Annette wasn't sure who woke first, only that she and Felix were so tangled together that either she woke him up by stirring or he woke her the same way.
It took Annette a moment to realize where she was, unused to the opulence of the Duke's quarters in Castle Blaiddyd, and she thought guiltily that she really shouldn't be there, sharing a bed with Felix when they were only courting, her status in Faerghus's nobility too low to allow such a thing in such a place.
But Felix's arm was wrapped tightly around her waist, and he was so warm from their restful night of sleep, his skin burning through her nightgown onto her skin as though there was nothing between them. He pulled her into him, sleepy sighs brushing over her face, and he pressed kisses to the crown of her head, which had been tucked under his chin.
"Good morning," she said, giggling, and she rolled over so she was facing him and pressed her palms into his chest.
Instead of answering her, he traced his fingertips over her cheek and down to her chin to tilt her head up and press a kiss to her lips.
They sometimes began the day by kissing in bed, but he seemed more insistent than usual, pressing into her more firmly, kissing her with an edge of roughness that made her dig her fingers into his shoulders. He coaxed her into laying on her back beneath him and traced his fingers over her waist to the swell of her hips.
"Felix," she gasped after he let his teeth sink into her lower lip, and he looked a bit dazed when she pulled away. "What's gotten into you?"
"I--sorry. Did you not… like it?" he asked, sheepish, his cheeks darkening as he blushed.
"That's not it," she said quickly, and she brushed her fingers from his cheek to his forehead to push some of his hair behind his ear. "It's just that it's been a while since I've seen you like this."
It had been quite a while since their kisses turned fiery, and heat tumbled down Annette's chest into her belly, stoked by Felix's mouth and hands.
"Hm," he grunted, and he tilted his head so that his hair fell away from his eyes. "I don't know. We're in Fhirdiad. Cornelia's dead. We might actually… be able to do this."
Felix Fraldarius was known for many things, but optimism was certainly not one of them. Overnight, their territory expanded by more than double, and with it the western lord's troops joined their cause. Her home and her uncle were free of the pull of the Empire.
"You're right," Annette said, and she looped her hands around his neck, grinning. "It's amazing, isn't it?"
In the dull light of the morning, Felix's eyes looked a softer brown than usual, and he swept them over her solemnly before answering, simply, "Yeah," and leaning down to kiss her again.
She didn't balk this time when he swept his tongue into her mouth, or when his hand drifted to her knee over her nightgown, and she arched her back into him so their chests were pressing together and tangled the ends of his loose navy hair into her fingertips.
A knock at the door made her startle against him, and she could feel Felix tense up as he leaned over her. They both stayed quiet, hoping that whoever was knocking would turn away, but instead a familiar voice came from the other side of the door.
"Felix? It's me. Is your door locked? This is important," Sylvain's voice said from the hall.
Felix growled and muttered something Annette couldn't quite make out. "One minute," he said to her, and he reached for his robe as he slid off the bed.
Annette covered herself up with the blankets and found herself holding her breath in an attempt to keep quiet, suddenly wishing that she never came here and that she stayed in her own bed last night like she knew she should have.
Felix opened the door only enough to lean against the frame and speak to Sylvain, meaning that the bed where Annette remained was mostly hidden from view.
"What?" he asked gruffly.
"Good morning to you, too," Sylvain greeted, his voice chipper.
"You said it was important," Felix reminded him with an exasperated sigh.
"Yeah. So in the middle of the night a messenger from the Alliance showed up. Hand-delivered His Majesty a letter from Duke Riegan asking for help. Situation's dire, he says. We're having a meeting as soon as everyone's gathered."
"Yep. What else do you have to do, anyway?"
Annette rolled her eyes. Sylvain had always been good at pressing Felix's buttons.
"Fine. I'll be there," Felix answered. He moved to shut the door, but Sylvain held it open easily.
"Tell Annette I say hi," he said, and Annette couldn't see his face but she could imagine him firing off a cocky wink with a sly grin. Her face heated up and she sank deeper under the covers.
"Just go," Felix commanded, and Sylvain laughed as he closed the door.
Embarrassment flooded through her veins, although she knew Sylvain hardly even cared except to tease them.
"You know what this means, don't you?" Felix asked as he leaned against the door, his sharp gaze on the floor, his expression thoughtful and serious.
"Oh, um," she stammered, her heart sinking. Perhaps Felix was also embarrassed or annoyed with her for Sylvain's teasing. "Probably nothing, right? It's not as though we've been keeping so secret in the past few weeks, and--"
"Not that," he interrupted, his voice sharp and edged so that Annette winced. "The messenger. If they arrived in the night, Claude must have sent word to us before the battle at Fhirdiad concluded in our favor."
It took a moment for her mind to switch gears, but she quickly realized that Felix must have been right.
"Oh. Oh! Yeah, I guess you're right. Do you think we have the troops to spare for that?"
"I'll find out in this damn meeting." Moodily, he stalked over to his packed clothes and rummaged through them. He disappeared into the bathroom and, his voice reverberating off the stone, he called, "You should come."
Her heart twisted painfully at the idea. As much as she would love to be included from the start, at the moment she was still considered a liability. Although now that Dominic was once again under the rule of House Blaiddyd, perhaps His Majesty could be persuaded to overturn that rule. The last thing she would ever think to do would be to disrespect Dimitri the morning after his coronation uninvited.
"I can't, Felix, you know that."
Felix appeared at the doorway, fully dressed, pulling his hair into its usual tight, messy knot. "I'll bring it up to Dimitri."
Annette didn't miss the use of the new King's proper name instead of the crude nickname Felix used for him at all times, but she didn't remark on it.
"It's fine. I could use the time to sleep a little more, anyway."
"Probably a good idea." His sword belt was leaning on the wall next to the dresser, and he crossed over to the bed to reach it. "We've had a shitty past few days."
"You'll need some more sleep, too," she said, looking up at him worriedly.
He seemed fine, almost impossibly so. It was only a month ago that his father had died, and scarcely more than a full day since his aunt and uncle were murdered in front of him. She wondered if he was hiding something, or many things. The even way his eyes swept over her and his mouth curled into a smirk lessened her worries. His hand on her cheek as he leaned over the mattress chased them almost completely away.
"I'm fine," he said, and he punctuated this by running his thumb along her cheekbone, and it hardly bothered her that she could feel the raised scar from their fight in Fraldarius.
She raised her hand to his wrist and traced repeating lines over his hand to his fingers and back. "I hope so."
He withdrew, and she missed the warm, gentle pressure of his touch. "Of course I am; I have you to worry about things for me."
She grinned, her worries calmed. She felt safe for the first time in days, and Felix's reassurance put her at ease. A surge of gratefulness for his calm presence swept over her, and before she realized what she was doing, she said softly, "I love you."
Felix's whole body tensed, his arm withdrawing toward his body as he reached for the door, his other hand curling into a fist, the line of his shoulders squaring up, and the angle of his eyes cut sharply across over the brown of his irises. "What?"
Her heart dropped like an anchor, splintering her chest as it fell to her stomach. "No. Wait. I didn't mean to say that."
His arm went slack and flopped uselessly against his side. "You didn't?
Her heart was beating frantically in the pit of her stomach, her face a fierce red. "No. I mean, I don't know, I--I've been thinking and I feel like maybe--but I didn't mean to just say it like that for no reason when you're on your way out. And it's fine anyway but I don't want you to--"
She was babbling, and she only really stopped to inhale, and she bit her lip to make herself shut up and looked across the room at him mournfully.
"It's just that I… I have to go," he said, his voice oddly flat, and Annette's heart was flopping in her stomach like a fish before its head was cut clean off.
"Yeah, I know."
He reached for the door again, and Annette desperately wished he'd come over to the bed instead and tell her what he was thinking. He pulled the door open and she mumbled, "Sorry," into her drawn up knees.
He looked back at her sharply, hesitating. "No, I don't want you to be--we'll talk later, alright?"
His hesitation and concern eased her pain just a little, so she nodded her agreement and when the door clicked closed, she threw herself violently back into the pillows.
Annette had been teased in school for being overly loud sometimes, and talking too much without even realizing it. Nothing she'd ever done, no loosely kept personal secret or sarcastic remark or confession of unabashed excitement had ever stung at her like this.
She curled into a miserable ball, twisting fine linens in her fingers anxiously. It wasn't as though she wasn't thinking about possibly telling him that. But she'd wanted to do it somewhere more romantic than in their unmade bed. The first time she'd ever said she loved someone other than her mother, her father, or her uncle, and she was wearing nightclothes. And her hair was a mess from the cotton pillowcases which seemed to rub frizz into it.
The rich curtains were so heavy against the windows that she could almost pretend that it was still night, and everything that just happened was part of some exhaustion-induced dream.
Her heart was beating too quickly in her chest still, so she threw the covers away, suddenly full of energy, and dressed in the last set of clothes she had left and set out for the kitchens.
Breakfast would help her forget her troubles, some warm toast and sweet jam, seasonal for the summer.
Ashe and Ferdinand had beaten her to the Great Hall for breakfast. They were talking amicably about the benefits of iron as opposed to steel in weapon making when Annette quietly took a seat across from them and reached for a jar of ruby-colored strawberry jam.
"For axes, at least, it's fine to sacrifice speed for power," Ferdinand was saying.
Annette's toast crunched loudly as she bit into it and his gaze flicked over to her.
"Do you think the more weight on an axe, the better, Annette?" he asked.
It was nice of him to draw her in on the conversation, but she wasn't really in the mindset to talk about weapons at the moment.
"Ah," she said, after hurriedly chewing at her toast. "Well, I'm not sure. Too much weight isn't good for me, personally. Enough to make it top heavy but not so much that I can't counterbalance is best."
"How has it been going with Crusher anyway, Annette?"
"Oh," she mumbled, and she took another bite of her toast. As she did she looked over to Ashe, who raised his eyebrows at her. "Fine! I was, you know, so focused on learning Abraxas that I sort of, um. Well I haven't been training with it as much as I could have! But the combat art is really going well."
"Mastering Abraxas is no small feat!" he assured her with a smile.
"Lysithea did it, too," Annette answered automatically.
"We're lucky to have you both," Ashe said gently.
Annette glanced down at her toast and took another bite.
“Ah, Cyril!” Ashe called, and when Annette looked to the entryway to the Hall Cyril was there, dressed in his gear, a large olive-green bag thrown over his shoulder. HIs wide eyes focused on Ashe as he paused. “Did you need any help getting supplies at the market?
“Nah, I don’t think so. Don’t worry, I’ll get all the stuff you put on the list,” Cyril assured him, and he held a long strip of paper between his fingers.
“Oh, Cyril!” Annette chirped, and his eyes flicked to her, his expression slipping into one of quiet consideration. “I’ll go with you. I think getting out into the fresh air will be good for me this morning.”
“Oh,” said the archer, not sounding particularly enthused but Annette was used to that by now. “Sure, if you want.”
Ashe looked up at Annette, one eyebrow raised questioningly, but she only gave him a wide smile before leaving her toast mostly uneaten to join Cyril on his way to the castle entrance.
She and Cyril walked in silence. He was looking over his list as they walked, and Annette wasn’t about to interrupt him.
“Thanks for taking me with you,” Annette said when he slipped the list back in his pocket. “I won’t bother you too much while you’re shopping.”
“No problem. I just have to pick up a few things for Seteth, and Ashe wants to cook a meal for everyone so he asked for a few things, too. You looking for anything in particular?”
“I don’t know, maybe some fruit? I could turn it into a tart or a cobbler.”
“Not sure how much you’ll get. There’s not much extra produce during a war.”
The hall they were walking down opened up into a wide entrance hall, and people were milling around, soldiers discussing things amongst themselves. The light of the summer morning shone brightly through the open front doors, and Annette was actually starting to feel better about things.
Standing just outside the doorway, shin-length skirt blowing in the gentle breeze, was Lysithea, her hair loose around her shoulders.
Annette paused, falling out of step with Cyril, surprised.
Lysithea’s gaze cut past Cyril to Annette, and her eyebrows knitted together and her mouth slipped into a frown.
“Lysithea’s out of the infirmary?”
“Got out this morning,” Lysithea said shortly, and Annette hurried to catch up with Cyril.
“That’s… great!” Annette said, and she didn’t have to try to inject excitement into her voice. Her smile faltered and she added, “Are you sure you’re ready to go out?”
Lysithea pushed a sheet of white hair behind her shoulder. “I’m sure.”
“You’re feeling better, then?” Annette tried to make her tone more gentle.
“Good as ever,” Lysithea said, and she turned away from Annette toward Cyril.
“I’m glad,” Annette said, sincere, and Lysithea’s magenta eyes wavered as they fixed on her.
Cyril looked between them, one eyebrow lowered, and Annette cast her gaze to the ground. She didn’t know he’d been meeting up with Lysithea when she asked to join him.
“Downtown’s down this path. There probably won’t be much of a market the day after a siege, but we’re early so we should be able to get what we need.”
He started walking, and Annette caught Lysithea’s billowing sleeve to halt her before she could catch up to him.
“I didn’t know… I thought you’d still be in the infirmary,” she admitted quietly, so that Cyril wouldn’t hear.
Lysithea snatched her arm away. “I told you I’d be fine.”
“Yeah, no. I meant that I could leave. If you want. I could… not be here.”
Understanding parted the dark mage’s lips, and she glanced over to Cyril as he walked ahead of them. “Not necessary,” she said, a blush tingeing her cheeks. She started walking after him, and Annette followed. “Besides, I’m not mad at you. I know you’re only looking out for me. It’s just annoying.”
A small smile pulled at Annette’s cheeks. Even though Lysithea was still being short with her, it pulled a weight off her shoulders to know that she wasn’t truly angry with her.
“I won’t stop worrying about you,” she said softly, “no matter how annoying it gets. So I’m glad you’re not mad.”
“Yeah, well. Don’t push it.”
Annette’s smile grew wider, and Lysithea pushed her hair behind her ear as a breeze blew past them, and she smiled back. It was only brief, and when her eyes flicked to Cyril as they walked Annette gestured to him with her chin.
“Go,” she mouthed, and Lysithea grimaced at her but she quickened her pace until she caught up to Cyril.
Annette firmly pushed away thoughts of Felix or their blundersome morning, and instead she thought of the church in downtown Fhirdiad that she and Mercie used to visit on the weekends when they bought fried dough from street vendors.
Perhaps the street vendor would still be there and she could pretend that she was still the same person she was at the School of Sorcery.
The market was in the same spot that Annette remembered, although it was much sparser. Carts had been wheeled out, some with weapons, some with food items, some with glasses and bottles and odds and ends. Stationed at each one was a vendor, be it an old mad or a young girl or a merchant man Annette could convince herself she’d seen before.
Cyril moved through the stands quickly, and Lysithea lent a critical eye to the vegetables he inspected before adding them to a basket. Not that she was much of an expert, but he didn’t seem to mind passing a vegetable to her for a second opinion before adding it to a basket.
Annette stepped away from them, not wanting to intrude, and she instead looked over a fruit stand. A girl stood at the back of the cart, her eyes darting nervously over Annette. An iron lance was resting against the cobblestone, point in the ground, and the girl hovered near it nervously. She must have been younger than eighteen, and Annette wanted to sit down with her and ask what brought her there.
The cart she watched over was full of baskets, most of them less than half full of fruits, the bottom of woven baskets visible through the product.
Cherries, peaches, berries, and apricots were among Annette’s favorite, and she reached for an apricot, the girl’s eyes following her hand.
“These look good,” Annette said encouragingly, and the girl gave her a small, fleeting smile. The basket was only just full enough to cover the bottom, and Annette asked, “How much for the whole basket?”
The girl looked up at her, unsure, and then she said, “Five gold pieces.”
Annette nodded and reached into her coinpurse for the money. She slipped an extra gold piece into the girl’s hands as she passed them over.
“But, Miss,” the girl protested slowly, her fingers tight around the gold pieces.
“Please take it,” Annette urged her softly. “I’m buying out all of your stock.”
She bit her lip and unbuttoned a pocket in her skirt to slip the coins inside. “Thank you.”
Annette grinned at her and slipped the apricots into her bag. If she weren’t sure that their stay in Fhirdiad would be soon cut short, she would have added some berries to the bag as well.
She pushed through the market, passing the spot where the fried dough vendor used to park his cart--the spot was empty now, she noticed with a pang--and she came to the entrance of the church. She could practically hear Mercedes urging her to be more careful going up the stairs, and she slid her palm over the stone banister as she climbed them. Before pushing open the heavy stone-carved doors, she glanced back at the marketplace--Lysithea was holding a glass bottle of something up to the sunlight as Cyril looked over her shoulder at it.
The church was always lit by scores of candles, and the smoky smell of incense was as key to her memories as the statue of Saint Seiros at the back center. They were absent now, and the church was dark except for the fractals of colored light thrown onto the stone floor by the stained-glass windows.
Annette’s steps echoed through the church, reverberating off the walls and the bare floors. A pew creaked loudly when she sat in it, and she substituted the earthy smell of damp stone with incense conjured up from her memories.
She reached out to the goddess, her prayer devolving from the scripted words she practiced at the Monastery to a stream of consciousness to Annette simply hoping the goddess would be able to read her emotions.
She prayed for her father and his wounded arm, and for Felix, and his late aunt and uncle,and Dimitri, and the merchant girl who sold her the apricots which weighed down her bag on her shoulder. She also prayed for herself and for her heart, in a burst of selfishness.
The door opened with a creak, and Annette turned in the pew to find Lysithea, her stark white hair blending in with the too-bright sun.
“I thought I saw you come in here.” Her footsteps echoed as she walked down the aisle to where Annette was seated. “It’s very dusty in here.”
“Yeah. It’s just nostalgic.”
Lysithea folded her arms over her chest, then took up the space next to Annette along the aisle. “I want you to know I thought about what you said. About not using Thyrsus.”
Annette said nothing but kept her eyes focused on Saint Seiros.
“If I don’t use my Crest and all of its power then all I’m doing is letting it destroy me.”
Annette glanced to Lysithea, but she was keeping her gaze trained on one of the stained-glass windows.
“Crests are powerful, everyone knows that. And they’ll kill me eventually. So I want to use that power to change things. I won’t run away from it.”
“Don’t you think you can do that without hurting yourself so much that you pass out on the battlefield?” Annette demanded.
“I’ll figure it out,” she answered dismissively. “And… I think I will tell Cyril. Eventually. But you can’t try to decide when I should. It’s… really complicated.”
“Of course,” Annette said quickly, but Lysithea whirled on her and suddenly her index finger was so close to her eyes the she had to cross them to follow it.
“You say that like it’s no big deal, but I know how you get!”
“Lysithea, we’re in a church. I swear I won’t. Cross my heart.
“Good.” She stood and brushed off her skirt. “Come on, I don’t want Cyril to worry.”
“Me neither,” Annette agreed, and she stood too. The puff of dust that rose around them quashed any desire to linger.
Across from the exit of the church, a small but familiar cart had cropped up. The vendor was still setting up the cart, and Annette gasped as he lit a small fire and a delicious smell wafter up from a pot settled over it.
She gasped, and Lysithea wrapped her fingers around her wrist, alarmed. “What?” she demanded, and Annette could feel the magic at her fingertips.
“No, nothing. It’s just--fried dough! I used to get it with Mercie all the time--have some with me! You’ll like it, you can top it with confectioner’s sugar or cinnamon!”
After perhaps overselling the wonders of fried dough to Lysithea and Cyril, the trio made the trip back to the castle and Annette deposited her apricots in the kitchens. Ashe was already busy, stirring a tall pot of something that was starting to smell delicious.
“Room for two?” she asked, and she reached for ingredients to make a buttery pie crust, a recipe of her mother’s that she knew by heart now.
Ashe cleared a workspace for her and she had the dough kneaded and set to proof in ten minutes.
She offered to help Ashe, and he let her stir the broth while he chopped ingredients off to the side. It bubbled over the sides of the pot and Ashe politely suggested that she find Professor Manuela in the infirmary, since the songstress had been looking for her that morning.
When she finally found the entrance to the infirmary after wandering just a little, she entered to find the room mostly empty, the cots occupied by injured soldiers the previous night were made up perfectly, crisp white sheets looking like they were ironed onto the mattress.
The floor, polished white stone, clicked under her boots as she stepped further inside. The sun reflected off the floor and the white translucent curtains in a disorienting way, and it took her a moment to realize that in the corner near a single sink and a counter of supplies Professor Manuela was sitting in a chair across from her father, unwrapping white bandages from around his arm.
“Is there any pain when I’m doing this?” she asked, her voice soft, and Gustave shook his head, his orange and white-speckled hair unbound and falling past his shoulders.
“Father?” Annette called, and they both swiveled their heads around to look to her.
“Ah, Annette, dear,” Manuela chirped. “I was looking for you this morning. I have a salve for your cheek.” Manuela shifted her gaze from Annette to Gustave and back again. “Would you like to help me redress Sir Gilbert’s arm?”
Her father was steadfastly looking down at the wrappings, his shoulders hunched as he sat in his chair, and he would not look up at Annette.
“Yes,” she answered, partly just to be stubborn. “I would, if it’s alright with my father.”
“If it’s alright with Mistress Casagrande,” Gustave answered in a quiet voice.
“Excellent! Everything is alright with everyone. Now come over here, dear.”
Annette did, and looking over Manuela’s shoulder she could see the deep purple skin of her father’s injured arm. It made Annette suck in a breath and hold it, and bite down on her lip.
“Normally darkened skin like this is an indicator of poor blood flow. People that we rescue from beneath a crushed building may have some blackened body parts, or people might get it from frostbite. But I don’t think the skin is dead in this case,” the songstress explained. She reached for the counter and perched a small pair of delicate glasses on the bridge of her nose.
She also picked up a long stick with a swab of cotton on the end of it and used the firm end to poke the tip of his fingers. “Do you feel that, Sir Gilbert?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered, looking up at her but refusing to let his eyes drift up to Annette.
Manuela poked each of his fingertips, and when he affirmed that he could feel each one, she trailed her finger from his thumb to his wrist.
“Here, Annette, hold your finger over that spot there. You feel his pulse?”
Gustave watched as Annette replaced Manuela’s index finger with her own. His pulse was easily palpable at the spot there, over purple-black skin.
“I don’t think it’s dead skin at all,” she said thoughtfully. “I think it’s almost as if it’s a bruise over the surface of the whole arm. The bruise is full of all the toxins that would have affected his entire body.”
“I don’t know, Professor,” Annette said carefully. “That seems…” she said, and she paused, unsure of how to say preposterous in a polite way.
“The area has been improving in coloration each day, with a decrease in pain and increase in range of motion along with it. Whatever it is, it’s not dead, and he hasn’t changed into a Demonic Beast, either. I’ll tell you what I think, speaking as a white magic scholar and not a physician: I think the Goddess protected you, Sir Gilbert, because even though you used that Hero’s Relic without a Crest, you were doing it to protect your daughter, and the goddess couldn’t possibly fault you for protecting your own child.”
Annette whipped her head to look over at Manuela, although she wasn’t looking at her; her tawny eyes fixed on Gustave, sharper than they were when Annette entered.
When Annette looked back to her father, he was looking up at her, a pained expression on his face.
“Well,” Manuela said. “Now that I’ve seen the improvement your arm has made, I can wrap it again for you to keep any swelling down. I’ll use a salve for pain, as well. Would you like to help me, Annette?”
She tore her gaze away from her father, the guilt of the pain in his expression eating at her.
“No, Professor, I’m sorry. Thank you very much for, um, taking care of… things. I’m… I’m going to go,” she announced, without looking back at Gustave.
“One second,” Manuela called, and Annette suddenly felt her skin crawling with the desire to bolt out of the infirmary. “Take this. It’ll make the scars fade. Once in the morning and once at night, alright?”
“Thank you, Professor,” Annette said, and she bowed deeply before whirling around and making her way out of the infirmary.
Manuela’s words were swirling around her frenzied mind. She was tired, suddenly, and if it weren’t for her dough which should have proofed by now, she would have wandered around until she found Felix’s quarters and slipped beneath the luxurious sheets for a nap.
Thankfully she remembered the way to the kitchens--it wasn’t much more than a trip down the stairs and then down the main hallway until the smell of Ashe’s soup guided her there.
He was hard at work over a sample of meat he’d pulled out of the oven, sprinkling spices over it ,and she settled into the space companionably with him. She started to roll out the dough, managing to spill only a minimal amount of flour on herself.
"There you are," Felix said, sounding exasperated when he entered the kitchen.
"Hi, Felix! Feeling hungry?" Ashe asked as he put the lid over his broth.
"No, thanks, Ashe."
Annette put all of her weight into rolling out the dough for her pie crust, and she didn't turn around to give Felix her full attention. He crossed his arms as he leaned against the counter right next to her workspace. The expression on his face wasn't quite a glare, but it was certainly displeased.
"I've been looking for you all day," he told her shortly.
"It's only three o'clock," she reminded him with a roll of her eyes. "I went to the market in town with Lysithea and Cyril. Didn't know I had to ask your permission first." It was a little argumentative of her to say, but he started it with his bad attitude.
He frowned at her. "You don't, obviously . I was getting the feeling that you were avoiding me, though."
She didn't answer him, and he watched her knead the dough silently.
"Want a taste, Felix? Ashe asked after he shook some spices into the broth. "It's a little spicy. Dedue has been teaching me about Duscur recipes--"
"Yeah, I'll try it." Even at his surliest, Felix wouldn't turn down a meal cooked by Ashe. No one on the Blue Lions would, as a matter of fact.
"I have Duscur bear meat cooking in the oven until it pulls apart with a fork, then I'll drop that in here. I'm also going to add rice, beans, some greens, coarsely chopped onions…" Ashe explained excitedly as he dipped a spoon into the pot. "In here I've boiled the bones of a boar and some root vegetables, which I've strained out already to cook with the meat. Let me know if it's too spicy."
The two of them chatted for a bit, and Annette cleared her mind of their voices. Felix’s presence was making her nervous, and her hand shook as she kneaded the dough for the pies.
"So, how was the church?" he asked as he sidled up next to her again as Ashe peeked into the oven. His voice was impatient even as he started the conversation, and Annette knew he just wanted to cut to the chase.
"Well, you remember that I lived in Fhirdiad with Mercie when we attended the School of Sorcery. It was a nice, nostalgic trip. Lysithea and Cyril both had fried dough for the first time."
Annette cut the dough into two halves, one for the bottom and one for the upper crust.
She reached for the apricots she'd bought at the market, and began searching for a knife so she could peel and cut them.
"Can I help?" he asked as he opened a drawer and immediately located a wide array of knives.
"It's kind of a one person job," Annette mumbled. She noticed Ashe shoot her a quizzical look, which immediately made her feel guilty. "I mean, it's baking. I know you don't like that kind of thing."
He shrugged. "I don’t mind it so much."
"Fine, then,” she relented, feeling flustered. “I need the apricots peeled. I'll show you how."
"I don't think I've ever had an apricot," Felix muttered as he pushed his sleeves up past his elbows.
Annette found herself appreciating the way his muscle of his biceps bulged out from around the fabric before quickly responding, "They're not too sweet. I think you'll like them."
She picked a short knife with a sharp edge and showed Felix how to slice into the skin so that it came off in one continuous ribbon from top to bottom.
He tried to mimic her on his own apricot, but he inserted the knife too deeply into the flesh.
"No, here. You have to be gentler." She readjusted his fingers on the knife and, guiding his hands, showed him the proper way to do it. "There you go," she praised when the skin began curling away in a thin strip.
Ashe kept looking over at them, his green eyes flicking to their joined hands or to Felix as he leaned too close to her as she worked. The effect was that Annette was becoming very flustered while Felix was totally ignorant of this, and he kept doing things like touching her arm or coming very close into her personal space that were flustering her even further.
"Now to chop them," she said, and she ran her tongue over her dry lips. "They need to be pretty uniform in size and shape so they all cook evenly."
"This I'm good at," he said, and he was holding the knife exactly the way her mother taught her when she was young, and Mercedes taught her again when they started baking frequently as teenagers.
"Good." She was somewhat relieved that she wouldn't have to guide him again as Ashe looked on at their overlapping fingers and the way Felix was standing so close to her that he was looking down over her shoulder. "They have a pit, so cut around that."
Annette began to make the filling, gathering butter, sugar, brown sugar, flour, and cinnamon into a bowl. Felix made quick work of the apricots, and she cut a lemon in half and squeezed it over the apricots he'd chopped.
"It keeps them fresh," she explained as he watched.
"You've got flour on your forehead," Felix said, and he raised his fingers up to her hairline to brush it away. "And in your hair."
"It's okay, just leave it." She batted his fingers away, blushing, and he frowned at her. Her heart was beating so fast and suddenly she desperately wanted his fingers in her hair, on her skin. "The filling goes in and then we have to make the top."
She rolled out the dough expertly, then she cut it into even strips and then showed him how to make the lattice top.
"Seems like a lot of work for something that's just going to be eaten in a few minutes," Felix mused as Annette slid the pie tin into a separate oven from the one Ashe was using.
"That's why you're not a baker. Or a cook. Right, Ashe?" Annette asked as she washed her hands.
"It's true," Ashe said, ready to receive an invitation to join them. "I've been cooking since noon."
"I'd rather spend the time honing my skills."
Annette rolled her eyes at him. "You're already the best swordsman in the army," Annette said, jabbing a poke at his chest.
He swiped at her arm and caught her wrist in a firm grip, holding it fast so she couldn't poke at him again. "That's not true."
Annette rolled her eyes at him. The Professor had the strength of the Goddess magically injected into his body, or something. There was no need for Felix to be so competitive with him. He was still holding her wrist, making a game out of watching her try to wriggle out of his grip. She employed the use of her free hand to try to wrench his hand away from her wrist, but he only tightened his grip on her, smirking down at her as she struggled.
"Ashe, do you mind watching my pie?" she asked, dragging her annoyed look away from Felix.
The archer raised his eyebrows at her. Ashe wasn't much of a baker, but Annette was confident that he would know when a pie was done. He shot her a curious glance, but he only answered gamely, "No problem.”
Felix finally dropped her wrist, and she exited the kitchen, glancing around at the stone walls for a little bit of privacy. She had no idea where anything was in this place. At least at the Monastery she could have found an empty classroom or a secluded spot around campus.
She forgot that Felix was more familiar with the castle, and he pushed her forward by the small of her back, leading her down a hallway which passed through the main entrance of the castle and continued on, then he took her hand as he pulled her down another hallway, which had many doors set among the stone walls. He picked one, seemingly at random, and closed the door behind them carefully.
Before she could ask any meaningful sort of question, Felix pushed her into the door by her hips and pounced on her, kissing her hard, his teeth at her bottom lip and his tongue in her mouth, probing.
She made a surprised sound, muffled against his mouth, and Felix raised a hand to her cheek and cupped it to force her to angle her chin upward.
"I missed you," he said, his voice smoky and low, caressing Annette as he gripped her hip in his hand.
Heat rushed to her lower belly, blooming pleasantly with each rapid pulse of her heart. She couldn't think. "Felix," she breathed, and he answered her by running his thumb over her bottom lip.
"The whole fucking meeting I was thinking of you," he said, and he pressed into her as he lowered his lips to her ear. He trapped her against the door, his hands on either side of her waist. He dipped his mouth below her ear and sucked hard on the sensitive skin of her neck, even letting his teeth sink into her soft skin.
Annette cried out and clutched at his shoulder to keep her legs from giving out. His leg was between her thighs and her skirt bunched up around his knee. She was hardly aware that she rolled her hips against him, desperate for delicious friction.
He made his mouth gentler against her skin, let his tongue lap at the dip of her neck where it met her shoulder.
"F-Felix," she gasped, goosebumps rising over her skin as all of the heat in her body rushed between her legs.
He returned his mouth to hers, gentle but hungry, kissing her with an open mouth and desperate tongue, and he lifted a hand to squeeze at her breast through her dress.
"Goddess, Felix," she groaned. She'd never seen him like this, so overtaken by his own desire. It was wild and fast and hard and Annette was so swept up in him.
"Annette," he answered, his voice still a smoldering growl, his amber eyes so dark she could fall into them. He lowered his face and Annette thought he was going to kiss her so reached for him, suddenly wanting to feel the fine hairs at the nape of his neck and drag her fingers over the muscle between his shoulder blades and down his back.
He caught her arm by the wrist as she reached for him and pinned it against the door, just below and to the side of her face so that her elbow was bent but her arm was not uncomfortable, and she blinked at him, confused.
"Annette," he said again, his voice making her shiver. "I should’ve said it before. I do--I love you."
Her heart expanded in her chest and she couldn't breathe. She was so overwhelmed by him, so needy, so caught off guard. She'd anticipated a searing kiss, not a heartfelt confession, and she didn't know why but tears stung at her eyes.
He was watching her in the semi-darkness and she didn't want him to get the wrong idea.
"I love you, too," she whispered.
He was on her again after that, his mouth firm on hers, pressing her into the door, and he slid his fingers through hers and pressed her hand against the door as they kissed. She was desperate for more friction, trying to roll her hips against him but he'd moved away, and the way he angled himself over her she couldn’t reach him.
With the hand not threaded through hers, he tilted her chin again, letting his tongue touch against the skin of her throat as he kissed her. Frustrated, she whimpered against him, and something about the way her voice made her throat tremble beneath his lips made her dizzy.
"Felix," she whined, her voice breathy and nervous and so full of need it was a little embarrassing. Her face grew warm as he pulled back and looked at her again, his eyes so dark and smouldering that her chest pulled.
"What?" he asked softly, and he kissed her just below her earlobe. "What do you want?"
"Felix," she muttered, embarrassed. "Don't tease me."
"I'm not, I--I'm genuinely asking." His expression softened and he squeezed his fingers against hers. Instinctively she closed her own fingers over them.
"I don't know, I've never--I want--I want you," she whispered breathlessly, hoping that he would understand what she meant as a deep blush spread over her face.
He didn’t answer at first, although she could see his jaw clench and unclench as he appraised her silently. She had no idea what he was thinking and she was about to excuse herself to her room and stay there, embarrassed and isolated forever until she died, but he pulled her into him by the arm he'd been holding. "Come here."
Excitement and nervousness zipped through her, and she was unsure of what he meant, exactly. She opened her mouth to ask, but Felix stepped away from her, his fingers pulling at hers, and he stood to the side of the grand mahogany desk.
"Sit," he instructed, his voice commanding but gentle.
She sat on the desk obediently, her ankle-length skirt pooling around her legs, and she looked up at him, curious. He leaned over her, his bangs brushing her face, and he cupped her face in one hand and kissed her, gentle but firm. As he kissed her, he stooped and pushed her skirt all the way up, exposing her right knee.
Goosebumps traveled up her spine at his touch, and she opened her mouth under his and spread her legs apart so he would have room to stand between them.
He did so, and as he did he trailed his fingers from her knee to her thigh, and he squeezed the soft skin there.
She made a surprised sound into his mouth, which he took as an opportunity to kiss her even more deeply. The hand that had been at her cheek was lifting her skirt on the left side, past her thighs, up to her stomach until only the fabric she was still sitting on prevented him from exposing any more of her body.
He rested both hands on her thighs, and she gasped against his mouth. She raised a hand to his chest and she slid her fingers up to his shoulder to the nape of his neck to his bound hair. He dropped his kisses to her neck and as much of her shoulder as the wide collar of her dress exposed, sighing against her skin, making her squirm, probably leaving marks.
His fingers inched up to the throbbing point between her thighs, and she wished she wore something other than a plain white pair of panties. He gently stroked his index finger over her seam, the cotton material the only thing between her body and his probing hands, and Annette let her legs fall open even wider.
"Oh," she murmured, so overly sensitized between his mouth and his fingers.
"That's what you want, Annette?" Felix asked, his lips against her skin, his breath hot as it washed over her, and he pressed down on a particular spot through her panties with his thumb that sent jolts of pleasure through her lower belly.
Whether he was teasing her or genuinely trying to assess the situation, Annette didn't even care for once.
She nodded dumbly, and when there was no answer she fluttered her eyes open at him. She hadn't realized she'd shut them against the waves of pleasure. She looked up at him through her eyelashes, and his own face was thoroughly red. It was cute and sexy at the same time, and Annette bit her lip at the desire to tell him so.
"Tell me," he commanded, his voice husky. He was drawing his fingers away, even as she tried to roll her hips against them. "I want you to be sure, Annie."
"I'm sure, Felix, please." Her voice was urgent and desperate, and the sound of it to her own ears would have made her embarrassed if his voice was unaffected, but it was deep and strained and Annette wanted to kiss it out of him.
One of his hands floated up to her hip, and he stroked the fabric of her panties there, and Annette was sure that he was teasing her when he said, "Please what?"
"Felix," she complained, but he stroked his fingers against her center and she went blind with wanting, so she added, "touch me. Please."
"That's my girl," he praised, and Annette shivered as he pulled at her panties. She shifted her hips so he could slide them off, and as she did he rearranged her skirt so she wasn't sitting on top of it anymore, and as soon as he was able to he stepped to the edge of the desk and brought his mouth down on hers and inserted a finger into her folds.
She whimpered into his mouth and shifted her hips forward. It didn't hurt at all, which was something she'd been concerned about. It felt good. The throbbing pulse point between her legs was finally soothed. It felt holy, sacred, something a benevolent Saint would have bestowed on humanity as a reward for sacred deeds--
He thrust his finger into her again and she had to duck her head away from him. She could have sobbed, she was so overwhelmed she didn't know what to do. She moaned loudly and she wasn't even embarrassed about it.
"Annette?" Felix's voice was full of concern, and she could feel him tense against her. "Did I hurt you?"
"No," she breathed, and she raised an arm to his bicep, suddenly wishing he was wearing much less clothing. "Please don't stop."
"Hang on," he said, his voice gentle, and he pushed her further back onto the desk by her hips. "Bend your legs for me."
She did, quickly, and he pressed his hand into her, but instead of plunging his finger inside again, he rubbed circles just above. He found what he was looking for, that bundle of nerves, and he rubbed his fingers over it slowly.
"Oh, Goddess, Felix," she moaned, and he kissed her gently, his tongue trailing along her lower lip, but Annette was too preoccupied with everything his fingers were doing to respond.
He dropped his lips to her throat, letting his teeth touch against her skin.
She wanted to reciprocate, to trail her hands over the hardness she could see bulging against his pants, but she didn't dare to change anything about what he was doing to her now.
Heat was building, stoked by Felix's fingers, and she was a whimpering mess. He paused and she almost whined at him, but he repositioned his hand against her so that two of his fingers were inside while another stroked at her clit. It was so much, and she wanted him to never stop, but as he kept going she only got warmer and tenser and her hips were moving instinctually. She couldn’t possibly keep track of how much time passed when she couldn’t stand it anymore.
"Fuck," Annette swore breathlessly, her voice a fevered whine, her heart beating too fast and her breath coming in shallow gasps. "Felix," she cried and she leaned into him as she shifted her hips. She was really digging her fingers into his arms, and he seemed to know what to do, his fingers moving faster and faster, pumping in and out as he circled his thumb over her clit. She pressed her forehead into his shoulder as the tension mounted, more and more and more, and she gritted her teeth to keep the volume of her voice under control as suddenly all of that tension that had built up in her lower belly released in her whole body, and her hips were jerking forward on their own. Felix kept thrusting into her with his fingers even as her legs snapped closed, and she cried into his chest as her orgasm rocked through her body.
As it faded, his movements against her became too much, and she tried to squirm away until he halted his hand.
"Oh," she sighed, all of her energy gone, and Felix moved his hand away and kissed the top of her head as she pressed her face into his chest. "Oh."
He was wiping his hand on the inside of Annette's skirt, and he raised his dry hand to her face and looked at her, his cheeks red but his expression pleased. "Good?" he asked softly, and it didn't occur to Annette until just then that he might want validation.
"Oh," she said again, feeling almost numb all over, although that was ebbing as she panted and her heart slowed to its usual pace. “Yes, Seiros, it-- so good,” she babbled, and she nestled her cheek against his chest appreciatively.
He pressed his lips into the crown of her and, against her he said, "I love you, Annette."
She pushed her skirt down over her knees and wrapped her arms around Felix's neck.
"I didn't mean to blurt it out like that this morning," she muttered into his shoulder, still embarrassed. "It would've been better to wait."
He stepped away from the desk and Annette tried to subtly pull her panties on again. "Wait for what?"
"I don't know. A time when you didn't have to to immediately leave?"
"How long had you been waiting, Annette?"
Her cheeks reddened, again, and she glared at him. "Does it matter?"
He raised his eyebrows at her, and he seemed more curious than teasing, so she added, "I don't know, exactly. At least all of Harpstring Moon. Maybe some of Great Tree."
"You should've told me," he said, his tone scolding.
"Well! I wasn't sure if you… if you were…"
"If I felt the same?" he asked, and Annette was mollified to see a light blush over his cheeks.
"Well--" she began, unsure, but Felix spared her an explanation.
"I thought the necklace made it obvious," he admitted, and he picked up the gem at the hollow of her throat. "I told you. I'm your captive. If we can make it through this war, I'll never want a single thing as long as you stay with me."
"Wait. That was a confession?" Annette demanded, and she grinned at him. "You should have just said what you meant."
His face was deep red now. "I'm not--I'm not great at saying things like that."
"That's okay, Felix. I'll say it enough for the both of us." She pressed into him and wrapped her arms firmly around his back, pressing into his chest.
He placed his hand on her head and pushed his fingers through her hair. "We should get back to your pie, or whatever."
"Our pie! You helped!"
"I guess." Felix opened the door for her to urge her through it and she smiled at him.
"What room is this, anyway?' Annette asked. With the curtain pulled over the window, it was difficult for her to see many details of the inside of the room.
"It's the Fraldarius study," he answered as he shut the door.
"But there's already one in your room," she pointed out, confused.
"Yeah, that's a personal one. This one is more for general work things."
"Wait, does that mean that your father would've used…" Horror swept over her as she realized the implications. "Felix! That was your late father's office! And we--we--we violated it!"
"Would you stop?" he chided. "Nothing was violated. Besides, it's mine, now. The only Fraldariuses left besides me are my cousins, and they're not old enough."
Felix rolled his eyes and led her to the kitchens once more. Her pie was already out of the oven, the crust a lovely golden-brown.
Ashe grinned at her. "I'm not much of a baker, but I think it looks pretty good!"
"I'll make a baker out of you, yet," she promised, and Ashe smiled at her. "I'll serve the pie right after your stew. Doesn't it look good, Felix?"
"It looks like a pie, I don't know."
Before she could scold him for his cheeky answer, a yawn split her face down the middle. She hadn't gotten much sleep, what with yesterday's feast and her morning make-out session with Felix.
"How much longer until dinner?" Annette asked as Ashe worked over the roasting bear meat.
"Two hours? I'm going to add this to the stock soon and I want to give all the flavors time to come together."
"Enough time for a nap, then," she concluded, grinning.
"I'll send for you when it's ready, " Ashe promised.
Felix was trailing behind her as she walked. "You don't have to join me. I know you're probably looking forward to training, or something."
"I'll go after dinner," he said dismissively.
And so heed her back to the Duke's quarters, and they slipped between the sheets together and he gathered her in his arms, and he stroked his fingers over her skin until they both fell asleep.
Dinner was a homey affair, with the generals seated around one wooden table in the Great Hall.
Ashe's stew was a hit, even among Lysithea, who was one of the pickiest eaters in the army. Annette hadn't gotten a chance to see her, she cut her a particularly large slice of pie and Lysithea thanked her with a grin, so she hoped that they were done fighting.
After everyone's plates were clean, Dimitri cleared his throat. "It has been a very busy past few days. I'm sure we are all exhausted. We'll have another War Meeting tomorrow, and I'd like as many people to join us as possible. I want everyone to be informed and involved. And I want to thank each of you again for everything that has been sacrificed to bring us to where we are today. I regret that our time in the Fhirdiad will be short, but I am so glad to be home again."
"Here, here," Sylvain said, and he raised a glass of wine up and gestured to Dimitri with it.
There was a pause, but Ingrid followed after him, their glasses clinking together. Soon everyone was doing it, even Felix, and Annette felt so full and so worn and so happy and so traumatized that she wanted to get into bed again. She was getting too used to Felix's heartbeat against her ear, or his breath on her neck, or his arms encircled around her torso as she nodded off.
"Let's go," she said softly as Ingrid and Marianne began clearing plates.
"You don't want to help clean up?" Felix asked.
She swung her legs over the bench and stood, and when she did she only felt even more exhausted. "Not tonight."
He nodded and let her pull him up, and she pulled a nightgown which was freshly pressed by the staff at the castle and smelled of clean linens without ducking into the bathroom first, and she pressed a kiss against Felix's mouth as she pulled him into bed with her and murmured, "I love you," as they fell asleep.