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“Yes, Lord Gautier! Yes, please, yes, just like that!”

This girl has short brown hair clipped above her ears. It means there’s not much to hold onto, no way to pull her head back if he takes her on her hands and knees, so Sylvain has her half-on, half-off the bed. It gives him more leverage, more sensation, and he can go fast like this. If she screams, it’s because she seems pretty into it, even if she’s not entirely sure how titles in the nobility work.

She only knows the important parts.


 

“I love you, Sylvain. Please be gentle with me.”

But he’s not, and she should never have expected him to be. This girl’s from the newest class of Black Eagles, which means she doesn’t know anyone Sylvain does, and she had looked so cute and innocent with her little Empire-style curls until Sylvain had yanked the ribbons from her hair. She’s maybe a little too young to think she’s in love with him, and clearly hasn’t yet made enough friends at the Officers Academy to know he’s not really in love with her.

But she’s pliant and willing and thinks this is what love is, and as he spreads her legs and she bites his shoulder to keep from crying out like he instructed, Sylvain revels in his hatred.


 

“You don’t even know him like I do! I bet he keeps you on your stomach so he doesn’t have to see your ugly bitch face!”

“He only even looks at you ‘cause he feels sorry for you. You seduced him, didn’t you? He felt so sorry for your pathetic whore ass that he fucked you out of pity!”

Two girls are yelling at each other so loudly in the courtyard that Sylvain and this girl can hear them from their hiding place inside the smallest of the disused chapels. This girl is from town, not Garreg Mach, and by the twisted smirk on her painted lips, Sylvain can tell she thinks everyone in the monastery is spoiled and soft.

Well, she’s right, but she’s here inside it now, too, and she knew just what it meant when she’d seen Sylvain stroll away from his two fighting flings over to where she was dropping off the clean laundry for the training room and told her she was too beautiful to carry all that at once.

“No,” she gasps, pushing herself against his chest when he’s about to come, “inside me.”

Sylvain holds her in place against the rough floor, away from her insistent hands and touch and squirming, and pulls out. He spends himself on the hallowed stones to the sound of women screaming, and when this girl leaves in a huff before either of their laces are properly tied, he wants to throw up even as he wants to laugh.


 

There are plenty of girls who turn from him in disgust when he just says hello, but they’re mostly in the same class year as him. The students in newer classes, if they hear the rumors—which aren’t exactly easy to conceal, nor would he want to—think they can be the ones to change him. They can be the special ones.

Dorothea is one of the few girls who sees through him. Sylvain grows himself entranced by her revulsion, the way she waits until his eyes have lingered too long on her hips before she scoffs, loudly, and flounces away. She wants nothing to do with him, like so many others, and Sylvain’s not really one to force a single girl’s idolatry when there are plenty more willing to take her place. And so, while the thrill of the chase sustains him for a couple weeks—more than usual—he soon grows bored and gets the frustration out of his system with a girl a year below him who used to be in the Blue Lions but had transferred to the Golden Deer.

He’s heading to the infirmary after that to find some sort of burn cream or salve or something to ease the chafing in his palms. Maybe he’d tied the ropes too tight. Sylvain had never done that sort of thing before.

“I’ve always wanted to try it,” the girl had confessed, a purr in her voice. And with her arms trussed up above her head and ropes on her thighs giving him an easy handhold, Sylvain could see the appeal. But, as usual, she’d had a better time than he had, and so it was with the usual queasiness and dark anger that he’d left her bed. This time, however, he’s added ropeburn to the list. He’s not terribly looking forward to making up an excuse to Manuela and her all-knowing eyes, but hasn’t Ingrid always chided him on facing the repercussions of his actions?

His footsteps echo through the reception hall. There aren’t too many people around, so it’s pretty easy to catch the sight of long blonde hair rounding the corner. There’s a part of Sylvain, the part that wasn’t sated back in his room, that doesn’t want to get out of her way. So he doesn’t, and Mercedes, lost in thought, pulls up short an instant before colliding with his chest.

“Mercedes,” Sylvain croons in greeting. “Where are you off to in such a hurry?”

Mercedes, a fellow Blue Lion in his year, is not his type. She’s beautiful, sure. She’s got lovely, delicate features. He can imagine just how soft her perfectly-coiffed hair might feel in his fingertips, or look splayed out on a pillow. But her sparkling eyes are always directed heavenward, slender fingers clasped in prayer, and soft voice uttering trite appeals to a Goddess who cursed children like him with blessings.

Sylvain isn’t into that. But she’s a girl—a woman, really—and he doesn’t have any idea how else to talk to her.

And, sure enough: “I’m going to the cathedral now,” she beams. The glow in her joyful smile makes some part of him recoil. “Were you coming, too?”

Sylvain politely refrains from laughing. “Why should I, when I’ve got such a divine sight in front of me?”

Her smile doesn’t dim, so his confident smirk isn’t prepared to falter when she replies, “Oh, I see. You’re the type always looking at girls and saying what you hope they want to hear.”

There’s nothing caustic in her tone, no bitterness in her upturned lips. He’s not even sure she’s mocking him or stating simple fact.

Well. It’s not quite mocking if it is simple fact, is it?

Mercedes is already on the move by the time he’s recovered. She seems satisfied with stunning him into silence. Ordinarily, such a slight would be enough for him to shrug and move along, too, but something in him calls, “Wait.” And, even more surprisingly, “I’m sorry. I don’t know how to talk to—girls.”

Mercedes’s smile hasn’t changed at all. “From what I hear, you talk to girls a lot.”

What possesses him to insist he wants to be friends? He doesn’t have friends who are girls. Ingrid certainly doesn’t count—probably as either. But he does insist, and she believes him about as much as he believes himself.

But the more they talk, the more she describes her past as “boring,” the more she dismisses others’ cruelties again as another simple fact not worth dwelling on, the more he understands his life is not and never was the only one ruined by Crests…

By the time she remembers she was on her way to pray and scurries off to the cathedral, Sylvain believes himself an awful lot and hopes she wants to be friends, too.


 

“Oh, Goddess, please, fuck, yeah! Fuck me harder!”

This girl has long blonde hair and pretty blue eyes and a soft, pink mouth. But her hair is bunched tight in his fist, her eyes are scrunched closed with maybe fake ecstasy, and her mouth is howling filthy curses that contrast with her dainty face. Her breasts are smaller and her hips are wider, but Sylvain would be lying if he said he didn’t think she was Mercedes lost in the tavern crowd at first.

She’s definitely not Mercedes. So Sylvain gives her a taste of what she wants. He fucks her, and he fucks her harder, and he fucks her too hard. There are unpleasant violet stripes on her thighs that he knows will linger in the morning. Breathless and wincing, this girl is the first in months to ask him to leave. She clearly doesn’t want to admit she’s sore and embarrassed and upset with him.

Sylvain can’t get the image of those bruises in the shape of his fingers out of his mind as he prepares his horse to go hunting. Not enough of his emotions devote themselves to guilt. No, there’s a revolting pleasure he takes in the memory. He hates that he hurt her. He hates that she’ll be a little unsteady on her feet for a day or two.

But he hates that she was willing to go through anything just to get knocked up by him even more.

And, most of all, he hates that he ever, for an instant, thought she resembled Mercedes at all.

Mid-hunt, he remembers sitting in the Goddess Tower with Mercedes by his side five years ago. He’d been asked by plenty of girls to go with them, but he’d smooth-talked his way out of all of them. It was one thing to go to dinner with a girl and give her expectations about his intentions. It was another thing entirely to make her think they had both sworn vows for life.

So Sylvain hadn’t quite been sure why he’d gone to the Goddess Tower at all, alone though he was. He found Mercedes tucked into a corner outside nibbling on what looked like homemade sweets. When she caught sight of him, she smiled and patted the crumbling stone next to her.

They ate little peach sweet buns by the light of the moon and fading torches. Sylvain’s not usually one for pastries, but Mercedes had baked them herself, and when she’d asked “Do you like them?” he’d said he didn’t think he’d ever eaten something so worth savoring in his life.

He hadn’t meant to say it with a raised eyebrow and slow smirk—well, mostly hadn’t—but Mercedes had beamed and nestled against him. “I don’t believe you,” she’d said into his shoulder, “but I hope this is the worst lie you’ll ever tell me.”

Sylvain had wanted to kiss her then, because he didn’t know what else to do or say in response. But Mercedes didn’t turn her head at all, maybe because she sensed his wish. She stayed silent and smiling until she declared herself fatigued, deposited more unrequested sweet buns in his lap—“for a good friend and a good night”—and departed without a backward glance.

Sylvain pulls up short on the reins, and his horse nickers her protests. That was five years ago.

In a few days, the millennium festival is—was—supposed to happen.

Their stupidly sentimental house had sworn an oath to return then. It seemed silly at the time, so Sylvain had gone along with it. And now, with everything around this bleeding country going on, it seems not only silly but dangerous. Dimitri is certainly executed by now. The Professor has definitely been dead for years. Everyone else has scattered.

But Mercedes seems to be the stupidly sentimental sort. He already knows Annette is. Ingrid most of all, maybe. Felix will likely stay home, but maybe he’d also know the many other Blue Lions who would get fired up about this, and would decide it’d give him an opportunity to sharpen his sword on Imperial armor en route to the monastery.

Sylvain turns his horse around immediately and wastes no time heading to the study to write them letters.

Sure enough, they’re stupidly sentimental. All of them, actually. Himself included. Dimitri doesn’t care, to put it lightly, but having someone and something to rally behind again feels unexpectedly—good.

And sitting down for foraged breakfast in the ruins of the dining hall, Mercedes bringing him, Felix, Ingrid, and Annette a plate of steamed peach buns she’d still managed to bake despite the mess of a kitchen?

Sylvain sees the outline of her breasts beneath the sunlit-white of her dress and hates that he can imagine what the imprint of his teeth would look like on them.

He takes a peach bun from her slender fingers. Her touch scalds worse than her smile. 

“How do they taste?”

It doesn’t feel good.

“The prettiest little sweetness I’ve ever savored.”


 

Sylvain had never seen Mercedes cry until after the war.

When he’d finally broken down, that one late night alone in the cathedral, she’d held him on the pews with such gentleness that he’d nearly broken even more. She hadn’t touched his tear-streaked face until he put his head on her shoulder. She told him to cry, and he did, and he clutched her like he never had his mother, Ingrid, a friend, a girl, a woman, a lover.

And she didn’t let him hide from her the next morning, either.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of, Sylvain,” she scolded him. “I’ll remind you as many times as you need to hear if you remind me my feelings aren’t shameful, either. I’m here for you. We protect each other, don’t we?”

And they did. They do. Mercedes has become accustomed to Sylvain’s horse leaping in front of her to block a short spear as much as he has become accustomed to the slow, cool crawl of her white healing magic.

Mercedes was—is—strong. She never hesitates in defending herself, never lets Sylvain’s protection excuse her from volleying black magic missiles back.

And now, with her clinging to him on the cobblestones, heaving great sobs in the hidden balcony of the cathedral where he’d found her…

“I know it’s selfish,” she manages between gasps, “when so many have lost their own families. They’ve lost their families more times than I have, but my selfish heart bleeds all the same. For those who never loved me or even knew me.”

Mercedes is strong and he will remind her of this as many times as she needs to hear.

Mercedes is strong enough to love him, Sylvain realizes, huddled under decaying buttresses with his shirtsleeves soaked in tears. Not just “someone like him,” but him. Him, Sylvain, the man she wants for comfort when the rest of the generals are celebrating with the others or grieving in private…

“I love you,” Sylvain says into her hair, and squeezes her. Just a little. “I love who you are.”

The words scrape themselves out of his throat, and Mercedes can’t say anything except sob even harder.


 

Sylvain hadn’t exactly remained celibate during the war. Not the five years between Edelgard’s rise to power and fall from grace, naturally. But on large campaigns, or small missions in small towns, there was always a warm body close at hand. A tent or a cottage or a palace or a copse of trees just out of the patrol’s sight could offer the same amount of comfort.

Back at the monastery—demoted from “Officers Academy” to “base of operations”—feels different. In his old room, his old bed, even, full of memories of a lighter time…

The hands that have taken so many lives without hesitation now force other, smaller hands to the silken blue sheets of his youth. Village girls trace the scars on his shoulders and legs before he stops letting them.

“Think of it like a game,” he whispers to them through smirking lips, bewitching them with a wink and a kiss. “Let’s see what you can do to me without touching me.”

Not much, as it turns out. But he can do so much to them. And he does. Sometimes, screams of agony don’t sound too different from screams of rapture.

Sylvain doesn’t like that he can’t always tell the difference.

But the war is over now. There’s plenty of time and reason for celebration. Dimitri will be crowned king in so many days, and a second liberation—this one being the monastery’s steadily-dwindling supply of alcohol—is well on its way to completion. Women who once rolled their eyes at his declarations of love now buy him drinks and tug down their necklines and bat their eyelashes.

Sylvain is repulsed, and far more than he used to be.

He wishes he could use Mercedes as an excuse. Wishes he could boldly tell them, “Flattered, miss, but I’m off the market.” Wishes he could say “I’m taken.” 

“There’s someone else.”

“I’m with Mercedes.”

“I already found the only person I want tonight.”

“Or ever.”

“Always.”

But he can’t. The words stick. Even when Mercedes is close by, whether the latest hopeful lady is within her earshot or not, shame clogs his lungs and all Sylvain can do is shake his head and walk away, feeling or maybe imagining Mercedes’s disapproving, disappointed, unsurprised stare following his retreating form.

He always takes the drink, of course. It’s only polite, and he’s never been one to impede liberation.


 

“They’ll be good to each other,” the Professor says of King Dimitri and Queen—is it “Queen” now?—Queen Ingrid.

“They’ll overwhelm Fódlan with so much righteousness and propriety that even shadows will feel intimidated,” Sylvain agrees before knocking back another glass of expensive coronation wine. The restored Holy Kingdom of Faerghus spared no expense on its new king. “I can feel myself revirginizing just thinking about it.”

“That takes a lot of purity. They’ll be honored.”

“Probably. Ugh.”

Sylvain’s only a little drunk, and the Professor is as inscrutable as usual. He’d like to think the two of them have a more relaxed friendship by now, having spilled both Crested and Crest-free blood together. But sitting here, pleasantly buzzed while his Professor remains stony-faced save the slight twitch of a smile, Sylvain is reminded of the months where he sort of hated the other man.

The latest Archbishop has a lot of gall, giving all the credit of purity to Dimitri and Ingrid alone.

Sylvain’s about to snipe something like this when he realizes the Professor’s impassive expression has shifted, and that his attention has been drawn by something else. The coronation ball is still abuzz and aflutter, so Sylvain figures it’s Shamir or someone else the Professor knows but Sylvain doesn’t.

But it’s not Shamir.

And Sylvain definitely knows Mercedes.

What he doesn’t know is Mercedes in a yellow satin gown draped over her slender frame. He’s known her modest but lovely, but never known her like this. Long sleeves fluttering around her arms when she moves, a delicately stitched hem brushing the floor with each graceful step, dainty pearls woven through her soft blonde hair…

He feels filthy just looking at her. He’s never wanted to touch anything so badly in his life.

Unbidden, the thought of her stretched out on his bed back in Castle Gautier, begging, breasts heaving and smooth arms reaching for him, consumes every thought he’s ever had.

And he feels impure.

When Sylvain whips his attention back to the Professor-turned-Archbishop, away from that awful holy sight, he finds the other man has not done the same. The Professor is studying Mercedes with the same critical eye he saves for tactical maps, ways to tear apart enemy forces, and rage has never come to Sylvain’s stomach so quickly before.

“We all know she looks good,” Sylvain snaps without thinking. The Professor startles to comic effect and, thankfully, draws his gaze away in favor of staring at him. “It’s not really news, so believe me, I know, okay? Don’t give me that judge-y look.”

The Professor has been stunned into silence, which angers Sylvain even more. He can’t even name why. “You really think I don’t know,” he laughs with a tinge of bitterness—or embarrassment, it’s hard to tell with that last glass of wine hitting, “she’s the most beautiful woman in the room?”

“I never—“

“No, you always! Well, you can’t judge me this time.” His voice is rising, and—oh, so is he from his seat. If anyone’s listening, he doesn’t care. Damn it all, he hopes they are. “I’m not afraid of you. Judge me all you like, Professor. I’m not afraid of you, or anyone, or her. I’ve got the guts to handle myself, or anyone, or her.”

“No one’s saying you don’t, Sylvain.”

Is the Professor’s voice too quiet, or is Sylvain’s too loud? “Fine. No one’s saying it. I’m an expert in knowing people are thinking what they won’t say.” He has no idea where this is coming from— “So let me say this: I definitely have the guts to ask that woman to marry me, and I definitely have the guts to marry her. Watch and learn, Professor. Mercedes!” He’s not certain when he’d started walking away, through a tittering crowd, towards that beacon of golden silk and glowing aura. But Sylvain does know, at some point, he’s trembling on his knees with her hands clasped in his, watching the smile on her face grow.

“What in the world are you doing?” Her whisper is the loudest sound in the world.

“I want to marry you.” But he doesn’t sound firm enough, sincere enough. He’s shaking. He can’t prove himself. “I need to marry you.” It’s not enough, and it never has been. “Please,” Sylvain begs, voice cracking, “I’m not afraid. I can’t be afraid with you next to me. I’ll protect you from anything until I die. Goddess willing, even longer. I’m not afraid of loving you, Mercedes, but fuck,” she laughs, and he panics and speaks faster, “I’m so afraid of living without you. I can’t lose you. Please marry me.”

Maybe somewhere, in another world, another life Sylvain knows the room is staring, as silent as death. But in this life, the only sight and sounds that matter are the corners of Mercedes’s eyes crinkling and the tinkle of her laughter, her voice saying, “Of course I will. I said I’d protect you too, didn’t I?”

In the morning, a little hungover and completely mortified, Sylvain discovers a quiet empty courtyard in the royal palace to train in, ignore any amused whispers, and forget everything he said last night, but of course Mercedes finds him and won’t let him mope. She drags him to her room. 

For tea.


 

The Professor—no, the Archbishop—brings them together for their wedding, says the official blessings with a bored voice, and the final congratulatory pronouncements with as close to excitement as he gets. Sylvain barely pays attention, although he suspects Mercedes—his former fiancée, now his moments-long wife—has listened with joy to the Archbishop’s words.

He hasn’t cried in front of a woman other than her before, and he’s not about to start now, not with what feels like the entirety of the Gautier territory watching the promiscuous heir marry a woman of a lesser House.

Sylvain wishes, however, he could say his excitement is for the day and joy alone. That having her now and forever is happiness enough.

Sylvain wants to have her.

In typical Mercedes fashion, she’s refused any actions resembling “sexual” even before the engagement. Pecks on the cheek? Encouraged. Graceful declarations of his love for her and her beauty? Tolerated with exasperated amusement. A proper kiss on her full lips? Only in private. Tongue? Reserved for special occasions only, it feels like. And let the Goddess smite a wandering hand for them both.

Sylvain knows full well it’s for propriety’s sake, not holy doctrine, but such objective knowledge doesn’t cool his lust or ease his frustration. He’d been present that glorious moment in her room—for a charming but innocent tea—when she tripped on his discarded rucksack, and while steadying her he’d caught a glimpse straight down her décolletage. But she’d pushed him away before he could see more than pleasantly-curved skin and smoothed back her unruffled hair. Save the rose-red hue of her cheeks, refusal to meet his desire-darkened eyes, and increased speed of her chatter, she remained unaffected.

He has never forgotten the sight of the scrap of lace he’d been afforded, but he hadn’t even made out its color.

And even now, in her lace wedding gown, Sylvain feels like he’s deprived of something he’s looking forward to possessing. Her dress buttons straight up her neck. The sleeves are long and loose, in typical Mercedes fashion sense. The skirt is also long and flowing. It all somehow manages to emphasize the curves he can’t see, highlight the tinge of pink in what skin she does show.

And it’s tragically not much.

Sylvain watches her the entire reception, thinking what Hilda cackles are “bedroom thoughts—or anywhere-thoughts, knowing you.” He gets no small amount of ribbing and decides it’s not even worth it to be subtle.

So he’s not. His fingers grazing hers with a new glass or dance or permitted kiss of the hand linger longer and longer. Mercedes turns redder and redder as the morning stretches too far into the night. His cock gets harder and harder. Everyone, every single guest must know what this prolonged agony is doing to him, and Sylvain supposes he deserves this torture after years subjecting everyone to his past philandering.

When the last guest yawns their way out of the Gautier gates, Sylvain feels his servants can’t fault him for snapping their dismissals for the evening if he gives them the morning off. He offers a curt “good night” to his family while Mercedes gives an only-slightly-more-graceful one.

When have there been so many stairs to the family quarters? Has the corridor to his suite always stretched this long? His bedroom door swings open easily and crashes behind them hard. Mercedes barely has time to gasp in surprise before he’s on her. Her lips part to let his tongue stroke hers, and if he’s ever feared Mercedes has had reservations about sex, the way she’s moaning into his mouth now says otherwise.

“You know,” he pants when they finally catch their breath, “this is kind of every teen boy’s fantasy come true.”

She laughs in time with her fingers tightening their grip on his hair. He shudders at the sensation, grazes her temple with a kiss that’s more teeth than lips. “They all want to kiss me?”

“No. Well, probably, if they ever saw you.” Sylvain pulls back to appreciate that sight properly. Silken blonde hair perfect and mussed, pink flush spread over her cheeks, chest heaving even through that constricting lace bustier. His hands run down her sides, feeling each once-forbidden curve, and when he feels her shiver, he jerks her forward, hips against hips, and starts guiding her to the bed.

“Then what?” Mercedes, mid-surprised gasp, still manages to ask. Sylvain decides she’s not sufficiently distracted. With an almost-gentle shove, carefully calculated in pressure and angle, he pushes her off him and onto the mattress. On her back, gazing not heavenwards but upwards at him, Mercedes’s voice in those two words sounds unlike anything he’s ever heard. Sylvain tries not to fall upon her then and there, to answer her question like a human and not devour her like an animal. 

“To ravish a pretty little priest like you.” While he responds, he unbuttons and strips off his jacket and shirt with rapid, practiced ease. He doesn’t miss the way Mercedes’s eyes darken and follow his movements. “Get the Goddess’s purest ladies a little bit dirtier.”

Sylvain’s shirt is off. Mercedes’s dress must go next. He wants, needs to enjoy the sight of her stretched out and bare, ready for him. He wants to linger, make her wait this time, but as much as he’d love to drag this out for her with the sweetest torture, he’s honest enough with himself to know he won’t last even that long.

But they have forever. Days, nights, heated afternoons, unexpected trysts in the darkest corners this sprawling fortress can offer. He can play all sorts of games like this whenever he wants. 

Whenever they want.

Sylvain joins her on the bed then, bent on top of her, trapping her thighs between his knees. The cursed buttons by her neck need to be the first thing to tear. He’ll take his time as much as he can. Make her scream his name before he’s even halfway down her body. Even the thought makes him close his eyes and shiver, fingers trembling on the top clasp. He bends down to kiss her again, because it’s already been too long since he’s tasted her, but she turns her face so that his lips land on her cheek instead.

“Why would this be dirty?”

Well, Sylvain won’t deny it’s a fair question, but he also won’t deny this is a subject he’s not terribly interested in pursuing. “We can find out,” he whispers against the shell of her ear. The first clasp snaps open, and he feels rather than hears her breathing quicken.

“I love you, Sylvain,” she says. It’s not a whisper. There’s no hesitation. Sylvain’s free hand presses her wrist against his sheets and he kisses her jittery pulse. The second clasp breaks free. “There’s nothing ‘dirty’ about it.”

“Mm.”

“Sylvain?”

“Mm?” He’s figured out the buttons’ trick. Now that he’s gotten the hang of it, they’re falling apart faster than Mercedes’s heartbeat pinned beneath his hand. Her skin is soft here, or at least it looks it. Just as soft as he’d hoped. Sylvain can see the very top of her breastbone now. A few more buttons and he’ll be able to see the swells of the breasts beneath. A few more buttons past those, and he’ll be able to push the top half of her dress past her collarbones.

So much for moving slowly. Not that he’d truly ever believed in his self-control.

“Do you think it’s dirty?”

“Do I think what is, baby?” Sylvain can hardly hear her over the pounding in his ears. His fingers tremble around the next button. 

Mercedes’s own hand, the one he hasn’t trapped, shoots up and grabs his wrist, preventing him from pulling the button to pieces. Irritation larger than a “flicker” flashes in his chest. “Do you think loving me is dirty?”

“Of course not,” the easy and familiar words spill out. Sylvain’s shocked by how quickly he’s able to say them, but more shocked by how honest he feels in doing so. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, you know that. You stepped out of a divine revelation to bless me, and I don’t know what I did to deserve your praise.”

He intends to punctuate the flowery but earnest phrase with a long, lingering kiss to leave her breathless, to bring the conversation back to gasping and pleading for more, but she wiggles away. Literally wiggles—her hips squirm beneath his, making him bite back a groan. She and her half-open collar escape up the mattress to lean against his pillows.

Sylvain’s not one for a chase right now, but he can appreciate the attempt at this kind of seduction. He’s sure his grin is predatory, probably feral, when he languidly crawls up after her, but the tips of her toes pushing against his bare chest give him pause. 

She’s not lounged on his bed like a temptress.

She’s curled up on the edge like trapped prey.

When Mercedes seems sure he won’t follow her, that he’s frozen in place like Sylvain thinks she wants, her shoulders visibly relax.

It hurts.

But her hands on his jaw are soft when he lets her come close, to lift up his chin in her fingers. And her voice is too, too soft when she says, “No.”

Under her loving gaze, Sylvain’s blood turns to ice. Eloquence, for once, fails him.

“What?”

The voice he loves to hear, so soft it could break him, repeats, “No. Stop, Sylvain. We can’t continue.”