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Venice Bitch

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June 17th, 2004.

Dimitri Alexandre Blaiddyd is certifiably insane. Four days of living with him has been more than enough to suspect something was off, but this is the final nail in the coffin. The last straw. The damning shred of evidence that tears his already questionable credibility to pieces. 

There is no conceivable way that food sold out of the side of a truck can offer anything other than E. coli bacteria and intense regret. 

“Edelgard, I swear on my life that you will not regret this choice. I’ll even pay for your meal!”

“You may save me eight dollars, but what about the time I’ll spend laying in bed from the inevitable stomachache? You can’t return my time back to me, Dimitri.”

Still, Dimitri refuses to waver. “This truck has been in business for fifteen years! If it was truly as terrible as you think, wouldn’t it have closed already?”

Edelgard doesn’t enjoy being wrong. She avoids that inevitable pain by being right the vast majority of the time. At the very least, when she is wrong, she can admit it. Her ego is not that sensitive. “I… suppose that’s a fair point. And you’ve had it before?”

“Dozens of times.”

“Recently? Within the past two months recently?”

“Dedue, Ingrid, and I came here just last week. Ingrid ate seven tacos. Seven! On her own! Certainly you should be fine.” Dimitri smiles at her: open, honest, charming. Everything she is not. 

He has a way of winning people over. Edelgard doesn’t like it, but even she isn’t immune to his charisma. With a sigh, she nods. “Very well. But you’re paying for my meal and a drink.”

Dimitri beams. He bounds off like a child down the street with a surprising amount of agility - a definite feat for someone as broad-shouldered and large as he’s become. Given the light sea-breeze that keeps sweeping Edelgard’s bangs into her eyes as she walks, Dimitri must be buffered by his own shaggy hair as he runs. She thinks back to the pictures her uncle presented her with the first time she discovered he existed. The slight boy with the nervous smile feels a world away from the person she refuses to catch up to now. Then again, that boy was even more of a stranger to her than the man several dozen feet in front of her is now.

As Dimitri entertains himself with needless exercise, Edelgard turns her attention to the location they walk within. Cars line the edges of the street, all parked under the nonexistent shade of the massive palm trees that tower overhead. Growing up, Edelgard always assumed that the palm trees of California were nothing more than window dressing tacked onto postcards for the sake of fulfilling a stereotype to appease overeager tourists.

She was wrong. They’re everywhere, especially this close to the ocean. She keeps Dimitri’s silhouette, framed by his dark blue button down and khakis, in the edges of her peripheral vision as she looks up at the giant green fronds that are framed by a hazy blue sky. The wind tousles her hair again. It’s the first time she’s let it flow down her shoulders freely in so long. The sticky humidity she’s come to associate with summer is simply not the case here. Not even the lingering taste of ocean salt on her tongue when she inhales can dampen the lightness this weather provides.

Dimitri does not understand how blessed he is to live here. If she had grown up here, she would never leave.

As it stands, there is nothing for her here.

He leads her to a packie, though he barely offers a passing glance to the squat building that dominates the street corner. His attention is focused on the small truck parked at a meter. It’s painted the most hideous shade of mint Edelgard ever seen. A small awning hangs over the open window on the side of the vehicle. Underneath that is a menu, half of which she can’t read.

Edelgard finally catches up to Dimitri. Upon realizing that he went off without her, he starts to stammer out an apology. She cuts him off before he can. “I’d like tacos, Dimitri. Though I’m unsure of how many…”

At least Dimitri can adapt to the change. “What kind of meat would you like?”

Edelgard looks at the menu once more and rues the day her uncle made her take five years’ of French lessons, scattered in piecemeal segments across her life. “Um… I’m also unsure of what they offer.”

“Well, the first option is chicken,” Dimitri says, pointing to the menu. 

Edelgard rolls her eyes. “I know that means chicken. I’ve seen an El Pollo Loco before.” She’s never been, but she’s certainly passed by dozens. “It’s the others that I don’t understand.”

“My apologies.” And for all the times she’s heard that phrase escape another’s mouth, this is the first in a while that has sounded so genuine. She cares for Hubert deeply, but his apologies are always coded remarks on how he doesn’t care that he directly went against her wishes. Her uncle has never apologized for a single mistake in his life.

But Dimitri? He is genuine. Frighteningly so. 

“To go down the list… there is steak, pork, a slightly different kind of pork, fish, and shrimp.”

Edelgard considers her options. “I would like… steak. And either of the pork.”

“How many?”

“Less than seven, ideally.”

Dimitri laughs. With that, he reminds her a little of Ferdinand - the two both laugh so openly. Much more openly than she could ever feel comfortable doing so.

He goes up to the side of the truck. The driver’s seat is empty, and the person who Edelgard presumes usually fills the seat meets him on the other side of the window. In halting Spanish, Dimitri gives their order. He speaks much more slowly than the man inside the truck, but it’s clear that the two understand each other. 

Dimitri hands him a handful of bills - far fewer than a meal for two should require. One sub in New Jersey would cost the same amount as however many tacos he just ordered. 

After a few moments, Dimitri rejoins her side, a large styrofoam drink in each hand. Only when he hands one to her does she realize that she didn’t specify what drink she wanted. 

“What is this?” she asks, eyeing the cup warily. 

“Ah… I wasn’t certain what to order for you. A soda could have worked, but I wanted to take a chance. That’s horchata - a sweet drink with rice and cinnamon, I believe.” Dimitri raises his own cup. “I ordered the same. I’ve been told it’s quite delicious. I’m more fond of the texture, myself.”

She does enjoy sweets. Likewise, she enjoys rice dishes, even if she has no clue how it could translate to a drink. Cinnamon-sugar toast is amazing as well, so this should be fine, right? 

She takes a small sip, letting a sweet, milky flavor flood her tongue. The cinnamon comes to the forefront of the flavor, but she finds she rather enjoys it. 

“You chose well,” she says. As small as it may be, Dimitri preens at the praise. He takes a sip of his own drink before drifting back over to the truck to chat with the person within. Given how willing he is to indulge Dimitri’s accented Spanish, there must be another person she can’t see within, cooking the food. 

The two speak with such familiarity. Edelgard catches a few words that are similar enough between English and Spanish, or ones she’s absorbed from pop culture. Dimitri asks the man if his family is doing well, to which the man responds enthusiastically. The man continues to speak at length as Dimitri listens with rapt attention. Edelgard gets the sense that this is a common occurrence. 

It’s… different. Very different. Not bad, but it is not a space in which Edelgard can intrude upon. It isn’t for her. This isn’t her home.

Just three-and-a-half months here - one summer - and then she’ll be back where she belongs. 

Dimitri’s conversation only ends when their food arrives. He returns to Edelgard with two small, red-and-white checkered baskets of food. The kind that she’s used to seeing hot dogs plopped into on the streets of New York whenever she’d take the train there. The small tacos - four in one, five in the other - look out of place within the container. The tortillas are small, packed tightly with chunks of steak and another meat the color of rusted metal - the pork, she assumes. Cilantro, onion, and salsa sit on top of the meat. Two wedges of lime are shoved in the corner.

Edelgard glances towards Dimitri for instructions. He squeezes the lime over his own tacos - all shrimp, from the looks of it - and tosses the rinds into a small trash barrel by the truck. Edelgard follows his example.

They head back to his house, content to eat their food in silence as they walk. It isn’t a problem for Edelgard; she doesn’t mind the silence. Hubert is prone to long stretches of silence, after all. She’s well-acquainted with having only her own thoughts for company.

For as peaceful this silence is, Edelgard can’t help but feel that there’s a darker edge to it. For all Dimitri smiles and avoids the issue, they’re near strangers. For the next three months, she sleeps in the room across the hallway from his. She shares a bathroom with him. 

She shares her mother with him.

Yet she knows little of what occupies his thoughts. She doesn’t know who he is; what his hopes and dreams are. She knows that, like her, he just graduated college, but she has no idea from where. She doesn’t know what he feels about this place - if he wishes to stay, or if somewhere else calls to him.

Despite all those questions, and despite Edelgard’s eternal curiosity, perhaps it’s for the best that she never asks. It’ll be easier if she spends her time here the way she spent all of college: working hard not to get attached. It’ll be easier to leave when the inevitable day comes.

Dimitri’s voice rouses her from her thoughts. “Oh, Edelgard! I see some of my friends. Would you like to meet them?”

Edelgard sets the taco that was halfway to her mouth back into the basket. “I suppose so.” One five-minute meeting won't hurt. If she doesn't meet them now, then she'll most likely be forced to do so later.

“Excellent!” His pace increases, leaving Edelgard to trot after him. He comes to a stop in front of another squat house - really, nothing more than a light blue square with a roof on top of it. A waist-high chain-link fence, rusted in more spaces than not, line the perimeter. Intimidating black bars cover every window. There’s no driveway, no garden in the front yard, nothing but browned grass and a small path that leads to the front door. 

Four small concrete steps lead up to the front door. Three young people - two men, one woman, all roughly their age - lounge on the steps. The woman, with short blonde hair that falls just past her ears, sits shoulder-to-shoulder next to a young man with sharp features and a small blue ponytail. The other man lounges on the grass, his elbow casually perched on one of his long legs. In his hands is what Edelgard thinks is an apple, though it’s clear that he’s done something to it that has nothing to do with eating. All three wear the same basic outfit: a worn t-shirt, baggy denim shorts, and Converse falling on a spectrum of disrepair. 

Three pairs of eyes - green, gold, and brown - fall on her. All three send an unpleasant chill down her spine. Not for the first time in her life, she feels like a bird being sized up by a pack of starving wolves. 

Dimitri pays no mind to their silent scorn. She’s not certain if he even notices. “Meet my childhood friends. Sylvain,” the man on the ground, “Ingrid,” the woman on the porch, “and Felix.” The other man. “Everyone, meet Edelgard. Ingrid, I believe I told you about her when we last saw each other. I presume you told Felix and Sylvain as well?”

Ingrid’s eyes light up with recognition. Her wariness melts away under the summer sun, leaving her to offer Edelgard a pleasant smile. Still, something about it feels a little forced. “I did," she says before looking directly at Edelgard. "You’re the step-sister from the east coast, right? Pleased to meet you.”

“Want me to show you around town? The beach is beautiful at night. Almost as beautiful as you,” Sylvain says with a smile. He tries to wink, but it morphs into a grimace as Ingrid leans over to punch the leg closest to her. All Felix does is fold his arms over his chest and loudly scoff. 

“She’s my sister, Sylvain,” Dimitri sighs in a voice that speaks nothing of fatigue. Given the lack of surprise from any of the others, this seems to be a common occurrence.

What irks at her more is Dimitri’s title for her. She’s well versed at hiding her displeasure. The skill comes in handy now as she forces her expression to remain carefully neutral. 

“Do you have to hit so hard?” Sylvain groans, rubbing his sore leg. He completely ignores Dimitri.

“I wouldn’t have to hit you so hard if you learned how to behave yourself!” Ingrid shoots back. 

“See, stuff like this is why I still think you need to light up.” He holds the apple out to her and wiggles it. 

There’s a large hole in the top of the apple where the stem used to be, just as another hole is dug into the side. Why it looks like that, Edelgard has no idea. 

“You’re a bigger idiot than I imagined if you think you’d ever convince Ingrid to do something illegal,” Felix snaps. 

Sylvain’s answering grin is knife-sharp. “You’d be surprised, Felix. Our precious Ingrid isn’t as innocent as she likes to pretend she is.”

Ingrid’s face turns cherry red. From besides her Dimitri sighs once more. “Must you do this in front of Edelgard? She’s only been here for a couple of days.” This is her fourth, since apparently she is the only one counting. “You’re giving her a terrible impression.”

“You think we care about a tourist’s opinion? Or yours, for that matter?” Felix bites out. “If she can’t handle it, then she should leave. You would know that well, wouldn’t you, boar?” 

Before Dimitri can respond, Sylvain cuts in. “So what, Dimitri? She’s just a tourist. A cute one, sure, but tourists are all the same. She’ll forget all about us the moment she steps on that plane.”

“It doesn’t hurt to be civil,” Ingrid says.

Edelgard bristles at the conversation. To talk about her in this way, as if she wasn’t standing directly in front of them, is so incredibly rude. On top of that, she can’t deny the uncomfortable tension that crackles between Dimitri and the people he calls his friends. Ingrid seems friendlier than the two men, and while Edelgard certainly can’t judge someone for the bad company they may keep, this conversation has already grated on her nerves more than she can allow. She takes a sip of horchata, but even the sweetness does little to dull her sour mood. 

“I’ll see you back at your house, Dimitri,” Edelgard says. To the three, she nods. “It was a… pleasure, to meet you all.” Without giving Dimitri a chance to respond, she turns on her heel and leaves. Dimitri pauses briefly before hurrying after her, apologizing with every breath. 

She takes another bite of her taco, refusing to let the encounter dull her appetite. She’s handled much worse than their poor attitudes. 

She only has to stay here for one summer. One summer, then her life can finally start. 

 


 

“I’m not surprised they treated you so badly,” Lysithea says. “To them, you’re nothing but an outsider.”

“They called me a tourist.”

“Which is rude, yes, but not entirely wrong,” Lysithea concedes. Edelgard sighs. They only reconnected two years ago, but two years is more than enough time to show just how terrible Lysithea is at providing comfort. 

“I suppose I didn’t expect such blatant rudeness. To say something when my back is turned is one thing. To talk about me as if I wasn’t standing directly in front of them is another.” Edelgard rests the phone between her shoulder and chin as she fluffs up the pillows behind her head. They’re fluffy in the way new pillows always are, puffed full of feathers that have yet to be beaten into submission. The pillowcases are a bright red, as is the rest of the bedding on this unfamiliar bed. 

Her mother may have forgotten everything about her previous life, but at least she remembered Edelgard’s favorite color.

There’s a distinct pause before Lysithea responds. Edelgard hears a strange crackling that she’s since come to recognize as Lysithea eating chocolate chip cookies. Something painful twists in Edelgard’s chest. In another world, maybe she could be in New Jersey with Lysithea, eating cookies and sharing tea with her, the way they used to. 

Instead Edelgard is three-thousand miles away, having to ask permission to use the Blaiddyd’s phone and promise to pay the long-distance charge herself just to talk to her family. Her only solace is that they have wireless phones and not the corded landline that her uncle swears by.

The man keeps a corded phone just to listen in on her phone conversations more easily. Edelgard is well aware of this.

“Dimitri called me his sister,” Edelgard confesses. It feels like a sin to admit. 

It feels like punishment to hear Lysithea’s scandalized gasp. “He what!? He’s met you once before! Once! Who does he think he is, calling you his sister so- so brazenly!?” 

“It was uncomfortable, to say the least.”

“It’s infuriating, is what it is!” Lysithea shouts. Edelgard moves the phone away from her head, her ears ringing. “I cannot believe he thinks he has any right to call you that! Even I can’t call you that!” 

“I wouldn’t be opposed if you did.”

Lysithea groans. “I know! I wouldn’t either, but then everyone always asks how could I have a sister when everyone knows I’m my parents sole child, then I have to correct myself so they understand that we’re only half-siblings. It’s a pain.”

“That it is. Yet it’s not the worst we’ve dealt with.”

She can imagine Lysithea’s shudder, the way it’d run down her back in a straight line, making her sit stiffly in the armchair she commandeered for her desk. “You’re right.”

Edelgard glances at the clock on the nightstand: 9:32 PM, it reads. She sighs. “Have you seen the time, Lysithea.”

The silence, backed by small bursts of static, carries all the guilt Lysithea refuses to admit. “Maybe I haven’t checked it in a while,” Lysithea eventually says. 

“If I’m not mistaken, your research lab begins tomorrow. I believe the start time was… seven AM, you mentioned?”

“I haven’t gotten a chance to talk to you since you left. Come on, Edelgard. Half an hour more. Please?”

Edelgard chuckles. “You know I hate talking down to you, and I hate this time difference just as much as you do, but… no, Lysithea. You need to sleep.”

Out of all the people in the world, Edelgard is probably one of three people who Lysithea will listen to when she gives a suggestion. “...Alright. But you have to call me tomorrow.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for anything.” 

“Good.” Another crackle - another cookie. “Goodnight, Edelgard.”

“Goodnight, Lysithea.” The call ends. Edelgard sets the handset on the nightstand and sighs once more. The night is still so young, but it’s far too late to speak to her two other friends. Ferdinand has never gone to bed later than 11:30 in his life, and while Hubert would gladly forsake sleep to speak to Edelgard, he also has an early morning. She doesn’t want to make him suffer the next day - or more likely, make his coworkers suffer his bad mood. 

Edelgard considers her next options. She could paint, but by the time she digs through her suitcases, finds her materials, and sets it all up in the corner of the room blissfully unoccupied by furniture, it’d be time for her to sleep. She didn’t want to weigh down her luggage with books, so she has nothing to read. 

She quiets, listening to the sound of muffled laughter. Dimitri and his parents play games together every Thursday night. Dimitri invited her earlier, and she’s certain the invitation still stands, but…

She considers what other options she has. She could always… go on a walk. Edelgard nods to herself. Yes, a walk would be nice. The gentle weather she felt today would surely give way to a cool and refreshing night. She would appreciate the piece it will offer, too. 

Her mind made up, Edelgard gets up, slides on a pair of ankle-high boots, and leaves her room. The light chatter from the Blaiddyd family rings crystal-clear without a barrier to separate Edelgard from the noise. This house is big enough to contain three bedrooms, but not quite big enough to shield the figures on the couch from Edelgard’s view as she exits the hallway. To get to the front door, she’ll have to pass right by them. 

She marches forward. A voice stops her right as her hand hovers on the front doorknob. “El, honey? Are you heading out?” asks the worried voice of her mother. 

“I’m going on a brief walk, Patricia,” Edelgard answers as politely as she can manage. She doesn’t look over her shoulder; she cannot bear to see the inevitable hurt crossing that woman’s face. 

“Sit out on the porch if you must, but it’s dangerous to walk around here at night by yourself,” Patricia continues. “And you haven’t even been here a week! What if you get lost?”

Edelgard is very adept at trudging through conversations she hates. This is simply one more to add to the list. “I won’t go far. That, and I have a good sense of direction. I’ll be fine.”

“It really isn’t safe for you to go alone,” Lambert adds.

“I’ll join you, Edelgard. It’s lovely this time of night,” Dimitri says.

“Thank you, but I’m certain I’ll be fine on my own.”

Patricia must sense that Edelgard refuses to give in. With a heavy sigh, she relents. “I see that you’re as stubborn as ever… at the very least, please walk along the canals. With all the tourists that visit it, it’s the safest part of the neighborhood.”

“They’re not as beautiful at night, but they’re quite lovely during the day,” Dimitri says. “Oh! You must not know where they are, do you? Simply go west until you see the two story houses. The path from there is easy enough to find.”

Edelgard still doesn’t look back at the Blaiddyds, but she nods fiercely enough that she’s certain even with her back turned to them they can still see the gesture. 

She opens the door and steps outside, refreshed instantly by the night sea-breeze. She’s still a few miles from the water, but without towering skyscrapers to block out the wind, it flows freely around her. 

She may not have a compass, but the half-decade she spent suffering as a girl scout serves as an appropriate substitute. Within seconds she’s off, moving past rows of small houses and chipped paint with ease. Though the pattern isn’t always complete; more than once she passes by a boxy style of building that seems incompatible with the rest. They remind her of apartment complexes, if someone decided to fashion a place to live out of a warehouse for iron.

She makes sure to go the opposite direction of the house where she saw Ingrid, Sylvain, and Felix. She’s forced to circle around a block needlessly to do so, but it’s a small price to pay. 

It doesn’t take long to find the houses Dimitri mentioned. They hold vigil over the horizon, raised well above the rest of the neighborhood. She stops at the edge of a canal and looks over the edge. An inky blackness, offset by a few floating ducks in the water, greets her. 

Most of the houses are swathed in darkness, making it difficult to discern the details surrounding them. She walks along a small path, bracketed by the canals on one side and tiny backyards on the other. From what she can see, these houses revel in an arthouse aesthetic that the neighborhood Dimitri lives in clearly lacks.

This is a tourist destination, right? That would make sense. She wouldn’t be surprised if new homeowners signed an agreement to make their backyards beautiful upon moving in. 

She enjoys the peace these canals provide. She imagines Dimitri is right; these must be even more gorgeous in the daylight. Still, the cover of darkness feels more familiar to Edelgard than a sunny sky ever could. 

She turns a corner, still following along another part of the canals, and stops. A string of light bulbs dance across a backyard further down the path. Curious, Edelgard picks up her pace, stopping a few houses away from the illuminated one.

From this close, she can see the backyard well. Compared to the dark silhouettes taking up most of what she’s seen, this yard feels barren. A few lounge chairs sit on a bed of perfectly manicured grass. Flowering bushes tuck themselves along the perimeter, hiding underneath a fence made of cherry-colored wood. On one of the lounge chairs lays a young woman - one that looks about the age of a young teenager despite the misplaced maturity she wears in her expression. She scowls at the other person in the yard.

That other person is a woman who looks to be about Edelgard’s age, clad in nothing more than a sports bra and a pair of athletic shorts. She’s incredibly fit, with strong arms raised over her head and a set of clearly-defined abs. Edelgard feels her face heat as her mind processes this information, this stranger going from just that - a stranger - to a new definition: an incredibly attractive stranger.

She drops into a lunge, stretching with a practiced ease. Edelgard creeps a little closer, just enough fall within earshot of this stranger’s companion.

“Must you insist on doing this now?” the girl complains. She holds a glass of liquid in her hand, something that Edelgard presumes is orange juice. “I wish to watch a movie.”

“TV’s inside and Dad’s at work. What’s stopping you?” Her voice is even, every syllable carefully measured. Though there’s little inflection in her words - just enough to identify her last sentence as a question - all it does is intrigue Edelgard further. Not even Hubert speaks in such a detached way. 

“It is boring to watch alone. Besides, I wish to watch that movie we saw before we moved here. The one about those horrible high school girls. Don’t you remember?”

The stranger switches to lunges favoring her other leg. Every muscle strains with the effort. Edelgard feels trapped in place by the sight. “Mean Girls?” the stranger asks. “It only came out a couple months ago. It’s not on DVD yet.”

“No, but perhaps there is a dollar theater that will still show it! Help me find one,” the girl demands. 

“Tomorrow.”

“Nonsense! I wish to watch it tonight!”

“We don’t even know where the nearest dollar theater is, Sothis. Or if they even have any around here. Go watch The Aristocats again.” 

Sothis - so that is the name of the young girl - silently fumes. “Fine! I will rewind the VHS tape that I am certain you forgot to reset before, and I will watch The Aristocats again! Alone! Without you!”

Edelgard is unable to stifle her giggle. Sothis hops to her feet and her gaze falls on Edelgard. In a panic, Edelgard looks away, but not without sparing another glance at Sothis’s companion.

“My,” Sothis begins, and oh, how embarrassing, Edelgard can hear the curl of her lips in her voice, “It seems we have an eavesdropper. A secret admirer, perhaps?” she wonders aloud.

Edelgard debates the merits of turning around and fleeing back to the Blaiddyd’s house as fast as her legs can carry her. She abandons the idea solely due to her sinking suspicion that the attractive stranger she found herself admiring could probably outrun her. 

When Edelgard chances another glance at the pair, she’s arrested by the attractive stranger looking directly at her. Her gaze is impassive. “Huh,” she says, going to the edge of her yard and clearing the fence in a single impressive leap. The next thing Edelgard knows, she stands directly in front of her.

She’s a few inches taller than Edelgard; Edelgard has to tilt her chin up slightly in order to meet her large blue eyes. They’re beautiful from up this close, the color deep and clear. They're the same shade as the dark hair that tumbles around her shoulders in choppy layers. “Who are you?” she asks.

“Just a tourist,” Edelgard says quickly, latching onto the first words that come to mind. “I’m staying here for the summer with my step-family. I wanted to go on a walk, so I came here… I’m sorry if I interrupted anything.”

The woman nods. “I see. Why were you watching me?”

Edelgard’s face flares with heat, burning with such intensity that not even the relative cover of darkness she has can hide it. She searches for an excuse. “There was no one else out, you see, and I was curious.”

The woman nods. “Does your step-family live in the canals, too?”

Edelgard shakes her head. “They’re a few blocks away.”

Another nod. “Then we’ll probably see each other again,” she says, stating this with no level of interest. There’s a detachedness in every word she speaks that’s only that much more apparent from this close. She manages to be incredibly intense and eerily emotionless at the exact same time.

What an interesting woman. Edelgard has often been remarked as the same - someone cold and intense in equal measure. For all the strangers Edelgard has found herself surrounded by, ironic that the strangest one feels the most familiar.

“Perhaps.”

“Have you no manners!?” Sothis shouts. Edelgard looks over the woman’s shoulder to see the girl leaning over the edge of their fence. “At least provide her your name!”

The woman glances back at Sothis, though her expression does not change. Edelgard gets the sense that this is a common conversation between the two. “I’m Byleth. And you are…?”

What an interesting name. Edelgard enjoys the sound of it. “Edelgard. Edelgard von Hresvelg.”

“Edelgard…” Byleth repeats. Another flush burns on Edelgard’s face, running in time to the jolt of electricity that pulses through her. Some traitorous part of Edelgard’s mind demands for her to stay here, to learn everything she can about Byleth. She’s fascinating. Edelgard wants to dig into this strange sense of similarity and see just how far it goes.

But that path is dangerous. She’s a resident here, and Edelgard is only here for a summer. She’s never seen the point in indulging whirlwind flings. For all the enjoyment it may bring, she does not need anything to attach her here.

In that moment, the choice is clear.

“My apologies, but I must get going. My step-family will worry about me if I’m gone for any longer.” Edelgard ducks her head, breaking the eye contact that did nothing but unsettle and inflame her. 

“Oh,” Byleth says, and it is a small consolation that her voice is so level that Edelgard can’t hear any disappointment in it. “Goodbye, then.”

“Perhaps we shall see you around!” Sothis calls to Edelgard’s retreating form. Edelgard chances a look over her shoulder to see Byleth simply standing there, watching her with that same impassive look. 

Edelgard will not forget it any time soon. 

Chapter Text

June 18th, 2004.

Sothis trails Byleth like a furious cat demanding attention. “Are you mad!? You know her full name! Did you not see what she wore? Of course she is on MySpace! Add her already!”

“I’m not going to add someone I spoke to for less than five minutes last night-”

“-But you spoke about her again today! Twice! You never speak about anyone who is not myself or your father! You cannot allow her to pass you by. I will not allow you to!” Sothis stomps her foot against the ground for emphasis. 

Byleth sits down on the couch and watches her cousin rage. “She lives less than a mile away and she’s here all summer. I’ll see her again eventual-”

“-And what if you do not, hmm? What if she leads a busy life that you are completely unaware of because you refuse to search for her on MySpace?”

Byleth sighs. For the most part, living with Sothis is great. She’s a welcome balance to Jeralt’s stoicism and what he calls Byleth’s quiet intensity. She sees it as preferring to listen rather than talk, but it’s really the same thing. 

Sothis is the complete opposite - of both herself and Jeralt. She voices every stray thought that comes to her mind with ease. She claims every space she steps into as her own with a wild abandon. Byleth admires her for that - it’s something she could never do herself. She brings vitality wherever she goes. Byleth has never been to a party, but she images that Sothis is exactly the kind of person who would be the life of one. 

Ever since Sothis first started living with them, she’s made even the most cramped of hotel rooms feel like home. She makes the big house they live in now feel like it isn’t a cavern trying to swallow the three of them up. She makes Byleth feel like they could stand to live here for longer than two months. Which is good, considering Jeralt’s decision to settle down here.

Right now, all Sothis is making is a racket. Byleth rarely gets annoyed, especially not by Sothis, but if Sothis were to give up on following her this very moment and go for a walk, Byleth wouldn’t mind at all.

“Add her! Quick, before your father wakes and uses the computer,” Sothis insists. Her thin hands find Byleth’s shoulders and pushes her towards the boxy white computer that sits in the corner of the living room. The tower it's connected to whirs like an asthmatic on an uphill run from underneath the desk the monitor sits on. Satisfied that at least she won’t have to wait ten minutes for the thing to boot up, Byleth gives in. She sits down in the tiny rolling chair that Jeralt insisted on throwing out last week (but never got around to) and drums her fingers against the rickety keyboard until the monitor finally flickers to life. Sothis giggles, clearly delighted by her win, and settles her chin on top of Byleth’s head as she watches.

Byleth clicks the internet icon and waits for the dial-up to kick in. Jeralt insisted that the internet would be faster here, now that they live a few short miles away from so many filthy rich people and not in a cabin in the middle of the woods, but they’ve been here for three weeks and Byleth has yet to notice a difference. Maybe they’re not close enough to the filthy rich people?

Then again, these houses were pretty expensive. The only reason why Jeralt was ever able to afford the mortgage is because the canal’s property manager has adored him for the past two and a half decades. Something about cashing in old favors. If it wasn’t for her, they’d never have been able to get this place.

If it wasn’t for her, Jeralt wouldn’t have found that hole-in-the-wall building and transformed it into his own business. Even if Jeralt hated this neighborhood, he loves that bar. She’s never seen him care his work - not the odd jobs, not the spare bartending, not even the security guard work - as much as he cares about this new bar he’s opened.

The web browser finally loads. Byleth pulls up MySpace, though that only leads to another period of waiting as the page loads. “Dad’s not on the phone, right?” Byleth asks.

“Unless Alois has somehow managed to convince Jeralt to hold conversations in his sleep, no.”

It only takes another handful of seconds for Myspace to load. At least it was faster than trying to open Internet Explorer. Maybe the computer is still waking up as well. Byleth doesn’t really know if computers work like that, but maybe they do. 

She types the woman’s first name into the search bar and hopes that she got the spelling right. Trying to puzzle out the spelling of her last name would be a task all on its own. Besides, Edelgard is hardly a common name.

The search results load. “There! It’s her!” Sothis says, jabbing her finger against the top result. She’s right. The first picture is unmistakably the woman Byleth met last night. Byleth clicks her profile picture -  a photo of her, clad in a deep red dress in a similar style to the blouse and jeans Byleth saw her in the night before - sitting in a large leather chair, reading a book. It’s quiet and elegant, much like Edelgard herself. 

Byleth scans over her biography. “She’s a new graduate of Princeton. Majored in entrepreneurship. She likes cats and sweets.”

“A businesswoman, hmm? And a Princeton alumni, no less. She must be remarkably intelligent.”

Byleth sends her a friend request before she can second-guess herself. Sothis squeals in delight at the sight. “Oh, you did it! And I did not even need to prompt you either! Excellent. Now we wait.”

Sothis may say that, but she has virtually no patience when it comes to waiting. Within seconds she drifts away from the chair and towards the kitchen. “I am hungry. Have you eaten breakfast yet? Come. I want pancakes.”

Byleth logs out, since there’s not much of a point in waiting for Edelgard to log on in however long, and follows Sothis into the kitchen. 

 


 

Jeralt sent Byleth out with instructions to pick up a six pack from the liquor store. She knows he wants beer, but he didn’t say what kind. 

He also didn’t say where the liquor store was. 

After twenty minutes of wandering, Byleth finds a corner store. There’s no official name on the front, just a neon sign in the window saying that it’s open, an advertisement for whiskey and lotto tickets, and a poster for some music shows in late July at a coffee shop whose name she also doesn’t recognize. Figuring this is what Jeralt meant, she enters. 

A small bell rings over her head as she pushes the door open. Rows of alcohol bottles stand on either side of her, repeating themselves until they reach the chilled spirits along the walls. One wall is dedicated to soda and snacks. And by snacks, she means nothing but junk food: chips, cookies, candy bars. That kind of stuff.

“Welcome!” a voice calls out to her. On the opposite side of the room stand two people: a young man and woman, both looking around Byleth’s age. The man stands behind the counter. The woman leans on the opposite side with a comfort that makes Byleth think she either works here or practically lives here. 

Byleth raises a hand in greeting, waiting for the man behind the counter’s answering smile before she goes to another aisle and grabs a bag of chips for herself. Next comes the cheapest six pack she sees. Jeralt may be picky with the liquor he serves to his customers, but anything should work for him, right? He won’t care. Then she returns to the counter, goods in hand. 

From this close, she can finally observe the pair that have been watching her. The man behind the counter has a slight build and a friendly face, made all that much friendlier by the freckles scattered across his nose and cheeks. Despite the warm weather outside, he wears a dark hoodie. A small nametag is affixed to the front, one of his hoodie’s drawstrings tucked behind the little metal clasp so it’s easier to read. Byleth takes his name in: Ashe.

The woman next to him has a face that probably should look just as kind, if it wasn’t currently twisted by mistrust. Her hair is short and blonde, though part of it is braided away from her face. She’s in a pair of jeans ripped at both knees and a boxy graphic tee that looks much too big for her.

Two pairs of green eyes watch her every movement.

“Hello!” Ashe says as he rings up Byleth’s items. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you before. What’s your name?”

“Byleth,” she says. “I just moved here.”

“Where’s here?” the woman asks. The wariness Byleth saw in her moments earlier pulls her taut with tension. 

“The… canals?”

“So you’re a transplant,” she says. Confused, Byleth nods. The woman scowls. 

“Ingrid, please don’t do this,” Ashe sighs. “I understand your frustration, but she moved into the canals. You know as well as I do the history there. Half of those houses were empty a year ago.”

“And what about all the houses that are empty now? You know, the ones that used to house families?” the woman - Ingrid - snaps. 

“She didn’t cause it! Look, she could have gone to the Ralph’s or Smart and Final, but she’s a customer here, provided you don’t scare her off!”

“I’m not scaring anyone off! All I’m doing is pointing out something that you of all people should be aware of!”

“I understand your frustrations, trust me. I truly do. But nothing stays the same forever. Why can’t we embrace these changes?”

“Did I walk into something I shouldn’t have?” Byleth asks. Her question goes ignored.

“I adore you, Ashe, but you’re missing the point. I’m not in the mood to argue with you over this. I’ll see you tonight.” She offers Byleth a final glare as she pushes past and storms outside.

Once the door swings shut behind her, Ashe lets out an explosive sigh. “I’m so sorry about that. Ingrid is one of my dearest friends, but she doesn’t take too well to new people. I’d chase her down, but I’m the only employee manning the store right now…” With one final sigh, he abandons his previous frown and offers Byleth a small smile. “I’m sure you heard, but my name is Ashe.”

Byleth gets the sense that there’s a lot of history behind that particular statement. Luckily for her, she’s never been the type of person to take things personally. Even jerks don’t bother her. “I know. It’s on your nametag.”

“O-oh!” Ashe chuckles, a slight blush dusting over his cheeks. “I always forget I’m wearing it…” He smiles at Byleth once more, completely open and unguarded. There’s something earnest about him - something that makes him incredibly easy to want to trust. “Anyways, welcome to the neighborhood, Byleth,” Ashe says. “If you ever have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! You can usually find me here. The owner of the store - her name is Manuela, in case you ever come here when she’s working - usually works nights.”

“Good to know,” Byleth says. She thinks of the argument between Ingrid and Ashe. Honestly, she would have probably gone to one of the grocery chains had she known where they were. 

But maybe she’ll come here instead. Support small businesses and everything. She saw a headline a few weeks ago on a newspaper Jeralt left on the kitchen table about a lot of mom and pop stores closing down recently. Besides, it might be good for Jeralt’s bar if his daughter can befriend the owner and employees of the local liquor store. 

“Seven dollars, please!” Ashe smiles as Byleth hands him a few bills and tucks the six-pack under her arm. Yeah, she’s pretty sure it would have been cheaper to get at Smart and Final. “Feel free to come back anytime. We’re open for at least a few hours every day. Just call us if you’re unsure. We’re under Manuela’s Spirits in the phone book.”

“Got it. See you around,” Byleth says, giving them a final nod in recognition before heading out. Ashe’s cheerful farewell follows her as she leaves and heads back home. 

This place is interesting. Towns across the world start to look the same when someone’s seen as many as Byleth has. Still, every place has its own charm.

She expected it to be another posh city by the sea, but this neighborhood is nothing like the picture of LA she had in her mind. There’s graffiti and street art everywhere she turns. Save for a few high-end pockets like the canals, most of the neighborhood looks pretty run down. The acrid smell of weed haunts most of the alleyways that the residents pass off as streets in residential zones. So many stores are shuttered at night, their windows and front doors locked by dark iron gates. Many windows around here are the same. 

Then there are the palm trees and the hazy blue sky, always a constant over her head. At least that much is true to the postcards.

For all the houses along the canals that are decorated to the nines, the only people who ever seem to actually walk along them are tourists. She’s seen her neighbors float between their front doors and their cars a few times, sure, but the canals’ vitality seem to mostly come from the amazed foot traffic that follows along their backyards.

Then again, it’s not even like anyone can get inside from the tourist paths unless they have a key to someone’s backyard gate. They’re for aesthetic and not much else.

She thinks of Edelgard again. If she’s here for the summer, then she’s a tourist too. But she’s a strange one. From what Byleth has seen, tourists come in broad daylight, armed to the teeth with large-brimmed hats, cheap sunglasses, and disposable cameras. They don’t come after the sun’s set with nothing but their keys. 

Byleth kind of hopes Edelgard accepts her request. It’d be nice to see her again. She’s intriguing. 

(Honestly, when was the last time Byleth hoped for anything?)

“Hey there, stranger!” a voice calls out to her. Byleth looks around and finds two people watching her with bright eyes and mischievous grins from the backyard bordering her own. A tall man with a thin build is contorted into the tire swing that hangs in the backyard directly next to hers. Sitting sideways in one of the wooden chairs nearby is a woman, her pink hair pulled into a high ponytail that spills down her back. She wears a fur-lined cropped jacket (that Byleth wants to assume is fake) over a white tank top and straight-legged jeans, while the man wears a much more classic-looking jacket over his own tank top and jeans. They’re trendy - a good match to the trendy house that must belong to one of them.

Byleth raises a hand in greeting. 

“You live in this neighborhood, right?” the woman asks.

Byleth nods. 

“We thought so. There’s no way a tourist would ever carry a six pack around the canals like that,” she says. “Where do you live?”

The man leans forward from within the tire swing, intrigued. Byleth gestures to the house next door. “Right here.”

The man looks at his companion and grins. “Looks like we finally met your new neighbor. What are the chances?”

The woman gasps. “No way! I’ve wanted to know who moved in there since the first day I saw the moving truck. I’m Hilda. My brother and I live here. And this,” she gestures to her companion, “is Claude! He lives down the street.”

“Hey there. You just moved here, right?” Claude asks. “Hilda says that house has been empty for a while.”

“A loooooong time before you showed up,” Hilda adds. “My brother snatched up a house the moment they were built! Didn’t your grandpa do the same, Claude?”

Claude nods. “Gramps has been here since the nineties, but I just moved in with him about half a year ago. How are you liking the neighborhood so far?”

“It’s… interesting.”

Claude chuckles. “That’s a good word to use. But you’re interesting too, if you ask me. I’d be willing to bet you’ll fit in fine around here.”

“You might not want to take that as a compliment,” Hilda says. She gropes around on a small glass table by her chair. It’s only then that Byleth notices the colorful stones and chains sitting there. Hilda picks up a piece of pliers and a thin strip of metal. “You have to be weird to make it here, if you ask me.”

“Aren’t you calling yourself weird?” Claude points out. 

“I sell jewelry on the internet for a living. That’s pretty weird.” Hilda rolls her eyes, but something else seems to come to her mind. “Speaking of which, I got an order to be sent over to Court D. I think it’s the black house with the spooky tower. Do you know who lives there?” She looks at Claude, but then to Byleth as well, clearly hoping for whatever answer either of them can give.

That’s right - the different canals are labeled by courts, each separated by a canal. They’re on Court A, on the very edge of the canals. 

Byleth shrugs. “I have no idea. Sorry.”

“Me neither,” Claude says. “Guess we’ll just have to stake it out, won’t we?” He smirks and winks at Hilda, who throws her head back and whines.

“That sounds like so much effort! Especially since it’s getting hot. I don’t wanna wait for hours out in the sun!”

“I’ll buy you a lemonade from Abbot Kinney,” Claude offers.

“Abbot Kinney?” Byleth asks. What is that: a place, or a person? There are so many names she still doesn’t recognize. Her question goes ignored as Hilda casts a suspicious look at Claude. 

“A raspberry lemonade?”

“The raspberriest.”

“You drive a hard bargain. But okay. I’ll do it,” Hilda says.

“What do you say, Byleth? Care to join us?” Claude asks.

Byleth looks down at the six pack and the bag of chips still in her arms. “Uh…”

“You must have a busy night ahead of you with that party gear. Don’t worry, we won’t take long. Plus, we can leave after you drop that stuff off, of course,” Claude says. He untangles himself from the tire swing and stands up. He’s… shorter than Byleth expected. 

Hilda hops to her feet as well. She’s far tinier than either of them - another thing that Byleth didn’t expect. She stretches her arms over her head before tucking them behind herself. The pair of sunglasses perched on top of her head catch the sunlight, nearly blinding Byleth as she twists in place. “Well? How about it?”

Byleth looks back to her house, blinking the spots from her vision. Jeralt doesn’t work until tonight, so it’s not like Sothis will be alone. Bored, sure, since she won’t have anyone to chatter to, but not alone.

Besides, Jeralt’s been wanting her to leave the house more. He still thinks she hasn’t really settled in, and helping out at the bar doesn’t count. That, and she has so much free time that she doesn’t always know what to do with it. When Sothis starts school come August, then Byleth will be at a complete loss.

So she makes a choice.

“I’ll come.”

 


 

Abbot Kinney, as Byleth finds out, is a massive street of expensive, artsy shops. There’s something about the sharp lines of every building and the designer bags hanging off the arms of half the people who pass by that speaks to a kind of money that the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t have. It feels newer, too. Closer to what her own house looks like than the liquor store did.

Byleth isn’t sure if she likes it.

They all get organic lemonade from a store with unreadable menus. Apparently Claude frequents this place all the time, judging from the sigh of, “Oh, it’s you again,” that escapes the cashier the moment Claude steps inside. Claude banters with the guy enough to get under his skin, but what makes it interesting is how Hilda deliberately decides to hang back with Byleth. She expected Hilda to be right at his side, needling the cashier with just as much intensity.

“That’s Lorenz,” Hilda says. “He says he hates Claude, but I think he’s full of it. Too much of a chore to bother with either of them when they’re together, though,” Hilda explains. 

“I see,” Byleth says, unsure what she’s supposed to do with this new information.

Between the three of them, their lemonades are enough to pay for a decent meal pretty much anywhere sensible. The lemonade isn’t even that great, either. Byleth orders a dragonfruit lemonade, and it’s... fine. It tastes more like sugar than it does actual fruit. 

But Claude paid for the drink, so Byleth can’t complain. Nor can she complain about where they are now, lounging on the hood of Hilda’s illegally parked SUV in the alleyway that acts as the canals’ front roads. Her car is a massive gray monster of a machine. Somehow, it seems fitting for her. They’re blocking in two different cars, but since Hilda doesn’t seem to think it’s a big deal, Byleth decides against pointing it out. She knows the neighborhood better than Byleth, after all.

The house they’re watching is two stories like every other house on the canal, but the similarities end there. This looks more appropriate to a Gothic castle in a vampire novel than a Californian beach neighborhood. A tall black spire peeks out the highest point of the house, complete with a window decked out with flowing ivory curtains. The fence surrounding the front isn’t chain link or wood, but wrought iron spikes. Small ceramic animals - rabbits, deer, even a frog or two - decorate the front, hiding under the shade of young trees. 

“I can’t tell if this is tacky or not,” Hilda says. “Is it?”

“For what it’s worth, I’m getting big Transylvania meets a Disney princess vibes,” Claude says. “What do you think, Byleth?”

What does Byleth think? 

“It’s…” she hesitates, “...unique.”

Claude and Hilda both snort. “That’s a good way of putting it,” Claude says. “Can’t wait to see who the decorator is. Hey Hilda, what kind of jewelry did they order?”

“That’s the thing! It wasn’t even anything weird. A lapis lazuli necklace and set of earrings. Completely normal. But this?” Hilda gestures to the house in front of them. “ This is weird.”

They settle back on the hood of the car and wait for who knows how long. Byleth doesn’t usually carry a watch on her, and apparently neither do Claude or Hilda. Claude makes some joke about usually keeping one on him except when he hangs out with Hilda, because he doesn’t want to be reminded of how much time she wastes doing nothing.

The two lobby insults like that back and forth at each other with ease. Despite the harsh words, there’s a clear fondness there. Kind of reminds her of her own relationship with Sothis. 

The sun has dipped far below the palm trees - but still above the horizon, or even the tops of the one-story houses that line the streets outside of the canals - by the time something stirs in a window. Hilda’s empty cup of lemonade falls to the ground as she scrambles up to her knees and punches Claude’s shoulder. “Look, look! I see something!” 

“Okay, okay, lay off already!” Claude says, pushing her off. “You didn’t have to hit me. Your words are enough, really.”

They fall into a silence laced with anticipation as another movement within the house catches their attention. The curtains lining the window of the top spire shift. Claude and Hilda both freeze, their eyes glued to the curtain’s every movement. 

A small black rabbit nudges its way into the window to take in the afternoon sun.

“A rabbit? Usually you’d expect a cat…” Claude says. “At least we know one thing about the mysterious jewelry buyer, right?”

A horribly stupid answer, the kind that would make Sothis shriek in frustration and swipe at Byleth’s arm, comes to mind. “That they’re a rabbit?”

Claude swallows a surprised laugh as Hilda frowns. “What?” Hilda asks. “Noooo, not that! That they like rabbits. You can’t really think a rabbit knows how to use a computer, right?”

“Most people don’t know how to use a computer,” Claude says, still chuckling. “You’re a weird one, Byleth. I like it.” 

Even as Hilda groans, her eyes stay glued to the window above. “Think the owner is gonna come get the rabbit?”

“No,” Byleth answers. “Why would they? The window isn’t open.”

“They might. Let’s wait a little longer,” Claude suggests. Hilda nods and Byleth doesn’t have a reason to head back home yet, so she goes along with it.

The rabbit eventually hops out of the window. Still, the owner doesn’t show up. It’s then that they finally give up for the day.

 


 

Predictably, Sothis demands Byleth tell her about her day the moment she comes back home. Byleth does. Sothis listens with rapt fascination. 

“They sound like fun,” Sothis says once Byleth finishes, though her words are topped off with a small sigh. “Oh, it has been so very long since I had a friend who wasn’t you… I shall hope to make some here.”

“You will soon,” Byleth says. If she can, then so can Sothis - especially considering how vibrant of a person Sothis is. Just like Byleth, she’s been homeschooled her entire life. With all the moving around they’ve done, there was never any point in trying to enroll her in a new school every few months. And just like Byleth, Sothis has spent so much time in ridiculously remote areas that there were times when even trying to find a gas station within twenty miles was a struggle. Let alone friends her age.

“I hope so,” Sothis says. “Speaking of friends… what of that girl on Myspace? Did she accept your request?”

Byleth shrugs. “I haven’t had the chance to yet.”

“You do now! Check, check!” In an instant Sothis is up on her feet and pushing Byleth towards the office. Apparently too impatient to wait for Byleth to sit down and get settled, Sothis leans over her and opens up a web browser. It takes a few minutes of frustrated groaning (entirely on Sothis’s part) to get to the proper page, but they do.

Clear as day, the results of their earlier attempts lay in front of them.

Edelgard von Hresvelg is now your friend!

A tiny smile comes to Byleth’s face. “What are you waiting for?” Sothis asks. “Go on! Message her!”

Sothis rips the mouse out of Byleth’s hand and clicks on her name. When it fails to immediately load, Sothis clicks it again, her rapid clicks firing off like gunfire. 

The page starts to load.

Then the whole computer crashes, leaving them with an empty blue screen. 

Even as Sothis shrieks, Byleth can’t say she’s surprised. 

Chapter Text

June 18th, 2004.

There are many things in Ingrid’s life that she’s thankful for. Most of the time, there are too many to count. One of the things she never forgets, regardless of anything else that may bog her mind down, are the sheer number of houses that she feels completely at home within. 

Dedue’s house is one of those places. 

Well, to call it only Dedue’s house would be a little unfair. Ashe, Mercedes, and Annette all share the tiny two-bedroom place with him. If anything, Mercedes has lived there the longest, opening it to rent to their friends after her younger brother moved to West Hollywood to be closer to the DMV where he works. 

Right now, Dedue is the only one currently at home. Mercedes and Annette are both at the restaurant - one as a cook, the other an eternal guest - and Ashe is busy manning Manuela’s. 

( And being a traitor, some nasty voice inside her head hisses. It sounds a little like Felix and a little like herself. She tries her hardest to banish the thought, but it stays with a stubborn insistence.)

If it were up to Dedue, this place would be spartan in its decoration. But it’s up to the others, not him, so trinkets spill out of every cabinet. Ingrid passes by a closed cabinet that’s full of Mercedes’s ghost knick-knacks. A sticky note penned in Mercedes’s messy handwriting reminds Annette not to open it under any circumstances. Paintings and posters cover the teal walls of their apartment, bought from artists all across the city. Ingrid recognizes one of a dragon protecting a lonesome princess that Ashe had bought the last time he went to the farmer’s market. Their furniture is eclectic, and though not a single piece matches another, they all come together to create an atmosphere that seems to work out. It isn’t posh. It isn’t fancy. 

But it’s theirs, and Ingrid loves it dearly. 

“What are you making?” Ingrid asks, peeking around from behind Dedue. His hands are coated orange from a mixture of bright spices and sauces. Ingrid is much more of a consumer than she is a chef, but the smell is heavenly. Her mouth waters. It takes all of her self-control not to stick her pinky into the sauce and taste some. What keeps her in place is mostly the knowledge that she can’t deal with Dedue’s disappointed frown if she were to try.

“I’m making a marinade for the party this weekend,” Dedue explains. 

“Are the others making anything?”

“Ashe is in charge of drinks and sides, while Mercedes will handle dessert.”

Ingrid can’t even imagine what kind of wonderful dishes they’ll come up with. If only Saturday could come sooner…

She feels a pair of eyes watching her with concern. She jolts as her eyes meet Dedue’s, though a small smile comes to his face as she looks away. “Daydreaming already?”

“You three make amazing food. Can you blame me for being excited?”

“I suppose not.” Dedue turns back to his marinade, but the ghost of his smile remains. “As much as I enjoy cooking for Dimitri, his compliments always ring false.”

Ingrid doesn’t understand why Dedue is so insistent on spending so much time cooking for someone who physically has no sense of taste, but it really isn’t her concern. What is her concern is the twist of something deep within her, something small and sour and terrible, that she pushes away.

She’s seen Dimitri recently. She spent time with him and Dedue just a few days ago! 

...And, as much as she doesn’t want to admit it, not a single moment felt like it did in high school. It isn’t that she’s upset over the rhythms that Dimitri and Dedue have settled into. Really, she’s happy for them both. But she could never fully forget the small line of tension that constantly ran through her just last week, even as she tried to laugh and force a smile around some of the most delicious tacos she’s ever had.

It was probably… just because Sylvain and Felix weren’t there. Once those two settle down, and once Dimitri stops trying to tread on eggshells, it’ll all work out fine. 

Best to focus on something else instead. “What will Annette be doing?”

“Annette’s role is the same as Dimitri’s - to not break anything. That is all.”

Ingrid’s smile falls from her face and refuses to return. She’s intensely glad that Dedue’s back is to her. That nasty voice in her head continues to hiss words that she wishes it wouldn’t.

Standing here and thinking won’t help her. She needs something to do. It’s easier not to dwell inside her head when she has to focus on her body’s movements. “Is there anything I can help you with? More meat to marinate, maybe?”

“There is,” Dedue says, gesturing to the kitchen. “I still have the chicken to do. If could bring it out, I’ll start the marinade once I’ve finished here.”

“Nonsense. I can do it. Just tell me what recipe to follow.”

“I don’t follow a recipe.”

“Then help me eyeball the spices.” She smiles at Dedue. Finally, it feels genuine once more. “Don’t worry. We’ll finish this together.”

Dedue smiles back. 

 


 

“No boar?” Is, quite predictably, the first thing out of Felix’s mouth the moment he enters Dedue’s house. 

“Guess not,” Sylvain says, quite predictably at Felix’s side. For all Felix would deny it, the two are inseparable. “Just an ass.”

“Hmph. That’s certainly an accurate way to refer to yourself,” Felix snaps. 

“From where I am, I see two asses,” Ingrid replies. She sits on the couch between Dedue and a recently-returned Annette, and has to stifle a laugh at Annette’s scandalized gasp. Annette’s known them all since high school, yet to this day the good-natured insults they sling at each other still manage to shock her. 

Which is even more amusing, considering Annette spent a solid two years of her teenage years absolutely hating Felix.

“You and Felix, right?” Sylvain asks, folding his arms behind his head. Felix scowls and punches him in the arm, but either the punch is so light that it doesn’t hurt or Sylvain is so used to pain that it doesn’t matter. 

“Guys, stooooop!” Annette says. “You don’t need to fight! You’re all wonderful, okay!?” She snaps it like a command.

“We’re really not,” Sylvain says, hopping over the back of the couch to settle down next to her. He flings his arm over the back of the couch, but within seconds it comes down across her shoulders to play with the edges of Ingrid’s hair. They’re both so used to the touch that neither bother to comment on it.

Felix doesn’t feel the same. He marches over and shoves Sylvain out of the way, forcing him to scoot onto the arm of the couch lest he topple over the side. Felix takes the now-vacated space next to Annette. “Are you good?” Felix asks her. “Did Sylvain bother you?”

Annette smiles brightly. “I would have bitten him if he did!”

Felix’s answering smile is wry. “Good.”

“Why does that sound familiar?” Sylvain asks, Felix’s previous aggression long forgotten. Ingrid sighs, too tired to indulge the awful rabbit hole humoring him will inevitably lead to. Given Felix’s eye-roll, he feels the same. Before Annette can step into Sylvain’s trap, Felix speaks up again.

“We brought the supplies you wanted.” Felix gestures to the bags of groceries left by the door, abandoned in favor of checking in on Annette. It’s sweet, in Felix’s own hare-brained way. 

“Some of that food needs to go into the freezer,” Dedue says, getting to his feet. “I’ll put it away.”

“You could have at least put it in the kitchen,” Ingrid reprimands them. “Dedue, do you need any help?” she asks, even though she knows his answer. He’s not one to accept help freely. Then again, she isn’t either. It’s why she knows better than to push when it comes to him. She admires his strength, in the end - how it reinforces both his stalwart nature and his gentle side.

“No. I can put everything away myself.” 

“Oooh, I’ll help!” Annette says, springing up to her feet. “Come on Dedue, I live here too. I know where everything is!” She dances in front of him with a sunny grin - the same one that no one can resist for long. Not even Dedue.

“I’ll be fine on my own,” Dedue protests, but Annette’s already gone to the door and looped the bags over her arms. He begrudgingly follows her into the kitchen, leaving Ingrid alone with Felix and Sylvain. She frowns at them on principle, but neither one is particularly affected by her scorn. They won’t change, after all. Out of all of them, they’re the most set in their ways. 

It’s familiar, and that’s comforting, even if she knows it isn’t necessarily good. 

The front door opens. Ingrid cranes her neck to see Ashe stepping through the door. “Hello, everyone,” he says as he sets his keys in the bowl his roommates keep by the door, jingling as it collides with the two sets already there. Everyone is here except Mercedes, but if Ingrid remembers correctly, she’s working the afternoon shift. Even if Felix and Sylvain stay, she’ll have to leave long before she ends work. 

Ashe gives her an odd look as he passes by, making the familiar frustration from earlier in the day bubble up. Even if Dedue hates to talk about it, he understands. Ashe sleeps five feet away from him. How can he not understand where Ingrid is coming from as well? As much as she doesn’t want to argue with him again, it’d hurt more to let an unneeded tension build up between them. She has so few safe havens left; she couldn’t bear to lose another. “Ashe, about earlier-”

“Earlier?” Sylvain echoes. “What happened earlier?”

“There’s a new person in the neighborhood. Her name’s Byleth. She moved into an empty house on the canals recently,” Ashe explains. He’s too busy staring directly at Ingrid to notice the grin that blooms over Sylvain’s face.

“Wonderful. Another transplant,” Felix grouses.

Sylvain ignores Felix. “Is she cute? Wait, actually, how old is she? I don’t like dating girls younger than me, but if she’s older… I mean, I’d kinda like getting my cradle robbed.”

That, of course, flusters Ashe. “I-I mean, I believe so? She looked to be about our age.”

“The canals, huh? Guess I better stop by there soon. Maybe get her a housewarming gift. What do you think, Felix? Would a bottle of wine do?”

“Leave me out of your moronic schemes,” Felix says, leaning back in a clear invitation for Ingrid to punch Sylvain’s arm. Which she does. Not too hard, but hard enough to get Sylvain to squirm away and side-eye her. Felix snorts, but Sylvain’s distress isn’t directed towards him right now. 

“Really, Ingrid?”

“Yes, really!” Ingrid replies. “Do you have to be so disgusting all the time?”

“I know how to have fun! Unlike some people,” Sylvain replies.

And so they circle back to their default state: squabbling like a trio of children. Ingrid gets so caught up in bickering that she doesn’t notice Ashe slip away to the kitchen. 

 


 

Ingrid never does get the chance to clear the air with Ashe. Dedue said he was busy, and Annette said he was so wiped out from his shift that he took a nap immediately after coming back. Ingrid was already suspicious - Manuela’s gets traffic at night, not at three in the afternoon - but the fact that Annette refused to look Ingrid in the eye sealed the lie. 

But she can’t stick around, either. She has obligations far bigger to fulfill than a simple apology, no matter how much it may hurt.

She moves forward, because that’s what she has to do.

As much as she loves visiting her friends’ house, the walk back home is always difficult. It’s more painful in the daytime, when it’s so much harder to ignore her surroundings. Sylvain and Felix’s combined presence make it a little easier to handle, but even then. 

She once asked Dedue what he thought about this walk. He doesn’t like to talk about it. 

“So is Dimitri’s step-sister really off limits? It’s not like we grew up with her. No history means no baggage, y’know?” Sylvain is trying to reason. “She was pretty cute. Don’t you think so, Ingrid? I saw you staring at her.”

Ingrid freezes in place, mortification stopping her mid-stride. She feels a blush crawl over her face as she tries to stammer at Sylvain that no, she was not staring, she was just surprised, but Sylvain is too perceptive to let her lies slip by. His laugh is proof enough.

Thankfully, Felix comes to her rescue. “Do you think about anything other than women? Ever?”

“Sometimes I think about men,” Sylvain offers. “Do you ever think about anything other than fencing?”

“I think about stabbing you so you’ll finally shut up,” Felix counters.

“Still related to fencing. You lose, Fraldarius.”

For all their rough words, they love each other dearly. Small bickering isn’t enough to cause a dent in a friendship that’s lasted so long that their first memories all revolve around each other: herself, Sylvain, Felix, and Dimitri. 

What Dimitri did still stings, but they can overcome it. He didn’t choose their quartet the way she, Felix, and Sylvain always do, but he’s here now. That’s what matters.

Ingrid shakes her head and decides to focus on the present instead. There’s no point in concerning herself about Dimitri now, when he’s presumably off showing his step-sister every tourist destination in the entire city.

So she adds a quip of her own to their current debate. “Felix also thinks about what he’ll say at your funeral once you’re foolish enough to go after a girl that I won’t talk down. Dimitri’s step-sister counts, by the way.” Ingrid adds. “I won’t stop her if she tries to kill you for breaking her heart.”

“I thought you loved me, but I guess not. At least give me a good eulogy at my funeral.”

“I hate funerals,” Felix says. 

“As do I,” Ingrid says, though she can feel laughter bubbling up her throat. She tries to train her expression to something that would be a suitable match to Felix’s grimace, but her laugh breaks through. 

The tension bursts. Sylvain bursts into laughter and even Felix manages a huff. 

Even with such comforting company, Ingrid struggles to forget their surroundings. The sun stretches the shadows of the bungalows away from them, but there’s one building that still blocks out more of the sky than any house on the street. 

One thing about houses here: for the most part, they’re every color of the spectrum.

What they aren’t are black, boxy apartment complexes with vivid red trims. Houses and apartment complexes both aren’t supposed to look like a warehouse broken down in an abandoned shipping yard, yet that’s all Ingrid can ever think of when she sees this complex.

Ingrid’s pace picks up; Felix’s increases to match her. “I hate this street,” Felix mutters. 

“I’m glad I’m not the only one,” Ingrid mutters back.

Sylvain however, stops. “Wait!” Ingrid groans and spins on her heel to face him and his wide brown eyes. “I know what I forgot earlier!”

“That’s wonderful, Sylvain. Can it wait two minutes?”

“But it’s this place!” Sylvain says, gesturing to the eyesore. Against her better judgement, Ingrid’s gaze follows his pointing hand. She takes it the boxy, crinkled walls and the bloody gutters. The window for the upper left apartment is open, its purple curtains flowing in the beach breeze. “I know this place!”

“We all know this place, Sylvain! That’s the problem!”

“I’m leaving,” Felix announces, before doing exactly that. Ingrid thinks about following after him and leaving Sylvain to his devices, but as much as her mind screams at her to go, she can’t do that. Felix will always be waiting for them back at his house. 

She knows Sylvain, and every single time she turns her back on him could be the one he mistakes for the last. She can’t do that to him. She can’t be another betrayal.

“Please, make this quick,” Ingrid says.

“I realized why Annette threatening to bite me sounded so familiar! Last night, my date threatened to break my arm.”

Sylvain really shouldn’t sound so happy about that. As much as Ingrid wants to point that out, there’s a more pressing matter to attend. As soon as he gets this out of his system, the sooner they can be on their way. “And why is this place so special to your angry - which, I don’t know what you did, but I’m already on their side - date?”

“She lives here!” Sylvain chirps. 

Ingrid feels the ground give out beneath her. She’d stumble if she wasn’t standing on smooth asphalt. Even then, she still feels ready to topple over at the news. “She was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. Amazing singing voice, too - that’s how I met her, actually. I heard her singing one day and I had to see if the face matched the pipes. They do. She hates me, by the way, so we shouldn’t stick around for long.” 

There’s a movement in the upper window that catches Ingrid’s eye. Sylvain notices it as well, his easygoing grin turning strained. “Aaaaaaalright, time to get out of here. She also threatened to chop my dick off and honestly, I’m not sure which one she’d go for first.” 

He snatches Ingrid’s arm and she lets him lead her away right as a delicate hand pulls those curtains open.

 


 

Ingrid loves her parents. She truly does. They’ve done so much to support her and her four brothers growing up. They sacrificed everything they could so she could be where she is now. 

The Galatea house is, thankfully, about the same size as most of the others on the block. Their furniture consists of a motley of pieces mashed together to form something halfway coherent. Sure, the black leather couch and the red loveseat don’t match the cherry wood bookcases that stand next to their white plastic tv set, but they’ve had all these pieces of furniture for so long that Ingrid can fool herself into thinking they belong together.

It’s a three-bedroom place, even if the bedrooms are all the size of some people’s closets. It made getting any time to herself difficult as a child, back when she shared her bedroom with two of her brothers, but it’s easier now that it’s just herself and her parents. Her brothers, all much older than her, moved out to kickstart their own lives years ago.

Leaving was never an option for her. Even when Ashe offered her a space in his apartment, back when he and the others were preparing to sign the lease, Ingrid knew she had to stay. 

But sometimes she wishes for nothing more than to have taken that paralegal apprenticeship in Boston. 

She passes by the dining room, where her mother sits with her army of coupons. “Ingrid sweetie, remind me - do you like asparagus?”

“I do!”

“Oh good. They have a buy three, get two free deal at the grocery store. I’ll make sure to get some.” She sets a coupon off to the side. “Oh, but if we get this, I don’t know if we’ll be able to get milk… there’s a sale on bagels this week. Will you eat those? We can ask Rodrigue for cream cheese. The man always buys far too much for only himself.”

“I’d be happy with some bagels,” Ingrid says. 

Footsteps sound behind Ingrid. She fits herself against the wall to let her father pass by. “My dearest Ingrid,” he says warmly. “Did you have a good day?”

“It was good enough,” Ingrid replies.

“Perfect. Now, I hate to ask you this, but…” he trails off, refusing to meet her eyes. She knows exactly what’s coming next. She’ll spare him the pain of having to ask. 

“I get paid this Wednesday. What do you need me to cover?”

His guilty look doesn’t fade. “Are you certain that you’ll be paid Wednesday?”

“That’s when they’ve always paid me.”

“Yes, yes… you’ve worked there a while. It’s the electricity bill. It’ll be shut off on Thursday if we aren’t able to make a payment this month.” So they’re two months behind on payments. She should have enough to cover all that. That’s more of a dent to her paycheck than she had hoped, but she’ll make do. She always has.

She offers him a gentle smile and a few pats on his shoulder. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. No additional news from the landlord?”

“I think we’ll be okay for this month.”

That’s what matters most. “Good. Is there anything you need from me?”

Her father shakes his head. “No. Thank you so much, my dear. We would be lost without you.”

And that is exactly why she could never take that internship or that spot in Ashe’s apartment. They need her here more. 

This is her home, too, and she’ll protect it with all she has. It may not last forever, but she’ll fight until she can’t anymore.

Speaking of which, she has a shift tonight. The movie theater is a mile away, so she has to get going if she wants to make it on time. Filling popcorn bags and microwaving nachos may be a waste of her bachelor’s in history, but it helps pay the bills and she’ll be able to do it while going to school. That’s what matters more.

Still, she thinks of the internship in Boston, of the acceptance letter gathering dust in the bottom of her dresser. She had to make a choice, and she chose to stay. She chose to help. She chose not to be another ghost in her friends’ lives.

Her uniform is already in place: red polo that the theater provided, and black slacks that belonged to Sylvain a lifetime ago. He offered them to her after his final growth spurt in college and she was all too happy to take them. 

Most of her wardrobe once belonged to Dimitri, Sylvain, or Felix. That much hasn’t changed over the years. She doesn’t wear Dimitri’s hand-me-downs as often as she used to, but why throw out perfectly good clothes? She can stand a few sour memories for the sake of practicality. 

Her socks - yes, the ones with the small lions on it. The ones that peek out from beneath Sylvain’s old slacks when she walks. Those weren’t Dimitri’s, but they were a birthday present from him several years ago. 

For the most part, Ingrid enjoys the walk to work. Unlike the beach and Abbot Kinney, the residential areas quiet down at night. For all the bad looks and rumors people give her neighborhood, she’s never felt anything other than at ease walking these streets alone. The same people that set the transplants on edge are her neighbors, her friends. People she greets by name. 

Besides, if anyone were stupid enough to try something around her, Felix has taught her six different ways to leave an assailant unconscious without so much as breaking a sweat on her part. She’s the last person whose safety anyone needs to worry about.

What makes the walk difficult aren’t the houses she passes by, but the ones she can’t pass by anymore. That same black apartment that Sylvain was stupid enough to point out earlier hangs like a gravestone over her head, a warning of what’s to come next. It was the first complex on their block. She’s already seen the other demolished houses. It won’t be the last. 

She tries to walk faster as it forces its way into her peripheral vision. What follows it is a voice that hangs on the edges of her awareness, accompanied by the distant strum of a guitar. Ingrid tries her best to ignore them both as she approaches the front of the complex. 

She hates everything about this place. There’s no porch. No lawn chairs haphazardly splayed outside, no rusted fence to pretend to be a barrier between the house and the rest of the world. There’s nothing but a glass door, a keypad, and a tacky red lobby that never knows when to turn its lights off. 

Unlike all the times Ingrid’s passed by here before, someone sits in a folding chair on the sidewalk. This person also happens to be the source of the music. A dark guitar sits in her lap as she sings a song Ingrid doesn’t recognize. Her voice is much stronger than the guitar’s gentle strums. She sounds like a professional, every note sharp, clear, and carrying an immense power. The streetlamp overhead, combined with the lobby lights behind her, illuminate her well.

Against Ingrid’s better decisions, she slows down. The woman must sense she’s being watched, as her eyes flutter open and a smirk works its way over wine-colored lips. “You should feel lucky!” she shouts. “I don’t usually perform for free.”

“I wasn’t watching you,” Ingrid says. “I was walking by. That’s all.”

The woman’s smirk grows wider. “You aren’t walking now.”

Startled, Ingrid looks down at her feet as if to confirm for herself that yes, she really has stopped moving. A blush explodes over her face and all she can do is desperately hope that it’s hidden from this stranger’s prying eyes by the relative haze of darkness.

The woman’s sudden laughter tells Ingrid that it isn’t.

“You’re cute,” the woman says. “Care to come a little closer? I’d love to see that blush in the light.”

Ingrid shakes her head. “I have to get going. I can’t stay.” She doesn’t want to stay, not really, but she curses herself for her weakness. All it takes is a few words from a beautiful stranger and she’s reduced to- to this?

She feels an intense wave of sympathy wash over her for every ex Sylvain has ever had. They must have all felt this way the moment he laid eyes on them. Caught in a powerful spell.

“If you do, I could even be convinced to make it worth your while. I’ll sing an entire song, just for you.” She strums her guitar and hums under her breath. 

Ingrid comes closer. She stops on the sidewalk just in front of the apartment, and just a few feet away from the woman. She grins like a cat that just got the cream. “Oh honey,” she says. “You’re too pretty for such frumpy clothes.”

Irritation surges within Ingrid. “They’re comfortable! A-and my work uniform!”

“They’d be more comfortable if they fit you properly,” she tuts. “Oh well. You want a song, right? Here.” She doesn’t resume the song from before, but sings a new one. Again, her voice overpowers the guitar as it struggles to keep up - a testament not to the woman’s ability to play, but to the sheer beauty of her voice. She hits every note flawlessly. Her voice must echo for blocks. 

Ingrid feels herself fall in love, just the tiniest bit. 

She’s always been a romantic in the broadest sense, and anything that feels like it belongs in one of the fables she read growing up is the quickest way to her heart.

When the song comes to an end, the weight of the world crashes back into Ingrid. If she leaves now she’ll still be able to get to work on time, that much she’s certain of, but she prefers getting there earlier to simply being on time. 

Still, it’s hard to move when the woman’s full attention is on Ingrid. She leans over and carefully sets her guitar on the ground. She crosses her legs and leans her chin on a perfectly-manicured hand. The fuzzy gray blanket wrapped around her delicate shoulders suggests comfort and relaxation, but the burgundy tube top and black cutoff shorts suggest that she’s equally ready to disappear inside the nearest club. 

Her lipstick matches her tube top, some part of Ingrid’s mind notes. The same tube top that is realistically lower on her chest than maybe it should be...

Ingrid banishes the thought with impunity. It feels lecherous even to think something as brazen as that. Is she no better than Sylvain? It must be his awful influence, finally making itself known the moment she finds herself under the scrutiny of a beautiful woman. 

“Well? What did you think?” she asks. 

“It… it was beautiful,” Ingrid says. “You’re clearly talented.”

“Thank you!” the woman says, preening under the compliment. “I wrote that song myself. I would practice it inside, but my roommates are both a pair of night owls that need quiet to do their work. There’s a coffee shop I usually go to when I want to practice at night in front of an audience, but biking this late at night on my own didn’t sound very appealing. I’m all the more happy that I managed to pick up an audience without even having to move.”

“You’re welcome,” Ingrid says. “What’s your name? I don’t believe we’ve met before. I’m Ingrid.”

“We haven’t,” the woman says. “I’m Dorothea. Do you live around here, Ingrid?”

Dorothea. What a lovely name. “I do. Right down the street.”

“Oh! We’re almost neighbors. I live in the apartment right here,” Dorothea explains, gesturing to the black box behind her. 

That’s when it hits Ingrid, the pieces of a puzzle she didn’t know she needed to solve all finally coming into alignment before her eyes. The date with the singer that Sylvain complained about earlier today. The fact that this woman is sitting just outside this awful apartment with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. 

This is the woman that dated Sylvain. 

Who lives in the same apartment complex that stands on the remains of what used to be Dedue’s home. The same complex that forced his parents to move to the other side of the state despite living there for generations, just so they could demolish his home and overcharge for this… this warehouse.

The same complex owned by the same landlord that has ratcheted up her parent’s rent each year to force them out, all so he can build the same gravestone over her home.

She isn’t the only reason why more and more people leave the neighborhood each year, but she is a reason.

“I have to go.” Ingrid says. 

Ignoring Dorothea’s shouted “Wait!”, Ingrid turns on her heel and marches to work.

She has a shift to get to. Money to make.

She has something to cling to with all her strength, and it isn’t Dorothea.

Chapter Text

June 21, 2004.

Edelgard left the majority of her belongings on the east coast, kept safe under Hubert’s watchful (and occasionally prying) eye. Better him than her uncle, after all. Should Hubert choose to snoop around and utterly disrespect Edelgard’s privacy, the same way he is often wont to do, he would find nothing incriminating against her. Or at least, nothing incriminating that he didn’t already know about. 

There are two things she could not bear to do without: her paints and her computer. The paints have finally been unpacked, resting on a small table Patricia and Lambert picked up from a garage sale once they realized she kept putting her easels on the antique vanity in here. Meanwhile, her computer takes up most of the desk Patricia and Lambert provided for her; the tower lurks beneath the table, while the boxy monitor, clacking keyboard, and shiny mouse pad cover the top. She’s left just enough space for her notebook and, should the occasion call for it, a plate of food.

The plate of food in front of her now is Dimitri’s making; chilaquiles. It is something that Edelgard didn’t even know existed until roughly thirty minutes ago. He may have broken a plate in his efforts to make breakfast, but he was incredibly proud of the result. And he should be. The flavors are unfamiliar, but delicious. Who knew fried tortillas and salsa could be such a satisfying breakfast?

Edelgard takes another bite as she waits for her messenger to load. AIM may be slow and its layout may be hideous, but she’s used it since she was a teenager. It’s comforting, just like the familiar sight of her groupchat opening up.

Ah! There are already a few messages waiting for her. How delightful.

FerdinandVonAegir: Edelgard! Hubert and I engaged Lysithea in a campaign of Dungeons and Dragons last night. It was not the same without you. :(
bloodxmoonxmage: Agreed. They fell prey to my complications easily. Perhaps you could have defeated the dragon that ate Ferdinand’s self-insert…
FerdinandVonAegir: Alas, Ferdie was a strong character. It is now time to bring his sister, Gerdie, into the spotlight!

Edelgard tries to suppress her chuckle with a sigh, but she fails. At least no one is around to hear her. She types out a quick response.

Empress_el: I trust that Lysithea was able to defeat the dragon? 
bloodxmoonxmage: That is correct. You would have been proud.

Lysithea isn’t in this particular group chat, but Edelgard’s chest twists at the thought of the three of them. There are few people in this world that she’d call herself close to; those three are the exception. And yet despite how deeply she cares for them, she is here, and they are thousands of miles away. 

But she could have either spent the summer under her uncle’s eye, or spent it with near-strangers. The choice was obvious in the end. For as much as it may have hurt her friends, they understood.

Just one summer, and she’ll be back. 

Just one summer. 

It seems like Ferdinand isn’t currently online, but she’s happy to chat with Hubert for a short while. He’s mentioned visiting her before she left. It’d be wonderful if he carried through on that idea. It’d be even more wonderful if he brought Ferdinand and Lysithea with him. She’d help pay for their hotel rooms were they to come.

Edelgard sets her fingers on her keyboard, preparing to type out the question…

...And the computer freezes. Shocked, Edelgard tries to refresh the page, but the entire chat client breaks. Edelgard bites back a groan and checks the internet status. Her computer is fine, but the internet is down.

Well, she supposes she has no choice but to ask someone who actually lives here what’s going on. It’s one thing for the Aegir family’s summer home in upstate New York to have terrible internet - which it does. It’s another thing for a house in Los Angeles, only behind New York City and D.C. for its national importance, to suffer from the same pitfalls. 

Edelgard slips out of her bedroom, only for Dimitri’s voice to filter down the hallway to her. Specifically, Dimitri’s laughter. She follows the sound, trying to listen for whoever he must be speaking with. 

As she passes by the living room, she peeks out the side window. This house is too small for a garage, choosing instead to take up two tandem parking spots along the side of the house. Both cars are gone, which means that both Patricia and Lambert must be gone. Which also means…

Edelgard finds Dimitri sitting on the couch in the living room, his legs pressed together and his back straight as if he was in the middle of a corporate meeting. The fondness in his continued laughter stands in complete opposition to his stuff posture. She may have no idea who is on the other end of that phone, but at least she now understands why her internet cut out.

She takes the sight of him in as he remains oblivious to her, and silently hopes for the day that she’ll be able to use the internet at the same time that someone uses the phone. 

It takes a solid minute before Dimitri notices her. “Oh,” he begins, a light flush creeping over his cheeks as his eyes dart up to where Edelgard stands, “Dedue, forgive me. I believe Edelgard has something to ask me. Can I call you back?” Silence, whose space is taken up by Dimitri’s smile. “Of course. We’ll speak later. I wish you luck with today’s shift.”  He offers her a sunny smile. “Hello, Edelgard. Oh! Did you finish the chilaquiles? The recipe is Dedue’s - the man who I was just on the phone with.”

Edelgard nods. “I was on my computer when the internet cut out. I came out here to ask you if this normally happened, but I suppose now I understand why.” She cannot wait for the day that someone can speak on the phone and use the internet simultaneously. How convenient that would be!

“My apologies. I wasn’t aware you were currently - or previously, at this point - online. On… what was that website called again? YouSpace, I take it?”

“Myspace,” Edelgard corrects him, “and I wasn’t. I was on AIM.” Sensing that Dimitri isn’t that computer-savvy, she adds, “A messaging client.” Though she probably should check her Myspace, now that she thinks about it. She rarely uses it, but Byleth sought her out and added her there for what must be a reason. Were she to message Edelgard, she isn’t sure how beneficial that would actually be. Is there a point in maintaining a friendly pretense with someone who she’ll never realistically see after the end of September? Probably not.

At least with Dimitri, he’ll seek her out without a second thought should he ever find himself anywhere within the eastern half of the country.

“Ah,” Dimitri says. “I’ve never been good with computers. I prefer talking on the phone when I can’t meet in person.”

“As do many.” Though Edelgard wonders when that’ll change. 

“I’ll let you get back to your messaging. Though… would you be interested in going to the beach with me later today? We could bike along the shore. Or walk, if you would prefer that! Either way, it’s very delightful.”

He has a point; this house is only a mile from the ocean, but she’s yet to go even once. She isn’t particularly fond of the beach, but what a waste it would be if she didn’t see a west coast beach at least once. Besides, it’s only a matter of minutes before Hubert and Ferdinand are called away by their lives, and who knows when Lysithea will be available next? There are only so many ways she can fill her time alone. 

Edelgard has never been adept at standing still.

Then again, she’s never been adept at waiting either, and yet that is the only thing the next three months-and-change hold for her. Days full of nothing but waiting.

“I’ll join you,” Edelgard says. “I’ll sign off first. We can leave whenever you’re ready.” 

Dimitri perks up. “I’m already dressed. It’ll be incredibly warm outside, Edelgard, so I would suggest forgoing the black pants and long sleeves for today.” He gestures to his own outfit - khaki cargo shirts, a blue button-down that she’s certain he tore off an innocent mannequin in an airport gift store, and a pair of aviator sunglasses pushing his blonde hair up and out of his eyes for once. “I wouldn’t want you to overheat. If you want to swim, we could even do that! I’m not a fan of the water myself, but I’d be happy to watch your things should you choose to.”

Edelgard shifts her weight to one foot, her hand unconsciously going to grip the fabric of her long-sleeved shirt. “I’ll… think about it.” She elects not to tell him that she doesn’t know how to swim and instead disappears back to her room. She did pack some short sleeved shirts and some shorts, but to show off her legs? Her arms? Or, to go even further, to wear a swimsuit? She would be stared at like a zoo animal. Worse, she would have to remember why her body looks the way it does. 

Also, unless she slathered every inch of exposed skin in sunscreen, she would develop the worst sunburns.

Still, she does change. She opts to go with something more lightweight: her black Balenciaga cargo pants (which cost her uncle a sum of money she doesn’t like to dwell on, especially for cargo pants), and a maroon top with bell-shaped sleeves that end at her fingertips. She glances briefly at her hands. Even after all these years, her palms are still dotted with puckered scars from burns that never fully faded. They only hurt to see these days. With any luck, she won’t be put in a position for Dimitri to notice - or worse, comment on - it. 

She has gloves she could wear, but she’s going to be overheated enough with her current outfit. This is a small gamble, but she’ll bet on Dimitri’s obliviousness. She grabs a small bag and her keys, fits a wide-brimmed hat over her head, and returns to Dimitri. 

They head out without any additional fanfare.

 


 

The sky above is a clear, crisp blue. The water isn’t as crystalline as she’s seen in the abandoned coves hidden along the east coast, but they’re lovely all the same. Surfers crest along the sea foam that gathers along the tops of waves. Families, even those with children barely old enough to toddle along the sand unassisted, play in the shallows. Others lounge on the beach in colorful swimsuits, finding shade under bright umbrellas. 

It is so impossibly bright outside. If Edelgard didn’t have her sunglasses on, this sight would be physically painful. 

Edelgard watches the tide greedily swell in before drawing away. Her stomach lurches uncomfortably. She is intensely glad she stands not on the sand, but on the pathway that borders the beach. 

Edelgard keeps her expression measured and cool. From beside her, Dimitri smiles. “I don’t come to the water as often as I’d like, but its beauty never fails to amaze me.”

“It is quite beautiful.”

“Would you like to come closer? I brought a towel and a parasol! Patricia mentioned you’re sensitive to sunlight.”

“Maybe later,” Edelgard replies. She glances around, searching for another excuse to take up instead. 

The canals are only a few blocks away. They could go there. Maybe they’d even see Byleth again. 

How would Byleth respond to this heat and this sunlight? Surely she must be comfortable with it. Maybe Byleth would even want to swim, unafraid of the massive waves that would tug her down without a second thought.

Would she wear a one-piece swimsuit or a two-piece? Edelgard hopes for the latter.

The uncomfortable lurch in Edelgard’s stomach is replaced with a swoop that merely borders on uncomfortable. She banishes the thought. She cannot think of those things here , not with Dimitri waiting for her response. 

“How about we take this path? I’d like to see more of the beach,” Edelgard says, gesturing to the asphalt that stretches out in front of them. People mill about the path, all so entrenched in their own specific world that the only trait they all share is different. Some lounge at the base of massive palm trees. Others bike along the path. Some walk. Others slip by on roller skates - which is definitely something Edelgard has not seen since her ill-fated trips to roller rinks as a small child with Hubert and Ferdinand.

(Hubert is surprisingly coordinated; Ferdinand is surprisingly… not. She and Ferdinand both spent the day clinging to each one of Hubert’s hands, desperately willing him not to break his grasp and leave either of them to collapse or collide with a wall. Hubert never did, despite threatening to send Ferdinand flying multiple times.

It was fun. One of the few memories of her past that has remained pure.)

“Of course! The houses along the beach are quite a sight.” And that they are. Edelgard can distract herself with the unique architecture every last one possesses, as if built in a bubble separate from its neighbors. A sleek home with massive glass panes for walls sits next to a victorian-style home that looks as if it was airlifted directly from the older parts of the east coast. They pass by a house that has a wall that is nothing but a glittering fountain. Functionally, it’s completely useless, but aesthetically? It’s quite beautiful. 

It’s much easier to look at the houses than the ocean. She doesn’t understand how anyone can look at something so unfathomable like the sea and feel at home. All the ocean has ever made her feel is powerless. 

“Oh!” Dimitri shouts, drawing Edelgard out of her thoughts. “I believe I see some familiar faces on the horizon.” He points further down the road. Amidst the sea of pedestrians and bikers are a trio on roller skates deftly weaving through the crowd. 

The colors are what clue her in: blonde, red, and a navy so dark it borders on black. The three people Dimitri introduced her to the week prior. She hadn’t seen them since that first meeting, though given their animosity, it was probably for the best. 

She casts a worried look towards Dimitri. Does he not remember how they treated him last time? It felt like a friendship balanced on the edge of a blade. Whose neck it will come for is anyone’s guess.

Felix - at least, that’s what she thinks his name is - arrives first. His hair, most of which is tied back in a short ponytail, whips all around in the breeze he creates from moving so swiftly. A wicked sneer contorts his face as he skates actual circles around Edelgard and Dimitri. “Finally out to face the sunlight, boar?” he snaps.

Dimitri sighs. “I was showing Edelgard the beach.”

Felix’s circles slow to let Sylvain and Ingrid join him. Sylvain’s smile is easygoing, but there’s something overly affected about it. Ingrid shows nothing but civility, but when she’s paired with the other two, she feels as much as a predator as they do. 

They feel like wolves, and Dimitri and Edelgard the sheep. 

“I’ve never seen you take this road without your skates before,” Ingrid says. “Did you lose them?”

“Maybe he lost them in the move,” Sylvain suggests. 

That only seems to enrage Felix further. “You did what!?”

“What? Of course not!” Dimitri says. “I would never misplace a gift from one of my dearest friends. Keep it in my closet, perhaps, but I could take you home at this very moment and show you them myself!” 

If Edelgard had to guess, it’s Dimitri’s earnestness that knocks the breath out of Felix’s chest. He loses his focus and nearly crashes into Ingrid, but she grabs his forearms and keeps them both from tumbling to the ground. When Felix faces Dimitri once again, there’s a noticeable blush staining his cheeks red. It’s the antithesis to the sharp furrow of his brows. 

“Pathetic,” Felix hisses. If Edelgard were more familiar with him, she’d ask who he’s referring to: himself, or Dimitri. “I have better things to do than indulge your sentimentality.”

“Do you now, Felix?” Ingrid asks, bringing him to a stop. “Last I heard, it’s not as if you have a job to go to.” Sylvain redirects his own attention to circling mostly around Felix and Ingrid. He seems to make a game out of turning circles around the two, laughing whenever Felix reaches out to claw at him. Felix never quite makes his mark; Edelgard can’t tell if he is deliberately trying or not.

“Are you a traitor now, too?” Felix snaps at her. Ingrid glares at him.

“Lay off, Ingrid,” Sylvain says, ruffling her hair as he rolls by. Her hit actually connects with his arm, but he laughs it off. “I got an idea. I saw some cute girls by the water. Come talk to them with me.” He glances to Dimitri and Edelgard. His smile is easy but fake. 

Edelgard has practiced more than enough false smiles of her own to tell the difference. “I’d invite you both as well, but unless Dimitri graduated with a degree in matchmaking from Yale, he won’t be much help. I don’t know if you’re into girls or not, step-sister, but there aren’t enough down there to go around for all of us. The guy is pretty cute, I guess.”

“I’ll pass, thank you,” Edelgard says. 

“Go by yourself,” Felix hisses, Ingrid nodding at his side. As if they share the same mind, their arms fly out at the same time and stop Sylvain in his tracks. It seems that they’ve had enough of his game. “And stop circling us, you buffoon. Keep that up and you’ll get so dizzy that you’ll topple us both over with that hulking body of yours.”

“I’m sorry, did you say hunky body? I didn’t know you thought of me that way, Felix. I gotta say, I’m pretty charmed right now.”

“All I want is ten minutes without you making a complete fool of yourself and everyone around you,” Ingrid says. She redirects her aim for Felix right as he’s about to shove Sylvain away, effortlessly playing damage control between the both of them. She stops them from getting into what Edelgard is certain would devolve into a petty slap-fight.

“Man, whatever. I’ll go by myself.” Sylvain says. He skates over to one of the houses and leans against its backyard fence as he unties his skates. “There’s this chick with the coolest face tattoo. Total babe. I’d say she’s your type, Ingrid, but guess I have first dibs now.”

“Do you always treat women this way?” Edelgard asks, stunned. “Like we’re pieces of meat at the grocery store?”

Sylvain laughs, but there’s no joy in the sound. “That’s a quick judgement to make, don’t you think? You’ve met me what, twice?”

His voice is easy, but there’s something haughty about the way he says it. Like he’s somehow better than her. It makes her think of their last interaction - how they all called her a tourist with such derision. “You make your character fairly obvious,” Edelgard replies. 

“And I bet you’re full of yourself,” Sylvain shoots back, nearly chirping the words like a songbird in spring. “I don’t listen to Ivy League brats who prance their way into my neighborhood like they own the place, by the way. You don’t know anything about me or this place. Hell, you don’t even like it here, do you?” 

Edelgard freezes, stunned. She’s been careful not to speak it aloud, least of all to this stranger. She’s always prided herself on her ability to keep secrets. How did he see through her so easily…?

“If you want flashy sights and Prada bags, go to Malibu with the rest of your Ivy League brats. Or better yet, just stay at Yale or whatever other pretentious brick hole you crawled out of.” Felix adds, as if Sylvain needed defending from her. 

All Edelgard can think about is how she didn’t go to Yale. She went to Princeton - the same as Hubert, Ferdinand, and Lysithea. She doesn’t know anyone from Yale.

“I see we’re going down this path,” Ingrid says with a sigh. “Edelgard, please forgive them. There’s…” she trails off with a bite of her lip. “...Baggage, in case it isn’t obvious. It’s not fair to force you into this.” She glances at Dimitri and tries for a smile, but there’s a clear hurt there. Dimitri returns a tight-lipped smile in response.

“Boys!” Ingrid calls out, hands on her hips. Both Sylvain and Felix flinch, as if they were caught in the middle of some terrible act. Sylvain’s skates stand on the ground next to him. Without a word, Felix takes off his backpack and produces for him a pair of flip-flops. “Let’s go visit the restaurant instead.” And, upon seeing Sylvain open his mouth, she adds, “And yes , of course there will be customers you can flirt with.”

Felix snorts. “You just want to go because Mercedes will give you free clam chowder.”

“That’s an added bonus, Felix. Don’t tell me you’ll refuse the chowder, because I know you won’t. Now, let’s go.” Somehow, she manages to quell them both into submission. She skates off. Felix groans, but he follows after her.

Sylvain runs behind, flip-flops clacking in an out-of-time melody with the skates the jostle against one another in his hands. “Guys, slow down!” Despite his complaints, the three are nothing more than figures in the distance within moments.

Edelgard is left at a loss for words. Dimitri finds the strength to fill the silence his childhood friends leave behind. “They’ve always been intense. It’s a trait the four of us share.”

Something about his words, or perhaps the hint of remorse that colors them, stirs something within Edelgard. “Dimitri,” she says, turning to face him. The middle of a pathway full of pedestrians and bikers seems as good a place as any to interrogate him, apparently. “They treat you the way I treat my enemies. You must realize this.”

“Ah,” Dimitri says, though it’s obvious that he’s known all along. He chuckles softly. “I had hoped you wouldn’t ask about it.”

“I wouldn’t normally ask about it, but how they treat you affects how they treat me. I deserve to know why I’m subjected to such animosity by people who barely know me.”

“We should find somewhere to sit. This isn’t a long story, but there’s too high of a chance of familiar ears passing us by where we currently are.”

They find a small smoothie stand about a block away - or at least, what would be a block in any sensible city. Dimitri buys smoothies for the both of them before they retire to a couple of barstools tucked into the corner of the stand. Dimitri stirs his like he has no intention of drinking it.

Edelgard does not share the same hesitation. She raises her eyebrows, silently prompting Dimitri to begin.

“Ingrid, Felix, and Sylvain are all incredibly… attached to their homes. They’re also incredibly protective of it, and of the people who live here. I’ve definitely sensed a change in the sense of community since returning, which I believe is why they’re even more intensely protective than I remember.”

“Since returning?” Edelgard asks. “You mean from college, yes? I remember Patricia and Lambert saying that you had also just graduated.”

Dimitri nods. “And that is why my friends are so angry with me.” Something guilty creeps onto his face as his eyes turn sorrowful. “You see, the four of us had made a promise as children to always stay together. This was our home, and we were family. There are other complications that arose throughout our childhoods that I’m not at liberty to discuss, but I can say what drove the rift between us that you see now.”

“Dimitri, please get to the point already.”

“Oh! My apologies. I didn’t mean to ramble.”

“Dimitri.”

Dimitri coughs. “Yes, yes. We made a pact in high school. We would all apply to the same colleges and commute from home. That way, even if we were all unable to attend the same school, we would still be together. When acceptance letters came out, we were all accepted to Pepperdine. My friends were ecstatic.”

Edelgard thinks back to what Felix spat earlier. To bring up Yale at a place like Princeton isn’t entirely unheard of. But to bring it up when someone lives on the other side of the country…

“You didn’t go with them, did you,” Edelgard guesses.

“I never told them, but my parents insisted I apply to at least one Ivy League. Something about how it would be ill-becoming of the son of such a prominent city council member not to try. Initially, I was waitlisted for Yale. Telling them would break their hearts, and with such a small chance of actually getting in, I didn’t see the point.”

“But you did get in.”

“That I did. I discovered two days before we were set to begin at Pepperdine. I flew out the next morning. I wanted to tell them myself, but I was unable to. Of all our friends, poor Ashe was the one to deliver the news. After that, we only ever saw each other at events our mutual friends from high school put on. Even then, we barely spoke. They’ve settled down a little in the month since I’ve returned, but I’m unsure when - or if - they’ll be willing to forgive me.”

She can’t necessarily fault Dimitri for his decision, but she can’t fault his friends for theirs, either. She would be devastated if her own friends did something similar, but she understands the need to strike out on one’s own. Some dreams can’t be put aside for the sake of someone else.

Her friends. Oh, she misses them more than she thought she would. Or could, even. So few people have ever gotten close enough to mean anything to her, but Hubert and Ferdinand have.

Of course, Lysithea too. Each day brings her a little closer to them.

...And of course, a little closer back to that gilded cage. She suppresses a shudder. Not in front of Dimitri, not when he’s being whatever version of vulnerable this is.

“I don’t blame them,” Edelgard says, even as she knows she’d do something similar to Dimitri if it mattered enough to her. “Anyone would feel betrayed. You must have deeply hurt them.”

Dimitri sighs. “I know. My apologies have fallen on deaf ears, for the most part. Ingrid has been quicker to warm back up to me, but I can tell she no longer trusts me. Felix may be more vocal about his anger than Sylvain, but Sylvain is rarely anything other than the cheerful facade you saw today.”

“They loved you. They wouldn’t have reacted so strongly if they didn’t.”

“And I love them,” Dimitri says, with all the conviction in his soul.

For as understanding as Edelgard wants to be towards his situation, that flips a switch within her. Something else strikes her - Dimitri says this to her now, and it’s obvious that he believes it, but has he shown the same intensity to his friends? Has he proved it to them, the same way that single sentence proves it to her?

Edelgard shakes her head, suddenly furious. “That isn’t enough, Dimitri! You can’t just say you love someone and then do something so callous! You have to prove it. Every action matters. Anything less is just meaningless platitudes.” 

She tries to take a sip of her smoothie in an attempt to calm down, but finds her hands shaking too violently to hold the cup. She pushes it away from her and fixes Dimitri in place with the harshest glare she can manage. “If you’re looking for the way to patch this divide, I don’t have an answer for you. I’m not sure if there is an answer.”

“Why are you mad so suddenly? I don’t understand,” Dimitri says, at a complete loss.

He may not understand, but she does. Oh, all too well. Words without the actions to back them up are nothing but manipulative lies. 

Love without action is nothing but a shackle around your wrist, tying you to a destiny you loathe. She’s been on the receiving end of that shackle so many times. Too many to ever forgive.

That’s something Dimitri doesn’t need to know. Not even Hubert knows the extent of it. Only Lysithea does, because she shares those same scars. 

Edelgard is overcome with a sudden urge to call her and pour out the sudden maelstrom of emotions within her. But she can’t - surely Lysithea must be in her lab at this moment. 

Once more, Edelgard is alone. 

She gets to her feet, shaky as they may be. “I will see you back at your house, Dimitri. I need some time to clear my mind.”

Dimitri, at a loss as to what to do, nods. “O-of course. I’m unsure what I did, but please forgive me, Edelgard.”

That acts as a small salve to her anger. Of course Dimitri doesn’t understand why this affects her so strongly. He has not wronged her; he does not deserve to be on the receiving end of her own anger. Only his friends have that right. “There is nothing to forgive, Dimitri.”

She doesn’t give him the chance to respond before leaving, smoothie in hand. She forces herself to take a deep breath. She was so close to losing control. How could she let herself do that? It must be this place. There’s something so different, so disarming, about this new location. 

Dimitri’s friends call her a tourist. Perhaps they are right. This is no home for her. Nothing but meaningless entertainment. 

She lets her feet wander. Somehow, she ends up back at the canals. The structure here, rigid and sensible, puts her mind at ease in a way that the rest of this city, neighborhood, whatever it is, does not. The water doesn’t threaten to swallow her up the way the ocean does. She has no fear of falling either, not with the railing in place. She runs her hand along it as she walks.

The houses are much more lovely in the daylight. She can appreciate the flares of personality that decorate each building. Though distinct, at least they all make sense. She passes by a few other tourists, armed once more with their disposable cameras that they dig out of tacky fanny packs, but she also passes by the tenants of these homes. Some lounge in their backyards, gathered around smoky grills or sipping wine as they lounge in the sunlight. It’s peaceful.

She passes by Byleth’s house, though this time, there is no one in the backyard. It’s amazing how Edelgard feels disappointed about that, on some level. She directs her attention back to the water as she continues to walk past it. Maybe she should find an art supply store for some basic paints, lock herself in her room, and spend the rest of the day painting her dearest memories. At least that way, she’ll carry a piece of home with her here.

She freezes in place when a familiar voice calls out to her. “Edelgard!”

Edelgard turns in the direction of the voice. Byleth stands not in her own backyard, but in one a few houses down from her own. A young girl in a unusually-poofy dress and vivid green curls spilling past her shoulders stands at her side. She watches Edelgard with wide, curious eyes. Byleth remains as stoic as Edelgard remembers. “It’s good to see you again,” Byleth says as she approaches, her words completely at odds with her flat tone. 

“It’s good to see you too,” Edelgard says, feeling suddenly breathless. It is both a blessing and a disappointment that Byleth is more clothed than she was when they last met, clad in a simple t-shirt and denim shorts.

“Oh! Is this a friend of yours, Byleth?” the girl asks.

Edelgard prepares to correct the girl. They’ve only met once before, after all. A connection on Myspace is far from a true marker of friendship, either. 

Despite all that, Byleth nods.

The girl beams in delight. “It is a pleasure to meet you! My name is Flayn. I live in this house with my father. Are you also a resident of the canals?”

Assuming Flayn got her name from Byleth calling it out earlier, Edelgard decides against introducing herself as well. She shakes her head. “I’m merely here for the summer. I stay with relatives further into the neighborhood.”

“How much further by walking?”

“About twenty minutes.”

Flayn frowns. “And are you about to head home?”

“Eventually, yes.”

“Would you care to join us for some tea and cookies? Or, well, I suppose you have your smoothie to drink, but should you tire of a cold drink, the tea I have is quite refreshing!”

Edelgard feels almost taken aback by this stranger’s sudden friendliness. Who is this girl, anyways? And how does Byleth know her? “I appreciate the offer,” Edelgard says, making an effort to be polite, “But would you really be so trusting as to invite a complete stranger into your home?”

Flayn laughs. “My father would be furious, but that is of little consequence when he is to be out all day. Besides, if you are a friend of Byleth’s, then you could easily become a friend of mine.”

“Flayn and I actually met today,” Byleth confesses. “Very early this morning. But she’s very kind. Hopefully you’ll feel the same.” 

Maybe it’s the fact that she still isn’t ready to face Dimitri and her step-parents again and meld into a family that isn’t hers. Maybe it’s because this Flayn girl reminds her of Lysithea in some strange way. 

Maybe it’s because Edelgard is lonely and Byleth’s presence, despite hardly knowing the woman, is comforting in a way she mostly doesn’t understand. 

Maybe it’s something entirely different.

Whatever it is, it drives her to nod an agreement. Flayn unhooks the small gate that separates her backyard from the rest of the world, and Edelgard steps inside. 

Chapter Text

June 21, 2004.

A reedy scream just outside of Byleth’s bedroom window throws her back into the waking world.

Her body reacts instantly, throwing the covers off her and getting to her feet in a flash. She stops just long enough to grab the switchblade she keeps on hand before rushing out out of her house. For all she remembers her knife, she forgets her shoes. The concrete of her front porch is a cold shock to her feet.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone needs help. She looks around for the source of the scream and finds a young girl, right around Sothis’s age, frozen by Byleth’s window.

A chorus of hisses directs her attention a few feet away. Three raccoons all crowd around Byleth’s trash cans, their eyes glowing in the relative darkness this alcove provides. Said alcove happens to be right next to the sidewalk where the girl stands.

The raccoons hiss again. The girl shrieks. “Oh, please help!” she says. “These creatures are terrifying!”

Byleth has dealt with plenty of raccoons throughout her life. City raccoons are more aggressive than their rural counterparts, but even the nastiest city raccoon can be scared away without much trouble. So much for needing the knife. 

Byleth grabs the girl’s arm and pulls her a few feet away. The raccoons feint towards her, making the girl wrench free from Byleth’s grasp using a surprising amount of strength. She stumbles and falls to her knees. From there, she curls into a ball like she’s preparing for an earthquake, not for a few loud pests.

Still, Byleth moves in front of the girl. She claps her hands and shouts, “Go!” The sound is enough to make the raccoons, now presented with a clear escape route down the street, run off. Once they’re out of sight, Byleth crouches down. “They’re gone now. You’re safe.”

The girl peeks out from a curtain of her neon green hair. From this close, she reminds Byleth even more of Sothis. “D-did you save me?”

“I just scared them off. I don’t think they were going to attack you.”

“Oh, but they were so very terrifying!” the girl says. “You have indeed saved my life! I am in your deepest debts!”

Byleth sighs. “Really, it’s fine....”

The girl gets to her feet; Byleth follows. With a bow, she introduces herself. “My name is Flayn. I live a few houses further down along this court. I found myself unable to sleep, so I tried to go on a walk around the canals when those terrible creatures appeared out of nowhere!”

They were probably trying to get into Byleth’s trash. She makes a mental note to rummage through their spare room for Jeralt’s old bungee cables. The last thing they need are some hungry raccoons making a mess of their front yard. 

Oh yeah. Byleth should probably introduce herself, given how the girl is watching her expectantly. “Byleth. I just moved here a few weeks ago.”

Flayn claps her hands together. “So we are neighbors! How utterly delightful. I should probably return before my father awakes and calls the police again, believing that I’m missing once more,” Flayn says, with no small amount of exasperation, “But are you free this afternoon? It would be my honor to invite you over for tea and cookies.”

Byleth tries not to reel from how extreme this girl - and her family, she guesses - is. Calling the police? Really?

Given how Flayn is utterly convinced that Byleth saved her life simply because she scared off a few raccoons, she isn’t entirely surprised. 

What time is it, even? Byleth didn’t check before she left. Since there aren’t any tourists milling about, it must be after midnight. Long after midnight. 

So yeah, tea and cookies at a time that isn’t now sounds like a good enough reward. She would have done the same thing even without the reward, but Flayn keeps Byleth in place with a pleading look. 

“Okay. I’ll come over.”

“Perfect!” Flayn cheers, though she’s quick to calm down. She looks away, growing suddenly sheepish. “Um, actually…? Would you be so kind as to walk me home? I am still quite worried about those raccoons, you see.”

Byleth doesn’t have it in her to refuse.

By the time she finally gets back to her own bed, she finds out what time it is: three in the morning.

 


 

Now it’s three in the afternoon, and Byleth sits at an opulent dining room table in a massive room. Flayn stands at one side of the table, dutifully pouring tea into china so delicate-looking Byleth is certain Jeralt would break it just by breathing too hard.

Edelgard sits just a few feet away from her. She wasn’t meant to be here, but she is. Byleth doesn’t know what to do with the feeling that inspires. The last time she felt anything similar was…

Was….

When was it, even? She can’t remember. It’s been too long.

Flayn’s spent the past ten minutes drilling Edelgard about her life in the most polite way possible. Most of the information she gleans are things Byleth had suspected, but hadn’t been able to confirm.

She is a Princeton graduate, that much is true. She’s twenty-two, older than Byleth by about half a year. She’s spending the summer with her step-family before moving back to the East Coast to take up a position at her uncle’s lobbying firm.

“The firm has been in the family for years. I’ve practically been groomed since birth,” Edelgard admits, taking a bite of a shortbread cookie that Flayn had apparently spent all morning baking. Her eyes widen as she chews, but she waits to swallow before speaking. “The jam on these is amazing! What flavor is it?”

“Boysenberry,” Flayn replies. “There is a farm - or I suppose, also a theme park? - a few hours away from here that sells the most delicious jam! My father says my cooking is horrendous, but I am quite skilled at baking when I have a recipe to follow. The recipe is also from the farm, in case you were wondering.”

“Kudos to the farm,” Edelgard says with a small smile. “And to the chef who put in the effort to make them.”

Flayn beams. “Why thank you! I am ever so honored by your kind words.” She takes a cookie for herself, but she speaks even as she chews. Edelgard tries not to look disgusted, but fails. Byleth feels a twinge of guilt as she thinks of how she did the exact same thing as Flayn just moments earlier. “Can you tell me more about your lobbying firm?”

Edelgard sighs. “Well… It lobbies for a variety of political issues. Business, real estate, social change…” she trails off, her expression unreadable. “I’d say it has its tendrils in every field imaginable.”

Tendrils. That isn’t a good word. “What’s it called?” Byleth asks.

“Agarthan Enterprises. My uncle is the current CEO. The title I’ll take upon starting is much more vague - I’ll be a Manager for Public Relations. Not the highest-ranking position, but much higher than my friends who have already started.”

“Oh! So your friends will be joining you? How exciting!” 

At that, Edelgard hides a smile behind her teacup. Byleth tries to look away to grab for her own cup, but she can’t. 

“Yes, it is exciting. The three of us went to college together, so it’ll be comforting to have them at my side. Still, with how busy the company works its employees, I doubt I’ll be able to go on any kind of vacation for the next few years.”

“You won’t come back here,” Byleth translates. 

Edelgard nods. “I imagine this is how someone who studies abroad must feel. To know that my time here is so brief… it’s hard to figure out what to make of it.”

And Byleth understands that, too. In twenty-one years she’s lived in at least forty or fifty different places - so many that she’s honestly lost count. Jeralt never told her not to make friends, but it became easier to keep to herself when she never knew if she had two weeks or two months left in any particular place. 

Even if she didn’t bother with making friends, she found other ways to pass the time. Countless walks taken by herself, all the afternoons she spent watching the wildlife and avoiding her homeschooling work, and so on. She got very good at filling up her spare moments. 

But then again, Byleth’s also been very good at accepting solitude. She wonders if Edelgard is the same.

“You make it your own,” Byleth suggests. “In whatever way you want it to look like.”

“I suppose. If only I knew what I wanted it to look like.”

Flayn goes to speak, but she cuts herself off with a squeak at the sound of the front door unlocking. “Oh no!” she whispers, though her whisper is more of a hiss than anything. “My father is returning earlier than I expected. He will be so angry with me for having an unexpected guest over! Edelgard, I apologize, but you must go.”

A little startled and a lot confused, Edelgard gets to her feet. “Alright,” she says. “I should be getting back to my step-brother anyways. He’ll worry if I’m gone for much longer.”

“I should head out too,” Byleth says. A thought occurs to her, and she says it before she can stop herself. “Can I walk you home, Edelgard?”

Byleth quickly learns an interesting fact about Edelgard: her blush makes her cheeks glow with a vivid red that quickly spreads to the tops of her ears and down her neck. It’s adorable. 

Flayn fights through enough of her panic to giggle. “I think Edelgard would greatly enjoy that,” she says, even as she pulls open a random drawer to hide the extra tea cups and cookies in. “Please return after I’ve primed my father for your presence! It gets quite lonesome living in such a large house.”

They leave through the back, careful to slip out of the gate just as Flayn’s muffled voice answers to a much deeper one. They both keep quiet until they reach the outside of Byleth’s backyard. “That was… unexpected,” Edelgard says. “Not bad. Just surprising.”

“I’m glad you were able to join us, even if only for a little bit,” Byleth says, making Edelgard blush once again. Edelgard fiddles with the sleeve of her shirt, clearly unsure what to say next. Byleth takes the weight off her. “About walking you home…”

“You don’t have to, really,” Edelgard says, quickly regaining her composure. “I know the way back.”

“Company can still be nice, if you want it,” Byleth offers. She thinks back to what Edelgard said earlier. This woman is so intriguing.

There was a month several years back, before Sothis came to live with Byleth and Jeralt, when she and her dad stayed in a small cabin tucked away in the forests of Maine. It was another one of Jeralt’s odd jobs; Jeralt helped build a different cabin in the same patch of forest a few miles away. They stayed for free at their own cabin in exchange for keeping the place tidy.

But the cabin isn’t what Byleth remembers about it. What she remembers the most vividly is the pond that stood just feet away from their kitchen window. Byleth spent countless hours by it, carving animals out of dead branches she found on the ground and practicing kickboxing moves at Jeralt’s insistence. When she grew tired of that, she’d sit at the edge of the pond and stare into its depths, trying to see anything other than the clear blue skies reflected overhead.

Jeralt never understood why Byleth liked that pond so much. Byleth isn’t sure she knows, either.

What she does know is that she feels a similar way about Edelgard. She wants to figure out what lies beneath the surface, what makes this woman tick, and why she’s so polite and yet so distant.

Edelgard takes a solid minute to respond. “I… I don’t see the harm in it,” she eventually says. Byleth nods, and the two set off.

The walk is quiet, but in a way that feels peaceful. Byleth isn’t the most talkative person. And while it seems that Edelgard can be chatty when she wants, she also seems at ease with silence. That’s comforting, too. It makes her easy to be around.

Edelgard lives in a part of the neighborhood that Byleth hasn’t actually visited yet. Every house that lines these streets is a fraction of the size of her own. Many have iron bars covering their windows, sharp contrasts to the short, rusted fences with rounded edges that line the dead grass out front. 

Edelgard comes to a sudden stop in front of a nondescript house. A man sits on the front porch, his massive form contorted into something sorrowful. He looks up at them from beneath shaggy blonde hair. “Edelgard!” he says, getting to his feet. “Please, let me apologize for earlier-”

“-It’s fine, Dimitri. Really.” Edelgard says, her words at odds with the tension lurking in her voice. “Let’s talk about it later.”

“I… very well,” Dimitri says, taking a step back to let Edelgard through. His eyes follow Edelgard for a few moments before he notices Byleth, seemingly for the first time. “A friend of yours?” he asks, looking at Byleth like she’s a ghost haunting Edelgard. 

Given what she knows about Edelgard now, she can understand the surprise. Edelgard too, seems taken aback from the question. For just a moment, Byleth can see her at a loss for words. To her credit, she steels herself quickly. “Yes. She is.”

Dimitri positively shines. “Edelgard, this is wonderful!” He turns the weight of his happiness on Byleth, which is… a little overwhelming, actually. Byleth takes an instinctive step back, but Dimitri is too caught up in his emotion to notice. “Please, tell me your name.”

“Byleth,” she says.

“Byleth. A wonderful name! I am Dimitri. Edelgard is my step-sister. I assume you know she’s staying here for the summer.”

Byleth nods. 

“Do you live around here, or are you also visiting?” Dimitri asks. He’s eager like an overgrown golden retriever. Granted, a golden retriever that completely hulks over her, but a golden retriever all the same. Edelgard is shorter than Byleth by a few inches, but Dimitri is practically bigger than both of them put together. 

“I live in the canals. My dad, me, and my…” she trails off, searching for a good enough word to describe Sothis, “..cousin, all moved here about a month ago. I still don’t know the area that well.”

“I see! Welcome to Venice, Byleth.” Feeling another pair of eyes on her, Byleth stands on tiptoe to barely peer over Dimitri’s shoulder. Edelgard stands by the front door of the house, her hand poised directly over the doorknob. Despite that, her eyes stay on Byleth, like she’s trying to calculate her next move.

“Actually, if you’d like to know the area better, I have the perfect idea! Some friends of mine are throwing a block party this upcoming Friday. You’re welcome to come, if you’d like. Edelgard and I will be there.”

“Dimitri,” Edelgard says, something sharp and threatening creeping into her voice, “I never agreed to any party. I haven’t heard of it before now.”

“It’ll be at Dedue’s house. His roommates are doing most of the organizing, but he’s helping as well.” The name doesn’t mean anything to Byleth, but it does to Edelgard, given her raised eyebrow and the way she turns to face Dimitri fully. 

“I’ll get to meet him?” Edelgard hums. “I’ll consider going.”

“And his other roommates! Ashe, Mercedes, and Annette. They’re all very kind,” Dimitri says.

Ashe. Now there’s a name Byleth recognizes. “I’ll go,” Byleth says. She has a feeling that if she stopped by the liquor store again during Ashe’s shift, he’d insist the same thing. He seemed like that kind of person.

“Splendid!” Dimitri says. He focuses his attention back on Edelgard. “You don’t have to choose right away, but it would be wonderful if you could.”

“It’d be nice to have a friend there,” Byleth adds.

Whatever it is, something makes Edelgard seem a little… nervous? How odd. “Like I said before - I’ll consider it. I’ll see you later, Byleth.”

“Yes, she will be seeing you later! As will I, hopefully,” Dimitri adds. The step-siblings offer one final wave before disappearing into the small house. 

Well. Sothis will be excited to hear about this.

 


 

Before Byleth can return to fill Sothis in, she runs into Claude and Hilda. The two perk up from their tire swing and lounge chair the moment they see her. Byleth takes notice of the minidress Hilda wears, barely covering the bright pink bikini underneath, and the fact that Claude has completely decided to forgo a shirt.

Between that and Hilda’s damp hair, it’s easy to figure out where they just came from.

“Howdy, neighbor!” Claude calls out, beckoning Byleth over. She stops at the edge of the fence, but after Hilda rolls her eyes and motions for her to come inside, Byleth does. She elects to lean against the fence. “What, no alcohol this time?” Claude asks, shaking his head in mock disgust. “I thought I knew you.”

Hilda laughs. Byleth just shrugs. “That was for my dad, not me.”

“Sure it was.”

“Speaking of alcohol, we have some juicy gossip! Wanna hear?” Hilda asks, leaning towards Byleth with the sweetest smile she can manage.

“Is it about your mystery customer?” Byleth guesses. 

“No! Or, actually, it could be, but not entirely!” Hilda says. “Me and Claude spent all day at the beach. There’s this amazing restaurant just off the water that we go to all the time. It’s not super popular, but honestly that kinda makes it better. Makes the best margaritas I’ve ever had.”

“And we happened to overhear some loudmouths at the table next to us talk about a block party this Friday.”

Byleth starts. Wait a minute… they can’t be referring to the same thing, can they?

“These three people were talking to their waitress about it. I know them, kinda. They’re all pretty obnoxious, but at least one of them knows how to party,” Hilda continues. “Oh, and get this - the waitress is helping to throw the party!”

“Should you really be eavesdropping like that?” Byleth asks.

“Now wait a minute. We wouldn’t have paid any attention to them if one of their group hadn’t come over to hit on Hilda… and also me. Then the other two came over and chewed him out, and then the blonde chewed me out when I tried to joke about it!”

That also sounds incredibly familiar. “Did you happen to get the woman’s name?” Byleth asks.

“Ingle? No…” Hilda trails off with a frown. “Idel? Ugh. I can never remember it.”

“Idel isn’t a name, Hilda,” Claude says.

“You don’t know that for certain, Claude. Some parents are pretty weird.”

“It wasn’t Ingrid, was it?” Byleth asks.

Claude snaps his fingers. “Bingo! Her name was Ingrid. I don’t remember the names of the two guys with her, but they’ll be at that party on Friday, so we can figure out then.”

“Yeah! Wanna come with us, Byleth? Even if it’s not fun, I bet there will be free food and drinks. And I love going to places where I don’t have to do anything to help out. That’s what makes crashing parties so great!” Hilda says. Claude shakes his head again, but he can’t disguise his laugh. 

“That, and we are hoping to figure out if Hilda’s mystery customer will be there as well. Maybe they will! At the very least, someone there might be able to give us a clue about who they are.”

It all makes sense. So that’s why they want to go, especially after having an interaction with someone as prickly as Ingrid. And if her friends are anything like her, Byleth imagines they’re no better.

“I was actually just invited to that party, I think,” Byleth says. “My… friend,” Claude and Hilda’s eyebrows raise in tandem at the obvious pause, “her step-brother knows the people throwing it. I met him today, and he invited me.”

“That settles it!” Hilda says. “Claude, we have to go now.”

“I think you’re onto something, Hilda. What do you say, Byleth? How about we go together?”

Byleth thinks back to Edelgard. She can’t be certain Edelgard will be there.  Byleth did say it’d be nice to have someone there, and here are two people she knows, ready and eager to go with her.

She’s going anyways, so she has no reason to say no. It’s not like she’ll be glued to them the entire time, either - they’re all adults, and free to wander as they please.

Still, some small part of Byleth wishes that this offer was coming from a different pair of lips.

She pushes the thought away. She can’t do anything about it now. “Yeah. Let’s go together.”

“Perfect! Now, how about we celebrate this decision? Maybe with some lemonade?” Hilda offers with a giggle.

Claude perks up. “Are you implying what I think you’re implying, Hilda?”

“That Lorenz is working right now and we can definitely bully him into giving us three free lemonades? Uh, duh!” 

He is, and they do.

The lemonade is a little sweet, and Lorenz is a little whiny, especially once Claude starts needling him on how tacky his paper hat that’s part of his work uniform is, but it’s not bad.

Even then, Byleth finds her thoughts drafting back to Edelgard again and again. It surprises her how much she hopes Edelgard will be there. 

Maybe… maybe this place is good for her, after all.

 


 

That evening, after Sothis has harassed Byleth for every Edelgard-related detail she can get and has since retired to her room to read Holes again, Byleth sits on the couch as the newest episode of Pimp My Ride plays. She doesn’t really like this show.

But Jeralt, sitting in the reclining chair made of maroon fake-leather, does. Considering he only has an hour before having to leave for work, it’s really the only time they can spend together today. 

Not that Byleth isn’t trying. “Are you sure I can’t come with you to the bar?” she asks. 

“Not this time, kiddo.”

“But the money-”

“-We’re good on money.”

“And don’t you need an extra hand-”

“-Got all the hands we need.” Still, Jeralt gives her a look that she can’t quite decipher. “I do think it’d be good for you to get some kind of job. Not because I need it, but so you have something to do. Save for these last couple of days, you’ve seemed kind of listless.”

Listless? Byleth could see that. “I guess I’m still getting used to living here.”

“You have time, but getting a job might speed that up. That, and it might be a good way to make friends. Whenever you come to the bar, all you do is spend time with me. Not that I mind, but it’d be good for you to be around people who aren’t related to you.”

He has a point. Whenever she helps out at the bar, she doesn’t bother to get to know the customers. Her job is to make drinks, not to chat. The only person she ever does talk to is Jeralt. 

Getting a job would give her some extra cash to spend. It’d give her a way to meet more people and get more settled in. It’d also give her something to do.

She thinks back to Ashe, manning that liquor store all by himself. That store could probably use some help. And since the party is at his place, it'd be the perfect chance to ask him about any openings at his store.

She’s not one to put her hope in many places, but it seems like going to the party just might give her more to do besides see Edelgard again. 

Chapter Text

June 25, 2004. 

Sylvain sprawls across the teal beanbag tucked into the corner of Ingrid’s bedroom like it’s his own. Considering he bought it for her as a Christmas present a few years back, she can’t fully blame him. She only partially blames him. 

“Wanna play a drinking game when we get to the party?” Sylvain suggests. She can hear an easy smile in his voice. “Take a drink every time we see one of my exes. Take two if it’s an ex you had to convince not to kill me.”

“And what, make me suffer even more after I’ve already had to clean up after you?” Ingrid sighs, digging through her clothes. She still has no idea what to wear. She called Sylvain over to help her pick out something nice, but as expected, he’s yet to be any help. She would have asked Annette or Mercedes, but they’re both so wrapped up in their preparations that she didn’t even attempt to reach out.

Normally she wouldn’t even bother to dress up, but Annette promised to save her three of Dedue’s deviled eggs if she got to see Ingrid all dressed up and cute. Annette’s words, not her own.

She pulls out an old t-shirt and holds it up for Sylvain to see. “How about this?”

Sylvain grimaces. “You still have that thing? I gave it to you five years ago! As a joke!”

“And it’s comfortable!”

“Yeah, to sleep in! It doesn’t even fit you!” He stands up with an exaggerated groan, claps his hands over Ingrid’s shoulders, and steers her back towards her bed. She puts up an obligatory struggle against him for the sake of not letting him win, but within thirty seconds she’s seated on her bed and Sylvain is now the one digging through her closet. “You’re worse than Felix when it comes to fashion. Are you proud of that?”

She has a reason, irritation flaring in her gut. She snaps before she can think better of it. “Excuse me that not all of us come from money like you, Sylvain!” There’s a reason why most of her wardrobe consists of hand-me-downs, even to this day. Almost everything else was some kind of gift. She isn’t like Sylvain, or Felix, or Dimitri - she can’t waste her money on anything she wants. Bills have to be paid, and once those are paid, there’s usually not much left over.

And despite her and her family’s best efforts, rent keeps getting more expensive...

“Lay off, Ingrid!” Sylvain snaps back. “I wasn’t even talking about that! Look, I’ll even take you thrift-shopping. We’ll drag Felix along and force him to try on all the hats. My treat, okay?”

For as angry as he can make her, he’s just as good at soothing her. He wields nostalgia like a secret weapon, always tucked away in his pocket. “I… suppose,” she says, thinking back to all the times as children when they’d do something similar. 

She was the one who first brought them into discount stores, though she mostly wanted discount candles and cheap food that she wouldn’t find anywhere else. They’d spend hours wandering through the store, trying on anything that made them laugh and searching for missing shoes, since there only ever seemed to be one of a two-pair on the racks.

Dimitri broke a rack more than once. The only reason they weren’t all banned for life from that particular Ross was because of how cute Felix used to be whenever he cried. Even the manager couldn’t say no to them when faced with the full weight of Felix’s sorrow.

She misses Dimitri.

“Thank you, Sylvain,” Ingrid says, hoping Sylvain doesn’t pick up on the sudden somber note that refuses to leave her in peace. He gives her an odd look that tells her everything she needs to know - he did, and he doesn’t like it. 

But for all Sylvain notices, he’s equally as good at ignoring those things. “Exactly. Now, let’s get you dressed. We still have to pick up Felix, remember?”

“Right.” Realistically, picking up Felix means dragging Felix away from the entire room he’s made into his personal fencing studio, throwing him into the shower so he stops smelling like sweat and metal, and then dragging him to a party he doesn’t want to go to.

“You’re not putting on makeup, right? Knowing you, that’d take an hour.”

As much as Ingrid wants to snap at him, he isn’t wrong. The only makeup she has was also gifted to her. She barely knows how to use any of it. She sighs. “No.”

“It’s fine. You don’t need it. You’re already gorgeous.” And it’s the words like that - the ones that slip out of him without a second thought, free of winks or his tongue flicking out to lick his lips or hands trailing along an arm - that make hold her own tongue. The vast majority of his compliments are carefully crafted, nothing more than the mask he puts on for the sake of dragging another body into his bed. A way to both hurt and protect himself.

But the real Sylvain? He’s caring, and he’s kind, and maybe sometimes the true intensity of his anger is a little worrisome, but he’s been by her side throughout everything. She can’t forget his loyalty - not his or Felix’s.

She thinks back of that acceptance letter still lingering in her drawer. That loyalty is partially why it remains there, open but unaddressed. She can’t forsake their loyalty.

Too many already have.

“Heeeeeey, what’s this?” Sylvain asks. He pulls out a pair of low-rise, crisp white jeans and a denim jacket. “Ingrid, these look… man, they look good!”

“Annette bought me the jeans for my birthday,” Ingrid mumbles. “The jacket, too.”

“They still fit?”

“I’ve never tried on the jeans.”

He tosses them at her. “Now’s your chance.” He keeps rooting through her closest. She desperately hopes that he won’t find the matching shirt Annette also got her for her birthday last year.

Annette’s gift that year was something to kickstart Ingrid’s sense of fashion. It… didn’t really work, much to Annette and Mercedes’s combined disappointment. What can Ingrid say? She values comfort and value over style.

Sylvain finds the shirt. “Whoa-ho-ho! This is not what I’d expect to find here!” He turns around to proudly display his findings - the mint green tank top with the slouching front that Ingrid made an effort to hide. What did she call it again… a cowl-neck tank top…?

Whatever it is, it’s more revealing than anything Ingrid’s worn in forever aside from swimsuits. If it doesn’t cover her shoulders and most of her bust, she’d rather pass.

Judging the look on Sylvain’s face, there’s no way she can get out of this one. “I think you’ll actually look like a girl with this.”

“Sylvain!”

“Go on, try it. I’ll even leave so you can change.” He tosses the shirt at her. She has no choice but to catch it.

“I don’t want to wear this.”

“Yeah, but imagine how happy Annette will be when she sees you finally wearing her gifts! You can’t break her heart like that, can you? Who are you, m-” and he cuts himself off before he can finish what she knows would end as a self-deprecating joke. The kind that would drive her up the wall. 

“Go wait outside,” Ingrid says with a sigh.

She ends up wearing the outfit. Sylvain, in all of his magnanimous nature, promises not to stare at Ingrid’s chest once the entire night.

“If you do, I’m shoving the first fork I find into your eyes,” Ingrid threatens.

“Scouts honor,” Sylvain says.

“You hated being a boy scout.”

“Yeah, but it’s the only honor I have.”

Ingrid wants to protest that, but she doesn’t know what to say. Like so many other of his comments, she lets it go. If she protested every awful thing he said, she’d never have time to say anything else. 

 


 

They walk directly into Felix’s house without so much as knocking. There’s no need to, not when Sylvain somehow got his hands on a spare key a few years ago. Whether he stole it or if Felix gave it to him, Ingrid still isn’t certain. The only reason why she’s never asked is that she’s certain neither of them would give her a straight answer even if she did. 

Rodrigue pours over stacks of documents in his study, back from a busy day of being Lambert’s Chief of Staff. He barely looks up as Ingrid and Sylvain enter.  “Ingrid, Sylvain. It’s always good to see you both,” Rodrigue says.

“Back at you, pops,” Sylvain greets. 

The nickname hits Ingrid in a place she’d rather not think about. It’s the same reason why she tries her hardest not to look directly at him. Felix looks different enough that it isn’t a problem, but Rodrigue…

“Hello, Mr. Fraldarius,” Ingrid says, focusing her gaze on a dusty blue book on the shelf just past his shoulder. “City council business, I’m guessing?”

“You’d be correct, Ingrid,” Rodrigue says. “A new proposition was put forth by a subcommittee. We’re meeting tomorrow to discuss it. This city never sleeps, you know.”

“As much as we’d love to stay and chat, we’re kind of on a mission. Any idea where your son is? He’s gonna be late for a date with his social life if we don’t hurry,” Sylvain says. He’s always been so composed around Rodrigue. It’s why Rodrigue adores him, regardless of whatever he may or may not willfully ignore about Sylvain’s reputation. 

It’s why Rodrigue finally looks up from his paperwork. Ingrid sees his smile, small but present, in her peripheral vision. “He’s been in the studio all day. He was there when I left this morning, and still there when I returned. It’ll be good for him to get some fresh air.” 

“Don’t worry,” Ingrid says. “We’ll make sure he gets plenty of air and his social interaction for the week.” They leave Rodrigue chuckling as they head towards Felix’s studio. Their house is the same size as most on the neighborhood - three bedrooms, no garage - but it’s plenty big enough for only the two people who live here.

Ingrid remembers what Felix’s studio used to be. She spent so many hours here. Her heart stops when she reaches the door just as it has the past few years. She steps forward, knowing that it’ll jump back to life soon.

It helps that Felix repainted the walls black. Even if the trim along the door is the same white as before. It makes it feel more like his own space, or studio, or dungeon, or whatever he wants it to be. He’s painted over the shadows of what used to be.

His training dummy is even more beaten up than Ingrid remembers it being. There are clear dents in the fabric where the stuffing leaks out at the seams. Ingrid frowns; they usually last longer than this. He takes out most of his anger on this poor hunk of fabric. Given all that’s happened the past month, she isn’t entirely surprised at the results.

He isn’t in his full gear or anything remotely approaching it. He wears a simple t-shirt - one he picked up from college, a solid navy blue with Pepperdine written in bright orange on the front - and leggings. He’s drenched in sweat, and what hair isn’t tied up clings to his face. 

The first thing Sylvain does upon entering is wolf-whistle. Ingrid punches him in the arm.

Felix pays them little mind as he continues to feint and lunge towards the dummy. “I’m busy,” is all he says to them as they watch.

“You promised you would come to the party with us, Felix,” Ingrid says.

“Did I?”

“Yes,” Ingrid huffs, putting her hands on her hips. She doesn’t want to use the ace up her sleeve, but she will if she has to. “Rodrigue says you were here this morning, too. Have you even eaten?”

“I had lunch.”

“Did you take any sort of break besides shoving a sandwich down your throat?” Sylvain snickers at her word choice, though the sound quickly turns to a yelp as Ingrid pinches his side for being immature. He’s supposed to be on her side, not Felix’s!

“I knew I could keep going, so I have,” Felix says. He parries an invisible sabre and strikes again, his movements growing more vicious. 

“That’s great and all,” Sylvain begins. Ingrid desperately hopes that he’ll actually be helpful, “But you can’t train all the time. Even you have to rest eventually.”

“Tomorrow is my rest day. You should know that by now,” Felix says.

Ingrid’s had enough of this. If they let Felix continue, they’ll be arguing with him for hours. She doesn’t have the patience for that.

She pulls out the ace. “Didn’t I overhear you promising Annette you’d come?”

Felix’s sabre tilts down, its tip coming to a gentle rest against the ground. He curses under his breath. “I did. Am I late?”

“Only fashionably, if you go shower and get ready this second,” Sylvain says. Felix grunts and shoves his sabre into Sylvain’s chest as he breezes by them and mutters an instruction to put it away. Sylvain, of course, has been here long enough to know that Felix’s practice sabers go in the cabinet on the far end of the room. Ingrid follows him there and shimmies the cabinet door open - it always catches the wrong way and makes all his sabres fall out if she isn’t careful. 

Then, they wait. With their choices narrowed down to the living room (where Rodrigue is) and Felix’s bedroom (where Felix definitely does not want them to be in without him also there), they decide to chance Felix’s anger than Rodrigue’s awkwardness. Ingrid’s certain Sylvain mostly agrees for her sake. She’s thankful regardless.

It isn’t long before Felix returns, thankfully clothed. His hair drips water on the towel draped around his shoulders, even tied up as it is.

He eyes them with absolutely zero surprise. “I figured you’d wind up here,” he snorts. “Ingrid. You kept Sylvain from breaking anything, I presume?”

“I have been a perfect angel,” Sylvain says, holding a hand to his chest like Felix stabbed him with his sabre. He doesn’t even have anything incriminating in his hands, the various trophies and pictures that decorate Felix’s room remaining in their proper places. He hasn’t even touched the decorative swords that hang over Felix’s bed-frame. 

All Sylvain did was indulge her daydreams of what food will be at the party. She’s excited for their reunion, but she’s equally excited for the dishes that she knows their house has prepared. Unfortunately, she can only share one of those with them for now. “It’s true,” Ingrid says. 

Felix may trust Sylvain as far as he can throw him, but with Ingrid backing his story, he relaxes. He runs the towel over his head one last time before tossing it on his bed, ignoring Sylvain’s protests as he does. He grabs a hair-tie from his desk and launches that at Sylvain before sitting next to Ingrid. “Your hair is down,” Felix observes.

“It is. I was hoping you could change that.”

“Can’t you learn to do it yourself?” he groans, even as he gets up to retrieve another hair-tie from his pile. 

Sylvain silently returns the one Felix previously used as a weapon back to the pile. He also starts folding the towel and slides off the bed to go deposit it in Felix’s laundry room.

“I do know how to do it! But you do it better,” Ingrid replies. Felix catches her eye briefly before looking away with another huff. He’s never been good at maintaining eye contact.

But she catches him stealing glances at her face out of the corner of his eye as he settles behind her to braid her hair back the way he does best, and Ingrid has never felt more at home.

 


 

They hear the music from halfway down the street, Annette’s pop-rock filling the air. Ingrid isn’t that big of a fan, but she knows the band well enough to have a name come to mind.

Sylvain fills in the gaps for her. “Maroon 5?”

“Who cares?” Felix answers. 

The closer they get, the more easily they can hear an entire squadron of voices coming from within and around the house. Ingrid’s heart sinks as they pass by the unfamiliar figures loitering in the front year. She steels herself and flips open the wooden gate to their backyard. Their friends must be all in the back, she reasons. That’s where the food is.

They enter into a space that is absolutely packed with people, most of whom are complete strangers. Felix groans in disgust; Ingrid barely stops herself from following his example. 

It’s only Sylvain’s hands coming to grip the collars of both their shirts that keeps them from leaving. “Now this is a party!” he says, utterly delighted, the way Ingrid sounds every time they go to an all-you-can-eat buffet.

He starts to haul them over to the table at the far end of the backyard, loaded with an array of food and so much alcohol that they must have bought out Manuela’s entire stock, but stops halfway there. “Uh, maybe not that way,” Sylvain laughs nervously.

Felix, who would rather be put in jail for murder than be touched on the best of days, clamps his hand on Sylvain’s wrist so hard that Sylvain yelps and frees both himself and Ingrid. “No. You insisted on dragging me here. We’re already halfway through this sea of people. I am not going another second without the strongest drink they have.”

Ingrid knows there’s no stopping him; Sylvain must know too, but it doesn’t stop him from protesting as Felix drags him along. Ingrid trots at his side. She could easily leave, but with Felix this determined, she’s probably the only person who could stop him were he to start a fight with whatever poor fool accidentally ends up in his way.

Dimitri is the only other person who could ever stop him, but she still has yet to see that familiar head of blonde hair. Then again, given Felix’s own feelings towards Dimitri, he’s the most likely candidate for Felix to want to fight. 

The task falls on her once more.

It’s a miracle that they make it to the drinks table without any deaths. Every type of alcohol imaginable sits in front of them, some contained in bottles surrounded by stacks of plastic shot cups. Others are already mixed, a rainbow of liquids contained in bigger solo cups. Just looking at this sight makes Ingrid feel like she’s in college again. 

There’s no one to tend to drink table, leaving it at the mercy of whoever stops by to snag a drink or pour a shot. A few people Ingrid doesn’t recognize chat near the end of the table. A few feet away sits the food table, where Ingrid finally sees a familiar face. Mercedes covers the table, happily handing out plates of food to people and thanking them for coming. There’s a small line gathered in front of her, from which Ingrid spots a few other acquaintances hidden amongst the sea of strangers.

She lived at home for all of undergrad, never once leaving her neighborhood for more than a few days at a time. She tried so hard to hold on, but looking around here only confirms what she’s feared: that the home she loves so dearly is slipping out of her grasp.

All the more reason to find Dimitri and make them all make up.

She feels a lingering doubt that it won’t work poking at her edges, but she pushes the feeling down and seals it away.

When she turns her attention back to Felix, he’s throwing back a shot of vodka. Ingrid grabs another cup and slams it next to his. “Up to the top,” she instructs. Not to be outdone, Felix pours her a shot, then immediately pours himself a second.

“Uh, guys? You know I love seeing you get fucked up, but can we make this quick?” Felix doesn’t indulge Sylvain with a verbal response, instead choosing to grab a third shot cup, filling it to the brim with vodka, and leveling Sylvain with an expectant look.

“Cheers?” Ingrid asks, raising her shot to tap against Felix’s. They all toast and throw back the alcohol. It burns on the way down, but Ingrid is too experienced to be reduced to a coughing fit. She grimaces, but Sylvain and Felix don’t even blink.

That’s when a familiar voice sings in Ingrid’s ear. “My, I didn’t think I’d see you here! I feel so lucky.” It’s followed by an airy giggle that makes a full blown shiver go down Ingrid’s spine. She desperately hopes Sylvain and Felix are too occupied with alcohol or each other or anything at all, because if they did notice, she’ll never be able to live that down.

But fate is cruel, and they do notice the owner of the voice. She glances over, panicked, as Felix stares impassively at the delicate hands that drape across Ingrid’s shoulders like a fine fur coat. Her touch sets every nerve in Ingrid’s body alight. 

“Dorothea,” Sylvain says in one of his dozen fake voices. 

“Sylvain,” Dorothea says, her voice like syrup gone spoiled. She spins Ingrid around to face her and Ingrid’s traitorous mind takes in all the details it can get. Dorothea’s makeup is expertly done and her long hair falls in beautiful brown waves far past the end of the tight, long-sleeved maroon crop top she wears. She didn’t realize Dorothea would be taller than her. A burst of heat flares just under her skin. Oh no

Ingrid breaks out of Dorothea’s grip just long enough to take a pull from the bottle of vodka itself. She meets Felix’s eyes as she sets the bottle down. He stares at her like she’s grown a second head.

“What the fuck is going on,” Felix says.

“Well, stranger, it seems that my awful date happened to find the wrong girl to try to hit on,” Dorothea says, her hand finding Ingrid’s to tug her to her side. Every inch where their skin meets burns. She’d tug her hand out of Dorothea’s grip if she wasn’t so completely flabbergasted that Dorothea is trying to protect her from Sylvain.

“Look, I wasn’t trying to pick her up!” Sylvain says. “Hell, I dressed her!”

Dorothea’s eyes widen. “I mean, you chose excellently, she is mind-blowing in this-”

“-See? I told you, Ingrid-”

“-But picking out your date’s clothing for her? Unless you’re her sugar daddy, you are very out of line. Can’t say I’m surprised, but the point remains.”

The implication hits Ingrid, Felix, and Sylvain all at the same time. Ingrid gags, Sylvain looks as if he’s been punched in the stomach, and Felix stares at his hands like he’s been betrayed.

“I’m drunk, right? I must be drunk. This cannot be happening otherwise,” Felix says, voicing exactly what Ingrid feels. 

“And who’s this joker, anyways? I mean, I guess he’s cute, if you like that mangy cat kind of look.”

That breaks Sylvain’s stupor long enough to make him burst into laughter. Felix redirects all his energy at glaring at Dorothea. “Fuck you,” he hisses.

Ingrid, who is still not drunk enough for any of this situation, takes it upon herself to clean up this mess, the same way she does every other mess these two make. “Dorothea, you’ve got it all wrong. Sylvain, Felix - who you called the mangy cat man - and I are all childhood friends. I’m not dating either of them. I’d never.”

“Oh,” Dorothea says, followed by, “oh. ” She lets go of Ingrid to nervously comb her fingers through her hair. “Well. I can admit when I’m wrong, at least.” That feels too pointed a remark to be meaningless. Combined with the unimpressed look she gives Sylvain, Ingrid guesses that the date they went on before went much worse than Sylvain’s dates usually do. 

“I hate this,” Felix declares. Without any additional fanfare, he grabs a solo cup, fills it halfway with straight vodka, and leaves. He’s swallowed by the crowd in seconds.

“I’d love to stay and catch up, Dorothea, but I better catch him before he does something stupid enough to get himself rested arrested. Later!” With that, Sylvain chases through the crowd after Felix, leaving Ingrid about as alone with Dorothea as she can be.

“He really did do a good job of dressing you. You look fantastic, Ingrid,” Dorothea comments. She looks over the drinks before selecting a pale pink one for herself. She hands golden-colored one to Ingrid. “Here. You look like you need this.”

She knows these drinks - the spiked pink lemonade Annette loves, and the ginger-lemon bourbon that Dedue is a huge fan of. At least Dorothea chose well, even if she picked at random. 

“There’s no much I don’t know about you,” Dorothea says. “I’m so curious. How about we find a quiet corner and chat, hmm?”

Ingrid spent her middle school years in an all-girls Catholic school. The kind with polo shirts and knee-length skirts that the teachers studiously measured to make sure that no one pulled them up too high and tempt… someone. Since tempting each other was never an option, irregardless of all the times Ingrid caught herself staring at the small patch of bare skin between the end of her classmates’ skirt and knee-high socks and wondering if this pull was what drove Sylvain to draw near to anyone who would take him. 

But those memories always accompany the name of another, one she’s never been able to forget. His shadow lingers in the corners of her memory, casting a pall over everything it touches.

Her eyes lingered on the girls around her, but since the day he got down on one knee and swore his life to her - joke or not - Ingrid’s heart belonged to Glenn Fraldarius. Wherever he is now, he keeps some part of it still.

She honestly thought she was going to marry him. She’d never wanted to be a housewife, but for him, she’d make dinner and greet him at the front door with a kiss. Yet for all she loved him, and for all she was in love with him, she doesn’t think she ever wanted him.

Not the way some traitorous part of Ingrid’s mind wants Dorothea to paint her neck red with imprints of her gorgeous lipstick.

Ingrid takes a swig of her drink, thankful that the ginger and lemon dull the sharpness of the bourbon, and remembers the reason why she was so excited to come here in the first place. “I can’t. I’m waiting for my friend to come.”

“Another friend? My, someone’s popular,” Dorothea teases.

Ingrid frowns. “I’ve lived here my entire life. If anything, I should know more people than I do.”

Dorothea responds before Ingrid can bite out that many of the people that she did know have left. “It’s not about knowing everyone. It’s about knowing the right people. What’s this friend of yours look like? Maybe I’ve seen him.”

Well, if Dorothea can help her, then it doesn’t hurt to tell her. “Um… he’s tall. Very broad- shouldered. Blonde hair, a little longer than mine, and a little shaggy. He’s probably broken something already, if he’s been here for longer than five minutes.”

“Doesn’t sound familiar to me, but if he’s here, I bet one of the hosts have seen him. Come on, I’ll introduce you.” She doesn’t give Ingrid time to respond before her hand is wrapped back around Ingrid’s, sending shocks of electricity all throughout her system. She goes along with it solely because she has to find Dimitri. 

Not at all because Dorothea’s hand is warm, or because she’s beautiful, or because she pauses just long enough for Ingrid to set down her drink and dump as much food onto a paper plate as she can fit and rather than judge her, she just laughs. 

Ingrid carefully balances her plate in one hand as Dorothea leads her through the house, which is considerably less crowded than the backyard. Still, given how many people are here, Dedue and the others (realistically, only the others) must have invited every single person in the entire neighborhood and then some. She sees that canal resident, Byleth, squished on a couch seat between the short pink-haired girl who also lives in the canals (Hilda, she thinks?) and her tall, dark, and scheming friend that Sylvain was resoundingly rejected by just the other day. She also sees Manuela, Shamir, and Catherine crowded in the kitchen with Dedue, most likely discussing various business ventures, or whatever it is people who own and work for small businesses talk about together. 

Manuela responds to a cheerful wave from Dorothea. Ingrid makes a mental note of that.

They come to a stop in front of Ashe and Dedue’s shared bedroom. The room is fairly large, considering how small the house is overall - big enough to fit the bunk bed Ashe and Dedue share as well as a large couch and boxy tv that dominates their entertainment center. 

Ashe sits on the couch between two women Ingrid has never seen before in my life. There’s a photobook in his lap. “Ashe!” Dorothea greets warmly. “My new companion here has a question for you.”

Ashe perks up when he sees them. “Oh, hello Dorothea! Hello, Ingrid. I’m so happy you could make it!” 

“You know each other?” Dorothea asks.

“We’ve been friends since high school,” Ashe says. “Oh, Ingrid. Have you met Petra and Bernadetta yet?” he gestures to the two women on the couch. One, with long magenta hair that trails down her back, waves. The other, with an expression that appears to default to nervous and the strangest version of a rat-tail hairstyle has ever seen, just avoids Ingrid’s eyes. 

“My roommates,” Dorothea says.

“Oh,” Ingrid says. The others don’t know her well enough to pick up on how flat her voice goes, but Ashe does, if his crestfallen face is anything to go by. She grits her teeth and forces out a stiff, “Nice to meet you both.” She directs her next question to Ashe. “Is Dimitri here yet?”

Ashe shakes his head. “He called earlier to say he’d be late. Something about still needing to convince his step-sister to come?”

That makes sense. “I see… thanks, Ashe.”

“You’re welcome to join us until he does come!” Ashe says. “I was just showing Petra and Bernadetta some photos of my childhood. Ingrid to speak to it as well. The neighborhood’s changed some since we were children, but there’s still so much life here. It’s wonderful.”

Petra nods at his side. “It is most fascinating. Dorothea has told me stories of her childhood home, and it is nothing like the pictures Ashe has showed us.”

“Just showed is fine, Petra,” Dorothea says, a hint of embarrassment in her voice. There’s a permanent blush swept across her cheekbones (high and beautiful), but Ingrid imagines that there must be a hint of true red underneath all her makeup. 

“I’d love to hear more,” Ashe says. “Where are you from?”

“Oh, some nowhere town in Wyoming.”

“Isn’t Manuela from Wyoming?” Ingrid asks Ashe. She’s heard Manuela complain about the state too many times to count. According to Manuela, the only successful people in Wyoming were coal miners, farmers, or national park rangers. Manuela always bemoaned the lack of art just slightly more than she bemoaned the lack of good partners in the state. 

Ingrid expects Ashe to answer, but it’s Dorothea who does. “She is. We’re from the same town. We’re not quite family, but Manuela’s the closest thing I have. She left when I was just a kid. When I also got the chance to leave, I figured it was time to follow.”

If there’s one thing Ingrid understands, it’s wanting to be with the people you love. “But enough about that,” Dorothea adds. “Since it sounds like Ingrid won’t be busy for a while, I’m gonna steal her for a bit.” With a giggle and a slight wave, she takes Ingrid’s hand. “See you back at home, girls.”

Ingrid doesn’t get what Dorothea means until Bernadetta’s face turns a brilliant crimson and Ashe looks away, embarrassed. “Make sure to return her eventually!” Petra calls out. Dorothea flashes her a smile over her shoulder as she takes Ingrid away. 

The moment the door closes behind them and they’re in the hallway once more, Ingrid rips her hand out of Dorothea’s grasp. “W-what was that about!? Stealing me? I’m not some item you can take off a shelf!” 

Dorothea rolls her eyes. “Of course not. But I do want to get to know you better. Just you.”

Ingrid shivers. Part of her wants to climb Dorothea like a tree. The other part, her principled part, wants to drag Felix and Sylvain out of whatever trouble they’re surely getting into, march over to wherever Dimitri is, and make them all finally talk.

In the few moments they stand outside of Ashe’s bedroom, as the full force of all the alcohol she’s drank finally hits her, Ingrid’s mind swims through her past. She thinks of those girls in Catholic school, of their hiked-up skirts when the teachers weren’t looking and the glossy lips they’d wipe off in the bathroom and all the heat it’d inspire within her that Glenn never did.

She thinks of Glenn, how she was so sick in love with him that nearly every atom pulled in his direction except some of the ones she thinks were supposed to pull the most.

And for some reason, she thinks of the night she lost her virginity. She was nineteen, high off the rush of spring break but beaten down by the extra shifts she picked up from work, and naked in someone else’s bed for the first time. 

Leonie had rolled onto her side to look at her. They were coworkers back then. Still are.

“That was fun, but…” Leonie had trailed off, chewing her lip.

“But?”

“Are we dating? Sure, we hang out, and yeah, we just had sex,” she gestures between the both of them, entirely on display for the other to see, “But that doesn’t mean we’re together.”

Ingrid was so confused. “What makes you think we aren’t?”

“I dunno. Doesn’t seem like you actually like me more than a friend. I’m fine if this is a benefits kind of situation, by the way. Just wanna be sure.”

What Ingrid remembers the most from that moment was her anger, hot and bright in her nerves. It propelled her forward, making her kiss Leonie and push her back into the mattress.

They only lasted a few months. The breakup was amicable; they’re still friends and co-assistant managers to this day. They're close enough that Ingrid convinced Leonie to cover her shift so she could come to this party without any fuss.

The official reason for the breakup, the one she told Felix and Sylvain, was that they’re too similar to date. 

When she’s this drunk, at least she can admit the truth to herself. She never did get over the hole in her life that Glenn left, only ripped further open the day Dimitri stepped onto that plane without a single word to her best friends.

They loved her, and they still left.

At least Dimitri came back. Not the Dimitri she knows - this Dimitri is twice as broad, four inches taller, graver in a way she can’t explain - but a Dimitri all the same.

Glenn never did.

But Dimitri will be here soon enough, and for as beautiful as Dorothea is, Ingrid knows this has never really been about her. Maybe at some other time, Ingrid would like to get to know her better. Learn what exactly it is she wants to do with her life, what kind of music she wants to make.

This time, Ingrid can't choose a transplant over one of her best friends. “I’m sorry, Dorothea,” Ingrid says. “Maybe some other time.”

She leaves to go find Dedue. Even if Dimitri isn’t here yet, at least she knows the first person Dimitri will go to.