Felix wakes up with 22 missed calls, 14 voicemails, and more unread text messages than he has the ability to count. His friends, he groggily decides, are the fucking worst.
Groaning, he turns himself over, digging his face into the pillow. His phone, sandwiched between the mattress and his palm, starts to ring again, vibrating into the mattress in obnoxious, cyclical buzzes. He turns his head just enough to peel one eye open and squint at the screen.
Ingrid B. Galatea.
The call is rejected with no hesitation, bumping up his missed calls and voicemail count by one apiece. It's going to be hell going through all of these. With a scowl, he takes his phone with him to the bathroom, going through his morning routine as he sorts through his barrage of notifications. The text message notifications are dismissed without a second glance; he'll look through later, maybe, when his eyes aren't still protesting at the bright white backdrop of his messaging app. The missed call notifications are next to go, accompanied by a disgusted clucked of the tongue as he sees Dimitri's name at the top of the list, right below Ingrid.
Setting his phone on the bathroom counter, he grabs his toothbrush and clicks on the earliest voicemail, timestamped at around 8:10pm last night.
"Felix Hugo Fraldarius."
She's putting on one of those airs again, voice pitched into the furious, failing steadiness she tries to adopt when she's especially cross. Felix thinks it's because she thinks it sounds motherly and regal, but it's always hard to take her seriously, especially when he can only remember it in the context of her nose tilted so disdainfully high that he can see up it.
Her threats were never especially menacing, but her ability to follow through is a force of nature in itself. His nose scrunches up at the distant memory of her promise to use Sylvain as target practice for interrupting her cram session right before the Academy of Sorcery's entrance exams. To this day, Felix is convinced that she would have gotten in anyway, but slinging spells at Sylvain was definitely a better study session than combing through textbooks. It was pretty funny to watch, too, and Sylvain would scream like a baby every time Annette snuck up on him for a few months afterward.
The way she sounds now reminds him of the way she used to cast Thoron, clipped and intense, every word more than aware of its own weight.
"Christmas is in a week. If you think you can get away with not coming over by ignoring our calls and texts, you are wrong. I will send you soooo many voicemails, and they will not stop until you get your sorry ass back to Fhirdiad! I'm serious, Felix! I'm gonna find out what the voicemail inbox limit is and you're gonna regret being such an asshole!"
Felix snorts at her theatrics. Typical Annette. He allows himself just that small extra moment of amusement before deleting the voicemail, moving onto the next. True to her word — because Annette has never lied and always follows through on her threats — the next six messages are all from her.
With an amused roll of his eyes, Felix deletes all six. He spits out his toothpaste, clicking on the next message as he starts to rinse his mouth.
"Felix, it's terribly rude of you to keep ignoring our calls like this."
Unlike Annette, Mercedes pulls off the prim and reprimanding tone well, calm in a way that simultaneously conceals and reveals everything about the underlying irritation. The memory of her smile, pleasant and knife-like, is the one thing about her that hasn't begun to fray at the edges yet, and Felix is sure that's only because she only leaves messages when she's especially upset.
"We all want you home for Christmas, and no amount of ignoring us is going to change that. Come back, okay?"
This time, her last words almost edge on wistful, tugging at loose strands of nostalgia that Felix thought he'd long since cut away. He deletes this one quickly, banishing his thoughts as he puts his toothbrush back into its cup. The next message is played as he tips a splash of mouthwash into his cup, throwing back the minty liquid as another voice rings clear through the speakers.
"Hello, Felix. It's Ashe. I know I'm not the only one that'll be asking you this, but— Well, we'd all like it if you could come down for Christmas this year. It's just not the same without you, you know? Please, think about it, and call back! It'd mean a lot to us, so... We'll see you soon, right?"
No, Felix thinks bitterly, spitting out his mouthwash. You won't. It's been the same for the past three years, so he isn't sure why Ashe would think differently. Deleting the message, Felix grabs his face wash and clicks on the next message. A quick second glance shows that the voicemail timestamps growing progressively later, nearing 11:00pm last night as of now. As he runs his hands under the warming sinkwater, the next message clicks to life.
It's Dedue this time. He can hear some of his stern voice in Annette's reprimands, the low and steady cadence of it something she's too fiery to truly match.
"It should be obvious what everyone wants. You cannot keep ignoring them like this. All they... All we ask is one day. You are our friend, Felix, and I do not think you truly believe otherwise. How much longer do you think you can continue this stubborn act?"
Forever, if I can. It's worked this far, hasn't it? If his friends are an unstoppable force, he is the immovable object that stands alone against them. The yearly holiday barrage is a dance they've learned to grow into. Felix has become especially skilled in keeping his replies small and his given promises even smaller, and they've managed. Even without him, they've always managed. He digs through his medicine cabinet to prevent himself from considering the meaning of that.
Felix clicks on the next voicemail before splashing his face, flicking open the cap on his face wash as the next message starts to play. An odd silence prefaces it, but the voice that eventually comes through the speakers, crackling and low, is immediately recognizable.
"H-hello? This is on, right? Felix, it's Dimitri. I called to—"
He reaches over so quickly that soap and sinkwater follow him, splashing across his screen as he slams the delete button. The display jumps about wildly as Felix fumbles, blurring beneath the droplets that he smears across the screen. He clicks on a voicemail accidentally, the 3:52am timestamp staring up at him past the blurry haze. Nothing about the voice that spills forward surprises him, but everything about it stops him short — like it always used to, like it still does. If there is anything Sylvain can always do without fail, it's disarm him like no other.
"Another holiday, another round of rejected calls and voicemails, right? Sometimes I wonder if you even listen to them, or if I'm just talking to no one. I hope you're hearing us, Felix."
Felix freezes with the sink still running, slowly sinking steam into the cool apartment air. Cold water drips off his eyelashes and nose and Sylvain's hollow laughter cuts clear through it all.
"If you are, that means I can needle you all I want for not coming back for the holidays, especially knowing how much we miss you. If you aren't — which, maybe I'm hoping for. I can't tell. If you aren't, it makes it easier to say how much I'd like it if you came back. All of us would, of course, but... All of us, and me."
The line idles for just a moment, as if there was something more that Sylvain wanted to fill the phone-line static with, and Felix waits. He waits, heartbeat so far up his throat that he's sure another word from Sylvain could just make him throw it up entirely, and then the line goes dead.
He splashes his face again, hissing at how hot the sinkwater has gotten, and grabs a towel, drying himself and his phone and trying and failing not to think about what he's just heard.
Sylvain's "And me" echoes low and muttered in his mind, making Felix's head spin. As if Sylvain has ever needed to make it obvious how much he's stood out against everything else, an accidental splash of color that's so out of place it could've only been intentional — the kind of purposeful, perfect mistake that entire pieces are built around. In the choice not to come back home to Fhirdiad after graduating, Sylvain is the glaringly bright mistake that Felix paints surreptitiously around, unwilling to stare at him straight on. That his eyes and ears (and thoughts and heart) always seem to tumble back into orbit around his ineffable pull, Felix hates.
Swallowing thickly, he doesn't allow himself a second thought before deleting Sylvain's voicemail. It hurts no less than any of the others. He doesn't want to consider the fact that it might hurt more.
Shutting his phone off, he finishes the rest of his morning routine in silence. It isn't until he's sitting in the kitchen, heater on and fingers wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, that he considers listening to the rest. Of the three remaining voicemails, Felix starts with the earliest, from 6:42am this morning.
"Hello? Felix? This is Lysithea, Annette's girlfriend. I don't know if you remember me — we went to college together."
With an irritated click of the tongue, he lets the message play out, rising out of his chair to rifle around his pantry for breakfast.
Lysithea sounds exactly the same as he remembers — not that he remembers much besides her terrifying obsession with sweets and Annette's deathgrip on his arm every time Lysithea smiled at her during their group study sessions. He stopped attending those quickly, far from interested in magic theory discussions that, in hindsight, might have doubled as flirting for the two of them. It's embarrassing that he attended so many of those sessions to begin with, especially when trying to tune out Lysithea's history lessons on the magical trinity made it impossible for him to do his decidedly non-Reason related assignments.
He has nothing against Lysithea, but it definitely sounds like she has something against him.
"I just wanted to remind you that I have two master's degrees in Reason and Hexology, and I don't appreciate seeing Annette cry after being sent to voicemail ten times. You would be wise to consider coming back to Fhirdiad for Christmas, or at least returning her calls. I'm not above using you for target practice in the future, you know. Goodbye!"
Felix frowns, throwing the pantry doors shut with a bit too much force. The loud slam echoes throughout the apartment as he sits back down, deleting the voicemail with no hesitation. The fact that Annette had cried simmers low in his stomach, making the idea of breakfast sound far less desirable. He isn't sure if it's for Annette's sake or his that he hopes Lysithea is exaggerating.
The next voicemail is from a few minutes after Lysithea's, and when Annette's voice crackles softly through the speakers, there's a scratchy, soft tone to it.
"Hey, Felix... I don't know with Lysithea told you, but don't worry about me, okay? Just think about what I — what all of us said. The holidays aren't the same without everyone here, and we miss you. Think about it, yeah? We wanna see you there."
She pauses for a moment before the whispering phone line static goes silent, ending the message. Felix can't stand the silence that follows, so he deletes the voicemail before he can think too hard on it, playing the last one to fill the space. It's from Ingrid's missed call earlier today, the one that had woken him up just a quarter after nine.
"Felix, this is not funny. Would it kill you, for one holiday season, to stop being such an asshole? We miss you, that's why we keep calling and asking you to come visit. You don't know what you're missing by refusing to come back, to talk to us. We never planned for our lives to exclude you, but... Consider coming back, Felix. You might be surprised to find out we want to know what's happening in your life just as much as we want to share what's happened in ours."
Ingrid, as she always has, doesn't hesitate before ending the call. She's always been deliberate, in words and actions, and he's never known her to be anything less. The patience that underlies all of that, giving her time to carefully craft every sharpened, steadfast word, shows in her being the last to call — but she still calls. She rounds off their collective string of calls and voicemails with a knife-point flourish, never one to hold anything back. Deleting her message is only the slightest bit difficult and Felix, with two decades to grow accustomed to her hardened edges and a few years' worth of distance to grow numb to them, regrets nothing as he sees it go.
Leaning back in his chair, he shuts his phone off. Felix throws back the rest of his lukewarm coffee before rising, tossing the mug in his sink. He walks around his kitchen once, idling again at the pantry despite his lack of appetite, before returning to his seat. It groans gently in protest as he sinks into it, elbows propped against the wooden tabletop.
As he lifts his phone to check the time, it begins to buzz again, a name he hasn't seen in months flashing up to fill the screen.
That can't be right.
Felix stares at it for a long moment, fingers curling tight around his phone. It buzzes four times before he sets it down, listening to it vibrate against the hardwood before the screen fades to black.
He stares, waiting for a voicemail notification to pop up. When his phone starts buzzing anew, Felix groans. Before he can think twice about it, he accepts the call, quickly setting it to speakerphone. He considers hanging up immediately after, but the voice on the other end cuts him off.
Felix folds his hands, leaning his forehead against the conjoined heels of his palms. He doesn't say a word.
"If you're going to do this, I don't see why you answered me at all. Giving me the silent treatment in real-time instead of over voicemail won't make me think you're any less chickenshit than you actually are."
He scoffs at this — a sound that must have carried, because his companion cackles. It rings obnoxiously through his phone's speakers, and it aches that it sounds the same as it always has.
"I know you're there, Lix. Talk to your older brother, will you?"
With a sigh, Felix untangles his fingers, leaning back in his chair with crossed arms.
"I answered the phone," he replies snidely, "didn't I?"
"Normally, I would say that just answering the phone doesn't count for shit, but knowing how bad you are at communicating, we can give you a few points." Felix can hear the sharp corners of Glenn's grin, voice teasing and bright. It's been longer than he cares to count since he has seen or heard from his brother, but his likeness — pacific-ocean eyes and hair the same midnight-sky blue as what Felix faces every day in the mirror — has never faded. "Any reason for the change of heart? You know, Ingrid was pretty pissed when you ignored her call this morning."
"Any reason for yours? You never call, Glenn." If it comes out far more accusatory than intended, he doesn't care.
"I asked first. You really haven't changed if you think answering with another question will get you out of anything."
"Why else would I pick up?" he snaps. "You never call."
Glenn laughs, making Felix bristle. "That either means you miss me or you thought there was a family emergency. For my sake — and for all your friends' ears — I'm going to make sure everyone knows how uncharacteristically sentimental my baby brother was feeling, picking up a call from me."
"Oh, shut up. I couldn't give less of a shit about you. You called twice, so I—" Felix pauses, reason caught in his throat. If he's being honest with himself, he isn't sure what it is about Glenn that made him take the call. If he's being dishonest with himself, he'll tell Glenn— "I thought something happened. If you don't have something important to say, then leave."
"Depends on your definition of something. It feels more like everything has happened," he answers vaguely, something wistful and hazy feathering out the ends of his words. Glenn's voice is unusually soft as he says it, and it tears at Felix that he can't imagine why.
"I'm hanging up," Felix says robotically. He makes no move to pick up his phone, scowls at it like the small slab of metal and wires could serve a fitting replacement for his brother or any of his friends. For three years, it has been. He can't tell why it suddenly can't compare.
A sigh rattles through the speakers. Silence again, and just as Felix begins to reach for his phone—
"I proposed to Ingrid."
It's the last thing Felix had expected him to say, and he has no clue how to respond. Glenn, suddenly too far away to see Felix's shock, keeps speaking.
"You missed out on that, you know? At Thanksgiving. You miss out on a lot. That's all you seem to do these days, Lix. Miss out on our lives, just like we're missing out on yours."
Felix swallows, throat dry. The silence stretches, unbearably quiet as Felix searches for his voice. Thanksgiving was nearly an entire month ago. Felix doesn't want to consider what could've happened in the months and entire years that have prefaced it. Ingrid's words play back in his mind — We never planned for our lives to exclude you — but the enormity of all the lives he's failed to include in his own has never felt as daunting as it does now.
He feels sick.
"Glenn... Congratulations," he eventually mutters. It doesn't even feel like his own voice saying it, and he wonders if his brother can hear how hollow it sounds through the phone.
Glenn sighs. "I don't— I don't care about the congratulations, Felix. Maybe if you were there when it happened, but you weren't. If you cared at all to give me and Ingrid your well-wishes, you'd come back and actually learn the story that led up to this. You'd be here with the rest of us, caught up in all our stories — like Dimitri finally asking out the vet that lives next door to him. You know, he adopted a dog just for an excuse to talk to her? And you'd know that Annie and Lysithea's bakery is opening next month, but I'm willing to bet you don't even know its name."
Felix grits his teeth, glaring down at the phone. He'll die before he admits that Glenn is right, that he only has the vaguest memory of a dog, even if he can't remember whose it was, that he remembers dreams of a bakery, but never the plans to see it through. He knows his brother is right, and yet—
He snarls into the phone, "It's not as though I never talk to any of you. I know about the damned bakery, and what you, Ingrid, and that idiot have done — those are recent. I have my own life to worry about, too. I'm looking for a job. There's no time for your stupid frivolities."
"Stupid, huh? Is that what you think?"
Felix pinches the bridge of his nose. "I don't have time for this, Glenn."
"No, you do. Shut up for one fucking second and listen! We care about you, Felix. You can worry about your own life all you need, but you don't have to be the only one who does. That's why you have us, and that's why everyone always tries so hard to get you to reach out or come back. You're a goddess-damned idiot on your own, you know?"
Felix snorts, nose curling in disdain. "Thanks for the fucking pep talk."
"I'm not here to pep talk you, Lix. I'm here to convince you to come back home for Christmas."
"By insulting me? Your attempt is tactless and laughable at best. If they cared to try and tempt me home, they'd have asked anyone but you."
"And yet, I'm the only one you picked up the phone for."
That, Felix has no idea how to respond to.
"I know you, Felix. You could convince yourself that the world's stopped turning so long as your eyes are closed. I hate to break it to you, but it's still moving on without you. We're still moving on without you, even though we'd rather have you here, with us. You can't keep the world from spinning, Lix, but you can spin with it, even if it's just a few times a year."
Felix presses his lips tight, gaze dropping down to his lap. From across the speakers, Glenn sighs.
"We miss you. I don't think you understand how much. Hell, if we had a dollar for every time someone mentioned you," Glenn notes wryly, "we could fly you home first-class. I think Sylvain will have funded over half of it."
His scowl deepens at the mention of Sylvain, fingers curling tight into the crook of his sleeves. He isn't sure what upsets him more: the fact that Sylvain never shuts up about him, or the fact that this doesn't surprise Felix at all. After a terse moment of quiet, Glenn speaks again.
"Nothing left to say, huh? You never change," he laughs, wistful and tired and low. "Just think about it. But I'm not wishing you a merry Christmas, Lix. It'll be in person, or not at all."
Felix opens his mouth to say something back — what exactly, he's not sure — but it dies with the phone call, severed at the neck by the angry buzz of the dial tone. The phone screen lights up again, noting that the call has ended, and Felix turns it over with a shaky sigh.
In person, or not at all, he repeats, glaring down at his phone. The not at all has never bothered him before, not when he's consistently been on the giving end of it, but Glenn, as much as he hates to admit it, is right. All of his friends, without fail, have been the first to text or call him with their well-wishes, no matter the holiday. He's not so heartless as to leave them without a quick, simple reply, but he's apparently heartless enough to have never reached out first.
Funny that it would be his own brother that decides Felix has to earn his holiday well wishes, and it's even funnier that Felix — for all that he has grown used to this robotic ebb and flow of holiday texts and missed calls — feels bad to see their routine broken, as if he hadn't spent years ignoring them, pretending like he couldn't care less if they were all to stop.
It's funny, in an entirely fucked up and incredibly shitty kind of way, that Felix gave up on his friends when they never gave up on him. He can't even begin to fathom why, so he silences his phone and locks it away in his room.
Felix spends the rest of his day emptily staring at job listings on his laptop, and if over half of that time is spent opening and closing a page on train ticket rates from Garreg Mach to Fhirdiad, Felix doesn't think twice about it.
He doesn't think twice, either, when he buys a round trip back home.
By the time Felix gets home from work the next night, his head spins with the scent of burnt coffee and whatever cinnamon-clove-peppermint-bullshit syrup that people at his coffeeshop job are so obsessed with. He collapses into the kitchen chair with a shitty microwave dinner, staring at the round trip ticket to Fhirdiad on his fridge door. It's more like glaring, really. Checking his phone, he notes that there's just over an hour until the train is scheduled to depart.
He stabs at his overcooked green beans and wonders, bitterly, if it's too late to get a refund.
It takes him ten minutes to shovel down the rest of his microwave dinner and ten more to decide he doesn't want to put in the effort necessary to search train ticket refund policies, so Felix grabs a ratty duffel bag and starts to fill it with three days worth of clothes and toiletries. It's only three days, he tells himself. Enough to wish everyone a happy holiday, get them off his case for one more year, and— and maybe repeat it, his mind offers, stopping him with a pair of socks halfway to his bag.
His mind doesn't supply him with a suggestion on how often he'll come back, not when he's a year and a half into fruitless job searching around Garreg Mach, and he elects to ignore the traitorous thing instead, trying to round up enough clean shirts and underwear to last the entire trip. His phone starts blaring soon after, reminding Felix that he needs to leave for the station, and he doesn't have time to clean up the mess of clothes scattered atop his bed before he's out the door.
Felix keeps his hands stuffed into his pockets the entire brisk walk to the station, vision hazy with the fog of his breath in the late-night air. It'll be colder up north, he belatedly realizes, swearing at his failure to pack an extra scarf. He considers running back home to grab one — fully aware that it'll make him miss his ride — but the train barrels into the station immediately after, stopping him short.
Even this stupid hunk of metal seems bent on having him home for the holidays. He scowls at it as he boards.
The train ride back to Fhirdiad is long. Felix, exhausted from a double shift at work, plans to sleep for all six hours of it. He idles on his phone as he waits for the ticketmaster to make his way down the aisle, leaving his on display on the folding tray before him. Annette had left him another series of texts earlier, and he frowns down at them, thinking about her last voicemail.
She sounds more angry than upset now, but her broken tone of voice yesterday morning still rings in his ears, twisting another knife into his stomach. Peering up the aisle, Felix decides he has enough time to call her with a quick apology. Hopefully the ticketmaster comes to save him before she can ask for much else.
Her texts were from a half hour ago at most, so Felix expects her to pick up immediately. When the line rings three times, he starts to get annoyed. When it rings four times, he starts to feel guilty. When it rings once more, sending him to voicemail, Felix feels like his heart has sunk into his stomach, because it is rolling and boiling and he's starting to feel legitimately sick.
Copper eyes glance up the aisle again, seeing the ticketmaster just a few rows before him, and Felix forgets to hang up before the beep.
The ticketmaster is two rows away now, and Felix has no fucking clue what he wanted to say.
"I didn't mean to ignore so many of your calls."
"Alright, I did. I knew what I was doing when I ignored them, but."
One more row. The lady in front of him is rifling through her bag, making a racket as she looks for her ticket.
"I had no intention to upset you, alright? I don't— You're the last person I'd want to—"
The lady in front of him finds her ticket, scowling when the ticketmaster gestures at her husband in the next seat over. She starts needling him for his, and Felix can hear them bickering about who last had possession of both slips of paper.
"It meant a lot, that you called so many times. It can't make up for every single call and text, but— You asked me to call, and I'm here. Stop sounding so upset, alright?"
He wonders if it's out of place to end with a thank you or a Merry Christmas, but neither of them do much to assuage the guilt that still sits low in his stomach, curling his fingers until they're white-knuckled around his phone. In the end, he hangs up without another word, because he's good at that, apparently — leaving things hanging because he can't figure out what to say.
The ticketmaster arrives just as he hangs up, dropping his phone face down onto the collapsible tray. He stares at his lap and jams his ticket at the man with zero eye contact. No words are exchanged and when he leaves, Felix sets an alarm, silences his phone, and resolves to pass out instead of further addressing his issues.
If he's lucky, Annette won't see his voicemail until the next morning, and he has at least twelve hours until then to come up with something better to say — to her, and to everyone else. He decides not to consider what will happen if he's unlucky.
Felix's alarm wakes him up six hours later.
He comes to slowly, head pounding at the sudden start. The train's PA crackles to life as if it were waiting for him, announcing their impending arrival in Fhirdiad. His phone displays a handful of new texts and a voicemail from Annette, all of which he dismisses in the spirit of pretending he's far too busy sleeping to acknowledge. Felix isn't sure he's ready for whatever reply Annette has left him, especially in the wake of his mortifying apology, so he busies himself with digging another jacket out of his bag, blinking away the bleariness from his eyes.
In fifteen minutes, Felix is standing alone in front of Fhirdiad Central Station, cold fingers fumbling with his phone as he tries to search for directions to the nearest motel. He's this close to calling for a taxi when a series of texts pop up abruptly on his screen, the sharp ding of his ringtone far too loud against the eerie quiet.
Swearing softly, Felix tries to banish them, swearing again, loudly, when his numb fingers accidentally click on the notifications instead. It takes him directly to his message history with Sylvain — because who else would be awake and texting him at three in the fucking morning — and Felix can't take his eyes away in the same way a man can't stop looking at a passing car crash: with morbid curiosity and knowing full well that every extra second spent staring is another second to see him meet that same, fucked up fate.
Felix shuts his phone off.
Three in the morning is not the time for this, but his mind echoes with the idea of Sylvain's words anyway — alongside the reminder that Sylvain's address is one of the few he actually has, saved in a drunken lapse of judgment one month after he had moved back to Fhirdiad, leaving Felix alone.
Sylvain is still awake if the late-night texts are anything to go by, and he wouldn't let Felix sleep on the streets, no matter how much he'd try and protest. Or maybe, his mind supplies, there's no reason to protest. He a stone's throw from Sylvain's apartment. Walking there is no harder than buying a taxi to the nearest motel, and he could—
Tell Sylvain you miss him, his mind offers. That thought stops Felix in his tracks. He could see Sylvain for the first time in three years and tell him, honestly, for once in his life, that the only constant during his time away was the ache in his chest every time Sylvain called. Felix almost has half a mind to do just that, sick and tired of standing in the cold of Fhirdiad winter, and yet—
Felix sighs, hot and heavy against the icy night air.
"Fuck this," he huffs. He bites back the restless chatter of his teeth, wishing he had gone back to get his scarf when he had the chance — wishing he had missed his train altogether, slept suffering and soundly as he passed a fourth Christmas alone in Garreg Mach. His breath curls up in a golden fog beneath the incandescent streetlights and Felix makes a 180, not really caring where he's going, so long as it's the opposite direction of Sylvain's flat.
It's been a while since he's had a decent drink, and with the cold air sinking so relentlessly into his skin, Felix decides that now is as good a time as ever to find one. He has a vague sense of where he is going, pieces of his mental map of Fhirdiad shifting ponderously back into place. More has changed in his six years away than he cares to catalog, but it doesn't take long for Felix to find a neon red OPEN 24 HOURS sign hanging in a bar window, its luminescent sign painting the surrounding bleak storefronts with a voracious, dizzying crimson. It almost looks out of place in the middle of this quiet, unlit strip — the kind of flashy, trendy place that Sylvain would've loved back in their college years — but Felix doesn't think too long on that, ducking into the bar as surreptitiously as he can.
It's empty — probably by virtue of it being far past waking hours — and modest additions of tinsel and fairy lights adorn the bar and walls. Christmas, Felix thinks dully, is in less than a week now. He pays them no mind as he picks a seat at the bar, laying his phone atop the counter and tapping it pointedly to get the bartender's attention.
The brunette at the far end of the bar looks up from her phone suddenly. She seems surprised to see him, as if 3am customers were a rarity in her line of work. Given how proudly their storefront touts their OPEN 24 HOURS sigh, Felix can't imagine why.
"Whiskey on ice," he tells her, fishing a bill out of his wallet. He leaves the bill atop the counter as the bartender starts rifling through her liquor stores, listening to the soft clinks of glass that sporadically add to the Christmas music playing softly in the background. She brings the bottle and a single glass around with her, sizing Felix up with emerald eyes turned alexandrite in the magenta light of the bar.
"Haven't seen you around before," she notes, a curious lilt to the dulcet alto of her tone. There is an artfulness to the way she pours, no drop spilled despite her gaze never leaving Felix. He accepts the drink brusquely. It's good, breathing warmth into the brittle cold that had set itself so greedily into his skin.
"I'm not from around here," he answers curtly. There's an anymore that begs to be tacked onto the end of his words, but Felix bites it back, chases it back down with the slide of iced whiskey down his throat. He hasn't been from around here in over half a decade. "And I'm not interested in conversation," he snaps, shooting her a glare. If anything, the woman only looks amused at his attempt. "I don't know what kind you usually serve, but I'm here for the alcohol, not the camaraderie."
She snorts as she leans elbows against the bar, cheeks propped neatly against her palms.
"I'm not offering camaraderie," she laughs. "Just conversation. Indulge a lonely bartender a little, won't you? In the spirit of Christmas."
Felix narrows his eyes at her, taking another sip of his drink, and she seems to take his lack of protest as an agreement. Her grin is picture-perfect, framed by lips painted a deep rosewood-red.
"I'm Dorothea. Dorothea Arnault"
"What an interesting name," she giggles, alexandrite eyes alight. They shift in color almost dizzily, emerald and magenta in mesmerizing unrest. There is a cryptic edge to her voice, something that hits a note far too off-kilter to be flirting, and Felix thinks about childhood stories about beautiful fae-people, wondering if he should regret giving his name away.
"It's all you're getting."
"And here I thought you were indulging me, dear Felix. What happened to that Christmas spirit?"
"I don't care much for the holiday. It passes the same as it does every year, and all it does is make the streets and people louder."
"Not much of a religious person, I take it?"
He snorts. "Absolutely not."
"Really, even with the lovely decoration and atmosphere?"
"Hmm... How about the family?" she tries. Felix scowls. "Or perhaps...the friends?"
Felix slams his glass back down, copper eyes narrowed. "Give me another glass," he snaps, fully aware that his avoidance of the question is just as damning as an answer.
Dorothea pours him another one gracefully, eyes never straying from his.
"Sore spot?" she asks, and Felix refuses to answer her until his glass is back in hand and he has swallowed down half of it, warmth starting to coil warm and fuzzy in his stomach.
"More than I've the patience to tend to. They... None of them seem to understand."
"Well, understanding is a two-way street," Dorothea hums. "We can drop it though, since you seem so sore about it. If it's not family or the Christmas spirit, then what does bring you here?"
He winces before he can stop himself, and Dorothea, with eyes as sharp as cut jewels, notices.
"Nothing," he hisses. "Fucking nothing. I don't even know why I'm here," and it's not a complete lie, because he'd bought that train ticket half in a daze, followed through only because he couldn't — for some damned, unidentifiable reason — bring himself not to go. "I might just go home," he mutters, downing the rest of his half-finished whiskey. "This city fucking sucks and there's nothing I care— There's nothing for me here. There hasn't been for years."
"So they are here. These family and friends of yours."
Felix's eyes flash.
"They aren't. I didn't ask you to fucking pry."
"Oh, it's nothing you haven't made clear with your own words already, Felix." Dorothea smiles, eyes glinting in the low bar light as she offers him another drink. He lets her, comfortable in the blurry warmth of whiskey in his veins. "You're quite transparent, you know. It's not like you have the ability to make anything worse by lying. You're probably the only one who believes your lies."
Felix growls, but Dorothea proves unflappable. She laughs at the display.
"Not much of a talker, I see." She regards him for a moment, eyes flickering into something bordering on quiet and contemplative before she speaks again. Her tone of voice shifts, going from teasing to something slower. Dorothea speaks with the measured docility someone speaks to a cornered creature they don't want to scare away, and with how easily this stranger has managed to read him, Felix can't help but feel like exactly that.
"You know," she begins, "I'm more than a mixer of normal drinks. If the layman's liquid courage isn't enough, I've got a few... magical solutions, too. You seem like you might be interested. All you've got to do is say yes, and I can get you the chance to fix your problems without having to say a word. Sounds perfect for the strong and silent type like you, doesn't it?"
Crossing his arms, Felix scowls up at her.
"I don't need your fucking pity, and I certainly don't need your help. There's nothing left to fix. Coming here," he says, not sure if he means the bar or Fhirdiad or anywhere that wasn't a six-hour train ride away from people he has made a life of ignoring, "was a mistake."
"You say that," Dorothea sighs, "but you still came. I meet a lot of strangers, running a bar like this. I know what it looks like, seeing someone drink to forget the good things instead of the bad."
"There's nothing good left. In case you couldn't fucking tell from how saints-forsaken transparent I am, I already ruined it all."
For the first time that night, Dorothea frowns. Felix finishes his drink instead of forcing himself to look at her, demanding one last glass before he does. Instead of pouring him another, she fiddles with the cup, lips pursed.
"Spit it out," he clucks. "I can tell you've got another asinine attempt to sell your little schemes."
She laughs ruefully at that, running a sheepish hand through her bangs.
"I do," she sighs. "You're right. I learned magic to help people, and I think you need the help. All you'd have to do is agree, and you'd have the chance to fix things. You wouldn't even have to worry about talking much," she adds coyly, "since you seem to hate it so much. And really, all I'm giving you is a chance. Unfortunately, it'll all still be you, but I think that's exactly what you want."
"And you know what I want?"
"I have an idea. I think you want to fix things, Felix, but you're afraid words will only ruin it, like they've ruined everything else for you in the past."
He tears his gaze away, fingers curled into white-knuckled fists beneath the bar.
"Shut up," he hisses. "You've no right to act like you know me."
"So I'm right?"
Felix is silent. He considers leaving, first and foremost, but he also considers a myriad of other things, spurred on by the alcohol in his veins and the haze in his head. He considers the texts Sylvain had sent him and his own pathetic inability to reply; considers his inability to face Annette's reply to his voicemail; and his inability, for the past three years, to reply to his father's constant emails or his friends' unending voicemails and texts.
It burns him to admit it, but Dorothea is right: words have always held him back. His head spins with alcohol and regret and the echoing refrain of maybe.
Dorothea, to her credit, looks shocked. He wonders, absently, if she has already expected him to leave, to storm out of her bar and into the night and never, never come back. He can't say he didn't consider it, but the alcohol and his exhaustion are enough, just this once, to let Felix admit just how much he misses his friends.
He remembers Sylvain's latest text — imagine how great it would be to have us all together again — and admits that yes, it would be great. He hasn't imagined something like that in a long time.
When he lifts his gaze to Dorothea, her eyes sparkle again, that dangerous, knowing glitter of emerald, like precious stone. She mixes him another drink, elegant as always, but reaches for something hidden behind the wall of her cabinets before she hands it off. Felix watches, heartbeat in his throat, as she pours something bright and liquid gold into his whiskey before it dissipates, swirling into the ochre liquid in a brilliant smear of amber that reminds him, suddenly, of Sylvain's eyes.
Before she hands Felix his drink she grabs herself a glass of whiskey too, poured in portion to match his. Sliding him his glass, she raises her own.
"To solving problems," she smiles, "without a simple peep."
He clinks his glass against hers before he throws back the drink. It burns worse than the whiskey ever did, making his head spin and vision blur. Felix registers, blearily, falling off his seat before he blacks out, and the low magenta glow of the bar is the last thing he sees.