelgard greeted the dark-haired woman fondly—her arms opening into a quick hug—before she walked towards the back of the table, straight opposite of Annette.

She was dressed warmly— a thick red coat and red doublet to match it—and her boots made a distant heavy clatter in her walk; clearly this young slender woman held far more weight into her gait than she let on. She pulled out one of the wooden chairs rather unceremoniously, reached out for the goblet on her end of the table, and pulled it closer.

Then, after a small testing sip, Annette found herself staring into Edelgard’s single pale eye. She did not blink. She did not move again. She only took another sip, watching Annette, studying her carefully.

The dark haired woman leaned forward in conspiracy, but her loud soprano voice made it clear that she was speaking for the benefit of everyone at the table. “Our guest refuses to speak with me, Edelgard. But this is her, I am told.”

Edelgard lowered her cup for a moment. Her pale eye blinked.

“Your name is Annette Dominic, correct?” The woman’s voice had a clear, distinct ring to it, formal and definitely educated. It forced Annette to re-evaluated at once who, exactly, she was dealing with. Between the two wayward fools outside—the boy thief that could not read, the thug that wanted more than anything to resort to violence—she had expected a leader of a similar caliber. “Am I addressing you by the wrong name? Do you prefer your maiden name or married title?”

Now, Annette felt even smaller before this woman, with her clear, harsh stare of her left eye, staring pointedly at Annette from around the rim of her wine. Annette lifted her head to meet her. Her kept her gaze sharp and alert. So, these people allowed her and Felix shelter only after they had robbed them of their supplies, choice, and dignity. She wouldn’t give into trust so easy.

Annette knew nothing of the war. She did know how the suffering of hunger or destitution of poverty. But she had read. She had consumed stories and letters and strategy, and she would use those to the best of her memory. Annette was nobody’s fool.

Annette flickered her eyes to her untouched goblet. It was a rather nicely crafted piece, glinting in the brightness of the candles throughout the tent. It reminded Annette of Prince Dimitri’s own dining set, and the memory made her heart wilt.

They would not be returning to the keep tonight. Or, given the way Felix’s condition only seemed to be worsening, tomorrow.

Annette’s blue eyes met Edelgard’s again.

Would this woman allow them to leave at all? She thought, unable to grasp the right answer. If Edelgard threw them out, Felix would die in the snow. If Edelgard dictated some sense of order for their imprisonment, Annette would give up the ability to control what very little right she had left.

But...the camp did not look as she had imagined. Where, Annette wondered nervously, would we be held? When she had been brought through the thickest of trees, she had expected...Annette wasn’t sure...war-banners, miles of chevaux de frise, snow-muddy trenches, the warfare of a military group slowly inching their gain up the road as they picked off poor travelers at their choosing. But the camp simply wasn’t so.

It was small, for starters. Far, far smaller than Annette thought possible to house whatever “war effort” that Caspar ruffian had vented about. And, much to her relief, it lacked any sense of a prison. There were no chains, no weights to chain them to the camp’s care, no cell to hold her and Felix together, shivering and starving through the snowfall.

It was just a small tightly bundled together stint of heavy silken tents; the middle of the campground hosted the boiling roar from a central fire, piled high with thickly cut logs and burned tree branches. It seemed to be burning day and night, always angrily flickering and fuming in its spit—perhaps for feeding the main party as a whole—complete with carved out wooden stumps to sit upon. There was a marked out field that hosted the horses of the camp as well—Annette marveled rather ashamedly at their markings and colors—she had not seen such fine looking steeds since her time at the Royal School, and those horses’ were always reserved for the richest of the nobility.

Which made Annette wonder again...who were these people? And with the refined, delicate way the dark haired woman sat...the way Edelgard spoke and moved, with grace, timed poise...could these be people from Adrestian nobility? In Holy Kingdom territory? In the middle of winter? But how to explain Ashe or Caspar. Those two men clearly had no sense of education between them? Labor servants? Peons?

But the way they spoke of Edelgard…

It sounded so...equal. The way one spoke of a friend more than a master...

The woman, this Edelgard, she held Annette’s piercing look with an edge of intrigue. She blinked. It was a singular motion that fluttered the long, silver-blond cut of her fringe along only at one side of narrow her face. She lowered her cup half-way, holding it close to her chest, with her brows furrowed into faint concern.

“Dorothea.” Edelgard said at once. “Did you not offer our guest a drink?”

“I did.” The other woman replied stiffly. “She didn’t answer me, either.”

Edelgard looked annoyed. Her one light eye regarded Annette’s drink for a heated moment before she relaxed again. “I see.”

“Do you wish for me to take the cup, then?” Dorothea continued, her voice earnest. Her wide green eyes looked over Annette again, and, again, Annette felt herself held in place; it was not dissimilar to the way Ashe’s eyes roamed over her body—searching for something Annette could not possibly give. “She doesn’t seem very...hardy.”

Annette flushed at the insult. She was reminded of her stupid failed attempt to even mount a horse with her short height. She forced her arms to stay at her sides, numb and coiled tightly. She would not cross her arms over her chest. She would not hide herself from the prying eyes of strangers. Even given the urgency of her situation, this was not the first time Annette knew she was thought of as lesser in the world of women, dictated by women. And to be seated before a female general...

“Would you prefer water, then?” Edelgard asked of Annette.

Annette could not help it. She lifted her hand to scoot the goblet only further from herself.

Dorothea looked unimpressed. “This isn’t going anywhere, Edie.”

“Yes.” Edelgard’s cool expression matched her. “This isn’t, is it?”

“Do you wish for me to stay?”

Edelgard’s cup lifted. She took a long sip—overly long—clearly exasperated—before she replied towards Dorothea: “Only if you wish; you may leave as well.”

Dorothea—the woman with the dark, curling hair, Annette realized—she jerked up in an instant. Annette thought she must be some type of servant girl, or handmaiden, expectant to bow and mewl for Annette’s refusal to play her dutiful part—but Dorothea, amazingly, reached out to touch Edelgard quite fondly.

She lifted Edelgard’s head towards her, green eyes low and secretive, and simply...gave her a kiss on her forehead. Dorothea then turned towards Annette. Her beautiful features looked guarded, unhurried, as she stared. “Well, I’ll leave you to it.”

And, with the same graceful pose that seemed to surround Dorothea, she was gone from the tent with a swing of her hips.

Although it was just the two women now, Annette felt like the walls of the tent had only shrunken. Her throat was dry. Her skin hurt from the wind and snow. And she only wished she knew where Felix was, right in this moment, and if...if he truly was being treated as kindly as Caspar had promised.

From beneath the table, her hands clenched. That fire burned again inside of her chest, and she fought to let the smoke of it cloud her mind. Burning these people alive inside of this camp will not make Felix any better, Annette minded herself. Inside, however, her mind shrieked.

“So, you refuse to speak with me?” Her voice sounded rather disappointed. “I had hoped you might be more inclined to speak on friendlier terms. Dorothea is a far better negotiator than I am.”

Again, Edelgard lifted her cup. She pulled in another long swill of the wine—and in her mind’s eye, Annette was reminded of her father and his knights—the masculine way men seemed to naturally angle themselves towards one another once the day’s drinks had been brought out—and there was time to share in conversation, a joke, a war story.

Edelgard evidently knew her way around a bottle.

“Of course, I see that my friends have not treated you well—threatening to rob you of your horses and valuables—” Edelgard continued. Suddenly, she sighed, a hand pressed to her forehead, “I just want you to know that the point of their robberies was only for simple valuables and food—water specifically—” she shook her head in a single motion of self-implication. “I have failed to keep my own loved ones well cared for in this dense Faerghus winter.” Again, she paused for her drink. “I am afraid, where I am from, the weather never becomes so harsh, and so I resorted to highway robbery just to survive. I admit; this feeling unnerves me.”

Words were behind Annette’s teeth. Words, aimed high and tight at this woman—her strange camp, her mindless followers, her carelessness to speaks towards Annette as if she did not give the very orders that had landed her into entrapment. Annette used her silence well.

She felt she had practiced it enough lately, between her father and her arranged marriage and her life of being so...used.

“I never told Caspar nor Ashe to harm a soul in this mission.” Edelgard told Annette simply. “Do you believe me?”

The warm orange glow from the table’s central candle held strong. A strange light that entered into the watery reflection inside of this woman’s good eye—her eye-patch, Annette could now see, was rather...old. It looked like it had been repaired several times. Little details went fuzzy with time but a singular image was barely legible into its cloth.

It was a symbol of a black bird-like mass. An eagle, Annette wondered, but she had no earthly idea why or for what it meant. She couldn’t recall the colors of the war beyond her own side—purples and blues, yellows and silvers—so…

Annette knew at once that her reasoning was become sounder. This place wasn’t a normal bandit camp. It wasn’t some up-rising from angry farmers. It wasn’t the vengeance of Duscur and its people, marching to punish the silent king. This woman...from the Adrestian Empire. A general? But how? Annette wanted to laugh at the fear of the very idea! While this woman had a camp and followers, they looked ragged, wind-chapped and rather unprepared! What in the world would the Empire have to gain from such impotent gorilla warfare within Lord Fraldarius’s forests in the middle of winter? Clearly, they lacked no patrons, no gilded master to feed his hungry wardogs.

And...Annette was forced to acknowledge the truth inside of Edelgard’s words; she and her thieves had mentioned they were desperate for supplies—and supplies Annette and Felix had run to an ailing farmland just south of the keep. It...sadly, added up.

It meant that Edelgard meant her facts and knew them well.

A small warm hope opened inside of the cold in Annette’s chest.

If Edelgard was a woman of her word, could this mean, in some way, that Felix was getting the help he so desperately needed?

The silence dragged on, so much louder than Annette had ever heard it before. The snow outside, layering the campgrounds with the footfall of Edelgard’s small force, trailed this way and that, and little clumps of snow had pulled at either entrance towards Edelgard’s tent—wet and rather unkempt. The tent’s flooring was a thick pile of animal hides—wolves, bucks, wild boar—and the hurried fall of wet boot-prints had ruined much of their fine furs.

No...this certainly wasn’t...a normal war camp...That much even Annette’s limited knowledge could understand.

So...where was she, exactly?

What did this woman want?

Edelgard had finished her wine.

She stood.  A hand pressed to the table to support herself. Annette watched her move with a jolt up her spine. She hadn’t expected this woman to move. And, well, she wasn’t as graceful as Dorothea—or, maybe, her slight waver was due to the wine—but she moved away from her seat and around the edge of the high table and was walking towards Annette.

Annette refused to move. She would not panic. She would not speak. But she looked up into Edelgard’s face with as much dignity as she prayed to possess. She was no knight. She was not a savior. But she knew exactly who she was and she would not show fear now.

“Heh.” Edelgard made a small sound from the corner of her mouth. A small dark smile played over her lips. “I sit here, offering you my safety, my wine, and yet I dare to question why you wouldn’t trust me—after all that you’ve seen thus far.” Then, she sighed, the sound soft and listless. “I am truly a terrible negotiator. What would I know of compromise?”

That pale eye turned over Annette, searching and wide. “I will not pretend, then, any longer, to have a skill that I so dearly lack.” Edelgard said with a dry, clear finality.

“You have every right to be afraid of me.” Edelgard stated simply.  “I would be, too.”

Annette held her breath.

“You do not wish to speak with me, so I will not mince words, Annette. I have come to this place for a specific purpose, as did my companions, and we will not leave until that goal is met.” She reached out an arm; her long fingers followed to touch at the length of Annette’s hair. She collected a thin strand of it between her fingers and lifted it up into the candle’s light.

“...Very pretty.” Edelgard remarked quietly. She then allowed the strands to fall from her fingers in a fluid, flowing motion; Annette’s hair shone gently in the smoky light, the way blood might fall from a stray cut, back over Annette’s neck. 

“Tell me: you do not wish to speak of you, so let us talk of a more pressing matter. And, of this matter, I feel you would be more inclined to speak. After all, he needs you far more than you need him.” Edelgard’s eye blinked slowly as she analyzed Annette’s expression. It was such an open, desirable stare that shined from Edelgard; some uncomfortable internal glee within her eye that made Annette’s stomach twist in pain. “Who is that boy to you?”

Annette froze. Her chest felt so tight she was scarcely able to breathe. She did not expect Edelgard to be so close, let alone for her to touch someone she had taken, without so many words, prisoner. And Felix. She was offering Felix, now. Annette had no choice. She had to use her words. She had to start making clear what it was she was committed to do.

Anything she needed to do to protect Felix.

Annette’s lips parted faintly.  “...I was told you had a healer in this camp.”

Edelgard swirled the wine around Annette’s goblet with a single finger. “Yes. That I do.”

“Please,” she forced the words not to tremble. “Tell me what you are going to do to him.”

“That depends,” Edelgard said. “What do you want me to do to him?”

Her heart stopped dead inside of her chest. At once, Annette turned roughly in her chair to face this woman before her. That fire was so wild, so heavy inside of her lungs, she thought she might just burst into flames herself. Edelgard was no easy person to read; what did she mean from that question? What did she think this was?

Edelgard seemed unmoved by Annette’s shock. “...He is from the Fraldarius House. A grand general for King Lambert’s war.” Her pale eye seemed to thicken somehow, as she stared at Annette, and, once more, Annette felt there might be a poison glistening inside of this woman’s clear, calculated gaze. “However, I have my sources, and I understand that Lord Fraldarius’s first son is dead.”

Then, Edelgard grasped at Annette’s hand. She twisted, none-too-gently, to turn Annette’s wrist over so she could study her fingers. “I see no ring. Interesting. Ashe informed me you were his wife.” Her voice lowered and it made Annette’s skin crawl to hear its dark anticipation. “Am I mistaken?”

“...I…” Annette’s voice could hardly rise above a whisper. She felt held to the chair by mere touch alone. She did not need a knife to tear her flesh or a mace to shatter her jaw. Edelgard had her right beneath her fingers, a pulse point over her fear “...We are going to be wed. Soon.”

“With his first born dead, it would appear that Rodrigue is desperate to keep his little family alive; So, that has fallen to you.” Edelgard’s tight-lipped smile hardened. “How quaint.”

Annette flushed. Her pale skin washed in thick, ugly blotches of red in the candle’s glow. She might as well as signed Felix’s execution herself. “...Please, please don’t hurt him.”

Edelgard settled Annette’s hand back over the chair’s arm. Her fingertips lingered however, cold and weighted, as she considered her next words. Her head then tilted back. She had found Annette’s little request to be amusing.

“Annette, did you not hear me? You have full control of that.”

Annette’s teeth came together with a snap inside of her jaw. “...What do you mean?”

Edelgard’s fingers moved away and it felt like an iron weight had been taken from Annette’s arm.

Edelgard lifted the goblet again to take a sip. “You were forcibly betrothed.” She lowered her cup as she spoke, her voice light and uncaring, and Annette struggled to remind herself that her lips were only red with wine, and not blood. “I can get rid of him. I can free you from such a lovely cage. I can, of course, set you free after a time—and you may go back to wherever it is you’ve come from and, well, who would care for another dead man at war, hm? Men are so highly valued in Fódlan, and yet they are thrown away in a shroud called ‘honor’. They are so expendable. Wouldn’t you agree, Annette?”

A cage. A prison. Annette had used these words again and again during her time with the Fraldarius family. But now…? Annette felt her eyes close. She couldn’t look at this woman before her and lie. No. It was all too true now: how she felt about Felix, what she wanted from him. She had wanted it for a long time now. She had wanted it long before she even knew what it had meant to search for a soul to need, to spend time with, to

He was...what she chose, in spite of the evilness of the fate that brought them together. For all time.

...How Edelgard’s cruel smile only opened, higher, wider, her white teeth exposed, at honest confession across Annette’s face. If only Annette had the foresight to lie. If only Annette didn’t actually care for Felix—so that he might be safe from this woman’s ploy—to hold Felix’s illness against her—an ace within her fist that she could play whenever she wanted.

And Annette would crumple. She would crumple every time.

Felix couldn’t die. Felix couldn’t possibly be separated from her now. It was only a finger-length of time, and yet, Annette couldn’t stand the idea of escape now. She couldn’t run from this. She couldn’t hide from this. She would only find herself running back to Felix, back to that soft smile over his lips, where she wanted to kiss him, again and again, until her lips hurt with the zeal of her affection.

“I care for him.” Annette stated clearly. Her teeth ached at the confession. Her entire chest was splintered in fear, in pain. She was so stupid. She was going to get them killed for certain.

Edelgard’s thin, short smile dripped closed.

While she only possessed one eye, it now looked at Annette with a fragile sense of uncertainty. Her free hand moved back to the table to steady herself; she had rocked backwards and had sought to catch herself. Annette found herself swallow thinly, her own thoughts stretching to expand beyond the high wall of hopeless cradled around her chest. Did the loss of one eye leave Edelgard without some sense of sight, or perhaps depth perception? Was it the wine?

Was she weaker than she let on? Or was Annette just being pulled into a another con?

She had taken pity on a gentle face before.

“I see.” Was all Edelgard replied; she lifted the cup again to drink away the silence between them.

“May I see him?” Annette asked at once. She did not bother to hide her high urgency threaded through her voice or her distress to be taken from Felix since their arrival at the camp. What did it matter now, to hide anything that she wanted? Edelgard’s one bright eye saw through everything. “Please.” Annette added in hushed of a whisper when Edelgard’s closed-off look refused to regard her again.

She was not afraid to beg now.

“Are you certain you don’t wish for some wine?” Edelgard asked slowly. Her eye looked further away now, her gaze phased straight through Annette, into the earth, perhaps far deeper than that. Her expression was unreadable.

“No, thank you.” Annette finally responded. The words were only a whisper.

“We are not done with our conversation, Annette. In fact, we are far from it. And, you and I, we will need to have many more.” Edelgard continued slowly. She swallowed thickly around another sip but placed the goblet back onto the table. Her arms, padded in a deep, burning red, folded tightly at her chest. “I have further questions for you.”

The blue in Annette’s eyes only hardened into ice. “What do you want from me?”

“Hardly anything from you, pretty one.” Edelgard replied easily. “But that boy is very valuable to me. And if you are his betrothed, then I find myself unable to resist some information you both might possess.”

Annette felt her head shaking weakly. She had spent so long refusing to shake but the adrenaline was getting the better of her now. Everything was getting the better of her now. “I hardly think I’d know anything that you’d need. If you have spies and informants, they certainly would know more than me. I’m not...anything in this war.” Goddess, she was hardly anything to her own father!  “I don’t know anything! I’m not told anything.”

“You are a noble-lady with a Crest.” Edelgard disagreed calmly. “You are exactly what they want. Had you been anything less, Lord Rodrigue would have made certain you would have never met his son; you have spent time within his home. I will not hear these excuses.”

Annette’s entire body stiffened. Those words were so brutally honest that they felt like a visceral slap to the face. And, there was another thought, a new weak chain in her armor: How did Edelgard know she possessed a Crest? She ripped the fear away from her face. She couldn’t do this now. She couldn’t panic. Edelgard hadn’t threatened anything.

Not yet.

“Allow me to persuade your perspective a different way,” Edelgard began at once. “I have been informed that you are a noble-woman of close regard to King Lambert’s court. I will be frank: I will trade the aid of my healer to your—lover—” here, she dragged the word angrily, bitterly, and went on further: “but only if you are willing to tell me anything you might know about the Queen, my lady mother. Anything at all. I don’t care how trivial you think it, or a trifle you feel you wouldn’t understand. I need to know.”

Annette stared up at Edelgard. She was quite certain her mouth sagged open. But her thoughts did not stir, not once, to offer up a biting remark or a clever suggestion over the sick delusion at this poor, miserable, drunken woman. How dare she demand so much of Annette with that desperate look across her face! A hopeless question that spoke of so much...want.

The world seemed to fall into a quiet madness.

Her lady mother?  What could she possibly be getting at? What did she…

Annette’s heart dropped low into her stomach, churning and hard. Her father’s face, stern and unbent, as he let slip that Queen Patricia was a central point of this horrible, endless war and…

Annette beheld Edelgard’s face with a steady, questioning eye.

Annette had only seen so much of His Grace’s wife. Queen Patricia was a known recluse, only meant to make her greetings and her bows. She had an honest reminiscence that felt so natural, inclined within her step-son, so subtle and shy, but when she did smiled, and Annette always felt warmed by her...Prince Dimitri’s beautiful step-mother, with silver blonde hair and large purplesque-eyes. Her pretty heart-shaped face, her long legs, her pursed lips, as if constantly fretting a new thought, a new day, a new worry for her adoptive son…

Her daughter…?

Annette could only stare back in helpless shock.

Did anyone else know of this? Was this girl some secret child that perhaps even Lambert never knew about? What of the Prince? What of Rodrigue? Did her father know? And if Edelgard and her small renegade force was not a hidden dagger at the request of the Empire…

Was this camp all of her own creation? What was this war of Edelgard’s?

Edelgard’s face did not look like Queen Patricia's now. Her calm distant exterior looked shattered.

Annette’s silence had stirred something within her. A powerful rigidity overtook the woman before her. Annette watched as Edelgard brought herself up to her fullest height. Her shoulders were pushed up, high at her ears, like she could block out the horrible, ruthless cry as she turned on Annette—her eye pulsing, veins red and spidering—as her lips became a sudden blur of a terrible threat: “I am not cruel. I do not wish to be. But if you continue your silence, if you refuse to offer no detail at all—or worse,” that lone pale eye beheld Annette as a thing of hate— “if you lie to me—misuse my comrades, lead us into ruin— I will slay that boy with my own two hands, and you will watch. I am the birthright of the Adrestian Empire and nothing will stop me from getting my mother back. She does not belong to that despot who sits his broken throne; she is not the mother to his incompetent son—she is mine!—and I will not hesitate to destroy anyone in my way when I take her back with me. Do you understand me, girl?"

Annette’s head nodded only once.

No. She wasn’t anybody’s fool.

She knew Edelgard would keep that promise. She kill them all for that promise.

“What can I do, then? What do you want first from me?”

Edelgard’s pale eyebrows rose up slowly. This powerful, vengeful force that had rattled her pretty features, that shook her hair with such violence and rage, it had melted off of her like snow in the sun. She was now standing, a hand to grasp the back shoulder of Annette’s chair, looking down at Annette. She looked stricken; anxious and pale, like Annette had in turn proposed they should sing together, or dance, before ending their tense negotiation.

“I…” Edelgard fluttered the word quickly. Her eye dashed back towards the tent’s south entrance. She paused. Annette resisted glancing to where it was she was gazing at. Was she waiting for something to happen?

Nothing did.

Annette fought to bring some sense of control back to herself. They would have time, wouldn’t they? Between the thickness of the snow-fall, the harsh conditions of the camp. Whatever Edelgard wanted, it could wait—it would have to wait, because Annette would demand to see Felix healed before anything else.

“...May I see him, please.” Annette finally added. She glanced into Edelgard’s distant expression and waited. “I accept your terms, just so long as I can see for myself that he is obtaining care.”

Edelgard regarded Annette with a closed, muted look that, honestly, told Annette very, very little of if she was perfectly safe. But, then, that ice cracked, just a little, as Edelgard nodded back towards her, removed, yet committed to her own terms.

“So, we are agreed?” That small, short smile never quite reached her eyes as it over-took her pale, tight face. Annette wondered if she had seen such an expression before, and where, but it all escaped her now. “He is in the south-most tent, I believe. And, if you require anything else, feel free to ask about the camp.”

On the heel of her thick leather boots, Edelgard pulled away from Annette. She moved back along the table while her hand trailed to touch at the table in some strange affection. She moved further back, shrinking in the untouched darkness, her long silver hair cascading behind her like a chilly stream in the springtime.

“Find a place to rest. We will speak again some other time.” Edelgard added quietly, but she did not turn her head to look back towards Annette. She simply walked back into the darkness into another tent, and Annette, she was left entirely alone.

“...Certainly not the same family, then?” A voice was speaking, somewhere high above Felix. The murmur sounded like it was from a man’s voice, quiet, slow, and it was only in its steady timber that Felix was able to consider the question. However, the voice sounded far, and in the middle of a conversation that had been going on for some time now.

Felix attempted to rise but his body did not respond. His mouth opened, dry, an awful taste over his tongue, bitter, almost like bile. His throat ached when he swallowed, furthering that dreadful taste down his throat, lingering into his stomach. And his stomach. It felt as if someone had beaten him without pause—any deeper breath only caused Felix to flinch away from his own body, an unconscious attempt to escape the bite of pain that snaked through his limbs. Felix attempted to open his eyes but found he could not. The nothingness, this black world behind his eyes,  he did not wish to leave it so soon. Every part of him felt far too heavy. He wanted that darkness to wash over him once more, quiet and peaceful. If those two voices only went away...

“I am unsure.” A second voice, another man’s, answered the first. “I was thinking you might—”

“I will not.” The voice recoiled back at once, a seething venom behind his words that corroded the mildness of his tone. “I don’t care who he is, only that Caspar has foolishly hurt him, and that I will mend.”

“Edelgard…” The other voice answered, darker, lower, and Felix did not have the strength string together the fragments of his words. “...We haven’t time...your selfish pride...She will be...Caspar said... to harm...what will you make of that, then?”

“...I grow tired of you, Hubert.” The first voice replied at once. “Don’t you have any other ear to whisper doubts in? You are no help to me here.” That voice sighed. “I have heard Ferdinand’s task has been chopping wood for the past three days; why not go pick up an axe and inform the trees of my treachery? At least then you’d be doing something useful besides chiding your tongue at me.”

The second voice did not reply.

...Had they gone? Felix wished he could tell. He wished that he could move. He could hardly remember the last time he felt so impossibly weak— even turning his head from where he rested felt unbearable. Still, better awake, his body wasted no time in reminding him that he was in pain. Agony. His shoulder felt twisted at its socket, a compact throbbing wave that moved, back and forth, from his neck, down his right arm, lingering at the tips of his fingers. When the pain reached the top of his neck, Felix felt his ears ring, a high buzzing sound, and it blocked out everything else. He wondered if he was actually on fire—if this was some sort of torture—but it was hard to decide.

He was laying down. He felt something soft beneath him, at his neck, his back, and, when the pain rolled over him, when his muscles spasmed shamelessly out of his control, he realized could move his hands and ankles freely. He was not wrapped in chains, nor tied down.

Then, a new thought.

His eyes opened at once. Annette. Where was she? What had happened? He could hardly remember what had brought him here. Just that it was cold, and she was crying...someone had carried him, cold and roughly, and he sank into the floor, into the quiet darkness so willingly, what had he done? Where was she now? Was she hurt? Was she the one in chains? Annette!

His arm screamed at him as he moved but he did not care. He did not care that his entire body shook in the attempt to push himself up, nor that he only managed to fall back, pathetic and exhausted, right back down where he had laid. With his eyes now open, he watched, his stomach clenching spitefully inside of him, as the ceiling before him spun in a hot, tight circle. He had expected to see the sky, blue and open, but...a ceiling...? His thoughts spooled together and apart in confused, helpless way—he didn’t understand. Why did the sky look blurry, grey, touchable, like a cloth? Was he dying? Where was the sky?

Felix only turned his head away at the sight, unable to hold back the horrible, miserable sound of his loud breathing, desperate to make the spinning stop.

Through the misery of the burning skin along his face, Felix shuddered when he found the cold pads of fingers touch at his jaw. He tried to keep his face away but the hand moved him back as easily he were a new-born kitten, and Felix found himself staring up towards the ceiling again, unable to focus, to see, and he forced his mouth shut, lest he be sick.

A shapeless blur hovered above him. The face cut into the spinning. Felix felt his eyes shut tightly, the fear all too obvious across his face now. He did not know the man would return so soon after those voices had stopped. He had hoped he was alone.

“Stop.” The voice said at once. It was the very voice from before, the one that had sounded suddenly angry, and Felix tried not to fight the hand holding him still. “This is the fourth time you have tried to rise. I do not know what it is you want but I am here. Tell me what it is you are searching for. Water? Are you in pain?”

Felix’s eyes attempted to find their focus, blurry as this man was, but he found himself staring at a person with pale skin, dark blue eyes, long hair that was tied into a braid at one shoulder. The man moved closer. It was like he understood at once what Felix was doing. The man stayed perfectly still. He allowed Felix’s dark eyes to study his face for a long, merciful moment.

A strange look was resting over the man’s face. His thin lips twitched faintly, failing to resist a passing amusement, before he returned into a look of somber countenance. “Does knowing my face make you feel better?”

Felix did not have the energy to move his head. He wanted to nod. He wanted to go back to sleep. He felt his lungs tighten into a cough, which he tried to hold back, but the effort pushed through the wave of his exhaustion. He felt his body twist up in pain, being forced to move, the airlessness of coughing again and again—

“Here,” The man’s hands were over his body again and Felix found himself lifted. He was pushed up from the softness of the ground so that he could sit up, and again, the world spun in a dizzying circle. But the pressure at his back eased at once, the thicken cord around his lungs loosening, and he coughed forcefully, practically falling forward, before the man steadied him again. “The infection is in your chest. You must breathe shallowly. Try inhaling through your nose and exhaling out of your mouth.”

Felix did. He tried to move away from the man’s grasp but he simply couldn’t. He wanted to die. He wanted to scream. He wanted to lift his arm and strangle this man for touching him, for taking Annette away, for allowing him to exist in this fucking endless pain. Felix did none of these things. Instead, a soft miserable sound whimpered from his mouth.

“Ah. So the pain has returned?” The man asked. The hand that had rubbed at his back had moved to shift Felix closer to better study him. A low sound measured out from his mouth in annoyance. “You are a trying patient, aren’t you? This is my third bottle...I will have to ask Dorothea to collect more…” Another careless sound of decision. “It doesn’t matter. I will have to simply compensate for now.”

The hand returned over the middle of his back. Felix felt himself shaking, unable to stop, unable to breathe, and a small high-pitched ringing in the back of his head told him that he had to speak, he had to tell this man to stop, or he’d be sick—his swimming head did not know if he could handle the violent act of vomiting again.

Felix forced open his eyes. The man’s face faded, in and out, before him as Felix tried to focus. This man looked so...young. Felix had expected to see someone older, an Adrestian jailer, but the man’s eyes looked back at Felix with a look of concern etched into his calm, cool expression. It matched his eyes—a deep royal blue—not like that pale crispness of Annette’s—and Felix felt his shaking start to ease.

He had braced for another beating. He had braced for pain on top of pain, for his shoulder to be ripped clean through with an iron piercer.

Felix blinked again, trying to better see the tent around him. The ground felt soft beneath his legs. The walls appeared to be moving softly with the cold winter air, flowing briskly through the flaps of the canvas, the green he had seen earlier, now coming together in dull realization that he was inside of a wood-cropped tent. He weakly turned his head to take in the man before him again.

Felix hadn’t been wrong about the shape he had originally seen; this man was a thin, slender person, with a green-tinged, well-tailored uniform that looked soft and warm. His hair was long, longer than many of the women Felix could think of, a dark emerald color. His brows furrowed together at once, peering back at Felix, peering back at him.

He had...a kind face. Perhaps he... wasn’t here to hurt him?

Again, that expression loosened across the man’s face. Felix involuntary flinched away. He didn’t understand what he looked like himself—some half-dead, sick, miserable person that had been shoved into this man’s tent, no doubt— but the man merely looked at Felix with a touch of endearment, as if he had seen that expression linger several times before, over many fond faces.

“...My name, if that helps you, is Linhardt. I do not wish you any harm. I only wish to help.” His voice, too, felt just as gentle. “Do you understand what I am saying?”

At once, Felix felt all of the energy it had taken just to look around leave him. He only sat there dimly, feeling the droplets of sweat that poured, maddeningly, down his back, along his face.

He was grateful Linhardt—what a name—was so...patient. He felt so tired. He didn’t understand. He didn’t understand why he wasn’t dead yet. Pain ripped at his back, his shoulder again, and Felix used it to pull into his neck muscles. He shook his head slowly, back and forth, to tell the man ‘no’. No. He didn’t understand. He felt his long hair sticking to wetness at his neck, his cheeks, move along his flushed skin.

This seemed to amuse the man. “I am a healer. You do know what a healer is, correct?”

Maybe Felix was only wishing for the mercy of the thought. Maybe he was only dreaming that he wasn’t going to be dragged back through the earth, beaten again, left to freeze to death in the snow...he closed his eyes again, exhausted with the thought.

Still, the fingers at his undershirt had begun to warm, seeping through the cloth, shifting beneath the sweat of his skin, and Felix’s eyes blinked open again. His mind felt empty and useless. What was he trying to do, again? Something about...that warmth at his back...

“No…” It was the first sorry word Felix could slide between his teeth. “No.”

The man held back. The glow from his fingertips sparkled into soft, white wisps to Felix’s fuzzy mind, like the smoldering of a fire’s smoke. “...I don’t understand. You do not want healing magic?”

Felix closed his eyes. He felt the lukewarm, dirty, terrible wetness of sweat soak through every inch of him. His mouth opened again, to speak, but he crushed the sound between his teeth. His shoulder throbbed again. It sent another high-piercing noise to his ears, that only faded when he sucked air into his chest—somehow, even breathing hurt—and Felix attempted not to curl into himself.

Linhardt’s expression remained steady. He returned his hand back to his side, waiting. “...Interesting. I have never met a person who would choose herbal medicine over magic. I am so often met with complaints and assumptions. How...refreshing.”

Felix cracked open his eyes at the word. “...Herbs?” That would explain why his mouth tasted so vile. “...Not poison?” Felix murmured lowly.

“No.” A stern smile curled Linhardt’s mouth before he dropped the grin promptly. “As terrible as you may feel, that is something I am trying to stop, not to give. Although, I imagine now the drought has burned through with your fever. It is why the pain feels so potent to you now. You were sleeping quite deeply before; I had thought I had given you enough to feel entirely numb.”

Felix drifted his eyes closed as Linhardt talked. He had only meant to do so for only a moment but clearly it had been for far longer as something cool and smooth touched his lip. When he opened his eyes again, Linhardt had moved, obtained a glass jar of some pinkish looking liquid, and had raised the glass’s edge to Felix’s lips.

His brows lightened at Felix’s sudden jerk. His face moved away from the glass in a quick reflex as if Linhardt had stuck him. Linhardt lowered the jar at once, deliberately slow, back into his own lap. “I am sorry.” He hadn’t meant to scare him. “This is only that same mixture I mentioned. Drink?”

Felix’s hand pressed against the stabbing of his stomach. He felt like a hole was festering through him. “...I can’t...”

“Hm.” Linhardt considered Felix’s tight, pained look with an expert eye. “It is where Caspar punched you, yes? I can understand your hesitation. After all, you did fight me before. You spat my potion right back into my face.” His dark eyes looked over Felix, debating, before he returned the glass to the floor beside him.  “As you stated, 'you’re a snake that should die by your own poison’ .” Linhardt finally concluded. His calm expression twitched again into thinly withheld amusement.

Felix closed his eyes. Had he really said that to Linhardt? Spat in his face and everything? Goddess . “I…” Felix shook his head again. “I didn’t know…”

“It is alright; I was impressed by the tenacity by which you described me. It wasn’t an unfitting statement.” Linhardt answered smoothly. “But I appreciate you telling me otherwise. The winter has been unkind to my supplies; if you were to be physically sick again, it would only lead to another wasted bottle I could have used for someone else.”

Someone else...Felix’s thoughts desperately stole away Linhardt’s words...someone like Annette. That same worried thought nibbled at the back of his mind.

“Where,” Felix began faintly. “is she?”

“Ah, yes, that woman that arrived with you? You called her name a few times.” Linhardt intoned gently. “She would be speaking with Edelgard by now.”

He was sitting down, affording Felix some carefully minded distance. Felix couldn’t have asked for a better, kinder gift, the space between himself and this strange man—to no longer be touched, stared at, manhandled. Linhardt’s hands, however, stayed busy. Felix blinked slowly as he watched. Each time he opened his eyes, it appeared that Linhardt’s hands were handling a new vial, a new glass jar, some dry, herbal scent powdering through the closed air of the tent.

Felix found himself leaning back, the safety of the tent’s wall allowing some of the tension to leave his shoulders. He didn’t think he could sit up anymore on his own, but he was desperate to not let it show. Still, his head leaned back as well. Some of the outward slush had stolen its way into the tent, and its dampness felt soothing to Felix’s too hot body. He briefly opened his eyes once more to see if Linhardt would mind this, but the man simply continued to his own work, long fingers picking quietly through the herbs in his lap.

Linhardt glanced up at Felix after a moment, once he finally thought Felix had settled himself properly, before he went on. “She is safe. She will be with you again soon, I would think.” Linhardt continued patiently, his tone exceedingly slow for Felix’s sake. “Edelgard does not take mercy lightly. She does not make irrational decisions.”

Felix nodded vaguely. The words were far away again. But Linhardt’s tone sounded convincing and calm. He wanted to believe in them. He wanted to lie down again.

Linhardt did not say much more beyond that, and Felix was, again, grateful. He couldn’t keep his own thoughts straight anymore. He hated himself for it. He was always so weak. He could never be like Glenn. He could never be what everyone wanted to him to be, needed him to be.

“Water?” Linhardt's voice was close once more. Felix couldn’t open his eyes. He didn’t want water. He wanted Annette. He wanted to leave. He wanted to sleep. He couldn’t find the words. There weren’t any left.

Too cold of fingers were at his jaw. He felt his mouth opening on its own and the slow drip of something onto his tongue, behind his teeth, finally down his throat. This allowed Felix to wake up a bit more; he reached up to take the cup himself, greedily swallowing the rest of the water himself. It felt so cold, already pouring into the fire inside of his veins, and he couldn’t resist the sigh it brought to his lips.

Linhardt's hands pushed him back down over the softness of the floor. “I know you don’t like a moment of this.” Linhardt paused, careful to recheck the tight bandages across Felix’s right shoulder, before he elaborated quietly. “You remind me very much of someone that uses everything in his power to push me away—but that waste of energy is in vain.” A heavy, warm quilt was pushed back over Felix. “I vowed I would never hurt another living thing, and thusly, I have never done so. You never have to fear me.”

“Why are you helping me?” Felix finally managed a decent question, slow as the words felt. He had opened his eyes, although the world was a blur of softness. He couldn't see. He couldn't think. “The men before...they said...I should die…my birthright…” he trailed off. The words were barely making sense, anyway. He couldn’t remember. Something those two fools had shouted. Annette had whispered to him?...

...Felix’s shoulder had stopped burning. And his lungs didn’t ache. And he wanted, so very badly, to close his eyes. He was so tired.

This stopped Linhardt at once.

He had turned back to Felix, a look of disquiet over his face. His long hair was starting to loosen inside of its braid, drizzling just to the side of his face, and it only made him look all the more unnerved.

“...Because I wish to. I do not live my life by orders alone. And you have every right to be afraid of me, of the reason you are here, but I am not a warrior. I was once rather like you—a nobleman’s son with an education and a bright winning future by the terms of my lineage but— I am in exile, to be honest with you, and that exile has taught me much.”

All of Linhardt’s words, his sudden quick talking, it was almost too much for Felix to keep up with. But he understood one word, and so he clung to it.

“Exiled?” Felix asked. The word sounded thick; it slurred between his lips. He wanted to try again. He had pushed himself up once more, uncomfortable with speaking with a stranger from the floor. “Why?”

“...Another time, perhaps.” Linhardt answered quietly. “Rest.” Linhardt added again. He pushed Felix down once more. “I will return shortly.”

Felix could hardly move, let alone thank Linhardt, but he could feel the easy suggestion to lie back down trill warmly through his body. His eyes closed at once. He felt like he was sinking into the quilts. Whatever Linhardt had given him to drink, it hadn’t been water. But Felix didn’t care. The pain was fading away from him; everything felt softer, warmer. He couldn’t fight it anymore. The exhaustion inside of his bones, how it wasn’t a struggle to breathe, how his stomach no longer hurt; he was selfish. He wanted it to be over. He wanted to sleep again. He wanted Annette. He wanted her so badly, so desperately. Linhardt said he had called for her. Felix tried not to hide his face away; he worried he looked like a child might, hopeful for comfort.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had called out for anyone.

Felix had forgotten what it felt like to have someone so near. It was always easier to push away. It had always been simpler to pretend not to care. He wasn’t Sylvain, nor Ingrid, nor Dimitri, and he had so little patience for giving into that wonderful impulse of affection. But Annette...when he had drifted in and out of sleep within her lap, drowsy and warm, he realized that she had never left him alone in the dark of his chambers...she stayed...she didn’t even seem upset about his request of her to touch him...Annette...

He pretended Annette was here, warm and soft beside him. He pretended they had never left for whatever miserable errand his father had sent them all. Maybe he was still sleeping with his head in her lap, and this was a horrible nightmare.

Felix curled back into the quilt with his good arm twisted up to shield his face. The other hand he kept out, resting into the cold evening air, as the day finally came its closed. Annette would be there soon, Linhardt had told him. He would wait for her. He couldn’t sleep yet... He couldn’t leave her all alone again... He would wait.

He would wait until he finally felt her hand within his own; the way she suddenly filled all of the empty cold spaces inside of him that he could not.